The Orioles and Father Bill
Last weekend I watched my 5-year-old grandson Tyler play in his final T-Ball game of the season. My son Luke is team Manager and Tyler is proud to be #5 of the Red Sox. As I was watching the game talking with my daughter-in-law Jessica, I asked how her week had been. Jess said "Great, especially yesterday" and she explained how they had won a church raffle for which the parish priest came to their house and cooked dinner for their family. It was that combination of baseball and the church priest that brought back a great memory.
When our family was young, I managed Luke's older brothers Brian and Joe for a couple of years in Little League baseball. During the second season our team was the Orioles which was a perfect fit since I was born and raised in Baltimore and was still a dedicated fan. I knew from day one that our team was good. I also realized that I needed additional adult help several times a week coaching the boys. Coincidentally, Father Bill, a recently ordained priest at our church, had become a close family friend who I thought might enjoy the opportunity. Father Bill loved God, loved life, and had a genuine enthusiasm for the church that often clashed with the more elder, more conservative clergy. Personally I liked how he shook up traditional approaches in the church and I admired how he joyfully stayed true to his purpose despite obstacles surfaced frequently by his rough edges.
I told Father Bill that I knew baseball, but I could really use him to motivate the boys with that appreciation of life that he just couldn't hide. Bill accepted even though he had very limited baseball skills. He bought a new glove, never applied a drop of glove oil to break it in, and showed up at the field for practices just like the rest of the boys. I still have this vision of him in the outfield, with his priest's black collar opened to the wind, cruising under a pop fly with a big grin yelling "I got it," and opening that glove as the ball hits the pocket and bounces out to the ground like it had hit an ironing board. He enjoyed every minute and the boys realized that, by comparison, they were gifted ball players.
And so it played out ... Bill brought enthusiasm and encouragement, and I gave instruction in fundamentals as we both treated the boys with respect and fairness. At game time it was my policy to play each boy equally regardless of athletic ability; if they came to practice, they played. Our efforts worked well. The Orioles soon won our division and made it to the season-ending championship game.
For that six inning game against the formidable Dodgers, we were the home team sitting in the third base dugout. I had my ace on the mound, my oldest son, Brian Tyler Hudson. When he was on, there was no one better. And for those first two innings Brian was on, allowing the Dodgers no runs on no hits as we scored once in each inning. But something began happening in the top of the third. As Brian had a few "high-strikes" called balls and issued some walks, the Dodgers became inspired and started to hit. They scored in the third and went ahead in the 4th. I watched from the dugout as my 11-year-old Brian still had plenty of gas, but he was mentally fighting himself out there on the mound. He came into the dugout after the 4th, looked at me, said "I'm done" in front of the team and defiantly refused to pitch another inning.
I took Brian behind the dugout where our private manager/player discussion escalated to a louder father/son confrontation. Brian had no physical problems. This was mental adversity that he needed to face, not walk away from, and the Orioles needed him to find a solution quick. As we were talking, I saw Father Bill watching us. I didn't know whether he thought I was going straight to hell or if I was doing the right thing. But with tears pouring, Brian finally sucked it up and agreed to go back to the mound.
"Whenever you think you can or think you can't, either way you are right."
That was when Brian found character and self-value because he pitched with a growing confidence as he kept the ball consistently low in the strike zone. He stopped the Dodgers dead with strikeout after strikeout. Unfortunately we were still behind by one run going into the bottom of the sixth and final inning. We were also in the bottom of our lineup, and by the time we had a man in scoring position on second base, we had two outs. And if things didn't look bad enough ... our #9 hitter, Jason Shanker was coming to bat. Now, I loved Jason; he came to every practice committed to play his best. However, this is no exaggeration - he had never hit a ball (fair or foul) all season. I attributed it to his poor eyesight which was corrected with thick black-rimmed glasses that he was constantly adjusting.
Contrary to all my baseball instincts, I was not going to pinch hit for Jason. Nope, we were the Little League Orioles where every player was treated equally. So this moment and the fate of the team had to belong to Jason.
As Jason stepped into the batter's box his Mom was cheering from the front row of the bleachers. The whole team was screaming for Jason - things like "Take a rip", "You can do it!" What I remember most is that Jason was resolved to swing; he wasn't going to watch strikes go past him. But predictably, even though Jason swung, he could not get the bat in the same plane as the ball. It was quickly one ball, two strikes and the Dodger pitcher could sense victory as he let go of his game-ending fast ball. Jason swung. And that is when time and the next sequence of events seemed to go in slow motion.
Jason's bat made contact with the ball. It was one of those barely-tipped-swinging-bunts that was miraculously fair and bouncing up the third base line. At that instant, I was thinking two things: (1) My God, that's the first time he's ever hit the ball, and (2) The 3rd baseman has a play.
Jason was surprised and a little slow getting out of the box, but he started running. When Jason was half way to 1st base, as the fielder was catching the ball to make the throw, while the fans were standing and screaming, the entire field heard one man's piercing voice rise above all others from inside our dugout and yell ........ "RUN YOU SON-OF-A-BITCH, RUN!"
Jason barely beat the throw and was safe. Everybody went nuts. The Orioles were still alive. The runner had advanced to third and Jason was proudly beaming on first base, smiling to his Mom while straightening his glasses. And then ... every person's eyes instinctively turned to our dugout to see who would yell with so little self-restraint during a kid's baseball game. And there, dressed in black, was our Father Bill - still jumping up and down with both fists high in the air, oblivious to everyone and screaming to Jason on first base "Yeah Baby, Yeah!"
The Orioles followed Jason with the top of the batting order which, inspired by Jason, came through with several hits to win that game. What were the lessons learned? Every player, every parent, and each coach would have a different list. I do know that it was a positive life-defining moment for Jason Shanker. If I had pinch hit for Jason, it would have sent all the wrong messages. Our fate was in God's hands, and He delivered with a sense of humor.
Father Bill made many of us feel closer to God that year. He filled that perceived gap that separates us sinners from the more holy clergy. His love of God was sincere, without reservation; his love of the Orioles was spontaneous and heart-felt.
Does this story have any application to art? Not intentionally, but every once in a while, when you're lucky, a comet will pass through your life. It will come from the heavens burning brightly for a short period, grab your interest with excitement, and then be gone. You can't alter its course or change its purpose. It's a gift to be remembered.