The first two weeks of June are my favorite time of year in Omaha. It has nothing to do with the weather, which is often rainy, can be full of thunder storms and tornado warnings at night, and scorching heat in the day. Rarely, as this year, we get a pleasant and late blooming spring. These are my favorite days in Omaha because it’s in these weeks that we play host to the College World Series.
Omaha is rarely spoken of as a desirable destination. It’s an incredible, and incredibly vibrant city, that most people dismiss out of hand because it is located right in the middle the country, with nothing iconic to commend it. When I hear people talk about going to Omaha, they often say the word itself with a barely concealed irritation, drawing out the vowels in a verbal eye roll. “I have to go to OOOOmahaaaaah.”
But during the month of June, at least for the corner of the sports world that makes up big time college baseball, Omaha is the promised land, the most desired destination, the place everyone wants to get to. Tens of thousands of people from all over the country descend on the city, and the greater downtown area becomes a wonderful carnival of collegiate colors and baseball culture. I try to go to one or two games every year, mostly because baseball and Omaha are two of the things I love most in this world.
One morning this week, I received a text message from a friend of a friend. “I have an extra ticket for game 9–FSU Texas-Tech–tonight at 6. Are you available/interested?” I couldn’t tap out “You bet!” fast enough. My host is a Florida State alum, and was in town to cheer them through their run. I met him at the front gate to the stadium, and as we stood in the scrum of people pushing toward the entrance, strangers dropped in and out of one another’s conversations, sharing jokes about their teams’ chances, or the doomsday preacher standing on the corner in the middle of the crowds.
A few minutes after we sat down, a rabbi friend of mine slid into the seats a few rows in front of us. We greeted one another in the surprised way you do when you see someone in an unexpected context, and his young son insisted on a high five from his dad’s priest friend. An excited and chatty middle-aged couple who were graduates of Texas Tech sat down next to us, and enthusiastically told us the story of how they had been in Colorado on their drive from Texas to a vacation in South Dakota when they spontaneously decided to make the eight hour detour to see their team play a game in Omaha.
The game itself was mostly slow and boring. The pitchers worked especially slowly, even the umpires were the slowest I’ve ever seen. The two teams were locked in a 1-1 tie until the eighth inning when Florida State’s relief pitcher fell apart, walked a bunch of hitters, and all of a sudden it was 4-1, and that was that.
By the time Florida State’s loss was all but inevitable, most of the roughly 20,000 fans had already headed for the exits. The seats directly behind the Florida State dugout were almost entirely empty, and my companion wanted to walk over and stand behind the dugout to watch Florida State’s legendary coach, Mike Martin, who at 75 years old and after 40 years as coach, is retiring at the end of this season, walk off the field for the last time. So we stood with about a dozen other FSU fans, who chanted his uniform number, 11, in between short, clipped claps, and he came out of the dugout, tipped his cap and waved, thanking us for our support, then he walked quietly into the locker room, and one of the most important careers in college baseball history was over. My companion stood taking it in, holding off tears, having just witnessed again how quickly something big and important in life can just be over, and how quietly undramatic big endings in our lives can be, an ordinary period at the end of a forty year sentence.
As I walked alone through the thinning crowds back to my car in the midnight darkness, I was overcome with a sense that I had just been given a small vision of the kingdom of God, breaking into Omaha on an ordinary June evening. I had spent an unlikely three and a half hours with a casual acquaintance I’ve never spent much time with before, and probably won’t ever again, taking in something small but significant, and especially so for him. We laughed and joked with opposing fans. At one point the Texas Tech fan next to me leaned over when a group of fans were chanting insults at the FSU pitcher and whispered, “sometimes Tech fans are so embarrassing.” We struck up small conversations with strangers here and there. I shared a moment of inter religious affection with my friend the rabbi. We watched a man who had given most of his life to his school and to the sport, a man who brought teams to Omaha an incredible seventeen times, quietly end his career, having never won it all. Not the dramatic ending that would make for great fiction, but the kind of quiet disappointment that often accompanies our endings, that nevertheless was redeemed by the affection of those around him.
Strangers becoming friends, the wolf lying down with the lamb (or at least FSU lying down with Texas Tech), a group of people held together, and for a time formed into a community, by something bigger and more powerful than any one of them. It would have been so easy to not notice that what we were all getting was this incredible, mystical preview of God’s dream for the world. And of course, that’s often the case. Despite all the ways our world is fallen and our lives are hard, despite the meanness we inflict on one another in smaller and larger ways, God’s reign of peace and mercy and love is always bubbling up from just beneath the surface of our lives. God’s new creation is always quietly being born on ordinary summer evenings, in coffee shops and living rooms, in church choir rehearsals, retirement parties, lunch meetings, a joke shared with a stranger, a hand held, a hand on the shoulder. For me, it’s one of the reasons I love baseball so much. It slows the world down just enough so I can notice for a time what’s happening under the surface. The slow pitchers and slow umpires were a gift the other night. Their slowness helped sharpen the edges of my attention, so that on a lovely June evening in downtown Omaha, I could see, in the smallest possible way, God’s new heaven, and new earth, I could see the angels ascending and descending, I could glimpse the world that, as a follower of Jesus, I’m called to use my whole life to bear witness to.