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Jesus At The Ballpark

Meeting the person sitting next to you and enjoying a three-hour ball game together makes each trip to the ball park a unique outing.

Occasionally you have some dope in the next seat who 1) knows nothing about the game, 2) talks incessantly about matters other than baseball, or 3) simply grates on your nerves.

But far more often - at least in my experience - I meet someone who shares a passion for the Sox, actually knows that Gordon Beckham is good field-no hit, and realizes when Ozzie needs to replace Humber with Crain.

Furthermore, this random guy in the next seat could be a CEO, a teacher, or a traveling salesman. He might live on the North Side (not very likely) or in Bridgeport. One thing is certain: He (or she) won't be a carbon copy of me.

Former Sox owner Bill Veeck, after he sold the team in 1981, was a frequent visitor to the bleachers at Wrigley Field. Bill claimed that he was most comfortable sitting there amidst what he regarded as the most knowledgeable fans. He also loved to sit in the sun and work on his tan.

Bill was the kind of guy who liked to include folks, and usually an interesting mix of fans surrounded him in the bleachers. Nationality, race, and religion mattered little to him, nor was he hung up on the number in a guy's bank ledger. He was interested in qualities like civility, honesty, and reliability.

I bring this up because I've always considered a ballpark as an inclusive place. It's an opportunity to enjoy the greatest game in the world with a diverse group. While the expense has risen at an alarming rate, everyone is welcome. No one is checking your ID at the door.

So when I learned that last Saturday was Christian Day at the Ballpark at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, I took a look at the Cards' website to see if this was, indeed, the case. In fact, during previous Christian Days at Busch, players such as Adam Wainwright, Matt Holliday, and Albert Pujols have given testimony to their faith for the fans who opted to remain after the game to listen.

Last year Wainwright, who won 19 games and was runner-up for the Cy Young, said, "When I'm pitching . . . I got Jesus right beside me on the mound. Who the heck am I going to be scared of?"

Apparently Wainwright assumes that the batter doesn't possess similar faith, having Jesus right next to him facing the big right-hander. That's a match-up I'd like to see.

Religious promotions by major league clubs are fairly recent phenomena and beg the question of whether separation of church and sports is appropriate.

We hear athletes in post-game interviews thank God after heroic performances. Pro football players from both teams kneel in a circle for a prayer after an afternoon of controlled violence. Some relief pitchers, upon entering the game, first walk behind the mound asking for the Lord's guidance in retiring the next batter with the bases loaded.
These are individual expressions of faith. They deserve respect even if some fans question their propriety.

I remember Tony Taylor, the Cuban second baseman, who debuted with the Cubs in 1958. He genuflected before each at-bat. I can't say it didn't help. He played 19 years and amassed more than 2,000 hits.

But I can't recall too many other athletes - possibly excluding boxers - who made public displays of faith 40 or 50 years ago.

In my view, Christian Day at the Ballpark is a different animal. For one, public money has financed a large portion of most stadia, and who's to say whether the people's teams should be promoting religious beliefs.

Being Jewish, I wouldn't be marking my calendar to be sure to attend a game on Christian Day. And I wouldn't be jumping up and down to entice my non-Jewish friends to accompany me to Jewish Heritage Day either.

USA Today reported last April that days for Christians, Jews, and Mormons were in the planning stages at a number of ballparks for the 2011 season. Upon up-to-the-minute investigation, no one was planning a Muslim or Buddhist Day at the Ballpark, let alone an Atheist Day. Don't hold your breath for any of those.

I asked my friend Doug Harris if he had heard about Christian Day. Doug is a Baptist pastor, as is his wife Carol McVetty. That's the good news. The bad news is Doug's a lifelong Tigers fan.

"We are wondering where do you stop when choosing the various faiths for having those special days?" responded Doug. "And who is really benefiting? Does the ballclub make extra money by 'segmenting' the market? Do the concessions refrain from selling pork hot dogs on Jewish Day, being willing to forgo profit in order to honor faith?

"We've had fun discussing this the last few days. Some friends from Wisconsin - one is a Methodist pastor - feel that it cheapens our faith whenever faith is used as marketing tool or a gimmick. Carol is offended by faith being exploited for profit. Baseball is uniquely an American game that should transcend our differences rather than accentuating them. We think this marketing gimmick also cheapens baseball."

* * *

There was nothing cheap about the Sox beating up on the Orioles and Royals last week. Let's hope they're not messing with us again.

Every time the team reaches or gets close to .500 - the mark of genuine mediocrity - they suffer another tailspin.

And after yesterday's 6-2 victory over the troublesome Royals - the Sox are 5-6 against them this season - they're back to 60-60, having split the previous 36 games.

Before these latest eight wins in 10 games, most observers thought the team was on the verge of extinction.

The Sox are frustrating, puzzling, and downright impotent much too often. But they're also as resilient as Manny Pacquiao's light bag. They just keep bouncing back.

Paul Konerko has been hitting on one leg during the current rally, and with three hits yesterday, he's up to .311. Our other "gamer," A.J. Pierzynski, is nursing a bruised wrist, but A.J. being A.J., you know he'll soon return.

In the meantime, Ozzie hands Brent Lillibridge a first baseman's glove, and gigantic Tyler Flowers assumes the catching duties. Lillibridge slammed his 10th homer yesterday - just one less than Adam Dunn. No one could have predicted the kind of year he's having. And Flowers can rip the ball. He also homered on Saturday and now is 6-for-20 since being called up from Charlotte.

With 42 games remaining, the Sox can't afford to stumble yet again. Cleveland and Texas are invading the Cell this week where the Sox are a dismal 26-33. Forget about the post-season unless the boys can win at home.

The Tigers are four games ahead of the Sox, but the teams will meet six times in September. What seemed a remote possibility just a week ago now is not out of the question.

Keep the faith, baby!

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Comments welcome.

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