Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Doing Play-by-Play in the Kingdom of God

Word came today that Milo Hamilton was recovering in a Houston hospital after suffering a heart attack over the weekend. The 80-year-old Hamilton has been the radio voice of the Houston Astros since 1985. My prayers are with Milo for a full and speedy recovery.

I remember Milo Hamilton as the radio voice of the Atlanta Braves from the time of their move to Atlanta in 1966 until his firing following the 1975 season and thus during my childhood and teenage years. As I recall, he was fired after Ted Turner bought the team and Hamilton was critical on the air of Atlanta fans for not coming out to support the team. It was a bad team back in those days, but he had a point. Still, sometimes folks don’t want to hear the truth.

During the late 1960s, Hamilton and his partner Ernie Johnson, Sr. ministered to me in ways that, were they to learn of them, would probably surprise them. I need to set the scene for any of my younger readers who don’t recall a time when radio was the primary point of access to major league baseball.

Back in those days, very few baseball games were on television. There was an NBC Saturday afternoon game of the week and sometimes for a stretch during the summer the network would televise a few Monday night games. As I said, except for their Western Division winning team of 1969, the Braves were not very good during the period that Milo was their broadcaster, so they were seldom deemed worthy of the game of the week. They weren’t on local television much, either; the Braves would telecast some twenty games a year.

So I listened to Milo and Ernie on the radio. WKEU FM in Griffin carried the games and I spent many a night at our little house in Barnesville glued to those broadcasts. On Sunday afternoons when we were visiting my grandparents in Yatesville, Daddy would let me listen to the games on his car radio. I’d just sit there, sweating behind the wheel, and listen.

Not to be critical, but baseball announcers these days aren’t very good at radio broadcasts. My theory about that is that most of them do as much or more television as they do radio; they don’t have to be very descriptive in covering a game on TV and they carry that same non-descriptive mode with them over to radio. But back in the day, announcers like Milo Hamilton and Jack Buck and Vin Scully could paint you a picture of what was going on. There are many Braves games that I remember so vividly that I think I was there in person even though I know that I only heard them on the radio. That’s doing play-by-play the right way.

How did Milo and Ernie offer ministry to me? Around 1967-68, when I was nine years old, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She spent a lot of time in the hospital in Macon, some 40 miles from our home. I spent a lot of time staying with my grandparents while my father continued to work and went to visit her every night. (Sometimes he would take me with him; on the way home we’d listen to the Braves games, naturally.) Mama would fight the cancer until June 1975, when she died.

During one of those summers when Mama spent some time in the hospital, I’d guess 1969 or 1970, I became very depressed. No diagnosis was done and I don’t think that I even tried to talk to anyone about it, but I now know that depressed is what I was. Food didn’t taste good, life didn’t feel good, and nothing that had always mattered seemed to matter any more. I was miserable for many weeks.

There were some moments when I wasn’t depressed, though: the two-three hours when the Atlanta Braves game was on the radio. I’d go to my room, turn on my radio, and get lost in Milo’s descriptions of the game. For a little while I was in another world, a world that seemed better than mine and that offered some hope that maybe, just maybe, a time would come when my world would be infused with joy again as were those moments when I listened to the Braves game. Milo and Ernie may have saved my sanity during that summer. Maybe they were my psychotherapists.

Or maybe they were my preachers. After all, they used the power of words to create a vivid picture of an alternative reality in which I could become caught up and in which I could find hope. Isn’t that very much like what we preachers are called to do? In proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ we offer a picture through words of the alternative reality that we call the Kingdom of God. When what is supposed to happen actually happens, people are caught up in that and come to see the possibility that the alternative world just might break into our work-a-day world of what passes for reality.

Regardless, I’m grateful to Milo. Long ago, he helped me.

I hope that somewhere down the road, when someone hears my name, they will remember a time when the words that I spoke and the pictures that I painted gave them hope, too.


Anonymous said...

In the very very early days of the Braves, another idol, Larry Munson, was in the ministry team. Thanks for the memory!

Mike Ruffin said...

Yes, I knew that to be the case. I must not have started listening to the broadcasts until after he stopped working, them, though, because I don't remember ever hearing him on them.

On a side note, I read somewhere that Munson worried that he would be accepted by Dawg fans as the replacement for the "legendary" Ed Thilenius!