I remember the first time I saw Bull Durham.
It was 2004 and I was still living in mom and dad's basement. I was drinking cold bottles of Miller High Life with my buddy Al, and we were flipping channels when we stopped just in time to see Susan Sarandon – who was still in Vintage Babe Form back in the late 80s – walk out of her house and into a minor league ballpark. She delivered an A+ monologue to start the movie, and I was hooked as soon as she mentioned that there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and 108 stitches in a baseball. I've since learned this is an outright lie, albeit a poetic, beautiful tiny lie, but even so, her claim cemented for me a relationship between spirituality and baseball that I had always felt but had never been able to express. She called it The Church of Baseball.
Even if the rest of the movie weren't wonderful, even if it rested on the laurels of its opening monologue and Kevin Costner's passable home run swing, I would have loved it still. Thankfully, the movie goes on to hilariously and sincerely portray the difficulties of love and friendship, as well as the beauty and tragedy of the sport. Just as Harbach's The Art of Fielding
isn't just a book about baseball, Bull Durham
isn't only a baseball movie; like Millie says of Ebby Calvin "Nuke" LaLoosh, it's "sort of all over the place."
My buddy Kirk and I are ushers at Target Field. We've known each other since we were ten and in little league together. We've had jobs in the same mall, gone camping, grown up, gotten married and found Stephen Colbert together, but even with all of that history and all of those memories, our time at the ballpark may be the part I treasure most. On the average summer Sunday morning, when most people are either asleep in bed or snoring through Church, instead of listening to a sermon about Baby Jesus' namesake or Peter, Paul and/or Mary, we head to Target Field in his Impala or my Crown Vic, windows down to let in the cool breeze, with the radio tuned to manager Ron Gardenhire's weekly talk radio spot.
We both love going to the games and standing in the sun, giving a hard time to the the beer guys and the visiting fans, and tossing balls from batting practice to the little kids in Cuddyer t-shirts. I love the green grass, the fat blue sky, the sun that burns my bald head and the smell of sausages and onions on the grill. I can't speak for Kirk, but just like many of our co-workers claim, I would happily work at these games for free. I would give up my extra paycheck not because I'm rich and don't need the money, and not because it's such terribly easy work – it can be difficult, it really can, especially when you're tired and it's late and it seems the game will never end – but I would do it for free because, as Kirk would agree, the stadium is a cathedral.
During our drives downtown, we talk about faith and the importance of having it. We talk about perseverance and rising to the occasion, and sometimes we even talk about baseball. We listen to Gardy talk about his bullpen and his infielders, and we wonder, too, which guy is going to swing the big bat or strike out the side when it counts. We talk about everything. But the one thing we always come back to is our love for that ballpark. The Church of Baseball. The fastball, the sun and the home run trot.
Everyone who has been to a game at the Dome or Target Field knows how it feels to sit among a crowd of 40,000+ screaming fans. Some have been fortunate enough to know the hushed excitement and anxious fear that consumes a playoff crowd. Even fewer yet have felt the adrenaline course through their own blood during a potential rally at a World Series home game. I would love one day to attend a World Series game at Target Field. I would probably be willing to give up, again, that extra paycheck I earn at the ballpark, or even an arm or a leg. But there is one thing I wouldn't give up. It's something only a select few are able to experience, and Kirk and I can barely talk about it without dramatically (and comically) wiping away tears and adopting the wistful tones of the very elderly as when they talk about the way things used to be.
I'm talking about an empty ballpark. And I don't mean the type of empty ballpark you find in Tampa or Kansas City even during a home stand. What I mean to describe is the ballpark as it exists before the game, before batting practice even, when the seats are empty and covered in shadows, when all is quiet and still and clean. It is foreplay at its finest. An empty ballpark may sound depressing, boring or even pointless to you – they are, after all, built specifically to house the team and its fans – but I assure you, the silent, unobstructed communion that occurs in an empty ballpark between your soul and something greater is exactly what Sarandon must have been talking about when she described the healing powers of The Church of Baseball.
Now, of course the park is never truly empty when Kirk and I are there. Security is always on the clock. A few other staff members are scattered here and there, wiping bird crap off seats and turning on soda fountains. Down on the field, the grounds crew prepares the dirt and chalk, the border separating the brown crushed granite from soft grass. The pitchers play long toss, the infielders take grounders, and the outfielders dance their way through their stretching drills. Then the guests line up outside the gate, ready to come in and replace solitude with community. But until those gates open, until the people rush in and quicken the pulse of the place, the concourses are wide open, the sightlines are unobstructed and there are no distractions. Until the gates open, you can stand at the bottom of the 43rd step, the one right next to the padded wall and the left field foul line, and you can look out at the downtown skyline. You can smell the gasoline of lawn mowers and admire the cross-cut pattern of the grass, its individual blades rolled and pressed into alternating directions so they reflect light and 100 varying shades of green. You can enjoy it and take it in without any interruption, just like a kiss before the big show.
Just like Susan Sarandon said at the beginning of Bull Durham
, "The only church that feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball." Nowhere is that nourishment more readily digestible – in the form of fresh air, silence or even a hot dog covered in mustard – than in an empty ballpark. I'm very grateful I don't have to experience it alone.
*Views are my own and do not represent those of my employer*