Musings: Prayers, Answered And Otherwise

By Dick Flavin

Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate

and New York Times Best Selling Author

PRAYERS, ANSWERED AND OTHERWISE

For many years I used to have the same recurring dream. In it I am a player for the

Boston Red Sox (I told you I was dreaming) and, in my first major league at-bat, I am

called upon to pinch hit in a tense situation. The opposing team is never specifically

identified in my dream, nor is the pitcher I’d be facing, beyond that he is well-known for

his blinding fastball.

In my dream, just before I step into the batter’s box, I bless myself by making the sign of

the cross. This is done baseball-style as opposed to the demonstrative method employed,

for example, by a priest from the altar in which he majestically touches his brow,

stomach, and both shoulders. The baseball-style blessing is almost a phantom sign of the

cross in which a player just points for an instant to his forehead, torso, and shoulders. He

seldom if ever makes actual contact with any of those body parts, but the player’s

blessing means the same thing as the priest’s; he is calling upon the Lord for His

intercession and His divine help.

Having thus blessed myself I take my stance in the batter’s box, calmly confident that I

have God on my side in the up-coming at-bat. Then I look on in horror as the opposing

pitcher, the one with the great fastball, steps off the rear of the mound and – wait for it –

he makes the sign of the cross! There goes my secret weapon. Now the pitcher versus

batter battle becomes one that will be decided on merit, and that does not bode well for

me.

At this point my dream always ended, which is just as well. It was rapidly becoming a

nightmare. If I even fouled one off against the mysterious pitcher in my dreams, that

would qualify as a miracle.

It is commonplace to see a player demonstrate his faith, whatever it may be, in some

small way during the course of a ballgame, whether it be a look to the heavens or tracing

a symbol in the dirt with his bat. All players know that doing so is never a guarantee of

success because all players have experienced the failure that is intrinsic to the game. That

God does not take sides in baseball games, or in any sport, is a lesson that we all learn

early in life.

Still, prayer in sports can have a beneficial effect. It calms a player down during a high-

stress time, it reminds him that there is something bigger and more important than

himself involved in everything we do, not just an at-bat, a pitch, or a single game; it puts

him in a position where he can concentrate on the task at hand - just as long as he

understands that it’s not going to help to get his bat around on a ninety-eight mile an hour

fastball. If it did, the Pope would win the Triple Crown every year.

A lot a players pray as an integral part of their in-game rituals. Carl Yastrzemski is a

guarded person who doesn’t reveal much about his private life, but right after the 1967

Red Sox Impossible Dream season, when Yaz won the Triple Crown (we could have

called him Your Holiness that year), he wrote a memoir in which he let us in on a secret;

just before the start of every game he said a quiet Hail Mary, praying to: “Please let me

relax, and be with me, and let me play my natural game, to the best of my ability, and not

be injured.” That, coupled with a lifetime of dedication to the game, a Herculean work

ethic, and a large dose of God-given talent, was enough to propel him into the Hall of

Fame on the first ballot.

It brings to mind an old story about a farmer who, through hard work and dedication,

developed what had been a run-down piece of land into a very successful farm, yielding

bountiful crops every year. One day the local pastor paid him a call. The pastor looked

out across the fields and said, “This is a beautiful spread that you and the good Lord have

put together.” To which the farmer replied, “Yep, but you should have seen it when the

good Lord had it to Himself.”

I haven’t had that dream about coming up to bat at Fenway Park in some years; I think

it’s because I actually did once step up to home plate there in a high-pressure situation.

The occasion was a memorial tribute to Ted Williams shortly after the great slugger’s

death in 2002. There were about twenty-five thousand people in the ballpark, including

many dignitaries, plus me. I had been asked to recite “Teddy at the Bat,” a send up of

“Casey at the Bat,” that I had recited for Ted, Dom DiMaggio, and Johnny Pesky during

a visit to Ted’s home some months earlier. The tribute was televised live, there would be

no retakes or do-overs, but that and the big crowd in the park is not what caused my

stress level to skyrocket. It was the old public address system, in which there was a five-

second delay between the time something was said and the time it went out over the

loudspeakers. It was still in use at the time of the tribute to Ted. It was difficult enough to

speak under those conditions, but to recite a five minute-long poem was a train-wreck

waiting to happen. I had to maintain its pacing, deliver a specified number of syllables in

each line, and remember the rhymes, all while hearing what I had just said five seconds

earlier reverberate throughout the ballpark. I knew that if all the distractions caused me to

stumble I was in danger of losing my concentration and my train of thought could

disappear into the ozone layer. Only my laundryman knew how nervous I was, so as I

was being introduced for my recitation I said a brief prayer. It was nothing profound,

something like, “Please God, help me get through this without making a complete ass of

myself,” but it eased my anxiety and allowed me to focus on the task at hand.

My little prayer hadn’t been much, but it was enough to get me through the recitation

without totally imploding, thank God; or perhaps I should say, “Thanks, God.”