Joy and Hope
September 5, 2009
Being a good Christian, like pitching, takes lots of practice
At the beginning of this summer I had my big pitching debut at Raley Field. On Father’s day I joined a good number of the Catholic fathers and their families for a day at the ball park.
Months prior to the event, the organizers had asked me to throw out the first pitch at the beginning of the game, to which I agreed reluctantly. This momentary lack of judgment did not get further thought or consideration until one of my nephews began to query me about whether I could actually do it. Could I really get the ball over the plate? For your information, my family has something better than a GPS bracelet to keep track of me. They read The Herald and the Diocese of Sacramento’s Web site (www.diocese-sacramento.org).
This nephew of mine saw the announcement about the upcoming Catholic Father’s Day event at Raley Field and panicked at the idea that his uncle was going to attempt to pitch a baseball over home plate. He had his doubts. “You know Uncle Jaime,” he says with a scolding look on his face, “that is a long way to throw a ball. Now don’t go embarrassing the whole family out there. You better practice.” Well, that lecture was enough to put the fear of God in me but not enough to comply with my nephew’s advice.
The day arrived for the grand debut and I had not put a glove on my hand or gripped a ball. I used to play little league but that was a long time ago. I also played some softball during the summers in my early years as a priest but was never the pitcher. The positions of left field or shortstop were my preference. Before leaving for Raley Field, I fumbled around some of the still-unpacked moving boxes, looking for my old glove. That was a wasted effort.
I arrived early to the park and got involved in throwing the ball around on the field with dads and their children. The old muscles began to twitch into action but in the back of my mind was my nephew’s admonition, “Don’t go embarrassing the whole family out there.” The moment of truth quickly arrived and my mind began to bear the weight of the responsibility ahead of me as I marched down the ground floor hallway behind home plate and came out into the brilliance of a sunlit diamond set for another round of the old American pastime.
“Get that ball over the plate,” was the track playing in my head. Along with others who were part of the pre-game festivities, I made light conversation until they signaled to me and I nervously walked up to the pitcher’s mound surrounded by the usual sounds and whirl of a ballgame about to begin. Walking up to the pulpit of a church also makes me nervous but, quite frankly, I have more practice with that than what I was about to do.
I got up on the pitcher’s mound, put my right foot on the rubber, and set my left shoulder in the direction of home plate. The catcher crouched down and did the habitual pounding of his glove as if signaling where to put the ball. I slowly turned my body away from the plate and lifted both hands over my head. The right hand continued to stretch farther back and then both body and arm snapped towards the plate and the ball was launched forward on the time honored trajectory measured at 60 feet and six inches.
There were some other thoughts in mind as well, dawdling behind home plate waiting for my episcopal pitching debut. I recalled reading a magazine article entitled, “Throw like a girl.” This used to be the old, summertime abuse boys would throw at one another. For obvious reasons, the statement is politically incorrect. Nowadays, it is also factually inaccurate.
My oldest niece use to pitch softball. Watching her pitch made me question why one ever called it “softball.” The magazine author’s use of the old, tired playground taunt was a reference to a particular manner of throwing the ball: looking straight at the target while throwing the ball in that direction. This would seem to make intuitive sense, but it does not work. It is actually a clumsy technique that does not give the ball much speed. To throw a baseball well one must learn how to do it.
With prior generations it was usually the boys who were taught how to throw a baseball. This required teaching them the counterintuitive technique of turning away from the target in order to give one’s throw more torque. The expression “throw like a girl” was the result of girls not being taught how to throw a ball. This article made me recall my brother talking his daughter out to play catch, something my father never did with my sister.
The article also made me realize how much my own life was the result of what my parents taught me. I was taught not only how to throw a baseball. I was also taught how to say “thank you, yes sir, no ma’am, excuse me” and other rules of common courtesy. I watched and learned how to make the sign of the cross, how to genuflect in church, and how to hold my hands in prayer.
Getting my first watch as well as my first rosary required serious instruction on how to use them, how to care for them, and the reinforced habitual practice that led me to depend on them. I never followed my father’s keen interest in sports, but my parents’ deep love for the church and their devotion to service left an indelible mark with the inheritance of habits that give rhythm, rhyme and grace to each of my days.
All of that took much of my parent’s time, a gift they gave generously to my six siblings and me. Do we take that kind of time to teach and practice the ways, manners and habits of being a good disciple of Lord Jesus? Being a good Christian, being the person God has called us to be, is not always intuitive. It may be not only counterintuitive but countercultural as well. This means that it must be learned and practiced. Even the “natural born athlete” must learn and practice well his or her game. God has made us and graced us for himself. We still must learn and practice to know, love and serve him.
I want to take this opportunity to gratefully acknowledge the many men and women who will give themselves generously as teachers and catechists in our Catholic schools and programs of religious education. You are providing a valuable gift to the church and her children.
I also wish to encourage parents in their efforts to educate their children and cultivate the best of habits and rituals in their lives. As St. James instructed us, we must do more than just hear the Word. We must be doers of the Word. We must put the Word into practice. (Jas. 1.22-25)
Oh, if you are still wondering about that pitch: a little high and outside. I still need some practice.