If You Build It…

‘He will come…’

Steve: I know you and I both get emotional at that main, iconic speech in Field of Dreams, but there’s an important point there about the continuity of things; what baseball’s permanence represents and what it means for a society that’s changing rapidly.

Grey: I have a sticker on the back of my laptop that says ‘Keep Baseball Boring’ and in a time of rapid change and stress and angst, a little boring-ness is nice.  You know, having a national pastime has historically served as a unifying force for America. There’s that great quote by Bart Giamatti about the changing seasons and baseball being designed to break your heart.

But also it helps us see the really pernicious side of nationalism. I think there’s an opportunity to question, well, what does it mean to call it the national pastime when the people on the field are less and less representative of all Americans; not just because there’s record low numbers of AfricanAmerican players and a huge number of Latin American players who are often being rooted for by people who are trying to deport their families at the same time. So I still think the idea of the game as a national unifier still has value, but I think it takes interrogation in a way that it always needed, but didn’t always get.

Steve: Well, there’s still a reason baseball’s the national pastime instead of any of the other sports, I guess.

Grey: I always say you can tell how good a sport is by the number of rules required, right? Football isn’t really a sport, it’s just choreographed violence. It has so many rules and so many things are changing now partly because it’s too dangerous – we’re seeing parents taking their kids out of the game, because they’re fearful of the consequences – which the NFL needs to address. 

I was essentially the same height I am now when I was in sixth grade in Southern California and I had a pretty good left-handed fastball. My team ended up getting written up in the local paper for doing well in our league championship and the regional championship. I’ve never been so mad at my parents to be moved to Virginia right at the end of the baseball season.

I’m coaching my son Nicholas’s baseball team now and trying to teach kids the game when sometimes they have no concept; but whatever their backgrounds, they’re learning a little part of what it means to be American and also to have a notion of a collective endeavor, that everyone on your team is working towards the same goal. As we expand the idea of what it means to be American it helps to have the idea of baseball’s history; even if we were to do this, say, in 1910 or every decade since, the game would be slightly different…

Steve: But if someone from 1910 walked into a ballpark today they’d know what was going on…

Grey: At one of the first practices I dug out some old baseball cards, and gave them to the team, and said your homework is to go home and do research on your players. That’s a cool idea. And it was really fun. There was an Eddie Murray, and a Manny Machado and a Craig Biggio – which it turns out is a hard name to pronounce if you don’t know him – and I almost gave someone a Mark McGwire, then thought no. 

And of course, baseball has a difficult relationship with cheating – not just steroid cheating, but things like painting the corner or framing the pitch, all these things are part of the game and we recognise them as a skill and not as a cheat; but they make baseball baseball.

Steve: Your journey brought you to Baltimore in 2016, an assignment I know you love – how have you come to understand the city since you arrived?

Grey: Coming to Baltimore from Miami was really interesting for our family’s situation at the time, especially to come to a social justice-focused ministry right on the edge of the neighbourhoods where Freddie Gray had died just the previous year; but also because I’d worked previously in Afghanistan for the State Department, so this was almost like moving from where the drugs were coming from to where they were ending up.

I realised in Afghanistan that my motivations are different from some other people’s and I had developed an interest in the corrections process and realized how sometimes there’s nothing you can do to help. You still have to deal with corruption and inefficiency no matter where you are in the world, but I’ve always said I’ve been given a lot of opportunities, and making this move was a chance to continue those goals to do things that give back.

There were things I didn’t expect. Like how incomplete the story The Wire is telling actually is. But if people think that you want to be part of their community and part of that family, they will listen to you and trust in a way that I don’t think you’d find everywhere.

Steve: Last year, Memorial made national news when the parish collectively voted to set up a reparations fund to commit $500,000 over five years to Black-led programs working for justice in areas like housing, education and civic engagement. How important has that been?

Grey: After we made that commitment, we were able to use our platform to raise awareness which is great.  But we also struggled a bit to figure out how to move forward, because there is no guidebook for reparations. Baseball has always had its ups and downs whenever it innovates – dead ball and live ball, Curt Flood and free agency, steroids, and now the NL adopting the DH.  The sport is always adapting and innovating around the margins — and that is how I see our reparations effort. It is not really about a whole new thing – it is just taking the basic teachings of Jesus and applying them to a context where the white church has been responsible for generations of segregation and financial disenfranchisement. 

I try to stay grounded and remember that it’s not just about me or Memorial, it’s about trying to work together. Going back to professional baseball, even the best players have to work hard every day to get better at their position.

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