The one memory I have of my first Brawner Homes little league game — played away against Mitch & Bill’s Exxon, top of the second inning, score knotted 1-1, one out, runner on second — is of a pop fly hit to left field where I had been told to go stand. I had gone and was standing. Half crouched, at the ready, hands just above my knees, watching the batter, I waited for something to happen, but hoped nothing would happen. At least, not in my direction.
Moments of truth inevitably find us all, and mine had found me. There was the “crack” of bat on ball, and the roar of the proud Mitch & Bill’s parents leaping to their feet on shiny new aluminum first baseline home team bleachers. In an instant, I felt myself floating slow-mo through a strangely hollow muffled silence. The Mitch & Bill’s parents hadn’t stopped roaring, but alI I could hear were my heart’s ear-pounding lub-dubs. I’d thought I’d gone deaf. What little I could see was constricted as though I was looking pop-eyed through a cardboard paper towel tube at whose end was a spinning optical spiral, through which a moving black pea-sized circle rocketed. It arched upward to its apex, before plummeting downward to a spot I was trying really hard to reach.
Some how I caught the ball. In another instant, my hearing and vision were restored. Fumbling, I found the ball in my mitt, clutched and heaved it toward the shortstop as the runner at second tagged up, ready to head for third. He was held in place, and the Brawner Homes parents erupted, standing and roaring from their splintery old third baseline visitors‘ bleachers at this very lucky outcome. The plate umpire barked “Time!” Relaxing for a moment, every infielder, outfielder and base runner, in a unique, practiced, superstitious order each his own, dusted off his uniform pant legs and butt, adjusted certain other “protective gear,” straightened his cap, pounded his mitt, and spat or blew Double-Bubble bubbles, as the next batsman stepped defiantly to the plate.
My dad grew up in mid and late thirties’ St. Louis. He stood 6′-4″ and had size 14 feet. He played football for the University of Missouri — the “Mizzou” Tigers — later blocking and tackling on a WW2 Allied inter-regimental American football squad while stationed in Italy (perhaps a precursor to John Grisham’s very fun Playing for Pizza). But before going on to collegiate gridiron success, Dad was a pretty fair high school baseball player. In his day, bases were squishy 12X12 inch canvas bags filled with sand or straw, laid on the ground, sometimes tied to a stake, or spiked to the infield. Today, bases are immovable 15X15 inch solid chunks of composite rubber. Mitts were little more than leather work gloves with a bit of padding and a strap between thumb and index finger. Catchers’ mitts were better padded, but looked like round couch pillows. Bats were lathed from seasoned ash, wider at the neck and slimmer at the barrel than their 21st century descendants. Balls were softer and far less lively when struck. Hits were a challenge to come by, and home runs were far less frequent than in the modern era.
Have you ever wondered who history’s leading triple hitters are? Sam Crawford who started in 1889 with the Cincinnati Reds and hit 309 triples, Ty Cobb who started in 1905 with the Detroit Tigers and hit 295 triples, and Honus Wagner who started in 1897 with with the Louisville Cardinals and hit 252 triples.
I wanted to know this because my dad and I once played softball at a weekend Michigan Cub Scout Camp. Standing in the batter’s box on his size 14’s, Dad swung at the first pitch, and he sent the ball into the next county. Somewhat long in the tooth by then, Dad managed to stretch that homer to a triple. The young opposing left-fielder whose airspace had been pierced by Dad’s ringing shot, having taken a bus to get and return with the ball, nearly threw him out at third. When relating this story some years later, Dad took pride in having slid into third safely. I remembered it as more of a gymnast’s tumbling run gone very, very bad.
Dad called singles “one-baggers,” doubles were “two-baggers,” and triples were “three-baggers.” As a little leaguer, I got my share of hits, notching only a few homers, but I cherished “three-baggers.” Being a runner at third base allowed me to mess with pitcher, catcher and third baseman by threatening to steal home, taunting and daring pitchers to pick me off, and dashing home to score when pick off attempts failed. Dad loved sports, in part because they’re lessons-loaded pictures of life. I did, too, and still do.
A year ago mid-January, I returned home after an extended away series of sorts. Fifteen days at the County General Hospital for two skin graft surgeries and a holiday bonus colostomy, followed by twenty five days at a nearby step down rehab facility, for wound-watching, lessons in colostomy management, and very light therapy. Well, the occasion of my first post-surgical anniversary was a “three-bagger” day of a different sort. I awoke, got dressed, got into my wheel chair, shaved, dragged a comb across my head, and had a light breakfast. My holiday bonus colostomy bag was empty, and I’d detected little activity signaling it would be full anytime soon. Arriving at church, I rolled to my spot at the rear of the sanctuary, back left row, center aisle.
Half a sermon in, my bag had become a bit fuller, and I was experiencing chills on the underside of my forearms, down my lower back and torso, and at the nape of my neck. Funny thing — given the level of my spinal cord injury, these sensations are among a few others that tell me when something’s happening or about to. Should I develop a serious condition anywhere below my chest, these would be the only indication — signals that my autonomic nervous system continues fearfully and wonderfully working around and in spite of its other parallel but disconnected physiological systems. In a short while, my bag was full and required changing. I rolled out of the sanctuary into a nearby empty Sunday school classroom. Bag one was removed and replaced with bag two. My lessons in colostomy management early on were enormously frustrating, due to my weak hands, and the dexterity required. More recently, I have learned a sort of ostomy digital jujitsu and often perform bag changes myself when the consistency of bag contents is not too loose or I’m not in a rush. But sometimes there is a need for speed and two helping hands, and so my wife, the lovely and heroic Alice, assisted me. Bag one was tidily wrapped inside several plastic bags and sealed tight. We spotted a large plastic trash can that happened to have a dying poinsettia conveniently sitting at the bottom. I stuck the bag under its camouflage rouge spread, and resumed my spot back left row, center aisle.
In fewer than five minutes, bag two was half full. Lovely heroic Alice and I consulted in the narthex, and I took up a secondary listening post by the side room lobby speaker, where I finished out the service. By this time, bag two was three-quarters full, but all the autonomic static had ceased. Following the service, I figured I could make it home without incident if we left after meet-n-greet and Sunday school. In fact, we arrived home without any complication. Bag two was now nearly full, and was changed. Its contents were beyond loose. Lovely heroic Alice was to the rescue, managing rough conditions. Picture something between an infant’s too full diaper and the Exxon Valdez . . . .
Good competitive sportsmanship is challenging, and like life, can be hard. As I play farther into life as a quadriplegic who sports a colostomy, I’m resigned to the fact I’ll have my share of “one-bagger days,” occasionally a “two-bagger day,” and once in a while a “three-bagger day.” Those “two- and three-bagger days,” will mess with me, taunt and dare me to deal with them in the midst of some significant moment at work, or while on the subway where emergency options and help can be hard to find, possibly even soil and spoil an otherwise impressive wheelchair wardrobe. But resignation will not lead to despair.
I’m often a dull student, but I’m learning to glory in tribulations that produce perseverance and hope, season my character, and produce steadfastness. I know of and have met many others whose circumstances are much harder than mine. Much graver. I wonder at their endurance and perseverance. I am ashamed when I lean toward despair. Increasingly, my hope is that in and through these things, and ultimately, I belong to Christ. I’m just a sojourner rolling through, and He has determined my paths. He has paid for and expunged, with His precious blood, my many offenses against His infinite, eternal, unchangeable being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth, and my sins against others. He has lived without offense in my place, for I could not, and His righteousness is credited to my account. And He fashions every moment of every day to bring about my good and His glory. One day I’ll be summoned by Him to heaven for eternity where there will be no more sorrows nor any suffering. I expect the baseball there will be pretty good, too.
For now though, I’ve seen that there may be hard days, but there are no bad days.
We also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope doesn’t disappoint, because the love that God has poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit was given to us.
We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.