Sunday, July 01, 2007

My Sunday Morning Softball Mass—and The Spirit of Rod Beck Beckons

So you find me hard to handle
Well I'm easier to hold ...
So I might steal your diamonds
I'll bring you back some gold

–"I'm No Angel" by Gregg Allman

It's 6:30 a.m. on a Sunday summer morning and even though the sun has been streamin' in the window for an hour or so, most of our household is fast asleep. But for me, it's a sign I've been in bed too long, that I've got to get up and go to work—and Mass ...

As I unlock the equipment box and put out the bases for today's games, I reflect on how beautiful the ball fields are in the quiet dawn before the storm—not as picturesque as the professional parks in the Champions of Faith DVD mind you, but beautiful in a gritty blue-collar sort of way. Still, now is not the time to ponder, for this is one of those weekends where I work my Saturday night retail job as well as my Sunday dawn-to-dusk softball league supervisor gig—so if I don't get my a** in gear, I'm going to miss Mass entirely.

I arrive at church way too tardy, just in time for the "Holy, Holy, Holy," and stand in the foyer with the rest of the "Better Late than Never" crowd. Having been in this situation a number of times over the past several summers, I recognize some of the regulars, a few of whom nod knowingly. And although I hate being late (especially for a Sunday Liturgy) and miss attending with my family (those still at home, that is) I know, as Peter did at the Transfiguration, that it is good that I am here. For here I am not the author of the book with a prominent place in the Vatican library who wows crowds with talks about faith & sports, but a middle-aged guy with dirty knees and a dusty t-shirt. And, although an occasional made-up mom with a finely-dressed crying child may make her way to the back, the division is fairly clear. Those with a family and a life sit in the church, and those with neither hang in the foyer. I have both, but when alone, I have often felt more at home in back. And today, after watching the ESPN news of his funeral last night, it seems the only person missing from this collection of retreads is Rod Beck.

For the unacquainted, Beck (pictured) was a former chain-smoking, beer-chugging relief pitcher who despite a prominent belly and fastball that rarely reached ninety, saved 286 games and was a 3-time All-Star. With the body of everyman but a stare that could scare the devil, Beck became a Chicago cult favorite when he saved a career high 51 games for the beloved Cubbies in 1998, the same summer Mark McGwire's and Sammy Sosa's home run chase saved baseball. But just as steroid use, both alleged and proven, has tainted the sacred memory of '98, the stories of Beck's fun-loving lifestyle were tarnished last week when he died at the tender age of thirty-eight.

When you live by the bottle, you often die by the bottle, and although the toxicology results won't be ready for another week or two, in the case of Beck, the hard-core closer with the heart of gold who battled drug and alcohol addiction as much as opposing batters during his roller coaster career, it's hard not to fear the worst. "Southern Comfort was his spirit of choice," said Kevin Towers, Beck's general manager when he pitched for the Padres. "He never abused it in the clubhouse. It was his way of winding down," Towers paused. "You can't imagine the adrenaline rush he had and how you come down off of that."

I can. Speaking in front of hundreds of applauding admirers about our great faith, and getting praised by bishops who will some day be saints may be a holy high, but it is a high nonetheless. Fortunately God has blessed me with a life where I must play the role of both Prince and Pauper, sometimes in the same weekend, and, when one is met with the hearty handshake reserved for a hero Saturday and the half-hearted greeting deserving of a sinner (sometimes by the same usher!) in the back of church Sunday, you soon realize the latter is closer to the heart of the matter. Beck tried, as many star athletes tried, to switch gears after the rush of the major leagues was over, but despite his devotion to his family, promoting AIDS charities, riding motorcycles, and watching his two daughters (Kelsey, 12, is currently the only girl playing in the Scottsdale Little League) play baseball, it just wasn't enough. Too bad Shooter never made it to the back of church; the folks in the back (as well as the Eucharistic Lord up in front) would have loved him and accepted him as their own whether he was winning at life or not.

"He was a tough dude, a good tough dude," eulogized his former manager, Dusty Baker, "and I pray for Shooter's soul, that he goes to heaven ... you just don't know the criteria," Dusty, a devout Protestant, concluded.

Dusty doesn't, but maybe I, as the dusty Fighting Irish Thomas, do. On the days I work the fields and sit in the back of church, I will pray for his soul in a special way, that the Saver of Souls gives Shooter one more chance to make His final roster. For if my talks are better received by those already in-the-know about the faith, my dust is best reserved for those who lived the grittier side of life like Beck.


Anonymous said...

Beautiful post, Tom. It saddens me when I think of all the times I should and could be praying for those souls in Purgatory and just simply forget. And yet somehow I'll be hoping that someone will remember to pray for me when I spend my time there.

On a lighter note, I was down at the Students For Life America conference in Washington, D.C. this year, the weekend before the March For Life. Saturday night an award was presented to someone whose name I have forgotten. The man was Catholic, as were 90 percent of those in attendance. At one point in his speech he said, "Now, I know we're not all Catholic here, and I know that most of my Protestant friends out there don't believe in Purgatory. But don't worry, you will." That got a big laugh out of all of us.

Tom O'Toole said...

Dear Michael,
Thanks for the comment. My status at both the Vatican and the back of Church is somewhat unique: but ANYONE can pray for the "psip". "Shooter" would approve of your insight...