The College World Series and the Countercultural Church
Maybe you’ve never heard of Tennessee Tech University. I imagine, however, you’ve heard of Ole Miss. I’ve heard of both. I live about an hour from the latter and received my undergraduate degree from the former, a wonderful school located in the heart of Tennessee’s Upper Cumberland.
A couple months ago, these two seemingly mismatched schools faced off in the NCAA baseball tournament to determine which ballclub would advance to the Super Regionals (Sweet 16 in basketball terms). I’ll resist the temptation to appeal to 1 Samuel 17, but the sportswriters probably wouldn’t. At the time, those sportswriters ranked Ole Miss fourth in the nation. They’d lost at home four times all year. To advance, Tech’s Golden Eagles would have to beat them in Oxford twice in one day.
However, on a warm Monday afternoon Tech prevailed, setting up the final game that night to determine who’d advance. Being a TTU Alum, with the game a mere hour away, my 6–year–old and I jumped in the car last minute and headed south.
I had no idea the baseball diamond planned to teach a class on the countercultural church. Oxford prepared four lessons for the outnumbered fan.
1. People thought we were strange
There’s a home field advantage for the team; and there’s one for the fan. This past year, Ole Miss averaged the second highest home attendance in the nation at 8,760.With their season on the line, they easily surpassed 9,000 on this Monday night, drawing a few more than Tech mustered up. I’d guess around 100 showed up for the away team.
For the most part, the locals weren’t mean. But nor were they indifferent. While three days earlier most folks hadn’t heard of this relatively small school, they now observed decked–out Golden Eagles walking with their offspring in the wild. Purple and gold fails to blend into a sea of red, white, and blue.
Furthermore, the college baseball atmosphere is still somewhat intimate. So after nearly every pitch, either 9,000–plus would clap or 100 would. In some mash–up between Batman and baseball, my son’s current obsession concerns which team constitutes the “good guys” and which team serves as the nemesis. In this packed, intimate, and charged setting, it didn’t take two innings for my son to ask, “Why is everyone clapping for the bad guys?”
I feel certain I’ll be answering some form of this question for years to come. People noticed we were different; then it was regularly reinforced.
2. The strange were better together
I’d actually never been to an Ole Miss baseball game before. So before I made the drive, I called to ask if there were tickets available. “Yes,” the young man replied, “you can bring a blanket and sit out beyond right field in General Admission.” I didn’t love that idea, but it was the best I thought I could do. How many times would my school have the opportunity to make it to the Super Regionals? No team from their conference ever had before.
But when I arrived at the ticket window, I decided to ask the same question again. Keep in mind I’m wearing a purple and gold hat with a matching shirt. To my surprise, the man at the ticket window disagreed with the man I’d called earlier, “Yes, we have seats available.” A little dumbfounded, I replied, “So I don’t need my blanket?” On that balmy June night, he smirked and said, “Only if you get cold.”
So my son and I start walking toward our seats. After a thousand odd looks, I finally laid eyes on someone else wearing purple and gold. And then it quickly happened again. I glanced down at my tickets, compared the sections, and to my great relief these outsiders’ seats were right next to mine. The kind young man at the ticket office, having more of a clue than this author, put the kid and his dad in the Tech section.
And soon we’d need each other. Had we been sitting on a blanket in right field, though surrounded by passionate collegians, my son and I would’ve been completely alone. Instead, because the 100 exiles were gathered together, we had the courage to clap for strikes and cheer boldly for the Alma Mater. Further, while this only happened a couple times, when someone walked by our section and yelled something, we weren’t nearly as rattled as we would’ve been in right field.
3. The strange were seen
This might be obvious, but to be noticed as different we had to be there. Oxford wouldn’t hear the chants from our living rooms. The alternative community gathered together, making their unity visible. To be distinctive did not mean we couldn’t also be engaged.
4. We are strange
It’s not just true that people thought we were strange; we were. I didn’t take a single class in Oxford. We were a long way from the hills of Middle Tennessee. We put on different colors for a reason.
After a tense nine innings of baseball, Ole Miss lost at home for the fifth time that night. For our little band, that was the good news. The bad news, however, was that shortly thereafter we’d have to leave the comfort of our section and walk back to our cars. To disperse 100 people among 9000–plus isolates almost immediately. Not a shred of purple and gold accompanied me on the half–mile trek to the parking lot.
Yet the distinction continued. The hometown fans thought they should’ve won. They’d won all year. But now their season was over, thanks to this unheard–of small–town college. The red, white, and blue left the field that night somewhat despondent. However, my son and I experienced something a good bit different, and though we walked among the downcast, we couldn’t have been more strange.