September 29, 2011

I have to talk about baseball

I can't imagine what it must be like to be a Red Sox fan right now. Last night was probably one of the most incredible nights in baseball history, but the nature of professional sports is such that for every incredible play, game, win, whatever, there's a loser on the other side. All they have today is heartbreak. They collapsed historically, wiping out a huge cushion with a horrible September, and then needing just one out - maybe one pitch - to make it to the postseason.

Look for the headlines from their papers at the start of the season, and you'll see they had lofty expectations. "best team EVER" one of them says. Not just the best BoSox team ever, but the best team. Ever. Then they started 2-10. And they finished 7-19. They bookended their season playing .237 ball. In between they played 81-43. If they had played that way all season, they'd have won 105 games and would have the best record in baseball.

But today their season is done.

Luckily, I am not a Red Sox fan. I can almost empathize. But not quite.

Like most Tigers fans, I've been waiting almost five years for tomorrow when we play a postseason game for the first time since 2006. Our hope is different - get us to the postseason and we'll see from there. When we miss the postseason - and we've done that a lot - we get to thinking about next year. It's always cautious optimism. We're not arrogant enough to publish a headline like "best team EVER." We've been humbled by some awful, awful decades.

We collapsed, hard, in 2009. Like the Red Sox, we blew a big lead in the division and let someone catch us. Unlike the Red Sox, we actually made it to the tie-breaker. That game, number 163, forever ruined the number 163 for me, probably. But it's one of the best games I've ever watched. Extra innings, a bunch of lead changes, it was incredible. We just wound up with fewer runs in the end. Season done. No playoffs, no world series, nothing.

Enter 2011. I'm living here in Puerto Rico. With my tax return, I spoil myself with MLB.TV. Suddenly, I can watch every. single. Tigers game. Ask the people here, they'll tell you I was often found in my man-cave, watching the Tigers projected up on my wall. They might remember the day I emerged and told everyone that Justin Verlander had just thrown a no-hitter. I know I do.

From the beginning, I had a good feeling about this season. And, thus far, some amazing stuff has happened. Justin Verlander threw a no-hitter and is a cinch for the Cy Young, even played well enough to force people to explain why a pitcher shouldn't be an MVP. Could still get it, for all I know. He'll definitely get votes. Miguel Cabrera won the batting title. Actually, that was kind of a big surprise. Our closer was perfect - everytime he came into the game with a close lead, we won.

But on top of all of that, we get to play tomorrow, in primetime, against the Yankees. There is nothing like seeing your team in the playoffs. (Hasn't happened with the Lions in a while but... who knows?)

And I like our chances. And I suppose I ought to make a prediction.

I favor: Us.

How could I not? I didn't watch all summer just to abandon hope in the postseason.

I honestly think our lineup can handle any pitcher out there. I think we'll get by the Yankees, then the Rangers. In the NL, I'm going to pick the Cards over the Phillies (This is just a gut feeling. Philly has incredible pitching, but they won't get enough offense) and the DBacks over the Cards.

I'm picking the Tigers over the Diamondbacks. Sorry, Tram and Gibby.

September 28, 2011

Not Just an Event

It's hard when your faith becomes your job.

The other day I was sitting there, just thinking. I do that sometimes, just sit there and zone out as my brain follows some long train of thought. Usually, just on the verge of some brilliant epiphany, I realize I've been sitting there zoning out and I snap out of it. I never reach that epiphany. Just a long string of thought, and often one that doesn't bear any fruit. That's okay. It's how guys defrag their hard-drives.

But as I sat there, I was thinking about my involvement in ministry. How did I get here? Why am I here? Why am I planning to be done with this in a year? How can I put a timeline on this? How am I qualified for this?

Most of us are unqualified, actually.

There are days when I get up and go back to the grindstone. I try to make decisions about new things, wait for people to call me back or email me so I can move forward on a project, or prepare stuff, or try to be creative by myself - am I the only one who sucks at this? Projects and budgets pile up and I stall on making decisions about more abstract things. Why does this feel like work?

We plan retreats, camps, and other events directed at reaching kids, in the hopes that they might go and be disciples. And there's a lot of work that goes into it. From coordinating artwork for a mailing to planning a menu to booking a speaker to updating a database full of names, it's easy to get overwhelmed with tasks.

You start to ask yourself - is this ministry, or is this a job? Couldn't anyone do this stuff? Is my faith really tied into this, or am I just an event planner?

As I was thinking, I started to consider some of the people who inspire me. Ministry doesn't usually look like work to them. They're so sold out to their cause that all they need is the fuel of the Holy Spirit to propel them forward. They run on It. They always love what they're doing so much that they would never dream of backing out of it, right? Why don't I feel that way? Here I am thinking my time here will be done in a year and I'll move onto something else. Why am I not surging happily forward in ministry, energized as though the Holy Spirit was coursing through my veins like caffeine? Shouldn't I love every minute of this?

Yeah, I don't think it happens that way. I think that whole utopian pipedream feel-good thing is a big lie, especially when it comes to ministry. The Bible definitely never paints that picture. Nowhere does Christ say "abandon your family, and it will be smooth sailing." Ministry is hard, and I suspect that the people for whom it appears to be so easy have days of drudgery too. Sometimes it's the work of the Holy Spirit just to get me out of bed and put me back at my desk.

We'll be doing our first men's retreat next month. It's new territory for me. Yesterday, I went to meet with Pastor Miguel, who will be our speaker, to pray about it and work out some of the planning. We prayed, talked, had a few good ideas, and as we wrapped up we prayed again. Though he didn't when we opened, He prayed in English this time, and I was glad because he used a phrase that stuck with me. "May it not be just an event..."

May it not be just an event. I grabbed onto those words and repeated them, rolled them over in my brain. They fit so well.

That is exactly the attitude I need to have.

It's not just an event.

September 18, 2011

background noise

Chickens are clucking, roosters are crowing, and dogs are barking around the barrio.

The breeze comes in with no walls to stop it. Fans above rotate slowly and help it along.

Javier stands up to read Psalm 23, in "a strong voice, like David."

From inside the house, a child erupts, crying. 

And it sets the dog off, and he starts barking and howling.

And a car rolls down the street with a deafening sound system, booming dirty lyrics for all of us in church to hear.

And I am the only one who seems to notice.

September 13, 2011

Maria reaches

Yesterday, I pulled the aluminum covers off my windows, protection from the threat of Irene a few weeks ago. She's long gone, and though hurricane season isn't over yet there doesn't appear to be anything upcoming. I want a breeze through my apartment. And Maria - she's heading north of the island, presumably to get lost and fizzle out over the Atlantic.

But ya see, hurricanes and tropical storms have these wings or tentacles that stick out well beyond the eye of the storm. The eye can pass close by, and the storm might not do a whole lot. But those darn tentacles can do damage all over. 

So with Maria cruising up the Atlantic, away from Puerto Rico, I went to sleep with a little drizzle outside of my window. By 1 AM, I felt just a little spray coming in my window. The wind had picked up and the slow, distant rumble of thunder had become decidedly less distant. Now it was flashing and crashing all around. There was a howl - not the freight train people tell me comes along with a real hurricane - as the wind began to blow in a constant. I began to wonder if something was kicking up. Probably, though, it was just a big thunderstorm.

If I had I left the aluminum covers up on my windows, I wouldn't have to worry about any rain getting in. But since I'd taken them down, just a little bit of mist was getting through. Outside the window, they were standing carelessly up against my washer. I got up and closed the shutters tight and laid back down.

A big gust of wind, and


The sound was huge and unmistakable. They fell over and started banging and clanging around on the ground as the wind pushed them along the concrete beneath my windows. Roughly five feet from where I was sleeping, just a concrete wall with some tightly closed shutters was between me and them and the storm that pushing them effortlessly around.

I briefly thought I probably ought to go tie them down or something. Then, another crash of thunder.


I rolled over and slept until, around 4:30 am, it all kicked up again. And it rained non-stop for several more hours.

When I emerged from my house from my apartment, I was met with this:

There used to be an awning covering the walkway to our dining hall. You can see the poles bent over, not knowing which way they're supposed to point. The thing they held up is way over there resting against that palm tree. On its way there, it roughed up our playground even more than termites and time already had. It needs a replacement. That's not the sound I heard. But you can imagine, that awning weighs several hundred pounds, thrown more than 100 feet.

This was more than just a little thunderstorm. Beware the long reach of Maria.

September 9, 2011

It's good to be a Tigers fan

I don't blame people for not being baseball fans. Unless you've got a dog in the fight, you really don't have a reason to watch. I could not sit down and watch a Padres/Astros game start to finish (This, I think, precludes me from the top tier of rabid baseball fans). But since I'm a Detroit fan, and I know all the players and keep up with them, I actually enjoy watching them play. It doesn't hurt that they're playing well and are very much in control of their division, about to claim their first championship in 24 years. It's an exciting time to be a Tigers fan.

Lots of baseball fans – ones more rabid than I - have ambitions of seeing a game in every single Major League stadium. For me... maybe one day. But for now, I'm going to try to check out all the parks within a few states of Michigan. I've been to Comerica a few times, as well as U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago and the more distant Turner Field in Atlanta (where the atmosphere will go a long way to convert non-Braves fans). I've been to a few retired parks too. I took in a game at the Metrodome where the Twins played until moving into Target Field last year. Several years ago, my dad took us to a game at Milwaukee County Stadium where the Brewers used to play. And of course, he took us to Tigers stadium too.

With Progressive Field just a few hours away in Cleveland and the Tigers playing well, my friend Josh and I drove there Wednesday to see them play the Indians.

Cleveland, it turns out, doesn't look too far away on a map but is still a five hour drive from Grand Rapids. That's twice as long as driving to Comerica in Detroit and it's not a drive you want to make very often, and it's definitely not one you want to make just to see your team lose. I had never been to Cleveland before, and I'm all about going to places I've never been before just to say I've been there.

Across from QuickenLoans Arena where the Cavs play, Nike had hung a massive banner that said “We are all witnesses.” It had a picture of Lebron James angelically throwing powder in the air, like it was magic or something. You may not have heard, but he quietly left them last year to play for the Miami Heat. They took the banner down and in its place there now hangs one that says, “Our home since 1866. Our pride forever,” and it has a picture of the Cleveland skyline lit up at night. They would rather have their identity in their city than in a guy who plays basketball really well. I respect them just a little bit more because of that.

Don't stake your hope in guys who get paid to play games.

We found a parking garage a few blocks away with parking for $10. We pulled in and the attendant at the counter was sleeping with her head against the window. The gate was up, so we pulled through, expecting that maybe someone else would be waiting for us to throw money at them while their coworker slept. Instead, there was another woman, standing, who just waved us by. We parked, a little bit confused, and left the building no poorer than when we'd arrived. Unfortunately, we took no notice of the level on which we parked. When we came back later, we had it a Seinfeldian parking garage search.

Progressive Field is a pretty nice stadium. I like Comerica better – it seems a little more spacious and open, where Progressive has a little more of a condensed, closed-in feel like U.S. Cellular where the Sox play. (Here, I'd like to point out that the Tigers recently swept the White Sox and effectively crushed any of their dreams of reaching the postseason.) The Tigers – I'm admittedly biased – are blessed with a beautiful ballpark.

For the record, I think Comerica is a little cheaper too. Not by much, but it is. The vendors at progressive will sell you a hot dog for $5.50, which the guy who sat next to me balked at but later caved in and paid. A jumbo hot dog is $8.50. They'll sell you a 24 oz can of Honey Brown Lager for $9.50. A two beer/two peanut combo is $27.

Don't do it. I can't imagine there are many people who deem this a worthy investment. Josh and I smuggled in ziploc bags of peanuts. Mine were gone before the first pitch. We tried to smuggle in Dr Peppers but they didn't make it to the gate.

I'll be as brief as possible reporting the goings-on of the baseball game because anybody who cares to know about it already does. And, as much as I might want to, I'm not gonna turn this into a sports blog. Verlander pitched. You ought to know his name because he's having an historic season, and doing it as a Tiger. Everyone in Detroit loves him, and there will probably be a lot of kids named Justin again. People drive a long way to see him play and pay lots of money for shirts with his name on them.

But he gave up a few runs. And the Tigers struggled to hit the Indians pitcher. Until the sixth, down 4-2, they loaded the bases, scored a run, and then Victor Martinez hit a grand slam to put the Tigers ahead 7-4. Even in the Indians stadium, there were enough Tigers fans there to be just as loud as the Indians fans. Justin Verlander won his 22nd game.

The first Indians fan that we saw that day was a guy who walked by us and said, “Good luck in the playoffs, guys.” We, of course, marked ourselves with Tigers gear, as any good and brave fan does in an opposing ballpark. We told him thanks and talked to him a bit, he was actually a really nice guy. All sports fans ought to be good ambassadors like him. We met another lady walking into Five Guys later on who said, “Sorry about your shirts.” But even she ended up being really nice too, and we admitted to each other we'd rather see the other team in the playoffs over the Sox or Twins. I'm still deciding whether or not that's true.

Regardless, it looks like it will be my team that will be in the playoffs. And since we got to see them win, the drive home was considerably more enjoyable.

Some heroes of the day:

Victor Martinez

Justin Verlander