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THE PORTSIDER

True Believers
By Staff Writer

"Is Thurl here?" Three children clung to the woman's ankle-length skirt. She shook her head. "Try Residence Four." I walked across the wide Utah street, laid out to Brigham Young's specs, with enough room to turn an oxcart, to another plain square plank house. Thurl wasn't there either. A little boy told me to try Residence Seven, down the block. I finally caught up with Thurl at the home of his eighth wife. Good thing I did. He was my catcher on the RLDS team—that's the Really Latter Day Saints baseball team—going into the first round of the World Chalice.

See, before there was a World Baseball Cup, before people figured "Let's split up these multiracial, multinational MLB teams into their countrymen and see if we can breed some real contempt and antagonism between nations," there was another baseball contest. It was the ultimate global decision maker. Folks wanted to find out the answer to an age-old question: What is truly the world's best religion? There was only one way: divide up by faiths and play baseball. Best religion wins.

Here's how it all got started. It was 1957 and godless rock and roll was ascending. Reverend Larry Duda—"Pastor Zippety"—thundered on the pulpit against Elvis and Chuck Berry and Fats Domino. Damn it, if those boys were playing baseball instead of guitars, America wouldn't be going to hell in a hand basket. To prove his point, he fielded a team, the Keystone Crusaders, and challenged the House of David, a team that used to barnstorm around the country in the 1920s and 1930s taking on some pretty stiff competition but that had become more of a novelty act after World War II. Duda was sure he'd win. I mean, look at who was on his side: the heaviest hitter of all time, the Man who could feed an entire grandstand from a single hot dog bun, the Man who could walk on water every time he got to the plate. The Man who could raise Mendoza's batting average from the dead.

One problem, though. Reverend Duda didn't realize that the team he had challenged wasn't from the Benton Harbor, Michigan, religious colony (that team had actually been disbanded a few years earlier) but a crack traveling squad composed of mostly Jewish ballplayers who performed as David's House of Bagels. (They were the brainchild of an early entrepreneur who was trying to spread the popularity of bagels beyond New York and Los Angeles.) Their manager, Jake Gittleman, figured if somebody wanted to call them the "House of David," who was he to argue. But just as the original House of David team had often employed ringers, David's Bagels had some top minor league talent on its payroll.

It was no contest. They came up swinging and didn't stop hitting until they had crucified the Crusaders, 16–2. Okay, not a great metaphor. They nailed them. They hammered them. Uh . . . let's just say the team of Jews won.

It didn't stop there. Reverend Duda had invited his pal Jimmy Bob "Saturday" Sunday to watch the game. "Saturday" Sunday was a great nephew of Billy Sunday, ballplayer and evangelist. "Saturday" got the moniker because he was a Seventh-Day Adventist who refused to play on Saturdays. He had nothing against playing on Sundays, and when he saw the way the House of David hung one on the Crusaders—no, the way the Jews murdered the C-men—oh, forget it. After he saw that game, "Saturday" Sunday challenged the Davids to a game on Sunday. The House of D was flush with victory and accepted gladly. But as the Yogi said, "Pride goeth before it leaves." Instead of resting up the night before the game, Harry Eisenstein broke his Sabbath fast by hitting the Mogen David. His catcher, Herb Moskowitz, stayed up really late debating obscure Talmudic texts with shortstop Jerry O'Connell (a ringer, but he liked talking Talmud anyway). When game time rolled around, the Advent team smoked the Jews—no, no, let me take that back—let's just say it was a holocaust.

That's when the real trouble started. "Saturday" Sunday got up on his pulpit the following Saturday and proclaimed a great victory for God. It was God that led his people to the Promised Land of victory over the unbelievers. It was God's message that the one true faith—the Adventist creed of tasteful entertainment, modest dress, and healthful diet—was what the Almighty had in mind when He created a hundred different religions.

I forget the exact wording, but the thesis was as clear as the pages Martin Luther nailed to a church door in Germany: We're the best religion and we've just proved it on a baseball diamond.

You know human beings. One thing they can't stand to hear is that their god is a loser. Nope, we all believe our god wins the World Series of Theology every year and stands in a celestial locker room, drenched in champagne, holding a big trophy over his Almighty Head and shouting, "Whoo-wee! First of all, I want to thank . . . Myself!" And then He gives the big laugh. Yup, that's how we see our Eye in the Sky, our Alpha and Omega, and we're willing to knock down anyone who claims that his god is the real MVG—Most Valuable God. How many times have I heard a mullah taunt from the third base coach's box, "Your god couldn't carry Mohammed's jock strap!" So when word got out that the Adventists claimed they were King of the Hill, folks got their dander up.

"You call that a leap of faith? That's a pathetic itsy-bitsy step! I'll show you a leap of faith!" That's what Father Joe roared at the Interfaith Council before he demonstrated a spikes-high slide into the backside of "Saturday" Sunday. They had to be separated by Rami Banini, the Buddhist baker from Brooklyn. He was the guy with the brainstorm.

"Gentlemen, gentlemen! Buddha says true victory is the end of desire."

"That's right, damn it: you win and then your desire is over."

"I don't think that's a proper scansion. Buddha says—"

"Screw Buddha! Screw those damn aphorisms that never make sense if you really think about them! My altar boys could beat your yogis like a Tibetan drum!"

"You'd better field a team of altar boys because your priests added their bats to their vow of silence!"

"Both your pathetic religions would crumble into the dust under a camel's foot when they encounter the majesty of the real Sultan of Swat!" This last voice was Shiek Omar Kiam, heir to an electric razor fortune who turned his back on business after his first trip to Mecca.

An elderly Episcopal bishop spoke up. "Let's settle this the only way we men of the cloth know how: with our fists!"

"No, no, with bats and balls!"

"The Ultimate Baseball Championship!"

"Very well—the jihad is on!"

"It's the World Chalice!"

So it began. A double-elimination, round-robin tournament. The winner would be crowned the World's Best Religion. The losers: in purgatory, baby. Pool play was scheduled to begin in three weeks. That's when I got the call. The Church of Really Latter Day Saints got a tough draw. They were up against the Mennonites, at the Mennonites home field, Luddite Stadium. The RLDS Pluralists had a team with plenty of muscle. I mean, you've got to be strong to have seven wives. That was the minimum on the team. The catcher, Joseph Smith the twenty-third, had fourteen. It took me awhile to figure it out, but eventually I realized that about half the team was named Joseph Smith and the other half Brigham Young (and then there was Thurl), and that the only way to keep them straight was by their numbers. Their uniform numbers corresponded with their lineage, so to me they were just "7" and "12" and "23." The nice thing was that they brought a big crowd. When your first baseman has 17 wives and 132 children and they all show up, you've got a home team advantage wherever you are.

I went to some pool play games and scouted the opposition. The Dharma Bums were a deceptive team. They moved well in their saffron robes, and they really kept their eye on the ball. No amount of chatter could break their concentration. They had a mindset that really works for baseball, particularly Cub fans: All life is suffering. Okay, that sounds like Cub baseball. Suffering has a cause—craving and attachment. You crave a base hit. You strike out. You suffer. You're attached to your teammates. One of them blows out his elbow and you suffer. So what do you do? Craving and attachment can be overcome. Transcend selfishness. Translated, that means a ton of sacrifice bunts. The Dharma Bums played little ball to perfection. The only thing that bugged me was that they didn't care whether they won or lost. Hey, it's a long season, particularly if you keep getting reincarnated, but at some point you've got to care about winning. Unless you're a Buddhist, I guess.

The Hindu team (the Ganges Peacocks) got itself in a big controversy right off the bat, so to speak. You guessed it. They refused to play with leather balls. They showed up with blue plastic gloves they got from a Dodger giveaway to fans ten and under, and that was fine, but they wouldn't touch the cowhide ball. They brought their own plastic balls. Sorry, no dice, said the Knights (of Columbus, Ohio), the Catholic team they were up against. The ruling body agreed. The Hindus claimed the Muslims were behind all this, and trouble was brewing until the Buddhists said they'd be happy to play with plastic balls and switched brackets.

So the Knights traded places with the D-Bums, but they weren't thrilled since now they had to face a tough Greek Orthodox team, the Battling Baklavas. There were some raised eyebrows when one of the Baklavas outfielders looked suspiciously like a ringer from the House of David team, but under that beard it was really hard to make a positive I.D. The Baklava clubhouse was probably the most beautiful of the tournament. There were icons everywhere, a lot of enshrined images of Kevin Youklis, but in the end they were no match for the Knights. The Knights had a muscular kind of Christianity, which included brush-back pitches, breaking up double plays, and plenty of chaw and jawbone.

Yes, they were hard-drinking Irish Catholics, and they could have gone far in this tournament, but as an old Irish writer said, "Put an Irishman on the spit, and you can always get another Irishman to turn him." Their clubhouse erupted into backbiting during their next game when they met the Santeria Spirits. This was a little-known team and faith that combines African and Catholic practices and has some prayerful animal sacrifice to boot. The Spirits sacrificed a goat in their bullpen before the game and the powerful smell rose through the stadium. When Knights starter Oscar Behan had trouble finding the plate, his first baseman started grumbling that the smell of roast goat had Oscar more interested in a gyros sandwich than the strike zone, and things went downhill from there.

The Protestants had an interesting squad. They protested every game. Not just every game, but every out, almost every pitch. They believed in grace above works and thought that God had anointed them winners. All they had to do was have faith. It was the Harold Hill system of baseball: "Think, men, think!" Or, in this case, "Pray, men, pray!" Unfortunately, a schism developed on their team over the wording of the prayer before batting practice and they ended up fielding two squads, the Calvinist Griffiths and the Baptist Ballbangers. The Ball-bangers were still praying as the Sikh Mothers ten-runned them, and the Griffiths lost an embarrassing game to a chubby Methodist squad.

Meanwhile, as Dizzy Dean would have said had he been announcing the game, meanwhile, I drug Thurl to Luddite Stadium. No electronic scoreboard there. A guy with a megaphone announced lineups. The line score was posted Wrigley Field style—a little guy hanging up numbers—and I can say with pride that the first seven innings I pitched, he hung up a series of zeroes.

Trouble started between the eighth and ninth. Not innings, but wives. Thurl's wives got into it about which parent conference he was scheduled to attend—he had thirty-two that year and couldn't make all of them. Voices were raised in the players' wives section. It was a substantial section for the Pluralists, covering most of the loge. (The Luddite stadium owner wasn't too happy about all those ticket requests. I mean, a squad of 25 put in requests for 212 spouses.) Thurl kept looking up as we heard screams that didn't sound like, "Let's go, Pluralists, let's go!"

He lost his focus. It didn't help that it was a hot day. The RLDS players were all wearing garments under their uniforms, and by the seventh inning they looked pooped. Frankly, I think having fifty-two wives between the nine men on the field didn't help their physical conditioning, either. They were all looking a little tubby and a little in need of sleep. The Mennonite Plowmen, by contrast, were strapping farm boys used to guiding a plow behind an ass (not that different from following a manager's instructions), and they won 1–0 in the ninth on a passed ball.

So . . . who won the Chalice? Who took home the gold-plated Grail, embossed with the big letters, "OUR GOD IS NUMBER ONE!"? Why has this winner never been publicized? Because it was religion's biggest upset. The team that won it all was . . . the Hainuwele Cannibals. That's right. A squad of pygmy headhunters. Ceramese dema theology trumped all those fancy books. A simple philosophy that equated headhunting with harvesting coconuts.

They lived up to their names. No batter stood in the box without getting brushed back, beaned, given a close shave. Everyone who got on base heard the Cannibal first sacker Ameta licking his chops. "Mmmm . . . tenderloin." It was unnerving. They played a mind game and they won. Isn't there some justice in that? Doesn't God play the ultimate mind game? They won the chalice, even though drinking cups hadn't yet been invented in their culture.

You can imagine the reaction of the other squads. They all wanted to bury this result as deep as Jimmy Hoffa's remains. No word ever was printed. The Hainuwele were a pre-literate society, so they didn't realize the story never got reported. The other teams left the tournament bitter, squabbling, still believing their god was the real king and that somehow the fix was in. Nothing had changed.

You'd think I'd know something about God after a lifetime in baseball and forty years in the upholstery business, but in the end, I guess I'm as confused as the rest of us. I'm just glad the Hainuwele fans didn't provide their team with postgame snacks.

—EFQ

For STAFF WRITER, baseball is the only religion. He has taken spiritual journeys to Wrigley and Fenway, but that has not kept him from practicing voodoo on a little doll of Bud Selig. Now that Yankee Stadium is slated for the wrecking ball, he believes that the Rapture will soon be upon us.

© 2006 Elysian Fields Quarterly

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