Kids, Sports and Grace

This article got me on edge. Here is a quick quote:

While neighborhood games become increasingly scarce, year-round travel teams have never been more prevalent. The U.S. Specialty Sports Association, the dominant organizing body for travel baseball, said it has around 1.3 million players spread across 80,000 teams, more than double what it had 10 years ago. The company’s website includes national rankings for teams in age groups that begin at “4 and under.”

Ismael Gonzalez, who manages the Miami-based 9-and-under team MVP Juniors Elite, said his team travels throughout the Southeast, playing more than 100 games a year and practicing two or three days a week. “These kids work like machines,” he said. “This is not just for fun. This is their lifestyle.”

That is child abuse. I don’t remember playing organized sports other than baseball before 7th grade. In High School I played a sport each season. I loved Basketball, but the thought of playing nothing but would drive me crazy. This is the hard saying nobody wants to hear. If your kid is going to make the big leagues in any sport, the level of innate physical talent, usually speed, is such that they will make it dedicating themselves to it starting in High School or later. If they aren’t going to make it, it doesn’t matter how early they specialize, they aren’t going to make it.

The problem with many rec leagues is that the zealots have taken over. The casual league is managed and run with the express purpose of giving travel teams free reign and developing a star player. That is not the purpose of rec leagues or rec facilities. The purpose is to give the average kid something to do for a few hours other than play x-box. To learn the love of being part of a team. To learn that just playing, win or lose, is valued and important. (Not that winning isn’t more fun.)

There are a couple of interesting theological ideas playing out here. The first is the freedom that the idea of election actually gives. Theologically election might be expressed in the biblical phrase, “those that have more will be given, those that have not even what they have will be taken away (Matt 25:29).” Knowing that God gets what God wants or that “my sheep hear my voice” takes the burden off our effort and allows for grace. Baseball wise, little league is not going to make or break a future big leaguer. When you reject election, it is all on you. When it is all on you, life gets out of whack and grace disappears. The second is that the law always accuses. When grace has been abandoned for the law alone, baseball wise when leagues are run for producing the future hall of famer, all who don’t measure up to that level are condemned. The law is unyielding. What grace does is not take away the chance to be a hall of famer, we still have saints. What it does is say is play it for love.

Law, Gospel and Barry Bonds

winter barry in spring
It is Lent which is a time for confession. First confession, this is little article is an exercise in procrastination. But I hope it is also an exercise of love.

I’m turning to Baseball. Did you know that they are playing spring training games? More interesting, did you know that Home Run King* Barry Bonds has taken a small position as hitting instructor for his old team the Giants? When I was a child I did childish things, like play basketball. Basketball is a beautiful game, although coaches and TV are doing their best to ruin it. Coach Wooden had the appropriate appreciation in never calling timeouts. To get to the core of basketball you need to be in the flow. All the time outs allow for ads and money and the coaches to feel important on camera, to get big, but they ruin basketball at its core. When I grew up, I started to recognize the poetic depths in baseball that basketball just doesn’t have the vocabulary rival. Not that the players see these things. Most players are not reflective types. Even in baseball you want to get into the flow, and turning on the brain inhibits the flow. But I’m praying for Barry. Because it is in him. Anyone who can be that big of an a**-hole on purpose, anyone who can display envy on a staggering level as he has, also has the necessary powers of reflection if turned in the right direction. And we need him.

So much of what is eating at America’s soul finds a living symbol in Barry Bonds. When I was struggling to play my last desperate games of basketball, a lanky kid was demonstrating how to play America’s pastime. But nobody was watching, or at least in Barry’s mind nobody was watching. He broke into the league with the Pirates in 1986. By 1990 he won the MVP, the Silver Slugger and the Gold Glove. I remember those Pirate years. Do you remember who was the favorite? 2nd rate slugger Bobby Bonilla, if not the journeyman catcher Sid Bream. Do you remember what Bonds would become known for in Pittsburgh during those years? Not being able to win in the post-season. In 1992 Franscisco Cabrera would knock in Sid Bream ahead of the Bonds throw to end the season…and Bonds time in Pittsburgh. That kid in Pittsburgh could have been the 2nd coming of Roberto Clemente. He could have continued to win awards and the respect of the league and been that example of excellence that gets talked about in hushed tones, a first ballot Hall of Famer that people trek to Cooperstown to see the brass plaque. But those were not the lessons Barry learned.

Barry learned that HR’s, not silver sluggers or gold gloves or stolen bases or any of the really hard things, are what bring what appeared like love. Pittsburgh loved Bobby Bo and not Barry. And instead of that being to Pittsburgh’s shame, Barry learned. Barry learned that “not winning when it counted” even though the club ace was Doug Drabek with a steep drop off after that is what you get playing for small market teams. What Barry learned was to get big. Growth, at any cost, was what was needed. And get big he did. He went from that all-around player competing for every major award while hitting 30 HR’s to the epic steroid run we remember. And when being smart about it wasn’t enough, when those hacks Sosa and McGuire hogged the spotlight, Bonds went all in the following years. Forget any semblance of fielding or the player he once was. He would put up the dingers in Ruthian fashion landing in McCovey Cove. Feats that haven’t and won’t be matched until a generation comes that does not remember Joseph.

America also learned those lessons – get big. Too big to fail. We not only blew one bubble but two. When the tech-bubble burst no longer allowing 20 year old geeks to become billionaires overnight, we blew the mortgage bubble. Can’t found, buy a McMansion on a $30,000 salary and liar loan and flip it. Get big, 2000…3000…4000 sq. ft. All growth is good growth, right? And in all that growth, we lost our soul. Just like Barry.

Of course he maintains his innocence. He will still occasionally try and say he didn’t use. When asked if he belongs in the Hall of Fame Barry will answer “of course”. He is right on a completely inconsequential level. His self-justifications are “scoreboard”. Look at the stats. Even if you don’t want to credit his late career, cut it off in the year of Sosa and McGuire. He’s still hall of fame by the strict letter of the law. The problem is that even our best is nothing in that court. If you are going by the law, it only takes one blemish. What we need is a Barry Bonds who could receive grace. We need Hall of Fame voters who could say, “He was wrong, but he was us. In a way, he was the best of us, which is also the worst of us.” And from that act of grace a Barry who could stand up at the Hall of Fame and talk not about 73* HR’s, but about teaching 18 year-olds how to hit in Spring Training. I’m praying for that Barry. We need him.

(HT: The Slurve, a great little baseball newsletter for following the game, and this article.)

John Calvin, Baseball Fan


We have a natural tendency to mess things up. We can’t help it. Even when we think we are doing good we very likely are in the midst of mortal sin, or at least the next royal mess. Everything from bringing democracy to the middle east to expanding healthcare, from trying to comfort a friend to advising daughters on boyfriends. Intentions are rarely bad. And we can imagine a universe where this goes well. We just don’t happen to live in that universe. We don’t get to make clean choices and pick between good and evil. We don’t see that well. Most of our choices are actually between bad and worse. Welcome to the triage center known as a fallen world. And just because we didn’t intend to, doesn’t let us off the hook. We are morally culpable – sometimes to the third and forth generations.

Sometimes two great plays lead to a limp off loss in the World Series.

But unlike Boston, whose only recourse is game 4, we have Hope. The law is not the final word. The righteousness of God is by Grace.

Did You Hear – They are playing baseball

I was a basketball guy. Still love the game, but hung up the high-tops roughly a decade ago when all of a sudden my dead-eye jumper couldn’t even find the rim, all of a sudden I was Bill “floor” Laimbeer minus the 3 ball. (Tangent warning, the NBA has become interesting again. Sir Charles is always talking about match-ups. The NBA game is all about if you have someone who can minimize the other team’s skill-freak-of-nature, or exploit your own. For a long time all the NBA teams seemed to be about trying the same thing (2 guard & big man). But now you’ve got radically different team visions competing. Maybe it is that only one team can have LeBron, so it became obvious you had to try other strategies. The Bulls have trouble scoring (especially since they lost their second unit from last year), but that is one of the best rebounding/defense teams I’ve seen. The Spurs, the Clippers, the Nets, the Rockets (my vote for most interesting team to watch), and none of those are the OKC Thunder, yet all are serious teams with different strategies.)

Anyway, enough basketball, this was about baseball. What I like about baseball is the stories. Baseball is a complex game filled with characters. Unlike basketball which is really “just about buckets”, and only has two stories (plucky team from nowhere and street smart flashy greatness, which once upon a time were racial tropes, but today Durant in OKC and Paul at the second LA team are plucky nowheres); unlike basketball baseball can have multiple stories on the field at the same time. Part of that is the timing, part is the history, part is the game design, and part is who covers it. The history which starts in mythology, the slower pace, the wide open spaces of the field and specialized skills at every position all beckon great writers. (Anyone who argues for taking the hall of fame ballot away from the writers is an idiot. Ok, the veterans committee can be a House of Lords making some tweaks.) If you don’t have the time to pay attention everyday but still enjoy the game and the stories it produces, a good journalist has made it easy. Michael Brendan Dougherty is editing something called The Slurve, a daily edited email newsletter of the stories around the league, along with game summaries.

The story that he highlighted yesterday and continued with a link today is pitcher Barry Zito. The Slurve’s essay was insightful – how Zito’s production in terms of wins and losses is defying his raw stats in terms of k’s and ERA and WHIP. The Slurve talked in terms of balance, crossing into the theological almost “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” territory. The Angry God being the raw stats and the thin thread being balanced upon. But that isn’t where I’d go. The link to the GQ interview talks a different insight in Zito’s own words.

To what degree are you a different person than the person you were in Oakland?

I think I’m a little bit less of a seeker these days. I’ve found something that I just really love, which is the Christian faith, and it’s new to me. I grew up being a seeker and being completely out of the box and testing and reading and trying all different religious things and kind of philosophical approaches and such, and it’s kind of a backwards route. Most people are raised very rigidly in an organized religion and then they try to fight their way out of that. I needed structure [laughs]. A lot of these kind of spiritual things are all based on the self and that was just too—I couldn’t handle that anymore. I don’t know. I think it led to a form of—it can lead to narcissism, I think.

What led the two of you to this particular faith?

It’s hard to pinpoint one thing, but I think a lot of pain, you know, a lot of tough times and basically a need for strength outside of myself.

The strength outside of myself. Christ or the Word comes extra nos – outside of us. Faith comes by hearing. We are proclaimed righteous by grace through the work of Christ. Having trouble living up to the expectations of a $100M contract? Having trouble finding peace by and in yourself? Tired of the search? Maybe its a larger magnitude and a bigger stage, but those are things that we all feel one time or another. From where comes our strength? I look to the hills, my strength comes from the Lord. (Psalm 121:1ff) From outside myself. And that peace passes understanding. The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore. (Psalm 121:8) That doesn’t mean an 84 MPH fastball will get it done forever, but resurrections are great to see while they are around.