Leather

Posted on April 22, 2011

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The moment you receive your first baseball glove is a beautiful rite of passage into boyhood.

It can be other things too, of course.  It may be that first moment when you realize that your dad is a relentless stage father, although that realization typically comes later, such as when you notice that your quesadillas are always stuffed with Big League Chew, or that you are wearing eye black in all of your baby photos.  It can also be a small reality check for the father, as in a situation where you are actually a girl, you resent being named after Tug McGraw, and it is time for him to admit that your ballet recitals are not “spring training”.

But mostly it’s a powerful coming-of-age moment.  Of course, that moment is immediately ruined by the fact that new baseball gloves are all lined with pure rebar, and thus impossible to use.  As it turns out, America’s baseball glove manufacturers are running the sporting goods equivalent of the Weapon X program.   Their gloves cannot be opened or closed by anyone of normal strength.   We think that just anyone can close a baseball glove shut because pro ballplayers do it with ease.  But this is only because they have done massive amounts of steroids, usually derived from dinosaur chromosomes.  Those players could squeeze the quadratic formula and get Fermat’s Last Theorem.  A five year old boy versus his glove does not stand a chance.

Because these new baseball gloves are armor plated, to use them one has to first “break in” the glove.  The first step is to pour neatsfoot oil or lanolin on to the glove to soften the leather, although if neither is available, Valvoline 10W30 works just as well.  After the application of oil, father and son commit acts of increasing violence on the glove in an effort to make it more pliable, similar to an IRS audit. Most experts suggest placing a ball in the webbing of the glove to form the “pocket”, and then repeatedly dropping a baby grand piano on it. It should be noted that Steinway does not endorse this and recommends using a pipe organ instead, although they do not say how.

I’m certain people would change the breaking-in process if they could. But the one thing nobody would change about a baseball glove is the way it smells.  There is magic in the smell of a baseball glove.  There’s a reason that the ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson character mentions in it in the movie ‘Field of Dreams’, and it’s not because he was hopped up on corn allergies and ghost Claritin.  If women could somehow create a perfume that smells like baseball glove, there would be no single ladies left in America. I suspect they are already working on it.

GREG: Did you guys hear about Russell? He’s getting married.

LARRY: To that girl he was seeing? The welfare queen with the beer gut?

TOM: That’s her.

LARRY: How? Russell rowed crew at Dartmouth. His hedge fund outperformed the Dubai GDP last year. He told me that he was only going out with her once, as a dare. He said it right to my face.

GREG: Yeah, but she was wearing the new Eau du Rawlings. Poor guy never stood a chance.

LARRY: Oh, that’s powerful stuff. I nearly tackled a woman at the mall who was wearing the Rickey Henderson version- you know, the ‘nachos’ one?- but the three guys already with her knocked me out. I think she was ‘the one’.

TOM: No surprise there. I mean, look at Greg and his wife. She got him by smearing pine tar all over herself at their senior prom.

GREG:  She sure did. It went exactly 18 inches up her arm, like the rules of baseball say. I liked that.

LARRY: Speaking of which, Tom, how did your date the other night go?

TOM: Not good. She wore the ‘Can of Tennis Balls’ fragrance. I think we’ll just be friends.

But the baseball glove is more than just an untapped resource for world domination by the ladies. It’s also a powerful symbol of God’s love.

The Bible says that God loves us. That’s a foundational Christian truth. The idea that we matter to God in a personal way fills page after page of Scripture, and that’s great for it to say. For some people, that’s all they need to hear. They’ll say “Oh, the Bible says God cares about me. I guess it must be that way then!” and then go along, never wondering about it again for another second of their lives. I envy those people. I’m not one of them. Sometimes I wonder.

I used to be really angry about being a Christian because I thought I’d been tricked. I felt like Christianity was a bait-and-switch job where I’d been told about a God of love, and then after I’d promised my life to him, he turned out to be a drill sergeant who was mad because I was always doing it wrong. And so I was stuck. I couldn’t go anywhere, because God was real. I believed that. But I also believed that his modus operandi was to sign people up, and then hold them to impossible standards of behavior for the rest of their lives. The only possible reward was to go to heaven at the end, and that only if you managed to make it that far without breaking down.

God felt a lot of things about me, I was sure. He was exasperated with me. He expected more from me. Tolerated me. Was frequently embarassed by me. But under no circumstances did he like me very much, let alone care about me or love me at all. So what if the Bible said he did? I’d never seen it.

Turns out I missed it. As it so happens, leather is God’s love language.

In the Easter story, before Jesus was crucified, he was first tortured by Roman soldiers. The Gospel accounts record how the guards struck Jesus with their fists, spit on him and beat him with a club. On top of this, they whipped him. The whip of this time period was a “cat o’ nine tails”, a thick cord with nine strands, each tipped with lead hooks. And it was made of leather.

At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, John the Baptist prophesied his coming. But some people misunderstood and thought he was the coming Messiah. And so John answered them this way.

The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”

Leather reveals and unites two aspects of God- his holiness and his love. When John testified that he was unworthy to touch Jesus’ leather sandals, he spoke a powerful message about a God whose ways and character were infinitely different from his own. But when Jesus willingly suffered the blows of the leather whip, he embodied a more powerful message about his love for humanity.

For many years I knew that I was unworthy to untie the sandal straps of Jesus. Nobody had to tell me this. My unworthiness was a fact of life. I knew it instinctively. What I didn’t know is that Jesus let the holiness of his sandal fabric also function as an emblem of his love.

At the hands of the Romans, Jesus let leather scourge his body, where once leather had adorned it. God incarnate let a part of his perfection be a tool to humiliate him. So while the cross showed me a God who died for me, the whip showed me a God who would choose to give up his majesty for me.

Our salvation is not a technicality. It’s not like God said “I wish I didn’t have to save these guys, but we checked the paperwork and it turns out I’m perfectly love, so I’ve got to beam down and be crucified. BRB, cherubs.” We are not incidental to the equation, either, as if the Easter story happened just so everyone would know how awesome God is. No. Before Jesus died to take our sins, he was whipped. And in the whipping He showed that He chose to let nothing stand in His way, not even His holiness. He laid everything down to get us. He came to save us from sin and death, and to blaze a salvation trail we could walk in. He would do it because he loves us. Loves you. Loves me. The leather proves it.

The beginning of baseball season and the Easter season often coincide. It’s probably just a fluke of the calendar, but maybe not. After all, baseball has every element of the Easter story in play: grass, horsehide, wood- and leather. So the next time you watch a game, pay attention to the huge Easter symbols on the players’ hands- and control yourself around the women wearing baseball glove perfumes.

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