Ninth century Buddhist monk Linji Yixuan famously told his students "If you see Buddha on the road, kill him." Metaphorically, he meant for his students to "kill the belief that you understand it all". I don’t take it for that, exactly. I take it more directly – kill Buddha.
I grew up in the suburbs of Boston. I remember many late summer evenings in the front yard with my parents and the neighbors on lawn chairs listening to Red Sox radio - Carl Yastrzemski, Rico Petrocelli, Jim Lonborg. My dad took me to Fenway several times in 1967 – the Sox lost the World Series in seven games that year.
In ’72 we moved to Maryland. Earl Weaver, Jim Palmer, Boog Powell, Brooks Robinson. In the early 80’s it was Cal Ripken, Eddie Murray, Frank Robinson, and the "Oriole Way". In ‘92 the O’s unveiled Camden Yards, and that was the year I really came to love two teams.
In 2004 I was supporting Operation Enduring Freedom in the Middle East, living in a tent with a couple hundred other guys. Red Sox Nation was alive and well there. After our 14-hour shifts, we would retire to our bunks, sleep for four hours, and head to the gym to watch the playoffs on the television. After each game we’d head right back to work. That year, in the dry heat of an Arabian Ramadan, we watched the Sox pull off the "Greatest Comeback in The History of Sports" and win it all. The 86-year drought came to an end, and "The Curse" was reversed. I only wished my dad had lived to see it.
Fast-forward 18 years. My wife, Maryland born-and-raised, is a bigger Red Sox fan than I, thanks to Big Papi. I surprised her recently with some rather expensive tickets to the last Red Sox series of the season at Camden Yards. The Sox have performed well below expectations all year, but the tickets got us on-field access to watch batting practice. I started preparing a month in advance by ordering two expensive authentic player jerseys – one Orioles and one Red Sox. I had them each custom-made with "RIPTIZ" on the back, and then sent them off to a tailor to cut them in half and sew them back together – "ORI-SOX" on the front, and "RIPTIZ" on the back. Game day finally arrived, and our escort led us through the bowels of Camden Yards, emerging onto the pristine dirt track directly behind home plate. The track was cordoned off from dugout to dugout. We immediately headed to the Red Sox dugout where I called off the names to my wife as the team emerged onto the field: Cora, Febles, Devers, Bogaerts, Story, Casas, Verdugo, Hernandez, Pham, Arroyo, Wong, Martinez, etc.
Our escort handed me two batting practice balls and suggested I get some autographs. Now I’m not normally one for autographs. I could sit on a barstool with the ghost of QEII on one side and Big Papi himself on the other, and I wouldn’t pay a bit of attention. I once sat on a barstool at the Black Cat in D.C., right next to Andrew Bird who is my favorite musician in the world. I never once interrupted his business with a plate of French fries. But in this case, a particular scenario raced through my mind: what if I got two autographed baseballs and gave them to some kid(s)? You see it all the time, right? Someone catches a foul ball and hands it to a kid, and MLB can’t upload the heartwarming video fast enough. I’m not crying – you’re crying!
So, I reluctantly walked to the edge of the cordon. Xander Bogaerts, arguably the greatest shortstop in all of MLB, was 20 feet way, back to me, talking to a handful of players. I respectfully waited for a lull in the conversation before saying "Hey Bogey!" Bogaerts turned to look at me. He paused for a couple of seconds looking me over, pushed his hand toward me in a symbolic gesture of dismiss, and turned away. Later, in our seats a few rows back from first base, two kids behind me were talking non-stop baseball. I turned around and gave them the two batting practice balls. Their eyes lit up, but no one would have shed a tear at the sight of it.
Bogaerts is nearing the end of his $120M contract. Now I for one am super happy that players are getting the money they deserve. But all that money comes from the fans who buy the expensive tickets, the $250 player jerseys, the $12 hot dogs, the MLB subscriptions, the MLB-branded video games, and access to streaming content. Ask a player like Bogaerts any question, and their answer will inevitably reference the "greatest fans in baseball".
I understand that players may be wary of people selling their autographs on eBay. I understand that they’re weary of autographs and photo ops in the first place; it must be exhausting. But this was a cordoned area, and I was the only one there. I, one of "the greatest fans in baseball", dropped a grand on the opportunity, and it literally would have taken 30 seconds. Of course, it’s his prerogative and I don’t begrudge it.
But this brings me back to Linji Yixuan. In my 64th year I’ve finally learned to kill the Buddha in my head. It isn’t enough to politely refrain from approaching an idol. We must reject the idea of idols altogether.