Monday, April 13, 2009

"The Bird" Flies...

Mark "The Bird" Fidrych, was found dead at his home today, where he died working on his 10-wheel dump truck. He was 54. Now some of you who aren't old enough or aren't a baseball fan might have no idea who this oddly curious fatality might be. In the summer of 1976 as the Detroit Tigers were mired in futility, this tall, skinny, New England kid with the blond Afro curls and the gawky bird-like delivery (people thought he reminded them of Sesame Street's "Big Bird") began to pitch and began to win. He would go on to win the American League Rookie of the Year Award and a total of 19 games for the Tigers who finished the season entrenched in 5th place. It was not just his appearance though...he was truly eccentric when he got out there on the mound, talking to himself and to the ball. He would also get down on his hands and knees and fix the holes in the dirt by dragging and pushing the dirt around with his hands, and the crowds loved it. Even though Detroit was losing, whenever The Bird was scheduled to pitch, they packed out the house. Most of you know that I am a Cleveland Indians fan, but like everyone else I was fascinated by this soldier in the baseball army marching out of step with the rest of of the ranks, and I, like the folks in the stands, would rise to my feet and flap my arms when he took the mound. It was a bizarre and remarkable phenomenon. Following that incredible year he picked up right where he left off the next season. winning his first six starts and filling the stands once more. In his 7th start he felt a twinge in his shoulder and came out trailing in the 3rd inning. He would make a handful of major league appearance in the next few years. The arthroscopic surgery that so easily takes care of those kinds of injuries now was not available and he mostly labored in the minors for 7 more years before hanging it up.

I've tried to pinpoint what it was about Mark that drew me and so many others to him. He was successful, he was eccentric, he was an icon for a city...but I think for me what I loved about Mark Fidrych was that he was a little boy in a man's body playing a boy's game. You understand that I love the game of baseball...not as a corporate entertainment product or a marketing angle...I love the game of baseball. There is something deep in me that I learned and lived on the sandlots of my childhood that gets great joy at watching this game played with abandon and passion.

I attended a baseball game tonight for 8 and 9 year old boys. David, one of our Journey kids was pitching so I went to see his game. It is his first year playing and David is a good athlete. He has a lot to learn about the game, but what he does already have is a passion and an instinct for the game, and when he threw a strike he would pump his fist and push his hat up to show a tuft of his blond hair. He never looked over to the stands to see if his parents or other fans were looking...he was totally engrossed and present in the game. When he got up to bat he dug in at the plate and took his cuts confidently and aggressively. He made good contact both times even though he was swung at pitches a little high in the strike zone...this kid wanted to hit! In contrast a couple of his teammates in front of him struck out...often while taking decent cuts...hey, it is part of the game...Babe Ruth led the league in strikeouts as well as home runs. But these two young men cried as they got to the bench. Those who know me know I am an emotional guy and I cry at a lot of stuff...but never at striking out. Baseball is a game...just a game...a profoundly beautiful and complex game with incredible nuances...but it is just a game. Somebody...a coach, a parent, somebody had forgotten to tell those kids that baseball is just a game...enjoy the fact that you can run, and throw, and hit, and slide in the beauty of a spring is a game. Mark Fidrych was getting paid to play baseball, but he never forgot the sheer joy of pulling on that glove and facing off against 9 other guys who are there to play PLAY...a great game.

One of my musical heroes is a guy by the name of Bob Bennett. A craftsman of a songwriter, and an artisan of a guitar player, he has an obscure little song from back in the 80's about his brief baseball career. Bob did not have the jock physique as a kid, and, by his own admission, was not particularly athletically gifted, (and he lived in the shadow of an older brother that was) but this tune called "A Song About Baseball" is one of my favorites. Here are the lyrics...

"Saturday on the baseball field, and me afraid of the ball. Just another kid on camera day, when the Angels still played in LA. I was living black and white. Baseball caps and bubble gum, I think there's a hole in my glove. Three and and death...I was swinging with eyes closed holding my breath...I was dying, on my way to the bench.

But none of it mattered after the game, my father would find me and call out my name... a soft drink a snow cone, a candy bar, a limousine ride in the family car...he loved me no matter how I played...he loved me no matter how I played.

But none of it mattered after the game my father would find me and call out my name...dreaming of glory the next time out, my father showed me what love was about...he loved me no matter how I played... he loved me."

You are gone too soon Mark Fidrych, but you reminded us how the game should be a game...because we have a father that loves us no matter how we play.

So what are ya waiting on...PLAY BALL!



Friday, April 3, 2009

Slim Shady to Teacher of Promise

I met Brian Hill the summer following his junior year at Connally High School. His single parent mom signed him up for our high school youth camp and even though he didn't know a soul, he came. He was bright, funny, made friends easily and oh yeah, he was dressed like rapper Eminem and even had his head shaved with the bleached fuzz. He was an immediate hit with the rest of the youth group and he quickly became a regular. When he graduated he went off to college at North Texas in Denton. Like many students, his freshman year of transition concluded with less than stellar results. He was on academic probation. He wasn't sure he wanted to return to North Texas, and after a stint working with a youth camp in North Louisiana (Camp Fuego) he decided he wanted to transfer to East Texas Baptist University in Marshall, Texas...and in addition, begin studying to become a youth minister. Those of us who had watched Brian grow in those few short years knew that he was a natural in working with kids, and in the summers that followed we always had him back to intern or help as a camp counselor.

Brian graduated in 2005 and immediately began seminary work in youth ministry at Truett Seminary on the Baylor University campus. I needed a summer college intern at Riverbend, so we hired him to help me in high school and college ministry, and since his mom had remarried and moved to Houston he needed a place to stay for the summer so he moved into my house up in Cedar Park. Calla was still there (Ariele in Portland and Hannah in Nashville) but she had just graduated and would be leaving for North Carolina at the end of the summer. I ended up leaving Riverbend for Journey at the end of the summer as well. but Brian stayed at Riverbend becoming the interim high school minister as well as staying on at the house. He would be there for two years until he and Caitlin married, and Caitlin didn't want to join the boy's club at the Gentiles house so they moved to East Austin after the wedding, and I moved down into town near the warehouse. Riverbend would hire Nick in the spring to take over high school ministry and he and Brian became fast friends and were a wonderful team for the year that Nick was there. But there were changes afoot at Riverbend and Brian found out that at the end of last summer his job would end there, so he began to look at other church positions. He also began to consider going through alternative certification programs and becoming a public school teacher.

I have left out a significant part of the story though. While attending classes at Truett, Brian began to be more and more interested in the issues of justice and the poor. He met an old college buddy of mine, Jimmy Dorrell who has run a ministry to the poor and the homeless in Waco for many years called Mission Waco who was teaching several classes on missions and slowly but surely with Jimmy's and several other key professors influence, Brian's calling shifted from traditional youth ministry to living in community with and ministering to the poor. I say all that to say that Brian's interest in teaching public school was not just to teach, he wanted to teach in the inner city where he knew the challenges were tough, the rewards were slower to come and the burnout rate was astronomical. He began to interview for jobs and even though he had several years of experience working with kids in the context of the church, he had no education degree and no classroom experience, so the beginning of the school year quickly approached and he still did not have a placement. A week before school started he called because he had an interview with the principal of a fairly new elementary school in East Austin, Overton Elementary for a position as a 4th grade teacher. After the interview he was encouraged, but he had been encouraged by several interviews before this one as well. What was different was that Principal Hicks seemed to want to take a chance on a guy who was creative and brought something fresh and new to the classroom. Brian was hired and the saga began last August.

There are still two months left in Brian's rookie year as a 4th grade classroom teacher, but oh what a year it has been. The stories, the text messages in the middle of the day, like the one he sent out on a standardized testing day when a little girl in his class farted and belched at the same time and the smell was curling up artificial plant leaves in the back of the room. As if teaching was not tough enough, Brian also volunteered to be the assistant coach for a basketball team made up of boys from his school that consumes his nights and weekends as well. And then there came Thursday night. The Austin Independent School District not only recognizes Teachers of the Year from each of its schools, it also honors Teachers of Promise who are 1st year teachers from each school who have distinguished themselves as wonderful young leaders of students. Brian was selected the Teacher of Promise from Overton. And that's not all...he was selected to speak at the recognition service last night at the Delco Center as a representative for all of the winners from the 65 elementary schools in AISD. He did a great job...he was funny (my girls think Jimmy Fallon reminds them of Brian, and vice versa) he was impassioned, he was poignant, and he was...well...Brian. I was so stinkin' proud of him...and yes...I teared up a little...yeah, I know you are shocked! (By the way...kudos for the youth ministry program at Riverbend, because amazingly three of the new teachers recognized Thursday night as TOPs were a part of the youth ministry program at that astounding or what?) case you are one of the folks who are convinced the world is going to hell in a handbasket...I got news for you...Slim Shady is now kickin' butt and taking names...and coaching basketball, and changing lives one 4th grader at a time.

I love you Brian Hill...teach on my brother...

Pling... Pling...