This wet Georgia spring, the daffodils bloomed in January, the tulip trees in February, and the forsythia in March. It’s the first of April, the dogwoods are uncurling, Jesus is resurrected, and, today, so are the Atlanta Braves. They emerge from the dark cave of a winter weight room, rested and ready for 162 games. With Chipper Jones retired, the men in my house have to choose a new favorite Brave; they debate the merits of Hudson, Freeman, and McCann. They’re still mourning Martin Prado’s trade to the Diamondbacks, but the novelty of the two Upton brothers playing side by side in the outfield is some consolation.
Back up in our little corner of Cobb County (25 miles north) baseball doesn’t need resurrecting; it never died to begin with. It may have suffered mightily and slept for a month, but it didn’t quite expire. The first practice of 2013 for Henry’s 9U Spark Plugs was January 13, a full month before the Braves’ pitchers and catchers reported to spring training, and a mere month after the boys’ final scrimmage of 2012. Back in January, when I wrote that this little travel team went through an off-season “re-structuring,” I didn’t know that it hadn’t completely played out yet. After chasing off four players and bringing on three new ones, Coach Larry lost a fifth Spark Plug to an East Cobb team, who lured him (or his parents) with the promise of playing up a division, an already-paid for uniform, and a spot in the infield.
For Coach Larry, exiling his pitching coach last fall presented the most vexing problem. To go deep in a tournament, Coach knew he needed at least half a dozen kids who can throw strikes consistently, and pitchers need specialized coaching. So, in an unexpected development, the Spark Plugs now have their own set of brothers in the dugout. Coach Larry asked his older brother—a teammate in his youth who went on to pitch for a local college—to be the Spark Plugs’ pitching coach. Jack could not be more different from his flashier younger brother. Maybe it’s the spring weather or hopefulness at the start of a new season or selective amnesia about all the stuff that worried me in the fall, but I’m consoled by the prospect of these two brothers as coaches, interconnected opposites like the two closed curves sewn together to make a baseball.
Larry is loud and hard driving, a leader the boys respect and have learned to fear when his mood goes cloudy. Jack is quiet and deliberate, with a hint of amusement in his eyes at the strange ways of nine-year-old boys. He’s as focused on conditioning as pitching technique. At practices, his pitchers stand like flamingos to improve their balance; they do walking lunges before games and run laps afterward. And Jack is impartial. With no son on the team, he gives all the kids a chance to show if they can pitch, and teaches the ones who ask to learn.
Even with hopefulness, a little rest, and brand new uniforms, for half of February and most of March, the Spark Plugs seem more like a team at midseason. And that’s both good and bad. The kids look better at the plate and run the bases well; the new players are, on balance, more talented than the ones who left. The team got two promising pitchers and a speedy little kid who walks, then steals a lot. They’re winning more games, and batting averages are ticking up. But of the ten kids on the team’s final roster, two are currently on the fifteen-day DL (a broken thumb and an inflamed elbow). Coach is scrambling to find subs, so the kids can play in already-paid-for tournaments. A team of only eight could spell disaster for the coach (and his wife, the real organizational brains behind it all). If he were a praying man, Coach might duck into one the area’s more than 500 churches, which are throwing doors wide open this time of year, to confer with Him about the team’s troubles. But He may not be inclined to listen; He may be over baseball at this point because, according to the Spark Plugs’ planned schedule, the seven Sundays from Easter to Pentecost are set aside for bracket play.
As the spring season pushes up lush green fescue and plants baseball diamonds with boys of all ages in clean white pants and new cleats, churches across the county unfurl giant banners inviting lapsed Christians to Easter Sunday services. I don’t want to add more to the pile of stuff that’s already been written about baseball as secular religion in America, but over the last two years I’ve watched our secular religion and our actual religions circling each other uneasily, each staking a claim to Sunday morning.
At the moment, I’m not inclined to take sides, and I’m probably not the most qualified to call this fight either. There are three things I generally don’t mention when making small talk with other parents at the ball field: 1) I vote a straight Democratic ticket; 2) I have a conversation-ending advanced degree (starts with a P and ends with a D); 3) we don’t go to church.
Let me clarify that last one. We are members of a church, a sweet little Episcopal church where my boys were baptized, Henry at six months and already busting buttons on the brittle lace gown that five generations of men in Will’s family had worn before him. To be honest, I transferred my letter of membership knowing that we needed to make sure the Church Base was covered. In Cobb County, there are a lot of close plays—and a few collisions—at Church.
Sign your kids up for Methodist preschool? Fill out a line on a form declaring your church membership. Register your kids for Upward basketball? Fill out a line on a form declaring your church membership. Boy Scouts? Church. Summer camp? Church. It doesn’t take long to figure out that Your Church is shorthand for who You Are. In these parts of the Bible Belt the Episcopal church is a bit suspect (cf. l’affair de Gene Robinson), but it’s as far as I’m willing to go, as a cradle Episcopalian for whom the Nicene Creed lights up a well-traveled neuromotor path. Any sort of unscripted praying makes me mildly uncomfortable. I put my faith in the elegant sentences of The Book of Common Prayer. The 40% of church-going Cobb Countians who attend one of 100+ Southern Baptist congregations scattered across the county’s 344 square miles will just have to carry on without me.
Then there’s the way religion and politics bleed together. Your Church is also shorthand for Your Politics. A well-known conservative website ranks Cobb County as the 60th most conservative county in the country. We can console ourselves that counties directly to the north, south, east, and west have all cracked the top twenty. I’ve learned to hang back during any ballpark conversation on religion or politics, and I always assume that everyone else is more conservative than I am. Phil Gingrey and Tom Price, our elected representatives, noisily express the political views of a majority of Cobb Countians. And then there are those to their right. You can identify them by their bumper stickers.
While I thought I had Our Politics tucked out of sight and Our Church under control, it turns out that the kids were regularly giving the game away. They’d noticed that we didn’t go. Not long ago I heard Henry explain to a friend in the backseat, “We don’t actually go to church.” Oh well. The good news is that Sunday mornings during baseball season are not all that fraught for us. We show up at a field somewhere for the Church of Baseball and feel no guilt (the trump card of the Episcopalian) about not being at the Church of Church. But we’re probably exceptions around here.
Coaches pursuing trophies at weekend tournaments can’t afford to be irreverent about Church, but they have to prepare parents for the reality that travel baseball clears the pews on Sunday mornings. At our team meeting at the start of the spring season, Coach Larry put it this way: “Church—have to be blunt—we can pray together Sunday morning at the tournament.” I haven’t yet figured out which families on the team care about this. There was subdued laughter as Coach confessed that he wasn’t as practiced at praying as knowing when to send the runner home on a passed ball. His meaning was clear though: baseball before church. You sign on, you’ve picked a side. There’s not a place on his team for anyone who needs to arrive in the third inning of a Sunday morning game. The boys have already played a lot of Sunday morning baseball, and the only prayers I’ve heard from Coach were mumbled intercessions to Him about a kid’s immediate need for a solid hit with runners in scoring position.
With his booming voice, Coach might have made a great preacher. As it is, his evangelizing tends to be about his love of baseball and the prophet-coaches who taught him what he’s now eager to teach the boys. Sample Coach Larry catechism:
COACH: Now listen up, boys. Do you want to learn something?
KIDS: Yes, Sir! [it’s the South; the “sir” is mandatory]
COACH: Loss [holds up left thumb and forefinger to make the letter ‘L’] plus Learn [holds up right thumb and forefinger to make a backwards ‘L’] equals Win [brings the two ‘L’s’ together to make a W]. You see that? Loss plus learn equals win. Say it.
KIDS: Loss plus learn equals win!
Now that I think about it, this is pretty much the lesson of the Easter season too. Loss plus learn equals win. Maybe baseball will save us after all.
So, if there’s only one place you can be on Sunday morning during baseball season and it’s not in Church, then Church is getting wise to the game. Generally, Church seems to adopt one of two approaches to The Sunday Morning Problem: scold or scout. On the scold side, there are the frequently shared and forwarded articles from Christian blogs and newsletters about the dangers of showing children that a commitment to a team comes before a commitment to Him (sample shaming: “Drive 400 miles so your child can play hockey but refuse to take them to a home group bible study because it’s 20 minutes away?”). On the scout side, you get something like the FCA or, for younger kids, Upward Sports, the largest Christian sports league, which is franchised by congregations all across the country (sample message to the parents of the half million kids playing Upward sports: “protecting [kids] from hectic travel schedules and the win-at-all costs mentality”). The idea seems to be: get kids and parents closer to the Church doors by offering sports programs on the giant field beyond the parking lot. When Will coached soccer at the Methodist church, the hardest part of the whole thing for him was leading the required post-game prayer for a huddle of five and six year olds. Four years of Episcopal high school and unscripted praying turns out to be a problem for him too.
Back during travel baseball tryout season in August, my friend Danielle texted me from a ballpark in central Cobb County:
DANIELLE: The coach at this tryout is a youth evangelist during the day…
ME: more prayers = more wins?
DANIELLE: There should be a baseball reality show.
ME: You should pitch that—the Dance Moms of boy sports?
DANIELLE: Take a sabbatical.
For many parents, a preacher-coach two-in-one might be an answered prayer—if an answered prayer dresses in Under Armor shorts and a UGA ball cap and makes parents feel okay about The Sunday Morning Problem with some ritualized tournament-Sunday praying. I’ve witnessed plenty of circles of men and boys, kneeling in the outfield grass. They’re guided by a looser definition of Church (that, or by Matthew 18:20: “when two or three are gathered together…”). Tim Tebow is not the only one who can turn a patch of grass into a chapel and sports equipment into a vehicle for Christian proselytizing.
The coach as preacher and the preacher as coach are common tropes; each regularly borrows from the other’s toolbox. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes has been merging these roles for almost 60 years now, with over 9,000 campus chapters and half a million members, from middle school to college. In recent years, this modern-day Muscular Christianity has gotten more sport specific; the FCA now has a baseball ministry, fielding its own teams and reaching out to coaches, who have the best chance to save the almost 6 million kids who play baseball in America.
Not long ago I started noticing the presence of 3:16 Baseball, a local group in the vein of an evangelical sports ministry like the FCA. There was a stack of glossy flyers on the counter of the pizza place next to the ballpark; there were ads and announcements on travel baseball message boards and emailed invitations to clinics and tournaments where boys could catch a Christian message, as well as fly balls. It appears that 3:16 Baseball is getting in on the Cobb County travel ball juggernaut. From the group’s website:
“Our mission is to further the Kingdom of God by providing a competitive yet morally ethical baseball organization that stresses family values, good sportsmanship, and biblical lessons for life…To install a Christ-like mentality into the character of every person in order to produce highly competitive athletes in a way that honors God.”
3:16 Baseball offers a homegrown solution to the problem that’s been dogging faith-minded baseball parents since, well, the invention of the two-day weekend. Fuse baseball and evangelism. For parents who work a typical five-day week (and for kids who spend 35 hours a week in school), an average sized tournament has to be squeezed into Saturday and Sunday—that’s two days for 88 boys on eight teams to play 23 baseball games in 36 hours, usually on one field. Sunday morning? Unless it’s raining, they’re definitely playing ball. So maybe it’s inevitable that a group step in to mediate the two parties in this uneasy standoff. Merge baseball with Church. Play and pray. And for the parents for whom prayers ≠ wins, 3:16 Baseball has this admonition:
“Baseball should be just one of the many ways we honor God the creator of all things. We honor Him with our attitude. We honor Him with our hustle. And leave the results to Him. Period.”
But if the kids lose on Sunday Morning, you can bet Coach will be back in charge at Monday night’s practice.