Yes, it has been a while since this church project has shown any progress. Trust me, there are two posts in the draft queue awaiting publication, but today I had to mark a significant event: the second annual baseball sermon at my village church here in Cotuit.
The Reverend Jeremy Nickel, my neighbor and friend and baseball buddy, pitched a gem of a sermon last summer at the Federated Church, preaching (to my ears at least) that Dave Roberts, the Red Sox pinch runner who sparked the greatest comeback in sporting history with his steal of second base against the evil Yankees in 2004, opening the door for the Red Sox’s first World Series championship in modern memory, should be canonized and given sainthood for his courage to step off of the bag and fly like the wind into the unknown and future greatness.
This morning Jeremy pitched his final baseball sermon, sadly on his way to California and a lucky congregation in the San Francisco Bay Area. The topic was, “The Imperfect Game”, and with artful elegance and insight the Reverend Nickel recounted the tale of Detroit Tiger pitcher Armando Galaragga’s tragic reminder that there is no perfection in the human pursuit, only the Daedalusian drive to try, always strive, to find perfection only to see it lost, robbed, by human fallability and fate.
Baseball is indeed a sport of awesome precision and regularity, yet also a pastime rife with errors and the capricious wiles of bad luck, misfortune, and emotion. The distance between the bases, the beautiful geometry of the lines, the time it takes for a catcher to throw a ball to second to try to catch a runner stealing the base …. it all fit beautifully, played out over a numeric routine of innings, outs, strikes, and plays that while tightly prescribed and timeless, is ultimately chaotic and as subject to entropy as anything can be.
This is where Churbucks are married, where they are buried. I was married here. I have stood on the altar stairs twice — once as a sweating groom, then before that at my father’s funeral, stammering to choke back tears as I read these lines from Melville in memory of his imperfect but brief larger-than-life life, and his unrealized dream of sailing around the world:
“”Round the world! There is much in that sound to inspire proud feelings; but whereto does all that circumnavigation conduct? Only through numberless perils to the very point whence we started, where those that we left behind secure, were all the time before us.
“Were this world an endless plain, and by sailing eastward we could for ever reach new distances, and discover sights more sweet and strange than any Cyclades or Islands of King Solomon, then there were promise in the voyage. But in pursuit of those far mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of that demon phantom that, some time or other, swims before all human hearts; while chasing such over this round globe, they either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed.”
Those were sad words to say, words I always think of when I see the little shingle chapel in my comings and goings from the post office. I am not a parishioner of the church, but it remains my church, and while I planned on saving it as the last and final church in my rounds of 52, it had to happen today, out of respect to Jeremy and his wife Nicole, who are leaving later this summer for their new parishes in California.
Fortunately I checked the church website for the time of the service, having mistakenly assumed a 10 am service when in fact summer hours called for a 9 am start. I popped upstairs, put on my 2007 Mike Lowell Red Sox jersey (he was the World Series MVP that year and is to my mind the ultimate Red Sox for his abilities, his good humor in the face of injury, and his solid performance in the clutch), and my battered and sweat stained Red Sox cap. The walk across the park takes all but three minutes, past the library and down the shady bower of Norwegian Maples where the hippies congregated in a noisy tribal mob during the late 1960s. Up the little hill and into the chapel, steamy in the July heat.
I took the back pew, in the corner under an open window and started to sweat. In the pew before me sat Cotuit Kettleers Michael Faulkner, the fantastic centerfielder from Arkansas State and his teammate Chad Wright who also stands in the outfield and is also batting over .300 so far this season. To my right, politely standing so the women and children filling the church could have a seat, was the Kettleer’s coach, Mike Roberts, father of Baltimore Oriole Brian Roberts. It felt good to be surrounded by talent.
The pastor, Nicole LaMarche, opened the service with announcements, a bell-choir rang the introit, and Reverend Jeremy (@PeaceNick) was given a Barnstable Bat and an old framed map of the village from the grateful congregation.
He began the call to worship with these words:
“To worship is to stand in awe under the hot sun in Fenway, to smell the fresh cut grass, the peanuts being freed from their shell …”
Then he and his wife read, one after the other, some poignant quotes about the religion of the game. Including my favorite from A. Bartlett Giamatti, president of Yale during my days in New Haven, and perhaps the best commissioner of Major League Baseball of all time:
“[Baseball] breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.
The sermon was the best retelling of the Galaragga incident I have heard.
Then we rose as one and sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
- We’re going to miss Jeremy and Nicole
- Baseball is one of the last great things in the world, a place where children can stand on the field with their heroes, where youth displays excellence, where men like me can exult in the timelessness of the form.