Friday, January 13, 2012

Wistful Reminiscences of a Philadelphia Sports Fan

Sitting on Seats from Philadelphia's Connie Mack Stadium at
the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, NY, 2001

A voice says,"Cry!"
     And I said, "What shall I cry?"
All flesh is grass
    and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades
     when the breath of the LORD blows on it;
     surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
     but the word of our God will stand forever.
~Isaiah 40:6-8 (ESV)
Turning 55 has a way of focusing the mind on the important and permanent things in life, the "unseen" things that St. Paul characterizes as "eternal" that will contribute to the "eternal weight of glory" in comparison to which all our "momentary" afflictions pale to insignificance (2 Cor 4:17-18). The flip side of this impulse is to reminisce about all the other things that, however formative and existentially defining, have been lost to the passage of time.

The wistful sense of loss reared its ugly head last week with the announcement by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia that the venerable Monsignor Bonner High School in Upper Darby—alma mater of Jets' Super Bowl safety Al Atkinson, St. Joe Hawk standout Mike Hauer, and Heisman Trophy winner John Cappelletti—would be shuttered in June. Then, yesterday, I took a second hit when columnist Frank Fitzpatrick published a piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer entitled "Fading Philadelphia sports memories." 

Philadelphians of a certain age, like myself, remember when their greatest sports heroes were players from the past, like Robin Roberts and Richie Ashburn of the 1950 "Whiz Kid" Phillies (who managed to get swept in the World Series!), or Chuck Bednarik, Norm Van Brocklin, and Tom Brookshier of the 1960 Eagles, who remain the city's last NFL champions. The reason, of course, is that their childhoods were dominated by such ignominious failures as the 1964 Phillies, who blew a 61/2 game lead with 12 to play by losing 10 straight games, or the "Joe Must Go" Eagles of 1968, who started 0-11 but managed to win two straight to lose out in the O. J. Simpson sweepstakes.

Yet thrilling memories remain—Dick Allen and Johnny Callison smashing homers at old Connie Mack Stadium in North Philly, Philly's own Wilt Chamberlain and the all-time great 1967 Sixers championship team playing at Convention Hall, the Broad Street Bully Flyers, the for-a-while unfulfilled potential of the Julius Erving-George McGinnis Sixers, the glory days of the Big 5 and doubleheaders at the venerable Palestra, Dick Vermeil's plucky Eagles, and especially the great Phillies teams of 1976-83 plying their trade on the unnatural green turf of South Philly's antiseptic Vet Stadium.

All these memories I cherish. They remain fixed in an eternal present tense for a man who still remembers the obscure statistics on the back of mid-'60s-era Topps cards more clearly than the literature, Latin, and calculus he ostensibly studied in his high school years. These are memories unavailable to younger fans who, in a fit of generational hubris, cannot imagine the truth of what I know first-hand, namely, that Chamberlain remains the most dominant force the game of basketball has ever witnessed.

Reminiscing like this, however, inevitably brings with it an overwhelming sense of melancholy. For, you see, memory underscores the ugly fact of impermanence. Connie Mack Stadium at 21st and Lehigh—gone now for more than 30 years, replaced by a large church campus (the row of houses on 20th Street remain, overlooking the church, but I can't drive past them without imagining the old photo of the houses sporting rooftop bleachers for the 1929 World Series). Johnny Callison, Wes Covington, and Chris Short of the '64 Phils—all dead. The great trio of Phillies announcers whose radio broadcasts graced every summer evening for years in the 1970s: By Saam, Rich Ashburn and Harry Kalas—all dead. Big 5 stars Ken Durrett of LaSalle and Howard Porter of Villanova, whose titanic battles from '69-'71 remain etched in my memory—both dead, the latter the victim of murder on a lonely Minneapolis street. The Vet—imploded seven years ago. Even the seemingly indestructible Chamberlain and Reggie White—both dead prematurely.

"All flesh," the prophet declared, "is like grass"—impermanent, susceptible to the decay that is the lot of all created things. It doesn't matter whether you are the King of Babylon (the intended target in Isaiah), a baseball Hall-of-Famer, a current NFL star, a college professor, or a humble factory worker. All share the same fate. And this alone should be sufficient to focus the mind on what is of lasting and eternal value.

The Apostle Peter quotes Isaiah 40:6-8 at length to apply the final clause ("the word of the Lord abides forever") to the message about Christ (kyriou is clearly an objective genitive in context, pace J. R. Michaels) embodied in the gospel message (cf. Isa 40:9) that, because it is "living and abiding," serves as the implanted "seed" bringing about the effective regeneration of his readers (1 Pet 1:22-25). What matters ultimately is what is permanent. And nothing is more permanent than the unilateral covenant promises of God. In Isaiah 40-55, the "good news" is the message of God's faithfulness to his promises in bringing Israel and Judah back from exile in a second Exodus. The New Testament authors, Peter included, believed this "gospel" came to fruition in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. It is this message, when proclaimed or read, that serves as the means by which God in his mercy brings people to faith and gives them the new birth because of which they will never die in the ultimate sense.

My own personal narrative is permeated by references to the sporting events and heroes who have delivered so much pleasure and, yes, pain down through the years. If that is all I had, however, mine would be a very melancholy, pitiful life indeed. Thanks to God for regenerating me through the gospel message, which alone provides coherence to my narrative and makes that life worth living. Soli Deo Gloria!

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