Baseball and the Reformation

Romans 3: 19-23 / Reformation Sunday

I spent my summers on Lake Winnipesaukee where my grandfather, uncle and father built three cottages. I spent many languid hours there, but one thing I can remember is that my grandmother always had the Red Sox on the radio. My father and I spent a lot of time on the living room floor with our backs against a bolster pillow watching Rico Petrocelli, Tony Conigliaro, and Carl Yastrzemski do their magic on our black and white screen. From early spring until mid-October, it part of the air we breathed. Whatever we were doing during the weekends, the voice of Curt Gowdy reporting the Sox games was a part of it. This New England tradition was passed onto me and I gave the disease to my wife.

There is something about the world of baseball that gets into one’s blood. Tom Boswell, sports writer for the Washington Post, says life imitates the World Series. I’ve followed the drama about the Red Sox’ September collapse, accusations of beer drinking in the dugout and out of shape, spoiled millionaire ball players. The rise and fall of Terry Francona and Theo Epstein has been a sight to behold. Once you have spent a summer immersed in league standings; once you have agonized through a tough pennant race with a team, you never quite recover from it. The world of baseball is a dramatic presentation of some of life’s most important and universal lessons. Now I’m not saying that Abner Doubleday intended to make a theological statement about the meaning of life when he invented the game of baseball. But he did invent a game which dramatizes a very human predicament — that of trying to measure up to a standard of perfection, and always falling short.

So on Reformation Sunday, I’m going to talk about baseball. At the heart of the Reformation was the assertion that we are “justified by faith.” In other words, we are saved, set right with God, however you want to put it, not because of my noble efforts, but because of God’s free grace. The Reformation recovered two important teachings: the gravity of human sin and the gravity of God’s grace.

The Apostle Paul talked a lot about standards of perfection that are impossible to meet. To Paul, those standards were the Hebrew Law. Paul said that the law is a curse — always reminding us of how inadequate we really are. The law, he says, is set up to show us that we cannot do right. Just as a thermometer shows us we are sick, God’s Law shows us we are broken people who fall short of God’s requirements. We can never be good enough because we cannot live up to its standards anymore than we can jump across the Grand Canyon flat-footed. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” Paul says in our text today in the book of Romans.

Baseball is a lot like that too. Baseball is a game of measuring things against impossible standards — a game of numbers. Everything is tallied up and written down. In his book (and now a movie) Moneyball, Michael Lewis writes about the Oakland A’s use of a modernized, analytical, sabermetric approach to assembling a competitive baseball team, despite Oakland’s not having much money to work with. And it worked. For six years they put together a winning team on peanuts by MLB standards. So today, almost every ball team crunches numbers and you can find out every players on-base-percentage and slugging percentage, which are much better indicators of success than stolen bases, runs batted in, or even a player’s batting average. You can find the batting averages of all the players in the major leagues. The Red Sox’ stat computer is called Carmine.

You can read every player’s statistics, every day, all lined up compared against every other player in the league. A player’s batting average is printed in the paper; it’s announced over the radio, and it’s flashed on the stadium Jumbotron, all carried out to the three decimal points. Nobody says, “He’s hitting pretty well.” They say, “He’s hitting .285.” Very precise measurements. There is no way to pretend success. There is no way to hide failure. It’s all right there in the book.

And the interesting thing about it is that nobody does very well. The very best hitters get about three hits in every ten tries. That’s not a very good percentage for most jobs, but if you get three out of ten in baseball, they give you a multi-million dollar salary. And if you do it Many years in a row, they put you in the Hall of Fame.

Take Carl Yastrzemski, for instance. Yastrzemski was one of the all time greats of the game and of the Red Sox. He topped Ted Williams for lifetime number of hits (over 3000) and 1000 of those were extra base hits. Yet Carl Yastrzemski struck out 1,393 times in his career. That’s a lot of strike-outs. And yet he was one of the greats and went to fifteen All-Star games! Nobody is very good when measured against that absolute batting standard of 1.000. That’s a tough standard to fall short of — with the whole world watching. And everyone falls short of it. No one has even come half way to perfection over the course of a season. All have fallen short.

Paul the Apostle would appreciate the similarities in the batting average standard, and the inability of anyone to come anywhere near living up to it. Baseball is a hard task-master and a stern judge of anyone who sets out to be good at it. And life is a lot like that, too. It kicks back. We fall down. We are moral and spiritual failures in many ways.

But there is another side to baseball; a side that is more like the gift of grace. In baseball, everyone gets a chance to bat. Everyone gets the same number of balls and strikes. Each team gets the same number of outs. And what makes baseball fairer than some other sports is that it has no clock. And maybe this makes the game even fairer than life itself because in baseball, you do not run out of time. (The record for the most innings ever played in a single professional game is 33, in a minor-league game between the Pawtucket Red Sox and the Rochester Red Wings.) Unless it rains, everyone gets their innings in — as many as it takes to decide who wins and who loses. As that great baseball theologian, Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”

Thursday night, Peggy and I were watching game six of the World Series. It was the ninth inning, Texas was a head 7 to 5, and all they had to do was get three outs to win their first World Series. So we shut of the TV and went to sleep glad for the Rangers. The next morning we learned the Cardinals won it 10-9. In baseball, there is always the possibility that the unexpected will happen. There is always time for redemption.

Take Jacoby Ellsbury. In 2010, Ellsbury only played in 18 games because of bruised ribs he sustained after colliding with Adrian Beltre in pursuit of a foul pop fly. This year Ellsbury was named the come-back play of the year. He was the first Red Sox player and one of four Major Leaguers (the most in a single season) to record 30 homers and 30 stolen bases, and he posted career highs in nearly every offensive category. The center fielder hit .321 with 32 homers, 105 RBIs, 39 steals, 46 doubles, five triples and 119 runs, and he led the Majors with 364 total bases and 83 extra-base hits.

Or take the case of Bob Brenley, for instance. In 1986 he was playing third base for the San Francisco Giants. In the fourth inning of a game against the Atlanta Braves, Brenley made an error on a routine ground ball. Four batters later, he kicked away another grounder and then, while he was scrambling after the ball, he threw wildly past home plate trying to get the runner; two errors on the same play. A few minutes later, he muffed yet another play, to become the first player in the 20th Century to make four errors in one inning. Those of us who have made very public errors at one time or another, can easily imagine how he felt during that long walk off the field at the end of that inning. Then, in the bottom of the fifth, Brenley hit a home run. In the seventh, he hit a bases loaded single, driving in two runs and tying the game. And then, in the bottom of the ninth, Brenley came up to bat again with two out. He ran the count to 3 and 2, and then hit a massive home run into the left field seats to win the game for the Giants. Brenley’s scorecard for the day came to three hits in five at-bats, two home runs, four errors, four runs allowed, and four runs driven in, including the game-winning run.

Life is a lot like that, isn’t it? A mixture of hits and errors. And there is grace in that. Grace means you’ll have another chance. Grace won’t exactly erase your errors, but it will give you a chance to make up for them. If we are just .200 hitters, God will hit .800 to fill in the gaps. It’s not over ‘til it’s over. There are still more surprises waiting. Even if it’s not a level playing field, God can do marvelous things.

Paul puts it in this way, “Since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus…..because in his divine forbearance he has passed over former sins.” He should know because he made a lot of errors in his life. He was a Pharisee of Pharisees, a ferocious enemy of Jesus, the feared and hated persecutor of the early disciples, who had systematically attempted to destroy the church by annihilating its members. Jesus found him and turned him around, and set him on a new course, building a church through Paul in which the forgiveness of Christ was offered to everyone — no membership tests, no lines of birth or race or accomplishment; a church for people who had made errors.

In fact, Jesus spent most of his time with people who had made a lot of errors. People who had gone 0 for 4 in life, so to speak; people who had often dropped the ball. “Losers” we might call them — uneducated fishermen, prostitutes, people afflicted with unpleasant diseases, and mental disorders, tax collectors, adulteresses, the outcasts, the poor, the unacceptable, the lost—why even the smelly. Jesus came to seek and save the lost. In Christ, the scorekeeper cancels the errors, gives the losers another chance, a new start, a new beginning. Jesus looks past the errors to the possibilities of the future. With God, it’s not over ‘til it’s over. Nothing is finished until God is finished with it. No one is finished until God has completed them.

I can tell you from personal experience that one of the chances we all get in life is the chance to make errors. And I’ve made some serious ones and I’ll bet you have too. But with Christ, we always have another chance. We always have the possibility of a comeback. God’s love is always seeking us — always following us — always overlooking the errors and giving us still another inning — still another chance at bat.

Cause it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.

(Thanks to Rev. Nancy D. Becker and her article “A Theology of Baseball” as the inspiration for this sermon.)

About Norman Bendroth

Norman Bendroth is a Professional Transition Specialist certified by the Interim Ministry Network. He has served as a settled pastor in two United Church of Christ congregations and as a Sr. Interim pastor in seven other UCC congregations. He was also an executive for three different non-profit agencies. He has had additional training in Mediation Skills for Church Leaders from the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center and training in Appreciative Inquiry from the Clergy Leadership Institute. Rev. Bendroth has the M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and his D. Min. from Andover Newton Theological school where he concentrated on theology and systems theory. He is married to Peggy Bendroth and has two adopted Amerasian children.
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