Monday, October 25, 2010

How Sweet The Sound

Bobby Cox sits in the home dugout at Turner Field, arms folded across his belly like a slightly discontented Buddha. It is the bottom of the ninth and the good guys, as Skip Caray used to say, are down 3 – 2.

The coach checks his scorecard, looks down the bench and calls for a pinch hitter. It isn’t a surprise call. At least it wouldn’t have been, say, 48 hours before. Brooks Conrad, a 30-year-old career minor leaguer who finally made the big league roster in the spring, a scrapper that team captain Chipper Jones nicknamed Raw Dog, hit two pinch hit grand slam homeruns in the regular season, heroics that made any number of highlight reels. Everybody knows what he can do in a pinch.

But everybody also knows what he did just last night. Pressed into service as a starting infielder near the end of the season after injuries claimed both Chipper and Martin Prado, Conrad has been defensively inconsistent and twenty-four hours earlier he committed three errors at second base, the third a tailor-made double play ball that would have ended the inning and preserved a Braves lead. The ball bounced between his legs into the outfield and thousands of Braves fans, myself included, sprang from their sofas, throwing our arms into the air and screaming, "I could have made that play!"

The Braves lost the game.

The next day, with sports writers from one end of the country to the other comparing Conrad to goats of championship series past, Bobby Cox made the decision to take Conrad out of the lineup for that night’s game. But not as punishment, not as discipline, not as a show of authority.

"I talked to Brooksy at length this morning, and he needs a day off," Cox told reporters. "He needs to get away from it for a day. ... This shouldn't happen to anybody in the game of baseball. But it's happened to [him]. I told him to hold his head high, and maybe pinch-hit and win a game for us." So there we are, all of us, biting our nails, sitting on the edges of our seats, watching Number 26 walk toward the plate, wondering if Number 6 had pulled just one more bit of magic out of his baseball cap.

He didn’t. Instead Conrad hit a fly ball to centerfield. And, two outs later, the season ended for the good guys.

I’ve been a fan for a long time. I remember a lot of big moments. Most of those moments play out in my memory to a soundtrack of loud cheers and enthusiastic broadcast calls. But none of them, not even Sid Bream sliding under the tag at home, will stay with me longer than that one quiet moment in Game 4 of the 2010 National League Division Series, a play that is recorded in the scorebook as simply F8.

It was, it dawned on me as I sat on the sofa and watched Conrad turn and trot slowly back toward the dugout, a moment of pure grace.

We Protestants talk a lot about grace. We’ve talked about it so much that we don’t even have to define it anymore, we just use its tag line: unmerited favor. We’ve requisitioned it for use as a get-out-of-jail-free card. We call ourselves Christians and then sanitize what it means to be one since, as we so kindly explain to those who are less biblically literate, we no longer "live under the law."

I have to wonder, though, how many of us who claim to have experienced that grace are as quick to offer it as the was the man in the dugout? How often have we given an opportunity to someone who didn’t deserve it? How often have we offered a second chance to someone who bungled the first one? How often have we given more than has been asked?

In his post-game, actually post-career, interviews Bobby Cox said he hadn’t really thought about it being his last game. That it wasn’t until the game was over, until the final out was made, until everybody started heading toward the locker room and the cheers of the fans called him out on the field for one final round of applause and a tipping of the hat by the opposing team that he realized he’d put on the uniform for the last time.

Poignant. Bittersweet. And, dusted with grace, amazing.

Copyright 2010

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Friday Night Frights

My godson the football coach isn’t having a very good year. Actually, he personally is having a very good year (He got married in January to a wonderful young woman he takes every opportunity to introduce as "my smokin’ hot wife."); it’s his football team that can’t seem to get it together.

There’s not a lot of depth, regardless of how you define the word, on the team and by last week they had lost so many players to injury that they didn’t practice in pads lest they lose one more person and not have enough healthy bodies to put eleven men on the field. It was so bad that, at one point Friday night, they had to put in the ninth-grade quarterback.

It had all the makings of a great inspirational story – the scrawny inexperienced guy would come in and somehow, inexplicably, miraculously lead the team if not to victory, at least to a touchdown. Except, I’m sorry to say, that’s not what happened:

The freshman goes in, takes the snap, back pedals from the line. The rag-tag, patchwork, supremely cliche’-worthy offensive line somehow holds. One second. Two seconds. Three seconds. The weary fans hold their collective breath waiting for the skinny little kid to throw the ball. But he doesn’t. And eventually a defensive lineman breaks through for a tackle.

Second down. The freshman takes the snap. Moves backward, this time a little quicker. The line, unbelievably, rises above itself again, holding the defenders in their places. Receivers run back and forth across the field waiting, waiting, waiting for the ball to be released. But it isn’t. And eventually, again, the quarterback goes down.

My godson – he whose DNA is made of X’s and O’s, he whose family folklore is rife with tales of last-second victories and come-from-behind charges, he who can offer up halftime inspiration like most good southern boys can say grace, that is, on a moment’s notice and with passion that will bring tears to your eyes – calls the ninth grader to the sidelines. He puts his hands on the boy’s shoulders and gets in his face, eyeball to eyeball. "Son, your receivers are open. The line is holding back the defenders. Why aren’t you throwing the ball?"

In a voice trembling somewhere between a scream and a sob, the boy looks back at his coach and says, "They’re everywhere! They’re everywhere!"

He was referring, of course, to the linebackers, the cornerbacks, the safetys. The players who are big and fast and mean, whose only job is to make sure that the thrown football doesn’t reach its intended target and, if it does, that the target is punished so severely that the football cannot possibly be held. They are trained to detect the slightest mistake – a brief delay in the release, a negligible turn in direction – to exploit that mistake and to intercept the football.

They are, as the poor little quarterback said, everywhere.

For most of history, we humans could easily identify the linebackers and cornerbacks and safetys. They were wild animals and disease and despots. Not so now. The 21st century versions of Dick Butkus and Lawrence Taylor and Charles Woodson are terrorism and recession and environmental collapse. They are invisible, intangible, inscrutable. And they are everywhere.

So what will prevent them from also being paralyzing? What will keep us from becoming like the freshman quarterback, afraid to even try hoisting our dreams into the air?

I talked to my godson the football coach this morning. We chatted about the season in general, how the losses were growing pains and how his job was to invest in his kids and give them somebody to look up to. And we talked about the freshman quarterback, the one who couldn’t let go of the ball. "What did you say to him" I asked, "when he said, ‘They’re everywhere!’?"

"I told him, ‘No, they’re not.’"

No. They’re not.

Sometimes, when every face is the face of a stranger, when every promise lies in pieces at your feet, when the rope that has held the anchor of your faith has frayed in two, it is easy to think they’re everywhere. And that they are going to win.

It is in those moments that each of us is a ninth grade quarterback needing someone look us in the eyes and say, "Things are not as they appear. All hope is not lost. Now, haul back and throw."

Copyright 2010