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Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Do Only the Good Die Young?...

Joel's breakthrough album in 1977..
I was coming home from a University of Miami baseball game against Notre Dame with our oldest daughter and son recently, when Billy Joel's Only the Good Die Young came on the radio.

It has always been one of my favorite Billy Joel songs and it's apparently well received by my kids as well.  They sang along with the radio, knowing most of the lyrics, as I drove.

As the tune went on, I started to wonder, are these words I want my kids to be singing along to?  Maybe, I overthink things but, after the song ended, I said to them, "That song is wrong on so many levels."

My son asked, "What do you mean, Dad?  Why is it wrong on so many levels?"

"Well," I started, "Do only good people die young?  How about all those people that think they are bad boys and girls and die young?  Or are all people that get old bad?  How about Abuelo and Abuela?" (At this point, I'm hoping they won't get offended that I'm calling them old!)

"Then, there's the part that talks bad about Catholics," I continue, "That Catholic girls start much too late and count on their Rosaries."

By the way, going back to the UM game, there was a heckler behind us with some friends, ragging on the Notre Dame players; among their insult?  "Catholic boys, go back to Church!"  Another guy, threw in, "They have to go to Confession first!!" 

Really?  That's an insult?  We're supposed to want to go to Church, Mr. Heckler.  It's not a punishment!  At least, the second guy was onto something.  We do need Confession to receive the Holy Eucharist, so he may have been Catholic himself, but being a sinner is no reason to avoid Church.  In fact, if sinners weren't allowed, the Church would be empty!

In any case, back to Billy Joel.  Aside from the good dying young, the Catholic faith (They show you a statue and told you to pray.  Really?  How about the slight on Sacraments? You got a nice white dress and a party for your Confirmation.  You got a brand new soul... but Virginia they didn't give you quite enough information...) and purity being mocked, which, let's face it Virginia, if more teens waited longer to lose their virginity, life might be less complicated, there's the I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints line.

Another point of contention; do you know that most studies show that people with God in their life, are much happier and live more fulfilled lives than those that don't?

Therefore, saints are not always crying.  Well, maybe, in martyrdom.  But, then you hear stories about Catholic priests singing as they are buried alive in Communist China or St. Ignatius of Antioch who, on his way to be fed to lions in the first century, refused any help from fellow Christians, wanting to die a martyr for the sake of Christ, and you wonder.  Were they really sad?

Yet, the most troubling line in the song is "They say there's a heaven for those who will wait, some say it's better but I say it ain't."  

In other words, hell is a better option?  Are you kidding?  Live for the 80 years or so (if you're lucky!) you have here on earth and rot for eternity?  That's ETERNITY; meaning forever!

Or did he mean, there is no heaven?  And, if no heaven then no hell.  Now, the latter can be worse since it's basically saying, let's just live for the moment because, if there's no heaven or hell, then there's no God.

A modern day Friedrich Nietzsche.  The same Nietzsche that claimed in the mid-nineteenth century that "God is Dead" and that man was evolving into a "super human race."

The same Nietzsche whose disciple Adolf Hitler tried to speed up the process through eugenics.

Well, I may be spitting in the wind to some, including Billy Joel, but God is not dead.  Sainthood doesn't mean crying.  Catholics don't worship idols or are misinformed.  And, happiness is not found in the superficial pleasures of the times.  In fact, quite the contrary, the list of those who lived for the moment and died young is long and wide; think James Dean, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, John Belushi, John Lennon, Heath Ledger, Amy Winehouse, Philip Seymour Hoffman and the names go on and on. 

One can argue many of these "sinners" were actually tormented souls, laughing on the outside, while crying on the inside.  Nietzsche himself was a tormented soul.  He died in an insane asylum.

Therefore, catchy tune, catchy lyrics but wrong message.  The good don't always die young and the bad don't always live till they're old.  Death is on God's time and, whenever our tune is called, we better be ready to hit the right notes.

Personally, I think I'll stick with Piano Man, Just the Way You Are and Scenes from an Italian Restaurant from now on...



Thursday, March 8, 2018

Drowning in the Sea of Love...

On a recent jog, Fleetwood Mac's Sara came on my iPhone and, as I listened to the lyrics, a line in the song really struck me.

Stevie Nicks sings, "Drowning in the sea of love where everyone would love to drown..."

The meaning of the words started haunting me.  Drowning in the sea of love?  Where everyone would love to drown?  What?  Why would anyone want to drown in a sea of love? What the heck is she singing about? (I should add here that ever since I saw The Poseidon Adventure as a kid, my biggest fear has always been drowning in the ocean.  It may be why I've never gone on a cruise!)

Then it hit me.  The innermost desire of the human heart is to love and be loved!  That's what every one of us, whether we know it or not, most wants in life.  It's the secret to happiness!

I could say it's an ultimate longing for God, since God is love, but I'll keep it at just love to avoid getting too philosophical.     

Yet, in a deeper sense, if you really want to blow your mind, the words may also represent a dying to self (drowning) in an act of selflessness (love).  But, there I go again philosophizing!  I can't help myself. 

In any case, last weekend, my wife and I served in a Marriage Covenant retreat for couples that want to strengthen their marriages.  The retreat helped our marriage greatly several years ago and we have been part of the marriage team at our parish ever since.

As always, we had a full house.  There are lots of couples who want to rekindle that passion and bolster their relationships.  Over twenty couples attended as retreatants and more than thirty couples served on the team.  The couples ranged from two months married to forty years.

Anything worth fighting for in life takes hard work and marriage is no different.

Think about it, to become a doctor a student goes to undergraduate school, then medical school, then does a residency or fellowship.  In all, it can take more than ten years to become a licensed physician and the average is fourteen years!  Then they have continuing education each year.  It takes a lifetime commitment!

Now, take baseball players, to pick another career randomly, not that I have an affinity for the game or want my son to grow up to play in the Major Leagues.  They spend a lifetime honing their skills.  Some start playing before their 5th birthday; repeating the same drills over and over.  At times, having to play through injuries, pain or illness in high school, prep leagues, college and beyond.  The lucky ones get drafted then spend another bunch of years endlessly repeating drills in the minors and that's not to mention the long bus rides, cheap hotels, fast food restaurants, home sickness, booing fans and demanding coaches they have to endure.  Then, if they make it to the big leagues, they have to work even harder to stay there!  It's a never ending grind. 

Marriage takes just as much work, dedication and sacrifice.  And, to be honest, it's more important when it comes to our pursuit of happiness, since love is our ultimate reason for joy.  Yet, for many people, it takes a back seat to other passions that occupy the mind and heart but never bring fulfillment.

It's ironic.  Marriage is taken for granted in today's society.  Recent surveys indicate, it's in decline.  For the first time, a recent census, showed there are more single people in America than married people, which is sad because another trending inclination is loneliness.

But, I digress.  To get back to my original point, instead of years of preparation, studying or training, the only thing couples need to get married, is to declare their "love" for one another, buy a ring, attend a weekend retreat (if they're Catholic), get a marriage license, find a church (or venue) and clergyman (or justice of the peace) and throw a party; pretty simple, no?

However, love is more than the feelings you get when you're with somebody, a declaration made, wedding rings and a great party.  True love is a reflection of God's love for us, which is self-giving, sacrificial, life-giving and everlasting.  If any part is missing, it's not true love.

Love is not a feeling. It's an action; a choice.  Feelings come and go but love endures.

I mentioned that point in a conversation over lunch with a man I highly respect, who asked about the retreat, and he said to me, "Then that's not love.  It's commitment."

True, it's commitment because marriage is a commitment.  It's actually more than a commitment.  It's a covenant with God and our spouse.  A covenant is a giving of self.  I give myself to you completely and without restrictions and you give yourself to me the same way.  A husband says to his wife, "I give you my life" and a wife receives it willingly and openly.  Marriage is not fifty-fifty, as most people say.  It's one hundred-one hundred!

In the Sea of Love Forever... 
In our wedding vows, we promise to be true in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, to love and honor all the days of our life; not until they nag too much or get fat!  "And, the two become one flesh.  So they are no longer two, but one flesh" (Mk 10:8).  One flesh!  That's of body, mind and soul!
We are called to love, even when we don't like.  Jesus says to love our neighbor as our self and to love our enemies.  I'm sure He didn't mean to have fuzzy feelings for them.  He meant to love, even when they do us wrong.  That's a choice not feeling.

I choose to love, for the sake of my children, who deserve to grow up with their mother and father at home.

I choose to love, for the sake of my wife.  Let's face it, without the trials and tribulations I put her through, her chances of getting into heaven may diminish (And, vice versa!).

And, I choose to love, for the sake of society.  There is nothing more inspiring, more edifying than an older couple that has made it through the grinder of life; deaths, hardships, illnesses, struggles; like some of the couples that spoke at the retreat, who have overcome infidelity, cancer, financial struggles and disillusion, and my parents who are celebrating 55 years of marriage this year.

Abraham Lincoln once said, "Marriage is neither heaven nor hell.  It's simply purgatory."

As funny as the quote may sound, there's truth to what Lincoln said.  As Catholics, we believe that purgatory is where we will experience the greatest joy and pleasure we have ever experienced.  It's also where we'll endure the greatest pain and sorrow.

Marriage is about iron sharpening iron.  It's about helping each other get better to get to heaven.  We participate in God's life-giving miracle and, in the process, we learn to love as God loves, through sacrifice, surrender, selflessness and perseverance; helping each other and our children to get to heaven.

One of my favorite verses in the Bible is Ephesians 5, verse 25.  It states, "Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her."

Christ died for the Church and I'm called to love my wife as Christ loved.  I'm called to die for my wife!  It's not always easy.

This week, my wife and I celebrate our 20th Civil Wedding Anniversary.  We actually celebrate two anniversaries.  Our civil marriage in 1998 and our Catholic Church wedding in 2007.  I tell people that we tied a double knot to make sure neither of us broke loose!

Twenty years is an accomplishment, especially in a culture where about 45% of first marriages end in divorce, over 60% of second marriages fail and over 70% of third time marriages dissolve.  So, the grass is not always greener!  Moreover, children of divorced parents are more likely to get divorced themselves.  It's a vicious cycle.

For my wife and I, divorce is not an option.  Therefore, I will choose to love.  And, as long as I have God, my wife by my side, and a loving community to support us, I will surely and happily drown in that sea of love that Stevie Nicks sang about, forever...

Monday, February 19, 2018

Light Amidst Darkness in Parkland School Shooting...

A troubled teen...
Darkness enveloped him.  He suffered from depression and other mental conditions, including autism, attention deficit and hyperactive disorder.

There was a black hole in his heart, having been raised without a father from a very young age and having lost the one person he was closest to, his mother.  She died unexpectedly from pneumonia last November.

He suffered bouts with anger and rage, including against his own mother, who repeatedly called police to try to keep him in line, getting suspended from school for fighting and later expelled for erratic behavior that included foul language, insulting teachers and other students, disobeying teachers and disrupting classes.

Neighbors said he terrorized the neighborhood, at times shooting animals with a pellet gun, vandalizing, stealing and having a cold eerie look in his eyes.

He was a loner, who according to family friends had few friends, if any, and was excluded and kept at a distance by others.  Classmates described him, after the fact, as "scary" and often joking about one day "bringing a gun to shoot up the school."

He was like a canary in a coalmine engulfed in darkness and flapping his wings without direction or knowing which way to turn, except for violence.  I believe that, in his mind, he was a guinea pig in what was a toxic and cruel world, left to his own devices, like the canary, to see if he could make it out alive.

Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old, accused of murdering 17 innocent people at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, ironically on St. Valentine's Day, was a troubled young man, who had received mental attention at the Henderson Mental Health facility in Broward, had been investigated for numerous incidents of domestic violence by police and the Florida Department of Children and Family Services and reported to the FBI for posting that he wanted to be "A professional school shooter" on YouTube last year.  Yet, he fell through the cracks.

His public defender, Howard Finkelstein, told reporters after his first court hearing, "Every red flag was there and nobody did anything.  When we let one of our children fall off the grid, when they are screaming for help in every way and we fail them, do we have the right to kill them when we could have stopped it?"  Finkelstein pleaded guilty on Cruz's behalf to try to avoid the death penalty.

There is truth to what Finkelstein said.  As uncomfortable as it may sound, we, as a culture, are partially to blame.

It's surprising that we don't have more Nikolas Cruzes or, maybe we do and it's a matter of time.

As a journalist, when the school massacre occurred, I couldn't help but react as I had in the past; Columbine (15 dead), the small Amish school in Pennsylvania (6 dead), Virginia Tech (33 dead), Sandy Hook (28 dead) and Umpqua Community College in Oregon (10 dead) among them.

We go through the motions; reaction, logistics, deployment.  But, this one was closer to home.  What can we confirm?  How fast can we get on the air?  What angles do we cover?  Who do we send where?  It becomes a frenetic race that doesn't allow much time for reflection on the enormity or gravity of what happened.  We just react. 

In the news business, as I'm sure to some extent in society as a whole, we have become desensitized to mass killings in recent years, including Las Vegas (59 dead), Pulse Nightclub in Orlando (50 dead), the Southerland Springs, Texas church shooting (27 dead), San Bernadino (16 dead), and the Aurora theater shooting (12 dead), not to mention the endless reports of international terrorist attacks.

But, after the smoke clears, and the stories get covered, to the best of our abilities, we are left wondering how and why it happened, especially when they hit home.

Some immediately blame gun control, as they do when all mass killings happen, or try to find other answers; mental health, school and public security, a lack of respect for authority, the media attention the killers, who are looking for attention, get, and so on. 

Yet, to me, Cruz's problem, like most problems, begin at home.

We have diminished and reduced the one institution where any civil society stands or falls; the family.

I always go back to a quote by St. John Paul II, which stated, "As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live."

Ironically, the late pontiff was raised under similar circumstances as Cruz.  His mother died when he was young and his father when he was a late teen.  However, he became a saint.  The latter became a killer.

In any case, the family begins with marriage.

Unfortunately, tragedy hit Cruz's family when he was young.  He was adopted as a baby and his father's death left his mother to raise him and a brother, who was also adopted, on her own.  It's a story that repeats itself in many American families but, instead of tragedy, it's by choice.

We've made laws so easy for marriages to dissolve with no-fault divorce that we're practically raising a new generation of partially orphaned children.  Kids are growing up usually without a father in the house who, in generations past, represented authority, discipline, and to some extent, God, because, according to studies, as a child sees their father, they usually see God.  Then, to make matters worse, because of economics, the single parent is forced to work long hours to make ends meet, providing little supervision or guidance for their children.

Marriage is the only institution that binds children to their parents and, with nearly half of all marriages ending in divorce, and the rate increases for second and third marriages, we've made marriage strictly about the adults without much concern for the offspring.  It's all about me and not about us.

No mother, no matter how strong can ever replace a father in the home and no father, no matter how nurturing can ever replace a mother.

Moreover, divorce is a vicious cycle.  Children of divorced parents are more likely to get divorced themselves so the problem snowballs and the deterioration continues.

Unfortunately, without parental supervision many complex issues arise.  One being violent and, more and more, realistic video games, where killing is how you score points and the more you kill, the more points you get.  Boys are particularly susceptible to addiction to violent video games.  Psychologists say it may have to do with their natural competitiveness.  The Sandy Hook killer, Adam Lanza, is said to have been addicted to these killing games.

Also, we've made kids addicted to their smartphones.  Sure some may argue that it's not the parents' fault that kids get addicted but when children as young as 8 or 10-years-old have smartphones and are spending more time on their phones than talking to their friends, whose fault is it?  We're stunting their social skills.  Not to mention, the other distractions kids have today; computers and access to the internet, where everything and anything vile in society, including pornography and violence, is at their fingertips.

In his very important and deeply insightful work, Amusing Ourselves to Death, in 1985 (before the internet), Neil Postman wrote about how television was defining reality in the minds and hearts of America, especially children.  The culture's moral, ethical and social standards shown on TV superseded that of their parents.  The problem is even more acute today.

Introversion has become much more common.  Kids are turning inward instead of outward and shutting out the reality around them and, in turn, creating their own fantastical realities, disconnected, at least to some, from the real world.

Then, there's the greatest problem of all, we've taken God out of every aspect of public life; from the classrooms to the public square, making faith a taboo that is relegated to an hour at church on Sundays and kept as a private matter.

People get offended when you talk religion, they say.  We've become a politically correct nation to the point where carrying a Bible to school can get a kid suspended.  The ACLU has made a mission of removing any mention of God from public life.  Yet, it's alright to mock God, faith or morality, especially by Atheist professors teaching our children at most major American universities.

As a consequence, many kids, are growing up in households where God doesn't exist or their belief is lukewarm at best.  Parents are disengaged; so busy with their lives, so frantic, so distracted that, aside from the sense of obligation during Easter and Christmas, their participation in worship, prayer or catechizes is practically non-existent. 

That is why, according to Pew research polls, the number of "nones" (not affiliated to any faith or religion) continues to grow every year. 

In a recent homily referring to the massacre, our parish priest mentioned that where there is a disconnect from God, when we are not grounded in His Truth, spiritual maladies are more likely.

Sin, which is a four-letter word to some, does exist and we see it in the Nikolas Cruzes of the world.  Dostoevsky once wrote, "If there is no God, everything is permissible."

Yet, through the darkness and despair, in the carnage and shortly thereafter, there were rays of hope and light.  A light that shone through many of the victims, survivors and their families.

From the coach who is said to have saved some of his students by shielding them with his body. From students who kept each other calm and tried to help bleeding classmates.  From a student who said, "I hid under my desk and started praying."  And another who said, "I thought I was going to die today.  I began to pray and I don't know what happened, but here I am."   From a father of a survivor who was filled with joy, like never before, "I'm a happy Dad.  I am happy because I have my son with me.  I just thank you, Jesus." And, from the tears of a mother, whose 14-year-old daughter, Alyssa Alhadeff, died that Valentine's Day, "I know Alyssa is in heaven with God and she is safe there."
Churches were packed on Sunday and have been since the Parkland shooting.  People turn to God for answers when the world can't give them any.  It's like that old saying, when we have nowhere else to turn, we turn to God.

Above the altar at my parish, it states in Latin, Ego Sum Lux Mundi,  which translates to I am the light of the world.  And the world needs God's light amidst the darkness...

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Rock and Roll Memories and Singing the Blues...

Blues Image, circa 1970...
On Christmas Day 1973, when I was still convinced Santa was the white-bearded fat guy with the red suit, I woke up to find a collection of LPs under the tree, that included five Rolling Stones albums; Hot Rocks 1964-1971, Beggars Banquet (their "White Album"), Let It Bleed, Goats Head Soap and Get Yer Ya-Yas Out; as well as another from an obscure club band, named Blues Image.

Why Santa brought me the third and final album of the one-hit wonder band, I haven't the faintest. Maybe, the record store salesman was a fan (Remember record stores?) or a teenage elf (who preferred electric guitars and drums to singing, Baby, It's Cold Outside) with some influence on Ole St. Nick.

Regardless, the Rolling Stones everybody knows about and those were, in my opinion, some of their best albums by far.  I'm still partial to their earlier music.

But, the band, whose only song to crack the top 50, Ride Captain Ride (Which reached the U.S. Billboard's #4 in 1970 and, to be honest, wasn't even that good), really intrigued me.

Despite Ride Captain, which didn't appear on the album I got, Red, White & Blues Image, these guys were good.  They were a talented mix of seasoned musicians, who started in Tampa, and by the late 60's were the featured and popular band at a club in North Miami Beach, named Thee Image, in their honor, that hosted many rock legends including Led Zeppelin, The Grateful Dead, The Doors, Cream and many others.  They moved to Los Angeles, were signed by Atco Records in 1969 and recorded three longplay albums.  

I wore out Red, White & Blues!  I wore out all the albums but Blues was different.  The cover of the somber-looking six-member band covered in spider webs (Joe Lala, Manuel Bertematti, Malcolm Jones, Skip Konte, Dennis Correll and Kent Henry, sans Mike Pinera, the band's founder who had joined Iron Butterfly) and photo of a cocaine spoon necklace, which I didn't know was a cocaine spoon until later on in life, fascinated me (Not that a fierce-eyed goat's head in a cauldron full of red steaming soup in the Stone's album didn't but... ).

I loved that Blues' album.  I remember playing it as loud as I could in the background, as I told a friend from school on the phone that it was a band that I played in!  (Don't judge me, I was a kid!)  Yet, I had all but forgotten it when I lost it to my brother, who took my entire vinyl record collection with him to Yale Graduate School of Drama and then moved to NYC, where he left it at an ex-girlfriend's storage cage, never to be seen again!

Blues Image broke up shortly after recording Red, White & Blues and the members went off to play in various bands, including: Iron Butterfly; Three Dog Night; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; Alice Cooper; and Steppenwolf.  

In any case, listening to the Sirius XM's Classic Vinyl channel on our ride home from South Carolina, where we went to spend New Year's Eve with friends, I heard the name Blues Image and it brought back memories of my childhood in the first-floor apartment on Williams St. in Port Chester, New York, where I would play Red, White & Blues on our large console record player that took up half the wall in the living room until I scratched it!

In fact, I almost missed our exit because I was daydreaming of those times; riding bike around the neighborhood, learning to play stick-ball and hanging out with friends.

Needles to say, as soon as we got back to Miami, I started looking for the long-ago archived album in the annals of my mind.  And, after a dead-end on I-Tunes and only partial success on You Tube, I found it on Amazon (As part of a 2-album combo with Blues Image's first album, Blues Image) and ordered it.

It arrived in the mail last weekend and I have been playing it nonstop on my car CD player ever since; even remembering the lyrics to Behind Every Man There's a Woman, Gas Lamp and Clay, Good Life and most of the songs, which I haven't heard in probably forty years!  All this to the chagrin of my 10-year-old son who was apparently not impressed, and after listening to a few of the songs stared asking, "Can we put something else on?"

Later, as we rode in the car, he asked me for the CD cover and, after studying it briefly, started counting down the songs, as in, "Great, there's only five more songs left..."  Followed by, "Yay, there's only three more songs left..." And, finally, "Why is the last song song long?," noticing the seven minutes forty-five seconds finale, There Ain't No Rules in California, which is my favorite song on the album.

As Ain't No Rules came on, I tell him, "This is a jam, buddy; an old rock-and-roll jam."

He answered back nonchalantly, "I'm not feeling it!"

I was so bummed.  This is my rock-and-roller.  The kid who is constantly fighting with his sisters to put the classic rock station on the radio when we're in the car.  What happened? Then again, he just got the PlayStation 4 Star Wars Battlefront bundle and hasn't been the same since.

I love reminiscing and the Red, White & Blues Image album certainly brought back memories. But as I thought about the episode in the car with my son, I realized that, as wonderful as memories can be, the most wonderful and important memories are the ones we make today...          

Saturday, January 6, 2018

The Tools of Ignorance, Hail Mary and My Son...

Donning the tools of ignorance...
For a catcher, there's probably nothing more gratifying than seeing a fast runner get on base and start taking a lead off first, knowing very well he will soon try to steal second.

The catcher's adrenaline starts pumping, after signaling the next pitch.  He sets up behind the plate on the the balls of his feet spread wide apart and squatting in an upright position so that the thighs are taking the brunt of his weight and he can jump out of his crouch quickly.

Then, when the hurler lifts his leg to throw the pitch and he sees the runner taking off, through the corner of his eye, he leans forward slightly while continuing to focus on the incoming baseball, and pounces towards it as the ball crosses the plate; hopping across home in one fluid motion, as he brings the mitt back towards his ear, grabs the ball and releases it over the pitcher's head.  

Almost simultaneously, the shortstop charges towards second from his usual spot, in the hole between second and third base, to cover the bag and arrives a split second before the ball, catches it and tags the runner as he slides and the umpire raises his arm to signal, "OUT!" 

I loved that feeling from the first time I ever caught in a game at the age of ten.  I threw out two runners in my first game and the thrill continued throughout my playing days until the twilight of my career on a men's baseball team into my early forties, when my prowess for throwing runners out, after a rotator cuff injury, started to wane.

Probably my biggest highlight catching was the day I caught Johnny Cangelosi, who later became a high school teammate and Major League Baseball player, who stole 50 bases his rookie season with the Chicago White Sox, which was a first-year record at the time, trying to steal second when I was about thirteen or fourteen.

I was an average hitter at best but I prided myself on my defense; calling a good game, framing pitches just right to get a called strike, even if the ball was slightly off the plate,  blocking balls in the dirt, blocking home on plays at the plate and of course, the ultimate glory for any catcher, throwing runners out.

Yet, what most average fans don't realize is the hard work it takes to get to the point of being able to catch a runner stealing; the endless throws to second, third and first base during practice, the bone chips (in my case) in the elbow that made every throw an agonizing experience, the leg fatigue after catching ten straight hitters in batting practice and then having to run with the rest of the team, the foul tips to the hands, arms, inner thighs and soft part of the knee, which the shin guards fail to protect, the bats to the head, balls in the dirt that hit "the family jewels," as our high school coach called them, square on, which make a grown man cry, as the Rolling Stones would sing, and the brain jarring collisions at home plate that knock the wind right out of you.  

I remember two such collisions with players who were later teammates in high school vividly.  Both completely laid me flat on my back.  I was able to hang on to the ball with one but dropped the other.  It was probably the only time I recall ever dropping a ball on a play at the plate.    

There's nothing glamorous about catching.  It's a taxing position that not everyone wants to play.  In fact, they call the catcher's gear, "The tools of ignorance," referring to the ignorant who want to play it!  

Johnny Bench blocking the plate... 
The great Johnny Bench, who is probably the best all-around catcher who ever played the game, once said, "A catcher and his body are like the outlaw and his horse.  He's got to ride that nag till it drops."  

Yet, it's a position where you learn more discipline, courage, insight of the game and leadership skills than any other.

I remember a drill in high school that our coach called, "Hail Marys."

Hail Marys were where we assumed the missionary position in full gear, holding our catcher's mitt between our legs with our free hand tightly tucked behind it, our torsos curved in a C-form and our chin firmly pressed against our chest.  

As we sat there in the quiet of our minds, waiting for our coach to throw baseballs as hard as he could against the ground in front of us, which would ricocheted against our tense bodies, we would start to pray the Hail Mary, in anticipation of the incoming round instrument of torture that we heard hissing as it approached.

Sometimes the ball would catch bone, marking the stitches on our forearms immediately. Sometimes it would catch the same spot a couple of times and we would see it swell up right before our eyes.  Occasionally, the coach would miss the ground and the ball would go straight into the soft spot on the knee I just mentioned, or wrist, or thigh.  

It was the most arduous and intimidating drill I ever experienced.  We would do it regularly during pre-season; over and over.  One turn each catcher then repeat.

Our coach was a retired minor league catcher and probably enjoyed watching us squeal and squirm. I'm sure there was a sense pay back for all the times he endured the drill in his playing days.  

It was meant to teach us, not only the fundamentals of getting in front of a ball in the dirt, but possibly more importantly about overcoming fear, overcoming pain, mental fortitude and discipline.  Intentional or not, it was actually very spiritual, fitting for its name, "Hail Marys."

It reminds me of the Super Spartan Race I ran with my wife several years ago.  It was almost 9 miles long and there was a point in the race, where I found myself running in the woods by myself with no other competitor in sight.  All I heard were my feet pounding on the ground.  It was hard and painful, especially after having gone through more than six miles of obstacles and running at that point, but very peaceful.  I began to pray the Rosary (i.e., Hail Marys!) and all the pain and noise subsided.  It became deeply spiritual.    
St. Paul refers to the spirituality of exercise when he writes, "Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things.  They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.  Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified." 

Throwing to second... 
In a talk I heard recently, Bishop Robert Barron said something that resonated with me and reminded me of my high school coach, "A good coach is not there to make his players feel good.  He's there to make them better players."

Unfortunately, in today's world, we are so obsessed with making people feel good about themselves (i.e. everyone gets a participation trophy or, as in the movie, Parental Guidance, they don't even keep score!) that we're undermining coaches.

It's like my son, who tells me one day after a game, which they won but won ugly and the coach made them run when the game was over, "He's trying to kill us!" 

"No," I said.  "He's trying to make you better!"  

In the military, they break cadets down in boot camp so as to make them soldiers.  Soldiers who are disciplined, stouthearted and willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good.

Let's face it, we are all tempted to take the road of least resistance.  Left to our own devices, we choose the easy way.

But, life, much like playing the position of catcher in baseball, is not about feeling good but about working through it, even when we don't feel good, because it's the right thing to do; and/or because others depend on us to do it.

It's working out our salvation with fear and trembling, as St. Paul states; chugging through it at times but enduring and overcoming and, hopefully, in due time, achieving that wreath we all seek whether perishable in this lifetime or imperishable in the next, which should be our ultimate goal.   

In any case, my 10-year-old son now wants to be a catcher.  We got him a catchers' gear for Christmas and he's starting to work on developing his raw skills.  He has good hands but has a long way to go.

I'll be honest, the reason I wanted him to play baseball in the first place was to learn to be a team player; to work with others closely, to depend on each other, to have that camaraderie that you can only experience from sharing time together, struggling through difficulties and enjoying the thrill of success as a unit; the pain and the glory.  Learning that, for the good of the team, it's not about "me" but "we"; a lesson that has served me well in life and in my career in management and one I want him to fully embrace.  

Now, he's taking a next step.  He will have to learn dedication and resilience, selflessness, bravery in spite of fear at times and leadership; skills that will serve him well as a catcher and, most of all, as a man.  

Maybe one day, he might find himself behind the plate with a fast runner taking a lead off first.  And, if he works hard and is fortunate to be blessed with decent skills, he can pounce out of his crouch when the runner takes off and throw a laser to second base and see the umpire raise his arm to signal, "OUT."  

I tell my son, "Baseball is all about repetition.  It's about doing something over and over until you get it right."  And, the same can be said about almost anything worth doing in life...     

Friday, December 8, 2017

Preserved for the Good of the World...

"We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of the Ominipotent God, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of mankind, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin, has been revealed by God, and therefore should firmly and constantly be believed by all the faithful."

-- Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, December 8, 1854...


Is Science the Only Proof of Reality?...

"Some people think science is the only tool we should use to investigate the world and we shouldn't believe anything that can't be proven scientifically.  This attitude is called scientism, and it's self-refuting because there is no scientific experiment that proves the only reliable form of knowledge is science... science can tell us how the world is, but it can't tell us how the world ought to be."  

Trent Horn, Why We're Catholic.  Horn holds a Master's Degree in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville and has quickly risen in the ranks among Catholic circles as an author, public speaker and Catholic apologist (defender of  the faith).  When he's not writing (he's written or contributed to 9 books since 2013), he serves as staff apologist for Catholic Answers.  Among the titles he has written are: Answering Atheism, Persuasive Pro-Life, Hard Sayings: A Catholic Approach to Answering Bible Difficulties and is currently working on The Case for Catholicism...