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Toward Wholeness Blog

Fastballs and Faith: The Cords That Tied Our Family Together

It could have been anything that wove our family together: hunting, fishing, hockey, the theater, fixing cars (thank God it wasn’t that!), or camping.  But for our family it was baseball.  Dad played when he was young, all the way through college.  Then he got married.  Then, after the war, something remarkable happened: baseball moved west.  Until that glorious final out Tuesday night, the last time the Giants won the World Series was in 1954, when they were the New York Giants, and there were no baseball teams west of the Mississippi.

That changed when the Giants relocated the San Francisco, and the Dodgers took up residence in Los Angeles, giving birth to a rivalry that would divide the state.  Dad fell in love with the Giants, and our family became saturated with baseball.  The radio play-by-play announcers became regular supper guests, or followed us outside for yardwork, or to the beach.

I learned just how serious this love was in the spring of ’63.  My parents were God-fearing Christians, and school teachers, so they had two inviolable rules:  you don’t skip school, and you don’t skip church–even on Wednesdays, which was when there was an after school singing thing for seven-year-olds like me. Then the unthinkable happened. The San Francisco Giants were coming to Fresno for an exhibition game against the Cleveland Indians, on a Wednesday afternoon.  I was too young to know how great baseball was, but my folks were going make sure I found out, so they broke all their unbreakable rules for that single day.  Dad said, “I’ll be by to pick you up at school during your lunch break.  We’re going to the Giants game!”

We got there early, and watched Willie Mays and his companions take batting practice.  We stayed late standing outside as the players filed past us onto a bus, joking and laughing.  Dad had his Giant hat on, and bought me one that day;  if dad was trying to create a love for the game, I was hooked.  Each summer after that we’d make a pilgrimage to San Francisco to watch a couple Giant games.  It became our thing, and the rolodex of my mind is filled with indelible memories–not just of home runs and fastballs, but of hot chocolate on foggy Bay Area nights, of warm hugs, of the togetherness was our context for love.

In a few years, I’d go on to play the game, well enough to be a starter and appreciate all the nuances of pitching, base stealing, and the esoteric strategies of this funky game.  My memories of rich times with my dad have to do with little league, with catching fly balls he’d hit, with broken windows I’d created, and learning about love because of them.  Baseball was the context of relationship.  Even after my dad died, my mom and I went to a few games, and listened to countless ones the radio, hanging on every pitch.  Somehow, those moments became parenthesis of pure joy in the midst of other harsh realities of life, as family members grew sick and died, as mom found a way forward without her husband, and then her parents, and then through the untimely death of her daughter.  Somehow baseball became a love language that bound us together, the way the mountains bind me with my kids.

And all through it, the Giants never found a way to win the big prize.  Most years they were good, some years very good.  On average, once a decade, they’d make it to the World Series: ’62, ’71, after a long drought ’89, and ’02.  Their hated rivals, the Dodgers, would find success numerous times, but the big prize would always elude the Giants – always, that is, until last night.

So now the Giants have won, and my 91-year-old mom is enjoying the fulfillment of a 56-year longing – that the Giants would win the World Series.  Sure, it sounds silly because, as I said at the outset, anything could have been fabric, the backdrop of our family.  But for us, it was baseball, and Giant baseball in particular.  It’s because of the love of the game that the first time I watched Field of Dreams deep wells of grief erupted when the departed dad says to the son, “Want to play a little catch?”  I wept because those were our words too, my dad’s and mine.

So last night, after seeing the last out and then scurrying to my class to teach, then enjoying tea with some friends, I went hope and fell into my bed, excited like a little kid because, though it’s only a game, it’s our game, our family’s time spent not thinking about life’s hardships.  I lay in bed, my mind flooded with memories of baseball games in San Francisco, of the motel where we stayed by ball park, of the radio guys announcing Willie Mays 600th home run (we were in the car, driving home).  I remember this stuff and celebrate a childhood longing, imparted to me by mom and dad, now fulfilled.

The Giants: World Series Champions – my bucket list just got shorter.

PS – I’ve written a review of The Brothers K, David James Duncan’s masterful book about a family woven together by faith, baseball, and Vietnam.  It’s in the forthcoming book  Besides the Bible, a book about 100 books you should read besides the Bible, which is available now for pre-order and will be out soon.

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