Stephen Grant inhaled deeply. He loved the aromas of baseball.
Having been mown just a couple of hours earlier, the smell of fresh-cut grass under his feet still lingered.
He raised the glove on his left hand to his face, and took in the bouquet of oil and leather. How long has it been since I was on a baseball field? Had to be the softball team at seminary. Too long.
Growing up in the Cincinnati area, Grant became a big Reds fan, and in addition to golf and archery, he played Little League and high school baseball. After graduating from Valparaiso University, and serving his time in the Navy SEALs and with the CIA, Grant arrived at the seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he organized and managed the seminary softball team.
In fact, the last time he stood in centerfield, as was now the case, Grant was in the vast field at the back of the seminary property. At that time, his friend and fellow seminarian Jacob “Big Jake” Stout joked, “You’re the best we have on our baseball and basketball teams, Stephen. But considering that we’re dominated by short, pudgy guys of German descent, that’s not exactly saying much.”
This time, except for Father Tom Stone and Pastor Zack Charmichael standing nearby, Grant was the worst on the field.
Regarding the uniforms, when informed by Tom, Stephen said, “I always thought it was odd that managers and coaches wore uniforms in baseball. Now, we’re adding chaplains?”
Tom replied, “Hey, you can turn down the uniform if you want.”
Stephen paused, and then said, “Actually, it’s kind of cool. I’m in on the uniform.”
“Now you know why the coaches wear them, too,” grinned Tom.
As for roaming the outfield during batting practice, that’s exactly what Stephen, Tom, and Zack were doing before the Opening Day game on the Saturday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend.
Zack’s smile was wide and constant. He jumped up and down on his toes, slammed a fist into his glove, and asked, “Is this great or what?”
Tom answered, “It doesn’t get much better than shagging flies with professional baseball players.” He looked around at the various members of the Surf Kings stretching, talking, doing sprints, and reacting to the balls hit by those swinging in the cage.
The three watched as a ball off the bat of Brodie Blue sailed over the left field fence.
Grant admitted, “Makes me feel like a kid.”
Tom said, “Me, too, and what about the sounds? Wood in this league, thankfully, so we get the real crack, rather than the ping, of the bat. And that slap when the ball lands in a glove. I love it.”
Stephen replied, “Funny, I was just thinking about the smells of the game – the grass, oil and leather.”
Tom jogged over, fielded the ball, and tossed it into the infield. He smiled at his future son-in-law. “Hmmm, now I’m not so sure that you should be coaching my future grandchildren’s Little League team.”
“Thanks,” Zack replied. “I might have been too enthusiastic.”
Stephen smiled, and observed, “Too enthusiastic? Not you.”
They looked in at the pitching coach tossing another fat batting practice fastball, and Blue launching the ball high and deep.
It was Stephen’s turn. “I’ve got it.” He turned and ran toward the six-foot centerfield fence. Grant looked over his left shoulder, picked the ball up in the sky, continued his strides, glanced one more time at the warning track and wall, and then back at the quickly descending ball. At his second step on the dirt and gravel mix of the warning track, he jumped. Using the top of the wall, Grant pulled himself up higher with his right hand, and fully extended his glove into the air. The ball landed in the mitt. The momentum of the fly ball took Grant’s forearm over the wall. Descending to the ground, he pulled the glove back with the ball resting firmly in the pocket.
Grant held the glove up as he felt a wave of elation sweep over him.
Shouts of approval came from around the field.
Zack called, “Sweet catch!”
With the bat still in his hand, Brodie Blue walked past
the pitcher’s mound, stopped at second base, and pointed at Grant. He yelled, “Who do you think you are, Mike Trout?”
Grant was still smiling as he tossed the ball back into the infield.
While Zack shook Stephen’s hand, Tom shook his head and said, “I know I shouldn’t be surprised by what I just saw. I suppose you have a Moe Berg story?”
Stephen replied, “The major league catcher who became a spy? Nice, Tom.”
Stone smiled. “Well, thank you.”
Zack asked, “Moe Berg?”
Tom said, “Berg took home movies in the early thirties when he was traveling with other major league players in Japan. Those movies supposedly were used by the U.S. when preparing for Jimmy Doolittle’s bombing of Tokyo in 1942. After he retired from baseball, Berg worked for the OSS during the war.”
Zack asked, “OSS?”
Stephen answered, “Office of Strategic Services. It was the forerunner to the CIA.”
They watched a ball driven off the right field wall by Ty Beachamp.
Zack queried, “Was Berg any good? At baseball, I mean, not spying.”
Stephen chuckled. “I recall reading two things about Berg’s baseball skills. One said that a St. Louis Cardinals’ scout came up with the phrase ‘good field, no hit’ when evaluating Berg. The other said Berg was a true scholar. A teammate supposedly said, ‘He can speak seven languages, but he can't hit in any of them.’”
Both Tom and Zack laughed.
When batting practice ended, it was time for Tom, Zack and Stephen to do their job for the Surf Kings. As they approached the dugout, the manager, Sam “Salty” Waters asked, “You ready, Father Tom?”
Tom Stone said, “Sure, Salty. We’ll be under the tree, as discussed.”
Tom led Zack and Stephen into the walkway under the small grandstand, out the other side, and toward a large maple tree 20 yards away. Down a grassy slope on the other side of the tree ran the Connetquot River, or sometimes called Great River. The baseball diamond, many large maple trees and assorted brick, ivy-covered buildings all rested on the grounds of Clancy & Flynn College in Oakdale on Long Island’s south shore.
Based on the plans laid out by Woodrow “Woody” Doughty, the league commissioner, each of the eight teams in the New York Summer League of Professional Baseball (NYSLB) began play during this inaugural season on a local college field that was upgraded, including new seating of at least 1,200 and, if needed, a small clubhouse with lockers and showers. The administration at each of the eight colleges was particularly elated that the individual team owner picked up the tab. The league also earned a great deal of goodwill with the public as a result.
Salty called out to his players, “Anyone interested in the team prayer, now’s the time under the maple on the other side of the seats.”
Tom said, “I think you’ve all met us, but just in case, I’m Father Tom Stone from St. Bart’s Anglican Church in Eastport, and these two gentlemen are Pastors Stephen Grant and Zack Charmichael, both from St. Mary’s Lutheran Church in Manorville. The fourth member of our so-called chaplain team, whom you will see on occasion, is Father Ron McDermott from St. Luke’s Catholic Church in Center Moriches. As I announced before, we’re here to lead prayer before each of your home games, and to help you out individually in terms of any spiritual needs, or if you just need someone to talk to about, well, pretty much anything. One of us will be at each game, and feel free to contact any of us at other times.”
Tom paused, and looked around the circle. “Okay, does anyone have any particular needs that you would like us to pray for today?”
No one responded.
“In that case,” Tom continued, “let’s bow our heads. Heavenly Father, we thank you for this day, and for yet another opportunity to exercise our bodies and use the gifts and talents you have given us. Grant to these players the strength and the skill to accomplish all that you would have them do. Keep them, and the players on the Long Island Sound, safe from injury or harm. Bless the coaches with wisdom to guide these players on to victory. Grant awareness to the umpires that the game may be played in fairness and honesty. And watch over all the fans who come to support the Surf Kings that they may be a source of encouragement. All this we ask in the name of the One who promises us the crown of righteousness at the end of our race in faith, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
All echoed, “Amen.”
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