Tuesday, October 16, 2012

“The Gospel of the Bullpen”

16 October 2012
Chapel Talk
The Reverend Jonathan A. Voorhees
St. Joseph’s Chapel, Kent School

            This is the first of two baseball chapel talks this week.  Dr. Green from the Science Department is taking the mound on Thursday, and I’m taking the hill for the opener this morning.  
One of the most frequent messages in chapel talks at Kent School is the advice to take advantage of your opportunities.  Take advantage of all your opportunities.  I have heard this encouragement offered in St. Joseph’s Chapel countless times, by both students and faculty members.  The lesson has never gotten old; it is something like the gospel of Kent School.  When you arrive at Kent, a window of possibility opens.  It seems like the window will be open for a long time, but the days and weeks and months and years of a high school career come very fast.  A first indicator has come and gone.  You have a limited amount of time to make choices about how to respond to this open window in your life, and what you will become is predicated on the choices you make.  There are so many forms of regret—academic, athletic, social—that can come with these choices.  I have learned at this stage in my own life that I don’t get to follow all of my dreams; I have to choose.  I don’t have forever on this planet. 
            As I reflected on what it means to follow your dreams—and what it means to choose your dreams, I thought about my experience as a minor league baseball chaplain.  I was the chaplain of a team called the Ogden Raptors (named during your dinosaur phase) which played in Ogden, Utah, as a member of the Pioneer League.  I did this for two seasons, in 1994 and 1995, and it was a unique experience--one that allowed me to collect so many stories—to pluck stories like grapes, few of which I can share in chapel this morning.  It is sometimes said that someone who often uses profanity “swears like a sailor.”  Or a longshoreman, if you know any.  But I am here to correct these comparisons and similes: Sailors and longshoremen instead swear like ballplayers.  I have never heard more profanity in my life, not to mention the disturbing, demented, immature, profane, and sometimes hilarious discussions about everything under the sun—ranging philosophical discussions that took place on the bus, in the locker room, during batting practice, and even during the game as well.  In baseball, the chatter never stops; from the inane to the sublime to the philosophical to the anatomical, and around the bases we go again.  I went on two road trips with the Raptors, and I’ll never be the same, like a sailor after he first crosses the equator.  I was like an anthropologist, like Margaret Mead, or rather like Indiana Jones, studying primitive culture.  And I was grateful for the stories I got to collect, like souvenir baseballs in batting practice—they were scuffed and beautiful prizes. 
            So what can I share in chapel about my experience as a minor league baseball chaplain?  I can share the lesson about the courage it takes to follow your lifelong dreams, all the way to the end; how to persevere in the face of adversity, and how to keep going when no one else believes in you.  Every minor league baseball player has the dream of being a major league baseball player.  Minor league players are working hard to get by financially, playing for love more than anything, and a last chance at a dream. 
The Ogden Raptors played in single A baseball, but the Raptors were, then, an independent team.  They had no affiliation with a major league club; they are now with the Arizona Diamondbacks.  Most of the Raptor players had never been drafted, and the majority of them were former college players short on talent, but big on dreams; it was the proud domain of the underdog.  The players followed their dreams out in the open; they were willing to fail out in the open.  Baseball is a game that makes you tougher with failure, because failure is normal.  If you fail 70% of the time as a hitter, you’re doing very well; you’re hitting .300.  Getting rid of your fear of failure for many of you is the greatest obstacle.  And if you haven’t failed at anything, you haven’t tried anything very hard.  Most of the players on the Ogden club were playing the last year of baseball in their lives.  
One of my jobs as the chaplain for the Ogden Raptors was preaching a sermon for the home and visiting teams before Sunday evening games.  These baseball chapels took place in the bullpen.  Preaching in the bullpen.  Was this the high point of my career or the descent into hell, the inferno of Dante?  Actually I found it very poetic, heavenly, warming up with words in the bullpen, back and forth like a game of catch.  One of these sermons was documented in the poorly selling non-fiction book Minor Players, Major Dreams, by Brett Mandel.  In the book, Mr. Mandel, who clearly needed a fact checker (or a pair of eyes), said I was wearing Birkenstock sandals while preaching.  Just because I’m from California doesn’t mean that I own a pair of Birkenstocks.  And even if I did, which I don’t, I wouldn’t wear them to a ballgame.  It was pure libel.  I did the Christian thing.  I forgave him, but it was difficult.   
But I loved preaching in the bullpen, which is why I was delighted recently to find a book called The Bullpen Gospels, by Dirk Hayhurst, a long time minor league player who was just about ready to quit baseball.  He had made it as high as AAA for a few weeks, but he begins the season of the book in A ball, a huge disappointment.  He is ready to hang ‘em up.  The state of his dreams is seemingly watched by the Grim Reaper; his dreams are about to die.  From The Bullpen Gospels. 
“It’s hard to pitch with fear.  It was as if baseball’s Grim Reaper was watching every time I took the mound.  Most of the time he’d show up in little incarnations, like a black cat or a double that landed exactly on the foul line just when I thought I was going to have a clean outing.  Lately though, it seemed as if the Baseball Reaper had season tickets for the front row to every park I played in.’
‘Other guys began to see the Grim Reaper as well.  Haunted and paranoid, we strugglers took refuge in the rear of the bullpen discussing what we’d do after being released.  I told everyone I was going to join the circus because it’d remind me of life in the minors.  Another guy said he was going to become an executioner because at least he’d feel like he was getting even.”
 But Dirk doesn’t quit.  He doesn’t quit because of his family.  His family is far from perfect; they are terribly unhappy.  Dirk’s father can barely walk after falling off the roof in an accident, and Dirk was the one who found him.  It’s a miracle that his father can even walk, but he has no feeling in his hands and feet.  His father suffers from serious depression, and he has been fired from his most recent job.  Dirk’s mother works the graveyard shift to pay the bills.  His brother is an alcoholic who lives at home with the two unhappy parents.  When drunk, he regularly beats up his mother and father.  When Dirk intervenes, his brother beats up Dirk instead.  Dirk fears that his brother will kill one of them someday.  When Dirk calls the police during one horrific night, his parents are angry at him.  So Dirk tries to funnel his own anger and frustration into baseball.  He tries to change his family with his athletic success, but it’s an impossible makeover, an elusive alchemy.  Why is he even trying?              
There are many wonderful stories in The Bullpen Gospels.  You get to collect them when you chase a great dream.  Two of the most moving stories involve a homeless man and a severely disabled boy in a wheelchair that Dirk seeks out after a ballgame.  Dirk volunteers at a homeless shelter, and he ends up trading his shoes with a homeless man who lost all his money because of his wife’s medical bills.  His wife ended up dying anyway.  It’s a powerful encounter, one that gives Dirk healing and hope.  In the other story, the boy at the ballpark is so incapacitated; he can’t even accept the simple baseball that Dirk is offering him.  The two stories remind Hayhurst of how hard it is to give and receive love in his own family.  But the gospel of the bullpen begins to be born in just these moments; as Dirk’s dreams start to include other people.  They become about more than just about himself, and making the major leagues (he does make it by the way…for the Toronto Blue Jays, briefly).  But the absolute hardest thing he has to do all season is forgive his brother who begins to put his life back together in rehabilitation and AA meetings.  It is not easy to forgive him.  Dirk also lets go of failure; failure is no longer the measurement of his worth as a person. We’re so much more than that as human beings, and what we overcome is more important than what we achieve.  Dirk begins to pitch without fear, and he accepts the final results because he is giving his very best, without any fear at all.  When he lets go of his fear of failure, anything is possible.  He is finally at peace, no matter the results.  That’s a powerful feeling.     
The window of opportunity is open now for this year in your life; and a new indicator is here with the baseball playoffs underway, and my beloved San Francisco Giants still in the autumn hunt.  I love Buster Posey, but who doesn’t?  How we respond to our opportunities is more than how we honor our gifts, talents, and abilities.  It is how we honor God, and how we honor each other as children of God, as the human family.  When this year began, many of you felt like strangers to each other.  Now you know you’re not alone.  You are making friends for life.  No one will replace them, just like your own brothers and sisters (and dog).  Find and follow your own dreams.  But don’t be surprised if you start to dream dreams for other people, and to help those around you in your life find their true path.  With love, with faith, and without fear.               

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