Tag Archives: baseball

For the Love of the Game: Where Fraternity and Faith Meet

May 17, 2018

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Eddie Rosario

Fr. Ubel with Puerto Rico native and Twins Left Fiedler, Eddie Rosario

By Father John Ubel

Like all grade school students of my era, I was taught that Christopher Columbus discovered America. Of course I assumed then that he touched foot on what is now American soil. I would later learn that Leif Erickson and Viking explorers were likely the first Europeans to set foot in North America proper, landing on the northern tip of Newfoundland around the year 1000 A.D. But Columbus did anchor near San Juan, Puerto Rico for two days in November 1493 A.D. on his second voyage, and when I gazed upon the tomb of Juan Ponce de Leon, known as the discoverer of Florida, in the Catedral de San Juan Bautista, suddenly the travails of the early explorers felt real. By appointment of the Spanish Crown, he was its first Governor in 1508-09.

Traversing the streets of old San Juan is reminiscent of many old European cities, with El Morro, the massive six-story 16th century fortress dominating the old city. The morning of our Cathedral visit coincided with the arrival of a giant cruise ship in port. The narrow streets were packed by 9:00 a.m. Our “tour guide” from the parish staff was José Lara Fontánez, who clearly loves his Cathedral as much as I love ours. We had mailed 345 pounds of medicines, to be distributed to the needy in San Juan and beyond. The island wide power outage delayed the post office pick up by a day or two, but they arrived safely. On top of that, I was delighted to present a gift in the amount of $25,000 to be used for Cathedral restoration, following Hurricane Maria. Ten minutes into our visit, my phone rang–it was Premier Bank. I gave authorization for the immediate transfer of funds and we all cheered when the transfer was final. What a thrill for me! I received a heartfelt thank you note from the rector, Fr. Benjamin Perez Cruz, who invited me to visit again in 2021 for the 500th anniversary celebration of the Cathedral!

Cathedral of San Juan Bautista

Fr. Ubel presents gift check to the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista

With a typical high of 85 and low of 74, it is not difficult to plan for the day, unless it rains! And it did briefly, but powerfully one day. The cab driver lamented– “You see this? When it rains, the roads become a river!” And trust me, when the sun re-appears, it’s like a steam room! In its infancy as a territory, Puerto Rico relied heavily on its sugar crop, but by the mid-20th century, that shifted to manufacturing and tourism. Puerto Ricans received U.S. citizenship in 1917 and Puerto Rico officially became a U.S. Commonwealth in 1952. There are signs that tourism is slowly, very slowly coming back. I suspect this is one reason why Major League Baseball was intent on keeping its commitment to this two-game series. They added LED lights to the stadium (just as we did here at the Cathedral!) and repaired the significant damage to the artificial turf in Estadio Hiram Bithorn, built in 1962 and named after the first Puerto Rican who played in the Majors for the Chicago Cubs in 1942.

The scoreboard was reminiscent of the old Met Stadium. It was “no frills” baseball without the constant images flashing across giant video screens. Instead, we were treated to strolling musicians in the stands, with people breaking into dancing and singing right in their seats between innings. Cowbells, whistles and a cacophony of sounds seemed ever-present. It was a completely different feel in the stadium. We sat directly behind a friendly family– Mom, Dad, their identical twin sons aged about 12 or 13 and grandpa. They were all smiles during the game, though ironically the “twins” inexplicably sported Indians gear! On the first night I enjoyed fresh squeezed lemonade and a hot dog, and on the second night, felt ambitious an opted for a piña colada. If it had any alcohol, it was the weakest drink I’ve ever had– but it was tasty!

Back at the hotel after the first game, our group visited with a man at the neighboring table who worked for Major League Baseball. We began discussing the various charitable outreaches being made during the series. When I noted our own outreach to the Cathedral, he was genuinely appreciative. Not five minutes later, into the restaurant walked Rob Manfred, the Commissioner of Major League Baseball. After a few minutes, the Commissioner himself approached our table! He asked how we were enjoying our experience, and before long he invited us to a private event the next day unveiling a memorial marker in honor of Roberto Clemente, a national hero in Puerto Rico who tragically perished in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve in 1972 while on his way to provide disaster relief to Nicaragua. The entire visit was a wonderful experience of faith, fellowship and baseball, with a few surprise extras. The incredible support of the good people of the Cathedral parish truly made it an unforgettable visit.

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Spring training for baseball fans

March 24, 2015

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Podlasek’s was where as just a boy I first was accused of being brainwashed into being a Cubs fan.

On the way home from, well, just about anywhere, dad would stop in at the neighborhood tavern at 47th and Kedvale on Chicago’s southwest side — White Sox territory. Since I was invariably wearing my Cubs cap, I was invariably verbally harrassed and ridiculed by the suds-sipping gentlemen on the bar stools.

I call the teasers gentlemen because they’d regularly buy dad a Pilsner and a root beer “for Eddie’s kid.”

When my father was in his formative years in the 1930s the Cubs had winning teams, which is why he was a Cubs fans.

A Nice Little Place on the North SideThanks to dad, if graditude is in fact appropriate, I’ve been a fan of the Chicago National Leauge Baseball Club literally since birth, a lifer as my Cubs fan brother-in-law Mike says, his words leaning toward meaning fated to a life sentence.

Naturally then I loved George Will’s “A Nice Little Place on the North Side,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist’s history of Wrigley Field and my Cubs, published last year upon the 100th anniversary of the ballpark at Clark and Addison. Any fan of the national pastime — not just Cubs fans — will be be entertained by all the baseball lore Will has dug up.

The 194 pages are actually a history of the nation, the world and life itself captured anecdotal style, because Will works into his book connections that Ernie Banks’ “friendly confines” have had with war, politics, organized crime, racism, love, McDonald’s, beer, and of course, chewing gum.

The famous, oft-told baseball stories are all there and superbly rendered in detail: Babe Ruth’s alleged “called shot” home run in the 1932 World Series; Gabby Hartnett’s “homer in the gloamin’ ” in 1938; the disastrous Lou Brock-for-Ernie Broglio trade; the Bartman foul ball episode in the 2003 playoffs; and the full, expletives-adjusted text of manager Lee Elia’s tirade against booing fans.

The obvious characters are all there, too: owner William Wrigley, his reluctant successor son P.K., Hack Wilson, Leo Durocher, Banks (of beloved memory!), Harry Caray and the infamous “College of Coaches,” plus personalities readers may not have known have a Wrigley Field connection, including Al Capone, Jack Ruby, Ray Kroc and Jim Thorpe.

The stories Will shares and enhances so well with his own research and that of previous Cubs historians understandably couldn’t possibly include everything in Wrigley’s hundred-year history, yet a few classics seemed to be missing, including:

walt moryn• Walt “Moose” Moryn’s catch of a sinking line drive to end the game and save Don Cardwell’s no-hitter in 1960.

• The tragic off-season plane-crash death in 1964 of Kenny Hubbs, the Cubs’ errorless game record-setting, Gold Glove-winning, rookie of the year second baseman.

• Carl Sandburg making the book but not Ryne Sandberg, who in 1984 hit a game-tying home run off legendary closer Bruce Sutter in the ninth inning, then a game-winning two-run homer off Sutter in the 10th, on the nationally televised “Game of the Week.”

Props, however, go to Will for giving the appropriate credit to each and every one of the sources of the tales he shares. And for writing a truly satisfying book that even has a few religious notes.

New Yorker essayist William Zinsser is quoted comparing baseball fans to “parishioners,” who every half-inning pause “to meditate on what they have just seen,” and the author himself finds that fans cheering “a kind of prayer in a secular setting that somehow helps their teams’ successes.”

It would have been easy for Will to take the “lovable losers” theme too far, but “A Nice Little Place on the North Side” avoids what could easily have turned cloying.

Instead Will puts a professorial spin on being a Cubs fan, terming it “a lifelong tutorial on delayed gratification” and Wrigley Field “the most pleasant of purgatories.”

There’s baseball trivia on these pages enough for a game-full of between-innings challenges, and any fan who picks up the book now can consider it their own spring training.

Opening day, after all, isn’t that far away.

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Keats, Baseball and Surviving the Clergy Sex Abuse Crisis

March 29, 2014

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The English poet John Keats expressed the idea of negative capability in a letter to his brother in 1817. He described it as the capacity for accepting uncertainty and the possibility that certain questions might never be resolved. The great writers, according to Keats, are those with the greatest negative capability. He credited Shakespeare with the greatest talent in this regard, and thought that the dynamic tension created by perpetual uncertainty made for the most interesting characters and depth in story.

I came across this term while watching a baseball documentary called “The Tenth Inning”that addressed the steroid scandal from a few years ago.  In the documentary, writer George Will says “Now we live in a sports age and a baseball age, where nothing’s more valuable than negative capability because if we’re just in a rush, if we can’t wait to see Roger Clemens or Barry Bonds, or whoever it is, as right or wrong, then we’re missing the complexity of these people and the difficulty of the age that they’re living in.”

What does this have to do with the Catholic faith or anything to do with this blog?

Well, we are in a scandal of our own locally. A much darker and serious issue than baseball and steroids. Living through it can be a full time chore and the idea of negative capability intrigues me. I have to admit my cycles of anger, frustration, despair and a few “What were they thinking!” moments as I read, along with everyone else, the accounts reported by certain radio stations and other media outlets.  Working for the church does not make me immune to or “in the know” on anything, in fact, working for the church seems to make every news report of a fallen priest or a seemingly poor decision feel like a personal affront to my faith and work.

So how do you hang onto your faith when your church is in crisis?

I have been trying to tap into that Negative Capability.  It is a strange name and since I am not a literary intellect, I’ve never read Keats or studied Shakespeare and I am surprised at how I am drawn to this odd literary term.  But it seems to describe a way I aproach my faith life.  In my early stages of (re)conversion to the Church, I hungered for knowledge and devoured books.  Knowledge of the one I loved, the one I sought – so much like Song of Songs.

On my bed night after night I sought him

            Whom my soul loves; SOS 3:1

But in wanting to know God – in wanting to know Christ, I wanted to understand and figure out the complexities and abserdities of a virgin giving birth, the irrational math of the trinity and  duality of transubstantiation.  In my desire for knowledge, I couldn’t rest in faith.  I wanted proof. I wanted answers. In my struggles I could only hope for Divine Grace to step in. I needed to learn to rest in that negative capability and enjoy the tension of this amazing church that isn’t about either/or – but lives in the and/also of a faith based on a Man who is also the Son of God who really is present in the Mass.

Crisis of Faith

In regards to our current clergy abuse crisis, I have also had to yield to this negative capability in a darker way. I have to rest in questions that may never be resolved. I have been sickened by the reports. The victims are tragic and the deeds and actions of a few priest are abominable. It is very easy to paint a black and white picture of the people involved, but the personalities are as complex as are the times in which they live.  We are called to see everyone through the eye that God sees us. Through the fullness of who they are.

In all of this we are called to pray for the victims, but also the perpetrators. We are called to love our good priests and also the fallen. We must love the whistel blowers, the reporters, and the angry Catholics who have left the church.  Only in this strange church filled with the hard teaching are we called to forgive and love and carry on. (all while protecting the inocent and sin no more)

Only in this lovely faith called the Catholic Church could we celebrate the Friday that Christ was crucified and call it Good.

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Baseball’s Jewish slugger: Hank Greenberg

February 23, 2013

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GREENBERG COVERHank Greenberg’s name comes up less often than that of other baseball greats, even though he hit 58 home runs in a season, four times led the American League in both homers and runs batted in, twice was named most valuable player and is in the Hall of Fame.

But the slugger from the World Series-winning Detroit Tiger teams of the 1930s and ’40s deserves a place along side Ruth, Gehrig and Aaron, and Minneapolis writer John Rosengren presents persuasive evidence and compelling reading in a new biography, “Hank Greenberg: Hero of Heroes” (New American Library).

It’s a book about a man’s life, about homers, RBIs, slugging percentages and dramatic moments on the diamond in the era when the nation was glued to radio sets to catch the games. But Rosengren’s meticulous research makes the case that Greenberg is due recognition not just for the way he played between the chalk lines, not just for volunteering for military service after Pearl Harbor when he was the highest-paid player in the country, but for lifting up an entire people in an atmosphere of religious and ethnic prejudice

Greenberg was Jewish.

Jews didn’t play baseball. Jews themselves thought it not a worthy profession, and much of society at the time thought Jews weren’t built with the strength or attributes to play sports.

Hank Greenberg changed that, pushing assimilation forward for a generation of immigrant Jews and their children.

Sept. 10 was Rosh Hashanah in 1934, and the Detroit Tigers were in a pennant race. Jews were to neither work nor played on Rosh Hashanah.

But on that Rosh Hashanah star first-baseman Hank Greenberg went to the synagogue in the morning and in the afternoon hit one home run to tie the Boston Red Sox then another, walk-off homer in the ninth inning to win the key game that led to the Tigers winning the pennant.

With that balanced approach “He had begun to change the way Jews thought about baseball,” Rosengren writes, “and the way baseball fans — Americans — thought about Jews.”

Outright bigotry

Much the way Jackie Robinson would be heckled in the late 1940s and early 1950s when he became the first Black player to break the major league’s color barrier, Greenberg faced the anti-semetic prejudice of the 1930s. Opposing fans and players alike called out slurs like “kike” and “sheeny” when he came to bat.

Rosengren shares several anecdotes that tell what that was like for Greenberg, none better than the following.

Playing against Chicago one day, Greenberg was harassed all game from the White Sox dugout. As he was running down the first base someone shouted, “You big, yellow Jew bastard!”

After the game, Greenberg walked into the Chicago clubhouse and announced, “I want the guy who called me a ‘yellow Jew bastard’ to get to his feet and say it to my face.”

“No one moved,” Rosengren writes. “Hank walked slowly around the room and looked at each of them. . . . Not one of the dared stand up.”

Rosengren puts the ballplayer’s biography into the culture of the times, combining baseball stories with references to what was going on around the globe as well as what was happening in American life — Shirley Temple dancing in the movies, Walter Winchell gossiping on the pages of the nation’s newspapers and Detroit’s own Father Charles Coughlin spewing diatribes on the radio against bankers, Jews and Franklin Roosevelt.

The prejudice Greenberg faced plays against the background of quotas that were prevalent to limit the percentage of Jews in various areas of life in the United States, the bias he found in the media and the world stage, where Hitler’s ethnic cleansing would have a fateful impact on Greenberg’s career.

Warts and all

Greenberg is no saint, though, and this is no hageography. The star’s competitiveness at times makes him his own worst enemy. After four years serving in the Army Air Force during World War II — including duty overseas — steals what may have been prime years from his already outstanding career, Greenberg gets involved in the front-office end of baseball as a general manager and part owner, and at times is as ruthless as the front office people he battled when he was a player himself.

He crafts a team that in 1954 breaks the strangehold the New York Yankees have on the American League pennant, but his lack of skill in the public relations realm eventually gets him fired.

Yet he was also a man ahead of his time, advocating for a pension plan for ballplayers, arguing for baseball to drop the reserve clause, calling for a football-like draft to equalize the talent among the teams, championing interleague play and urging expansion to California, all of which eventually happened.

What Rosengren has done, it seems to this fan of baseball past as well as present, is bring to life a man and a baseball era worthy of being better known by those who love the game.

Like another Henry when Aaron was harassed by bigots as he chased the then elusive 60 home run mark, Greenberg too heard the catcalls and received the threatenting letters in the year he hit 58. America’s prejudices die hard, if they ever die.

But given the background of Nazism abroad and bigoted ignorance at home, Greenberg’s accomplishments deserve an airing with just the excellence Rosengren’s source-filled, reader-friendly, baseball-loving treatment provides. Perhaps he put it best:

“In a dark time, Hank was certainly giving the Jewish community something to cheer, but he was doing something even more significant: In an age when Jews were considered weak, unathletic and impotent, Greenberg stood as a mightly figure and, in his image as a home run slugger, a symbol of power. He changed the way Jews thought about themselves. And the way others thought about them.”

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Baseball story mixes fastballs, faith and acts of kindness

December 5, 2011

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Heaven is like a baseball game, and it’s what you do in life that determines if you’ll be in uniform for God’s team, the “Saints.”

Timothy gets a chance to pitch for the heavenly home team in “Timothy’s Glove,” Kathleen Chisholm McInerney’s new book for young people.

While there’s never really a doubt about the outcome of the game, the back-story about Tim’s journey to make a place for himself on the home-team squad is what the colorfully illustrated book is about.

Adults will find the simple tale plot line reinforces the types of acts of kindness and goodness that everyone wants to see grow in children, and if a sports analogy helps get the message across to young readers, great.

To find out more about “Timothy’s Glove,” check out the author-illustrator’s website.

 

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Venezuelan baseball: Kidnapping sadly an occupational hazard

November 16, 2011

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Souvenir from Maracay: An Aragua Tigers cap

Baseball in Venezuela has been getting a lot of media attention lately, but the news hasn’t been good. Earlier this month, Washington Nationals catcher and former Twins player Wilson Ramos was kidnapped at gunpoint outside his family’s home in the city of Valencia and held for ransom. Security forces rescued him unharmed two days later from a remote mountain hideout.

Father Greg Schaffer, a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis who serves at the archdiocesan mission in the Venezuelan Diocese of Ciudad Guayana, says kidnappings happen throughout the country, although those involving the families of Major Leaguers get the most press coverage.

The Ramos incident was a bit unusual because more often it’s the family members of ballplayers who are targeted for kidnapping, with the players expected to dip into their deeper pockets to pay the ransom.

According to Father Schaffer:

“Many of the baseball players who play in the United States in the major and minor leagues are from working class families or from families struggling to makes ends meet. When these players return home to visit family during the offseason they stay with their families — many of which live in neighborhoods affected by violence and delinquency. Consequently, the ballplayers and their families become targets. Last year, Luis Rivas, who used to play second base for the Minnesota Twins, was in Venezuela during the offseason visiting family, and he was shot in the leg as guys stole his car.

“Most of the well-known baseball players have bodyguards for themselves and their families. When I baptized the son of [former Twins pitcher] Johan Santana a couple of years ago in his hometown of Tovar, which is a small town in the western part of the country in the mountains, I saw he had six bodyguards at that time that rotated to protect him and his family. I asked one of the bodyguards what was the hardest part of his job and he said protecting Johan’s father, Jesus.”

Before Santana signed a Major League contract, Father Schaffer said, the pitcher’s father loved visiting with people as he traveled around town selling bread for his in-laws. Today, when Jesus returns for visits, he still enjoys visiting with townspeople. But now, because of his son’s fame and fortune, Jesus’ outgoing personality creates a security challenge.

Pumped up fans

Many other ballplayers and their families face similar challenges, and it’s hard to imagine the stress this causes. Currently, 164 Major Leaguers hail from Venezuela, according to the Baseball Almanac, including Minnesota Twins pitchers Lester Oliveros (Maracay) and Jose Mijares (Caracas).

It’s a sad situation for a country that loves baseball — a love I was able to experience firsthand several years ago.

Back in January 2005, my wife and I traveled to the city of Maracay for the priesthood ordination of one of our Venezuelan friends. The Diocese of Maracay, located in the state of Aragua in the north-central part of the country, has been in a partnership since the mid-1960s with the Diocese of St. Cloud, Minn., where I used to live.

When we visited, Maracay’s residents were buzzing with excitement about their hometown team — the “Tigres de Aragua” or Aragua Tigers (the same team that Wilson Ramos had returned to play for). The Tigers were competing with a team from Caracas in Venezuela’s version of the World Series.

Hours before the start of the series’ deciding game, Tigers fans had already filled the streets, creating a tailgate party of sorts that lasted all the way until game time. That night, my wife and I settled into our room to watch the game on TV — which we did, until the power went out in the stadium and the surrounding area.

We waited for hours along with fans across the city for the power to return before we eventually drifted off to sleep.

The next thing I remember is waking up in the middle of the night to the sounds of people yelling and horns blowing. I half-joked that Venezuela must be undergoing another coup attempt. I say half-joked because a former bishop of St. Cloud — now Archbishop Jerome Hanus of Dubuque, Iowa — was visiting Maracay in the early-1990s when rebels did, indeed, attempt a coup.

In our case, it was the neighborhood celebrating a Tigers victory that came late in the night after the power finally returned.

“Venezuelans love baseball,” Detroit Tigers outfielder Magglio Ordonez, a native of Caracas, told kids a few years ago when he announced a new scholarship to help young people from southwest Detroit go to college. Many other Venezuelan players have also given much back to their communities — both their home communities in Venezuela and their new homes in the U.S.

Venezuelans do indeed love baseball, and it’s a tragedy that the players and their families increasingly face threats to their safety. Let’s pray that the successful rescue of Ramos sends a message that will discourage other would-be kidnappers and that Venezuelans throughout the country get to enjoy their national pastime in peace.

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Twins, Tigers & Twin Cities Catholics — Join the fun with the Basilica crowd Aug. 26

August 17, 2011

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If you’ve been to see the Twins in the past year and a half, you know how much fun outdoor baseball is at Target Field.

If you haven’t, here’s your chance.

The Basilica of St. Mary is hosting a night at the Target Field on Friday, Aug. 26, and all you need to know to join in.

Already have tickets for the game?  Join us for the picnic & bus ride only.  Get your tickets today for the Friday, August 26 Basilica Night at Target Field. We’ll start off the night at The Basilica for a delicious picnic featuring Bakers Ribs & then make our way by bus to the game to cheer on the Minnesota Twins as they face the Detroit Tigers.  Don’t miss out on the fun!  All proceeds will benefit The Basilica of Saint Mary.

Friday, August 26, 2011
5:00 pm Picnic at The Basilica
7:10 pm Twins vs. Tigers

PURCHASE TICKETS TODAY

New picnic & bus ride only packages available!  Tickets are in section 128 to 130.  For more information or to purchase tickets online click here.

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Latest biography of Mickey Mantle as much about America and sports heroes as it is about baseball

December 22, 2010

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Saying the name Mickey Mantle in the 1950s and early 1960s conjured an image of the all-American boy for baseball fans.

Just as golf aficionados today say the name “Tiger” and even non-golfers know of whom one speaks, that was the star power of “The Mick”  — an image with legs for decades, one that sparked the baseball memorabilia craze of the 1980s and beyond.

Mantle was the best player, the best hitter, on the best team in baseball, the New York Yankees.

Jane Leavy, a former sportswriter, presents in a new biography all the reasons the name of this professional ballplayer  received — and deserved — that kind of recognition. But “The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood” goes well past the box scores and on-the-field heroics to give us the complete picture of Mickey Mantle.

Children of the Fifties who had to have the Mantle signature glove or who had to use the Mantle signature Louisville Slugger — guilty as charged, your honor! — will meet a different Mantle, Mantle the off-the-field man:

  • the self-admitted terrible excuse for a father;
  • the falling-down alcoholic;
  • the all-star who cried when he struck out;
  • the womanizer who constantly had a female “business manager” as well as a wife who was the mother of his children;
  • the amazingly good friend and supporter of worthy causes;
  • the jerk who wrote foul-language comments on baseballs for autograph seekers;
  • the humble athlete who was filled with self-doubt about his talent and who felt he never got the praise for how he played, at least not from whom he needed to hear it.

Baseball, yes, but much more

“The Last Boy” has just enough baseball to keep a sports nut turning pages. You’ll enjoy the comparison of Mantle, Willie Mays and Duke Snider — all centerfielders in New York at the same time in the 1950s. You’ll come away thinking less of Casey Stengel and Joe DiMaggio. You’ll learn about the true friendship of Mantle and Roger Maris. And you’ll wonder if the baseball teams today coddle and protect their players the way the Yankees did there stars back in the day.

There are great anecdotes, including a brief one involving the Minnesota Twins’ pitcher Jim Kaat:

“Two-and-oh on Mantle, Earl Battey (Twins’ catcher) would wave his arms and make the sign of the cross.”

But there’s less baseball in this 420-page Harper hardcover than the typical fan might expect. That’s not a criticism. This is a exceptionally good book that I highly recommend. The number of interviews Leavy conducted with Mantle’s Yankee teammates, players on other teams, minor league teammates and opponents, hometown Oklahomans, family, fans, friends, media and medical people makes this an extremely thorough capturing of history. The study of the kinetics of Mantle’s swing alone is worth the price of the book ($27.99, but available now with discounts.)

Rather than being a baseball book, though, “The Last Boy” explains Mantle and major league baseball in the context of life in small-town America, life in the big city when you’re a star, and the sports hero worship of Mantle’s time. The Mick is the centerpiece for explaining all-too-frequent father-son relationships — both that of he and his father and he and his sons. The all-star centerfielder’s life helps us understand the perpetual childhood of some athletes, the privileged existence shoved upon the likes of a poor kid from Commerce, OK, and his inability to choose wisely when success on the field brought him celebrity and its perks.

In so many ways, Mantle’s story is a tragedy. Very late in life he came to realize that, and blessedly went through rehab to spend his last 18 months in sobriety. But from start to finish I found I could only take small bites of reading Mantle’s life story, and there were two reasons for that.

The pain no one knew

The first was that I was savoring this so-well-written work. Peavy has a great story to tell, and she tells is extremely well. But I came to feel so sorry for Mantle — sorry for the injuries that kept him from being even a greater player than he was, sorry for his inability to handle stardom, sorry for his sinning and the people he hurt — that I often found I had to stop reading because I couldn’t take anymore of this tragic waste of God’s gifts.

What was perhaps the most painful was reading how many people — teammates, reporters, members of the Yankee organization, even New York City cops — were unable or unwilling to help Mantle help himself. Swinging my 32-inch Mickey Mantle bat in the 1960s I knew nothing of the injured knee Mantle played on almost his entire 18-year career, nothing of his public drunkeness, nothing of his family life, what little of it there was.

This was a time — and I’m not sure it’s over completely — when reporters didn’t write that The Mick was unable to play because he was hungover.  Or that he had a succession of both mistresses and one-night stands. The fear of Mantle — or any other star player or celebrity — no longer speaking to a reporter kept them from doing anything more than praising the on-the-field Mantle, the powerful clean-up hitter, and gauging the distances of his home run blasts.

For my money, Leavy spends a bit too much time on what is allegedly one of the longest homers ever, but there is so much more that is interesting and informative and insightful in “The Lost Boy” that that misstep is easily forgiven. Her saga of interviewing the retired Mantle actually made me squirm; I’m wasn’t sure I wanted to read about that Mickey Mantle. But there’s a good point: Something in us doesn’t want our heroes tarnished

And today’s ‘heroes’ ?

Did we want to know that Tiger Woods had a mistress in New York when he had a supermodel wife  in Florida — or would we just rather see him making birdie puts on Sunday afternoons?

Did we really want to learn that Brett Favre had sent nude photos of himself to a woman who wasn’t his wife — or do we just want to remember him driving a team down for that final-minute winning touchdown?

To put this in a Catholic context, do we really want to know that a priest has abused young boys — or do we want to hold onto our image of our priests as holy men with no faults?

No place to hide

The end of America’s childhood. That’s the story that circulates around the life story of Mickey Mantle. There’s no more covering up. There’s no place to hide. There’s no one who can stop the foibles and failings of our heroes from being spread across television and computer screens, no less the pages of newspaper and magazines. And there’s no reason to do so.

Readers of “The Last Boy” may come to loathe some of the things Mantle did that tarnish his image, yet at the same time find much to like about The Mick, more than his 536 career homers. For one thing, he understood the power of his celebrity could be used for good, and did so both on behalf of many charities but also to help former teammates cash in on the trading card phenomenon.

It’s a wonderful reminder that we humans are neither all good nor all bad. What a great lesson to remember, especially in our own time, when so many choose to demonize others. None of us is perfect. None of us us all good, all holy, nor all evil. – bz

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Jackie Robinson, Lucy and the quest for a better tomorrow

September 28, 2010

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As two events draw near — Major League Baseball’s playoffs and the announcement of the Strategic Plan for Parishes in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis — I thought this might be a good time to revisit a column from a few years back that connected the great American pasttime with something many will need to deal with  — change. — bob z

 By Bob Zyskowski

Jackie Robinson, more than half a century ago, knocked out one half of an analysis that defines my belief about life.

The other half of the definition comes from Lucy, the dark-haired girl in the Charles Schulz cartoon strip “Peanuts.”

Robinson, the Hall of Fame ballplayer who was the first black to play in the Major Leagues, said back in 1950 that he was given that opportunity “because we put behind us (no matter how slowly) the dogmas of the past to discover the truth of today, and perhaps find the greatness of tomorrow.”

In other words, we can change.

Lucy, however, pitched the curve ball.

In the first panel of a cartoon she says that nothing happens until someone changes.

Linus responds in the next panel: “But I have changed.”

Lucy’s retorts in the final panel: “I meant for the better.”

Can we ever know?

That’s the dilemma I keep bumping into today.

In our country.

In our workplaces.

In our communities.

In our church.

We have the potential to change, but we’re uncertain if the change will be for the better.

I’m not sure we can know.

But should not knowing – not being absolutely certain of the consequences – freeze us from ever allowing ourselves the opportunity to improve? Should it prevent us from the opportunity to – as Jackie Robinson said – find greatness?

 Who needs power windows?

Back in the 1970s, when our young family was forced to look for a new car, finances dictated that we settle for basic transportation. No bells or whistles.

Power windows?

What for? I never had a problem rolling them up before.

Skip ahead 30 years. Middle son is out in the work world and needs a car.

He sees an ad in the paper for what looks like a good deal and asks me to go with him to check it out.

The advertised car is definitely basic transportation.

It’s a case-study of the bait-and-switch sales technique.

The car comes with n-o-t-h-i-n-g.

No air conditioning.

No power steering.

Not even a radio.

And windows you have to roll up and down manually.

I recommend against buying the car.

The clincher was the windows.

 Accept conditions – or change them

Other changes in our lives and our society haven’t worked out as well as power windows on automobiles.

To take just one example, the pre-Sexual Revolution mindset that treated human sexuality as “dirty” was less than healthy in denying the positive qualities of this great gift from God; however, some of the consequences of the Sexual Revolution – sex without commitment, using others to sate one’s own sexual appetite, abortion, single parents and children in poverty, sexually transmitted disease – are evidence that change can sometimes go too far.

That some change goes wrong, however, cannot be allowed to paralyze us into accepting a situation that can be improved.

Author Denis Waitley once wrote, “There are two primary choices in life: to accept conditions as they exist, or accept the responsibility for changing them.”

Several generations earlier, Catholic commentator G.K.Chesterton skewered hard-liners on both sides of the change/no change issue:

“The whole modern world has divided itself into conservatives and progressives. The business of progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.”

 Start with a question mark

A mentor for me was the late Archbishop John R. Roach. A former president of the U.S. Catholic Bishops who for 20 years led the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, he was asked once if his was a “liberal” diocese.

“I don’t know if we’re liberal or not,” Archbishop Roach answered, “but we move.”

If the definition of madness is doing the same thing and expecting different results, the sane choice may very well be to move, to do some things differently than the way we’ve done them in the past.

From my perspective, that doesn’t mean change for change’s sake. As cartoonist Schulz says through Lucy, the goal needs to be change for the better.

But staying the course when the course is not leading to satisfactory results, being bound by tradition when traditional ways aren’t working any longer, that’s just as wrong as taking change too far.

Start with a question mark, Bertrand Russell suggested.

The philosopher and Nobel Prize-winning writer offered, “In all affairs, it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.”

We need to do that questioning regularly, no matter where on the ideological spectrum our personal feelings lie.

A mover if not a liberal, Archbishop Roach told of forcing himself to question his own thinking. He was among the leaders in promoting the approval of the document that would become the landmark 1983 U.S. Bishops “Peace Pastoral,” but Archbishop Roach said he could never persuade New Orleans Archbishop Phillip Hannan that the pastoral was right.

“I had to ask myself, does he see something I don’t see?” Archbishop Roach said.

 Toward a better future

We’re in that situation with any number of issues in our lives, and especially in our church: The failure to hold onto teens and young adults who were raised in the faith is one example; our stewardship of parishes and schools is another. Keeping a pat hand isn’t the answer. Some of the things we are doing just aren’t working.

Neither is going back to the way things used to be. A century ago another archbishop of St. Paul proclaimed the fault in the kind of thinking that would have us to revert to the way things have been done in the past.

“I see no backward voyage across the sea of time,” Archbishop John Ireland said. “I will forever press forward. I believe that God intends the present to be better than the past, and the future to be better than the present.”

So we can change, and we must.

We may make mistakes when we do, and we may fail at changing for the better.

But doing nothing is failure just the same; it is failure to seize the opportunity to improve.

And perhaps to find greatness.

 Bob Zyskowski is associate publisher of The Catholic Spirit.

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What if the early black stars had been given their baseball seasons in the sun?

March 29, 2010

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The End of Baseball cover“The End of Baseball,”

by Peter Schilling Jr.

What if major league baseball hadn’t waited until 1947 to enjoy the athletic prowess of black ballplayers?

What if, in the midst of World War II, innovative Bill Veeck Jr. had purchased the Philadelphia Athletics and stocked the team with the stars of the Negro Leagues — Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Buck Leonard, Monte Irvin — during their prime?

During their heyday these players were the likes of Willie Mays, Henry Aaron and Ernie Banks, and we know what just those three hall of famers brought to the big leagues.

Pete Schilling gives us a taste of how a season might have gone if baseball had been integrated before Branch Rickey took a gamble and put Jackie Robinson in a Brooklyn Dodger uniform. It’s a story filled with drama, with racism, with emotional moments on and off the field, with the wacky promotions that even the creative mind of Bill Veeck might never have tried.

And with baseball —  pure, unadulterated baseball.

Precursor to the exploding scoreboard?

Veeck — in real life the non-traditional owner at various times of the Cleveland Indians, the Chicago White Sox and the St. Louis Browns — brought fun and fans to the ballpark — and he’s the centerpiece of Schilling’s book, challenging the “gentleman’s agreement” among baseball owners to keep their sport lily white. (And the father of St. Paul Saints’ innovative owner Mike Veeck — he of the pig that brings new baseballs to the umpire!)

Tidbits of baseball history and lore are sprinkled throughout, signs that heroic research has been poured into the writing by Minnesota resident Schilling, who noted that he put seven years in at the St. Louis Park (MN) Home Depot to pay the mortgage while writing “The End of Baseball.”

In what may or may not be based in fact, Veeck fights off famed baseball commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis to break the major league’s color barrier. Veeck’s memoir claims that he tried to do this very thing in 1942 but Landis — who was both judge and jury when it came to baseball policy during his 24-year reign — stopped him, fearing letting blacks play would be “the end of baseball.” Whether the novel captures history accurately or not, the battle makes for a fictional morality play and great, tension-filled reading.

And the innovations the fictional Veeck tries in order to fill seats at Philadelphia’s old Shibe Park are just as kooky — and successful! — as any of the promotions the real Veeck pulled off as a major league owner, including the scoreboard that shot off fireworks every time those pennant-winning 1959 Go-Go White Sox homered, the movable outfield fence in Cleveland (moved in or out 15 feet depending on the power of the opponent) and his most famous stunt, having a midget bat for the St. Louis Browns in order to induce a base on balls.

Famed supporting cast

Veeck may be the protagonist, but this is a book with a cast of worthy characters including the ageless Satchel Paige, the “Black Babe Ruth” Gibson, and future National League MVP Roy Campanella, a star for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s.

The blatant racism fans, hotels and restaurants in many cities show to the novel’s all-black A’s isn’t unlike what Robinson encountered when he played for the Dodgers in the late 1940s and what major league players like Fergie Jenkins and Dick Allen encountered even in the 1960s. While racism still exists in America, the fact that today white fans can cheer the likes of Torii Hunter, Ryan Howard and Derek Jeter only makes the “what-if” of the storyline of  “The End of Baseball” a cause of sorrow and regret.

So read this excellent book, then go online and do a search for the names above — some of the greats of the Negro Leagues who never got to shine at the major league level. One excellent source, too, is http://www.mlb.com.

Plug “Black players” into the search box and you’ll find page after page of history worth knowing and stories worth remembering. — bz

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