Advent 2020

The Hope of the Mudville Faithful

Baseball: The American Pastime. I love baseball. Sure, the season seems to go on forever, the individual games are too long, and the Braves have let me down more often than not over the last several years, but I still love baseball.

As a kid I memorized a poem that many of you have heard: “Casey at the Bat” by Ernest Lawrence Thayer, here it is:

The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day;
The score stood four to two with but one inning more to play.
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought if only Casey could but get a whack at that—
We’d put up even money now with Casey at the bat.

But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And the former was a lulu and the latter was a cake;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Casey’s getting to the bat.

But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despised, tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and men saw what had occurred,
There was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.

Then from 5,000 throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It knocked upon the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.

There was ease in Casey’s manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in Casey’s bearing and a smile on Casey’s face.
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt ’twas Casey at the bat.

Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt.
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance gleamed in Casey’s eye, a sneer curled Casey’s lip.

And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped—
“That ain’t my style,” said Casey. “Strike one,” the umpire said.

From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore.
“Kill him! Kill the umpire!” shouted some one on the stand;
And it’s likely they’d have killed him had not Casey raised his hand.

With a smile of Christian charity great Casey’s visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the spheroid flew;
But Casey still ignored it, and the umpire said, “Strike two.”

“Fraud!” cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered fraud;
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn’t let that ball go by again.

The sneer is gone from Casey’s lip, his teeth are clinched in hate;
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate.
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.

Read – Luke 2:25-32

The game in the poem is completely made up, but I bet if you close your eyes you can almost feel what it would be like to be a fan of the “Mudville 9”. There is a line in there that I said hundreds of times and it has stuck deep in my head:

“…that hope which springs eternal in the human breast.”

The kind of hope described there is more than a feeling, it is physical as well as psychological. You have felt that same feeling before: Waking up to see if it snowed so you didn’t have to go to school; walking downstairs on Christmas morning; the doors of a church opening to reveal the bride to the groom and the groom to the bride.

Simeon knew this feeling as well. I expect that every time a couple came to the temple with a new baby boy to be purified Simeon felt that same “hope that springs eternal”. Time and time again babies came into the temple, but none of them were Jesus. The mighty Simeon, had struck out.

In 1992 the Braves were in the National League Championship Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was Game 7, the bottom of the 9th inning. The Braves were down 2-0 and the Pirates pitcher, Doug Drabek had only allowed 5 hits the entire game.

Terry Pendleton of the Braves hit a double to start the inning. David Justice followed that up with a single off of a misplayed ball. The Braves had runners on the corners (1st and 3rd) with no outs. Atlanta first baseman Sid Bream was walked on 4 consecutive pitches to load the bases.

Pittsburgh pulled their pitcher and Stan Belinda came into the game to face Ron Gant. Gant hit a sacrifice fly to score Terry Pendleton. It was now 2-1, with 1 out and Damon Berryhill was walked on 5 pitches to load the bases yet again. The next batter was Brian Hunter coming on to pinch hit for Rafael Belliard, but he hit a pop out.

2 outs, bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, game 7 of the NLCS. Thousands of kids have dreamed of being in this scenario. Bobby Cox, the Braves manager, sends Francisco Cabrera in to pinch hit for pitcher Jeff Reardon. Here is how famed Braves radio play by play Skip Caray described the 2-1 pitch to Cabrera:

“A lot of room in right center, if he hits one there, we can dance in the streets. The 2-1. Swung line drive left field! One run is in! Here comes Bream! Here’s the throw to the plate! He isssss – SAFE! Braves win! Braves win! Braves win!”

I remember watching that play in October of 1992. I remember feeling that hope that springs eternal in my chest as Cabrera’s hit dropped into the outfield and Sid Bream started rounding 3rd. And the resolution when he was declared safe at home.

I imagine Simeon felt a similar resolution when Mary and Joseph arrived with Jesus to the temple. As the poet Alexander Pope wrote in his “Essay on Man: Epistle 1”:

“What future bliss, he gives not thee to know,
But gives that hope to be thy blessing now.”

Casey struck out and left the Mudville faithful without joy, at least for the evening. But if they are anything like sports fans I know, they were filled with hope again the next game. Simeon’s hope in seeing the Christ-child was similarly tested I have to imagine.

Metaphors are wonderful literary devices, but they all fall short eventually. You see, Simeon’s hope wasn’t only in seeing Jesus, but also in what Jesus birth meant for the world: “…my eyes have seen your salvation…a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”

May the hope of Christ be thy blessing for you this Christmas season.

Sing – O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Pray

Almighty God, grant us in equal measure; Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. Hope in a Savior, Peace in our world, Joy in our hearts, and Love for our fellow man. In the name of Jesus Christ whose birth we celebrate this Advent season, Amen.

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