Baseball and the Church

Growing up two things were for certain: we would play baseball and we would go to church.

Although both of my parents supported and encouraged each of these activities, it became natural for us to identify baseball with Dad and church with Mom. After all, it was my dad who always shared stories about how he struck out a guy who ended up playing in the Series. It was Dad who taught us to sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” before we were 2. It was Dad out in the yard with us showing us how to throw a curveball. And it was mom who made sure we were dressed and in the car. It was Mom who encouraged us to sell fundraiser crap to go to camp. It was Mom who bought us the complete sermons of Martin Luther for Christmas (true story).

When I was nine baseball suffered a damaging blow: the 1994 strike. The strike was one of the worst in history. They actually didn’t play the World Series.  At nine years old I couldn’t understand why these people were complaining about not making enough money playing a game I begged my dad to play with me. Most of America agreed. It seemed baseball would never recover.

And then in 1998 Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa battled for the home-run record. For those not familiar (meaning you were born after 1998), McGwire and Sosa were both on track to beat a 37 year old record of 61 home runs in a single season held by Roger Maris.

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McGwire broke it September 8th. My brothers and I were watching Titanic that night and missing that home run is on the list of reasons why I hate that movie. On September 25th, with just a few games left in the season, Sosa and McGwire were tied at 65 home runs. The Cubs were playing the Astros, and so we went and against our better judgement we cheered for Sammy Sosa to hit a home run, in hopes that it would be the last of the season and we would have been present for history. He hit it. We cheered. We cheered for a Cub. We did it; we were there for history. But within minutes an announcement came on showing that McGwire had hit a home run. They were tied again. We booed. Booing a Cardinal seemed more natural. McGwire would go on to hit four more home runs that season, ending at 70.

I remember it so clearly. I remember it because all little boys remember baseball games. I remember it because when I was 9 baseball died and when I was 13 it came back to life.

And that’s how it ended. There was a four year lull where baseball had a bad name but now it is America’s favorite past time again. That is why you definitely know who won the World Series this year.

Actually, we all know that’s not what happened. A few years later the performance enhancing drugs scandal hit. Sosa and McGwire, it turns out, both beat Maris’ record by some unnatural means. In 2001, Barry Bonds broke the record again. But this time nobody cared because we all knew professional baseball’s dirty secret. Regular little boys couldn’t become baseball stars without using drugs.

That, deep down, is what we all love about baseball. It makes anything possible. All little boys know how to make that sound like a crowd cheering with their mouths (I can’t describe it, but if you’re a man you know it. If you’re a woman, ask the nearest man). We all know what its like to stand in our yard and say in a fake announcer voice, “Game 7. Bottom of the ninth. Bases loaded. Full count.” There’s a chance that we might become pro baseball players because they don’t look that special. They look kind of like our dads. They’re not 7 feet tall like basketball players and they’re not 350 pounds like football players. They look like normal guys who have worn themselves out in the batting cages trying to perfect one of the most difficult skills there is to master: hitting a baseball.

That is what I love about watching the game. Anything is possible. There is no time limit (as Astros fans learned in 2005). You can be down by 10 runs with one out left in the game and the game still isn’t over. You can tell football games are over before the beginning of the fourth quarter. But you can’t do that with baseball. My parents taught us never to leave baseball games early because they left a game that ended up being one of the greatest comebacks in history to beat traffic only to arrive home and find out on the news. It is never over. That is why it is America’s sport. I can’t think of another sport that captures that so perfectly.

Except right now it is over. Or it seems like it is. The sport was destroyed by the players quest for money and fame in the mid 90s and their use of steroids in the late 90s to get  it.

If only there was some player that never really chased prestige but showed commitment to his team and is arguably one of the greatest players of all time without using steroids. For instance, somebody who played 20 years for the same team, is one of 28 people to have 3,000 hits, and possibly one of the 10 best second basemen of all time. A guy like that would be a really great picture of what baseball really is about. He exists, his name is Craig Biggio and yesterday he was not voted into the Hall of Fame.

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Leaving Craig Biggio out of the hall of fame is just the latest example of how professional baseball seems intent on destroying itself.

A quick google search of “What’s wrong with baseball?” provides you with a thousand blogs, articles, news stories and even some books. We all know it, something is wrong with baseball. Google “What’s wrong with basketball?” and most of the hits are asking what is wrong with a particular teams play this year not the sport itself (and there was just a basketball strike).

There are a lot of answers to the question of “What’s wrong with baseball?” The length of the season, steroids, money, the use of the Designated Hitter, the focus on pitching and less on batting, Bud Selig. I think all of these are right. But I think they miss the point.

Like I said before, the other certainty in our house was that we would go to church.

I’ve had pretty much the same relationship with the church as I do with professional baseball, and for pretty much the same reasons.

In the same year as the home run race, the Southern Baptist convention callously made an amendment to its “faith and message” for the first time in 35 years to say that women should submit to their husbands.

In 2006, Ted Haggard known for his adamant opposition to homosexuality, was exposed for having had an ongoing relationship with a male prostitute.

Catholic priests, once an image of piety and holiness, have had their reputation ruined by the child sex scandals.

Just like baseball, the prestige of this thing I love so much is constantly tarnished by scandal.

And I love them for the same reason. Baseball players look like us and so do the saints. In fact, I look better than most of the guys from the Bible. I’ve never had an affair and had a man killed to cover it up. I’ve never cut off a guys ear. I’ve never killed Christians. These are the guys Christianity triumphs. And just like baseball players, these guys through dedication, passion, discipline, and faith were able to become something big. They were able to hone the most difficult skill in life: overcoming sin. They make it seem like anything is possible and that it is never over.

What is wrong with the church? This is another place baseball mirrors the church.

Bob Nightengale, one of the voters responsible for ignoring Biggio, wrote an article in response to the outrage saying “Go ahead and take all the shots you want; there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the results. “

Bud Selig, baseball’s commissioner, said “This idea that this somehow diminishes the Hall or baseball is just ridiculous in my opinion.”

Ask any die hard baseball fan why football is more popular than baseball and the answer is, “Well, baseball is a thinking man’s game and our country is stupider than it was in the past. Football appeals to the lowest common denominator.”

Major League Baseball, the problem with you isn’t that players went on strike, or that McGwire used steroids, or that Biggio was left out of the hall of fame. Those are problems, no doubt, but the problem is the way you talk about it. You want to ignore them when you should be admitting they were wrong. This is America’s sport, it not the thinking man’s game, its the common man’s game. It is a game about how anybody can come back and win. People like baseball less and less and that makes you feel more and more elite. Baseball is dying and you don’t care because you still like it.

That might seem like a really melodramatic reaction to the waning of a sport that I like. But I feel it so strongly because I just changed the words to something I want to scream every day:

Church, the problem with you isn’t that the Southern Baptist convention has bad PR, or that Ted Haggard had sex with a man, or that Catholic Priests molested boys. Those are problems, no doubt, but the problem is the way you talk about it. You want to ignore them when you should be admitting they were wrong. You are supposed to be for the people, this isn’t a thinking man’s faith, its the common man’s faith. It’s about how anybody can come back and be saved. People like the church less and less and that makes you feel more and more elite. Your church is dying and you don’t care because you still go.

But I love you anyway, because you and baseball have taught me that even for you:

Anything is possible and it is never over.