October Blessings

I love October. It’s absolutely my favorite month of the year.

I don’t think this will come as a galloping surprise to anyone – I mean, LOTS of people consider autumn their favorite season. But for me, October specifically is my favorite, for several reasons.

And okay, yes, full disclosure: my birthday is in October. I remember as a kid feeling a kinship with others in my school grade who shared October birthdays. Later, I learned that my best friend from college has an October birthday, and my brother Jimmy and wife Christy got married in October. Of course, once you get past the age of 10 or 12, people stop making a big deal out of your birthday. Still, I enjoy mine. But that’s not the only reason I love October.

Getting to October means that we’ve survived another Texas summer. This is not a small thing. Summers around here are brutal, and September is nothing but a tease. The calendar may say that summer is over, but really, it isn’t – even in late September, the highs can easily reach the upper 90s or more. But October is a different matter – there are still warm days, to be sure, but the evenings and mornings have a delicious chill about them.

Another thing I like about October: postseason baseball. “October baseball” means that only the best teams are still playing. Playoff baseball is a thing of beauty – even more than the regular season. Big players make big plays in big games. And there’s a reason nobody in baseball is ever nicknamed, “Mr. April.” (Thank you, Drew Bowen!) As I write this, this year’s World Series is about to begin, and I’m ready!

The changing season also means some changes to the menu. I love a good pot of chili, and there’s something about good chili – especially venison chili – that is warm and comforting and satisfying. I don’t know why we don’t eat chili when the weather is hot – we eat other soups and stews – but chili is the ultimate cold weather comfort food. And I know, at some point soon, I’ll be making a pot of it.

Or chicken and dumplings. Or Guinness beef stew. Or something else warm and filling. There are plenty of delicious, hearty foods to enjoy with friends and family this time of year.

October means the holidays are coming, but not here yet. We have the excitement and anticipation of those good things, but don’t yet have to put with the craziness of too many events and too little time to do them all. I can, and do, look forward with a child’s excitement to the approach of Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I love the colors of fall: red, orange, yellow, golden brown. Even though we don’t have the brilliance of New England or Appalachia (or even East Texas!), it’s still nice to see the changing colors of leaves and appreciate the beauty of God’s creation.

In some ways, autumn is like a parable. The changing colors can inspire us to glorify God by taking up a new interest and exploring new opportunities to grow. The loss of leaves can remind us that sometimes we need to let go of some things, to allow old habits and destructive patterns drop away.

October is a reminder that nothing is permanent. Seasons change. Life is transitory. Make the most of every opportunity. We can choose either to be resentful that something is gone, or we can give thanks that we were able to enjoy it for a while. Savor it – appreciate it – then say, “What’s next?” and move on.

Summer’s over, winter’s coming, but for a few more days, October is here. And I’m happy about that. Let’s enjoy it while we can.

Thoughts While Traveling

Kathy and I are just back from our vacation, and we had a wonderful time. We went to the Metroplex and got to spend time with our son there, then we flew to Baltimore and spent a few days with our daughter there, whom we hadn’t seen since before Thanksgiving. We were able to go to a Rangers game and we visited Washington, DC, saw a lot of famous sights and historical sites, and ate a bunch of really good seafood. And in the coming weeks, I’ll tell you more about where we went and what we saw, but for now, I want to share some observations I had while we were on our trip – random thoughts about traveling.

This was the first real trip we have taken together in over two years, partly because of moving back to Haskell, and partly due to the pandemic. And as a lot of people have observed, we were definitely happy to just be going SOMEWHERE – she and I are both fully vaccinated, and it’s just nice to be able to be “out and about,” to see different locations and some new faces. So here are some things that I noticed in the midst of our goings and comings:

It’s been a very green year. All the way on our drive over to Ft. Worth and Dallas, we both kept talking about how pretty and green the countryside was and is. By this point in a normal year, the grass would be brown, the wildflowers would all be long dead, and even the trees would be looking droopy and dried up. Not this year. The grass is still lush and green, and it’s nice to see. And Thank You, Lord, for the rain.

“O say, can you see?” We went to a Rangers game Saturday afternoon at the new Globe Life Field ballpark – it is air conditioned with a retractable roof, and a very comfortable place to watch a ballgame. (The Rangers lost in extra innings to the A’s.)

Anyway, I was in line at a concession stand before the game started, and had just gotten to the register, to pay the man for our order, when we heard the familiar opening notes of the Star-Spangled Banner. The cashier said to me, “Just a moment, sir – we will wait until the anthem is finished.” I glanced around and sure enough, everywhere I looked, all the concessionaires were standing still, in a posture of respect, and the whole area fell silent.

In my mind suddenly, I was with my mom and dad, my brothers, and our grandmother, and we were at an Astros game in the late 60s. I looked over and noticed that my grandmother wasn’t singing, so after it was finished, I asked her about it. She reminded me that one of her brothers had been killed in Korea, during an enemy rocket attack, and she said that the lyric about “the rocket’s red glare” was painful for her to think about.

Just then, the anthem was over, and I remembered that I was in line, buying nachos and sodas – but now with unspoken gratitude to the management there for putting commerce aside for three minutes and honoring our National Anthem and all that it means.

A lot of smiles. I have to admit, I was a little anxious about my first plane ride in a couple of years. Not because I’m afraid of flying, but because of all the horror stories that have been in the news in recent weeks regarding the extremely disruptive behavior of many travelers. I’m sure you’ve heard these stories, as well, about passengers going crazy on flights, acting disorderly, even trying to open exit doors in midair.

But those worries were absolutely pointless. From the TSA agents to the Southwest ticket and gate staff, to the flight and cabin crews and our fellow flyers, everyone seemed to be smiling and patient, and just trying to get to their destinations with a minimum of fuss and bother. It was nice.

Taking off is the best part. My favorite part of any flight has always been that moment that comes after you’re finally on board and seated, with all of your gear stowed and the seat backs and tray tables in their full upright and locked position. The plane is taxiing along and finally gets to the runway, then turns and gets lined up for takeoff. The engines begin spooling up, and then it happens: You start rolling down the runway, and you notice the seat back pushing harder and harder against your spine. You’re rapidly picking up speed and you notice the bumps of the expansion joints in the concrete below you, as the physics of flight take over and the pilots turn a 90-ton tricycle into a jet airliner. The nose lifts, then the whole plane, and off you go, into the wild blue yonder.

I love it. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the best part of the whole flight.

Baseball and the Movies

I love baseball. And I love good movies! Regular readers of these articles are aware of both of these passions of mine. So I suppose it’s inevitable that I write about Baseball Movies!

Baseball and movies have been a natural partnership since the early days of both. The oldest known movie dealing with the sport is The Ball Game, an 1898 documentary with highlights from a game between the Reading Phillies and the Newark Bears. There were plenty of silent films about baseball in the “pre-talkie” days, including 1917’s Baseball Madness, a comedy starring Gloria Swanson, and 1920’s Headin’ Home, with Babe Ruth portraying himself. And there were numerous films from the 1930s of every category dealing with baseball – comedies, musicals, dramas, murder mysteries, and more.

But I guess it was during the 1940s that baseball movies really began to become popular, with three movies that stand out to me. The first is Pride of the Yankees from 1942, starring Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig and featuring Babe Ruth again as himself. Even if you haven’t seen the entire movie, you’ve probably seen the clip, based on actual newsreel footage, where Gehrig, dying from the disease that today bears his name, stands before the crowd at Yankee Stadium and declares, “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.” Two other good pictures from that decade, both from 1949, were The Stratton Story, starring Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson, and Take Me Out to the Ball Game, starring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly as ballplayers who – surprise! – sing and dance.

The 1950s through the 1970s was something of a drought for good baseball movies. One that I like is 1958’s Damn Yankees, a musical starring Gwen Verdon and Tab Hunter. It tells the story of a middle-aged Washington Senators fan who sells his soul to the devil for a chance to beat the Yankees and win the pennant. Don’t miss Ray Walston as the devil. Another good one is Bang the Drum Slowly from 1973. Michael Moriarty (who would later become well-known in the original iteration of “Law and Order”) plays a big-league pitcher dying of cancer; his best friend is his catcher, played by the then-unknown Robert De Niro.

Two of the best recent baseball films are 2012’s Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt, who tries to turn around the fortunes of perennial losers, the Oakland A’s; another is 42, from 2013, starring Chadwick Boseman as the legendary Dodgers infielder, Jackie Robinson, who wore number 42. Don’t miss Harrison Ford as Dodgers’ owner, Branch Rickey, and Christopher Meloni (best known for Law and Order: SVU) as manager Leo Durocher. And it’s not a movie, but if you love the game, be sure to watch Baseball, by acclaimed documentary filmmaker, Ken Burns – it’s a comprehensive history of the sport, originally produced for PBS.

What are some of my favorite baseball movies? In alphabetical order –

Bull Durham – 1988. A romantic comedy starring Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Robbins. Warning: the dialogue is heavily laced with profanity, but if you can tolerate that, this is a great look at life in the minor leagues and players trying to get to “the show.” Have you ever experienced that sense of wonder – the awe – of walking into the stands of a big-league park, coming up the stairs, and there in front of you, is that beautiful green expanse of a baseball field? This movie captures that feeling.

Field of Dreams – 1989. Kevin Costner again, this time as an Iowa farmer who hears voices telling him to build a ballpark out in his corn field. James Earl Jones co-stars as a cynical writer from the 60s; also with Amy Madigan, Ray Liotta, and Burt Lancaster, in his final film appearance. “Oh, people will come, Ray; people will most definitely come.” Full of great moments.

A League of Their Own – 1992. A fictionalized account of the All-American Girls’ Professional Baseball League of the 1940s, starring Geena Davis and Tom Hanks. And just in case you were wondering, there’s no crying in baseball.

The Natural – 1984. Robert Redford portrays an aging rookie, trying one last time to break into the bigs. Glenn Close is the lady in white; Kim Basinger is the woman in black. “I believe we have two lives,” says Glenn Close’s character at one point. “The life we learn with, and the life we live with, after that.”

The Sandlot – 1993. A group of mostly unknown child actors, with Karen Allen, Denis Leary, and James Earl Jones as the grown-ups. This is a wonderful movie about kids growing up in the summer of 1962, playing ball and experiencing life together. “You’re not in trouble; you’re dead where you stand!”

Good stuff.

Diamonds & Dirt & Heading for Home

News item: The Major League Baseball 2021 season begins next week; Opening Day is set for Thursday, April 1. I’m ready. I love baseball.

In fact, in honor of Opening Day and with your kind permission, I’d like to repeat a column I wrote some time ago, about why I enjoy the game. Because, as many others have said before, there is wisdom we can learn from baseball that translates directly into a well-lived life.

For one thing, I love the more-realistic expectations of baseball, especially compared to other sports. The best hitter who ever lived (Ted Williams), in the best season he ever had (1941), had a batting average of .406. That means that six times out of ten when he came up to bat, he FAILED to hit the ball. Can you imagine a successful wide receiver who dropped six passes out of every ten thrown to him, or a basketball player who missed six out of every ten shots he took? Not likely. The truth is, many of us fail more often than we succeed. Success in life is measured, though, not by how many times we fail, but by how many times we get back up and keep trying.

Another thing about baseball – you have to focus on the situation at hand. You can only play one game at a time. Learn to stay in the moment, and don’t worry too much about the past or the future. When you make an error, shake it off, and be ready for the next ball hit to you.

I love the teamwork of a well-disciplined ball club. I mean, certainly I understand that teamwork is a part of football, basketball, etc. They are, after all, called TEAM sports. And, of course I realize that no running back is going to do very well without a good line blocking for him. But to me, there is unmatched beauty and elegance in watching an infield execute a beautiful – even graceful – 5-4-3 double play (the ball is hit to the third baseman, who throws it to second for one out, who then throws to first for another out). These guys have practiced so long and so effectively together, they make it look easy and effortless. And I assure you, it is not.

Even something seemingly simple like a fielder hitting the cutoff man, who fires to the catcher, to cut down a runner trying to score – such things take mind-numbing hours of work and skill to accomplish.

You have to trust your teammates. A pitcher has to trust the fielders behind him, to provide good defense. Fielders have to trust that pitchers will make quality pitches. So also in life. Surround yourself with Godly companions and support each other.

Some other principles from baseball that apply to life:

  • Realize that sometimes, the ball just takes a bad hop on you.
  • There’s a time for preparation, and a time for performance.
  • Even the best players will sometimes have an off day. And even the most average player will sometimes have the game of his life.
  • In a regular season, every team is going to win 54 games; every team is going to lose 54 games. It’s what you do with the other 54 games that counts.
  • Blown calls and bad trades are part of baseball. Deal with it.
  • Sometimes you have to take one for the team.
  • Play with passion. Don’t be afraid to dive for the ball. It’s okay to get dirt on your uniform.
  • There’s a time to bunt, and a time to swing for the fences. Each is valuable in its place.
  • Make the most of the opportunities that you have. Don’t waste good chances; you don’t know how many you’ll get.
  • The bigger the situation, the more you need to relax. Too much tension is never good.
  • You can’t steal first.
  • You win some; you lose some; some get rained out.
  • Above all else – the main thing is always to get safely home.

Now – Play Ball!