“Born again, again” by Bob Melone – Chapter 1, part 1 of 2

1 01 2016

It was a warm, humid summer evening, typical for Lewiston, NY during the months of July and August, and I stood in center field at Academy Park. The black and orange jersey I wore was soaked with perspiration. Pride prompts me to want to say it was the result of my enthusiastic playing, but honesty forces me to admit it was simply a nervous sweat.

I hated Tuesday and Thursday evenings in the summer of 1971 – those were the nights of our Little League games. It’s when all the town’s parent would gather in the local park to cheer on their children as they prepared for the Big League. On this particular Tuesday, the old green bleachers were filled a half hour before the game was scheduled to begin – dads sipping on their beer, listening to all the moms chat about how many hits their sons had (or in my case DIDN’T have) in the last game!

Yes, for two months in the summer, I hated Tuesdays and Thursdays, because I hated baseball; I was a terrible player and so twice a week, I would wake up hoping for rain. And when it didn’t come, the pit in my stomach would grow with each passing hour. Surely, God did not want me to feel this way. Surely he did not want me to endure such pain and embarrassment.

On this particular night, we were up against one of the best teams in the division – black and white – and my best friend was their star player. I had met Tom in third grade math class, and beside being a whiz at multiplication, he was also a slugger on the diamond. He played first base and hit the ball every time he was up. Homeruns were not uncommon either.

Slowly, I made my way to the outfield, and it was there, trudging through the dandelions, sticky from the heat, and sick to my stomach because of what I had to do, that I remember uttering one of my very first prayers. “God, please, do NOT let that ball come near me!”

Such prayers were common that summer, and they were the first ones I remembering uttering as a young boy. They were pleas to the God above, who I learned was listening and ready to respond to all the heartfelt requests of this young, desperate, ball player.

I have mixed feelings about how that particular game ended. I was up to bat somewhere in the middle few innings, and before I knew it I had a full-house – three balls, two strikes. In the background I could hear all the black and orange dads yelling, “Don’t swing! Don’t swing!”

But I was no dummy! I knew that on a full-house the pitcher didn’t expect me to swing; so he’d give me a slow pitch right over the plate, and because I wouldn’t swing, I’d be struck out. Everyone knew this, and so I remember being somewhat offended for a split second, realizing that they were telling me not to swing because they knew that even a full-house pitch would be too much for someone like me.

Casually, the pitcher tossed the ball into his mit, eyeing me, pondering, and perhaps even laughing to himself. Then he lowered the ball and mit to his waist, wound up, and let that leather orb loose in my direction.

The next thing I remember, I was doubled over in pain, gasping for air. The ball had nailed me just below my left rib and had knocked the wind out of me. But as angry as I was, there was also a hint of joy within – for now, for the first time in a real game, I would get to see what first base looked like up close. Actually, I got to see all three bases, eventually making it to third before one of my teammates struck out and the inning was over.

Did I ever catch a pop fly? Never! Did I ever have a hit? Not once! Scoring a run was not even an option for me. But . . . I learned to pray. Eventually I would learn to play, as well. But this particular summer, I learned to pray! Or should I say, I learned to do what far too many people have come to call prayer?

Now don’t misunderstand me. It wasn’t that I had never prayed before those nights in Academy Park. Growing up in a Roman Catholic family, prayer began at an early age. But the prayers were rote and routine, and praying was something we did all the time – like breathing – without really thinking about it. Before dinner, we’d bow our heads and say together: “Bless us O Lord, and these Thy gifts, which we are about to receive, form Thy bounty, through Christ our Lord, Amen.” Interestingly, we only prayed before dinner, not before breakfast or lunch; and we NEVER prayed when we were in a restaurant. I often wondered why. Were we not thankful for our breakfast bowls of Coco Puffs, or our lunch box’s crunchy peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? Did God only provide our spaghetti and meatball, or tuna noodle casserole dinners? And I loved eating out; but we certainly wouldn’t pray in a restaurant! Was God not responsible for the burgers we enjoyed at the Red Barn, or the pizza and chicken wings at Village Pizza?

We also prayed before bed as well . . . every night: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Do I even need to even comment on the appropriateness of those words, uttered by all the Melone children, for years? “If I should die before I wake”? . . . really? I went to bed every night wondering if I was going to wake up in the morning, and if not, where was my “soul” – whatever that was! – going to be taken? And by whom? The questions still abound!

So growing up, prayer was routine, and each and every word was carefully scripted . . . that is, until 1971, when I started playing baseball. That’s when I remember my first real conversation with God, expressing my deepest desires and my most sincere plea. More importantly, it was the first time I began wrestling with the idea that either God did not hear my prayers, or that my whole understanding of the ‘efficacy of prayer’ was something different than I had been taught! Obviously, at the age of 10, I would not have explained things in that exact way; but deep down inside I was already learning that it was not God’s job to keep fly balls out of right field!


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