Run Home and Take a Bow :
Stories of Life, Faith, and a Season with the Kansas City Royals Ethan D. Bryan (Samizdat Publishing Group)
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It is World Series season
and, well, that is kinda like being in the run-off for the Nobel Prize. True baseball fans might even say that
getting the Nobel Prize is almost like
winning the World Series. Even those who
don't follow baseball regularly tune in and pay attention: there is something,
for Americans, at least, about baseball. And a great body of literature has developed about the sport and, like the World Series, a lot of folks who may not be passionate baseball fans, or sports fans at all, really, love the genre.
My friend Ethan Bryan's wonderful, wonderful new book is about baseball - and a whole lot more. And it is like that: baseball fan or not, you are going to want to pay attention.
Due to what might in sports lingo be called a "delay of game" the book came out near the end of the 2012 baseball season just a few weeks back; I held off posting this review until now, just to make this timely point This is a World Series caliber book, exciting and lovely and somehow important. Other famous writers of baseball books (such as George Will and Robert Benson, two guys any coach would put on their all-star writing team, by the way) agree, noting in letters to Ethan how very well done it is. As we sometimes say, Mr. Bryan "knocked it out of the park" on this one. (And how 'bout that hand-drawn cover, almost like a vintage baseball card? Love it!)
Ethan loved baseball as a
kid, and his well-written introduction (the warm up? the bull-pen? Okay, I'll
quit with the baseball analogues) tells his story, loving the game, wanting to
play catch with his dad, being on a Little League type team, going to a big
league game. He played well in high school, oddly gave up his dream of
going pro, and took up golf. He did well
enough in that, but drifted from that sport, too, for which we can be grateful, as
I'd hate to have to review a book about putting and birdies.
Ten years after quitting baseball, after graduating from George Truett Seminary (at Baylor University) and, hoping to land a job as youth pastor and worship leader, Bryan is taken to a KC Royals game, a game in their new stadium, seeing the team he adored as a youth, as part of a job interview for a position at an area church. He says that "the church was an answer to prayer" and wryly adds "The Royals won in the thirteenth inning on a Mike Sweeney home run. I took it as a sign from above."
And then, this important line, which leads, years later, to the writing of the book: "My passion for the game and the boys in blue returned almost immediately."
Ethan, through an odd bit of luck or providence got a chance to play catch with a retired Royal, a boyhood hero. He wrote up the experience, and Mike King published his account of it all -- beautifully rendered, with some good insight drawn from the thrilling episode -- in an on-line youth ministry magazine, Immerse. Also, against great odds, he entered a contest to come up with an original song, an anthem, for the Royals, and his song won. Luckily, he didn't have to preform it at the stadium as he says he'd have been so nervous he'd have thrown up. He did win some big league swag and a bit of fame as an up and coming very serious fan.
Well, a serious fan he is. And, as Run Home and Take a Bow explains, he sees God's hand in it all. He is not the first to note that we can "practice the presence of God" in all things, and find God's goodness in all manner of human experience, including the seemingly secular. Authors like Abraham Kuyper or Richard Mouw call it "common grace." Here is how Bryan writes about it:
It took me a long while to realize that baseball in and of itself is one of the ways God speaks to me. Watching the Royals play this season led me on a journey of faith and reflection, one that softened by heart to hear God share His story through this marvelous game.
As the subtitle, "Stories of Life, Faith, and a Season with the Kansas City Royals" suggests, this is one of those memoirs that narrates not a whole life, like an autobiography, but a small slice of life, a season, an experience. Like A. J. Jacobs trying to follow every verse of the Bible or Rachel Held Evans doing the same, taking a year to follow the commandments for women (we just got her A Year of Biblical Womanhood) or Jana Reiss flunking sainthood as she tries to read a year's worth of spiritual classics, Ethan Bryan goes to twenty Kansas City Royals home games one summer, writing about each one. In a sense, you could read them in nearly any order, one a day, even, like some mature sportsmanlike Chicken Soup for the Soul, but, yet, it does seem to hold together with a bit of an unfolding plot. Game by game, month by month Ethan (and his companions, often his children) learn and come to appreciate more and more, about the sport, the players, the experience of taking in the game, about other fans, about God and God's redemptive work in the world. Clearly, his faith colors how he experiences the games (even one that he missed, stuck in bad traffic!) and his own life as a follower of Jesus is shaped somewhat by this summer following the boys of summer.
So this is a baseball book, but it is set in one interesting summer. Bryan tells you about his life, his work, his passion for helping church youth learn about social justice and become better servants in their community. As you might imagine, there are family issues, spiritual questions, ups and downs, and a bit of his colorful life shines through, between the innings and between the games.
Some of the lessons learned along the way are quite instructive. One very cold day early in the season the weather was so bad, few fans filled the ballpark's seats. He and his pal jumped around, sitting where they were not supposed to (who would care?) and checking out the better seats. It is a truism that we learn to appreciate other's viewpoints by trying to see things as they do, that our very worldview is shaped in part by where we sit as we look out on life. He develops this vital lesson as he sees the game, literally, from new vantage points. It is a great chapter, and a fun bit of writing (they do get in a bit of trouble; even in the nearly empty stadium, rules are rules.) And the worldviewish lesson is brought home with fresh clarity.
Others stories are quite poignant. Once, leaving the stadium, his young daughter noticed an older woman, clearly struggling to walk with her canes, a person afflicted with cerebral palsy. Kaylea, by the way, sometimes reminded me of Coach Boone's daughter in Remember the Titans; she knows her baseball, and loves her Royals. Innocent, though, still, in many ways, she thought the disabled woman reminded her of one of the KC Royal cheerleaders. In a move I can only imagine Bob Goff making, Ethan took his daughter's observation seriously, and approached the woman, explaining that Kaylea thought maybe she looked like one of the cheerleaders, and asked for the woman's autograph. Without any condescension to the child's mistake, or to the woman who was surely not a cheerleader, they made her day, reminding us all that beauty need not be culturally bound, and that there is wonderful worth in every human face and body. And that we should dare to bless others in ways that may seem a bit crazy. I wiped tears from my eyes as I closed that chapter. There were some wild foul balls or stike-outs or double-plays, too, I think, maybe an argument with the ump, but who remembers those kinds of things after an ending like that?
Another wonderful feature of Run Home... is how easily Bryan weaves a small bit of another narrative throughout the book. He quotes (as an epigram before each chapter) a man I bet you have never heard of: Buck O'Neil. Buck O'Neil was a vital and important African American sports announcer, whose pithy wisdom was apparently renowned. Perhaps not as nutty as Yogi Berra, he, too, was a real character, and in the last few years of his life he was a tireless ambassador for the Negro Baseball Leagues. It seems as if Bryan had come to know him, although he died in 2006. Near the end of Ethan's summer of writing about Kansas City baseball there was a special tribute to O'Neil at the stadium, and that chapter is very well done, informative and moving. (Ethan says that one of his own all-time favorite baseball books, by the way, is Joe Posnanski's tribute to Buck O'Neil, entitled The Soul of Baseball.)
There is a lot of good baseball history, trivia, and storytelling in this chapter, and there is a bit of family drama, too, as Ethan explains some turmoil in their lives that particular week. There is a bit about O'Neil's work against racial discrimination, and his low-key kindness to one and all. And then Ethan brings the whole chapter around (as he does in expert, literary ways in most chapters) by writing these two simple final paragraphs:
As the dad of a couple of girls, and as someone who is familiar with the rampant sexism within the evangelical Christian culture, I wanted to teach my girls that they are free, they are equal, in Christ. Their job is to love and to see the good in all people.
Major League baseball ultimately listened to Buck O'Neil, and members of the Negro Leagues were admitted to the National Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. The church could learn a thing or two by listening to Buck as well.
So, there is plenty here
about personal growth, human foibles, raising kids, marriage matters, social ethics, the ups and downs of
daily life and implications of Christian discipleship. Some of it is fun, very
pleasurable reading, as any memoir of an experiment like this would be, and as
the best contemporary long-form journalism often is. I think those that like
reading human interest stories, with some inspiring meditations woven through
the tales, will really love this. It is one of my favorite books of the year.
But, let us be clear: Run Home and Take a Bow is a baseball book. Ethan knows the players and their stats like only the truest devotees. In fact, he has been chosen by the Kansas City Royals organization to be a blogger for them, and his work has been published alongside some other pretty fanatical sports voices. He's no newbie to the game and no light-weight fan merely using the game as a foil for doing spiritual reflections. Nope, there is plenty of solid baseball talk here, lots to keep the true fan turning the pages. But like most of the best baseball fans (I don't know if this is true of other sports fans) there is this propensity to ask bigger questions, to ponder, through the graceful rhythms of the game, life's deeper matters. And so if feels natural, mostly, when he moves from a story of a good game to a story of growing faith, or when he tells of something learned from another spectator or when he reports something he realized by ruminating on something that happened. Yes, there are upbeat, Christian conclusions. But it is first and foremost a lovely story of a lovely summer, when a dear, lively, loving Christian renewed his love for his team, and shares his memories of it all with us. As his pal Mike King notes, it is "as life-giving as Opening Day, as sensory as pounding your glove and smelling the leather."
There is a website for the book, here, and there are some great endorsements there (including a beautifully written one by Mark Yaconelli, who rather wonderfully calls Ethan "a baseball contemplative.") Here is what I wrote, which is shown there, a blurb I was truly honored to write after having read the manuscript. I hope you enjoy it as it tries to convince folks to buy the book. I should mention, I guess, that I'm briefly mentioned in it, but of course that isn't at all why I'm promoting it. I'm unashamed about by enthusiasm for this indie book on an indie press --- I hope it becomes a quiet little underground classic. It would make a great end of the season gift, or, of course, a great Christmas gift for any baseball fans.
I'm not a big sports fan, and care little about the K.C. Royals, and I loved this book! You will too, I'm sure. Just a few pages in, you just know that Ethan Bryan is a truly good man, a caring dad, a fine writer, and a great storyteller. His childlike joy in his beloved game is a delight to behold and along the way you will meet some true athletic heroes, from Hall of Fame stars to historic sports writers and some memorably diehard fans. And there is a cast of characters unrelated to the game, from Mike the Theologian and Chick-fil-A Jake to Bryan's sweet baseball-loving daughters, not to mention bunches of Bible guys, drawn vividly from the pages of Holy Scripture as they are set alongside the boys of summer. This is light reading that pitches some serious life lessons, is as entertaining as peanuts during the 7th inning stretch and, like a last-ditch homer in the bottom of the 9th, has you on your feet, leaving you truly inspired. Take a bow, Ethan, author and writer.
Read an excerpt of Run Home and Take a Bow: Stories of Life, Faith, and a Season with the Kansas City Royals featured at the Burnside Writers Collective. Then come back here and pitch us an order. We'll send it back quick like a fast ball. Sorry.
Run Home and Take a Bow
Stories of Life, Faith, and a Season with the Kansas City Royals
(Ethan D. Bryan)
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