Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Does America Need a Civics Lesson?

Freedom of speech and the First Amendment are a testament to America’s greatness, a declaration of confidence in our system of governance and our institutions of democracy. Recent public displays of anger over passage of health care reform, however, portend a perilous moment in our nation’s history. Death threats against Members of Congress, broken windows and acts of vandalism, a cut propane line at the home of a targeted congressman’s brother, and other acts of intimidation bordering on violence, signifies that we may be relinquishing our capacity for civic engagement. Among the most hurtful displays of vitriolic outbursts were the racial epithets shouted at Representative John Lewis, among the most dignified and honorable leaders of the civil rights movement, and the homophobic slurs against openly gay Congressman Barney Frank.

The history of nonviolent protest in the United States, from the woman’s suffrage movement to civil rights and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, have inspired positive social change and reforms to unjust government policies. But when peaceful demonstrations cross the line into mob rule, when an African American Congressman from Missouri, Emanuel Cleaver, is spat upon by a grotesque and disgraceful display of venomous immaturity, there is something wrong with the body politic.

I understand those who share a passion for politics and who feel strongly about issues of importance. The art of politics, the thrill of debate, the intellectual give-and-take of verbal combat – while not for everyone – are notions I embrace. On some issues, on matters of conscious, when injustice is perceived, public demonstrations in an effort to move public opinion or influence the vote of a Senator are shining examples of democracy and a resounding proclamation of the freedoms we all share. But the ugliness on display in the recent past, especially when wrapped in shades of racism and homophobia and a false patriotism disguising a xenophobic nationalism – are detrimental to democratic values, to republican ideals, and to robust citizenship.

Incivility is distasteful regardless of its political stripes. I was in law school in 1981, when just ten blocks away President Reagan and White House aide James Brady were shot (Brady paralyzed for life) by a mentally disturbed gunman. When news accounts first reported that Reagan had survived, I winced at and denounced a classmate who “joked” that she wished the gunman’s aim had been more accurate. The remark was humorless and shameful. Although I had opposed the election of Ronald Reagan several months earlier, on March 30, 1981, he was our elected President and, not unlike the Kennedy assassination, the attempt on Reagan’s life was a near tragedy from which this nation would have suffered greatly. I also was disturbed at left wing critics who suggested that President Reagan, and later President George W. Bush, were modern versions of Hitler, or were fascists and other historical inaccuracies.

So, I recognize that the current state of affairs, the belittling and degrading attacks on President Obama and Nancy Pelosi, Barney Frank and John Lewis, are not exclusive to Republicans or Tea Party activists (though I find it laughable that anyone could equate Obama with Hitler – please, go back to school and read a history book). But the acts of violence, the insane level of anger displayed during the protests on Capitol Hill this past weekend have reached heightened and potentially dangerous levels. I hope that Frank Rich of the New York Times is wrong when he suggests, “To find a prototype for the overheated reaction to the health care bill, you have to look . . . to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” A historic piece of legislation that outlawed racial and other forms of discrimination at public establishments and businesses affecting interstate commerce, it was impugned as a “threat to the very essence of our basic system” by the Republican nominee for President, Barry Goldwater, while Richard Russell, the Democratic senator from Georgia and a staunch segregationist, said the bill “would destroy the free enterprise system.” Although history has proved these statements absurd, the right wing and segregationist opponents of the law exhibited much hysteria in attempting to persuade the populace that civil rights laws would destroy America. The issues are different, but much of today's rhetoric sounds all too familiar.

It appears that much of the feverish excitement these past several months has very little to do with the proposed changes to our health care system. Do the Tea Party protesters really oppose requiring insurance companies to permit parents to keep their sons and daughters on their health plans until age 26? Do they really want insurance companies to deny coverage to children with pre-existing conditions? Are they opposed to tax credits for small businesses? Or is something else at work, something more sinister, an awakening of a repressed and dark resentment of the changing face of American society. “It’s not happenstance that Frank, Lewis and Cleaver – none of them major players in the health care push – received a major share of last weekend’s abuse,” wrote Rich in The Times op-ed piece. “When you hear demonstrators chant the slogan, ‘Take our country back!,’ these are the people they want to take the country back from.”

That Representative Steve King, Republican of Iowa, shouted to a group of Tea Partiers, “Let’s beat the other side to a pulp!” and that Representative Randy Neugebauer, a conservative Republican from Texas, shouted “baby killer” at pro-life congressman Bart Stupak of Michigan on the House floor on Sunday night, attests to the sad state of affairs of American politics. John McCain, who ran for president on the slogan, “Country First,” now proclaims a vow of “no cooperation for the rest of the year.” As Steny Hoyer of Maryland said, “Democracy can’t survive unless we can have a civil society in which debate is open and free and unfettered.” But a civil society implies that we listen respectfully to the other side and respond appropriately. It does not involve death threats and rocks, racist slurs and spit.

Peaceful protest, vigorous debate, creative expression, and public statements of persuasion are the fuel upon which a healthy democracy thrives. When public anger turns to mob rule; when stones are thrown through windows of congressional offices; when a Member of Congress, Bart Stupak, feels compelled to refer 50 death threats to the FBI because he voted for legislation that expands health care for the uninsured; and when John Lewis, who forty years ago withstood near fatal beatings and vicious verbal attacks in fighting for equal rights for black Americans, is called racist names because he wants all Americans, black and white, rich and poor, to have access to health care, we are in trouble as a country. It is time for the leadership of both parties to stand up and put an end to angry distortions and rhetoric that encourages violence.

It is entirely possible to engage in aggressive and spirited debate, yet acknowledge that, as fellow Americans, you and your opponent share equally in love of country. Were he alive today, I believe that Ronald Reagan would have denounced the recent bad behavior. While he often sparred publicly with Tip O’Neil and Ted Kennedy, he (and they) never lost cite of their common citizenship.

Treating those with whom you disagree as the Enemy is so much easier than seeing the other side as friends and neighbors, brothers and sisters, fellow citizens whose views merely differ on an issue. With all of the problems confronting the United States and the world today, will there be a time when liberals and conservatives, Tea Partiers and Coffee Drinkers, talk, listen, and work together to find common ground? For the future of our country, I hope that day comes soon.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Has Glenn Beck Lost It or Is He Always This Ignorant?

I do not generally pay much attention to Glenn Beck. On the few occasions I have stumbled across his show, I have usually changed the channel within a minute or two, genuinely perplexed that anyone can take this man seriously. But a Glenn Beck expert I am not. Perhaps he occasionally voices a good idea; I have simply yet to hear one from him.

Beck recently told his listeners that they should leave their faith communities if their church website, or priest or pastor, mentions the word “social justice.” As I believe that churches should pay more, not less, attention to issues of justice, Beck’s statement caught my attention. Figuring there must be some mistake, I decided to see what he actually said. Here it is:
Social justice was the rallying cry – economic justice and social justice – the rallying cry on both the communist front and the fascist front. That is not an American idea. And if we don’t get off the social justice / economic justice bandwagon, if you are not aware of what this is, you are in grave danger. All of our faiths – my faith, your faith – whatever your church is, this is infecting all of them.
Beck added that to “preach social justice” is a “perversion of the gospel” and that if you find the words “social justice” or “economic justice” on a church website, “run as fast as you can. . . . they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes!”

Not surprisingly, Beck’s statements offended the sensibilities of a very large number of people who consider themselves Christian – those aligned with the Catholic Church, the Mainline Protestant churches, the historically Black churches, and a growing number of Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, including many congregations with Asian-American and Hispanic majorities. All of these churches, at the leadership and congregational levels, consider social and economic justice essential components of biblical faith. Within just a few days of Beck’s comments, more than 30,000 Christian pastors and church members had written to Beck declaring themselves Christians who believe in social justice and asking Beck to reconsider his statements.

That social and economic justice are essential to the heart of the Christian faith is not really a debatable topic, however deficient individual Christians and churches often are in applying the concept. For example, a social statement of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) declared in 1991 in a document entitled, “The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective,” that: “In faithfulness to its calling, this church is committed to defend human dignity, to stand with poor and powerless people, to advocate justice, to work for peace, and to care for the earth in the processes and structures of contemporary society.” Consistent with this premise, the ELCA actively advocates before the U.S. Congress and other governmental bodies for the needs of the poor and the powerless, for increased foreign aid, and for human rights. So does the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ, the Quakers (through the American Friends Service Committee), the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., the Church of the Brethren, the Episcopal Church U.S.A., and many other denominations as diverse in their theology as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Association of Evangelicals.

The Catholic Church, in particular, has been at the forefront in advancing the causes of economic and social justice. The 1986 pastoral letter on Economic Justice issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops declared that:

Society as a whole, acting through public and private institutions, has the moral responsibility to enhance human dignity and protect human rights. In addition to the clear responsibility of private institutions, government has an essential responsibility in this area. This does not mean that government has the primary or exclusive role, but it does have a positive moral responsibility in safeguarding human rights and ensuring that the minimum conditions of human dignity are met for all. In a democracy, government is a means by which we can act together to protect what is important to us and to promote our common values.
Even the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, to which Beck belongs, has declared that “caring for the poor” is one of its four primary missions, on an equal footing with preaching the gospel. As noted by Mormons for Equality and Social Justice, the Book of Mormon teaches that “there should be an equality among all” (Mosiah 27:3) and calls its followers to stand against racism, gender inequity, and injustice on the principle that “black and white, bond and free, male and female...all are alike unto God” (2 Nephi 26:33). It speaks harshly against inequity, exploitation, oppression, and violence (2 Nephi 20:1-2; 3 Nephi 24:5; D&C 38:26; Moses 8:28), and teaches that human beings are stewards of the earth and its resources, which should be used “with judgment, not to excess” (D&C 59:20). I am no Mormon, but this sounds pretty “social justicey” to me, Glenn.

Christians, of course, differ greatly among themselves about what social and economic justice mean when translated into political terms. But as liberal evangelical preacher Jim Wallis said in response to Beck’s ranting, “the Bible is clear: from the Mosaic law of Jubilee, to the Hebrew prophets, to Jesus Christ, social justice is an integral part of God’s plan for humanity.”
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, For the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; Defend the rights of the poor and needy.
Proverbs 31:8-9.
Although Beck apparently did not address his comments to the Jewish community, the primary branches of American Judaism also embrace – often more explicitly than many Christian denominations – the concept of social justice as essential to its tradition and faith. After all, most of the biblical mandates on justice stem from the words of the Hebrew prophets, found in the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Micah, among others; from the five books of the Torah; and from the books of Proverbs and Psalms. The concepts of tzedakah ("the religious obligation to perform charity and philanthropic acts"), chesed ("deeds of kindness"), and tikkun olam ("repairing the world"), place Judaism at the vanguard of religious social justice movements.

The ethic of Christian love and justice found in the New Testament Gospels is merely an extension and application of the justice portrayed and mandated in the Hebrew Scriptures and espoused by the Hebrew prophets. In Matthew 25, for example, Jesus speaks of the hungry, the homeless, the outcast, and the stranger and challenges his followers that, “As you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.” All four gospels instruct and demonstrate the clear, and sometimes radical, call for social and economic justice, for peace, for non-violence, for loving one’s neighbor, and welcoming the stranger.

Last week, in a respectful and well-stated letter, the Rev. Jim Wallis invited Beck to engage in an “open and public discussion on what social justice really means and how Christians are called to engage in the struggle for justice.” Wallis requested that they have “a civil dialogue and not engage in personal attacks on each other – which are never helpful in trying to sort out what is true.” Instead, he thought it important to sit down together and to “talk about the heart of the matter.” Beck, of course, would have none of it. He responded with threats, informing Wallis that “the hammer is coming, because little do you know, for eight weeks, we’ve been compiling information on you, your cute little organization, and all the other cute little people that are with you. And when the hammer comes, it’s going to be hammering hard and all through the night, over and over….”

Wallis reiterated that he will not engage in personal attacks on Beck, and he renewed his call for an honest and civil dialogue bereft of personal attacks. Beck again was unmoved and promised to devote an entire week of his program to exposing Wallis and the Christian “social justice” community as nothing but radical Marxists hell-bent on perverting the Bible.

Beck simply knows nothing about which he is talking. Having grown up the son of a Lutheran minister, I have personally known many Christian clergy, theologians, and committed church members, all of whom would agree that social, economic, and racial justice are integral to the message of Jesus; and not one of them is a Marxist. How anyone can read the scriptures or examine the life and teachings of Jesus and not sense that justice, mercy, and compassion – particularly to the vulnerable, poor, and marginalized – are essential to the Christian and Jewish faiths, is either ignorant, illiterate, or both.

The only people who should leave their churches or synagogues are those who believe that justice is not an integral part of their faith traditions. Justice is the very foundation of God’s creation. Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; love and faithfulness go before you. Psalm 89:14. Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. Isaiah 1:17. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:8. To practice justice is to act with love for all of God’s creation. Any faith community that rejects this concept has no reason for being. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., declared, “A religion true to its nature must also be concerned about man’s social conditions. . . . Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men [and women] and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion. Such a religion is the kind the Marxists like to see – an opiate of the people.”

What Glenn Beck seems incapable of understanding – unless he is a complete fraud – is that, for people of faith, an essential component of bearing witness to God’s love – whether inspired by the Hebrew prophets or the life and teachings of Jesus – is working to advance the causes of peace and justice. God’s mandate, as expressed throughout the Bible, is helping those in need. Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream. Amos 5:24. Often this is carried out by individual acts of charity. But while charity involves individual acts of justice, it does not amount to societal justice, which often requires a change in the social order. When the Church in its institutional capacity reaches out to help a person in need without acting to change the conditions which caused that need, it implies an acceptance of things as they are. The status quo is not acceptable, however, if there is a shortage of decent housing and medical care, if children are dying of starvation and disease, if innocent people in foreign lands are maimed or killed by landmines, or if the world is beset with war and violence. Christianity and Judaism command its followers to reject complacency and to do whatever one can to change conditions for the better. Sometimes this requires demanding more from our government and our large private institutions; if charity alone were sufficient, there would be no need for wider action.

Beck’s ignorance may be, in part, a reflection of the religious illiteracy of American society. I am often astonished at the lack of knowledge – on the right and the left – of the history, distinctions, diversity and complexity of American religious life. To equate social justice with Nazism or fascism, or to state that it has nothing to do with biblical faith, suggests only that Beck knows not of what he speaks. So, Mr. Beck, believe what you like and worship wherever you feel most comfortable. But when it comes to telling others what to do or believe, you may first wish to consult with the leadership and teachings of your faith tradition. You may even want to try reading the Bible sometime. But please do not expect anyone with a sound mind or a semblance of faith to listen to you.

Friday, March 12, 2010

A Wittenberg Moment: Looking Back and Moving Ahead

Every few years the Wittenberg University Choir passes through town as part of a tour through the northeastern United States. Andrea and I saw them perform this past Saturday night at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Ardmore, Pennsylvania. For those who have never seen or heard the Wittenberg Choir, they are world class, as good as any university choir you are likely to see, on a par with St. Olaf and Concordia and many of the other great college choirs.

I have seen the Wittenberg Choir perform several times over the years, and every time I leave feeling blessed, spiritually uplifted and culturally enriched. The collective sounds of these young people’s voices are beautiful, a mosaic of harmony and acoustic perfection. And while they always sound glorious, on Saturday they were really quite spectacular.

The music on this night was mostly religious and traditional, with classical and spiritual overtones. They performed three songs – Ubi Caritas, O magnum Mysterium, and Sanctus – in Latin, singing Still wie die Nacht in German, and Bogoroditse Devo in Russian. During their performance of When I Survey the Wondrous Cross (arranged by Gilbert Martin), I turned and noticed Andrea overcome with emotion, struck by the beauty and power of the moment. At the end of the concert, the choir enclosed the audience in a large circle and sang The Benediction by Knut Nystedt. Although each choir member stood alone, together they formed an elaborate sound of quadraphonic wholeness. Earlier that evening, in Calling My Children Home (arranged by Joseph Jennings), they sang the words with such deep feeling it could not help but penetrate one's heart:
Those lives were mine to love and cherish, To guard and guide along life’s way./O God, forbid that one should perish, That one alas should go astray./Back in the years with all together, Around the place we’d romp and play./So lonely now, I often wonder, O will they come back home some day?/I’m lonesome for my precious children, They live so far away./O may they hear my calling And come back home someday./I gave my all for my dear children, Their problems still with love I share./I’d brave life’s storms, defy the tempest To bring them home from anywhere./I lived my life, my love I gave them, To guide them through this world of strife./I hope and pray we’ll live together In that great glad hereafter life./I’m lonesome for my precious children, They live so far away./O may they hear my calling And come back home someday.
For someone like me, who grew up listening mostly to folk, pop, and rock music, the sounds emanating from this modest amalgam of young voices was impressively diverse and expansive. The night was in part a tribute to Dr. Donald Busarow, who is completing a journey enveloping 28 years as choir director and 35 years as a professor of music theory and composition, and who is stepping down as only the fourth director in the choir’s 80-year history.

I left Wittenberg nearly 30 years ago, though in many ways it never left me and continues to occupy a warm place in my heart. Founded in 1845 by German immigrants, Wittenberg sits on a stunningly beautiful campus in southern Ohio, spreading its wings over 120 acres of lush grounds. The biggest negative to Wittenberg’s draw is its location in the city of Springfield, a once proud industrial town of the old rust belt, formerly home to a major International Harvester plant, but now host to unemployed factory workers and a stagnant service industry. Surrounded by farmland, the area is a mixture of northern Kentucky and central New Jersey. There is very little to do in Springfield, but that never mattered much during the four years that I was there. Wittenberg was everything to me then, its grand brick buildings and majestic trees overlooking its rolling hills of green grass, brick walkways, and well tended flowerbeds.

Perhaps I so appreciated the Wittenberg Choir on Saturday night because I have often considered my time there as among the best four years of my life. As I think back on it, I have difficulty remembering a single bad day. Life was fun and fulfilling, the days vivid and fresh, friendships came easy, and I never felt alone. On the night of graduation, while others celebrated, I quietly cried, anguished by the thought that life would never be as free and easy again. I loved Wittenberg and knew even then that it was an experience never to be replicated in life’s subsequent stages. Yet as I sat in the pews of St. Paul’s church, I could not remember once having seen the choir perform during my years at Wittenberg. Sometimes we appreciate only later in life the things we so often overlooked in the past.

In reality, there has been so much more to life since I left college. I headed to Washington, D.C., and later to Philadelphia, places full of history and culture and excitement. I became an accomplished lawyer and prosecutor. I have met sons and daughters of important people, worked alongside men and women who hailed from the best schools, and involved myself in interesting and fulfilling work. I have been introduced to the worlds of politics and law, art and theater, differing cultures and religions, things I had overlooked or not been exposed to in humble Springfield. I embraced a larger world, which in its splendor sometimes fails to acknowledge the simple and gentle confines of places like Wittenberg.

I have few regrets over the paths I have chosen and choices I have made, and I realize that, in some respects, I may have outgrown Wittenberg – when I graduated in 1981, I was ready to move on – but part of me never left. When I spotted the Wittenberg banner upon entering the church narthex on Saturday night, and set my eyes on the bright red and white gowns of the Wittenberg Choir, I felt a rush of pride about where my Wittenberg journey has led me in life and my connection to this grand place. I felt at home.

To this day, when I think of Wittenberg, I feel an occasional twinge of sadness, a longing for the days of my youth, when my whole life stood before me, my dreams unlimited, and my ideals untainted. I know now that constantly looking back serves no useful purpose. If I had the chance to live life over again, I would certainly do some things differently. I would, for one, not take time and relationships for granted, and I would be more open to new experiences, to travel, and to taking risks in life. But there is very little I would change about Wittenberg and my experiences there. Living in the present is healthier and more productive, the only way truly to live. I know that I am blessed – with my health, my family, my children, with Andrea, my career, and my faith, however tenuous and imperfect it may be.

It is due in no small part to my days at Wittenberg, the things I learned, the growth I experienced, the confidence I gained, that today I am so blessed. If my children can experience in their college years even half of the joy, the fun, the learning, and the sense of fulfillment that I found during my four years at Wittenberg, I will sleep soundly knowing they are on the right path, journeying forward to a life complete.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Hint of Spring

People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring. -- Rogers Hornsby

As we approach the final weeks of winter, I glance from the upstairs window of my home in Horsham and see snow-covered yards and rooftops, icicles hanging from gutters, and brown, worn, tired-looking Oak trees, cold and naked, betraying not a hint of spring. The cold winds of March have arrived early this year, the winter chill stalking the Pennsylvania air, refusing to allow the sun’s warmth to penetrate the ground below.

I am thus especially grateful for the start of spring training, the annual baseball ritual when teams ready themselves for a new season, each club beginning with a fresh slate and a zero in the loss column. Pitchers and catchers reported to camp in mid-February, followed by position players a week later. It is at this time each year I discern from a distance the first signs of spring, the sounds of baseballs popping into the webbings of catcher’s mitts, the smell of grass accompanying a cool breeze and blinding sky over green and ordered fields. Spring training is when rookies and prospects compete for a spot on their teams and a chance to fulfill lifelong dreams; when aging veterans struggle to prolong their careers, work on their timing and condition their bodies to minimize the chance of injury and elude, for one more year, the inevitable decline of their natural skills.

With the sun brightening the Florida and Arizona skies and casting summer-like shadows over the cozy ballparks of the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues, players condition their arms, hone their fielding skills, run wind sprints, and take endless rounds of batting practice. In March, they play a month of exhibition games, primarily to allow pitchers adequate time to build endurance and get their arms into season-ready condition, while the position players bide their time for when the real play begins. The outcomes of these games are meaningless, and it is the one time of year I can follow the Cardinals calmly, enjoy the game’s slow, steady rhythms, and connect with a simpler time, when baseball was played in the daytime in small, intimate ballparks like Ebbets Field and Sportsman Park, where fans could practically reach out and touch the players.

I look forward to spring training every year, in part because it grants me a visual escape from winter, and in part because it fuels my enthusiasm for the upcoming baseball season and gives me permission to study the rosters, check out the new additions and promising rookies. It permits me to live vicariously through the lives of men who, though half my age, I somehow equate to older brothers, as if time and perceptions have stood still since I was twelve years old.

The start of spring training allows me to indulge in the annual baseball previews, to study the scouting reports of opposing teams, analyze the expected starting lineups and pitching rotations, and evaluate the depth of each team’s bullpen. It allows me to examine the schedules and visualize the early season games; to note when and where the Cardinals play in April; and to plan and prepare for their arrival to Philadelphia – this year, four games in early May – when my anxiety levels will surely increase as I experience war-time rushes of adrenaline when crossing enemy lines into Citizens Bank Park.

Spring training causes me a certain amount of mental anguish as well, as I worry about things over which I have no control – the health of Chris Carpenter’s shoulder and Kyle Lohse’s forearm, and the proffered terms of Albert Pujols’ contract extension. I’ll worry, too, about whether Colby Rasmus will hit left-handed pitching this year, and whether Ryan Franklin can repeat his All-Star performance at the back end of the bullpen. I could go on, but unless you are a true baseball fan, one with a lifelong, unending passion for a particular team, I am afraid you may not understand, or worse, even care.

It is difficult to explain to a non-fan why I care so much about baseball in general and the Cardinals in particular – perhaps only other fans can truly appreciate my distorted priorities. Roger Angell, the long-time literary editor of the The New Yorker, came close when he wrote in Five Seasons (Bison Books, 2004):

It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitative as a professional sports team, and the amused superiority and icy scorn that the non-fan directs at the sports nut (I know this look -- I know it by heart) is understandable and almost unanswerable. Almost. What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring -- caring deeply and passionately, really caring -- which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives. And so it seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved. Naiveté -- the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the haphazardous flight of a distant ball -- seems a small price to pay for such a gift.
There is a scene in Fever Pitch, the 2005 romantic comedy starring Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore, which captures, painfully and humorously, Angell’s meaning. Ben, a Boston schoolteacher and, let’s just say, committed Red Sox fan, is asked by his girlfriend Lindsay to accompany her on a short business trip to Paris. Ben’s initial reaction is excited anticipation, until he realizes she means this weekend . . . when the Mariners are in town for a crucial series with the Sox. Ben hems and haws and suggests it may not be such a convenient time for him, that he is really busy with, well, things. Lindsay quickly realizes Ben’s “dilemma” -- flying to Paris would require him to miss the next three Red Sox games. Lindsay understandably reacts as one would expect (without giving anything away, she is not happy). Even though she is by now well aware of Ben’s over-the-top affection for the Red Sox, she cannot comprehend the degree to which Ben’s identity and everyday existence revolves around his favorite baseball team. No matter how hard she tries, she cannot fully appreciate “summer guy” Ben, who falls a bit short, in her view, of “winter guy” Ben. “You don't see us tangled up in the sheets with the Eiffel Tower in the background,” she exclaims, “You see the Mariners are coming in, and Pedro's pitching Friday.” Ben immediately corrects her, “No. On Saturday, Schilling’s on Friday.”

I sadly confess that, when I first saw this scene, for one brief moment, I knew exactly how Ben felt. Don’t get me wrong, if I ever had the opportunity to go to Paris on a whim with the woman of my dreams – even if it meant missing Carpenter and Wainwright pitching in a crucial series – I would suck it up and go to Paris. Well, as long as it wasn’t the playoffs, or the final series of the season with the fate of the division title on the line….

My youngest daughter, Hannah, who shares my passion for the Cardinals but retains a sense of proportion and innocently believes baseball is simply a game meant to be fun, fails to understand why I get so upset when the Cardinals lose, or when something really terrible happens like, you know, Ludwick taking a called third strike with runners in scoring position. She has admonished me on more than a few occasions, “Dad, don’t sweat the small stuff!” to which I inevitably respond, “This isn’t small stuff!” I am nearly 51 and still hopeless, I know. But as Ben explained to Lindsay, “I like being part of something that's bigger than me. . . It's good for your soul to invest in something you can't control.”

There is something about baseball in the spring, when the games don’t count, that captivates me in the same way I am drawn to baseball at all levels; it is why I occasionally stop to notice a high school game in the distance, and why I arrive at the ballpark early to watch batting practice. As Roger Angell described in The Summer Game (Ballantine Books, 1972):

…what kept us there, what nailed us to our seats for a sweet, boring hour or more, was not just the whop! of bats, the climbing white arcs of outfield flies, and the swift flight of the ball whipped around the infield, but something more painful and just as obvious – the knowledge that we had never made it. We would never know the rich joke that doubled over three young pitchers in front of the dugout; we would never be part of that golden company on the field, which each of us, certainly for one moment of his life, had wanted more than anything else in the world to join.
As time passes and my baseball playing days recede ever so farther into the background, it is the small things, the relaxed atmosphere of spring baseball and the orderliness of fielding drills and batting practice, which for me brings forth memories of summers long gone. When I am watching a ballgame, as for Angell, “for those two or three hours, there is really no place I would rather be.” Baseball is in my blood, it is the one constant in my life outside of family. It brings me joy and frustration, heartache and exhilaration, but in the end, it is “a Little Leaguers game that,” in the words of Mario Cuomo, “excites us throughout adulthood . . . even as the setting sun pushes the shadows past home plate.”