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Long before I realized the sacredness of the altar or the font or the Gospel book with its gilded edges, my contact with the holy happened twenty yards due north of second base. The play-by-play guys and color commentators speak of the “baseball gods,” but I can forgive their polytheism, for they must not have heard the good news that the Almighty God of heaven and earth became the God of baseball around 1912. Of course, half a lifetime ago, I didn’t realize that. All I knew was that centerfield was, somehow, holy.
I lived to play defense—my hitting and striking out and stealing bases and popping out to the first baseman and scoring from second were dry toast. Catching fly balls and cutting off balls hit in the gap were pizza and hamburgers. I relished being a member of the home team because it meant wallowing in the purgatorial dugout was delayed half an inning. I sprinted out to centerfield, my cleats enduring a few mouthfuls of dusty clay before clamping their teeth into the damp, tussock-strewn earth of the outfield.
It had rained that morning—not hard, but the ground had drank in the drizzle for the same several hours that I sat around my house hoping the coach wouldn’t call with bad news. Any ball that bounced would be wet, making it harder to throw accurately. I would be slower by the third inning, after my cleats and socks each added a pound or two of mud and water. The rain had stopped, but the clouds still muffled the late-spring twilight. The sky was the color of a scuffed baseball, which, of course, made the actual scuffed baseballs that would soon be arcing toward me quite difficult to see.
I sprinted all the way to the chain-link fence that bounded the field. Faded, plywood advertisements for local car dealers and Baptist churches adorned the fence, which was polka-dotted with pockets of rust. The top of the fence was just out of my leaping reach, since I hadn’t hit my growth spurt yet. With my gloved right hand, I tapped the chain-links with all the reverence of crossing myself with holy water. Then I squelched back to continue my ritual north-northwest of the pitcher’s mound.
As a centerfielder, I never stood perfectly in the center of the field, else the pitcher would obscure my view of the batter. Instead, I let my internal dowsing rod lead me to the patch of ground four or five steps to the shortstop side of second base, the better to get the jump on balls batted by right-handed hitters. This spot was the spring at the center of my fiefdom, a territory it was my duty to protect from incoming mortar fire. I dug my cleats into the spot, creating a shallow foxhole. This was my land, and it was holy, and I soaked up its sacredness through my cleated feet.
As the leadoff batter walked toward home plate, the field’s lights hiccupped and hummed to life. But there was already electricity in the air, and the aftertaste of bubble gum mixed with the mint chocolate flavor of exhilaration in my mouth. The banks of lights cast four shadows, and they swirled around me like Busby Berkeley’s dancers. The familiar, but always surprising, feeling of anticipation hiccupped and hummed to life in my bowels.
The batter kicked his heals into the clay. The pitcher gripped the ball in his glove. I punched my glove and paced my foxhole. As the pitcher went into his windup, the organs south of my lungs declared war and started marching north. Strike One. My stomach occupied the region around my larynx. Ball One. My heart beat a double time cadence. Crack. I took a step back and moved to my right. The ball hurtled into the air, past the artificial horizon where the sloping roof of the concession stand met the sky. I took four more steps to my right and waited, while in my mind the thousands of ways I could fail tried to smother the single way I could succeed. For half a second, I wondered if Ashlee were in the bleachers. I waited as the ball reached its peak and fell back to earth, towards my land. Finally, after three and a half seconds of forever, the ball sailed into my glove and made the satisfying SWAPTH sound that I lived for. My sacred ground remained undefiled, and I could breathe again.
I tossed the ball to the shortstop, marched back to my foxhole, and the warring organs broke their ceasefires. Would that be my only catch of game? Or would I have a busy night patrolling my fiefdom? There was no way to know. So I stared down the batter on each pitch, flinched reflexively on each swing, and waited in anticipation, my feet poised on holy ground, connected to something that brought out the best in me and that called to me from the scuffed baseball sky and the fence and my foxhole. That something – I wouldn’t have known to call it God then – that something called to me, speaking the grace needed to taste the mint chocolate flavor of exhilaration, speaking the devotion that enabled me to move with purpose each time ball and bat connected, speaking the love that kept me returning again and again to the ballpark in rain or shine, speaking my very life into being.