THE PILGRIMS COME TO PAY HOMAGE
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- They came, some 70,000 of them, to the shrine here to honor the gods of baseball on Sunday.
They were here at the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame mostly to offer their veneration to the two official new gods, Cal Ripken, Jr., and Tony Gwynn, each of whom had spent a couple of decades collecting adoring worshipers by playing the national pastime with grace and skill and determination.
I was here, by contrast, to honor my friend Denny Matthews, who for almost four decades has described on radio (and sometimes TV) the ups (not many) and downs of the Kansas City Royals and who was being inducted into the Hall of Fame, too. (That's Denny giving his acceptance speech in the photo below.)
But it was hard not to see this whole show as permeated by theological overtones.
One man wore a T-shirt bearing this headline about Ripken: "Immortal Cal." It was the headline used by The Sun newspaper in Baltimore the day after Ripken, the Orioles' shortstop, had broken Lou Gehrig's consecutive-game playing streak of 2,130 games. (Eventually Cal played in 2,632 straight games.)
Nearby I saw another man holding this sign: "Holy Cal!"
And yet these gods are mortal. Only 63 of the 280 players inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame still are alive. An astonishing 53 of them were at the ceremony here Sunday, including some of the younger members, such as Kansas City's George Brett and Milwaukee's Robin Yount. But there sat Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax and Duke Snyder. Nearby was Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford. Johnny Bench was there, along with Gaylord Perry and Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew, Billy Williams and even George Kell. And Monte Irvin using a cane.
None of them, of course, could take the field now and duplicate anything like what they did to earn their way into the hall of fame. Time is exacting its price on them, and fans know deep in their hearts that these men aren't either immortal or holy. They are, rather, practitioners of a game we care about because of its grace and beauty, its insistence on timing and distance, its requirements that the players pay close attention even when nothing seems to be happening.
All sin, ultimately, is idolatry. And I think most fans understand that their fanaticism (where do you think the word fan comes from?) for the game is not the same thing as worship. But now and then it's good to be reminded of that -- even here where baseball is next to godliness.
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