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Prayers -- answered and otherwise

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It is commonplace to see a player demonstrate his faith ... whether it be a look to the heavens or tracing a symbol in the dirt with his bat.


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 forehead, 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 upcoming 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 25,000 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."

- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox “Poet Laureate” and The Pilot’s recently minted Sports’ columnist.

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