Monday, September 30, 2013

We Are Family: Baseball, Exile and the Communion of Saints

I had a great Great Aunt. She was like a third grandmother to me. She supported me in many ways. She helped me get to Germany as an exchange student after my freshman year of high school. She sent me money each  month during college along with a note to "Have fun!" Evidently, she was worried I would be far too serious and engaged in my studies to do anything fun... no worries there. She was so important in my life, that my daughter is named after her (as well as my wife's grandmother, who also shares the same name).

But what I remember probably most of all is baseball. She loved the Pittsburgh Pirates. And she instilled that in me as well. She got me a membership to the Dave Parker Fan Club. She gave me an autographed baseball that she was given, with almost the entire team on it. She also would take my brother and I, along with her friend and her nephew to Sunday afternoon baseball games. I remember the first time she asked me to go. I went to Sunday school but skipped out on worship, so we could make it to the game on time. It was an amazing time whenever we went. Those trips remain storied adventures.

 Her friend's nephew often was brought along to walk around Three Rivers Stadium with us younger ones when the game got too slow or we just wanted to move around. We got to go off and sit in the nosebleed seats eating peanuts with the shells cracking under our feet, laughing and joking and feeling free from adult oversight, even though the older nephew was clearly in charge.

 Afterwards we would often stop and eat at the Wagon Wheel restaurant, a western decor restaurant that sat on Pennsylvania Route 65 and is no longer there. But I still remember the burgers and steak fries I had. It seemed a perfect end to a day at the ball park.

There was also the time when us youngsters had gotten to that last nerve of our aunt's and were jumping up and down on it. She stopped the car at the gate of the old Belmont psychiatric hospital threatening to admit us if we didn't quiet down. She proceeded to get out of the car and go talk into the pipe that was swung across the entrance and served as the gate, as if she was talking to the people inside.. Yeah... we quieted down. We still laugh and wonder what passers-by thought was going on there.

My aunt took us to see games but in reality my family loved the Pirates. I remember sitting in my maternal grandparents' house (the grandmother who was sister to my great aunt) and watching the 1979 World Series as the Pirates beat the Baltimore Orioles. We sat and listened to many games on the radio throughout the years. So much so that I still rather prefer listening to the game on the radio over watching it on television. Many evenings were spent watching fireflies glow while Lanny Frattare's voice called the game, ending every win with "There was no doubt about it!" Baseball connected us all in many ways. It was always something that we could talk about especially when things were going well. Especially as they were in the 1990s.

The loss in the 1992 playoffs was heartbreaking, but we were ever the optimists. Yes things looked bleak in terms of free agents, but there was always next year. Little did we know. But in reality, my aunt would never know the pain that was about to settle upon Pirate baseball. Before the end of the 1993 season, the summer following my college graduation, she and her friend, the same friend who was with us at the ball park, were in a horrible car accident. My aunt's friend survived. My aunt did not. She died shortly after impact, able to utter a few brief words to a person on the scene.

Twenty years... twenty years of losing baseball seasons, seemingly kicked off by the tragic loss of my aunt. Season after season after horrible season without her. Even a new ballpark was little condolence. PNC Park was opened in March of 2001 and before the end of the Pirates 100-loss season, my grandmother died, and then by the time the playoffs ended, my grandfather also passed.

And now, the Pirates sit on the best season since that last winning season in 1992. And it is hard. So many times over the course of this season, I have thought a great deal about the great baseball and the loss of those loved ones with whom I had such a great connection through baseball. I longed to sit on the porch with my grandparents on those beautiful summer evenings listening to Greg Brown shout "Raise the Jolly Roger!" I wanted to be at the park with my aunt and my kids enjoying the view, and the stellar pitching, and the flashes of brilliance shown by the players. But in the midst of a phenomenal season, those who were such a part of my life are not there.

It is funny how and when grief cycles back around when least expected. Two decades of baseball exile. Two decades of familial exile without my aunt, and over a decade without my grandparents. Should I be over it? Alas no. Losing those whose lives are so closely entwined with ours and depart, can disrupt our lives as we circle back around to familiar places, rippling and disturbing what we thought was far behind us.

Would I, I wonder, care so much about this great season without their influence so long ago? Would I find such passion in this race if I had not sat at their side cheering on the great Pirates of the 70's and the unfulfilled Pirates of the 90's? Their mark, as I see it, is indelible. I do not, as many might claim, have them looking down on me, nor are they somehow mystically present in the great church of baseball. But their influence is so strong, so well-formed within me, that their passion has become mine. The love they had, has formed to me love in  like manner.

So it is in this way at least, I believe we can understand those saints with whom we are mystically united through Christ in the waters of baptism. Their passion for Christ forms us, serves as an example for us, and the love which formed them, continues to form me. One day, just as this baseball exile is ending, an end to our exile in a broken and incomplete world will be brought about. Then there will be much rejoicing.

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