THE BONDS OF BASEBALL

The tyrant was the opponent, and the world and the human race were the audience. Respect for God won the day and crowned its champions. Who wasn’t amazed at the athletes who were competing in the name of the divine Law? Who wasn’t astonished?
[4 Maccabees 17:14-16 Common English Bible]

I love baseball.

My fanaticism has waned over the passing years, but there was a time when no other sport could equal the enthusiasm I had for baseball.

Like most males, my earliest memories of baseball go back to my childhood and my relationship with my father. But before you dismiss this as some “Field of Dreams” retrospective, bear in mind that there are no cornfields in Puerto Rico, just sugar cane, and even those have diminished in number.

It was on the island where I was born that my love for the sport had its beginning. From the time I could walk, my father would take me to games just about every weekend during the season. The first and biggest impression I had was the vivid green of the outfield grass. We lived in an urban area with brightly colored houses, but we didn’t see that much natural green.

Entrance to Sixto Escobar Stadium, circa 1940
Courtesy: Society for American Baseball Research

We had Winter baseball in Puerto Rico. We got to see Major League players, who would come to the island to play. Not surprisingly, at six years old, I couldn’t tell the difference. Back then, the Major Leaguers played Winter Ball not just to sharpen their skills, but also to supplement their income. The era of astronomical salaries was still generations away.

My father also saw legendary Negro League players before the color barrier was broken. My father, or Papi, as I called him, would mention names one after another, telling me how great this one or that one was. Of course, at that age, I didn’t know individual players. Their individual exploits were lost on me. It didn’t make one bit of difference. They were all outstanding in my eyes.

We had two favorite teams. Truthfully, I cheered for one team, and he, for another. His team was the San Juan Senadores; mine, the Santurce Cangrejeros. I don’t remember the reason we chose those two, perhaps because they were the two we saw play the most. I believe they shared the same ballpark, Sixto Escobar Stadium; so on any given weekend, at least one of them was playing there.

After we moved to the mainland, my fondest times with my dad were spent watching the game, either in person – not nearly as often as on the island – or listening on the radio. Television was still black and white, so watching wasn’t as interesting.

Aerial view of Forbes Field, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates until 1970. Courtesy: Underwood Archives

But listening to games was a community event. Several neighbors would gather outside someone’s house, group chairs in a semi-circle, place the radio strategically on a window ledge, and listen as if we were at the ballpark. The conversations were fun. By that time, my knowledge of, and interest in the game had developed to the point that individual players statistics mattered.

We lived in Southwestern Pennsylvania, so the Pittsburgh Pirates was everyone’s team of choice. However, the Pirates were awful in those days (déjà vu), so Dad and I continued our usual competitive rivalry of selecting different teams to root for. He was a big Jackie Robinson fan, so the Dodgers became his favorites. I, just to be contrary, cheered for the New York Giants. The Giants also had a Puerto Rican pitcher, Rubén Gómez, on the roster. So I had someone for whom I could cheer.

Roberto Clemente

Later, however, when Roberto Clemente was drafted by the Pirates, our allegiances shifted abruptly out of loyalty to this promising young Puerto Rican player who, unbeknownst to us then, would rise to stellar heights both on and off the field. We paid extra attention whenever Clemente came to the plate. We marveled at his spectacular catches in the outfield.

In 1958, the Dodgers and Giants moved to the West Coast. That made it all the easier to transfer our support to Pittsburgh. On the night of August 5th of that year, Papi and I were going to watch the game on TV between the Pirates and Milwaukee. It was an eight p.m. telecast, so he went up to take a nap before the start of the game.

He never woke up.

I was 13 years old. I was crushed. My world could have ended right then.

It took me a long while to recover from the trauma. I would guess about four years. Throughout that time of grief, my greatest consolation was baseball. The love of baseball is probably the greatest legacy that my father left me. During those years of confusion, I would often find myself fantasizing what he would have thought about certain players, or the 1960 Pirates’ World Series Championship. I imagined him right there beside me.

All these memories come to mind as the post-season begins. I’ve never been a huge fan of playoffs. For the longest time, baseball was the only sport that rewarded its winners. The Major Leagues has ballooned from 16 to 30 teams, three divisions in each league, six division champions and two wild cards. Somehow, I don’t think Papi would have approved.

We have no team in the playoffs. The two teams I follow these days, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, will watch it on TV like the rest of us. So I have two choices, the Giants, or the Dodgers.

I’ll go with Papi’s pick.

Pedro Allende
1912 – 1958

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THE BLESSING OF ANIMALS

So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. 
God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.
Genesis 1:21, 25

This weekend many churches will be celebrating the blessing of pets in recognition of St. Francis of Assisi, whose feast day is commemorated on October 4.

When I was in parish ministry this was one of the best attended Saturday services of the year. The normal gathering of 15-20 usually swelled to three times as many, and even higher if you counted all the animals.

It attracted people who may have never attended church at any other time. So naturally, I saw it as an evangelism tool.

I have fond memories of animal blessings. And though I have no horror stories to recount, the blessings were not without challenges.

Normally, we held them outdoors, but a couple times weather forced us inside. Thank goodness for our spacious parish hall. But since that was also where the adult Sunday School met, our custodian graciously always made himself available in case we needed a quick emergency clean up in time for the next morning.

Thanks to my wife, I have become somewhat of a cat lover over the years we’ve been married.  We are now on our third one. And I’ve learned some lessons about pets from my wife as well as from our felines.

Mili and Cali sunning themselves

All of our cats have stories. I’ll make them quick so as not to bore you with them.

Our first two, Milagros (Mili), and Cali, were rescues.  Mili was thrown from the window of a passing car right in front of my wife’s car.  She stopped to pick it up and brought it home.  She was only about three to four weeks old.

Cali, on the other hand, showed up at our doorstep one 4th of July, looking for food.  Our neighbor gave it part of a hot dog, so she kept coming back again and again.  We continued to feed it until the weather began to get colder and decided to bring her in.

Both Mili and Cali have crossed the Rainbow Bridge. (I’m not fond of that euphemism for death, but it resonates with pet lovers.) Cali died in 2014; and Mili, just last November.

Mili proofreading one of my sermons

Mili and Cali were both persistent.  If they wanted a head rub, they would continue to brush up against you until you gave them what they wanted.  They would both sleep with us.  They were always waiting for us at the door when we returned after being away for any length of time.  Whenever we sat down, they were on our laps, sitting there, purring with an inner-peace and contentment that most humans would envy.

This past March, after replacing our carpeting with hardwood floors, we welcomed Callie into our home. We saw her in an ad from a cat fostering agency and, after a weekend “meet and greet,” we adopted her.

Callie

We’re still trying to figure Callie out. Linda, my wife, has bonded with her. Of course, Linda always does.

However, Callie is still somewhat frightened of me; and, despite my best efforts, we have yet to connect. I watch her and wonder what traumatic experience she may have had that makes her wary of me.

I have become very aware of the very small signals in life our pets send us, and they’ve been lessons worth learning.

God has given us animals to be our friends and companions. They are an extension of family and very much loved by us who own them. If you doubt that, post a cat picture on Facebook or Instagram, and watch with amazement the instantaneous responses.

The physical, mental, and spiritual benefits to owning a pet are too numerous to mention here.

But chief among those is the unconditional love that our animals give us. It is their blessing for us, a gift from God.

In addition, the love we give to a pet, and receive from a pet, can draw us more deeply into the larger circle of life, into the wonder of our common relationship to our Creator.

Francis, in his simple wisdom, understood all these things. He talked to the animals.  He understood them.  He knew their place in creation.

That is why we celebrate the Feast of St. Francis.

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PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION

So it is with every artisan and master artisan
   who labors by night as well as by day;
those who cut the signets of seals,
   each is diligent in making a great variety;
they set their heart on painting a lifelike image,
   and they are careful to finish their work.
[Sirach 38:27]

For our anniversary last week, my wife, Linda, and I took in the Immersive van Gogh Exhibit in Cleveland. We didn’t know what to expect, but we came away totally mesmerized with the experience.

Other than an occasional visit to a museum, we are far from what we would regard as art aficionados. Some paintings are appealing; so much so, that I’ve purchased framed prints to display in our home. But what little I know today of certain artists or works of art; I’ve learned mostly from friends who have a greater interest in art than I do.

In college, I took a required art appreciation course which exposed me to painters and sculptors I would probably never have known otherwise. I never probed very deeply into the finer details of what made for great art, or why certain artists stood out from the rest. Like many required education courses, the knowledge learned there was filed into the deep recesses of memory and eventually forgotten.

However, as I’ve grown older, I’ve gained an appreciation for the struggles and hardships some have endured.

The Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh was one of those.

The van Gogh Museum in Cuesmes, Belgium. That is a much younger me by the house in 1978.

In 1978, one of my sisters was living in Belgium. I visited her and took advantage of my trip to tour the house where van Gogh lived while he was a missionary to coal miners in the Borinage region of that country. It is obviously now a museum; and it was there, seeing some of the letters that he wrote, and other memorabilia, that I became intrigued with this most misunderstood man.

To say that van Gogh lived a troubled life is a classic understatement. He was considered a failure at just about everything he attempted, relationships, romance, religion. His episodes with mental illness are well documented – from being hospitalized for a time, to cutting off his ear, and taking his own life.

Vincent van Gogh self portrait, 1889

Yet it was during those times of madness (diagnosed as manic depression) when he was most creative. It was precisely when he was institutionalized, that he produced his masterpieces.

What I find most fascinating is that van Gogh immersed himself into art after his hopes of becoming a pastor were dashed. He failed the entrance exam to the University of Amsterdam School of Theology. Subsequently, he was also dismissed from a three-month course at a missionary school near Brussels. In his book, Van Gogh and God, the author Cliff Edwards maintains that art became van Gogh’s road to personal salvation.

Henri Nouwen, a fellow Dutchman and one of the great spiritual writers of our time, describes van Gogh’s life as a powerful example of faithfulness to the inner fire of God’s Spirit. In Nouwen’s words, “During his life nobody came to sit down at his fire, but today thousands have found comfort and consolation in his drawings, paintings and letters.”[1]

He died destitute. However, as Nouwen indicated, his genius has inspired countless others for centuries after his death. The Van Gogh Museum in his native Amsterdam receives more than 1.5 million visitors per year. He was immortalized in music by Don McClean, who wrote the hit song, “Starry, Starry Night,” in 1970.

And with this immersive exhibit, he is enjoying yet another revival here in the United States.

A picture is worth a thousand words, the saying goes. Below is a slide show of some of the paintings displayed at the exhibit. The people who put this work together really outdid themselves.

Whenever it comes to your city, I would encourage you to go if you can. Though I don’t qualify as an art critic, I guarantee it will be time well spent.  


[1] Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, (New York: Harper Collins, 1981), p. 64

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