In the middle of the 30 Days of Catch challenge, Michael reached out to me and invited me to preach at his church.
“Weather willing, maybe you can do something at 42 Field while you’re in town,” he said.
I, in turn, reached out to Spencer. Spencer also participated in the 30 Days of Catch challenge. He wrote about it here.
Spencer is the reason why 42 Field exists. At his invitation, I traveled to 42 Field a couple years ago. I wrote about that first trip here.
For the second time in my life, I traveled to 42 Field; this time, on the same day that MLB celebrated Jackie Robinson Day. It felt like the perfect place to celebrate the legacy of the courageous and heroic ballplayer. Spencer and I decided to have a home run derby at 42 Field.
I wanted to see if I could wrap one around the Martin Pole – similar to Boston’s Pesky Pole, except it’s in left field, not right, and a birdhouse sits on the top.
I have seen Bo Jackson hit a home run at Kauffman Stadium. It was in the same game that Detroit Tigers’ pitcher Jack Morris beaned Royals’ leadoff hitter, Kevin Seitzer. Later that same summer, Dad bought me a new glove. I’ve used that glove for the last three decades.
I have seen Alcides Escobar, Alex Gordon, and Salvador Perez hit home runs at Wrigley Field. Just one month after that game, I broke my ankle. Thankfully, it was the same year the Royals won the World Series. Cheering those Royals kept my mind entertained when I had to keep off my feet.
I have seen Hanley Ramirez hit a home run at Dodgers Stadium against the Boston Red Sox. I ate a Dodger dog, heard Vin Scully’s voice piped over the radio while watching the game he was calling, and enjoyed the fireworks after the game.
No matter how you measure it or stretch your imagination, I am not a home run hitter. Swinging for the not-yet-planted soybean fences was going to be a challenge.
After visiting with Spencer, I contacted my friend Rick. The last time I saw Rick, we played catch and he crashed on a couch at my house as he toured the eastern US with his son. Rick is currently in seminary and looking to graduate in December. After that, he’s still dreaming.
Me: Wanna be my chauffeur for a weekend?
Rick: I’m in!
The date approached and the weather was more than willing.
On Saturday morning, the day of the 42 Field Home Run Derby, Rick and I went for a drive. For the record, Rick’s Spotify playlist is perfection. He was looking for a place outside to read and think and study. I was looking for a place to stretch out my hamstrings and lower back. Crommer Park was the answer to our search.
Rick found a shaded table at which he could read and study and think profound thinkings. I spotted a family at the adjacent ballfield.
At the plate, a 12-year was taking swings in preparation for her upcoming season. She was there with her dad, who was her coach and throwing batting practice, and her mom, who was running all over the field gathering batted balls.
“Need an extra?” I asked.
“Sure!” the dad replied.
For thirty minutes, I fielded grounders and pop-ups. The dad then asked if I would be willing to “play first base,” while he hit ground balls to his daughter and coached her through scenarios with imaginary runners on base.
She went to shortstop, then second, then third, then pitcher, then back to shortstop and fielded several grounders at each position.
By the time they finished, Rick and I were both ready for lunch. We found a fantastic place across the street from the historic county courthouse in Bryan, Ohio.
42 Field looked considerably different than it did last time I was there. The crops along the third base line and left half of the outfield won’t be planted for another month. The Saturday afternoon home run derby was the first official event at the field for 2023. Opening Day for the backyard league is June 3 and The Real Game is August 26. Spencer sent out invitations and spread the word without any guarantee anyone other than me and Rick would show up.
Late Sunday afternoon, at the Detroit Metro Airport, I sat down trying to keep proper stranger protocol – leaving an empty seat between me and any other people. As soon as I sat down, the woman next to me pointed at me.
“Oh! I love your shirt! I’ve been there!”
I had to look down because I honestly didn’t remember which shirt I was wearing. It was the Field of Dreams shirt by Baseballism.
Her name was Anna.* Originally from Germany, she moved to Michigan with her family where she works in automotive engineering, making sure that drivetrains do what drivetrains are supposed to do. Anna is a passionate Arizona Diamondbacks fan. She spent six months in Arizona on a work-related project and attended the franchise’s first home game in March of 1998.
A couple summers ago, she and her family took a trip from Michigan to see Mount Rushmore and stopped at the Field of Dreams movie site along the way.
She showed me pictures of her daughter and husband and her Australian Shepherd named Pepper along the cornstalk-lined outfield fence. And then, she showed me her videos of taking batting practice at the Field of Dreams. I would not be surprised if she took one yard.
Talking baseball with Anna was a fantastic way to wait for a plane.
There is a simple strategy for hitting home runs in a home run derby. Wait for your pitch. Then, swing with everything you’ve got in you.
It’s the first part of that equation that I struggle with. I think it comes from my training at Fun Acre. When I pay a quarter for five pitches, I swing at each of those five pitches. Even the ones that are eye-high. Vladimir Guerrero would be proud of me.
My hitting strategy has also been greatly influenced by Joaquin Phoenix’s character in the movie Signs. Joaquin Phoenix played Merrill Hess, a former minor league baseball player who moved back home to help care for his brother and his brother’s family.
Cunningham: I know you. You’re Merrill Hess! I was there the day you hit that 507-footer over the left field wall, set the record. Man, that thing had a motor on it. It’s still the record, right?
Merrill: Got the bat at home on the wall.
Cunningham: You’ve got two minor league home-run records, don’t ya?
Cunningham: Why weren’t you in the pros…?
Lionel Prichard: ‘Cause he has another record most people don’t know about. He has the minor league strikeout record.
Merrill: Hello Lionel.
Lionel: Merrill’s a class-A screw up. He would just swing that bat as hard as he could every time. Didn’t matter what the coaches said, didn’t matter who was on base. He would just whip that bat through the air as hard as he could. Looked like a lumberjack chopping down a tree. Merrill here has more strikeouts than any two players.
Cunningham: You really got the strikeout record?
Merrill: Felt wrong not to swing.
“Felt wrong not to swing.” It’s not a strategy to be a successful major leaguer. It’s a strategy for a guy pushing 50 who still loves the game like he’s 10.
Nine guys showed up to celebrate the 42 Field Home Run Derby and there were a lot of home runs hit. There were a couple that wrapped around the Martin Pole and a couple that plunged deep in the dry dirt of the unplanted soybean field. Spencer hit one that cleared the fence by at least 40 feet.
“That one felt really good,” he said.
I hit a couple of fantastic line drives to centerfield, and pulled a couple more down the third base line. I hit several high pop-ups on the infield, just missing the sweet spot, which frustrated every competitive bone in my body to no end.
And then, I took one yard.
My home run at 42 Field was not a Martin Pole home run. My home run was a left-center home run, one that probably would have cleared the first couple of rows of fully-grown cornstalks, were this a year corn was planted instead of soybeans.
I agree with Spencer; it felt really good.
* * * * *
Sunday morning, I preached twice at Michael’s church. My sermon explored how playing catch is a hope-filled exercise that helps us make new friends and experience the nearness of God’s kingdom.
God’s kingdom breaking into earth is that place where everyone is welcome, where love and joy are as tangible as high fives, where play abounds.
In short, it was everything I experienced at 42 Field.
*I think her name was Anna. At the exact time she announced her name, the gate hostess made an announcement and the intercom shrieked and I am not good at reading lips.