Wednesday, February 18, 2015

On Art, Poetry, and Lou Brock

Dreams brimming over,
childhood stretched out in legs,
this is the moment replayed on winter days
when frost covers the field,
when age steals away wishes.
Glorious sleep that seeps back there
to the glory of our baseball days.
--Marjorie Maddox

It is the middle of February and winter has once again tested my patience. A layer of snow presently covers the ground outside of our Jenkintown home, with more snow expected in the days to come. As cold air sweeps in from the upper Midwest, I glance out my window and dream of spring, when baseball and sunshine warms my senses and fills the void of winter’s darkness. Just now, a hint of blue becomes visible in the daytime sky; the sun gently forces its way through the surrounding clouds and announces its continued relevance. There is hope yet for spring.

Sheltered from the cold, I sit in my study and find myself drawn to a copy of the July 22, 1974, edition of Sports Illustrated, a picture of Lou Brock stealing second adorning the cover. “Thief at Work” is the title story, a six-page spread of text and color photos on the artistry and science of base stealing. Brock was 35 years old in 1974, the year he stole 118 bases and broke the single-season record set in 1962 by Maury Wills of the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Only fifteen years old that summer, I can still sense the rush of excitement when seeing the cover story, a rare moment when “my team” was the focus of media attention. Despite a quite limited budget in those days, I purchased a copy, and read and devoured every word.

Dom DeLillo writes, it is “the deep Eros of memory that separates baseball from other sports.” From the moment I became captivated by the game, Lou Brock was and remains among my all-time favorite baseball players. Along with Bob Gibson and Orlando Cepeda, Brock was in my youth the most exciting and interesting player to watch in all of baseball. No one looked better in a red-and-white Cardinals uniform than Brock, who was agile, athletic, and fast. Charming and good-natured, he was the consummate professional, a gentleman on and off the field. It was pure fun to watch and study his mastery of the base paths. Whenever Cardinals’ games were televised in those days, the networks used a split screen anytime Brock made it to first base. It showed the game within a game, the cat-and-mouse action between the pitcher and the base runner; the pitcher desperately trying to keep Brock close, to cause him to hesitate, to think twice about stealing, to pierce his confidence. Rarely were such antics successful, as anxious defenders became distracted and uptight. Simply by standing on first base, Brock changed the dynamics of the game.

When he reached on a single, a walk, or an error, it was not whether he would attempt a steal, but when. “I don’t steal the base as much as I take it,” Brock told Sports Illustrated. “To me, the word steal contains the element of surprise and I don’t surprise anyone when I head for second base. The other clubs would be surprised if I didn’t.”

Brock on the bases was poetry in motion, an artist at the height of his perfection; although to Brock, base stealing was a science, the result of study and timing and calculated risk. A math major in college, Brock learned that the ninety feet distance from first to second base required exactly 13 strides and 3.5 seconds at full speed. He studied the pitcher’s movements and determined at what point in the delivery the pitcher was committed to throwing home. Brock was among the first players to use a stopwatch on the sidelines to time the pitcher’s motion. He used an 8-millimeter camera to film pitchers, and he closely watched pre-game warm-ups so he could time the opposing catcher’s throws to second base. He learned that, in most cases, it was the jump on the pitcher, not the strength or quickness of the catcher’s arm, which determined if he was safe or out.

The stolen base is a lost art in the game today, but in 1974 speed was a more valued skill. That season, Brock stole second base 112 times (he stole third base six times), which effectively converted 112 singles and walks into doubles. When combined with the 25 doubles he did hit, he had the equivalent of 137 doubles as the Cardinals’ lead-off man that year. For a team that hit few home runs, Brock’s speed and base running was an essential reason the Cardinals remained in the thick of the pennant race until the final days of the season. It was the age of Small Ball, when a walk, a stolen base, a ground ball to second, and a sacrifice fly could plate a run without a single hit in the inning. Brock performed that trick countless times throughout his career. To allow Brock on base was often to concede a run.

As with many of the most talented athletes, life is seemingly easy, and baseball a simple game. When a rookie once asked the great Stan Musial for advice on hitting, Musial reportedly said, “Well, son, what I try to do is look for a good pitch to hit, and then hit it as hard as I can.” When Brock invested in a flower shop in Clayton, Missouri, an old teammate asked him, “Lou, what the heck do you know about flowers?” Brock answered, “I know a lot about flowers. Those are red, those are yellow, and the ones over there are purple and green.” What more did he need to know? I suspect baseball was like that for Brock as well.

Brock was raised on a cotton plantation in southern Louisiana, a poor black boy in the deep South long before civil rights and integration became the law of the land. Despite the odds against him, he earned an academic scholarship to Southern University, his baseball skills as yet unearthed. But he lost his scholarship after the first semester because his grades dipped below a “B” average. During the break, he volunteered to retrieve balls for Southern’s baseball team. Only after he pestered the coaches to give him a tryout was he finally given a chance. At the end of practice one day, the coaching staff allowed him five swings in batting practice. Brock hit three of the pitches over the fence. He was awarded a baseball scholarship on the spot.

He quickly became a star college player and in 1961, before completing his senior year, the Chicago Cubs signed Brock to a major league contract. After an impressive year in the minor leagues, the Cubs, who considered Brock a young talent of great promise, promoted him to the big leagues at the end of the 1962 season. But he never caught on in Chicago. The Cubs thought he was a power hitter and assigned him to right field without teaching him how to handle the deadly sun-drenched day games at Wrigley Field; Brock was a disappointment. After one Chicago sportswriter declared him the worst outfielder in baseball, Brock was traded in the middle of the 1964 season to the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for pitcher Ernie Broglio. To this day, “Brock for Broglio” is remembered as the most lopsided trade in baseball history, from which Chicagoans have never recovered.

The Cardinals were an under-achieving team, playing below .500 when Brock arrived in June of 1964. He immediately felt at home in St. Louis. The Cardinals manager, Johnny Keane, liked Brock’s speed and asked him to get on base, not swing for the fences. Brock batted .348 the remainder of the year and quickly established himself as one of the best leadoff hitters and base stealers in all of baseball. The Cardinals won the pennant following a late-season Phillies collapse and beat the dreaded New York Yankees in a seven-game series in October.

I first discovered Brock in 1967, when I was eight years old and fell in love with the Birds on the Bat. Lou Brock was a major reason why I became a life-long Cardinals fan. When the Cardinals won the World Series that year against the Boston Red Sox, Brock batted .414 and stole seven bases, a World Series record. I rushed home from school every day during the Series and watched the games on our black-and-white television in the family room, a ritual I repeated in 1968 when the Cardinals again won the pennant and faced off in the Series against the Detroit Tigers. Although the Cards broke my heart that year, it was through no fault of Brock, who again stole seven bases in seven games and batted .391.

It is impossible to imagine the St. Louis Cardinals of the 1960’s and 1970’s without Lou Brock. He was their leadoff batter in virtually every game he played for a sixteen-year stretch. He retired in the fall of 1979, when I was a junior in college. Until that point, for most of my childhood and years afterward, Lou Brock was the St. Louis Cardinals. I wrote Brock’s name into my daily lineup card every day for eight years when I played Strat-O-Matic baseball as a kid. I kept his batting statistics and meticulously recorded his every stolen base. I went to see him play when the Cardinals came to Philadelphia, the thrill of childhood rushing through me when he trotted out to left field from the Cardinals dugout. I was mesmerized every time he stepped to the plate. 

An athlete of poetry and grace, Brock was my DiMaggio, my Williams, my Clemente. As David Halberstam wrote of DiMaggio in Summer of ’49 (William Morrow and Company, 1989), Brock’s “grace came to represent more than athletic skill in those years. To the men who wrote about the game, it was a talisman, a touchstone, a symbol of the limitless potential of the human individual.” He was a sharecropper’s son who could run the bases “the way Keats wrote poetry or Beethoven wrote sonatas."

There are times, notes Thomas Boswell, when baseball “is to our everyday experience what poetry often is to common speech — a slightly elevated and concentrated form.” Lou Brock was that kind of player. He was not simply a fast runner and artful base stealer who compiled 938 career stolen bases; not merely one of the best leadoff hitters to ever play the game, accumulating 3,023 hits in 19 big league seasons. He was what brought us to the ballpark, and why the first thing we did every morning was check the morning box scores. He kept me glued to the television set on humid summer evenings in New Jersey when the Cardinals played uneventful games against the Mets and the Phillies.

Lou Brock, his poetic grace in the batter’s box, his artistry on the base paths, his smooth athleticism in left field, were why a young boy from New Jersey was captured by the game of baseball and, years later, remains enchanted with the game through the memories of days long gone. It is how I came to understand, in the words of Boswell, that in baseball, “as in many things, the ending, the final score, is only part of what matters. The process, the pleasure, the grain of the game count too.” 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

On Faith, Doubt, and Humility: Marcus Borg 1942 - 2015

So, is there an afterlife, and if so, what will it be like? I don’t have a clue. But I am confident that the one who has buoyed us up in life will also buoy us up through death. We die into God. What more that means, I do not know. But that is all I need to know. – Marcus Borg
The controversy surrounding President Obama’s recent remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast reminded me of why the world will miss Marcus Borg, who died a few weeks ago at the age of 72. In comments that I am certain Borg would have approved, the President noted correctly that faith is sometimes “twisted and distorted, used as a wedge – or, worse, sometimes used as a weapon.” He asked how we can best “reconcile . . . the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths” with “those who seek to hijack religion for their own murderous ends?” Humanity has been struggling with these issues throughout the course of time, the president said, and even Christianity owns its share of historical blemishes, from the Crusades and the Inquisition to Christians who used the Bible to justify slavery and Jim Crow. “[T]his is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.”

Conservative Christians were predictably outraged, wrongly suggesting that the president had equated Christianity with Islamic extremism. But what I suspect really got under their “bible believing” skin was what the President said next:
[W]e should start with some basic humility. I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt – not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn’t care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.
Nothing drives self-righteous Christians crazier than the thought that perhaps we do not know all of the answers, and that a healthy dose of doubt and humility is a necessary component of a mature and abiding faith. In response to the president’s talk, Erick Erickson of wrote that, by suggesting faith and doubt can co-exist, the president proved he is not really a Christian. “Christ himself is truth,” Erickson wrote. “When we possess Christ, we possess truth. . . So I wish the President would stop professing himself to be a Christian if he is not going to proclaim Christ as truth and the only way to salvation.”

The reaction on the right to the president’s speech reflects the great divide between liberal Protestantism and Christian fundamentalism. To the fundamentalist, expressions of doubt are the opposite of faith; it is unilateral disarmament in the fight to convert the world to the One True Way.

One of the many problems I have with the Christian Right is their belief that a very narrow brand of Christians are alone the sole possessors of the truth, and that anyone who expresses even a little humility on matters of faith, or who critically examines a passage of scripture or questions the authority and premise of established religious doctrine, is unworthy. For liberal, open-minded Christians more secure in their faith, acknowledging Christianity’s past transgressions – the Inquisition and the Crusades, centuries of Christian anti-Semitism in Europe and the Christian Church’s silence and complicity in the Holocaust, Christian justification in the American South for slavery and Jim Crow, or modern-day acts of violence in the name of Christianity against abortion clinics – simply reminds us that we live in a struggling, imperfect world. It appreciates that human beings are flawed and struggle throughout their lives for answers to existential and spiritual questions. And it accepts that, while all faith traditions contribute acts of compassion, comfort, and beauty, all have at times contended with sinful acts committed by people who misappropriate religion to justify dishonorable ends.

*     *     *     *

I am saddened by the loss of Marcus Borg, a long-time professor of religion at Oregon State University and the author of many truly outstanding books that have profoundly affected my views of religion, Christianity, and the Bible. I first discovered Borg about 15 years ago, when my Dad handed me a copy of Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (Harper Collins, 1994). In this slim volume, Borg explained in clear and concise language what mainline seminaries have taught for decades, but which seemed to be a deep, dark secret in the average church pew – that the Jesus of history is distinct from the Christ of faith.

In many of his writings, Borg described his own personal faith journey, including his Lutheran upbringing and periods of growing doubt and agnosticism, followed by a more mature faith built on study, history, and understanding. He helped me see that it was acceptable to acknowledge that my childhood image of Jesus no longer made much sense and was a product, not of the prophet and teacher who lived and preached in Nazareth and Galilee, but of biblical authors who wrote decades after Jesus had died, and of an institutional church founded centuries later that incorporated a divine savior and the doctrine of the Trinity into traditional Church teachings.

I learned through Borg’s writings what has been understood and developed over the last two hundred years of biblical scholarship – that the gospels are “neither divine documents nor straightforward historical records” but instead “represent the developing traditions of the early Christian movement.” Through careful comparative study of the gospels, it is easy to see that the authors of these books were “at work, modifying and adding to the traditions they received.” For example, the portrayal of Jesus in the gospel of John (“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”), is distinctly different from the Jesus depicted in the earlier gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And yet, Jesus as divine savior, as portrayed in John and supplemented by the birth stories in Matthew and Luke, has become the dominant view of conventional Christianity.

I was always troubled by the conviction, expressed in many evangelical and traditional Christian circles, that only by believing in Jesus as divine savior – born of a virgin, God incarnate and physically resurrected from the dead – could one achieve eternal salvation. This belief was stated by none other than the great theologian, NASCAR driver Darrell Waltrip, at the national prayer breakfast: “[I]f you don’t know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior” and “you’re just a pretty good guy or a pretty good gal, you’re going to Hell.” Funny how a statement from the president that we are all imperfect, Christians included, leads to apoplectic exclamations of dreadful offense, but a statement from Bubba that four-fifths of the world is destined for hell achieves not a peep of protest.

So, Darrell, are my Jewish daughters condemned to hell because they were raised in the Jewish tradition and not taught to believe what I was taught to believe as a young child? Does it matter not that they are more ethical, more concerned about justice, and more compassionate than many so-called Christians I know? Am I destined for the eternal flames simply because I have questions about the meaning of scripture, or because I dare question the foundation of things taught to me as a child based on educated notions of science and observation? What kind of God is that? What kind of religion is that? I simply cannot accept as valid such a view.

And Marcus Borg made it easier for me to accept that I need not worry.

Borg helped me to understand that “[t]here simply is a major difference between what Jesus was like as a figure of history and how he is spoken of in the gospels and later Christian tradition.” Borg distinguished the pre-Easter Jesus, or the Jesus of history, from the post-Easter Jesus, or the Christ of faith. Both concepts are part of the Christian tradition, but when you understand how the latter concepts developed, it becomes much plainer that the Christian life does not depend on one’s ability to believe impossible things, and that one can maintain doubts and set aside the irrational without compromising one’s relationship to God.

Borg also helped me to see that, for the early Christians, “the post-Easter Jesus was the light that led them out of darkness, the spiritual food that nourished them in the midst of their journey, the way that led them from death to life.” John’s gospel describes “the living Christ of Christian experience.” Even though much of John, including its account of Jesus’ life and many of his sayings are not historically factual, for Christians, John’s gospel is nevertheless “true” in a spiritual and experiential way.

Borg’s writings were thoughtful and nuanced. He helped me become comfortable with the historical and theological accuracy of what I always secretly believed – that “the Bible is a human product: it tells us how our religious ancestors saw things, not how God sees things.” If all persons of faith understood the Bible in this manner, there would, I am convinced, be far less religious strife, religious extremism, religious-inspired violence, and religious division. Part of the problem, Borg noted correctly, is Christian illiteracy. According to Borg,
…even for those who think they speak “Christian” fluently, the faith itself is often misunderstood and distorted by many to whom it is seemingly very familiar. They think they are speaking the language as it has always been understood, but what they mean by the words and concepts is so different from what these things have meant historically, that they would have trouble communicating with the very authors of the past they honor.
When we finally reject the notion that there is one “right” way of reading the Bible, or that the Bible is the inerrant, infallible, and factual word of God, humanity will advance to a higher level of understanding and reconciliation. Too many Christians are afraid of critical thinking, of questioning the professed truths put forth by institutional authorities. I would never expect a fundamentalist Christian to enthusiastically endorse Borg’s writings or perspectives, but I wish they would read Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time and The Heart of Christianity (Harper Collins, 2004). Regardless of how we approach biblical scholarship, faith and belief, Christianity should turn us towards compassion and love for all.

And I wish non-Christians would read Borg to understand that fundamentalist Christians, while often portrayed by a media ignorant of religion as the public face of American Christianity, do not represent all or even a majority of Christians, and that fundamentalism does not approach the fullness, depth, and breadth of the more open and non-judgmental strands of Christianity.

The historical Jesus described by Borg was a Jewish teacher and prophet who embodied a vision of justice, peace, and hope that was not based on irrational and supernatural beliefs. He espoused the “kingdom of God” on earth, not in heaven, a vision of justice and equality in conjunction with a spiritual connection to a real and present God.

I will continue to struggle with faith and doubt. I will remain humble in my expressions of faith, non-judgmental and open to the many different ways in which faith and a belief in God are expressed and realized. I will not close my eyes to the many transgressions of faith that occur in the name of religion, and I will continue to oppose the many self-proclaimed Christians who distort and misapply the life and teachings of Jesus. But I will proceed with an understanding that I am often wrong, and do not know, and probably never will, the answers to all of life’s most meaningful questions. I only wish my conservative brothers and sisters would do the same.

Borg frequently lectured and spoke to church groups and others around the country, finding people hungry for spiritual nourishment, and yet thoughtfully skeptical and unsure of their faith as it had been taught to them as youth. During a question-and-answer session at one of these events, someone asked Borg, “But how do you know that you’re right?” Borg paused and responded, “I don’t know. I don’t know that I’m right.” And for this, I will remain forever grateful and indebted to Marcus Borg. Rest in peace, my friend.