Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Wearing the uniform

It was midnight.  I heard a scuffling noise outside my bedroom door and thought I was about to be murdered or burglarized.  I was relieved when I discovered it was only Jo Anne, but looking a little bleary-eyed and disheveled.  She groaned out the words, "Jack, can I please turn off the game so I can go to sleep?" The Dodgers and the Arizona Diamondbacks were in the 12th inning of a tie game.  Jo Anne is very kind to me and patient, but the words that try her soul are, "Sorry dear, but the game is going into extra innings!"  Because of the lateness of the hour I gave into her pleadings and didn't learn until the next morning that the Dodgers had defeated the hated Diamondbacks in the bottom of the 13th inning when Andre Ethier of the Dodgers swatted a walkoff home run to end the game.

One of the upsides of being paralyzed is that Jo Anne, most of the time, allows me to pursue and satisfy my passion for baseball without making me feel guilty or that I should be doing something more productive.  Let's face it, what can I do?  Please do not reply to that question.

Why do I love baseball so much?  I was born in the little mining town of Ruth, Nevada, in 1938.  Unlike growing up on a farm where there were chickens to feed, cows to milk and care for, hay to be cut and bailed, fields to be plowed, weeds to be pulled, etc., as sons of miners we had none of those character building opportunities. We lived among dirt, rocks, and mountains.  Our dads worked in the mines all day or night, but thankfully, our mothers -- at least my mother -- were very creative in working us.  We scrubbed the floors on our hands and knees and waxed them the same way.  We chopped kindling, and carried in buckets of coal and kindling from the wood/coal shed that was a fixture behind every home.  We washed and dried the dishes.  We worked overtime every Monday because that was wash day -- it was a family effort and it took all day!

My friends and I lived for summer.  Living high in the mountains, we really only had two seasons; a long winter and a short summer.  Most of us neighborhood boys could finish our chores by 10 a.m. and then we were free for the rest of the day.  What did we do?  We played baseball!

There were some old abandoned leaching ponds across the street where we lived.  They were surrounded by high banks; the surface was a coppery sandy substance peppered with rocks of all sizes and shapes.  We were always lucky to have just one legitimate baseball.  After a week or so it would be a copper color, the cover pitted and scarred, and soon one good solid hit would knock the cover off.  We would then wrap black electrician tape around the ball and continue to tape it during the ensuing days until we were blessed somehow with a semi-new, semi-white, baseball.

There really was no organized baseball for young boys.  When you were 14, if you were good enough, you could play American Legion baseball that was for boys age 14-18.  If you made the team and were good enough to play, you played.  If not, you sat.  There were no rules that every kid had to play so many innings; and because of that, many of us probably developed inferiority complexes and our self-esteem suffered mightily.

As a 14-year-old, I was chosen on an all-star team to represent our county at the state championship tournament in Reno, Nevada -- the year was 1952.  We won the championship, beating teams from Reno, and Las Vegas and other communities much larger than ours.  I modestly, but truthfully, admit that I played a meager role in our winning the tournament.  I was a backup third baseman and didn't see much playing time.
Before the Regional tournament between the champions of Arizona, Utah, California, and Nevada we had a two-week layoff.  Our coaches, wanting to keep us sharp, scheduled a doubleheader with a team from Utah.  We took them lightly, played horrible baseball, and lost both ends of the doubleheader.  We laughed it off because we were the champions and were headed for the Regional Tournament in Lodi, California.

I came home after the game and my dad was waiting for me outside at the back gate.  He put his arm around me and said something to me I have never forgotten.  It is so trite I am embarrassed to tell you what he said.  However, if you knew my dad and the relationship we had, then his words would have been anything but trite.  He simply said, "Jake, when you put that baseball uniform on you are supposed to be a baseball player.  If you are not going to play as hard as you can, and play to win, then don't put on the uniform!"  That's all he said, but coming from him that was all he had to say.

Since then I have worn a variety of uniforms and have always remembered my dad's words.  I have worn the uniform of a missionary, a student, a husband, a father, a teacher, and many others as well.  Whenever tempted to do less than my best, I have remembered my dad's words.  

As I have been writing these words I have had come to mind the well-known experience David O. McKay had as a young missionary in Scotland in 1898. "I saw an unfinished building standing back from the sidewalk several yards. Over the front door was a stone arch. There was an inscription chiseled in that arch. When I approached near enough, this message came to me, not only in stone, but as if it came from One in whose service we were engaged: ‘What E’er Thou Art, Act Well Thy Part.’ ”

“That was a message to me that morning,” he later said, “to act my part well as a missionary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

As to the stone which young Elder McKay had seen in 1898 with its inspiring message, through the efforts of alert missionaries at Stirling, Scotland, the archway stone was acquired by the church in 1965 when the building was being torn down.

Today it is preserved in the Church Museum of History and Art, and a replica is in the lobby of the Missionary Training Center at Provo, Utah, where thousands of young Mormon missionaries continue to view its timeless message as they depart to serve all over the world. (Alfred Gunn -- great-grandson of David O. McKay)


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