The following blog is a discussion about the civil religion of baseball. The spark for these writings is the book “The Faith of 50 Million”.
Following the last blog my friend Lora inquired if the Minor Leagues are mixed in with the Religion of Baseball experience. ‘Of course,’ says I. Our religious experiences in Faith communities happen in large places (as seen during Justice Scalia’s funeral and large gatherings like the millions gathering at Makka [Mecca] during an annual Hajj to touch the Kaaba (believed to be the first recorded building of a chapel by Abraham and Ishmael around 2000 BCE). We share religious experiences in small facilities like the Old White Church in The Ringtown Valley, Pennsylvania. Many corporate worship experiences on Sunday mornings are small gatherings with less than thirty people. Religious experience is not confined by size. Religious experience happens between spirits anywhere anytime. The same is true in the religious experience of baseball. The religion is connected with a field where some young girls and boys have a pick up game to club and school teams and professional organizations to adult leagues full of 30, 40 and 50-year-old players.
The Minor League experience is very much embedded in the Religion of Baseball. The liturgy of minor league baseball is the same liturgy found in major league baseball and for some folks ‘worship’ at a minor league park is more intense than that of many major league fans. The minor league parks are usually more intimate and allow for a personal religious experience for the devotee not available in the major league parks. It also is less expensive to frequent minor league cathedrals like Wilmington‘s (formerly) Legends Stadium, home of the Blue Rocks. (The stadium’s name was changed to Daniel S. Frawley Stadium a couple of years after our family watched a game in Wilmington, Del. In the 90’s)
The weekend I was separated from the US Navy in July 1973 I attended a minor league game at Sicks’ Stadium. The Rainiers called Seattle home between 1972 and 1976 (after the one year disaster known as the Seattle ‘Pilots’ -now the Milwaukee ‘Brewers’ – and before the arrival of the ‘Mariners’). I had no problem buying a good seat on the first base line at the gate just before game time. The highlight of the game was watching the antics of baseball clown Max Patkin. Max began in baseball as a pitcher who played for a Navy team in Hawaii. One game his team played against an Army Air Corp team which had Joe Dimaggio on its roster. (pause for effect) After Joe Dimaggio hit a home run, Max was so unhappy that he came off the mound and followed Dimaggio around the bases, much to the delight of the fans. In that moment Max decided he would have a better opportunity to be in baseball as a clown then as a pitcher. Max made the correct choice and became a legend around the minor league circuit. Patkin became so well-known that he played himself in the baseball movie ‘Bull Durham’ with Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon (a movie about a minor league team The ‘Durham Bulls’). I became part of that religious experience during the game played at the foot of Mount Rainier.
Another religious experience occurred about a decade later when our family lived a few blocks from Fiscalini Field in San Bernardino, California in the 80’s. ‘The Spirit‘, a Seattle Mariners affiliated team played here with their future star Ken Griffey Jr. who would hit 630 home runs in his big league career. Griffey didn’t stay long with The Spirit as he moved rapidly through the minors, but he was in San Bernardino long enough for us to attend a game and watch him ‘crush‘ a two run homer that rocketed over the center field fence and toward the mountain beyond. A religious connection happened that evening for a guy (me) who had watched Ken Griffey Sr and his Cincinnati Reds battle the Pittsburgh Pirates through the 70’s. The Spirit left San Bernardino at the end of the 1992 season to become the Rancho Cucamonga ‘Quakes‘ (I’m not kidding!)
After our retirement from the Air Force we found ourselves living in State College, Pa, home of Penn State University. When we first arrived the closest minor league team was ‘The Curve’ (Pittsburgh Pirates Class A minor league team) in Altoona, PA. We spent many great evenings at People’s Natural Gas stadium watching some great baseball. I didn’t know I would be writing a blog about minor league baseball at the time so there are no photo’s from those trips. So, I took this photo of me in my Altoona Curve cap.
Minor league baseball did come to State College while we lived in town when Medlar Field at Lubrano Park opened June 20, 2006 in a joint effort between Penn State University and The Altoona Curve Baseball Club. The“footprint” of the stadium (outfield dimensions, foul ground, etc.) is identical to PNC Park in Pittsburgh (home of the Pittsburgh Pirates) except for the right field wall. At PNC, the wall is 21 feet tall in memory of Number 21, Roberto Clemente, but at Medlar Field, the wall is 18.55 feet tall to commemorate the year Penn State was founded.
This stadium was designed to feature an unobstructed view of Penn State landmark Mount Nittany over the outfield wall. PNC Park features an unobstructed view of Downtown Pittsburgh. Medlar Field is used jointly by Penn State’s baseball team and the State College Spikes (short season) who suffer from a personality disorder which results in their vacillating ownership from time to time between the St Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates Major League clubs. Sarah who was 16 years old at the time enjoyed going to games at Medlar Field because there always were two or more players (between 18 and 20 years old) assigned to a table giving out autographs inside the main gate.
Speaking of Sarah, baseball is a religion meant to be shared with your family. Our family was going to games together when Sarah was still in grade school (see the Blue Rocks above) and we continued that tradition until she moved to Florida. After Sarah launched from the nest My Jane and I moved to Carbon County where we continued to experience baseball as a family. We have made CocoCola Park (The home of The Iron Pigs) in Allentown an annual destination. I
I also have fun with friends at CocoCola Park. We are standing around a sign that says ‘No Standing”, of course! I had a special religious experience at CocoCola Park when, as the leader of a large church group, I threw out a ‘first ball’ at a game. There aren’t many thrills that surpass standing at the pitcher’s mound in a professional ball park and throwing a ‘first ball’ as your name is announced over the sound system.
My Jane and I got together with extended family at a Harrisburg Senators (Washington Nationals) game two summers ago. The Senators play in FNB Field, located on City Island, Harrisburg. We picked about the hottest day of the year to watch a game but my Uncle Ed and his long time friend Mary (an Altoona Curve fan) had a great time sharing the day together. If you plan to see a game in Harrisburg don’t go during the rainy season because The Susquehanna has been known to flood the island.
Where ever the call to worship, “Play ball”, is heard, the religious experience of baseball is touching someone’s life. The same is true of our faith experience. Where ever the call to worship, “The Lord be with you.” is heard, a faith experience is touching someone’s life.