Monday, April 29, 2013

Manning to Mullins, and So On

On April 12, Brennan Manning died.  He was a Christian writer, best known for writing “The Ragamuffin Gospel” (though he wrote about 20 other books, as well).  Outside of Christian circles, Manning was not widely recognized.  Why his works didn’t “crossover” into mainstream culture, I don’t know.

But those who liked him like him a lot.  It's debatable whether Brennan Manning would even crack a list of the 50 most recognized Christian authors of the last 50 years; but in terms of “admiration garnered per fan,” Manning would rank near the top.  This intense admiration is exemplified by a couple of descriptions of Manning that I stumbled across on the internet: “The Grandfather of Grace” and “Our Ragamuffin Pope.”

In the mid- to late-nineties, I was on the Brennan Manning bandwagon.  I read and loved “The Ragamuffin Gospel.”  For a few months, he may have been my favorite author.  And I still do love his works and his message, by the way.  Though I have not devoured everything he has ever written, I am someone who appreciated him and his message, and was influenced by it.

It wasn’t until later that I discovered how much Manning had influenced me.

It turned out that Manning had made quite the impact on Rich Mullins.  Rich Mullins was a Christian singer/songwriter throughout the 1980’s into the mid-nineties.  Many people with the credibility to say such things regard him as one of the greatest lyricists in the history of contemporary Christian music.  If his music and career had been shifted back in time about 15 years, he would probably be regarded as “the Bob Dylan of CCM” (except by people who consider Bob Dylan to be the Bob Dylan of CCM, but that’s another debate).

Mullins died in a car accident in 1997 at the age of 41.  It was shortly after his death that I stumbled across a story that is now legendary in Christian music circles.  In the early 1990’s, Rich Mullins was driving through Kansas when his friend insisted that they listen to a particular book-on-tape: “The Ragamuffin Gospel,” by Brennan Manning.  Though Mullins was already a Christian who wrote and recorded profound and popular songs about God, he testified that this was the moment that the grace of God finally penetrated his soul in a way that it never had.  Mullins was so impacted that he renamed his band “The Ragamuffin Band," and included the phrase in the title of his next album.  He also wrote a forward to a subsequent printing of Manning's book.

Brennan Manning’s insights have impacted me directly and significantly.  But his indirect influence on me—through Rich Mullins—is immeasurable.  Mullins, you see, is my single favorite Christian artist.  His lyrics have impacted and influenced me as much as anyone’s—including Bruce Springsteen.

I had already been thinking about Rich Mullins in these past few weeks, because my daughters have been requesting some of his songs in the car.  My younger daughter asked me about him, and we came to talk about how he lived and how he died.  When we drive to Rockford to visit Beth’s family, we pass the spot where Mullins died back in ’97.

But when Brennan Manning died, an even greater sadness and appreciation stirred up in me again.  I started thinking about a few of Mullins' songs, and why I like them so much.

I imagine Brennan Manning would get a kick out of knowing that someone’s idea of a tribute to him in the days after his death is to list some songs of a musician that was influenced by a book of his.  I suspect he would appreciate it a lot, actually.

Instead of focusing on songs, per se, of Mullins, I’m going to list 5 of my favorite lines from Rich Mullins songs.  These lines collectively illustrate why I appreciate his artistry so much; each of these lines expresses profound truths about God and following Him; and they do it in simple, ironic, and even playful words.

LINE:  “Surrender don’t come natural to me / I’d rather fight you for something I don’t really want / then to take what you give that I need.”
SONG, ALBUM:  Hold Me Jesus, “A Liturgy, a Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band”
WHY IT IMPRESSES ME:  If someone asked me to draw from my own experience and explain what it is that he’s describing, it would take me an hour.  Even if I could reduce it to a phrase or two, it would still be cumbersome and would end with me saying, “Does that make sense?”  Here, Mullins takes this concept and explains it in what may very well be the most succinct and clear manner in which a human could possibly explain it—oh, and the words themselves happen to be rhythmic and lyrical.
SOMETHING I PROBABLY WOULD NOT HAVE WRITTEN WITHOUT HAVING BEEN INFLUENCED BY THIS SONG:  It's an unfinished fragment of a song called Mostly Just Hyde. The chorus goes: "Some days I'm Dr. Jeckyll / And some I'm mostly just Hyde / Some days I choose to follow you / Some days I can't decide."

LINE:  “Oh, Eli / There’s a sanctity in your innocence / A certain beauty and no uncertain strength / that brings me to the faith / I don’t know if I / If I am climbing to or falling in.”
SONG, ALBUM:  Eli’s Song, “Brother’s Keeper”
WHY IT IMPRESSES ME:  The last part of the lyric—“If I am climbing to or falling in”—is another one of those perfectly succinct capturings of something.  I’m like, “Yeah, that’s exactly it—but I never would have thought to say it like that.”  But the phrase before that—“A certain beauty and no uncertain strength”—is insightful and playful.  I enjoy using the language itself to engage connoisseurs of lyrics.
SOMETHING I PROBABLY WOULD NOT HAVE WRITTEN WITHOUT HAVING BEEN INFLUENCED BY THIS SONG:  I've tried a handful of times to use linguistically-in-tension phrases to create a vibe.  A very in-passing example of one of my attempts is in Home, when I wrote "barely caring and barely giving a second thought to a single thing..."  "Second" contrasts with "single".  To what effect, I'm not sure, but it's fun.  :)
LINE:  “If I stand let me stand on the promise / that you will pull me through / and if I can’t let me fall on the grace / that first brought me to you.”
SONG, ALBUM:  If I Stand, “Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth”
WHY IT IMPRESSES ME:  The words are simple, and I fear they may even be written off by some as clichéd, but I think they are an elegant declaration of loyalty through whatever may come his way.  They are very much like marriage vows to God (Mullins never married), and Mullins has the credibility to infuse this straightforward proclamation with boundless sincerity.
SOMETHING I PROBABLY WOULD NOT HAVE WRITTEN WITHOUT HAVING BEEN INFLUENCED BY THIS SONG:  This one is finished but not yet posted.  It's called "I'll Follow You," and the Mullins-influenced line is "You pulled me from the darkened depths / So for all my days I will trace your steps / I will follow you."
LINE:  “I can’t see where you’re leading me unless you’ve led me here / Where I’m lost enough to let myself be led / And so, you’ve been here all along I guess / It’s just your ways and you are just plain hard to get.”
SONG, ALBUM:  Hard to Get, “The Jesus Record”
WHY IT IMPRESSES ME:  Most of what I said about “Hold Me Jesus” and “If I Stand”.  I read these words in the liner notes of the CD case on the day the album was released, while standing by a display case in the Christian book store in the mall (I think I just dated myself in about 5 different ways).  I got to this line and cried.  This album was released posthumously, so the sadness of knowing that Rich wouldn’t be writing anymore lyrics for me combined with the poignancy to trigger my emotional outpouring.  To this day, I may consider this to be the single greatest lyric I have ever read.  Structurally, the song follows a Springsteen-esque pattern of replacing a traditional chorus with single returning line/image at the end of each verse (“Jungleland” and “Tunnel of Love” come to mind as two examples).  Mullins’ recurring phrase is “hard to get,” but the striking twist that he pulls off is switching how it is used in the last verse.  In the first two verses, he accuses God of playing hard to get, like a lover who wants to be “got” but enjoys the chase.  The last verse—which may be more tragic than hopeful if the song were removed from the context of its album—Mullins seems to abruptly break off the chase, essentially blurting out, “I just don’t get you” (i.e., “you are just plain hard to get”).  The reader/listener realizes that the images in the preceding verses were all jabs, setting up for the knock-out punch at the end of the song.  Once I picked myself up off the ground, I tipped my cap, acknowledging the genius of a man who used every artistic tool at his disposal to create the most gutwrenching lyric imaginable.
SOMETHING I PROBABLY WOULD NOT HAVE WRITTEN WITHOUT HAVING BEEN INFLUENCED BY THIS SONG:  Also finished but not yet posted, I've got an entire song called "Will You Reach Me" that is my most conscious attempt to model the entirety of a poem after the work of someone else.  Here's the bridge: "You were right there when I found you, but now it seems you're lost / While you count up my faithless tears, I'll recount the cost / If this test of faith is over now I think we'd both agree I failed / I admit I need your grace to pass--must you keep your presence veiled? / 'Cause now hopeless desperation oozes out of me like sweat / Are the promises of heaven all that in this life we'll get?"

LINE:  “…the Lord takes by its corners this old world and shakes us forward—shakes us free / To run wild with the hope / The hope that this thirst will not last long, that it will son drown in the song not sung in vain.”
SONG, ALBUM:  Calling Out Your Name, “The World as Best as I Remember It, Volume One”
WHY IT IMPRESSES ME:  This song is front-loaded with imagery, and springboards from that imagery into theological insight--which culminates with this lyric.  It's a great and hopeful image.  From a more "nuts and bolts" perspective, I love the slightly unconventional sentence structure in the first part.  Placing the prepositional phrase "by its corners" in between the verb ("takes") and the object ("this old world") is NOT typically how one would speak this sentence; but lyrically, both the flow and the clarity are enhanced, and the mood conveyed is all the more whimsical.
SOMETHING I PROBABLY WOULD NOT HAVE WRITTEN WITHOUT HAVING BEEN INFLUENCED BY THIS SONG: In "Highway 1" I tried to blend imagery with insight, as Mullins does here.  I went for the same thing in the song that I wrote for Grant and his family.  Additionally, in that song I used some alternative sentence structure, like in the last verse: "All these stories, songs, and scriptures, conversations, prayers, and pictures / instead of sharing time with Grant it’s these things that we share.  /  But then, through them, God’s bestowing all the things that where Grant’s going  /  he won’t need—like faith and hope—but that we will until we're there."  Shawn and Emily let me know that they appreciated my efforts, and I'm glad for that.  It's funny that way: without the efforts of Rich Mullins, I may have settled on writing a nice note to try to capture my feelings.  It was from reading songs like Calling Out Your Name that I thought, "You know, maybe I could convey what I'm thinking in a poetic and/or lyrical manner."

The influence of Manning-to-Mullins, Mullins-to-The Hungry Preacher is hardly linear.  It is a web, and it involves hundreds of voices, all of which ultimately derive their influence from God.  I am grateful for the impact Manning has made on my life, directly or otherwise.  Like I said, I am sure that he would get a kick out of seeing how uncontained his influence was.  He is missed, but his impact remains.


Friday, April 19, 2013

Disney Whirled: Hightlights of a Nine-Day Adventure into Magicalness, PART 9: "Appendix, Volume 2"

So, what has the Hungry Preacher himself been reflecting on vis-a-vis his family's Disney World experience?  After going back and forth on what to write about and how to write it, I settled on what I think was the clearest choice all along: I staged an interview between Rob, the ordinary family man; and his alter ego, the Hungry Preacher, blogger extraordinaire.  I decided to have the Hungry Preacher ask the questions, and he decided that distinguishing his words from Rob's would be best accomplished by the use of italics.

So, it’s been several months since you got back from Disney.  What is the most striking memory of the experience?

Certainly the memories shared with my family.  The things we saw and did, and watching the girls take in the experience.  These are the things that I most fondly remember.  These are the reasons people take vacations in the first place.

Anything else?

I’m still struck by the park itself.  When I think about “Disney World,” I really remember it being a “world.”  It’s still weird to think of it as being contained in a state.  I see it as a planet, unencumbered by organizational paradigms of Earth.  It would only surprise me a little if we eventually discover that the entire complex was developed by aliens who are using it as a way to spy on people from all parts of the world.  It would be a good idea, actually—let the peoples of Earth come to you, instead of the other way around.  The flaw in their plan may be that they actually “do amusement parks” way better than Earthlings.  It’s raising suspicions.

That would be ironic if that was their undoing.  Have you shared your ideas with other Earthlings?

Not in so many words.  But I have interacted with people who have done the Disney World thing and seem to “get it” when I talk about how impressive it is.

Is it something you have to have experienced to really get?

Something like that.  I’ve heard that Corvette owners have some sort of signal or look that they give each other when they pass on the street, something that communicates, “I know that you 'get this', and you know that I 'get this', and we both know that other people don’t.  So let’s share a moment of superficial bonding.”  Surfing might be like that, too.

Are you saying that based on the movie "Point Break"?

Yes.  It's the only movie I know that features both Keanu Reeves and Gary Busey.  That must count for something.
Fair point.

Anyway, I've been surprised to feel this "bond" with fellow veterans of the Disney World experience.

Is there any meaningful significance whatsoever to this bond?

Objectively, I don’t feel like there should be.  I mean, it’s an amusement park, right?  But subjectively, the connection seems real, whatever that means.  I feel shallow ascribing very much significance to that it, though.

There, there.  You’re among friends.  There’s no judgment here.


So is there?

Is there what?

Meaningful significance to the “Disney Bond”?

Let’s say “yes”.  At least insofar as people’s desire to bond about something like an amusement park—even an awesome amusement park—demonstrates a deep rooted longing to make connections of any kind.

It sounds like the "Disney Bond" is subjectively significant to you, but that you’re trying to place your own appreciation of the bond on a higher cerebral plain by pointing out that the bond is compelling to you primarily as a sociological and anthropological illustration.  It’s like you’re saying you’re wrapped up in it, but your “wrapped up-ness” is intellectually defensible.

I might be saying that.  It sounds pretty arrogant when you put it like that, though.

Isn’t it OK just to be wowed by something, even if that “something” is a corporation unapologetically trying to wow you so you give them more money?

I guess so.  Can I at least keep thinking of it as “the place where the talking mouse lives” instead of as “a corporation”?

If that helps maintain your self-image as a thoughtful person.

Talk about irony!  (LAUGHS)

Since I mentioned the goal of the corp- uh, “talking mouse” being to draw more money out of you, let me ask you this: Do you think you’ll ever go back?

Hard to say.  There was talk among Beth’s family of taking a trip all together, but that has been postponed for now.  At this exact moment, the girls are still in the window of appreciating things like Princesses and kid-focused rides.  But it seems to me that the next age range—let’s say 10 to 13—might be that range of being too old to really get into the kid stuff, but not quite old enough to appreciate the experience from an adult perspective.  Now, realize that what I just said may be an example of me completely talking out of my butt.  But it seems to make sense, right?


So what I’m saying is that if we don’t go back this year, we might be looking at a few years down the line.

When you say “adult perspective,” is that a nice way of saying, “Epcot”?


Let’s shift gears.  Did you have any personal “take aways” from the trip?  I mean, other than good memories, did you learn anything?

I learned that my kids may be more ready to travel than I realized.  They did really well in the car ride.

Any other trips lined up?

Nothing planned yet, but most of the country seems like fair game.  Driving to the west coast might be a little much, but anywhere else could work.

Any other lessons?

Something good for me was that the trip went pretty smoothly.  In the past, it’s kind of been “my thing” that every time we take a trip somewhere, I forget something important—either literally forgetting to bring an item of some sort, or I forget how long it will take me to load up the car, or I forget to put a hold on the mail.  This trip was very smooth.  Of course, there were isolated moments of chaos here or there, but nothing directly tied to poor planning on my part.

Do you think you're the only one who forgets things on trips?

Probably not.  It's hard for me to gauge how common it is, though.  For some people, it might be a once-every-five-trips thing.  Maybe other people forget lots of things every trip.  I reckon that I'm in the top 80% of the population when it comes to "effective trip planning."  See how I phrased that in a positive way?

Yes.  Very smooth.

Regardless of how widespread the tendency is, I find it annoying and I get frustrated with myself. 

So this trip broke a trend for you?

Yes, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing.  I mean, I know that it is NOT a good idea to attach your self-image to how well you plan a trip.  But sometimes it’s hard to ignore the voices.  Like, when we’re visiting Beth’s parents and I have to make an emergency run to buy some toothbrushes for the kids because I left theirs in St. Louis—I start to generalize pretty quickly.

Generalize what?

Bad thoughts about myself.  Some may be accurate, mind you.  Like, I may not be as generally dependable as I like to think I am.  If that is the case, I need to realize it and work on it.  Grow and mature--that sort of thing.  But when I unfairly generalize bad thoughts, or when I let “areas of potential growth” become my defining characteristics, that’s a problem.

So the smoothness of the Disney trip made it so that you didn’t have to be tempted with bad thoughts about yourself?

Yes, but I realize that may be attacking the symptom.  Avoiding the trigger of unproductive negativity is a quick fix.  Conversely, the satisfaction I get from planning a smooth trip only feels substantial.  It fades.

Because it only lasts until the next time you forget toothbrushes?

Exactly.  Or the next time I forget to back up pictures on the computer.

Sounds like there’s a story behind that.

After we got home from Disney, when I was still glowing over the smoothness of the trip and generally feeling pretty good about myself, our hard drive crashed.  The short story is that we almost lost about 5 years worth of pictures that were only stored on the computer--because I didn’t back them up.  I went from a high high to a low low in about 10 minutes.

Did you recover the pictures?

Yes, but that’s kind of an aside.  The contrast in my mood made it apparent to me how fleeting my hope and joy were when they were attached to “what I have done lately.”  It’s like I’m a ship being cast around stormy seas.

The New Testament, right?  The book of James?

Yes.  98% sure of that.  I don’t like saying 99% because it’s a cliché and it makes it sound like I haven’t really thought about it.  But I really am at least 98% about that.  Besides, aren’t you the Hungry Preacher?  Shouldn’t you know this?

I’m also 98% sure.  Any other lasting lessons related to Disney?

Can they be cheesy?

We are talking about where the talking mouse lives, right?

Well put, my friend.  Well put.  OK, if cheesy is allowed, then let me say that a week at Disney World can be a microcosm for life itself.  Or at least what life can be.  There is all sorts of symbolism at Disney, all sorts of talk about “believing in your dreams” and “making things magical.”  Maybe “experiencing Disney World” is a litmus test; if you walk away thinking about how commercial everything is or how expensive or whatever, maybe there’s part of you that’s not really willing to dream, and not willing to make your dream happen.  But if you appreciate the “magic” on any level, maybe your appreciation can propel you to create magic of your own in your “real life.”  Maybe the magic doesn’t so much originate from Disney World.  Maybe Disney World draws out the magic in your heart.

So you’re saying that maybe, for some people, Disney World is like a magic feather.

Ooo, that’s good.  Exactly.  Disney World can’t make you fly, but it can make you recognize that the ability to fly is in you, even after you get back home.  Metaphorically, of course.

What is “flying” a metaphor for?

Living.  Loving.  Creating.  Doing beautiful things.  Believing in something life-giving and bigger than yourself.  That is flying.

That’s scary for some people.

I know.


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Disney Whirled: Hightlights of a Nine-Day Adventure into Magicalness, PART 8: "Appendix, Volume 1"

Two days ago I was having lunch with a friend, and I was wearing my Disney World T-shirt.  The server came to take our orders, then saw my shirt and said, “I used to work there.”  She had done the year-long internship about ten years ago, and was planning to return as a guest within a year with her young son.

Later, she brought out my round plate of nachos, along with two small plates for the sour cream and salsa.  After she left, I arranged the three circles as a Mickey Mouse silhouette.  When she returned to check on us, I said, “Look!”  She panicked for a second, like I had found a fly in my salsa or something like that, but then said, “Ah, hidden Mickey.  Nice.”

It’s like they say: “You can take the Hungry Preacher out of Disney World, but you can’t take the Disney World out of the Hungry Preacher.”  (For the record, the dorkiness probably isn’t going anywhere, either.)

Anyway, a few months have passed since our Disney vacation.  After blogging about our experience in the critically acclaimed series “Disney Whirled: Highlights of a Nine-Day Adventure into Magicalness” (the links are below), I promised I would offer a closing post at some point in the future, in which I would share some more reflective post-Disney thoughts.  If you were hoping for something profound or philosophical—well, that would be a strange thing for you to hope for.  But keep reading—you never know, right?

PART 1: "Preparations"
PART 2: "First Impressions"
PART 3: "Pretend People, Real Autographs"
PART 4: "Mac and Cheese and Legos"
PART 5: "Rides and Attractions, Volume 1"
PART 6: "Rides and Attractions, Volume 2"
PART 7: "Why So Sad?"

As far Hungry Preacher family members go, Beth had the scariest adjustment back into real life.  Our first night back in St. Louis, in our own bed, in our own house, I was sound asleep, probably dreaming about roller coasters and stunt shows.  I was suddenly awakened by an urgent whisper.  “Rob!”  My subconscious realized this was not one of those “it’s OK to wake up slowly” times.  Instantly, I was ready to spring into action.  I just needed to hear what the problem was.  Tornado sirens?  The sound of glass breaking from downstairs?  The smell of smoke?  Will I fight, or will I flee?  I was ready for either, and maybe even both.  I propped myself up sideways, “What?” I whispered back.  Beth was lying perfectly still, then whispered as clearly as she could, “There’s a dog in our room.”

I looked up.  Sure enough.  There he was.  Our dog.  Sitting next to our bed.  In our room.  In our house.  We made eye contact.  It was a nice moment.

Meanwhile, Beth was sorting through this bizarre incongruence.  She sat up, let out a confused and exasperated sigh, then shook her head and said, “Wait—are we back at home?”  Before I could even touch my index finger to my nose in an exaggerated manner, she had flopped her head back to her pillow and was sound asleep.

The next day, wanting to make sure I investigated the situation as thoroughly as possible, I sent this photo and caption to Beth.

"Is this the dog that you saw last night?"

The Monkeys had their own adjustments to make.

Monkey 1 was none too happy about having to go back to school; apparently the “2 weeks at school, 1 week at Disney World” schedule is way too heavy on “school” for her.  But she’s gotten back in the swing of things.

I had wondered if her enjoyment of Disney World stemmed primarily from the fact that Disney World was “not school”, but she seems to have fond memories of Disney World in its own right.  The other day at school, a teacher asked her, “Do you have a place to go when you just need to get away from it all?”  Her answer?  “Disney World.”  There you go.  Why go to “your room,” when you could just go to Disney World, right?

Monkey 1 still loves mac & cheese and Legos.  She has built and re-built her Lego souvenir many times, and has recently graduated to Lego Friends sets.  Friends sets are like regular Lego sets, but they are marketed for girls.  The pieces are mostly pastel colored, and the sets come with fewer guns and lasers than Lego Star Wars sets do.  This transition has been difficult for me.  When I was a kid (“kid” = “suggested maximum age printed on Lego boxes, multiplied by 2.5”), I viewed it as a compromise to play with any Lego sets that were not space-themed.  As I matured and grew to appreciate diversity, my own kids finally warmed me up to playing with Lego City sets.  But I never dreamed that a day would come that I would play with girl Legos.  Thankfully, with the support of family and friends, I am adjusting.  And I have done a commendable job of not forcibly steering Monkey 1 towards the more traditional Lego City or Lego Star Wars sets.

Monkey 2 seems ever-so-slightly less enthralled with princesses than she was when we went to Disney, but she still likes stuff that is generally pretty girly.  In fact, that was the theme of her birthday party in February: being girly.  It’s like being “princess-y”, but without the crowns.  She keeps her Princess autograph book displayed in her room.  It’s a nice keepsake.

Lest you think her interest in Princesses has completely faded, just last week, Monkey 2 created this during her quiet time.

Editor’s note: Monkey 2 had drawn a picture of Sleeping Beauty.  This is NOT that picture.  That picture was on the white board for about a week.  The day The Hungry Preacher went to take a photo of that picture, Monkey 2 had replaced it with another picture.  This is not THAT picture, either, but is yet another picture drawn by Monkey 2, using the same medium.  Thus, this picture will serve as an appropriate stand-in for her now-erased drawing of Sleeping Beauty.

Long live the Princess!

Check back tomorrow, and I will open up a can of first-person-reflections on your eyeballs in what will (almost certainly) be the final entry in the Disney Whirled series.

Until then…


Tuesday, April 2, 2013

LaMenting LaRue: Why La Russa Got It Right* (PART 2.0 of 2)

*even if he considers it an attack on his credibility to say so

Well, well, well.  If it isn't the last part of this 3-part series that I started writing around last year's MLB All-Star game.  I've actually had most of this written for quite some time, but have been waiting to post it so that it would correspond to some significant event on the MLB calendar.  I kept "just missing" those events, right up until the last game of last year's World Series.  Turns out there's not much going on in MLB from October to April.  So goes it.

Anyway, I decided that the embarrassment of posting 7 months late was less than the embarrassment of writing all of this but not posting it because I missed some arbitrary posting window.  Besides, I kind of like how it turned out.

I hope this doesn't seem like I'm not appreciative to those of you who have been reviewing PARTS 1 and 1.5 of this series for months and months, because I am appreciative of you (you also worry me a little bit, but that's beside the point).  But for everyone else, here are the links to get you up to speed: PART 1 and PART 1.5.

When we last saw our hero, he was being let down in his quest for justice by all sorts of people and entities.  We've covered three of those people and entities.  And now, I pick up mid stride.  It's like no time passed at all:

Speaking of the media…

4.  The media.  Of course the media doesn’t have an obligation to lament baseball’s loss of Jason LaRue or to paint Johnny Cueto as a thug.  I’m just saying it could have.

Compare Cueto’s act with, say, Roberto Alomar spitting in the face of an umpire.  For years and years, Roberto Alomar could hardly be mentioned in any article or telecast without the commentator mentioning the spitting incident, even if just to say that it was a shame that the spitting incident had become such a significant part of Alomar’s legacy.

The legacy of Cueto’s assault is a hard-to-find footnote in the tiff between Molina and Phillips.  Game 3 of the Cards/Reds post-All-Star Game series was televised on ESPN.  At one point, the commentator said something like, “Cueto, in my opinion, really was a snub.”  That’s it.  Had it been Roberto Alomar fifteen years ago, the announcer would have added, “I mean, I know he spit on the umpire and all, but if you just look at his numbers, he was deserving.”

How do the media decide such things?  I honestly don’t know.  I doubt there is a rule of thumb, and the intentionality of reporting or ignoring details of a story certainly varies from incident to incident and among media outlets.

Ultimately, people watch ESPN to see their favorite players doing and saying great or interesting things.  Not very many people have Jason LaRue on their list of favorite players.

Speaking of players…

5.  The players.  We’ve already seen how Jason LaRue’s union dues were less valuable to the MLBPA than Johnny Cueto’s.  But individual players have had plenty of opportunity to act independently of their union (gasp!) to pursue something that--if it’s dark and you didn’t get a good look--could probably pass for justice.  After all, announcers promise us that players remember things like what Cueto did, and have ways of settling the score.  They allude to things like spring-training at bats, and suggest that when players violate “the code,” payback—usually via a fastball in the ribs—is imminent.

Maybe in the 70’s that was the case.  But these days, even spring training at bats are filmed, and if Cueto ever took a fastball in the ribs from, say, Chris Carpenter, it would be on Youtube in 5 minutes, whether it happened during the playoffs, spring training, or a church picnic.  Even Frank Robinson would have seen it.

Perhaps ballplayers have other ways of enforcing “the code.”  Maybe Chris Carpenter unfriended him on Facebook.  Maybe Yadier Molina hums the line from the INXS song "sometimes you kick, sometimes you get kicked" when Cueto comes up to bat.  Maybe the scoreboard guy at Busch Stadium rounds Cueto’s ERA up to the nearest hundredth of a point, instead of down.

At the very least, though, guys like Carpenter and Molina could have been reminding the public and the media that Johnny Cueto, despite possessing a low ERA and a to-die-for slider, ended a guy’s career with his cleats!

It wouldn’t be the same as a suspension, but if even just once a year, after a game against the Reds, a guy like Yadier Molina gave a shout-out to Jason LaRue—well, at least that would be something.

Specifically?  Imagine this:
Reporter: Yadi, how’d you feel about the win tonight?
Yadier: It’s great.  A win is always good.  But every time we play these guys, win or lose, I think about my man Jason LaRue.  Not that anyone asked, but he’s doing OK.  Still having headaches, forgetting things.  Keep praying for him.  That’s all I got right now.

(Surely after a few years of that, Jeremy Schapp would pick up the torch and run a human interest story on Sunday night Sportscenter, right?)

Yes, this is what we’ve come to in terms of hoping for accountability: vague shaming from other players.  And even this hasn’t happened.  Could there possibly be a 6th level of dispensing discipline in a case like this when the first 5 levels fail?  Ordinarily, no.  But in steps a guy who is so not ordinary that he used to bat the pitcher 8th instead of 9th.

You know him, you probably-don’t-love-him-but-there’s-a-chance-you-don’t-mind-him-as-much-as-other-people-do, he is none other than Tony La Russa.

6.  Tony La Russa.  It seemed perfect.  After Johnny Cueto got away with assaulting one of Tony’s players, guess who could have included Mr. Kicky-head on the All-Star roster but didn’t?  You know the story.  La Russa took matters into his own hands and decided his team would do just fine in the All-Star game without 15 pitches or so from the Red’s ace.

It wouldn’t make Jason LaRue’s headaches go away, but for a 6th level of accountability, it wasn’t bad.  Call it “karma light”.

Then La Russa did something strange.  He denied that his omission of Cueto had anything to do with “the incident.”  Indeed, he took the mere suggestion as an attack on his integrity.  You’ll recall that he said the All-Star Game was too important to let personal vendettas get in the way of roster selection.  Uh, OK.  You gotta stand for something, I guess.

Of course, once the All-Star Game is actually being played, managerial integrity is in no way compromised in the least when managers prioritize “getting everyone in the game” over “putting your best 9 on the field.”  For example, double switching Barry Bonds out of the game in the top of the 4th inning of the 2007 All-Star Game completely passes the "competitive integrity" test, even if your team ultimately loses the game by one run, 5-4 (it's completely slipping my mind who was managing that game for the losing team).

So the definition of “maintaining the integrity of the All-Star experience” might be up for debate.  But whatever it looks like, it seems like La Russa could have just as easily played the “personal integrity card” when talking about Cueto.  He could have said, “Cueto’s numbers are good, and maybe another manager would have picked him.  But, to be completely honest, I get a little sick to my stomach when I imagine his cleats sinking into Jason LaRue’s face.  On a very basic level, I simply don’t want to invite someone like Johnny Cueto to play baseball with me.  It would make me feel like a sell-out.  Win, lose, or tie, I have to look in the mirror at the end of the day and feel like I made a decision that was consistent with my integrity as a human being.”

See how there are different types of integrity?  Had La Russa played that integrity card, people all over the world would have debated the legitimacy of La Russa’s stance.  The debate itself would have reminded people of Cueto’s actions.  Ending LaRue’s career may very well have become for Johnny Cueto what “spitting in the face of an umpire” was to Roberto Alomar or “hitting Roseboro with a bat” was to Juan Marichal.

La Russa instead insisted that his snubbing of Cueto somehow made a great deal of sense from a baseball standpoint.  That case is hard to build.  In fact, it would be easier to build a case that, at the time of La Russa's omission, Cueto was the single best starting pitcher in the National League.  Tony makes us question either his commitment to build a winning roster or his ability to build a winning roster.  He either doesn't value winning or he doesn't recognize talent.  Whatever critical-of-Tony stance you let Tony push you into, the important thing to remember is that it's all about Tony.  It's not about justice, and it's certainly not about Jason LaRue.  Remember him?

This begs the question:  If justice falls in a forest and nobody takes credit for dispensing it, does the recipient of said justice recognize it as such?

We’ll let Johnny Cueto answer that for himself: “I see that I have great numbers.  I thought the way I pitched this year, I’d have a chance to go to the All-Star Game.  I don’t know what happened.  I don’t know if the manager of the All-Star Game is pissed at me because I went out with one of his girlfriends.”

Wow.  The grown up in me is thinking, “Did he just say that, probably in mixed company?”  The junior high boy in me is thinking, “I’m not so much offended—it’s just not really very funny.”

Suffice it to say that if you’ve seen Johnny Cueto taking a long, hard look in the mirror, it’s probably to make sure he looks good for the ladies.

It’s a strange ending to a sad story.  Johnny Cueto ends some guy’s career, and somehow dodges any significant discipline for his action.  La Russa could have been the heroic sheriff of the story, but decided to play the role of “uncooperative conduit for watered-down karma.”  Strange.  To me, it’s also disappointing.

But does it matter?  Does it matter if Cueto is disciplined at all, or if hundreds of people and dozens of systems shrugged their collective shoulders at Jason LaRue losing his livelihood and possibly his ability to function normally?  Does it matter?

Short answer: Not really.  It’s a game.  There are a lot of injustices in the world, and this is a pretty minor one.  Plus, some of us believe that every act of injustice will be answered for anyway, so it’s not a matter of “if,” just “when.”

Long answer: Kind of.  It’s no great revelation that I view Johnny Cueto as the bad guy in this story (though it doesn’t seem like there are very many good guys).  On a personal level, yes, I like to see the bad guy “get his”—probably more than I should.  It’s personally unsettling that Jason LaRue has been let down in so many ways.

But there is a more significant way that it “kind of” matters that Johnny Cueto got away with assault.  In fact, there is someone who has been let down even more than Jason LaRue.  That would be Johnny Cueto himself.

Theoretically, at least part of the purpose of most punishments is to inspire change in the one being punished.  Most formally-issued consequences (e.g., token suspensions) do little to inspire change.  But—perhaps especially in the entertainment world—the grassroots “punishment” called “indignation of the masses” regularly jars bullies and airheads from their selfish delusions of invincibility.  Not always permanently, but sometimes.

Consider the two baseball-related examples from this essay:  Roberto Alomar spitting in the face of umpire John Hirshbeck, and Juan Marichal hitting Johnny Roseboro with a bat.  These two incidents have at least two things in common:
-The public outcry against the culprits (Alomar and Marichal) was immense.
-The culprits and the victims eventually became friends, and in doing so demonstrated the value of things like forgiveness and respect—things that most of us try to model, and teach our children, and even write about.

Correlation does not necessarily equal causation.  Maybe the public’s perception that these guys “crossed a line” is not what prodded these guys to look at themselves and make important changes.  But it sure looks that way.

Will Cueto and LaRue ever talk about how much they respect each other?  From the ruins of this situation, will an example of forgiveness rise like a phoenix?  I doubt it.  Cueto has been affirmed.  He probably feels he has done no wrong.  He possibly sees himself as the victim.  He may even think that he’s funny.  He has no pressing reason to change.  LaRue, meanwhile, may or may not have a forgiving heart.  Even if he does, it’s unfortunate that the public’s interest in this conflict has waned to such a degree that no one outside of LaRue’s family and friends may behold his graciousness. 

Perhaps this story is a learning tool after all.  In life, justice is not always served.  When it is, it is seldom as immediate, drastic, or satisfying as we would like it to be.  The decisions people make are unpredictable, except in hindsight.  Even our own decisions (like going out on the field during a brawl because we think we are fighting for the right side) are easy to second guess, especially when they lead to unexpected and disproportionate consequences.  Even so, we’re not sure what we could have done differently (we can’t just stay in the dugout, can we?).  We are let down by our bosses, our friends, and by organizational systems that we never realized how much we counted on.  As time passes, questions of “what happened?” and “who was right?” are buried by easier-to-process truisms like “everyone made mistakes” and “people have moved on.”  Soon, details of “key elements” are remembered differently by different people, then not at all (before the 2012 All-Star Game, Jason LaRue’s career ending was an important detail of this incident).  When the dust settles for everyone else, we ourselves may dwell on all that is still unsettled as we replay the memories that feel fresh and inescapable (strange, the things you can still remember even when you’re concussed).  Maybe we still hope for justice.  And maybe we will have to settle for a random blogger recounting “what went down” for his scores of readers.  Or maybe not even that.

If we are brave, we can forgive and move forward.  This is hard to do with so little fanfare, so little closure, and so many scars and headaches.  Maybe there exists something more satisfying than justice, and even more satisfying than being a big-league ballplayer.  Maybe there are bigger things to hope for, things that not even Tony La Russa can offer.  Maybe there are bigger things to depend on, things bigger than the media or the most powerful union in the world.  Maybe we would never have discovered these “bigger things,” these opportunities and possibilities, had we been granted the justice that we wanted.  Maybe the life lesson is that even if the “lesson” seems lost for others, there is still “life” for us.  A concussed life is still a life worth living.  The life of a Major League fastball will fade over time.  The life of hope will not.