Foul balls in the field of dreams

Check out this video in which John McCutcheon plays “Leviathan” on hammered dulcimer.

John McCutcheon, an American folk singer and a baseball catcher during his youth, often captures what is right or wrong in this nation via his lyrical musings.

I occasionally agree with his politics, though most often I don’t. But I always agree with his main impulse because it favors folks over the phony, fun over the fatuous, wry humor over banal bunk.

As summer faded, I spent time with McCutcheon and thousands of our mutual friends on fairgrounds in a little western Kansas town called Winfield. It was the site of the 39th Walnut Valley Association Festival and the National Flat-picking Championships.

McCutcheon, this year’s central headliner, was performing at his 28th straight festival. I’ve attended 20 the past quarter century. It replenishes my soul and reminds me we live in the best place on earth, despite the thoughtless ways in which we befoul it.

My spouse/best friend dragged me thrice this year to hear McCutcheon (Winfield features four days of festival fare on multiple stages) and bought me one of his CDs.

Though I favor the bluegrass groups to the one-performer folky parts of the festival, I enjoy it all and was ecstatic to get the CD.

It is McCutcheon’s Sermon on the Mound, a smorgasbord of 16 baseball songs. The singer-songwriter says correctly in his liner notes that the songs deal with more than just gamesmanship.

“Instead,” he said, “they’re about family and neighborhood, teamwork and sacrifice, heroism and hypocrisy, friendship and fair play, wisdom and weakness. It’s about the joy of fathers and sons playing catch. Life in all its beauty, and frailty.”

He calls them love songs “for those small things we each try to do right in this life. Amen.”

I recount all of this not as a “What I Did On My Vacation” essay, but to look more closely at what I call conservative—in the best sense of that harried and misunderstood term. Two of McCutcheon’s songs—“Doin’ My Job” and “Cross That Line”—may make my point best.

Cal Ripken Jr. in 1995 broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games record, going on to play 2,632 in a row overall. As Ripken got honored for surpassing Gehrig’s standard, the infielder said he was just doing his job.

McCutcheon turned that into a song praising all who handle jobs day in and day out, living in a fashion conserving the best that is in us.

In “Cross That Line,” Pee Wee Reese—a Kentucky product and favorite of Cincinnati Reds fans, despite being the Brooklyn Dodgers’ shortstop—won praise for upbraiding Reds fans in 1947 as they taunted Jackie Robinson, the man who crossed the major leagues’ color line. How?

Reese called time during scurrilous verbal abuse, walked over and threw his arm around his second baseman’s shoulder to chat with the black man. The crowd reacted with stunned silence. That also is life and represents conserving the best that is in us.

Real conservatives do their jobs and respect others for doing theirs, even if they don’t agree with the manner in which the jobs get done. Let’s do our jobs like Cal Ripken Jr., and keep our heads like Reese and Robinson.

We can disagree, respectfully, with the first man to break the presidential color barrier. Let’s not taunt him with scorn and display ignorance of this nation’s finest conservative principle: freedom to choose, right or wrong.

Let’s stop befouling our field of dreams.