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Chapter 9: Tournament

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Parsonage

A novel about life behind the scenes for an evangelical pastor's family: in the church, the parsonage, the community.

© 1996 G. Edwin Lint

 

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A major event in the life of the Wesley Evangelical Church was the Spring Softball Tournament. Teams from the ten evangelical churches which participated in the West Shore Church League all trooped down to the York Sports Complex on the Friday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend and played each other until every team but one had lost two games. The first game was Friday evening under the lights and play continued all day Saturday until all teams had been eliminated by winning twice, except the tournament champion.

Wesley Evangelical Church maintained three church-league teams and an ASA team in a recreational league. Players from the church-league teams all voted for an all-star team to compete in the tournament. Jim had been surprised to learn that with that much talent to draw from, Wesley Evangelical Church had never won the championship. Jim was no stranger to slow-pitch softball, but he hadn't been on a ball field since last summer when he coached the Ashtabula church team through a championship season. Although he was approaching fifty, he had followed the example of Paul by keeping his body under control. But in recent years, his shorter wind and cramping legs told him he better limit his active playing to hitting fungos and serving as an occasional pinch hitter.

However, no one had said anything to Jim about getting into the softball program and he had been too busy this last three months to give softball more than a passing thought. He was more than a little interested in the insert in last Sunday's bulletin which provided all the details of the tournament and invited everyone to make the trip to York and support the team. Jim felt he needed to get better acquainted with younger men in the congregation and a softball tournament would be an excellent way to do it.

Sandy buzzed. "Dave Court is here to see you. Got a minute before you leave for the hospital?"

Jim wanted to run over to Hershey Medical Center before going home for dinner but he remembered that Dave Court had been named as the all-star coach on the softball tournament flyer. "I'll be right out, Sandy."

Dave sure looked like a ball player. He was dressed in sweats with a pair of cleats hanging over his shoulder and a pair of batting gloves tucked in the waistband of his sweat pants. A red handkerchief was tied around his head as a sweat band. Dave was about twenty-five Jim guessed, without very many extra ounces anywhere on his body. That's me twenty-five years ago, Jim mused without envy.

"Hi, Pastor," Dave said as he offered a handshake which was firm without being painful.

"Good to meet you, Dave. Getting in a little practice, I see. Gonna take it all, Saturday?"

"Sure plan to," Dave chuckled. "Guess you heard by now it'll be the first time, if we do go all the way."

"Double elimination, is it?"

"Yep, and we sure do plan to stay out of that loser's bracket. Last year, we lost the first game Friday night and then it was play, play, play all day Saturday. Ended up losing the last game, too. Bottom of the seventh, by one run. But we all had fun. Good fellowship, too."

"Hope things will turn out better this year. I'll be there, rooting you on."

"You know Jessi's been keeping the book for my team this season and she'll be doing it for the all-star team in the tournament." Jim was ashamed to admit that he hadn't known Jessi was keeping the score book for Dave's team; busy busy, busy. "Well, Pastor, I gotta hand it to you. That little lady sure knows her baseball and says she learned it all from you. And, she's been telling me that you do a little playing yourself. Something about scaring all those Ohio pitchers to death with your line drives up the middle."

Jim laughed. "Never could teach that kid to keep her mouth shut around the parishioners. But I'm afraid my playing days are about over. Said hello to the big five-oh in March. Did a little coaching in Ashtabula, though."

"Hey, I could use some help in the tournament. How about directing traffic down at third. Gonna be a lot of it, you know. And maybe we can put you in a time or two to teach those pitchers how to field their positions. Can I put you down? Gotta have the roster in by ten tonight."

This was just the opening Jim had been hoping for, fellowship with some more of the young couples of the church and a little fun for himself beside. "Well, I haven't swung a bat since last summer but I still remember how to wave 'em on in."

Great! I'm going down early Friday for a coaches' meeting at three. Why don't you try to get off early and we'll go down together," Dave said with a twinkle.

Jim smiled, too, and glanced briefly at the ceiling. "Boss says it's all right. Let's do it!" Both men laughed and the meeting ended with a resounding high five.

 

It was raining hard Friday morning when the alarm clock went off and Jim felt like a kid again, wishing it would stop raining so he could play ball. But by the time he adjourned the weekly staff meeting at noon, the sun was shining and the sidewalks were drying. Since it hadn't rained in over a week, Jim was sure the outfield would be dry enough for safe play by game time at six o'clock. The early afternoon passed swiftly as Jim reviewed Sunday's sermon notes and then walked out into the sanctuary and down to the altar for a time of prayer. He had his personal devotions in his study in the parsonage and prayed regularly in his church office while preparing sermons and between counseling sessions. But he still liked to make a daily practice of praying at the sanctuary altar.

The sanctuary at Wesley Evangelical Church was open all day every day for meditation and prayer. This afternoon, at least a dozen people were scattered in the front pews and another dozen or so were kneeling at various points across the long, curving altar. He could hear voices in prayer, muted by the emptiness of the vast sanctuary and the soft organ music playing over the sound system.

A tiny beep from his watch reminded Jim it was two o'clock and time to meet Dave Court in his office for the trip to the York Sports Complex. Before rising, he prayed specifically for the physical safety of all the players and then walked up the aisle to the foyer and back to his office.

Dave was resplendent in a Yankees-style pinstripe uniform, complete with pulled-up stirrups. "Hey, Joe DiMaggio! Can I have your autograph?"

Dave grinned good-naturedly and held out a folded uniform for Jim. "Time to get suited up, Pastor. You ought to feel right at home in our uniform. Jessi tells me everyone in your family is a Yankee fan."

"Sure are. In fact, Debra's dad is a first cousin of a fellow who used to play outfield for the Yankees back in the fifties. Fellow by the name of Gene Woodling. Ever hear of him?"

"I must admit he was a little before my time, but I sure have read about him. Well, how about it. Gonna put on the pin stripes?"

Jim took the hat and shirt but handed the rest of the outfit back to Dave. "Think I'll skip the pants and the stirrups, Dave. Afraid my legs will look like Babe Ruth's spindle shanks if I get all gussied up in stirrups."

Dave grinned again. "Suit yourself, Pastor. Ready to ride?"

Jim folded himself into the right bucket of Dave's Mazda Miata and they were soon droning down I-83 toward York.

 

Wesley's first game Friday night was against a sharp-looking team from Calvary Evangelical in Gettysburg. The team from Gettysburg was being coached by their pastor, Tim Grover. When all the players from both teams gathered around home plate for a moment of prayer, Tim asked Jim to lead. "Heavenly Father, we ask you to keep your hand of protection on us this evening as we compete on this softball field. May we play safely, may we play well, and may be play in the spirit of Christ, in Whose name we pray. Amen."

Gettysburg looked pretty tough at first, turning a double play in the first inning to kill a budding rally, and then holding things to a 5-5 tie through four and a half innings of play. But Wesley stayed out of the loser's bracket, for Friday night at least, by breaking things open with a six-run rally in the bottom of the fifth. The game wasn't a blowout, but it was a decisive victory. Great way to start a tournament.

Jim had a lot of fun directing traffic at third. The players soon realized that he knew exactly what he was doing when he signaled them to hold at second, take third going down in a slide, or wheeled them on home to score. His coaching position with men in scoring position was part way down the third base line so a player approaching third could pick him up easily and know whether to hold the bag, or score without breaking stride. Jessi did a great job keeping the book and consistently made wise choices regarding whether a batter had hit safely or reached on an error. She also barked out Wesley's next three batters and kept Dave posted on where in the lineup an opposing batter was hitting. And she teased her Dad about being really pumped up by the easy victory. Jim had to admit he was having a barrel of fun and was looking forward to a full day of competition on Saturday.

The next day started for Wesley with an eight o'clock game against a large church from Pottstown. Wesley got three quick runs in the first and then played tough D to win 3-2. This win was followed by four more during the day, two by virtue of the 10-run rule which ended the game if one team was ahead by ten runs or more by the end of the fifth inning. Jim noted that Dave hadn't put himself in the lineup all day, even though the way he handled infield drill showed he was as comfortable with a bat and glove as he was with the lineup card and score book. A couple times Dave asked Jim if wanted to pinch hit or catch a little but each time Jim declined, having too much fun coaching third, and wanting the regular players to have more chances to play.

By late Saturday afternoon, all the teams had been eliminated by losing twice except Wesley and Gettysburg Calvary. Wesley was undefeated and Gettysburg had lost once, the opener to Wesley Friday night. The championship game between Wesley and Gettysburg would be played at 7:30 on the main field under the lights.

Debra and the twins arrived around noon in time to join the team and the Wesley spectators in an impromptu picnic. Several people had brought their charcoal grills and there was an assortment of hot dogs, hamburgers, and hot sausage sizzling on all the grills. A couple of the grills also had casseroles of baked beans and one even had a small crock of sauerkraut to spice up the hot dogs. One of the ladies asked Debra to offer prayer and then the whole Wesley entourage kind of milled around until all persons had filled their plates. Debra had been planning to run out to McDonald's for lunch but her biggest problem soon became limiting the abundance of food being pressed upon her without offending anyone's feelings.

The twins insisted on eating with Uncle Dave and Aunt Patty, but Debra hesitated, not wanting them to be a bother. Dave had a better idea. "Why don't we all sit together? That way, Pastor Jim and I can make war plans, you and Patty, can get better acquainted, and I can still be close to my two good buddies." He gave Ben and Shelly, who were clinging to either side of him, a quick squeeze. Everybody seemed to love Dave Court.

After they ate, Debra and Patricia visited while the men took the twins across the way to an assortment of playground equipment. Jessi came by with Jon King and chatted a while. She and Jon had become quite an item since the day of the standing ovation in health class. She and Jim had discussed this unfolding relationship with some concern. But, how could you tell your daughter she shouldn't be dating a clean-cut born-again Christian who was vice president of the local celibacy support group.

"Guess what, Mom," said Jessi excitedly. "Jon's batting 850 for the tournament so far. Isn't that great! And you should see him at first base. What a stretch!"

"Your daughter's quite a little cheerleader, too, Mrs. Hogan. No matter where I am on the field, I can always hear her big--"

"Careful, young man," warned Jessi with mock importance. "I keep the book and I get to decide who gets a hit and who reaches on an error. You might want to show a little respect."

"Respect? Is that what you want, respect? Well, here's a little respect," and he pulled a water pistol out of his pocket.

Jessi ran squealing across the picnic area with Jon in half-speed pursuit.

Debra shook her head and smiled. Oh to be young again.

 

The Sunday night after the Mechanicsburg edition of Ivory was born, Jon had visited the evening service with Jessi. They sat two rows in front of Debra with the rest of the youth group and she kind of kept her eye on Jon especially during the service. She could sense he was under strong conviction of the Holy Spirit during the altar call but he didn't go forward. After the service dismissed, Jessi and several of her friends stayed with him in the pew, talking seriously. Debra thought about asking if she could help. But then a parishioner stopped to chat and when she looked back, Jon was down at the altar praying with all the kids from the youth group gathered around him.

She had sat down and prayed silently while watching still another miracle unfold at the altar. Soon Jon's arms were thrust heavenward and his face was shining with tears of joy. From that day to this, Jessi and Jon had been like the two peas in a pod. In perfect union spiritually, psychologically, but never sexually.

 

Shortly after Jessi and Jon left, Debra noticed a strange man over by the backstop of the field where Wesley had played their last morning game. Months later she would be asked to describe in great detail the appearance of the man and the word which always came to her mind first was strange. Strange in the sense that she'd never seen him before. And strange in the sense that he appeared to be somewhat odd. He was shorter than average and had an oversized ball cap pulled low over his face. And, even though it was warm enough for the twins to be running around in T-shirts and shorts, this man was wearing a buttoned-up trench coat which was at least three sizes too large. The coat's belt was not buckled and one side of the belt was dragging on the ground. The strange man seemed to be rooting around in the cluster of bats which were leaning against the backstop and Debra shaded her eyes to get a better look at what he was up to.

And then Jessi returned with Jon launched one of her "Guess what, Mom" narratives. Debra didn't see or think about the strange little man again.

 

During the day, the tournament crowd dwindled as team after team was eliminated and supporters departed with the players. But when seven-thirty came and it was time for the final confrontation between Wesley and Gettysburg Calvary, the bleachers were full and numerous lawn chairs and blankets stretched down both sidelines. The fact that Mechanicsburg and Gettysburg were within easy driving distance of York contributed to the size of the cheering sections.

Wesley lost the first game by a heart-breaking score of 13-12 in the bottom of the tenth. Although the game was exciting and the score was as close as a score can be, the partisan crowd focused its energy on cheering for the home team without making jeering remarks about the opposition.

Now both Wesley and Gettysburg had each lost one game and the next game would decide the championship. During the break between games, Dave called the team together down in the right field corner. When everyone was seated cross-legged on the outfield grass, Dave asked Jim if he would like to say a few words.

Without standing up, Jim began to speak quietly and intensely to the players. "Whether its win or lose in this next game, you guys can be proud of your team and what you've done here in this tournament. I've been involved with church softball for over twenty years and I've never seen a team play harder and cleaner than you've done here these last two days. We're going to have a word of prayer but I'm not going to ask God to help us win. After all, those guys over there in the left field corner want to win, too. What I think God wants for all of us is to play our best, to play clean, to stay cool if we lose, and to be humble if we win."

Jim stood, taking off his hat, and the rest of team did too. After the prayer, Dave read the lineup. Jim was a little surprised that the coach had himself leading off and pitching. But no one on the team seemed surprised. To a man, they were grinning from ear to ear, kind of like the infantry hearing the cavalry's call to charge, off in the distance.

In this final game, Wesley was designated home team and batted last. When Dave took the mound, Jim understood a little more of why the team was so happy when the coach put himself in the game. He was the best control pitcher Jim had ever seen play slow-pitch softball. He could drop the ball on a dime anywhere in the strike zone, including all four corners. And after each pitch, he took a couple of strides straight back and was in place to field his position by the time the batter swung. If the ball was hit safely to the outfield, Dave took up a position half way between the mound and second and the outfielders threw straight in to him when there was no good chance of getting a runner going in to a bag. On three occasions, Dave was able to throw behind a runner taking a wide turn at first and either pick him off or get him in a pickle. Pretty smooth, Jim smiled to himself.

In the bottom of the first, Dave sliced the first pitch with a vicious inside out swing which sent the ball toward the right fielder, but on an arc curving toward the foul line. Unfortunately, the fielder had started to break to his right with the crack of the bat. Too late he, realized his mistake. Although he ran hard toward the right field foul line and dove for the ball in desperation, it fell under his glove in foul territory and rolled across the track. Since it had started fair, it was ruled a fair ball.

Before the ball stopped rolling, Dave had rounded third and was high-fiving Jim on his way to a leadoff home run and enthusiastic applause by Wesley rooters of all ages. It was more than their appreciation for the psychological advantage of a leadoff home run. Everyone loved Dave Court.

The score see-sawed back and forth with the lead changing hands every inning or so. Gettysburg had a big seventh and Wesley came to bat for the last time in regulation play behind 10-7. Jessi checked the score book and called out the names of the first three batters in the inning, "Court, Dawson, King!"

Dave called for a quick huddle. "Sounds like runs, guys. I know you've been playing good ball all day but we need four to win and we need 'em right now! Can do?"

Everyone stuck his arm into the pinwheel. "Let's go!" they chorused. Jim trotted down to the third base coaching box and Dave began taking his practice swings, timing each swing with the pitcher's warmup tosses.

"Play ball," barked the ASA umpire and Dave began digging in, deep in the batter's box. After two called strikes he repeated his first-inning slashing line drive down the right field line but this time the right fielder was more prepared, short-hopping the ball a yard in foul territory and throwing a perfect strike to short, holding Dave to a long single. Everyone in the crowd was standing and cheering lustily for either more offense or more defense.

Jack Dawson dug in the batter's box even deeper than Dave had done and received a gift. He topped the ball, sending a weak one-hop comebacker to the pitcher, but the ump bawled "Catcher interference!" Jack's bat had tipped the catcher's glove on the swing. Now there were men on first and second.

Jim moved part way down the base line toward home, in position to wheel Dave on in to score if the ball was hit to the outfield. With Dave's speed, he was sure of scoring from second on a single. No chance, though. Jon King walked on four straight pitches and the bases were loaded. His batting average for the day was around 800 and they wouldn't give him a pitch he could drive somewhere

The next man up hit the ball hard, but straight at the third baseman. Dave retreated quickly to the bag. With the count three and two, Mason Dunkle hit a towering drive deep in the left field corner but the wily left fielder let it fall foul for a strikeout. ASA rules specify that a two-strike foul ball is considered the third strike. Had the fielder caught the ball for the second out, all three runners would have advanced, with Dave scoring.

"Tough luck, Dunk," Dave called and signaled the third base ump for time out. He walked over to Jim in the coaching box.

"Think it's about time we unleash our secret weapon. How about one of those line drives up the middle Jessi's been telling me about?"

"I already told you Jessi talks too much," Jim said with a little grin. "Why don't you let Carl bat? I'd hate to butt in and take his licks away from him."

"He's wearing the collar. Hate to see him make it 0 for 5 with the bases loaded and two out in the bottom of the seventh. Sure you don't want to give it a try? I think you can do it, big guy!"

Jim responded by giving him a high five and walking behind the backstop to select a bat from the clump standing there. He took a bat which hadn't been used yet in the entire tournament, a piece of ash with a thick barrel. Never could stand an aluminum bat with its silly-sounding ping.

"Hogan batting for Carter," Jim said to the ump as he took his place at the plate. The ump turned to his right and relayed that information to the Gettysburg bench. Jessi trotted over to the Gettysburg bench to make sure both score books coincided.

The Gettysburg outfielders had been a little perplexed when Jim stepped to the plate. "Who is this guy?" the two center fielders asked each other. Can he hit? How do we play him?" They finally decided to err on the side of caution and started out fairly deep.

The first pitch was in Jim's wheelhouse and he swung hard but missed the ball entirely.

"You can do it, Pastor!" Dave called from third. "Just take your time and keep your eye on that ball."

Jim stepped out of the box and took a couple more practice swings, concentrating on keeping the bat level and wishing mightily that he had taken some batting practice during the last thirty-six hours.

As he stepped back up to the plate, Jim noted that both center fielders had moved in several steps and he could understand why.

Jim took the next two pitches for balls and then saw one he liked. Swinging hard, he sent the ball screaming down the third base line but just wide of the bag. The ump signaled two balls and two strikes. Even though that last pitch had been well hit, the center fielders still moved in a few more steps. Keep coming boys, Jim thought grimly. I may have something for you.

Jim was tempted by the next pitch but he judged it to be deep and it was. The ump raised two closed fists to signal full count, three balls and two strikes.

"Lord, please help me hit this pitch," Jim prayed silently and shamelessly. I can't strike out with the bases loaded and down three runs in the bottom of the seventh. Jim remembered his concern for the young men and women of the congregation and his desire to get to know them better, to relate with them on a personal level. He glanced down at Dave who was clapping and calling encouragement. He looked around the bases at the other two runners, hoping desperately for something they could run on.

Behind him, the crowd was raising a mighty ruckus. From the bench, Jessi called, "Come on, Dad. You can do it! Level swing, Dad. Level swing. Rip it up the middle. Knock that pitcher down!" Nice talk for a preacher's kid, Jim thought wryly.

From the second the next pitch left the pitcher's hand Jim knew it would be a strike. High arc, just a slight topspin, dropping down over the outside corner.

Jim swung level and hard, hearing the solid smack that signaled line drive. The ball left the bat like a rocket and screamed just out of reach of the leaping second baseman's glove. The right center fielder misjudged the initial trajectory and started to break in, hoping to make a sliding shoestring catch at ground level. Too late he realized his mistake as the ball soared over his head out of reach.

The left center fielder played the ball well. Although he couldn't catch it in the air, he cut to his left and behind the right fielder, getting to the ball just as it stopped rolling. He threw low and hard to the relay man who had come part way out to meet him. The relay man whirled and threw a perfect strike to the plate.

Jim's legs felt like silly putty by the time he rounded second. By the time he turned third and headed for home, they felt more like water. Straight ahead, Dave was frantically signaling him to go down in a slide. He went in hard and low, hooking the plate with his left leg and making firm contact with the catcher at the same time. The catcher went down on top of him and a dust cloud obscured the play for a moment. The most exciting moment in base ball: a close play at the plate!

Desperately Jim craned his neck around the hefty catcher's torso to see how the ump would call it. He never did see the ump drop to one knee and spread his arms wide, palms down. The roar of the crowd with Jessi hitting high C told him all he needed to know.

Grand slam!

 

Jim had turned fifty in March but he'd never experienced a ride on the shoulders of a bunch of exuberant ball players. Dave Court's left shoulder supported his right thigh, with Jon King on his left. The rest of the team crowded in as close as they could get, each man trying to support some part of Jim's anatomy. He couldn't believe such an ungainly conveyance could retrace his grand-slam trip around the bases of just a few minutes ago, but somehow they managed it, chugging in to home plate to the accompaniment of the happy cheers of the crowd.

The team deposited Jim right in front of the tournament president who was cradling the three-foot-high first-place trophy in his arms.

"Rev. Hogan, as president of the American Softball Association Central Pennsylvania Church Tournament, it gives me great pleasure to present this first-place trophy to the Wesley Evangelical Church of Mechanicsburg. And if I do say so myself, you made more than a small contribution to winning this fellow," and he poked a stubby finger into the metallic midriff of the player with bat cocked who topped the trophy.

"I may have iced the cake but Dave and the entire Wesley team baked it." Holding the trophy under his left arm, he turned and walked among the players, high-fiving every one of them. And then the red-shirted Gettysburg players were in the group and he high-fived every one of them, too. When he got to the Gettysburg right-center fielder who got burned by Jim's line drive, he sat the trophy on the ground and the two players hugged each other in a spirit of Christian brotherhood.

Suddenly Jim felt small arms wrapping around both legs. He looked down and then burst out laughing as Ben and Shelly struggled mightily to perform their own version of the hero-on-the-shoulders trip around the bases.

"Hey, guys, take it easy. You're going to bust a gusset if you keep that up."

"What's a gusset, Daddy?" Shelly asked with shining eyes.

"Go ask Jessi," Jim said with a grin, and they tore off in search of their big sister.

Debra drove Jim back to Mechanicsburg in the Eagle with the twins and Jessi asleep in the back seat. Although Jim had stripped to a T-shirt and a pair of gym shorts, the air was pungent with the odor of dust and dried sweat. Stink or no stink, Jim really felt good.

"Know what, Debbie?"

"You love being a hero," she teased.

"Besides that. I have a confession to make."

"Oh?"

"I cheated a little on that home run. When the count was three and two, I asked God to help me hit the ball. Do you think that was fair?"

"Oh course, silly."

"How come?"

"The pitcher was praying that you wouldn't and that right center fielder was praying that he'd catch it if you did. Perfectly fair."

"Know what else?"

"No, what."

"I just played in a two-day softball tournament without hearing one beer can pop, without hearing one curse word on the field, and without seeing one guy get thrown out for arguing with the umpire. It sure is great being a Christian, isn't it.

Debra nodded silently.

"Who got thrown out?" Jessi mumbled sleepily.

"Hey, Jessi, got a riddle for you."

Jessi groaned and Jim accepted that as permission to continue. "Where is baseball first mentioned in the Bible?"

"I have no idea but I'm sure you're going to tell me."

"In the big inning, Eve stole first, Adam stole second, and God threw them both out."

Jessi groaned again and promptly returned to sleep in self defense.

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