Every Game A Story: Baseball is Not a Sin

The 1991 Minnesota Twins famously rocketed from worst to first. For an isolated 11-year-old, they did more than that, too.
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When I turned 11, I decided I wanted to be a sports person. I didn’t exactly know what that meant. But I knew a lot of people cared about sports. Also, sports didn’t seem anti-god.

That was important. My preacher father and stay-at-home mom rode into parenthood on the wave of the Moral Majority era of politicized evangelical Christianity. The culture wars. Both were from northern Minnesota, a sequestered part of the nation that could be described nicely (and we must be nice!) as the shock absorber of a culture surely gone mad. They were on the front lines of a generational counterattack. As their homeschooled, firstborn son, my place in the battle was foreordained. I was born and raised an exemplar of social order and a standard-bearing warrior against the secular barbarians at the gate. There was no worse descriptor than “secular,” unless you want to talk about blasphemers, and we don’t.

It was lonely and isolating. Sure, I had five siblings, and the house was never quiet. But trips outside the home to the grocery stores and thrift shops of Fargo, North Dakota, sometimes felt like forays into the woods to forage for supplies, weapons of the faith at the ready in case of a skirmish. Strangers were there, some with tattoos. Scantily clad women on magazines stared back at me without blushing. Signs for liquor were bright, and bar windows so dark. I had many questions, but seldom asked them. I hated not knowing things. But I knew enough to sigh away questions and think on their souls. How could one even begin to explain the sinful lives and secular ways of all these people? Only home was safe, and church. Not a church, or the church. But church. There was only the one. St. Paul’s Free Lutheran Church.

This was where I met the hybrids. People who were like me only in age. They went to public school, was the best explanation I could come up with. We were never friends. We were in the same church, professed the same faith, went to the same summer Bible camp in Cooperstown, North Dakota. But they talked about girlfriends and boyfriends, something called “Saturday Night Live,” and “alternative” music. I was repulsed and fascinated. It all seemed so utterly secular, yet made them happy, gave them something in common and made me feel alone. A paradox.

Yet they also talked about sports. Sports didn’t seem sinful. I was an athletic kid. I scrambled up trees, loved the freedom of my bicycle, and made up strenuous games to play in the church yard. Still, sports for me were nothing but a series of ritual humiliations. At a Bible camp softball game that summer, I was told my socks were pulled up too high on my legs, my hat brim too store-bought flat. I couldn’t hit a softball, and a softball was even easier to hit than a baseball, I was told. I was a champion at one thing: being a target of ridicule. I told no one. I vowed to improve. I needed to know more.

At home, I tried to play baseball with some neighborhood kids who didn’t really need me as a friend. In a backyard, it was still clear: I couldn’t hit the ball. I couldn’t catch the ball. But I started learning sports words: Three-bagger, curveball, Bo Jackson. More, more, more.

This was 1991. There was no Internet. We got no newspapers. We did get magazines from homeschooling organizations and a “Christ-centered” imitation of Time magazine called World. None of these taught me about sports. Watching televised sports were not an option. My family owned a 13-inch television strictly for watching VHS tapes deemed acceptable. I was particularly fond of the Sound of Music, the 1965 Julie Andrews musical, rated G. The inappropriate portions had been edited out by my parents.

Radio became my refuge. With a little AM-FM radio, I tuned in to the Mighty 790, KFGO and followed the Minnesota Twins. I heard announcer John Gordon talking about a pitch called a slider, and looked in our 1965 edition of World Book encyclopedia to see if there was an illustration of how to throw one. There wasn’t.

But something else was taking over. This was no longer about avoiding humiliation. I cared. I listened as the team rose that season from a last-in-the-division finish the previous year. I whispered the mantra to myself as I rode to the store in the back of my parent's station wagon: Worst to first, worst to first, worst to first. I listened as the Twins played themselves into the World Series, fighting back to tie the Series in a game 6 so tense, I lay under my covers, shaking. Extra innings, bottom of the 11th. I heard Gordon tell me that Twins hero Kirby Puckett was up, and then I heard the crowd erupt, and then Gordon’s voice arch over them all in joy: “The Twins are going to a seventh game! Touch ‘em all, Kirby Puckett! Touch ‘em all, Kirby Puckett!” I clicked off the radio. And knew. I had to see game seven on TV. It was time to brave the sinful television and wring some good from it.

I argued, and cajoled and promised my parents everything I could to convince them to pull the TV out of the closet and tune in for the Game. Somehow we got to yes. The terms of the matter were set: everyone would watch, we’d shut the TV off during commercials, and this was not to be a regular thing. The last was the easiest to promise: There’s never a game eight in the World Series. We set up the TV in the living room and telescoped out the antennas. I remember moving them around carefully and, on the instructions of my dad, wrapping aluminum foil around them in bizarre shapes to get a clear signal. We missed the first few minutes, but it didn't matter. Here was my team. And spectacle.

The graphics! The crowd! The blizzard of homer hankies! Radio, my magical medium, hadn’t told me what the Twins players looked like, and now here they were: Round, skinny, black, mustachioed, blonde. They were so real. I felt things for them, these men I had never seen. I had never seen the Braves players either, and yet they repelled me. I felt nothing but disgust for these men. Just their presence desecrated the Metrodome.

The Twins won, the series dubbed one of the best ever played. But even if they had lost, something inside me had been set in cement. I had been so sure sports, specifically baseball, was my way to relate to outsiders. In the span of one season, I realized I had something in common with every Twins fan. I was part of something bigger than myself, and it wasn’t what I was taught in my homeschool lessons. I knew a secret. There wasn’t just one church.

For years after, when I would throw a baseball, I would puff up my cheeks and hold my breath, expelling it as I threw, just as I saw Twins pitcher Jack Morris do on TV to take his team to game 7 triumph. I never knew what it accomplished, but it clearly won ball games. So I did it, every time. My sacrament.

Puff, hold, throw, exhale, belong.

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