By Jim WoganBryan Steverson doesn’t go anywhere, including Mass, without a pen and some three-by-five index cards in his back pocket.
The Virginia native and his wife, Barbara, have been parishioners at Our Lady of Fatima in Alcoa for 30 years. During Mass, Mr. Steverson’s focus is on the celebration, the liturgy, the Eucharist and the message a priest or deacon offers during his homily.
And if part of that message has anything to do with baseball – Mr. Steverson reaches for his cards.
“My wife will get on me. I take notes during the homily,” he said with a laugh.
If anything strikes a chord between the game he loves and his faith, Mr. Steverson is quick to write it down.
“Seriously, at Christmas you hear about Bethlehem being one of the smallest places in Judea. Well, guess what? Henry Aaron was small.”
That quickly, Mr. Steverson places one of the greatest players in baseball history into a side-by-side comparison with one of the greatest villages in Christianity. Both were undersized, perhaps even unappreciated in the beginning, but both became landmarks to the faithful – for different reasons.
Or perhaps, not so different.
Mr. Steverson connects almost everything about his Christian and Catholic faith to a game he has followed passionately since his youth.
And now he’s writing about it.
Baseball, A Special Gift from God, from Tennessee Valley Publishing and WestBow Press, is Mr. Steverson’s second book. Both are about baseball.
“I had written an earlier book called Amazing Baseball Heroes, which had to do with the Negro Leagues, and as I did research and attended games and continued to read I found that there continued to be some link between baseball and Scripture,” Mr. Steverson said. “The obvious thing we all know is ‘In the Beginning,’ or In the Big Inning, as Genesis, and actually as John, opens. As you continue, you find other links where Scripture is related to baseball.”
Mr. Steverson grew up in the Tidewater area of Virginia, joined the Army, and after his discharge settled into a job at Alcoa.
“I grew up with Marty Brennaman, the voice of the Reds. I am very much a Reds fan. I just love baseball in general,” Mr. Steverson said. “I like all of the teams in the major leagues, but primarily the Cincinnati Reds. We try to go to Redsfest when we can in December and we try to meet Marty in Cincinnati during the season when we can. We used to go to spring training, but now (the Reds) are in Arizona, so it’s a little more difficult.
Mr. Steverson’s book turns more than 300 pages. There is a reference table to make it easy to find nuggets about iconic and revered Hall of Fame players like Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Stan Musial and Cal Ripken. But those who know the game understand its history is splashed with gritty guys whose behavior hasn’t always invoked saintly accolades.
Ty Cobb is referenced in two chapters. Babe Ruth is referenced in nine.
“That’s right; Babe Ruth. And guess what? Ruth is one of the chapters in the Bible,” Mr. Steverson noted. “Babe Ruth was raised in a Catholic school and when the (Baltimore) Orioles came to get him (in 1914), a brother at the school was asked, ‘How much do you want for him?’ What did the brother say? ‘All we want for him is a good home – not money, a good home.’ What a wonderful Christian message that is.”
Ruth went on to define the game — and hit 714 home runs over his career.
It’s also noteworthy that Babe Ruth wore number 3 – a simple numerical connection Mr. Steverson expounds every chance he can.
“I have a chapter on the number 3 and you think gee whiz, it’s Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the Bible’” he said.
Then he continues.
“Noah had three sons. Jesus was in the grave three days. He rose on the third day. There were three on the cross. You can go through the Bible and it’s three, three, three. Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days. Well, how many outs in an inning? How many strikes until you’re out? How many outfielders in baseball?
Mr. Steverson doesn’t stop there. Baseball’s cherished statistical abbreviations, when recited, take on a similar reverential tone, delivered in staccato.
“MVP, OBP, OPS, all of those three letter words,” he said.
If you believe Mr. Steverson can find a biblical connection to baseball anywhere, you’re right.
In addition to the Hall of Fame player table, the book contains more than 13 pages for a table of Biblical references – starting with Genesis and ending, as you’d expect, with Revelation.
Common themes include saves (games and souls), sacrifices (plays and lives) and salvation (seasonal and eternal). He also deals with perfection and redemption.
“The one chapter I like best is (about) Jackie Robinson. The book of Esther in the Old Testament talks about the potential elimination of the Jewish faith. Mordecai told Esther she had to make an intercession for the Jews. For her to step into the king’s court was to put her life to risk. Mordecai says to Esther, ‘Who knows that you weren’t chosen for a time such as this?’ Jackie Robinson fits that description precisely. In 1946, he played for the Montreal Royals. So did (Negro League players) John Wright and Roy Partlow. Wright lasted a few weeks. Partlow lasted a few weeks. Only one made it, and he wasn’t even the best player. But who knows that (Robinson) wasn’t chosen for a time such as this. Jackie Robinson is considered by many one of the greatest Americans of the 20th century,” Mr. Steverson said.
The book isn’t written strictly from a Catholic point of view. Mr. Steverson, who converted to Catholicism in 1964, has taken an ecumenical approach — with words devoted to great Jewish players like Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg, both Hall of Famers.
Dale Murphy and Vernon Law are remembered as great players with a devotion to their Mormon faith.
Mr. Steverson also recounts the story of the Rev. Bill Greason, a Baptist minister and former U.S. Marine who was part of the invasion of Iwo Jima in 1942.
“I was in Washington, D.C., recently when Rev. Greason received the Congressional Medal of Honor. When he was on Iwo Jima, as a black Marine, he was digging into that volcanic ash, some of his friends were killed, and he sat with his Bible and he said a prayer, ‘Lord if you get me off this island, I will do anything you ask, just get me off this island.’
“He went on to play baseball. In 1954, he helped integrate the St. Louis Cardinals as their first black pitcher. After baseball, guess what? The good Lord came knocking and he became a pastor. He’s a pastor today at age 90, at Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. He made a pledge to the Lord and the Lord called on him and he responded. I think it’s just a wonderful story,” Mr. Steverson said.
Research for his books includes visits, personal interviews and gleaning as much history as possible from newspapers and other published works. He estimates he has more than 3,000 documents of information acquired over the years. And his research continues.
Mr. Steverson has read 12 books on former New York Yankee second baseman and World Series-winning manager Billy Martin. He is eagerly awaiting the next.
“I look forward to obtaining Bill Pennington’s new biography (2015) on Martin,” said Mr. Steverson.
Although there were many negatives in his life, Billy Martin was a devout Catholic, attending Mass more than just on Sundays. He had a visible cross on his Yankee cap within the Y of the NY, according to Mr. Steverson.
Not bad for a guy who wasn’t always quick to forgive an umpire’s bad call or the cavalier attitude of his star player — Reggie Jackson.
Mr. Steverson recalls the devotion of another Yankee great.
Roger Maris, when he hit the (record-breaking) 61st home run (in 1961), Roger and his wife went out to dinner that night with another couple. It was a Sunday, Oct. 1. They go into the restaurant and Roger and Pat notice there is a Catholic church across the street. He tells the other couple to wait; he and Pat are going to Mass that night. So he had his good friends wait while he attended Mass.”
Baseball, A Special Gift from God is steeped in history — but also touches on the good works and faithfulness of contemporary players like Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Angels slugger Albert Pujols and a little-known college outfielder named Grant Desme, who turned his back on the game to become a Catholic Priest.
Mr. Steverson’s favorite baseball movie is Field of Dreams — and admits he can’t watch it without tearing up. He recounts James Earl Jones’ classic line when describing the game to main character Ray Kinsella, played by Kevin Costner. “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked time. This field, this game, it is part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again.”
Baseball fans treat the game with a level of reverence usually not seen in other sports. College football comes close, but passion and reverence are separate things. Passion is often displayed by action. Reverence is deeper—a mindset encompassing respect for rules and tradition, not unlike our own Catholic faith.
“Any time in our daily lives when a sight, sound or experience brings us back to our faith, the Bible and its teachings, that is good,” said Mr. Steverson. “Ways of linking our faith to real life can only be an enabler in our spiritual journey. Baseball has, and continues, to do this.”