Wednesday, July 10, 2019


Some of you may remember "the power of three" as it manifested itself on the long-running TV series Charmed--all about the tortured lives of twenty-something young women (who just happened to be witches). Their weekly adventures contained multitudes--a bit too pre-fab at times, but jam-packed with adversity, extremity, and otherness.

What often rescued the three witches from destruction, eternal damnation, wardrobe malfunction, or (merely) the prying eyes of those ever-judgmental mortals, was a shared faith in their collective heritage. It buoyed them--saved them--in the face of relentlessly desperate times.

Now, we suddenly find ourselves living in desperate times, and the Baseball Reliquary--though arguably not as slinky as the actresses who played those three witchily beleaguered heroines--is also twenty-something: its monument to faith in a collective heritage, the Shrine of the Eternals, turns 21 on this Sunday, July 14th--as usual, in Pasadena, CA, where its own uncanny "power of three" continues to shine a light on the true underpinnings of baseball's hold on the American psyche. (Lord knows that this is a year in which we need a reminder of that.) It's an especially propitious moment for us to be reminded that since 1999, the Shrine has honored three unique, unusual individuals whose lives are indelibly and inspirationally tied to baseball, receiving induction into a group of honorees who comprise a viable "Cooperstown for the rest of us."

Sometimes those inductees appear to represent "corrections" for the Hall of Fame's various exclusions--Dick Allen, Joe Jackson and Pete Rose, just to name three---but the Shrine can now safely be seen as something operating well beyond the oddly limited scope of Cooperstown. Think of it as a cultural laboratory which, admittedly, "leans left" from the perspective of a divided America; beyond such self-limiting characterizations, however, it should be seen as a magic portal into the wonder and awe that continues to manifest within a game that, despite ever-expanding media hype and unlimited TV money, still manages to retain its qualities of passionate innocence.

The Reliquary's enduring genius is to take hold of this innocence and cast it through the lens of three forces that drive humanity's desire to excel but that cast a dangerous spell over the ability to succeed. These forces, as we've so often noted here (and, occasionally, elsewhere...) are adversity, extremity and otherness.

Each of the yearly Shrine inductees--and the 2019 class (Billy Beane, Lisa Fernandez, and J. R. Richard) is no exception--captures an uncanny connection to these three principles. Amazingly, even as the membership of the Reliquary (who make the Shrine choices via a yearly vote) has changed over time--Executive Director Terry Cannon (he of the subtle smirk and the extra-loud cowbell) estimates the turnover in membership is now around 80% since the Reliquary's inception in 1996--these three forces continue to dovetail in the ongoing choice of deserving individuals. (Charmed had a writing staff to invoke "the power of three" in a fanciful supernatural fiction--it's arguably at least as supernatural that the Reliquary voters have managed to do the same with actual persons. Where fiction and fact converge, however, is in the connective tissue of empowerment and transformation--a spiritual place where a collective faith in the meaning of existence itself can be nurtured and supported, even in desperate times.)

Both in fiction and real life, we all know that great natural talent can blossom--we see it, every day, evidenced in art, music, film, literature, sport--but the path that talent will take once it has blossomed is neither predictable nor assured. Beane, Fernandez, and Richard each possessed surpassing physical gifts, but their paths to the dais at the Shrine of the Eternals could not be more different from one another. They arrive there this Sunday due to forces beyond those gifts--and for how they ecountered and overcame the turbulences amid opportunity that occur via adversity, extremity and otherness.

Richard's incredible physical talent brought him to the pinnacle of success in 1980 when he then suffered a career-ending stroke because his team, the Houston Astros, decided that the African-American pitcher was "malingering" when he reported baffling medical problems. As a result, his life took a hard right turn for many years, including a stint of homelessness. (Call it the otherness of extreme adversity--or perhaps you'll forgive me if I do.) When one is homeless, one is definitely perceived by the world as "other." But Richard gamely fought back from his undeserved fall from grace, and has embraced the contours of his life story as one that can enlighten and inspire others.

Fernandez, the most dominant pitcher in the history of women's softball, is a singularly fascinating example of extremity. In the male world of baseball, there is no one with a lifetime .930 winning percentage. There is also no one, not even Babe Ruth, whose two-way statistics (pitching and hitting) are such astonishing outliers (the Reliquary's 2019 press release for the 2019 Shrine ceremony reminds us that in her senior year at UCLA, Fernandez not only had an ERA of 0.23, but she also hit .510!). Here is otherness in the form of the otherworldly. Her selection dovetails with the Shrine's previous induction of Ila Borders (the first woman to pitch in the minor leagues) and should inspire us to ask if their is somehow a future in sport where forms of athletic competition can become, if not androgynous, then somehow gender-neutral.

Beane was a "can't miss" player who managed to fizzle, a commonplace occurrence in the world of sports (but one that is peculiarly haunting in baseball, with its lingering focus on the individual). Despite this setback, Beane found a way to augment his natural charisma with an unheralded intellectual curiosity to fashion a career in baseball that is truly unique--the first widely-acknowledged front office executive to embrace sabermetric concepts and apply them in a way that undercut the "bidding war" philosophy vis-a-vis baseball talent that had taken hold in the game after the advent of free agency.

While the "extreme measures" he employed for a team--the Oakland A's, who've remained a team enmeshed in economic adversity throughout his twenty-year tenure--have become both more commonplace and more extreme (the home run surges that currently threatens the game's aesthetics and strategic variety), Beane has transcended the hype of Moneyball (the book, the movie, the lingering fetish...) and retooled his own idiosyncratic vision of how to build a winning team "on the fly" year after year. While not as successful as some (Theo Epstein) who've also had copious financial resources in order to achieve ultimate post-season glory, Beane's career is only truly soulful use of a set of precepts that currently dominate baseball's approach but that might not ultimately serve the game well in its attempt to navigate the roiling currents of the twenty-first century (particularly the last half of its dangerous second decade).

But it's once again those indefatigable Reliquary voters, as they sift through their shifting, eclectic set of names, who keep finding such inspiring and illustrative troikas to honor as they fashion their own history of the game and honor the cultural/spiritual hold it still has over America. Yes, the Reliquary "leans left," but I think it does so because it knows that nostalgia alone does not lead us to a viable future, and that a more critically devotional history needs to be constructed in order to ensure that the great gifts the game (and, by extension, the nation as a whole) does not perish from the earth.

For as long as the Baseball Reliquary continues to provide such a vision--played out in its quirky but reverent ceremony held one week before "the official story" takes place in Cooperstown--we can be assured that the three forces (like three strikes and three outs--but not "three true outcomes"...) will remain in play, inspiring the same type of wonder in the game that was seen in its youth by Walt Whitman and Mark Twain, the original aestheticians of the game. More than a century after their passing, the Reliquary and its Shrine continues to keep the flame of that wonder alive.