Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Enduring Lessons of Baseball

Where we love is home,
Home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.
--Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

There is wisdom to youth; an ability to perceive essential truths in life’s many dimensions. I reflected upon this sentiment Sunday while we drove Hannah to Washington, D.C., for her college orientation and the start of her freshman year. A warm, cloudy day, it began to rain shortly after we arrived, a small reminder from God that life at American University faces the same obstacles and pitfalls as all other destinations. As Hannah unpacked her belongings and arranged her dorm room, I experienced a moment of melancholy; a recognition that my youngest child has reached the end of an era and is about to embark on a new stage in life’s journey. I am proud of Hannah as she takes another step toward independence; and yet, hopeful optimism is tempered by a sense of loss that the little girl who so depended on me for 18 years may now find her way without me.

Sometimes it is the little things one notices on days like this, the photographs, posters, and possessions Hannah brought with her to school and which she now places on her shelf, desk, and wall. As she unpacks and puts on display the varied pieces of her brief history, I am comforted by the realization that it is these seemingly insignificant objects and symbols which document meaningful attachments and bonds between us. Whatever the future holds, there is a father-daughter connection that will endure for a lifetime.

On the shelf above her desk is a copy of Eat Bananas and Follow Your Heart (Bookstand Publishing, 2011), a collection of my past essays, dedicated to Hannah and Jennifer, which provides a permanent record of my thoughts on life, baseball, faith, and the world around us. Near the window on Hannah’s side of the room, on a small section of the wall, is a St. Louis Cardinals pennant, accompanied by a picture of David Eckstein, Hannah’s favorite player from years past. In the photograph, Eckstein is sliding into home plate, the red-and-white birds on the bat and familiar number 22 adorning his uniform. The picture is from the 2006 season, when Eckstein was World Series MVP. It was during that magical season Hannah and I forever bonded over the Cardinals, when she fully embraced the team as her own, sharing in my inexplicable, irrational, and lifelong passion. Angled on her desk is a picture of Hannah and me at the entrance to Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, each dressed in bright red Cardinals’ shirts and hats, smiling confidently, if a bit apprehensively, before entering the lion’s den on a warm summer evening.

There are certain topics Hannah and I do not much discuss – boys, the general anxieties of being a girl in the 21st century, and other areas of which I am of little help – but through our mutual love of the Cardinals we have developed a language and system of communication all our own: the combination high-five-fist-pump when the Cardinals get a hit or Yadier Molina throws out a base runner; the diagonal crisscross-hand-slap and double-fist-pump when Freese, Holliday, Beltran, or any other Cardinal player hits a home run. It is the soulful and emotional side of baseball.

Hannah is, of course, far more sane and rational in her love of the Cardinals, more selective in her expenditure of emotions for what is, after all, something over which she has no control. But she knows the heartache of the game; she understands the spiritual transcendence of connecting to a team, the joys of a winning season, and the disappointments, pain and repeated sufferings that accompany large segments of every season. She understands that baseball is a lot like life, mostly a game of failure and, in the end, often a collection of unfulfilled promises. “Baseball is the only field of endeavor,” Ted Williams often reminded us, “where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer.”

Baseball endures for reasons that transcend the game. To fall in love with the game as a child and to commit one’s heart to a team requires a dedication to the romance of life, a search for meaning and purpose in something larger than the game itself. When I was twelve years old, I was the best player on my little league team. I batted cleanup, pitched, and played first base. The other kids looked up to me. The coaches relied on me to give our team a chance. There was nothing in my life as important as baseball. I looked forward to each game with exuberant anticipation. And yet, whenever I stood in the on deck circle awaiting my turn at bat, my stomach filled with butterflies and anxiety lingered quietly in the batter’s box. On most occasions, I used the nervousness to my advantage. It helped me to concentrate, to focus on the ball as it left the pitcher’s hand; to decide in a split second whether to swing, or not, as I attempted to reach base and advance the cause of my team; to hit a fast-moving round ball with a long, smooth, rounded stick.

Of the many lessons I learned from baseball, perhaps the most important is that, to achieve anything worthwhile in life, we must be willing to fail more than we succeed. The game teaches that when we strike out or make an error, we will have another chance in the batter’s box, an opportunity for redemption. “God gets you to the plate,” said Williams, “but once you’re there you’re on your own.”

Everything in baseball looks easy, slow and safe. But true fans know better, for the perfection demanded of each player, the full accounting for each pitch, means that one player’s success is balanced by another player’s failure. What is certain is that, in every game, in every at-bat, someone will fail. A 12 year-old little leaguer will look at a called third strike with the bases loaded and two outs in the last inning of a tied game, and then never forgive himself for this errant moment of indecision. Two years later, he will be called out at home plate on a boneheaded running play, ending the game and missing out on a chance at being a hero and reversing the hand of fate, disappointing teammates and coaches. These truths I know from personal experience. “Every day is a new opportunity,” Bob Feller said. “You can build on yesterday's success or put its failures behind and start over again. That's the way life is, with a new game every day, and that's the way baseball is.”

Baseball has likely meant different things to Hannah than to me. She never played the game competitively or dreamed of playing in the Major Leagues. She was ten years old in the spring of 2004, when MLB Extra Innings and satellite television entered my life and Cardinals baseball invaded my kitchen and living room. With the nightly games broadcast on whichever room I occupied, Hannah experienced with me the ups and downs of each season’s team. As she did her homework, brushed her teeth, texted her friends, a Cardinals game was inevitably on in the background, her father inexplicably enmeshed in the outcome of each at bat.

In the summer of 2006, Hannah and I traveled to Pittsburgh to see the Cards play the Pirates. Hoping for a weekend of Albert Pujols home runs and acrobatic defensive plays by Jim Edmonds in the outfield, the season hit a low point as the Cardinals’ offense went mysteriously absent. Swept by the last-place Pirates, it was a long ride home. But as Hannah experienced with me the pain and suffering of loss, we were unexpectedly rewarded in October when the Cardinals made the post-season and, to most everyone’s surprise, won the World Series, a feat they would repeat again last year.

Over the years, Hannah has courageously accompanied me to many Cardinals-Phillies games, enduring the hostile fans of brotherly love fame. To my chagrin, she always insisted that we proudly don Cardinals t-shirts and hats in support of our team. “Stand up for your principles, Dad!” she demanded whenever I would meekly suggest that, in Philadelphia, things can get a little dicey when wearing the colors and logos of the opposition. I breathed many sighs of relief when those games ended and we arrived safely home.

It seems the Cards lost more than they won whenever we saw them in person, usually in slow, torturous fashion. But despite our bad luck, we bonded over these shared experiences. Looking back, I would not exchange the time I shared with Hannah (and Jen when she was not off at college or summer camp) for a Cardinals victory. As a father, it has always been a joy to spend time at the ballpark with my daughters, despite how miserable I become after a Cards loss. I hope to have more such experiences in the years to come, though I know time and distance may sometimes stand in the way.

With Hannah now tucked away at college, it feels a little lonelier, the quiet slightly more permanent and transparent. I find solace in knowing that, as Hannah develops into a young woman and learns to use her newfound wings, we will forever share the experience of baseball and a love of the Cardinals. Together, we will celebrate when they win and commiserate when they lose.

“There is something transformational about connecting with the game at the right time in your life, almost always in youth,” writes former major leaguer and Penn grad Doug Glanville. It is then “when you learn to fully embrace its character and every potential: the patience and endurance required, the long season, the triumph, the forgiveness. When you fall in love with this game, there is no doubt.” Even as childhood fades, we continue to know the wisdom and affection that the game imparts. Baseball endures through life’s many challenges; its appeal and intergenerational bonds remain intact even when the world becomes, as it sometimes does, a lonely, sad and pressure-filled place.

As Hannah finds her way in the world, she will inevitably make her share of errors; like the rest of us, she will strikeout and fail at times, only to wait for her next at bat. I hope that baseball has imparted a degree of wisdom, essential knowledge, and real and metaphorical life lessons that will give her the strength to confront difficulties. I trust that Hannah is, like her older sister Jen, a wiser and steadier person than I. For they understand what I occasionally forget, that in the words of Henry Stanley Haskins, regardless of how the Cardinals perform in any given year, “What lies behind us and what lies before us, are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Lost Art of Disagreement

We sorely test our ability to live together if we readily question each other’s integrity.  It may be harder to restrain our feelings when moral principles are at stake, for they go to the deepest wellsprings of our being.  But the more our feelings diverge, the more deeply felt they are, the greater is our obligation to grant the sincerity and essential decency of our fellow citizens on the other side. – Senator Edward Kennedy, October 3, 1983
During my second year of law school, I read with mild amusement in The Washington Post that then-Senator Ted Kennedy had accepted an invitation to speak at Liberty Baptist College (now Liberty University) in Lynchburg, Virginia.  Liberty Baptist was established by the Reverend Jerry Falwell, the arch-conservative founder of the Moral Majority, an organization many credit with the rise of the Christian Right in American politics.  To Falwell and most of the students at Liberty Baptist, Ted Kennedy represented everything wrong with American society.  A liberal Democrat and symbol of the American Left, Kennedy was on opposite sides of the Moral Majority on almost every conceivable issue.  Kennedy supported abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment, opposed prayer and the teaching of creationism in public schools; he was instrumental in helping to enact federal civil rights laws, which many southerners believed undermined states’ rights and local control.  Kennedy was a passionate advocate for national health care and government’s role in alleviating poverty, pollution, and discrimination.  Even his support for a nuclear freeze offended the anti-Communist, Cold Warrior Falwell.  A Catholic from secular leaning Massachusetts, Kennedy’s world view did not fit well on a college campus that embraced Falwell’s social and political conservatism and belief in biblical literalism and fundamentalist Christian theology.  To many students at Liberty Baptist, Kennedy was a modern-day Devil.  I had difficulty imagining how a Kennedy speech in Falwell territory could possibly go well.

I was wrong.  On October 3, 1983, Kennedy appeared before a packed house and gave one of the best speeches of his career.  Kennedy mixed humor with insight and spoke from the heart.  He joked that many people in Washington were surprised that he was invited to speak at such a conservative school, and even more surprised that he had accepted.  “They seem to think that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for a Kennedy to come to the campus of Liberty Baptist College.”  But Kennedy understood the importance of dialogue and respect for opposing views:
I have come here to discuss my beliefs about faith and country, tolerance and truth in America.  I know we begin with certain disagreements; I strongly suspect that at the end of the evening some of our disagreements will remain.  But I also hope that tonight and in the months and years ahead, we will always respect the right of others to differ, that we will never lose sight of our own fallibility, that we will view ourselves with a sense of perspective and a sense of humor.
Kennedy reminded this mostly conservative Baptist audience that, as a Catholic American, he too loved his country and treasured his faith.  But he warned of the perils of absolutism and self-righteous certitude.  “I do not assume that my conception of patriotism or policy is invariably correct, or that my convictions about religion should command any greater respect than any other faith in this pluralistic society.”  He noted that the nation’s founders were men of varying faiths and that, while the United States shared a history of religious pluralism and tolerance, it also had experienced periods of prejudice and discrimination.  “Let us never forget:  Today’s Moral Majority could become tomorrow’s persecuted minority.”

It is doubtful Kennedy changed many minds that day, but his willingness to address the students and faculty at Liberty Baptist College, and the polite, respectful reception provided him, helped promote, if not agreement on the substantive issues, at least mutual understanding.  Falwell had personally extended the invitation because, he said later, although most of the students opposed Kennedy’s politics, it was important that they hear and consider opposing views.  That Falwell and Kennedy could share the same podium served as witness to the importance of civil discourse and the exchange of ideas.  It demonstrated that, while liberals and conservatives may disagree on matters of policy, they share many of the same values and, as Americans who love their country and wish to make it better, differ only on how to make it so.  If we wish for a vibrant, healthy democracy, Kennedy said, “We must respect the motives of those who exercise their right to disagree.”

Philosophically and politically, Kennedy and Falwell were diametrically opposed all their lives.  But they remained on friendly terms with each other.  When Falwell’s son applied for admission to the University of Virginia Law School (Kennedy’s alma mater), Kennedy volunteered to write a letter of recommendation and later invited the entire Falwell family to dinner at Kennedy’s house in McLean, Virginia.  Years later, when Rose Kennedy was in failing health, Kennedy invited Falwell, who at the time was in south Florida, to stop by the Kennedy compound in Palm Beach and pray with the family.  In 2005, when Falwell was hospitalized with severe pulmonary edema, he received a kind and encouraging letter from Kennedy, wishing him a quick recovery.  As Jerry Falwell, Jr., later reflected, “Both of these men understood that they could disagree without being disagreeable.  They were both lightning rods for their respective causes, but they treated each other with civility and respect.”

I note the Kennedy-Falwell story because it seems nowadays we have a diminished ability to engage in appropriate political discourse and disagreement, that we have lost a spirit of mutual respect, are less open to differing points of view, and rarely acknowledge our common humanity and good faith.

It may simply be that we are in the midst of a presidential election campaign, where every four years the airwaves are filled with out-of-context sound bites and false and misleading campaign ads (from both sides).  Democracy is a messy business.  It is why I am more comfortable with the world of ideas and policy than with the day-to-day clash of politics.

We live in an increasingly polarized world.  The rise of online news and the proliferation of cable news channels have made the world a more ideologically-entrenched place, less open to rational, civil discourse.  The American political scene operates increasingly on a mix of emotion and insecurity.  Our political leanings are reinforced, and not challenged, by the ascent of intentionally-biased news outlets, from Fox to MSNBC, and by ideologically-inspired blogs and websites.  Acerbic commentators and demagogues, mostly but not exclusively on the right (e.g., Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Anne Coulter, Ed Schultz) demonize anyone who disagrees with them and successfully energize large swaths of sheep-like followers to view Democrats, or the Obamas, or whoever needs to be attacked that day, as the enemy.  

I understand that politics, religion, and similar human endeavors do not always lend themselves to easy conclusions and reasonable disagreements.  But there are ways to discuss differences that promote honest, good faith debate, where each side has the opportunity to learn from and be challenged by the other.  Consider the days when William Buckley Jr. debated the likes of John Kenneth Galbraith and other liberal intellectuals on Firing Line. Reasoned dialogue cannot occur, however, when people absolutely convinced of the rightness of their cause begin demonizing their perceived enemies. I see it almost every day on Facebook, where a small group of “friends” post angry, bitter, ad hominem attacks (“Obama is a liar” or “Obama’s a socialist out to destroy America”), and discussion stoppers (“If you hate this country so much, why don’t you leave”). 

Name calling serves only to suppress genuine debate and disserves the democratic process.  When language is used as a weapon, it closes down debate.  Take an emotionally charged issue like abortion.  If I am called a “baby killer” or am told that to be pro-choice is to favor a new Holocaust, there is no room for reasoned discussion.  Perhaps if my pro-life friend understands that I do not think he is a woman-hating fascist, and if he accepts that I am not in favor of infanticide, we can try to reach some common ground.  Tone down the rhetoric and my opponent may learn that I, too, believe abortion is morally wrong in most cases and that, as a society we should attempt to find reasonable ways to reduce the total number of abortions.  I will never agree that abortions should be outlawed, but we may find other areas of common ground.  Perhaps if we start from a position of mutual respect, my pro-life friend will learn that I understand the intensity of his feelings and agree that abortion is indeed about the termination of a human life.  We will not need to debate the philosophical issue of when life begins.  But perhaps I can show through statistical studies that abstinence is ineffective and that prohibiting abortions will not eliminate them, but only make them unsafe and threaten our civil liberties. 

If we can acknowledge the good faith of the other, perhaps we can agree that improved sex education and access to birth control more effectively prevents unwanted pregnancies, thereby reducing abortions.  Even if we cannot agree, at least we can acknowledge that the issue is not only about the morality of abortion – no one is actually “pro-abortion” – but its legality.  At issue is not the sanctity of life, a subject on which we both agree, but whether the government has the right to force a woman to carry a pregnancy to term simply because she and her partner made a mistake (yes, human beings are flawed), or their birth control failed, or she was raped.  The issue is not whether abortion is morally good or morally bad, or whether one of us is “pro-life” and the other “anti-life”.  No, the issue is who gets to decide?  And when does the Government have the right to force a woman, or a teenage girl, to carry an unwanted pregnancy to full term?

I understand that, on some issues, like health care, liberals and conservatives disagree about the fundamental values at stake.  Liberals believe that health care is a right and that a compassionate society should ensure basic health care for all its citizens.  Conservatives believe that health care is no different than any other commodity, that only those who work and earn sufficient pay are entitled to buy health care services in the free market, and that society’s only obligation is to provide emergency hospital services to those who have no other option (such as the victim of a shooting or a car accident).  In today’s political environment, such disagreements take on the dimension of a moral crusade – compassion vs. freedom; socialism vs. free enterprise.  But perhaps we can agree on certain objectives.  Can we agree that an appropriate societal goal is to develop a system that will maximize the number of people who can afford health care without undermining advances in medicine?  Can we agree that increased preventive care is an effective means of reducing health care costs?  With respectful dialogue, we can at least define common objectives and find a basis for compromise.  But this can only occur when mutual respect and good faith prevail.  It is when America works best. 

“Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress,” said Mahatma Gandhi.  Liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, will continue to disagree on many issues.  But if our disagreements do not once again become civil and respectful; if we refuse to acknowledge the inherent goodness of the other and proceed with humility, recognizing that none of us has all the answers and that good ideas exist on both sides, we will no longer progress as a democratic society or find a common basis for our citizenship.  And then our democracy will be troubled.  As Senator Kennedy told the students at Liberty Baptist College nearly thirty years ago, “[T]he choice lies within us; as fellow citizens, let us live peaceable with each other; as fellow human beings, let us strive to live peaceably with men and women everywhere.”