America’s Game

Photo credit: Nate Rueckert and Baseball Seams Co.

On June 14, 2001, I saw Mike Sweeney hit a walk-off home run against the St. Louis Cardinals in the bottom of the 13th inning to complete a three-game sweep and move the Royals to 15 games under .500. I was at the game as part of a job interview. While I was in my last semester at seminary, I told my wife, “If we could find a church where I could play guitar and work with students in Kansas City, that would be heaven.” I took the home run, win, and sweep as a divine sign.

The 2001 Kansas City Royals weren’t good. They lost 97 games and finished last in the AL Central. Mike Sweeney, Carlos Beltran, Joe Randa, and Rey Sanchez were the majority of the offense. Jeff Suppan was the ace of the staff and Roberto Hernandez was the closer. I lived in Kansas City for two months of the 2001 baseball season. I cheered on Frank White any time I saw him in his capacity as a coach for the team.

* * * * * * * * * *

It was a Tuesday.

A month prior, I celebrated my graduation from Truett Seminary at Baylor University, accruing enough student debt to last the rest of my life. I had been hired as a youth minister and worship leader at Cornerstone Church in Lee’s Summit, Missouri. My first, full-time job as an adult. My first-born, Kaylea, was less than 7 months old, full of colic and literally up for hours every night, turning me and my wife into semi-zombies. I am still trying to catch up on sleep from her first couple years of life. I was 27 years old and full of ridiculous dreams of writing songs and inspiring teenagers to make this world a beautiful place for all people. 

Cornerstone Church was a young church, only 12 years old. A church willing to take risks and try new things and make new friends. A church willing to hire a naïve dreamer. A church willing to find ways to say yes, even if they’d never done it that way before. They welcomed me and my family and helped us find our place in God’s Great Story. I was on staff at Cornerstone for 11 years. The Royals were bad the entire time, their only winning season coming in 2003. Because the Royals were so bad and because the people of Cornerstone Church knew of my affection for the team, I received free tickets all the time.

On that Tuesday, I was anxiously preparing for the weekly staff meeting, trying to think through the youth activities for the following night while juggling the choosing of songs for band practice after youth and the order of worship for Sunday. I was overwhelmed and completely petrified I was going to fail. (I failed a lot. I survived.)

Bob was the associate pastor. His office was also on the second floor of the church, just down the hall and around the corner from mine. I had to pass his office to get to the stairs so I could head downstairs for the staff meeting. I walked by with my printed out calendar in hand, clutching on to a stack of papers and notes I had written to myself.  

I could hear that the TV was on in Bob’s office. He was standing only a couple feet in front of the mounted, CRT, big-box TV with one hand across his chest and one hand over his mouth.

“Have you seen this?” he asked me.

I took a couple steps in to Bob’s office and looked at the TV just as the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed.

My heart skipped a beat.

My wife and I had been unable to sell our home in Texas. My family of three lived with my pastor and his wife and son. There were many perks to living with my pastor’s family. One unexpected perk was his subscription to the KC Star. It was while I lived with my pastor I fell in love with Joe Posnanski’s writing.  

In 2001, my wife and I shared a cell phone. Using our shared cell phone, I tried to reach her on the home line. She was in the middle of feeding Kaylea and didn’t pick up. Kaylea was quite the finicky eater; stopping in the middle of a feeding was never a good idea. I called again and again and again until Jamie finally answered.

I could tell she was frustrated when she answered.

“Turn on the TV. Something’s happening,” I said.

I spent the day watching TV. I was completely mesmerized. In 2001, the internet service at the church was dial-up, so trying to follow the news online was slower than just watching the national broadcast. I watched the North Tower collapse and followed the stories of the other hijackings.

I went home early, stopping at a gas station and paying $3 a gallon to fill up my car. As soon as I got home, I hugged my wife and held my baby girl.

The “war against terrorism” started.

America as I knew it had changed.

The next few days, the church was open for prayer, for anyone who needed a safe, quiet space to be and process what happened. I spent time alone in my office pondering the kind of hate that takes innocent lives and the overwhelming fear left in the wake of acts of terror that killed 3,000 people. What kind of world was Kaylea going to grow up in? What is faith’s response to terrorism?

Listening to President Bush talk, I remembered the slogan my high school baseball coach, who was also my freshman year American History teacher, taught us from Warren Harding’s campaign after World War I, “Return to Normalcy.”

How can life return to “normal” after seeing people leap out of a building? After watching replay after replay of planes crashing and towers collapsing? After dreading what was going to happen next?

MLB Commissioner Bud Selig suspended all baseball games for 6 days, extending the regular season a week into October.

For the next week, I read and watched everything I could about all four plane crashes. The weight of the stories affected my dreams and my demeanor. Two thousand years prior, Paul wrote these words to his friends in Rome who were suffering under an unjust empire, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” I decided to trust those words.

A week later, I wasn’t really in the mood for baseball, but I tuned in for a needed mental distraction and watched the Royals lose to Cleveland. It was good to see the team on the field, even in a losing cause. Losing felt normal. On the first day games resumed, Marty Prather, known as the St Louis Signman, was featured on TVs from coast-to-coast as he held one of his signs before the Cardinals game, “Baseball has players. America has heroes.”

Patriotism ran thick through the stadiums. Emergency responders were honored. God Bless America was sung in the 7th inning. Players recognized that this game could put a smile on the face of those who were still trying to find a new normal. Even in the middle of horrific tragedy, our souls need to find space to breathe and play. Baseball created that space.

About a month later, President George W. Bush threw out a first pitch at Yankee Stadium during Game 3 of the World Series. Wearing a bulletproof vest and an FDNY jacket, the President gave a thumbs up from on top of the mound. He then fired a perfect strike. It was one of the most emotional first pitches I’ve ever seen, wonderfully recounted in the ESPN 30 for 30: First Pitch.

That first pitch inspired Truman State University southpaw pitcher Nathan Rueckert to cut apart his practice jersey and a few baseballs and carefully craft an American flag. “America’s Game” he titled the piece of art. Baseball Seams Company was born in the wake of September 11.  

* * * * * * * * * *

It’s been 18 years since I stood in Bob’s office watching TV.

Memorial services will take place all across the country remembering those who died on that Tuesday. We will also remember those who died years later because of exposure to toxic chemicals as they rushed in to save other lives. We will honor the children of those courageous first responders who are following in the footsteps of their parents. The FDNY Academy is graduating 13 new first responders who lost a parent in the Twin Towers attacks. They are already heroes. Take time to thank the emergency responders wherever you are, today and every day.  

That colicky and finicky baby is now a freshman in college, studying music education and playing violin. Music continues to play a key role in bringing about the healing of our country.

Cornerstone Church is no more.

I’m no longer on staff at any church. I’m writing stories and poems about baseball, hoping that one day Joe Posnanski will take notice and meet me for a game of catch. He’s still writing epic baseball essays, along with amazing pieces about Hamilton and Houdini.

Baseball Seams Company grew and grew. The art inspired by President Bush’s first pitch has been recreated thousands of times, with copies hanging in the White House and in Cooperstown and in my parent’s living room. Years later, Nathan invited me to join him in a project called America at the Seams. I heard stories from every state how this weird and frustrating game is more than just a game. People told me how baseball created space for them find healing and hope and their new normal.

Eighteen years ago, I never could have imagined I’d get a second chance to play baseball. And I am absolutely loving the experience — taking risks, trying new things, making new friends. Baseball brings people together.

“Baseball can give us back ourselves,” wrote Anne Lamott.

There is a reason baseball is America’s Game.