In the Big Inning

Baseball is, of course, a biblical game because we are taught “the homer shall be the standard measure” (Ezekiel 45:11, RSV). Jesus was looking for the diamond when he asked, “Where are the nine?” (Luke 17:17) Baseball is congenial to Christians because it is played in green pastures and often beside still waters (in Pittsburgh, however, we cross three rivers to get to the park). We keep our voices limber for hymns by singing about peanuts and crackerjack. While neither of those viands is our daily bread, we want our best hitters to come to the plate — and with ducks on the pond.

We plead with them not to strike out because that means their teammates “die” on base. Relief pitchers come in to “save” the game. And the really big stars become “immortal” and are “enshrined” in the Hall of Fame. If baseball were a simple game, there would be a fourth base, but baseball, like theology, is all about getting home safely.

The congregation comes from many “walks” of life, but shy people like to take a friend to baseball games. My best friend, having grown up in Africa, thought baseball was slow and boring. I convinced her otherwise by casually suggesting one of the players looked a bit like our oldest son. When the mighty maternal instinct kicked in, I had created a monster fan who soon learned more about baseball than I knew. However, I pride myself on being one of those guys who can handle having a wife a lot smarter than he is.

Like Christian faith, baseball has a fine balance between group and individual accomplishments. Baseball and church are both essentially team sports requiring tremendous cooperation on the field of action. However, there are also many opportunities for individual excellence. This is because, unlike contemporary American Presbyterians, everybody plays by the same rules.

Man and boy I have watched a lot of baseball, but the other night for the first time I saw a player hit for the cycle. To produce a single, double, triple, and home run in one game is extremely difficult. Even rarer is this feat for a catcher — most of whom are quick of decision but slow of foot — something like rolling a cement block around the bases.

The game was in late innings and we (meaning, of course, the Pittsburgh Pirates) were leading by double digits. Our pitcher was cruising to a complete game so the contest was practically over. The die-easy fans had already gone home, but die-hard fans, like my Margaret, do not fade away. They stay to the end. Our catcher came to the plate needing a triple to complete the cycle, the hardest hit in baseball to achieve. A tremendous shot to left center sent him chugging around the base paths — running incidentally on an ankle that had been shattered in a freak accident the previous season and was supposed to keep him in a rocking chair the rest of his life.

When our hero slid safely into third I suspect the good Lord was also on his feet cheering. After all, the Bible starts off with a description of what God did in the Big Inning.

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Holmes Sweet Holmes

Teaching at a theological seminary has its fun moments, but it is mostly the serious business of trying to provide survival skills for the leadership of the church.  Presbyterians especially obey Our Lord’s command to worship God with the mind (Mk 12:30; Mt 22:37; Lk 10:27).  Obviously we need first-rate institutions to nurture first-rate ministry.  I am truly grateful for my quarter century on a seminary faculty and the importance of the subjects I teach.

Nevertheless, I confess to an occasional nostalgia toward, a strong appreciation of, and a genuine regret for, the former fine frenzy freedom of college teaching.  In those days, restricted only by the range of my whimsy, I was allowed to offer courses in Bible, history until 1815, literature nobody else was interested in, and religious studies, which means anything you want it to mean.  Mainly, I chose subjects I wanted an excuse to study.  However, being hired by his predecessor to teach philosophy, I was concerned when a new dean arrived on campus.  I was even more concerned when I learned he had some very good friends in the philosophy department at the college he left.  Dean Ecks thought philosophy courses should be popular.  My classes were always small and (I liked to think) select. Since I was without tenure, I found myself between a rock and a hard-nosed dean.

Displayed in a prominent place of honor on my bookshelves is the text that convinced the dean he should not fire me.  In the January term, students enrolled in only one course and nearly the whole student body signed up for mine.  I was only somewhat sorry that other instructors had to cancel their offerings.  The title of my textbook and my course was “The Philosophy of Love.”  Although sex had not then entirely replaced love, even college students in the seventies had figured out there was what we call an intimate connection.  I have always believed that I was granted tenure based on my outstanding expertise in this area.

In another January term, I taught The Philosophy of Sherlock Holmes.  We did a lot of delightful digging around in The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, edited by William S. Baring-Gould (who must be related to Sabine Baring-Gould who wrote “Onward Christian Soldiers”).  The class also took in the movie version of The Seven Percent Solution, which is sometimes called a pastiche.

A few years ago in Pittsburgh there were two Holmes societies.  I attended meetings of the “Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers” named in honor of the army regiment Dr. Watson served as assistant surgeon.  Not everyone understands that the Holmes stories written down by Conan Doyle are factual not fictional.  Indeed there is a marker at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital where Mr. Sherlock Holmes greeted John H. Watson, M.D. with these immortal words, “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive” (“A Study in Scarlet”).  We learn that Dr. Watson was wounded near Kandahar in the Second Afghan War when a Jezail bullet shattered the bone in his left shoulder and grazed the subclavian artery (see also “The Cardboard Box” and “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor”). Strangely, according to the Canon (or Conan) eight years later Watson is limping because of his old war wound (“The Sign of the Four”).  The question, of course, is what kind of wound to the shoulder causes a man to limp?

Scholars think the most likely explanation is that Dr. Watson was leaning over a fallen soldier in a posture that allowed the bullet to hit his shoulder first and then his leg.  Moreover, Jezail bullets can wander a bit and injure other organs which Victorian modesty and delicacy would consider unmentionable.  This sensitive situation explains why Watson, married three times, had no children.

In a recent column, William Safire of the New York Times cited Holmes’s deduction in the story “Silver Blaze” concerning the dog that did not bark. Safire mistakenly assumed that the curiously silent watchdog was named Silver Blaze.  At last count, he ruefully confesses, 753 irate Sherlockians wrote to correct this terrible error.  One wrote, “Safire, you butt head, Silver Blaze was the name of the race horse, not the dog.”  Another wrote, “The failure of Silver Blaze to bark can be attributed, primarily, to his being a horse.  The dog, alas, goes unnamed.”

In my own letter, I suggested that any pundit who thought Silver Blaze was the dog’s name would undoubtedly believe that “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” was a medical story featuring John H. Watson, M.D. lancing a boil.  The truth is the Countess of Morcar’s carbuncle was a garnet cut with a domed top.  Garnets are found in the colors red, orange, yellow, brown, purple, black, and white.  Among the more remarkable facts of Sherlock Holmes’s remarkable career as the world’s only unofficial consulting detective is that this gemstone was the only blue carbuncle ever seen.

This nostalgic essay has a sequel.  On a trip to Zurich last week, son Charles and I paid our respects to Huldrych Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger, especially Bullinger.  For most of my life I defended Calvin’s view of the Eucharist.  I now think Bullinger was more correct.  Anyway, after Zurich we drove to Meiringen and by cable car up to Reichenbach Falls where Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty fought and fell. For a number of years, I have picked up a common rock from the ground in places I wanted to remember.  Therefore, next time I see you, remind me to show you the rock both Zwingli and Bullinger stepped on, as well as the one Holmes and Moriarty fought over.