Tuesday, October 30, 2012

San Francisco Giants: World Series Champions Who Promote Life

It’s the Giants vs. Dodgers.  I already missed the first pitch and my friend was waiting for me in our seats.  I was a good 20 minutes late.  In a hurry, I got inside the ballpark and sought an available usher for confirmation about how to get to my seat—stat! I spotted one standing near an elevator who said “Welcome to AT&T. How can I help you?”  Nearly out of breath I almost threw my ticket stub at him.  Calm and collected, he said to me “Can you just tell me where your seat section and seat number.”  I relayed the information about the Club Level; he told me precisely how to get there.  Perfect directions.  I marched to my seat and I started to cry. 

The tears weren’t because I was stressed out.  They weren’t because, well, I had been a little pushy.  No, they were because at the same moment this usher politely informed me he doesn’t see very well, I realized he is blind.  I was humbled.  Society might see what he can’t do.  The San Francisco Giants see what he can.
The month of October brings much to celebrate.  For the Giants, it began as the “Hunt for Orange October.”  And this year, orange trumped red—both Cincinnati and Cardinal red.  A four-game sweep in Detroit confirmed why this town deserved to be painted orange—from the lights on City Hall and Coit tower to every other shirt, scarf or tie. It’s not even Halloween—yet! 

In the Catholic Church, October is the month of the Rosary and most poignantly, Respect for Life month.  It is a time that we redouble our efforts to recognize and proclaim that human life is a precious gift from God. Blessed John Paul II wrote “Each person who receives this gift has responsibilities toward God, self and others. Society, through its laws and social institutions, must protect and nurture human life at every stage of its existence.”
A wide spectrum of issues touches on the protection of human life and the promotion of human dignity. As Pope John Paul II has reminded us: “Where life is involved, the service of charity must be profoundly consistent. It cannot tolerate bias and discrimination, for human life is sacred and inviolable at every stage and in every situation; it is an indivisible good” (The Gospel of Life, #87).

It may sound like a stretch, but I see the San Francisco Giants as an organization that is promoting the Gospel of Life.  The obvious example can be found among the many Giants who give their time charitable organizations like Not For Sale or St. Anthony’s soup kitchen.  Others use their celebrity status as a platform not for personal profit but as a means to leverage social support and generate interest in those groups.  But I appreciate that one need not leave the ballpark to see Respect for Life in action.  I met it first hand in the usher who helped me.  Perhaps you read about another in the article run in the Marin IJ “Giants World Series run provides aspecial finish to memorable season for mother-son ushers.
“Peter Magowan (former Giants managing general partner) was a big advocate (for creating opportunities for disabled employees),” said Rick Mears, team vice president for guest services. “It’s been a focus of the Giants for years. We have 40 or 50 positions around the ballpark that allow for disabled employees and we try to make sure they are all filled every season.”

Mears said Harry Siebert, the former director of guest services, was key in helping disabled employees excel with the team. Siebert died earlier this year after battling muscular dystrophy throughout his life.
“It’s still tough for me to talk about losing him,” Mears said. “Harry was here every day, sometimes 80 or 90 hours a week, in physical pain that we can’t imagine. He made sure it was part of his job to ensure that all (disabled employees) were comfortable and put in situations where they could succeed. He treated them like every other employee.  We couldn’t do this without them.”
The employee I encountered was put in position where he could succeed.  So is Ricky Carroll who with his mother Glenda has served as an usher at Giant games the past seven years.  For Ricky, 28, who is developmentally disabled, finding a job with the Giants has been a dream come true. When a liaison from Integrated Community Services in San Rafael asked him what kind of job he would like to find, he told them his dream job would be to work for the Giants. Ricky told them he wanted to be an usher.

The role of an usher is one I never take for granted.  A good one will ensure optimal experience for fans—their safety, viewing and overall enjoyment of the game.  I appreciate seeing folks who are retired taking pleasure in their work and assisting fellow fans as much as I enjoyed meeting Max, an usher with Downs Syndrome.  It appeared as though Max had never met a stranger.  He worked hard at both helping fans and at cheering for the Giants.  Whenever I see someone like Max, I am humbly reminded that he is a survivor. Although the numbers have been reported as high as 92%, Why So Many Babies are Still Being Born With Down Syndrome confirms that 60% to 90% of women who discover their child has Downs decide to abort.  The Gospel of Life affirms that life is a gift, a sacred one.  Max’s life IS a gift.  Who knew that when I go to a baseball game, I am humbly reminded of the wonders of this precious gift from unlikely people in unlikely faces. 

A Prayer for Life
Father and maker of all, 
you adorn all creation
with splendor and beauty,
and fashion human lives
in your image and likeness.
Awaken in every heart
reverence for the work of your hands,
and renew among your people
a readiness to nurture and sustain
your precious gift of life.
Grant this through our Lord Jesus
Christ, your Son, who lives and
reigns with you in the unity of the
Holy Spirit, God, forever and ever.

Photo Credits
Orange October
Oct is Respect for Life Month
Jeremy Affeldt

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Barry Zito: Life Lessons from the Spiritual Southpaw

I show a clip of “The Franchise,” the television show about the 2011 San Francisco Giants in my Sports & Spirituality class. As mentioned in the blog posting "The Franchise: A Season with the SF Giants and Some Basics in Spirituality" one scene portrays Ron Rolheiser’s definition of spirituality to a tee. Sandwiched in between the stories of the 37-year old relief pitcher, Mark Kroon who didn’t make the roster and the 23-year old rookie Brandon Belt, who did is some other reality TV drama. Pablo Sandavol worked hard during the off season to lose weight and starting pitcher Barry Zito was under scrutiny for being the highest paid player on the team. Last year, I fast-forwarded through the scene. I didn’t want to waste my time on #75 but for some reason, this year, I let the tape run. It’s very easy to say, but even if he hadn’t kept the Giants postseason hopse alive in pitching 7 2/3 innings of shutout baseball in Game 5 of NLCS, I am glad I did.
Barry Zito won the Cy Young award with the Oakland A’s in 2002. It almost felt like a coup d’état when a team just across the bay, my San Francisco Giants signed this three-time All Star to a seven-year deal for $126 million. I followed their excitement in drafting him as my number one pick in my fantasy baseball league (the only year I ever played). Perhaps that is why my disappointment and distaste for “Zeets” runs so deep.

I have posted uncharitable comments on Facebook and Twitter like “Why is it I am only offered free tickets when Zito is pitching?” And when I wrote “37 Million Meals Strong: St. Anthony’s Dining Room,” it took everything in me not to include an editorial comment: Zito finally did something right when he volunteered his time on that special day. I even scoffed when “The Franchise” dubbed Zito as “the spiritual southpaw.” Although intrigued, I was angry the show decided to spend as much time on him as it did.
It was purely a matter of convenience (or laziness) but I left the clip unedited and "75" got his airtime. I listened and watched Barry Zito with a suspicious eye as I saw him playing his guitar and driving his Escalade. He made a few comments here and there about being humbled in 2010 for not making the 25-man post-season roster and what “the Universe or God can tell you" in that lesson. My interest was waning…and then he said, “With a big contract, there’s going to be some scrutiny, some jealousy, some hatred and some anger. I heard one time that anger is just frustrated love. You don’t get angry at something you don’t love.
Well yeah, Barry I am angry with you making $20 million a year and doing little if nothing to deserve it. Can’t say I have ever loved you as a player. I reviewed the message of his statement and realized—he’s right. It’s not Barry I’m angry at (of course I’m writing this after he captured NLCS Game 5) it’s baseball and American society that I’m angry at. I love this game. I love our country. Baseball is our national pastime. I love the game because it has a magical narrative. It reveals who we are as a country and a people in a way that other sports do not.

But despite its story that books and movies past and present capture, the business dimension is taking over. That is the America I am becoming increasingly more familiar with. Barry Zito signed a contract that his agent secured and that the Giants offered. I have a hard time understanding that an athlete could say “No, please don’t pay me that much. I’m not worth it.”

Furthermore, the prices we are now paying athletes is paid for by increased ticket prices. I was able to go to postseason games because I am financially responsible for one person—myself. Many families and Americans are priced out of baseball altogether. Former MLB Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti said "It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart." I hate to be a naysayer, but this reality of the "business of baseball" also breaks my heart.

Barry spoke to the truth once again when he said, “what people don’t realize is we are a bunch of regular dudes chasing our dreams. I’m in the business of throwing baseballs. It all just comes with the territory. What happens when you get so much flak, you start to realize it didn’t become as much fun anymore. There’s no excuse for that. I didn’t do this stuff for some lifestyle. I do this because it’s something I love to do."

Barry Zito’s performance in the 2012 should be all the evidence I need to know that Zeets loves to play the game as much as I love to watch it. And I love to watch good people chasing their dreams. Unfortunately in the United States today, many of our dreams have a price tag next to them. But you can’t buy victory. One thing I will buy however, is a Giants t-shirt with Zito 75 on the back (if they make it to the World Series). Perhaps I should just buy it anyway. The spiritual southpaw taught me a good lesson.

For what its worth.  Barry Zito's salary from the Giants is $19 million this year.  The MVP hopeful Buster Posey, $615,000.  The Giants have the seventh highest payroll in MLB at $117 million.

Photo Credits
The Franchise
St Anthony's
Zito's Unicorn

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Joy, Humor and Laughter in Sports & Spirituality

Looking at Detroit Tigers pitcher Max Scherzer during ALDS Game 5 last week, I couldn’t help but respond to my friend’s comment with a “bad” theology joke.  What’s up with his eyes? Whoa! One is so blue and the other is so dark.  He should wear a contact lens!  I turned to her with a straight face and said “he’s just like Christ.  Jesus sees us with two eyes—one human and one divine.”  I thought it was brilliant (another pun?).  Was it appropriate? I think so….

In case you haven’t noticed thanks to the popular writer, James Martin, SJ there’s been a movement toward emphasizing and recognizing the need for joy and laughter in the Catholic Church.  Fr. Martin may promote his latest book Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life but he’s on to something. Being a Catholic is demanding—we must carry our cross, die to self and live the call and the challenge of the Gospel. But this doesn’t mean we need not find joy in the journey or a laugh along the way.  

Stephen Colbert, one of the more popular figures in mainstream media today is both a Catholic and a comedian.  His story moved me. “A Comedian and a Cardinal Open Up on Spirituality” explains why he does what he does.  It says, “Mr. Colbert is the youngest of 11 children, raised by Catholic parents who both attended Catholic colleges. His father and two of his brothers died in a plane crash when Mr. Colbert was 10. He said that after the funeral, in the limousine on the way home, one of his sisters made another sister laugh so hard that she fell on the floor. At that moment, Mr. Colbert said he wanted to make someone laugh that hard.”  French philosopher and Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. said, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” Indeed God can be with us at the funeral of our parents or even at an event that brought together Timothy Cardinal Dolan and Stephen Colbert in front of 3,000 students at Fordham University on September 14, 2012. 

The New York Times reported that “The evening was billed as an opportunity to hear two Catholic celebrities discuss how joy and humor infuse their spiritual lives. They both delivered, with surprises and zingers that began the moment the two walked onstage. Mr. Colbert went to shake Cardinal Dolan’s hand, but the cardinal took Mr. Colbert’s hand and kissed it — a disarming role reversal for a big prelate with a big job and a big ring. The event would not have happened without its moderator, the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and prolific author who has made it his mission to remind Catholics that there is no contradiction between faithful and funny."

So in that spirit, I would like to share another example of what has brought me joy and laughter, even bemusement in sports and spirituality.  I encourage you to think of your own.

As many San Franciscans know, October is our warmest month of the year.  We finally have temperatures climb above 75 degrees for more than one day at a time.  This is a welcome thing, with exception. 

My path to cross country practice leads me from the women’s coaches’ locker room past the girls’ locker room and then…the boys’ locker room.  As the season progresses, an odor builds to the point that it penetrates the hallway.  Boys sweat and girls do too. But boys who play football wear pads that they do not wash. I have often wondered if a power hose could assuage the olfactory cocktail of dirt, blood and sweat.  On these days, I cannot help but thing of John 11:39. 
Jesus arrives at the home of Mary and Martha knowing their brother, his beloved friend Lazarus is dead. Jesus said, "Remove the stone." Martha, the sister of the deceased, said to Him, "Lord, by this time there will be a stench, for he has been dead four days."
I walk by that locker room and after I am assaulted by the stench. I can’t help but wonder what has been dead for four days.  I also want to know how boys are able to eat food in there.  Boys. 

This is just one of many ways to link the tradition, stories and experiences of our faith to our everyday experiences—good, bad and ugly.  Funny and joyful.  We can all use a little more of that!

Monday, October 15, 2012

First World Problem: Should I Go to the Game or Not?

As Hall of Fame baseball player Yoga Bera once said, “it was déjà vu all over again.”  AT&T Park, Sunday late afternoon game, Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner on the mound,  Giants lose. 
When I left the yard last week, I truly believed I would not be back in 2012.  I was angry about the money, time and emotional energy I had invested in a baseball game (yes, a first world problem).  However, this story took an unexpected turn as something magical happened in Cincinnati.  The Giants captured the National League Division Series title and with the St. Louis Cardinals beating the Washington Nationals, I was suddenly confronted with the question of whether or not to return to AT&T Park for another game.   Why should I?  It’s expensive, time consuming, and frankly it was a risk.  I thought: Who wants to see another loss?  What if it’s another 8-0 shut out? Unfortunately, the outcome was no different…and yet it was. 

I was reminded of why going to something in person is worth it.Dr. Tino captures my sentiment in his article “March Madness.”  He writes, 
“I, too, believe in the Church of Baseball. From the precise diamond patterns mown into the outfield grass to the lukewarm hot dogs, there is something magical about being present for a baseball game. Of course, I also believe in the Congregation of Hockey, the Fellowships of the Winter and Summer Olympics, and, of course, the Religious Society of Basketball, whose most holy shrine (as far as I’m concerned) is one Cameron Indoor Stadium, home to the Duke Blue Devils. Your opinion might vary. So today I thought we’d take a look at spirituality and sports.” 
Now, some might argue that sports are a distraction from more meaningful forms of interaction. Others say that the emphasis on competition—to the point where athletes seek unfair advantages to get ahead—is spiritually harmful.[1] I can’t say I disagree entirely with these things. It does seem sometimes that in a world with so many problems, taking time to play sports is frivolous—and that goes even more so for watching them (after all, those who play are at least getting some exercise). And yet, there has to be room in our lives for things that are not so serious, right?  For me, one of those things is sports." 
He includes five examples of how sports are spiritual.  And the one that spoke to me as evidenced by my time at AT&T park is that one of the spiritual gifts of sports is its ability to bring people together.  
I have said it once and I’ll say it many times.  We are incarnational beings.  Jesus, The Incarnation, became one of us because the experience of the flesh, our very presence—our spirit and our person is what it is all about. 

In a day and age when many sports provide better viewing options on television than in person, it cannot be taken for granted that sports can or will bring people together.  Yet I believe the reason they do is because a critical component of going to a game is for the experience it provides.  The fans set an important tone.  TV cannot capture the energy or “spirit” of a venue.  The intensity that fans and athletes bring to postseason baseball is incredible; truly it is worth experiencing—in the flesh.  And I say that as a fan who has experienced the spectrum of that so called “spirit.”  From NLDS game two (2012) where fans had little to nothing to cheer about to NLDS game one (2010) where Tim Lincecum threw a complete-game shutout, striking out 14 (one of the top 5 sporting events I have attended).
But one need not attend a ballgame to understand how sports bring people together.  NLDS Game 3 began at 10:00 a.m. Pacific time.  This was tortuous to a number of students and teachers, many who bleed orange and black.  However, the latest in technology, such as the school iPad 1:1 program (an iPad for every student) dramatically changed this nightmare.  Those students who had purchased the MLB app were able to watch the game and still others could follow it via Gametracker.  Still others were able to stream audio through the ESPN sports app.  So many individualized ways to follow the Giants.  In determining how I would follow this game, I realized I was a witness to a new era.  Technology had provided so many options.

But leadership in the school decided to take advantage of this technology and broadcast the game from a projector onto a huge screen in the gym for students to watch from the bleachers (during their lunch or resource periods).   Nearly 300 of us sat and watched Sergio Romo’s showdown against the heart of Cincy’s lineup.  In the middle of his epic battle against Jay Bruce, the principal entered the gym wearing a wild orange and black wig, a spirited contrast to his shirt and tie.  The crowd went wild, but not a wild as we saw the final out and realized the Giants did the unthinkable.  They came back to win three straight on the road.  In doing so they were crowned NLDS champions.  We hugged, jumped up and down, gave high fives and for the rest of the day felt the joy of victory.  Sharing it in this way made it that much sweeter.
My students were graced with the opportunity to learn great things in a variety of subjects in school last Thursday (and everyday).  But, I have no doubt many of them will remember coming together to watch a great game.  Amidst the hundreds of pitches thrown and balls fouled out, we shared stories, cracked jokes, I know I had to do breathing exercises to lower my heart rate and more.  It’s important to come together for life’s great moments—graduation, birthdays, baptisms and for the challenging ones too—a death, in illness, tragedy and beyond.  And yet some of those great and challenging moments need not be separate from something like sports.  Sports teams captures our hearts and affection, our hopes and our dreams.  If that’s not spiritual, I don’t know what is…

NB: Let me be very clear, when I raise the question "Why go to a game?" I am ever mindful of how lucky I am to even raise it.  I am grateful I can!  But I go because I never know what I will witness, what I will experience, who I might sit beside or run into.  I go because I can't leave the ballpark without being a witness to something spiritual--full of aching pain and delicious hope....

[1] Lawrence, Ian, “The Emergencey of Sport and Spirituality in Popular Culture’, http://www.thesportjournal.org/article/emergence-sport-and spirituality-popular-culture)

Monday, October 8, 2012

My Favorite Sight at AT&T Park: Will Clark #22

Hustling toward AT&T ballpark, my peripheral vision caught something I never see.  It’s a San Francisco Giants jersey with the number 21 on the back and the name “Kent” above it.  Jeff Kent was skilled second baseball with the Giants (1997-2002) before completing his hall of fame career with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Traitor.  I felt the need to capture this image only to immediately upload it on Facebook with the caption “things that should not be seen before NLDS Game 2.” I wish I hadn’t; that’s not a very spirited pregame message. 

Accentuate the positive; eliminate the negative—right?  Rather than posting what should not be seen or what I never see, I should have commented on what I love to see and often do at Giants games.  Go to any Giants game be it at home or on the road on any day of the year and I guarantee you will see the baseball jersey of my favorite ball player of all time Will “The Thrill” Clark. 
This past summer Giants productions created “Inside the Clubhouse: Will The Thrill” This hour long program featured video highlights, interviews with Giants in the late ‘80s and ‘90s and those veteran Giants today and the Thrill himself—at work as a hitting coach, with his family, in his office, fishing in Louisiana and in his role with the Giants today.

It was an hour of pure joy? bliss? enhanced engagement?  “The Machine” could have walked by and I would not have noticed.  I was reminded of why I, like so many San Francisco Giants fan hold this lefty near and dear to our hearts.  I could wax poetic about the 1989 NLCS MVP and the 1991 Rawlings Gold Glove winner, but I think those that worked or played with him say it best.

Former Giants GM, Al Rosen said, “If you had 25 Will Clarks, you would never have to worry about winning.”  No one would deny that Clark loves to win.  He said, “I didn’t walk out there to lose.  I walked out there to kick your ass everyday. I didn’t want to beat you a little.  I wanted to beat you a lot.  I wanted to stomp on ya!  And I wanted my teammates to want the same thing.”

It would be downright impossible for me not to be fired up by a teammate with that intensity and love for the game. His tenacity and passion made him a natural leader in the clubhouse.  Bud Black claimed, “A lot of his success came from his confidence as a player.” When asked if this was true, Bob Brenley replied,  “Confident?  Off the charts!  It was obvious to everyone that saw him he belonged in the big leagues.  He was arrogant but not in a negative way.   The kid knew he could play.” 
He made an impression from the start.  Most fans know that in his first major league at bat, he hit a high fastball from Nolan Ryan 400 feet over the fence in Centerfield at the Astrodome.  What I didn’t know is what Clark told his teammates in the dugout after he rounded the bases.   In his shrill, high-pitched voice he yelled “all right, let’s get some more!” loud enough for all of Houston to hear. That’s Will!

The program reveals that Clark wanted to “stay a Giant for all my life.” Unfortunately, he played at a time of no revenue sharing—Barry Bonds, Matt Williams were on the top of their games and Clark became the third man out.  He went to Texas, to Baltimore and retired at age 36 as a St. Louis Cardinal. 

Will said “If I’m going to go out, I’m going to go out on top.”  In his final season in MLB he helped the Cardinals make it to NLCS only to lose to the Mets.  It’s worth reporting that he batted in that series and completed his career with a lifetime batting average of near 500 in post-season play.

The Giants could have used a player like Will Clark in their line-up during the 2012 season and especially during Games 1-2 of the 2012 NLDS series.  Reflecting back on his 1989 post season performance against the Chicago Cubs he said “Believe it or not, there’s a lot of guys who when the bright lights come on, they don’t want the bat in their hands, or they don’t want the ball on the mound.  I was quite the opposite.  If there was a crucial or clutch moment—I wanted the bat.”  As Roger Craig said “He was a manager’s dream.”

Players like Will Clark don’t come around all that often, but when they do, hold on and savor it.  As I sat in my seat on Sunday night, I started to wonder what jersey Giants fans would wear years from now.  The MVP hopeful, #28 Buster Posey came to mind. 

Seeing the "Clark 22" jersey isn’t something I take for granted.   In a strange way, I feel connected to the people that wear one.  Being a fan of "Clark 22" means you love the game of baseball because you love one of its all time greats. 
Giants announcer and Clark’s former teammate Mike Krukow said,  “He is the best pure baseball player I’ve ever played with—instinctively, on the base paths, in the batter’s box. He had a sixth sense.  Truly, he was born to play baseball.”  

San Francisco, the Thrill ain't gone... Let's Go Giants!  

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Next to Jesus, Mike Trout IS the Most Interesting Man in the World...

I walked into Edison Field only to encounter hundreds of grown men and women wearing red foam fish on their heads.  These fans took to their feet with complete sincerity of purpose and total focus every time a certain ballplayer came to bat. This athlete, #27 for the Los Angeles Angels is however, not just any athlete. This centerfielder is the first rookie in MLB history to hit 30 home runs and steal 40 bases (he is currently at 35 bombs and 48 bags). He is being considered for not only Rookie of the Year, but American League Most Valuable Player of the Year. Move over Jonathan Goldsmith, Mike Trout is the most interesting man in the world…err baseball.

In the spirit of the Dos Equis advertising campaign, please imagine the Frontline narrator Will Lynam informing you of why this claim is true for Mike Trout in baseball.  And for what it’s worth, Goldsmith’s teaching "a German shepherd to bark in Russian," has nothing on this 21 year old from Millville, NJ.
  • Words are remiss. MLB scout, Greg Morhardt's scouting report said "Best athlete. Best player in the world--period. Best player on the planet."
  • He never swings at the first pitch. Ever. 
  • High School phone calls to his mother at 2:00 a.m. were made to report he bowled 300.
  • His childhood bat was the solid metal spoke to the steering wheel of a yacht.  Should America’s Cup reconsider its course?
  • He was once walked intentionally, with the bases loaded.
  • According to Major League Baseball, its’ goal is “to change the game without the game changing Mike Trout.”
  • This information is from the Sports Illustrated article, The Supernatural  
Time will only tell how the game changes this great player and in return how he will change the game. That’s what the world’s most interesting men and women do.

It’s a fun way to think of people in this way. If I taught Christology, I might have my students complete this assignment for Jesus the Christ. He changed water into wine, He rose from the dead, He was born of a virgin, gave sight to the blind and cured the lame. It’s quite a resume, no? It’s a “lower” view of how to think about Jesus….but when I really think about all that He did and stood for, I suppose there is no debate—He is the most interesting man in the world: yesterday, today and forever.

Photo Credits
Foam Trout