Those of you who know me already understand that second only to my passion for God, is my love of baseball. I grew up a Detroit Tigers fan. Al Kaline, Bill Freehan, Norm Cash, the portly Mickey Lolich, John Hiller, Willie Horton and my favorite manager of all time - Billy Martin.
You can identify exactly when I became a Tiger fan by zeroing in on our manager at the time. I loved Billy even when he was hired-fired, hired-fired, hired-fired, hired-fired, hired-fired by the Yankees. Being a Tiger fan actually meant that I could love my favorite players and managers even when they played for the Pale Hose or the Bronx Bombers. Everyone asks me why I became a Tiger fan while growing up in New England. The answer is two fold but quite simple.
My parents went through a nasty divorce in my formative baseball years so I didn't get to play Little League where everyone else became either a Yankee or Red Sox fan. I did develop a love for baseball cards though. I lived vicariously through those little cardboard rectangles. Of all the teams, I loved the Tiger logo. It was cool and as an eleven year old boy it struck my imagination. I learned all the players names and statistics and that was the end of it.
Over the years I have followed the team and learned all the new players. I've rooted them on in good years and bad. I've read everything there is to read about the players and the team. Ty Cobb was a bad man but when I played softball, I emulated his hustle and will to win and always played hard and a little nasty at times. I'm embarrassed to say this but for eight years I was the only member of the First Baptist team ever to get thrown out of a game. I argued with the umpire on a call and although I didn't swear, I did go over the top a little bit. But what would you expect with Ty Cobb and Billy Martin as two of my heroes?
Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenburg, Rudy York, Hughie Jennings, Sam Crawford, Mickey Cochran, Hal Newhouser, Jim Bunning, George Kell were all names I came to love. The same was true of Mark "the Bird" Fidrych, Dick McAuliffe, Ron LeFlore, Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker, Kirk Gibson, Lance Parrish, Jack Morris, Cecil Fielder, Travis Fryman, Chet Lemon and the boys of my young adult years. Today I root just as hard for Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman, Magglio Ordonez and Curtis Granderson. Nothing has changed in the last forty years when it comes to my Tigers.
And yet everything has changed. Just by looking at the names you can see it is a different team. Hey, the Tigers even play in a different stadium. I went to the Old Tigers Stadium in 1993 for the very first time. I got a letter from the Mayo Smith Society saying they were going to tear down the old place. I knew I had to make the pilgrimage out and I did. It was great and I got to go there a few more times before they moved out in 1999. I've also been to the new stadium three times since it opened in 2000. You can still feel the history because it isn't the stadium, it is the mystique of the team.
They are making a big deal out of the final season being played at Yankee Stadium this year. Big Deal? The Stadium is nothing. Now if the Yankees were going to fold up their tent and close or if they decided to move out of the Bronx, like the Dodgers and Giants did, then it would be a big deal. You see the team transcends both the players and the field they play on.
It is the same way with our faith and our church. I've been thinking about this a lot recently. In October I will make history at First Baptist Church. I will pass John Sterry, (1800-23), our first Pastor, as the longest standing pastor in church history. So what does it mean?
I know that people discount the records because of possible steroid involvement, but when Mark McGuire passed Roger Maris and broke the single season home run mark it was a big deal for the days leading up to the moment but in the end, it didn't take anything away from Maris' great achievement. The same was true when Barry Bonds broke the all time home run mark passing Hank Aaron. Hank's achievement is still remarkable and will always be remembered , even as Babe Ruth's mark was when Hank crushed that ball to pass him in 1974. It is part of the game. Records are set and they are meant to be broken. When Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive game streak it was an emotional moment. Now we say no one will ever do it again. I'm not so sure.
You see baseball is such a great game because of its spirit. It is bigger than any one star. It moves from generation to generation and each time it embraces new stars who still play it for the love of the game. The same is true of the church. Any individual congregation is going to go through up and down periods in its history. The ministers, priests, and leaders will rise and fall but it is the essence of the community which drives it. It is that intangible we call the Holy Spirit which gives the ministry life and direction.
I remember having a conversation with one of our older members an number of years ago. He was not particularly happy with me and some of the ideas I was proposing. But in a thoughtful moment he sat back and wistfully remembered a former pastor he admired when he was in his twenties. He said, "I guess I understand the way old Mrs. Blackledge felt when Percy Kilmister was trying all kinds of new things with us young people. She was always upset and thought he was doing things that were uncalled for. We loved him though and thought he was the best."
I looked at him and said, "You know I love this church because of its spirit. And that spirit that Rev. Kilmister fostered is alive and well today." We never argued again. Every congregation has a spirit, a personality and it is a blessing to the people who are apart of it. Long after I am gone, the people here will probably remember me, but then I hope they will keep on doing what they are doing as they seek to share the love of God.
I started writing this today because I was really sad to see Pudge Rodriguez traded to the Yanks. I loved him because he brought a sense of respectability back to my Tigers after they had become the laughingstock of baseball. I wish him well and I hope he gets his world series ring. But I am going to root for my Tigers. They are my team. The spirit still lives in the players that are left behind.
So enjoy your church family. Get involved. Worship, serve, give your offerings and pray for the minister and your neighbors in the pew beside you. God has given you a special place to belong.