Surrounded, we are alone on the mound

For the longest time I had a bit of a tradition of taking some time off every year to head to Omaha to watch a few games of the NCAA College World Series.

I took a few years off because the College World Series invariably fell on the time when I would be at annual training with the SD Army National Guard. This year, the dates were clear so a friend of mine and I drove to Omaha.

It was as fantastic as I remembered.

There is something almost magical about the College World Series, watching college students who are so young, earnest, unpaid and talented, and it is a pleasure to join with 20,000 plus fellow fans to cheer them on.

The last game I went to was between Mississippi State and Oregon State. We sat behind third base in the hot and humid afternoon sunshine of Omaha, and I was watching a young man named Jacob Billingsley who was pitching for Mississippi State.

Now, every pitcher, and batter for that matter, has a series of mannerisms they go through before they throw a pitch, or step into the batter’s box. Mr. Billingsley was no different in this regard. His mannerisms were fairly common.

If there was no runner on first, he would grab the rosin bag and then tug on his belt, he would grab his jersey from the front and pull it out a bit, he would work his glove, he would then lean in, gazing prophetically at the catcher to receive the sign.

Then he would do something rather uncommon. He would turn slightly to the right and point to the second baseman, the short stop and the third baseman.

This was a simple act, just making sure that his teammates behind him were ready, before he would turn, pause, look down to the pitcher’s mound and sigh a deep, quick breath. After this, standing straight again, he threw his pitch.

I have seen this particular sigh from pitchers many, many times before, it is that last moment, that last blowing of breath, that particular instant when a young man is all alone on the mound and prepares to throw. Perhaps it was the particular attention Mr. Billingsley took in reading the catcher’s sign and the way he turned slightly to acknowledge his teammates behind him that made this last moment, this last heaved breath so meaningful to me.

There was the slight turn to his right to check on his teammates, reminding him that he was a part of a team; then there was the downward glance and heaving breath which was the simple acknowledgment that he was on his own in this moment, just a young man with a ball in his hand.

Then he threw the pitch.

Those twin moments are the meaning of the Christian journey, and the totality of our lives as well. The importance of community is not to be denied. We are Christians together, we grow and pray and mourn and celebrate together. This gift is given by the Lord to remind us that we are never truly alone.

Whenever we gather together to pray or to celebrate the Sacrament of our faith, we are united. We pause, acknowledge the gift and find strength in it. In our trials, we find hope; in our joys, we find deeper meaning. We have received the gift of faith from this community, and to the community we pass it on.

Yet, there is also the other moment, the heaving sigh, the reality that what we do with the faith poured over us in baptism is ours, and ours alone. We are responsible, alone, for how we live this faith. No one, no matter how well intentioned, can make it a reality for us, live it for us or get us into heaven.

We are called to love, to forgive, to be a person of mercy, to be a peace-maker, to embrace the challenge and the glory of the Gospel, each of us, as individuals, who are a part of a community made stronger by our lives.

A young man, a small moment of remembering his teammates, and then the realization that what happens next is all about what he does; alone on the mound, his teammates watching with eager anticipation.

Surrounded by our brothers and sisters, saints and sinners alike, we remember them, then pause to remember what we do, what we alone do, matters for the world.

Then, the wind up; then, the pitch.