In my sophomore year I made the varsity baseball team. The upperclassmen were big, strong and shaved regularly. Some of them had a five o’clock shadow by the second period! I was a skinny kid, but worked hard and, as luck would have it, the ball bounced my way that year.
The first game was on a bright afternoon in early spring, the sun burning off the chill in the air. During warm-ups, I stretched, played catch and fielded batted balls with my teammates. My stomach did jumping jacks. I made my last throw and hustled to the dugout to try and calm my nerves before the first pitch.
But the senior captain yelled, “Outfield corner!” I didn’t know what was going on, but I immediately jogged after him with the rest of our teammates. He was our ace pitcher and one of the most popular guys in the whole school.
The senior captain dropped to one knee in the grass and removed his cap. Only then did it dawn on me that he was going to pray. He began, “Our Father, who art in heaven …” and I added my voice to the chorus around me. My best friend on the team went to youth group at White Memorial, the largest Presbyterian church in Raleigh, but even he prayed “trespasses” and not debts. Everyone prayed the same thing.
With the Supreme Court’s recent decision in favor of the high school football coach’s right to pray on the 50-yard line, I’ve since pondered whether this pregame prayer trespassed on anyone’s religious freedom. A significant difference is that, though my teammates and I prayed the Lord’s Prayer before every game, our coaches were never involved. This prayer was neither mandated nor endorsed by any teachers or adults.
But of course, there was peer pressure — this was high school! The food we ate, the clothes we wore, the things we said, even the way we spoke were all heavily influenced by our social group. In terms of the pregame prayer, the senior captain led it just as other seniors had in previous years. Two years later, I did the same thing.
Were some teammates uncomfortable with the overt expression of Christianity? I never heard anyone complain, but I can’t rule out that possibility. I can’t say for sure that I didn’t have a Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist teammate.
We were baseball players and united by our superstitions. Just as you didn’t step on the chalk lines or talk about a no-hitter while it was in progress, you prayed the Lord’s Prayer before the game. These things were more for good luck than actual piety. I can’t judge anyone’s heart, but I know what we did off the field. We were hardly choir boys. There was peer pressure to smoke, drink and take drugs. I witnessed violence and savagery. Other students were bullied and mocked, and I just stood there, never saying a word or laying a finger on someone else but still part of the group — a trespasser.
How about the condition of my own heart? Baseball was much more than a sport to me. It was a cathedral of grass and dirt where I understood the rules and expectations. I had success and received acclamation. I’m indebted to the game for much of my adolescent self-confidence. On the field was where life made the most sense and the only threat was the occasional groundball to the shins. Baseball was my refuge.
But I wanted something more, too. When I look back at myself kneeling before the game, the words themselves hardly seem to matter. In those brief moments, I pinned my hopes on something more than luck. Something I’ve held onto long after my playing days have ended.