Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Our Time in the Holy Spirit: The Grey Ghosts of Fenway Park

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
20 June 2010
Alumni Weekend
Kent School, St. Joseph’s Chapel
The Reverend Jonathan A. Voorhees 

This morning, on this fourth Sunday of Pentecost, we celebrate two other events as well: Alumni Weekend and Father’s Day.  This is a day to remember your past, the important people in your own life—and our own fathers certainly.  Today is also a day to remember the graduates of Kent School who have died; those who passed through this school with you, or before you, but are no longer here. 

Alumni Weekend can be more than a little disorienting.  You may feel like you are in more than one place, or, more accurately, that you are in more than one time this weekend, on this campus that is both familiar and always changing.  You feel like you might bump into yourself just by turning a corner—that the past you is alive again.  The ancient world is very helpful when it comes to this powerful feeling of the multiple times we actually inhabit.  The Greeks understood the two concepts of time as Chronos and Kairos.  Chronos—where we get our word chronology—is the here and now, our conventional understanding of time’s passage.  Kairos is the time in the Spirit, the time and space where our ancestors dwell.  Jesus himself was deeply influenced by this dual vision of time as he talked about the coming of the Holy Spirit, after his death and resurrection.  In the Spirit he would always be with the disciples and the church.  He would abide with them, and he abides with us, in the time of the Spirit.  And so do all the faithful departed.  If you’ve ever felt a departed loved one brush against your present reality, you too have experienced the time of Kairos.  The Greeks believed that the Kairos and Chronos meet again and again, and the mediating experience of these two times is Love.  Love is the reality when all times come together, when our small frame of reference brushes up against eternity; when the majesty of God touches us and calls us by name.  
I thought about these two times, Chronos and Kairos, while taking my mother and brother from California to their first game at Fenway Park.  In sports, you sometimes hear people talking about “waking up the echoes.”  This phrase refers to the past coming alive by heroism in the present.  At Fenway the echoes are always awake; the stadium is both museum and a living, breathing ballpark.  You could wipe your eyes and not be surprised to see Ted Williams again in left field.  There are certainly nicer parks, but no ballpark hits me as deeply; even as we watched the non-traditional matchup of the National League’s Arizona Diamondbacks battle with today’s Boston Red Sox in the year 2010.  With Father’s Day approaching, the echoes were awake.  I thought of ball games I went to with my father; I remember every one of them.  At the game on Wednesday, I was both a child and a parent.  I also thought of the last time I had visited Fenway in the Fall of 2003.

Seven years ago, I traveled to Boston from my then home in Charlottesville, Virginia, just to see a ballgame.  It was the Red Sox against the Orioles, and the Red Sox won the game with an improbable rally in the ninth inning, after some of the fans had left the stadium.  I remember the game vividly because I was at an important point of transition in my life, one that would lead me from my work as a college chaplain to my home here at Kent School.  I also remember the trip because of the book I read on the short 24 hour journey.  It still has a special place in my heart, because of the changes in my life that seemed to follow with its crisply turning pages.  My travel companion was the small, beautiful book The Teammates, by David Halberstam.  After winning the Pulitzer Prize for journalism for his reporting on the Vietnam War, David Halberstam turned to sports, in particular baseball, for solace and healing.  In Halberstam baseball found the historian poet it has always deserved in the modern era.  Baseball found its Homer.  Halberstam wrote about baseball up until his tragic death in a car accident in the spring of 2007.
The book is about life and loss more than baseball in the 1940s.  It is about the joy of Christian love and its many faces.  The Teammates is the story of the unlikely friendship of four very different men: Johnny Pesky, Dominic DiMaggio, Bobby Doerr, and Ted Williams.  On the cover of the book, you can’t imagine looking into the faces of four more All-American men.  But look closer.  Like Jesus as he asks the question, “Who do you say that I am?”  Who are these four men?  They are, both individually and together, much more than meets the eye.  Three of the four men came from immigrant families.  Johnny Pesky, a truly great baseball name, was really Johnny Paveskovich, a son of Croatian immigrants who followed the American dream to Portland, Oregon, and tough work in the logging industry.  Pesky has been associated with the Red Sox for all of his adult life, in just about every capacity, including as manager in the 1960s.  He still serves as a consultant and instructor with the team at the age of 91.  

As far as Ted Williams goes, American icons don’t always tell you their inner secrets.  Ted Williams, the last man in baseball to hit .400, was Hispanic.  His mother was ½ Mexican.  His father was 100% alcoholic; there was no fraction there.  Williams never drank alcohol in his life, and he also never wore a tie.  He was his own man-- nobody owned him, not even the Red Sox.  Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky, and Dominic DiMaggio were all gentle and kind men who formed a nucleus of love and care around the most passionate, argumentative, driven, immature, curmudgeonly, and generous man you could possibly meet.  The other three became Red Sox saints who took care of a hitting demon.  They really learned to love their neighbor as themselves.  That’s what it means to be a teammate, and these four men knew it by heart.

The Depression formed each man and his outlook on life.  Each encountered prejudice and discrimination in life and baseball—they were strangers in the land, and all four were racially egalitarian--in a way that was far ahead of the times.  All four played the game with passion and desire and heart, knowing that other doors of opportunity in American life were shut and locked to them.  Johnny Paveskovich was taunted for being a dumb Pollack; Pesky wouldn’t hesitate to correct his dugout detractors.  But I’m Croatian.  At least get is right if you’re going to insult me. 

Dominic DiMaggio, the son of a fisherman from a tiny village near Palermo, overcame the greatest odds of the four men.  There once was a time in America when people who wore eyeglasses faced derision, and every stereotype imaginable, especially in athletics.  The press said Dominic looked like an “assistant professor of biology.”  Now what’s the matter with that?  His brother Joe (his real name was Giuseppe Paolo) was first called an exception to his race as an Italian American; then he was a credit.  Soon America stopped seeing that Joe DiMaggio had a race at all.  Dominic DiMaggio faced abuse that never even got around to his ethnicity.  Children with glasses, both boys and girls, looked at the small Italian “biology professor” and saw themselves in the mirror; he was their hero. 

Dominic DiMaggio was a great player, a .298 career batting average (same as Mickey Mantle)--and nearly as good a fielder as his brother in the same position for the rival Red Sox team.  But Dominic was also a great human being, a good and Christian man in comportment, and in creed.  Ted Williams was immediately drawn to Dominic’s inner strength.  In Dominic, the still waters ran deep.  He walked away from baseball with ease and started his own very successful manufacturing company.  He made his own fortune outside of baseball by anticipating the carpet that would eventually be used inside of automobiles.  He died at the age of 92 a little over a year ago, surrounded by his family in Marion, Massachusetts.

All four teammates served their country in World War II.  Ted Williams also served in the Korean War, again as a pilot with the Marine Corps, losing six years of his baseball career to military service.  He never complained about that; none of them ever complained.  How different is our own era.  Williams was very much aware that many Americans had lost much more than six baseball seasons.  But the book The Teammates is not really about glory and fame, or even baseball, not really.  It is about friendship and Christian love at its tender best, of discovering and embracing your neighbor.  The subtitle for the book is A Portrait of a Friendship.  From the first pages, it is clear what is at the heart of the Red Sox order: These four men love each other.  And they have cared for each other for over sixty years, through thick and thin.  The book is about the occasion of their last gathering: the visit with Ted Williams just before his death.  The most moving scenes of The Teammates are with Dominic DiMaggio and Ted Williams.  On his death bed, Ted Williams asked his friend why this was happening.  He didn’t understand why he was going to die, and couldn’t imagine the time in the Spirit, the Kingdom of God we know, dimly, in the experience of human love.  Dominic had buried his brother Joe just a few years before, and he gave his fellow outfielder the only answer he knew by heart. 

“Teddy, we’re all dealt a hand, and we don’t really understand the hand we’ve been given.  None of us do, but we do the best we can, for all of our lives.  The whole world is proud of the way you played the hand you were given and of what you’ve done with your life.”

The final scene between the two men still rises, like a tender gale; it is the human heart in extra innings.  Dominic DiMaggio’s last visit with Ted Williams ended with Dominic singing a song in his baritone voice: a song of farewell for his cranky friend.  Teddy, I’m going to sing you a song.”  Dominic sang an old Italian love song about two best friends.  One friend is in love with a girl, but he doesn’t know what to do about it, how to tell her.  So he confides in his best friend, and the friend steals the girl away.  Dominic called it: “I Love Her, But I Don’t Know How To Tell Her.”  Teddy sat up with the song, for the last time, clapping his hands like a little boy.  He made his friend sing it again: “I Love Her, But I Don’t Know How To Tell Her.” 

In the end, Dominic DiMaggio had found a way to tell ornery Ted Williams that he loved him.  Death can’t change a word that Immortal Love has written in our hearts, the place where all time comes together again.  I wouldn’t worry too much about the labels that divide the church, our society, and this world right now: Democrat or Republican, Christian or Muslim, even, God help us, Red Sox or Yankee.   You can cut through all of these boundaries, every one of them, just as Jesus did; by loving “…the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.”  The second commandment is like unto it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  It really doesn’t matter what you call yourself, or what others call you.  The question is this: Are you living out each day the best of what’s in your heart before God?  Because that’s all that matters today and in the end.  Remember that as we take the field today at old Fenway Park: it’s a great day for baseball.  So sing a song out there.  Let’s play two.  Happy Alumni Weekend.  Happy Father’s Day.  May God bless all of you.

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