Praying the Game

I often watch sporting events alone. I don’t generally like to go to Super Bowl parties. The quiet press box was wonderful when I was covering games in my media days. And sports bars with dozens of televisions are fun, but not my favorite places to be. Even broadcasting a game, while a thrill and an intimate experience, doesn’t rank with simply watching the beauty of a sporting event.

When I first started working at Busted Halo®, Fr. Brett Hoover, CSP decided that I needed to go an experience another part of the country, where Catholics were in the minority. He sent me to Knoxville, Tennessee where Catholics represent only 2% of the country and where our good friend Fr. Eric Andrews, CSP was serving as an associate pastor at the University of Tennessee. I did an night of reflection for their students and had a great time. The highlight of the week was going to the women’s basketball game.

A word about Tennessee. When there’s a game the whole town turns orange and the game dictates everything. The women’s basketball team is always nationally ranked and usually #1 or #2. It was an amazing sell-out arena that night and they retired the number of one of their all time greats Chamique Holdsclaw.

But the story, I’d like to focus on is this. We had three tickets for the game but I had to sit away from Fr. Eric and his then-pastor Fr. Terry Ryan–two sports nuts. Now if you’ve ever gone to a sporting event with me, you’d notice that I’m pretty quiet and introspective at it. I don’t shout my fool head off at a game in general. I don’t really cheer much, or really say much of anything. I enjoy the intricacies of the strategy and watch the game dissecting it. I don’t get out of my seat to eat or drink and I keep a scorecard at baseball games.

In general, I’m not much fun to go to games with.

Fr. Terry looked down two rows and asked Fr. Eric at the game we attended. “Why’s he sitting on his hands? Isn’t he enjoying himself?”

Then came the kicker: “He looks like a Buddhist.”

Bingo. I’m actually in prayer-relationship during that game. I often pray during games about whatever’s going on in my life. I share the game with God–as a friend might share the ballgame with another. The game’s not really a distraction as much as an anchor for me. I can watch the game and simply offer that enjoyment to God and let that open me up to what else God calls me to. In that conversation, I often am able to listen more carefully to God’s voice.

Even as a player in a game, I would find myself alone and enraptured by God’s companionship. Outfielders get bored out there all alone. You end up making little games with the rocks in the earth and paying attention to the next pitch while trying not to get too distracted by your surroundings. The pitcher’s mound is a lonely place, but not when God’s invited in to share that space. It reminds me to take my time and launch another softball into the open mitt of the catcher and to have quick reflexes if a ball is hit back my way (Catch it or it kills you).

My wife often says “You look like a little boy again when you’re at the ballpark or the hockey arena.” She gets it. We don’t talk all that much and she doesn’t really understand much about the intricacies of baseball. On our honeymoon in Montreal, her gift to me was an Expos game, now nearly 10 years ago when Montreal still had a team. We sat 6 rows off home plate and she loved being that close and began to pick up a bit more than usual.

Or so I thought until she said, “That guy’s cheating!”

“Um, no dear…he’s just taking a lead.”

We had a great conversation that day over a three hour ballgame. There was no place else to be. We could be present to one another and simply be rather than do. Amid the raucous fans, who often annoy me when they get too loud, or too drunk, I find quiet, tuning out nearly all things around me and finding time to spend with God amid balls and strikes, goals and fights, field goals and punts, chips onto the green, or the occasional slam dunk (basketball being my least favorite). We share the time and there is nowhere else to be.

Bill Barry, the great spiritual director and author, often reminds us to share what we like best with God. A long sunset walk, a luxurious bath, a well cooked meal, a bike ride, working out, crossword puzzles–whatever puts you at ease. In doing so, we are sharing that time in conscious relationship with God–just as we might do with a close friend.

I remember one summer day, I had nothing to do and was troubled by my prospects for the future. I got on the subway and went off to Yankee Stadium (the old one, not the new antiseptic one that replaced it now) for an afternoon game. I sat by myself in the Right field bleachers–not an awful seat, near one of my favorite players, Paul O’Neill. God and I spent a long afternoon there–nearly four hours. I don’t think I spoke a word that afternoon aloud–but much was said and shared. Each pitch was a reflection of the beauty of God’s creation, a gift to each player, that was indeed special and a marvel to watch.

Truth be told, the ballpark has become less of a Cathedral these days. It seems the owners have forgotten, or perhaps the public has, of the beauty of these games themselves. Parks and arenas, as my friend Kevin pointed out to me on a recent ballpark tour we took of the many distractions inherent now in the games we watch. What’s there to eat? What kind of beer is here? What other distractions are there? How drunk can one get before the 7th inning when they stop serving? How loud can the music get (in Detroit, it’s downright deafening!)? In Cincinnati, the park is surrounded by the river and a beautiful bridge–it’s too bad most can’t see either from their seats–while in Pittsburgh they did it right and it creates a glorious backdrop.

The three best ballparks in the Majors in my opinion are Wrigley Field in Chicago (where people actually watch the game–despite people saying it’s the world’s biggest outdoor bar, I’ve found Cub fans to be amongst the most knowledgeable about the game and their team), Fenway Park in Boston where a standing room ticket still beats a front row at many places and PNC Park in Pittsburgh which is just glorious. The old Yankee Stadium was pretty good too–but too many corporate shills killed it turning it into an amusement park rather than a baseball stadium and beckoning a new one to fit that mold better. I’ve loved watching hockey in Buffalo as well, where the fans are rabid for the game itself and don’t care much for distractions.

Winter is ending soon and I will gladly take in a minor league game at Coca Cola Field here in Buffalo. It’ll be time to unwind and simply spend time with God and neighbor and simply be.

In the green cathedrals, the ice chapels and even the hardwood hallowed halls, God is eminently present to me.

And it is there that I’ll wait for Him to come and join me again.

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2 Comments

  1. Mike: I’ve heard that the ballpark in San Francisco is top notch too. Never been though. I actually enjoy watching games by myself too. Only tickets are so expensive I’m usually watching at home on the TV for free! I also enjoy watching (and broadcasting) lots of high school and small college sporting events. Fun without all the frills. More back to the basics if you ask me.

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