Monday, June 06, 2011

"Baseball Is Heaven's Gift To Mortals" - A Lesson in Humility, Grace, and Redemption

Columnist George Will once wrote: "Baseball is heaven's gift to mortals." Though I'm sure heaven's greatest gifts  far transcend the mere game of baseball, George Will is right one sense: Baseball illustrates for us some of life's greatest lessons.

Case in point. On a Friday night, June 3, 2011, I witnessed the most exciting baseball game I've ever seen. The Madison College Wolfpack from Madison, Wisconsin played the Western Oklahoma State Pioneers from Altus, Oklahoma in the semi-finals of the Division II National Junior College World Series. The winner of the game would go on to play in the World Series National Championship Game against Jones County Junior College in Ellesville, Mississippi.

The game was superbly played. At the end of nine innings there were fourteen hits for each team, six runs for each team, and no errors in the fiield. Western Oklahoma scored two runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to tie the game in heart-stopping baseball at its best. Madison then loaded the bases in the top of the tenth inning, but Western turned an amazing double play to end Madison's scoring threat. The game is now Western's to win in the bottom of the tenth inning.

The first Western batter hits a double. Coach Kurt Russell of the Western Pioneers inserts a pinch runner at second base, a 20 year old young man named Francisco Rosario, a freshman who had not played much in the World Series. Coach Russell wanted Rosario's speed at second base representing the winning run.

The next Western batter walks. Francisco then attempts to steal third base, and as the catcher throws from home to third to catch Francisco,  the runner at first base advances to second. Francisco is called safe and now runners are at second and third with nobody out. The next Western Pioneer batter is intentionally walked to load the bases. Surely Western will win the game, right?

The next Western batter strikes out.

One out. Bases loaded. Bases loaded. Francisco Rosario at third base representing the winning run. A Western hit or sacrifice fly will score Francisco and the Pioneers will play for the national championship.

Then, the unthinkable happens.

Pioneer shortstop Wes Schill, a career .400 hitter and a player the San Francisco Giants wish to draft, hits a line drive into centerfield. Wes hits a line drive single up the middle! Game over! Right?


What happened next seemed like it all took place in slow motion. Francisco Rosario, put in the game for his SPEED hesitates in his run from third to home. In fact, he retreats back to third a couple of steps.Why? Nobody is for sure. He may have been thinking he did not wish to be doubled off by the center fielder if the were caught in the air, but had Francisco watched closely he would have seen that that the line shot off the bat of Schill had hit the ground immediately after passing second base. The ball bounced to the center fielder. After Francisco hesitated, he realized  he needed to make up some ground because the outfield was playing abnormally close, knowing that a deep fly ball would end the game anyway. Francisco kicked it into high gear and began running as hard as he could toward home. He then stumbled. He didn't fall, he just stumbled. It nmade it look as if Francisco was moving, but his feet were stuck in molassis.

Meanwhile, the center fielder picked up the ball--let me repeat that part of the sentence again--the CENTER FIELDER picked up the ball off of Schill's base hit and threw a rope to home plate. The ball arrived to the catcher a split second before Francisco Rosario reached home. Francisco Rosario, the player put in to pinch run for the Western Pioneers, was thrown out going from third to home by the centerfielder after a base hit up the middle.

I have never seen that happen in almost forty years of either playing or watching baseball. Head Coach Kurt Russel later told the newspaper that he had never seen anything like it either.

My wife and I watched Francisco as he walked to the dugout. Disappointment is too mild a word to describe the look on his face. Disbelief, shock, maybe shame would be a better word. How could this have happened?

Western Oklahoma went on to win the game and the following night the Western Pioneers won the national championship.

On Sunday morning, instead of driving home, the entire team and their coaches stayed in Enid and came to our 11:00 a.m. worship service at Emmanuel Baptist Church. We recognized the national champions and gave each of them a leather bound devotional book. However, I called up Francisco Rosario during the service (the young man in the middle) for special recognition. Francisco came up with his close friend Jhiomar Veras (who interpreted for Francisco) as I told them that of all the plays during the 2011 NCJAA World Series in Enid, Oklahoma, Francisco being thrown out at home plate will be the one I remember. Why? Though I did not go into as great of deatil in the service, the lessons Francisco's play illustrates are:

(1). No matter how hard you try, you will sometimes fall short of your expected goals.
(2). Surprising failures and stumbles in this life are often observed and commented on by complete strangers.
(3). The criticism that comes from others will often be loud, personal and intense.
(4). Responding appropriately to the embarrassment and shame will make you stronger.
(5). One's true friends are discovered in the midst of your adversity, and there is no friend who sticks closer to you than than He who died for you, Jesus Christ.
(6). Jesus Christ is active in your life, not passive, never wasting any one of your circumstances, both the good and the bad, working all things for your ultimate good and His ultimate glory.
(7). Some of life's finest blessings are often directly correlated to our greatest failures.

Francisco Rosario has the talent to play shortstop or second base in the Major Leagues. I hope he makes it professionally, but whether or not he plays another inning of baseball, it is his run from third base to home on June 3, 2011 that illustrates for me George Will's statement, "Baseball is heaven's gift to mortals."