The Diamond as a House of Worship: A Look at the Church of Baseball

Halfway into Ron Shelton’s book “The Church of Baseball,” we were gifted tickets to the Diamondbacks/Phillies game at Chase Field on August 29.  As we drove downtown, I reflected on the book’s influence on how I may see the upcoming game. Shelton’s recounting of his minor league career revealed aspects of the game that had eluded me.  I resolved to sit back, soak it all in, and not get hung up on the score or who happened to be ahead. Given the Diamondback’s disappointing play in the first half of the season (they’ve lost more games than they’ve won) and their surging Philadelphia Phillies opponent, it seemed like a prudent approach.

We made our way to our favorite parking spot and little did I know this far-from sold-out game would turn into a remarkable battle, loaded with twists and turns. I now consider it the best live baseball game I have ever watched.

Ron Shelton grew up in a conservative, religious family and spent a good deal of time in church. In the late 60s and early 70s, he played minor league baseball with the Bluefield Orioles, Stockton Ports, the Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs, and Rochester Red Wings and grew disillusioned and angry about the Vietnam War when friends of his returned in body bags. Through the early and mid-1980s, he struggled to find a way to make a living in film, but mostly failed. Then he wrote a screenplay for a movie that eventually became Bull Durham.  The book provides deep detail on how the movie got made, along with his path to becoming a screenwriter and film director.  The book is great, but I most reveled in his approach to storytelling.  For instance, he talks about how he came to write Annie Savoy’s (played by Susan Sarandon) voice-over at the beginning of the movie, dictating her soliloquy into a beat up tape recorder as he drove his old Mustang across upstate New York:

“I believe in the Church of Baseball. I’ve tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones. I’ve worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I learned that, I gave Jesus a chance. (sigh) But it just didn’t work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology.

You see, there’s no guilt in baseball, and it’s never borin’ (giggle) – which makes it like sex. There’s never been a ballplayer slept with me who didn’t have the best year of his career. Makin’ love is like hittin’ a baseball. You just gotta relax and concentrate. Besides, I’d never sleep with a player hittin’ under .250, unless he had a lot of RBIs or was a great glove man up the middle.

You see, there’s a certain amount of life wisdom I give these boys. I can expand their minds. Sometimes when I’ve got a ballplayer alone, I’ll just read Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman to him. And the guys are so sweet, they always stay and listen. Of course, a guy’ll listen to anything if he thinks it’s foreplay. I make them feel confident, and they make me feel safe – and pretty. Of course, what I give them lasts a lifetime. What they give me lasts 142 games. Sometimes it seems like a bad trade, but bad trades are part of baseball. I mean, who can forget Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas, for God’s sake? It’s a long season and you gotta trust it. I’ve tried ’em all, I really have. And the only church that truly feeds the soul – day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball.”

Arriving at Chase Field we found we had wonderful seats, maybe a dozen rows back, and overlooking first base. We also noticed we were not only behind the Phillies’ dugout but in a section filled with Phillies fans wearing Phillies hats, Phillies jerseys, and holding Phillies signs. We had little to worry about as after the first few innings, our section mates were in a great mood.  Each inning the Phillies were at the plate was a cheer fest for our section.  The Phillies pounded our pitcher, Madison Bumgarner, mercilessly and we trailed 7-0 after 3 ½ innings. The Phoenix radio announcers were glum, noting never in Diamondbacks history had they ever come back from a 7-run deficit – not once…ever.  They’d come back twice in the team’s 25-year history from being down by six runs, but never seven. It wasn’t that the Phillies were just getting hits; they were hitting the ball hard — viciously so, and mean.  One ball hit by Phillies Bryce Harper left the bat at 113 mph, flying past our right fielder for an easy double.  Nine other hits were over 100 mph. I overheard the guy behind me say, “Wow, this is like batting practice.” What felt like the nail in the coffin came from Kyle Schwarber in the fourth inning, hitting his NL-leading 36th home run far into the right-field seats.

As the bottom of the fourth began, the stadium was mostly quiet, except for our Phillies section. But then things turned around. After Josh Rojas grounded out to first, Ketel Marte singled to left.  Then Christian Walker singled to left, moving Marte to second base.  Emmanuel Rivera whacked a double to deep right field, scoring Marte and moving Walker to third.  Stone Garrett singled to left, sending Walker home, and Rivera moved to third. We have 2 runs, finally.  After Jake McCarthy struck out, rookie Corbin Carroll made it safely to first on a combination of a fielding error and blazing speed and, Rivera scores giving us 3 runs.  Their pitcher walked Geraldo Perdomo, moving Carroll to second and Garrett to third.  Carson Kelly doubled to right, scoring Garrett, Perdomo, and Carroll and we had 6 runs.  All of a sudden, in one inning, it’s a ball game!

When the inning ends (Rojas grounds out) we’re only behind by one point, 7-6.  Ten players have made it to the plate for the Diamondbacks.   In the top of the fifth, the Phillies batters were 3 up and 3 down and the Diamondbacks immediately went back to work.  Marte started things off with a double to left field.  Walker walked.  Then Rivera walked, moving Walker to second and Marte to third.  Garret struck out. Then, McCarthy is hit by a pitch, causing Marte to score, moving Rivera to second and Walker to third.  The score is now tied, 7-7.  Fans on all sides of us are mumbling. There are sounds of disgust. Then, in his major league debut, Corbin Carroll breaks the 7-7 tie with a double to left center, scoring Walker and Rivera and moving McCarthy to third.  The score is now 9 – 7, putting the Diamondbacks ahead. What a thrill for Carroll, but also for his family, friends, coaches, and former minor league players who’d made it a point to be in the stadium for this, his first major league game.  No one could have predicted this.  It was amazing!  But, would the Phillies rebound? Those around us certainly hoped they would.

Shelton was a relatively new and inexperienced director when he finally twisted the arm of an unlikely film studio to put up $6M to make Bull Durham.  He never dreamed the movie would earn him an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay, and certainly, no one at the studio did either, given the constant second-guessing and attempts to change the film in major ways, including reshooting it with different actors.  And yet now, Bull Durham is seen as containing some of the best lines ever written, delivered by actors at the top of their creative work. For instance, the following line is one delivered by Crash Davis, Kevin Costner’s character, to Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) when she asks him what he does believe in:

“Well, I believe in the soul… the cock…the pussy… the small of a woman’s back… the hangin’ curveball… high fiber… good scotch… that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent overrated crap… I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a Constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, soft-core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve, and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days. Goodnight.”  Annie responds, “Oh, my!” 

Back in the stadium, the innings would pass and the Diamondbacks would add another score or two.  Then, in the bottom of the 8th, with the score 12-7, Stone Garrett (our left fielder) came to the plate, hitting a huge home run (396 feet) into the right field bleachers.  It was an anti-climactic final inning for the Phillies and the game was over. It was the first time in history the Phillies allowed six or more runs in back-to-back innings since 1997 before the Diamondbacks even existed.  At the top of the 4th inning, the Win Probability was 97.9% that Philadelphia would win.  By the top of the fifth inning, the probability Philly would win was 65.7% and by the bottom of the fifth, the Diamondbacks were projected to have an 88.3% chance of winning.

Shelton’s book connects on many levels.  If you are a fan of film, you’ll delight at Shelton’s inside stories and cinematic details movie watchers mostly miss. As a business guy, I loved learning the various roles people played, and the different departments involved (costumes, casting, camera and filming, lighting, sound, editing, set selection, location and design, legal and finance).  I never knew that nearly all films are made with at least one additional “second unit,” a team with a director, camera crew, actors, lighting, and sound going on at the same time the main scenes are being shot.  The only difference is, that those important scenes are the ones without the starring actors. But what was most inspiring in the book was learning more about the lives of minor league players; how hard they work and the constant fear of being cut or having an injury scuttle their dreams.

Standing in line for coffee this morning at Press Coffee – The Roastery, I commented on counter barista Michael’s arm tattoo, reading “Blessed” draped all along his arm from elbow to wrist in the largest lettering I’ve ever seen. I told him it made me smile every time I saw it.  “Ah yes,” he replied.  “I played college ball on scholarships but then tore out my ACL.  Every doctor told me I’d never play again.  I went back for one final second opinion and this doctor said,No, you can play, it will take a lot of work, but it’s possible.’ I got this tattoo the next day as I felt truly blessed.”     

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One Response to The Diamond as a House of Worship: A Look at the Church of Baseball

  1. Corky+Hall says:

    Loved it, Steve!

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