The power of prayer – or the lack of it

God does not take sides in baseball; nor does He or She pick favorites in football, basketball, hockey, tennis, or tiddlywinks. The good Lord, in fact, remains carefully neutral in all competitive games.

That does not stop us from praying for His or Her intercession during moments of high anxiety in big games. The higher the stakes, the more fervent the prayers. Yet we all – or most of us, anyway - understand that those prayers stand a much better chance of being heard if the guy we’re praying for can hit a curveball.

For every convent in Boston’s Back Bay and environs that is filled with nuns praying devoutly for Red Sox, there is one in the Bronx in which the residents are praying just as hard for the Evil Empire.

“Please, God, let him get a hit,” we might implore, while knowing that somewhere else there is someone praying for him to strike out.

What’s a Savior to do?

Stay out of it and let the games play out seems to be the answer.

When we watch a big game on TV, the cameras often pan across the faces of fans in attendance praying with all their hearts for opposite things to happen - and it’s not just the spectators who are calling on the Lord for help. It’s the participants themselves who are praying. We see any number of signs of the cross, pointing toward the heavens, and other demonstrations of faith being acted out by the players. That does not even take into account those acts which remain private between the players and the Almighty.

Carl Yastrzemski, who did not wear his emotions on his sleeve, revealed in a memoir written with Al Hirshberg after the Impossible Dream season of 1967 that just before the first pitch of every game he quietly said a Hail Mary, praying that things would go well for him and his team and that he would perform to the best of his ability in the game ahead. Who among us knew that, while we were just settling into our seats after the playing of the National Anthem, the guy out in left field was praying the Hail Mary?

Grandpa Skonieczny played an important role, too. Yaz had an exceedingly close relationship with his grandfather on his mother’s side of the family. When he was a little boy, he was left in the charge of Grandpa Skonieczny when his parents went to work. He especially loved when he would hoist him up on his tractor and the two of them would ride side by side as they performed chores on the potato farm. Every day, is grandfather would take young Carl to the Candy Kitchen for an ice cream. The two of them formed an inseparable bond in those days. His grandfather had passed away a decade earlier, during Yaz’s freshman year at Notre Dame, but on the final day of the ’67 season, filled with anxiety while waiting to bat and the Red Sox trailing, 2-0, his thoughts drifted back to those golden days sitting next to Grandpa on the tractor, and suddenly the anxiety of the moment was gone. Yaz calmly laced a two-run single to right center to tie the score and ignite a five-run game-winning rally. To this day, more than half a century later, he credits Grandpa Skonieczny for that hit.

All of us remember our school days when a big exam was held, how we’d pray for divine guidance beforehand, but that our chances of those prayers being heard were decidedly better if we had taken the time to study. Carl Yastrzemski had spent thousands of hours honing his skills, making himself the best player he could be so that when his moment came, he’d be ready. His prayers were a big help, clearing his mind for the task ahead. But in addition to that, he needed good fortune. He had that, too, and because all those elements were combined in 1967, baseball in Boston had a resurgence that continues to this very day.

The prayers worked like a charm down the home stretch of ’67 when, time after time, Yaz came through with a clutch hit to carry the Red Sox to the unlikeliest pennant in their history and Yaz himself to the Triple Crown and superstardom.

The result was somewhat different eleven years later when he came up to hit with two outs in the ninth inning and the tying run on third base in the ‘78 playoff game against the Yankees. He was the same guy as in ’67; it was the same prayer; the same deity. But this time he popped out to third base. “Well,” we said to one another, “That’s baseball.” And so it was – and is.

It won’t stop us from praying the next time the game is on the line, nor the game after that. I well remember our parish’s junior CYO basketball team during my growing up years. The parish suffered from a decided lack of basketball talent in my age group. It couldn’t have been anything in the water, because the kids in the age group just ahead of mine, who had moved up to the intermediate level, had won the league championship as juniors. For whatever reason, probably having something to do with the absence of natural ability, we now stunk. We lost every game that year, usually by a lot.

My particular role was that of sixth man. That’ll give you an idea of how lousy I was. I couldn’t even crack the starting lineup of the worst team in the league. None of that, however, stopped us from praying. Before every game Father Murray, our parish priest, led us in prayer. Our heads may have been bowed, but our hopes were high. Then the game started and reality set in.

Some of us began to notice that often Father Murray, after leading us in prayer, would slip out a side door of the gymnasium rather than bear witness to the slaughter about to take place. Who could blame him?

To this day, 70 years later, I still pray before and during games of importance, but as often as not it’s The Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the Courage to change the things I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference.”


Dick Flavin is widely known as the poet laureate of the Boston Red Sox.