Friday, December 30, 2011

Christmas Break for Sports? Yay or Nay?

This Christmas my family headed north to Washington State where the 49ers happened to play the Seattle Seahawks on Christmas Eve. My brother, in town from Washington DC, could hardly believe his good fortune. A chance to see his team with my dad—what a gift! Considering that my entire family gathers on Christmas eve, my mom could not believe he entertained this thought. "How dare he?" she asked in disbelief while my dad replied “Sounds great to me!”

I know not everyone celebrates Christmas as a religious day but it has become a significant celebration of family and friends for most Americans. Most, not all, observe this holy day as a holiday. Yet many of our favorite athletes and coaches come to work at home or on the road. As much as I too consider an NFL or NBA game respite from some family drama at the holidays, I began to realize all those who work to make professional sports possible on Christmas aren’t able to be with their own families. I started to wonder: Should professional sports take a break over Christmas? And, are there other times of the year for religious or cultural reasons that we should press pause? I’m beginning to think the answer is “yes.”

Without a doubt, professional sports is big business. It would take a whole lot for “The Association” and others to decide to take a break, but it can be done. The NHL does, as no games are played on December 24 and 25. Good for them.

And it’s not just religious feasts or holy days that some organizations observe. For example, now that the BYU has joined the WCC Conference, league competition will no longer take place on Sundays. I found this an interesting change since seven of the nine members are Catholic schools. It took the religious discipline of the Mormons for Catholics to observe the Sabbath. Ouch. To its defense however, the WCAL (in the West Catholic Athletic League 9 of the 10 high schools are Catholic ) forbids practice or competition on Sundays. Part of me however wonders if it's for the sheer fact that did we not hold this restriction, coaches would practice seven days a week...

We know many athletes who have observed their faith tradition’s practices and holy days despite the team schedule. Many will recall Sandy Koufax’s decision to not pitch in Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur, a Day of Atonement for Jews. Nearly forty years later, people wondered if first baseman/right fielder Shawn Green would follow suit as his teams competed in playoff games. He did. We Americans are intrigued by the conflict that ensues between social pressures and personal beliefs. Is this a bad thing? I think not.

Such questions are part of American culture today. We are a religious people and we love our sports. We are consumers and we are consumed by professional sports as entertainment, as a force that builds community, as a source or joy and sorrow in our lives! I welcome your thoughts on this question.

Photo Credits

Niners vs Seachickens
Shawn Green
NFL Wreath

Monday, December 26, 2011

What's in a Name? II: Andre "The Hawk" Dawson

How are you spending your Christmas break? If you are like me, you may be catching up with past issues of Sports Illustrated, (Is it just me, or is keeping up with a weekly magazine a challenge?) watching movies in the theater or at home and tying up loose ends. One of those loose ends is completing articles that writer’s block or the need for more research put “on hold.” After posting What’s in a Name? I remembered I pursued this idea before. I hope it’s something you have too...
August 2010: I had the good fortune of attending my first Washington Nationals game at their open air and robust stadium on same night “the Nats” recognized the career of baseball's newest Hall of Famer, Montreal Expos outfielder Andre “the Hawk” Dawson. Recalling how fierce “the Hawk” was as a hitter, particularly during the '89 Giants vs. Cubs NLCS games, I said “I bet he earned that name because he was so focused during every single at-bat." I could seldom relax when Dawson came to the plate. Any pitch became his prey. At least that was my guess…and as I’ve asked before “what’s in a name?”

Truth be told, Dawson got his nickname from an uncle at nine years of age. He used to work out with a senior men's team that would hit him ground balls at practice. Andre's uncle told him that most kids his age would shy away from the ball, but Andre attacked the ball like a hawk. The name, and a good one at that, stuck.

Baseball nicknames have become an integral part of the sport's culture: The Baseball Almanac says "In no sport are nicknames more pervasive than baseball.” Each name has a story behind it, reveals a humble or interesting truth. In fact the Baseball Hall of Fame even chronicles nicknames into particular categories (e.g., ethnic nicknames, personality trait nicknames etc.). It also includes a list of nicknames of current Major League teams. Sports journalists, broadcasters and fans commonly refer to teams by a wide variety of nicknames. Many of the names are so established that newspapers routinely use the names in headlines.

Although “The Hawk” was the only player to be inducted into Cooperstown in 2010, he wasn’t the only honoree with a nickname. His class included umpire Doug Harvey, broadcaster Jon Miller, sports writer Bill Madden, musician John Fogerty for his song “Centerfield” and manager Elvert "Whitey" Herzog.

Nicknames and honoring an outstanding individual are not unique to the sport of baseball; a similar tradition is part of the Catholic Church. Many of our “hall of famers” are the Saints. In the 12th Century, the Vatican formalized the process for canonization. Although it is true that a man or woman is officially declared a saint after two miracles are performed with their intercession, the primary criteria for sainthood is how this person lived their life. Saints are “shining examples” of Christian love.

Induction into any sports hall of fame is no different. An athlete is enshrined because of how he or she played the game. Many may have changed the game, others were excellent in their day and age. They overcame obstacles and won respect, some adoration from their teammates, fans and even their opponents.

And what about names? I read today (December 26) that The Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha will be canonized next year with Pope Benedict XVI's announcement of her second miracle. Tekakwitha, Canada's first aboriginal saint, is commonly known as “Lily of the Mohawks.” What a beautiful image to hold of this holy woman; what a beautiful way to learn of her people. And do not flowers reflect God’s great beauty in the same way a saint’s life does?

Perhaps one of the most popular saints is Thérèse of Lisieux, commonly known as “the Little Flower.” What’s in her name?
In May 1887, Thérèse approached her 63-year old father Louis, recovering from a small stroke, while he sat in the garden one Sunday afternoon and told him that she wanted to celebrate the anniversary of "her conversion" by entering the Carmelites before Christmas. Louis and Thérèse both broke down and cried, but Louis got up, gently picked a little white flower, root intact, and gave it to her, explaining the care with which God brought it into being and preserved it until that day. Therese later wrote: "while I listened I believed I was hearing my own story." To Therese, the flower seemed a symbol of herself, "destined to live in another soil.”
A simple flower symbolizes her rich spirituality. She believed every soul is similar to a flower. Some souls are magnificent and grand like the rose and others are simple and pure like the small white lily of the valley. And “The Little Way” characterizes her spirituality. She sought to do small acts of charity and kindness with great love. She may not have “changed the game," but she is an outstanding example of someone who did something we are all called to do. Her name and her status as a saint are simply drawn from how she lived her life.

I am grateful that two domains I revere—the Church and Baseball hold similar traditions. Although I may check my hat at the door at Mass and not at the yard, when it’s time to recognize a person for their God given talents and their contributions, I sit in marvel at both. I hope to learn from their lives and their legacy in much the same way.

Photo Credits
The Hawk: The Expo
Baseball nicknames
Hall of Fame
Blessed Kateri

Thursday, December 22, 2011

What's in a Name?

These days everyone has his or her own rules with regard to commencement of the Christmas season--right? I hold hard and fast to the “no Christmas music or decorations until the day after Thanksgiving.” From Black Friday on, I contend people have license to go whole hog. As a child, the radio station KOIT most distinctly marked the change in season by playing Christmas music on that day only. I listened in anticipation for many songs; a special bonus was to hear Amy Grant’s “Emmanuel.”

Grant’s angelic voice proclaims a number of terms we use to describe the one who is born, Jesus the Christ. She sings:
Emmanuel, Emmanuel.
Wonderful, Counselor!
Lord of life, Lord of all;
He's the Prince of Peace, Mighty God, Holy One!
Emmanuel, Emmanuel.
The Gospels make a point of informing us that the messiah would be given a name. Matthew 1:23 states “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us” and in Luke’s Gospel we read "Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus."We know the Son of Man as Jesus and Emmanuel, as Christ the King and as the Good Shepherd. Listening to both the readings and to religious music, I can’t help but think, Why do we have so many names for Our Lord? Or more colloquially, What’s in a name?

Naming someone or something is human. We seek to know and build relationships; a name is the first step on that path. When a child is born is not one of the first questions we ask “What is his or her name?” To know that even God made flesh had a name reminds us of the true miracle of the season—the Incarnation.

Second, I believe the name we use for a person says as much about the other as it does ourselves. To my students I am “Ms. Stricherz” my runners, “Coach Stricherz” my friends “Anne” and my beloved I am “Annie.” When my former students graduate, I ask them to call me “Anne” and for many, it’s a difficult transition. When and if the relationship deepens, it’s not a stretch.

And nowhere do we see more of a love for names than in the world of sports. Men and women become athletic heroes, some larger than life. We honor their talent, skill and prowess by personalizing it and them with a special name. With that, they become our own. For example, Joe Montana earned the nicknames Joe Cool, The Comeback Kid, Bird Legs and Golden Joe during his football career. Each one speaks to how he conducted himself on the field and who he was to the 49er Faithful. If “Sweet 16” didn’t matter to the sports history of San Francisco we would only know him as Joe Montana. But as the history books indicate, he was so much more. His other names say that as well.During the Holy Season of Advent, I have decided to pay attention to the name of Christ that I am drawn to. To examine what speaks to me helps me understand and reflect upon what may be going on in my life and in my heart. Although I seldom think of Jesus as “Wonderful Counselor,” I am grateful that Grant’s music has reminded me that He is. And that’s fitting, for events in my life the past year have drawn me to Jesus in this way. But to be a Christian is to know our world is in great need of Jesus as well. Thinking of the war and violence in our world, I have called on the Prince of Peace many times.

In these final days of Advent and as the Christmas season truly commences, spend some time thinking of the one who was born, and what you want to call Him.

Photo Credits
Joe Cool
Amy Grant
Adoration of the Shepherds

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Baseball, Basketball & Football Are Long Seasons: A Prayer for Self Motivation

Many a professional sport spans one season too many—and by season I mean a division of the year, marked by changes in weather, ecology, and hours of daylight. I’m not sure if hockey even has an “off season.” Perhaps the gift of the NBA lockout in some strange way is an increased appreciation for regular season games? Fans will see 16 fewer games before the pros *really* start playing.

These days baseball practically goes until November. Yet people wax nostalgic about it. And why shouldn’t they when the late commissioner of Major League Baseball and philosopher, A. Bartlett Giamatti penned these words in Take Time for Paradise.
It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops. Today, October 2, a Sunday of rain and broken branches and leaf-clogged drains and slick streets, it stopped, and summer was gone.
Baseball may span six months (and more if you’re lucky), but the recent distribution of college football awards brought about the highlight reels of the winners’ 2011 accomplishments. Surprisingly, what stood out to me is the drastic change in the weather from the opening game to today. The passing of time is dramatically clear as early season games are played in the hot sun. Players and coaches wear short sleeve shirts and the field reflects the bright sun. As the schedule progresses, the colors begin to fade. The shadows are cast. And at this point, I wonder what weather condition will emerge. A snow bowl? Driving sleet? A bundled crowd at a night game? Brrr.

It too is a long season. And this has helped me realize once again that sports demand a lot of us—physical strength and mental fortitude. When one is a member of a team, time is not their own.

I have known a few athletes who were upset to play in post-season contests because they were exhausted. They would have been satisfied had their season ended after the first round of the playoffs! Part of me was disgusted that such talented athletes were lacking a competitive spirit. The other side of me understood exactly what they said.

Therefore, I think a prayer a student read in class last week is an appropriate one for all of us. Whether we are a member of a sports team or have a demanding job, we all need a little boost to keep us motivated from time to time. Why not seek the Lord’s assistance in this time of need?

A Prayer for Self Motivation

Omnipotent God, vitality of life, Your strength supplies my motivation. I am stirred in the path of Your Will. Maintain my self-motivation to always Search, find, examine, will and act Upon the truths placed before me. May I become a driving force for others, Encouraging them to pick up their crosses And follow the virtuous road of life. I thank You for Your continued vigor That coexists in my whole being, My soul, my spirit and my body!

Photo Credits
Self Motivation
2011 Heisman Trophy

Thursday, December 1, 2011

SI Football: Tradition and Community

In anticipation of Saturday’s Division III CCS football championship game between longtime San Francisco rivals St. Ignatius and Sacred Heart Cathedral at AT&T, I decided it was time to share with my students the story of legendary SI coach, Vince Tringali. My students, the football players and fans in particular left class sharing with me that they were even more pumped for the big rematch. I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t be. The story of Vince Tringali exemplifies the rich tradition and strong sense of community that is SI.
Tradition. To watch this NFL film one learns that SI has a tradition of excellence. During Tringali’s tenure, the Wildcats held a 19-game winning streak from 1962-63, a number one national ranking in the 1962 Imperial Sports Syndicate Poll and four league championships. He succeeded in both the AAA and WCAL Leagues, preparing his players for the transition and making a mark in both.

He knew talent. He saw O.J. Simpson play at Galileo High School and was instrumental in getting him to USC. And, he had talent. When a young Dan Fouts transferred from Marin Catholic after his sophomore year, Tringali said "talk about the gift of the Magi.” Also, several of the young men he coached went on to become coaches in the NFL, like Gil Haskell and Bill Laveroni of the Seattle Seahawks. Tringali’s influence on athletes and coaches extended beyond St. Ignatius and is greatly missed; he died in April 2010. His mark on the tradition of SI stands strong. Today there are two scholarships in his honor. Former players and students support a lunch in honor of the man and his passion.

Community. One of the more unique components of Vince was a relationship he built with a young man who did not even play football in high school. Al Saunders, offensive coordinator of the Oakland Raiders was an All-American swimmer for the Wildcats. Vince knew of his competitive nature and athletic excellence; he called him “fish” whenever he passed him in the hallway. A connection was made.

While Saunders’ father discouraged him from playing football, Tringali didn’t. Eventually, Saunders would play defensive back and wide receiver for the Spartans of San Jose State from 1966–1968 where he was a three-year starter, team captain, and an Academic All-American. Tringali said “I’ll take credit for that! He’s one of my own.”
To an outsider, his remarks may seem strange and yet it reveals something about the community that is Saint Ignatius. Every year, my fellow cross-country coaches and I scout the soccer fields in particular for potential runners. We have had to come to terms with the idea that perhaps the best runners at SI are not even on our team. And yet, I love to see these athletes succeed. Every year, I hope I will convince just one of them to try our sport. I will forever tease Cornell lacrosse player and former SI soccer captain Kelly Lang that I have yet to forgive her for not coming out to run cross country her senior year. Three sports are demanding and so are academics; I understand. I still hope to see her run competitively in the years to come! Tringali did the same. He saw the defensive end of the Miami Dolphins Igor Olshansky at a game. When he realized Olshansky wasn’t a parent but a student, he asked him why he wasn’t playing football. The sophomore replied, "I am a basketball player." The ever-blunt Tringali said, “someone lied to you.” Tringali didn’t. Igor went on to play for three years at the University of Oregon before the San Diego Chargers drafted him. In a community, people take notice. Tringali did that and the lives of many young men have never been the same.

He said “what you get from coaching is a relationship. And for some, it only lasts a season. Still others, ask or need more of you and it extends beyond. And with some, the relationship lasts a lifetime. One that does not end in even with this life.”
Whether he knew it or not, Tringali’s outlook was deeply Catholic. He was speaking of the Communion of saints. Catholics recognize that the living and the dead, those on earth, in heaven, are part of the mystical body of Christ. Because Christ rose from the dead we remain in spiritual union with one another beyond this life. We intercede for one another, we communicate through prayer and we believe our relationship has not ended, only changed. He added to the tradition of St. Ignatius, one that was over 100 years in the making when he arrived. He sustained a community that appreciates this tradition, its blessings and more.

Vince Tringali’s concluding remarks in the 2006 NFL film are “in victory, I salute you.” I hope as the Wildcats exit ATT Park on Saturday night that I can say the same. It is my hope that same tradition that Tringali furthered and the community he shaped continues and thrives. And who knows, I hope he is praying in heaven for the success of young men, some of whom may be the sons of men he coached.

Photo Credits

Communion of Saints
Coach Tringali
Tringali SI Community

Monday, November 21, 2011

What Kind of School of Virtue Are We Running?

The Blessed John Paul II said, “Sports are a real school of true human virtue.” It seems that recent events in the wide world of sports have challenged this maxim. The greed of the NBA lockout, the misguided sense of loyalty in the Penn State scandal and at the high school cross country state meet in Natchitoches, Louisiana a feat that many describe as “inspiring” have left me wondering: What kind of school are we running? Are our students, or in this case our athletes failing or thriving? And ultimately without true human virtue, what is at stake?

It’s unfortunate that for the second year in a row the only press for a sport as demanding as cross-country features a runner collapsing at the state meet finish line. Last year, Holland Reynolds, University High School’s number two runner crawled across the finish line on her hands and knees to complete her race. In doing so, she helped her team clinch the California state championship. This year Christian Bergeron of Covington, LA shares that story.Due to extreme dehydration on-set by unseasonable heat and humidity – the senior collapsed four times in the final 25-yards of the race. With the heat index above 80 degrees (weather is nearly 20 degrees cooler by this point in the season), it’s no surprise that the St. Paul’s varsity runner’s legs buckled and body crumbled.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune described his feat by reporting “Of all the inspiring moments of determination you see in the remaining months of 2011, it's unlikely any can top the heroics turned in by one high school senior” on Monday November 14, 2011. The local news channel commented on the power of the human will and how "moments like this make a parent proud even though they may be ones a parent would rather forget."

I watched Christian’s feat and I was horrified. I heard words like “inspiring” and “perseverance” and I looked around me. What school of virtue is athletics teaching? Is my moral compass off? Is the media’s?

This young man nearly died. He could not even see the finish line. The officials did not help him to or through the finish line. I won’t go so far as to say they were bystanders but there is much more at stake to me than finishing a race or earning a title.

The word “inspire” stems from what else—spirit—to breathe. To be inspired is to be filled with the breath (of God). The only inspiration I find in this story is that Bergeron is sharing his story to illustrate the importance of having of an EMT and ambulance on site for big athletic competitions. His mother, a nurse, was aware that he needed immediate medical attention.

In the Newsweek article “What is Virtue?” Ken Woodward states "cultivation of virtue makes individuals happy, wise, courageous, competent. The result is a good person, a responsible citizen and parent, a trust- leader, possibly even a saint. Without a virtuous people, according to this tradition, society cannot function well. And without a virtuous society, individuals cannot realize either their own or the common good."

I hope we can recognize as heroic as Christian Bergeron’s feat may appear, we take his story as another example among many to determine what true human virtue may be. The stakes in our society are too high not to…

Photo Credits
Sports Illustrated Cover
State Meet Finals

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Spirituailty of the Start Line

It is rare that a cross-country runner ever competes on a “true” cross-country course. Most competitions take place at parks or on school campuses, where with enough loops, hills, twists and turns a runner can cover 3 miles. But the final league meet for the WCAL always takes place at Crystal Springs Cross Country Park. The course is incredibly demanding—it is often hot and dusty, mile two includes “cardiac hill,” there is absolutely no shade… and yet, it is powerfully spiritual. The starting line of the race is as intense at it gets. At Crystal, the runner sees the first mile before their eyes. The starting box (cross country doesn’t use blocks or a waterfall start like in track) is fixed at the top of a hill; a hill runners must descend before they ascend it into mile two. Every competitor knows what he or she must do, as well as what the person on their right and their left must do. They share one common fate, to beat the clock, to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible, to run their own race.

Each team is expected to arrive to the line 10 minutes prior to the start of the race. As coaches accompany their team to the line, they remind runners to stay loose and stretch, to complete a few striders, and reconsider the race plan. At SI, we remind our team of what we have done that has prepared us for the given race, we restate our strategy, and gather for a team prayer. With the varsity girls, we now take steps back from the start to let them speak with one another and pronounce their own cheer.

At that moment, I transition from coach to witness. I see the spirit of seven girls who have trained hard not alone—but together. I feel the bond that they share as four runners go to the front of the line and three girls take a few steps back. And at the very moment the race official calls their attention to the start, everything falls silent. It is as if a moment is frozen in time. I look at the varsity girls I have come to know, respect, admire and adore and I see not only are they are holding their position, they are holding their breath! The intensity of that very moment is so palpable. And yet, let me say it again, it is so spiritual.

In his article “I’m Spiritual, Who Needs Religion?” Tim Muldoon writes the word “spirituality” comes from the Latin term spiritus, which has the meanings of “spirit,” “ghost,” or even “breath.” It entered English through reference to Biblical ideas-specifically, as a way to render even more ancient terms from Hebrew and Greek. The bottom line is that the word “spirituality” was originally a word that referred to the Biblical notion of God giving us life by breathing into us, as depicted in the book of Genesis.

When the gun goes off, all runners release their breath. Indeed God has given them life and God has given them talent—speed, determination, and strength. Every breath is necessary to complete the 2.95 mile journey; and their spirituality will allow them to do more that complete the physical task of running the race. The spirituality of running and runners animates the challenge of the race; it makes running rewarding and more than worth the pain.

Olympic runner Eric Liddell said I believe God made me for a purpose. He made me fast and when I run I feel His pleasure. I highly doubt that my runners are feeling God’s pleasure as they ascend cardiac hill at Crystal Springs or the final turn up the hill to the finish. But as their coach, to see what God has made—the beauty of that park, the sanctity that one team can possess and even what these girls are capable of from the start to the finish, how can I not take a deep breath? As I inhale and then exhale, I feel God’s pleasure…the life..the spirit He has given me.

Photo Credits
All photos taken by the author on November 2, 2011

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Personal Inventory: Sports & Spirituality

The prayer of St. Ignatius calls us to “give and not to count the cost.” This beautiful prayer of generosity is challenging for most people, but I believe most especially for sports fans. Why? Sports fans love counting. It would be hard to find a single Pittsburgh Steeler fan today who isn’t counting the cost of yards, carries, personal fouls, turnovers, in this loss to the Baltimore Ravens. At the very least we know both teams knew how “to fight and not to heed the wounds.” What a great game!We sports fans are no strangers to numbers and how they add up—from rankings, magic numbers, AP polls, betting lines, numbers on jerseys, retired numbers, seeds in tourneys, numbers of championships, titles and more, numbers are more than a marking in a win or loss column. To say that numbers can be sacred in sports is not an overstatement. And, so the symbiosis begins.

"Sports and Spirituality" is most successful when one can draw from our own experiences as an athlete or a sports fan to think more concretely about our spiritual life. And in the same way that not all athletic disciplines need be tedious, challenging or painful, nor should those in the spiritual life.Hence I created a “personal inventory” to help you take stock of the experiences in both domains that stand out, that have shaped you as the person you are and are proven highlights in your life. I hope this “light” discipline will reveal some insight of the Lord’s coaching, leading and guiding along the way. Besides we already know God doesn’t play favorites on football Saturdays…but His Mother does.

Personal Inventory: Sports

  1. My favorite sport to watch is….
  2. My favorite sport to play is…
  3. My favorite athlete is….
  4. My least favorite athlete is….
  5. My favorite sports team is…
  6. A sport I know very little about but would like to learn more is….
  7. The most memorable sports event I have attended is…
  8. I have read a great book about sports. It is…
  9. I have seen a great movie about sports. It is….
  10. The best athlete in all of sports is….
Personal Inventory: Spirituality
  1. A good parish/faith community I am familiar with…
  2. My favorite prayer is…
  3. My favorite Saint/saint is….
  4. My favorite spiritual discipline is…
  5. A faith tradition I know very little about but would like to learn more is….
  6. The most liturgical event I have attended is…
  7. I have read a great book about spirituality….
  8. I have seen a great movie about spirituality….
  9. An interesting religious studies/theology course I have taken is…
  10. A religious leader I admire greatly is…
If you have your own question that would like to share, please post e.g. "The hardest thing about being a sports fan for me is?" For the Eagles' fan who wrote that, other Eagles' fans probably know the answer.

Photo credits

USC vs. ND
Spiritual Discipline

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Dedicate Yourselves to Gratitude: Thoughts on the 2010 World Series Champions...

Watching the 2011 World Series is a little strange. The atmosphere, the hype, and the timing is remarkably familiar but it’s not exactly “déjà vu all over a again” (Yogi Berra). No, unfortunately for my Bay Area brethren and me, our beloved band of misfit toys, those San Francisco Giants ended their season in September. October baseball was not their fate.

To be honest, I dealt with it in late August. As baseball fans in a number of cities across the United States (sorry Canada!) supported their team in anticipation of the play-offs, I found myself in the City by the Bay still proclaiming one thing. I live and work in the home of the 2010 World Series Champion San Francisco Giants.

I took advantage of any given opportunity to remind friends--near and far--of this great distinction. I delight in sharing that reminder in e-mails, letters and phone conversations. Nowhere has victory been sweeter than in owning that title. It’s never gotten old; it’s not something I take for granted. I will relish these words until the St. Louis Cardinals or Texas Rangers capture them for the 2011 season.

San Francisco is known for its aesthetic beauty. A Victorian city built upon high hills & sand dunes, it is surrounded on three sides by water. Its Golden Gate Bridge is truly an architectural wonder of the world. And yet, this past year its great beauty was no longer to be found in its iconic vistas or landmarks. For me, it was in a World Series banner. When I first saw this flag flying above the San Francisco Bay against a clear blue sky, I did a double take. I gazed at it in wonder & awe.Fortunately for Giants fans, this banner is not something we surrender at the conclusion of the MLB season. No, as any banner does, it reminds us of what the Giants did; they won the last game of the season (the goal of A's General Manager, Billy Beane as stated in Moneyball).

Many years ago, I hung a homemade sign over my door that read: “Dedicate Yourselves to Gratitude.” I suppose it was my hope that I would live each day grateful for what God has given and will provide. Catholic Relief Services reminds us that “Gratitude is a gift from God. It gives us a way to respond to the Creator. With it, God gives us a way to respond to the brother who gives us a gift, to the sister who tends to a wound.”

In some small way, I think that World Series banner will remind me of Paul’s message to the Colossians. The 2010 San Francisco Giants gave this city a great gift last year. I have been grateful all year. And when I see another team later this week hold the Commissioner’s trophy, I will tip my hat to all those who can say they are from the city of the 2011 World Series Champions. Enjoy every minute of it.

Photo Credits

2011 World Series
Giants as Champions
Thing of Beauty

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Blue Collar Mentality: Sandy, Sweaty & Muddy

I am hearing a lot about the “blue collar” mentality and work ethic these days. And the expression is manifesting itself in the form of some motivational gear. According to Steve DelVecchio of the San Jose Mercury News, 49er head coach Jim Harbaugh “has issued gas station work shirts with personalized name patches to each player on his roster. The message in handing out the blue-collar shirts is simple: Work hard. ‘It’s not real complicated what it stands for — a motivational symbol, if you will’.”

And at St. Ignatius College Prep, a select number of varsity athletes can be seen sporting a new long sleeve RED & BLUE COLLAR ATHLETE t-shirt. Why? The new leadership in the athletic department has implemented the “Red & Blue Collar Athlete Program.” Athletic director John Mulkerrins said “It’s an opportunity to honor a Varsity Wildcat Athlete whose ‘blue collar’ effort is recognized by his or her coach in practices, games, or during any strength and conditioning sessions over a period of two weeks.”

This athlete is recognized because when the tough get going, he or she is going. It’s almost paradoxical. As a coach, I recognize her because she demands little if any work on my behalf. This athlete does more than is required or expected and she does it well. Cutting corners is a foreign concept. When I say give me ten, she gives me twelve. When I’m not looking she is still working.Just today the SI girls’ cross country most recent "Red & Blue Collar Athlete" got a massive headache during her workout (running hill reps and sand stairs at Fort Funston); we advised her to take a break. Some athletes might be relieved by the respite, but not this Blue & Red Collar Athlete. She was disappointed that she couldn’t complete the given task or share the challenge in full with her team. I have no doubt this athlete sleeps well at night; she gives her sport physically and mentally her very best. The success of our team hinges on her example more than she knows.

And across town, as the Niners prove they are for real, it should not be taken for granted that success emanates from talent and new leadership, and a hard work ethic. It is no surprise that a successful team, by any definition, is a hard working team.
After the September 11 win over Seattle, Jim Harbaugh described the offense as “blue collar,” and tight end Delanie Walker went right along with the company line, “If he says we’re a blue-collar team, we’re a blue-collar team. At the end of the day we’re going to be dirty, muddy and stinky. It may not be pretty and it’s going to be ugly. That’s basically what he means by blue collar. We’re not trying to look pretty.”

Sure a shirt can honor a blue (and red) collar athlete but we know them by their headaches and sand or their mud and dirt. It may not be pretty, but these athletes wouldn’t have it any other way—they’re working too hard not to! They push me to work hard and to succeed—no time for anything less.

Photo Credits
Blue Collar Niner Shirt
SF Sand Stairs
Coach Harbaugh

Friday, September 23, 2011

Moneyball: Not Spiritual

"Moneyball," a drama film starring Brad Pitt as the Oakland A's General Manager, Billy Beane premieres in theaters on Friday, September 23. The film, based on Michael Lewis’ book by the same name, features the story of Billy Beane's success in using data analytics to draft players and create a winning team, specifically during the onset of the 2002 season.

The opening scene features Beane sitting solo inside an unlit Oakland Coliseum. He looks upon the now empty field, where ghosts may roam, dreaming about winning “the last game of the season” as a cheers from World Series game are broadcast in the background. The lighting, his pensive gaze, the palpable desire in his stance, would suggest you are about to embark on a story—a true one—that is very spiritual. It’s not.

These days I watch every sports story through a spiritual lens. Although "Moneyball" presented themes that resonate with spirituality such tenacity, commitment to a dream, vision and creativity—I left the world premiere thinking, What happened? Why did it fall flat?

Perhaps it is spiritually vapid because the story is one of economics; it is a tale of one man’s plight to create a competitive baseball team at a fraction of the cost of the large market teams. Perhaps I am asking too much…and yet, I don’t think so.Billy Beane is a complex character. He played in Major League Baseball for five years but as the GM he is "all business;" he does not watch the game. He tells his assistant to text him with the ball scores. Rather than sitting in the not so cheap seats, Beane works out in the gym underneath the Coliseum. The dark lighting, the dated, inadequate equipment leave you questioning why he chooses the world he has created.

You might ask Does the protagonist find redemption? What could be more spiritual than that? Yes and no. Beane claims that he “hates losing more than he likes winning.” The movie ends as it begins. Perhaps his spiritual journey is incomplete. The quest continues…I suppose it does for all of us.

The evening however was not spiritually devoid. I was fortunate enough to attend the world premiere at Oakland’s Paramount theater as a benefit for the Oakland A’s community fund. It was obvious that everyone in attendance had a deep familiarity and affection for the Athletics. The packed house was filled with the actors—yes even Brad Pitt, but also former and current A’s players and their loyal fans. The fans, like those who fill the seats during the 20-game win streak were electric. Their passion for this team was revealed as the movie relived every great game, good hit, and big win. This crowd knew the losses but they also knew the sweet taste of victory. I think it was enough for all of least on this night.

Go see Moneyball and put on your spiritual lenses. I welcome your thoughts!

Photo Credits
Moneyball Poster
Moneyball Poster II
Paramount Theater--my iPhone!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Coaching as Ministry...and as Evangelization

"Yours is a share in the work of the Lord's Spirit who makes of us one bread, one body, the cup of blessing. Yours is a work of ministering Christ's body and blood to the body of Christ, the Church. Yours is service at the Lord's reconciling table, You minister holy food to holy people in the holiest of all communions." -Eucharistic Minister Handbook

It was only Wednesday of the first week back at school and I was completely exhausted. But, I wasn’t so tired that I couldn’t make it to the social that followed the Fall sports parents’ meeting. While there, I noticed how many members of the Jesuit community came to welcome us—a group that leads 23 athletic teams.
The fall season at St. Ignatius College Prep is comprised of seven different sports, fielding over 500 student athletes. Although no Jesuit coaches a fall sport, many serve as team chaplains and boosters. I have become friends with several of them while watching boys’ volleyball and girls’ basketball games. Nothing builds a friendship like a common interest in sports. And little did I know, nothing builds the faith life of a young person like a coach who participates in a school’s liturgy.

Andrew, a novice Jesuit asked the coaches if we would be willing to serve as Eucharistic ministers. He said “this year we are making a concerted effort to extend the invitation to coaches. When a coach holds the Eucharist with respect and reverence, their athletes take notice. Truly it’s another form of evangelization.”

I never had a coach who was a Eucharistic minister. I wonder how I might have seen him or her differently and what the sharing of the sacrament would signify to my teammates and me. I wonder how a young person who is really questioning their faith might be nourished by the Eucharist a little differently because they see their coach hold and distribute it with the "respect and reverence" that Andrew mentioned.

I was humbled by his beautiful insight on what I considered a simple task. The priest mediates the sacrament—transforming the bread into Jesus’ body and blood. But, lay and religious, old and young, male and female, coaches and teachers, even student athletes participate in the distribution of it! And even those who are not Catholic are called to participate. At SI, we offer a special blessing to anyone who wishes to receive it. They join the community and approach the Eucharistic minister with their arms crossed over their chest. As coaches extend this blessing—again, they are evangelizing.But herein lies the paradox—the seemingly simple task is actually quite profound. I had no idea that sharing in the work of the Lord's Spirit was evangelization. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines evangelization as: “the proclamation of Christ and His Gospel by word and the testimony of life, in fulfillment of Christ’s command.” Of course it is evangelization, for what does a Eucharistic minister say? “The Body of Christ.” How clearly we proclaim Christ Jesus at communion!

The National Directory for Catechesis (NDC) "places evangelization at the core of ministry to fire a new energy and commitment to proclaim the Gospel." I definitely view coaching as a ministry. To know that my ministry is not limited to the field, to know and believe that it is also at Friday Morning liturgy for both my students and my athletes is an awesome responsibility. I hope my fellow coaches will join me. After all, "Victory is ours for those who love Christ Jesus!"

Photo Credits

Fall Sports
Eucharistic Minister Symbol
Student as a Eucharistic minister

Monday, August 22, 2011

Life Lessons from Unlikely People and Places: Remembering Don Casper

As summer comes to a close, I think of how I filled my days—What were the highs and lows, the graces and the gifts? This year, it began with my fourth Immersion trip, nine students and I spent two weeks with the L’Arche community and Catholic Worker Home in Tacoma, WA. It doesn’t matter where I go, or what I do on immersion, "a program that engages participants in service within a context that calls for solidarity with people on society's margins," Immersion continues to invite me further into a world of contradiction. And the irony is that contradiction has never proven more true than in reflecting back upon my very first one and surprisingly so--the life and tragic death of SI alum, Don Casper.
In June 2005, I left Pacific Heights, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in San Francisco for Dolores Mission Church, the poorest parish in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. If the name is familiar to you, it’s because the poet, prophet and priest Greg Boyle, SJ was its pastor for many years. It is the seedbed for Homeboy Industries, which “assists at-risk, recently released, and formerly gang involved youth to become contributing members of their communities through job placement, training and education.” Their motto is their mission: Jobs not jails.

Fr. Boyle’s book “Tattoos on the Heart” recounts two decades of working with and in this community. He says, “the church is nestled in the middle of two large public-housing projects, Pico Gardens and Aliso Village. Together they comprise the largest grouping of public housing west of the Mississippi.” It’s no Pac Heights.

In just two weeks time, I learned about gangs, why young people join, why they stay and why they leave. I also learned about the senseless killing and violence, the cycle of poverty and despair and the importance of a good father for so many young men. I learned many life lessons, but what surprised me the most was contradictory.
Boyle Heights isn’t a place you would describe as “beautiful.” The public housing appears institutional; there are few trees and no manicured yards. The sidewalks are uneven, the roads are not swept, and yet despite the threat of violence, there is something very real and live about the neighborhood. Everyone knows one another.

Good, bad or otherwise, people know one another’s families—their abuelas and tios, “homies” and “homegirls” know who lives where and who belongs to whom. The community has banded together in many ways. Yes, out of necessity but also in prayerful and powerful support. Basta ya! Enough already.

What a contrast Boyle Heights was to my home on Fillmore and Washington streets—the very heart of Pac Heights. Homes around me sell for over a million dollars. The colors of the buildings are cool, soft pastels accented by gingerbread woodwork and designer landscapes. The streets are cleaned every morning at 6:00 a.m. Parking is a premium. Safety is rarely if ever an issue.

As much as I love my neighborhood, I realized a sad truth when I returned. I can count on one hand how many of my neighbors I know. I live in a building with five other apartment units. I know the names of no one. To a large degree, I am anonymous and so are most of the people I live beside. What a contrast. What a striking contradiction.

But somehow, someway our humanity always breaks through. I think of these tiny flowers that break through the concrete of the sidewalk. They say to me that beauty is a necessity in this life. It finds us, even in unlikely places, amid unlikely circumstances.
And in case I needed a reminder, I got one in the sad news of the death of my roommate’s close family friend, Don Casper. He was a prominent San Francisco Republican, attorney and vice president of the San Francisco Civil Service Commission. Don was out running and hit by a drunk driver; he was 63 years old.

As Vicki was describing this loyal St. Ignatius and Georgetown alum, I realized I actually knew whom she was talking about. I never knew his name, but at least once a week, if not more, I saw a middle-aged man run down Fillmore Street. This man was loyal to his Hoyas; he always ran with a classic Georgetown t-shirt. Just recently I noticed he switched from a long sleeved navy Georgetown shirt to a fresh white Georgetown tee. He too opted for the classic script.

As a fellow runner, I would look at him in wonder. He often ran late at night, he ran in the rain, he ran in the “oh so rare” heat, and he always ran at a good clip, even if he did have the downhill. He too ran without headphones, I could see the way running cleared his mind and stilled his conscience.

I didn’t’ know him…but I did. He was a member of this community and his presence will be missed. His quirky humanity was expressed in something I could relate to, something I valued, it was a passion we shared. I think of Fillmore Street without this warm soul pounding the pavement and something is missing.

In the same way that Boyle Heights knows loss, unfortunately all too well, Pacific Heights has experienced a loss. Don Casper will be missed. And the contradiction in this is that although our communities seem different, we are the same. The presence of one person can and does make a difference. Our humanity always breaks through.

Photo Credits
Don Casper
Homeboy Industries
Father G
Flower breaks through
Running at Sunset