Father Center Field
Our new parish priest was lean but muscular, with silver hair juxtaposed against a leathery, sun-tanned face. Perched on the steps of the church rectory, his dark-as-polished-pinewood eyes squinted into the July sun as he watched me, Minuto, a lad of fifteen, pinch-faced and wiry, with strands of pitch-black hair sticking out from beneath my Philadelphia Phillies cap. He stared as I heaved a sponge ball against the brick front of my East Falls row-house home in Philly. I raced after the rebound and picked the ball out of the air with one hand.
“That’s no way to catch a ball,” the new priest on the block shouted at me. “Use two hands, son, two hands, like Joe D! Let me tell you, if DiMaggio used two hands, it’s the right way. No center fielder ever played the game like Joe D.”
Baseball was the only language that resonated with me, especially when I was watching Willie Mays chasing down towering drives to center to erase sure triples in the gap, and Sandy Koufax blowing away batters with high heaters that sizzled like steak on a grill, and Roberto Clemente cutting down runners from right field with a rifle he called an arm. I loved to play, watch, and listen to the game. Fact is, I was a pretty darn good shortstop, renowned in the neighborhood for going deep into the hole, back-handing wicked one-hoppers, planting my feet, and uncorking a rope of a throw to first to nip the runner by a stride.
Peeling off his black shirt and white collar, the new priest said to me, “Gimme the ball.” When I handed it over, the priest, now wearing a plain white T-shirt, hurled the sponge ball against the brick front. I figured he was maybe forty-five or -six, too old to track it down, but he loped after the rebound with strides as smooth as butternut, and when the ball came down, he was settled under it, and squeezed it with two hands.
“There,” the priest said, “that’s how it should be done, just like Joe D.” He handed the ball back to me. “OK, let me see you do it.”
I hurled the sponge ball against the wall and raced after it—though, admittedly, not as gracefully as the new priest—and caught it shin high—with two hands. “Better,” the new priest said. “By the way, the name’s Mac.”
“Mac?” I exclaimed.
“It’s short for Macadonna,” he said. “Macadonna Antonelli. “But between us, you can call me Mac.”
“You went after that ball like you played some baseball, Mac,” I said, secretly relishing the way I could call him “Mac.”
“Yeah, yeah, I played a lot when I was younger,” he said. “Center field. I was pretty fleet on my feet. When I was a senior at my Catholic high school, we played for the state championship. A Chicago Cubs’ scout came to my house and asked my father if it was OK to sign me to a minor-league contract.”
“Nah. I went to college up in New York, Fordham University. I already knew I wanted to be a priest, but I wanted that Jesuit experience first. You settle for what you’ve already got, and life passes you by. The Jesuit experience pushed me to want to make a difference in people’s spiritual lives.”
Mac told me he became a Yankees fan at Fordham. His classmates convinced him—over their weekly round of beers at O’Doul’s Tavern, the campus hangout—to root for the Yankees. He admitted his Italian heritage was an influence.
“Yeah, I admit, it was the Italian connection,” Mac told me. “You know, Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, Yogi Berra.”
Mac told me that after graduating from Fordham, he came home to Philly and signed up for St. Charles Borromeo Seminary on Philly’s Main Line. After his ordination he was sent to Most Precious Blood, a poor parish in North Philly. There, he fought fiercely against poverty, despair, and crime—all the suffering that had sucked, like quicksand, the very essence and spirit of the lives of the people. Mac adopted an adage that he had learned in high school from a Latin teacher, Fr. Conway: accept challenges and sufferings in the search for fulfillment. Indeed, many of the parishioners there listened to him and turned their lives around.
Now he was assigned to my parish, Corpus Christi, a working-middle-class parish whose members believed they had an obligation to help their neighbor. Mac related to the people of Corpus Christi that he had grown up in a similar kind of parish in South Philly.
“You still root for the Yankees?” I asked.
“Now I love the Phillies.” Mac glanced at his watch. “I gotta go,” he said. “I promised some people in the hospital that I’d be by to visit them today.”
I didn’t see Mac again for two weeks. On a scorching summer afternoon, maybe ninety-six degrees, a bunch of us neighborhood kids met to play hardball on the sandlot field up on The Hill. We met there most summer afternoons to choose-up a game. Those sandlot games on The Hill held us neighborhood kids together. We were all young, healthy, and innocent in our teenage Catholic colony. There were no wars to be fought, no jobs to go to, and no wedding bells to be rung. We all dreamed together, laughed together, and went to Mass together, and we were all regularly late for dinner when the game went into extra innings.
This particular afternoon on The Hill, my team was trailing 1-0 going into the top of the fifth. With runners on second and third and two out, as I approached the plate I noticed Mac passing by the field. He stopped as I stepped in.
“Give it a rip, son, like Joe D,” Mac shouted.
I dug in. Whiff. I missed a curve ball. Whiff. I waved at a fastball that zipped past me like a bolt of lightning.
“Pick up the ball right from the pitcher’s hand,” Mac exhorted. “Watch it all the way to the bat.”
Whiff. Strike three.
“You’ll give it a ride next time up, son,” Mac yelled as I dejectedly grabbed my glove and trotted out to shortstop.
In the bottom of the seventh, with my team still trailing 1-0, the team’s center fielder, Smitty, speared a long fly ball. Then he crashed into the cemetery wall that hugged the outfield. When Smitty got up he was limping badly—he had turned his ankle. We needed a new center fielder. There were no extra kids around. I looked at Mac, ran over and handed him a glove. “We need a center fielder, Mac.” Mac didn’t say anything, and the silence grew long.
“You playing?” I asked, my impatience palpable. Finally, Mac said, “I haven’t played much baseball in the last twenty-five years, except for playing catch with my nephew and smacking some balls in a batting cage on the Jersey shore.”
“C’mon, Mac,” I urged in frustration.
Mac grabbed the glove and jogged out to center field. Going into the top of the ninth, we were still trailing 1-0. With runners on second and third and two out, Mac was up. He grabbed a bat, took a couple of practice swings, and stepped in at the plate. Mac felt the eyes of all his young teammates on him. He knew he had control of the game’s outcome. “Give it a ride, Mac,” I yelled.
Whiff. Mac fanned on a fastball. Whiff. He couldn’t catch up with another heater. Mac backed out of the box, picked up some dirt, rubbed his hands with it, and stepped back in. He squared his shoulders and took a deep breath.
Slap. A looper, off the end of the bat, down the first-base line, and just out of reach of the first sacker. Fair ball! The runners scampered home. I nearly jumped seven feet off the ground as I shouted, “We lead 2-1!” A sly smile crept across Mac’s face as he stood on first base.
In the bottom of the ninth, with two out, the other team loaded the bases, and its best hitter, Schroeder, strode to the plate. He took one low and inside. Ball one. Then another, high and wide. Ball two. Schroeder inched closer to the plate, ready to unload on the next pitch. Crack! He powered a towering shot to dead center field. It sailed over Mac’s head and was a sure game-winning hit. Mac raced after it in his smooth, loping strides, his silver hair shining in the sun. From my shortstop position, I saw that Mac, even at his age, still had the unique ability to sense where the ball was going. Regardless of how far or hard it was hit, he could move to the exact spot of its destination. The ball was hanging. Mac turned so quickly and was running so fast that he was catching up to it. Without breaking stride, his back to the field, Mac cupped both his hands in full extension over his right shoulder. CAUGHT! Just like Joe D! With two hands!
At that moment—amid the hysteria caused by his sensational catch—I realized why Mac had chosen both to play center field and become a priest. Center field (CF on your scorecard) in baseball is like the church in a parish. Both are central control towers. Both the CF and the priest see everything and can size up difficult situations to be in the best position to help the team or the people, and understand what’s happening the moment it happens.
Whether it happens at the crack of the bat or in the baptism of a baby. Whether it happens with the spark of a strikeout on the corner with two away in the ninth or by the spark of faith fully igniting in a parishioner for the first time.
After the game, while walking home, I had another epiphany: baseball not only connected me to larger alliances, to my neighborhood, to my row-house community, to my friends, but also to my church…and to Mac. The center fielder who made that game-saving catch served our Corpus Christi parish for three years before being transferred to a parish in the far Philly suburbs. I was sad. Our parish had lost someone who cared about us.
The other day, I stopped by the old sandlot on The Hill where, decades earlier, I had played the game growing up. It hadn’t changed much. It was still like concrete by the cemetery, still emerald-green in the outfield, and burnish-brown in the infield. And for all intents and purposes, it was still mine.
I daydreamed, gazing out to center field and visualizing Mac making that improbable catch. Then I looked out to my old shortstop position and watched myself going deep into the hole, backhanding a wicked one-hopper, planting my feet, and uncorking a throw to first. Of course, in my imagination—as always—the runner was out.
Alas, Mac had chased down his last fly ball. Baptized his last baby. Heard his last confession. And served his last Eucharist. Later that day at the funeral of Fr. Macadonna Antonelli in Corpus Christi Church, I tucked a baseball inside the casket of my good friend, our center fielder, Mac. Naturally, I used two hands.