What Has Theology to do With Baseball; or Baseball With Theology?

Although I am starting with baseball, please read to the end if you are wondering about the theology part.

In a bizarre, other-worldly sequence of events, I find myself paying far more attention to the Houston Astros (*Asterisks*) cheating scandal than I ever pay to the regular season in baseball. I am what you might call a September-October kind of fan, perhaps a little more if my beloved Dodgers are playing for something serious in the fall. Otherwise, baseball is just white noise to me. This year is totally different. Due to this cheating scandal I am absorbed with trashcans, buzzers, tattoos, center-field cameras and the unbelievable numbers of ways in which you can apologize by blaming everyone around you and never, ever, really even coming close to an apology.

This scandal has riled my emotions for two primary reasons, and probably a whole host of secondary reasons. First, far more than cheating by pumping yourself full of steroids, this scheme by the Astros to steal games affects the integrity of the game itself. It is one thing to steal a home run record, it is something entirely different to literally change the outcome of an entire season. Let’s be honest – unless every ball park had the exact same dimensions, a home run record is quaint at best. To compare the cavernous  old Yankee Stadium with the tiny (relatively speaking) Fulton County Stadium where Hank Aaron played for so many years is just nuts. Also, the height of the pitching mounds changed through the years, the consistency of the baseballs has varied greatly, so, once again, let’s be honest. The only records that really mean something are those where players from different generations can compete on a level playing field, pardon the pun. (Stolen bases comes to mind – the distances between the base paths has never changed).

The second reason why this scandal has so infuriated me (and I mean heart palpitating, hands shaking, wanting to scream kind of infuriation) is that it significantly affected players’ careers and earning potential. I think of Yu Darvish. He was traded after the 2017 World Series and I was eternally grateful. I felt like he almost single handedly surrendered the 2017 World Series to the Astros. Well, now I have to wonder. And, the Chicago Cubs have publicly stated that with his performance in the ’17 series his market value dropped considerably. What could he have earned if he had been a part of the World Series Champion Los Angeles Dodgers? What about Clayton Kershaw, who dominated in the regular season, yet looked like a little leaguer pitching in Houston? What about the pitchers whose ERA ballooned because of the banging trashcans in Houston and were sent down to the minors never to be heard from again? Or who lost bargaining power because of a disastrous outing or two in Houston? What about Aaron Judge, who lost the MVP voting to Jose Altuve, one of the dirtiest of the Houston players? (More on Altuve later). This is what just really chaps my hide about this entire thing. The cheating scheme may not have physically injured someone, but in terms of career damage and financial damage, the results are despicable.

I could add the lack of a sincere apology – but that is to get ahead of myself.

The Astro organization has bent over backwards trying to contain the damage. The only problem is that every time someone from the organization opens their mouth, the damage gets worse. A number of weeks ago Jose Altuve and some other player were almost gleeful that the cheating scandal was behind them – and, they won the World Series so get over it. Then, the owner had to chime in. Yes, they broke the rules, but it never impacted the game. Wait, he never said it never impacted the game, except that he said that very thing not more than 40 seconds earlier. Well, it might have impacted the game, and it might not, you never know, and by the way, we won the World Series so get over it. The players chimed in – yeah, we’re sorry (not), but the cheating never changed the outcome of a game, and we won the World Series so get over it. The utter arrogance of the team is beyond belief.

Apologists have come out and tried to get certain players either completely or partially exonerated. “It was only a few players, “x” player only had “x %” of his pitches identified, blah, blah, blah.” The whole team is dirty. Correa is dirty. Altuve is especially dirty, whether he had a tattoo or not. Verlander is dirty, he of the “I hate cheating in any form or fashion” reputation. Bregman is dirty. The whole stinking team is dirty, and their attempts to wash their dirty laundry in public is repugnant, to be honest.

Oh, and let’s not forget the two guys at the top who are the dirtiest – the owner of the Astros and the commissioner of major league baseball. The commissioner gave the owner a full pardon and whitewash, and the owner has hidden his guilt behind that pardon. Major league players are furious at the Astros, and what is really telling, they are furious at the commissioner because he did absolutely nothing to the players. He could have easily vacated the 2017 World Series title (a serious argument could be made that, even if the Astros did not cheat in the series, their very presence was obtained by fraudulent means, therefore nullifying the final results.) He could have banned the current team from participating in the 2020 postseason. He had a number of options and wiffed on all of them. The players are furious. The fans even more so. I can only imagine how those well behaved fans in the Bronx are going to gently and kindly welcome the *Asterisks* every time they visit New York.

Okay – enough of the scandal – gotta get my blood pressure down. What does all of this have to do with theology? I’m glad you asked.

Our God has so arranged our physical and emotional nature that the concept of fairness is a powerful inborn trait. Doubt me? Just hover near a group of toddlers playing around each other. It doesn’t take very long at all before one or more will scream loudly, “That’s not fair!” Where is this learned, where is this taught? I would argue it is buried deep within us, and whether we admit it or not, we hate it when we are aggrieved and we are mindful of when we are guilty and unpunished.

Balderdash and poppycock, you say? Not so fast, I retort. How many times have you done something wrong, only to have it swept under the rug and then you actually feel worse than if you had been held honestly and equitably accountable? When we do something wrong and are not held accountable two issues are communicated – one, that we ourselves are not important enough to be corrected so that our behavior can improve, and two, the issue at hand was obviously not important so whatever we did to violate the law or command should never have been in place to begin with. In other words, there is a double whammy – we are not valuable enough to be corrected and loved, and the violation was of such inconsequence that it meant nothing to begin with. When those issues are combined in a situation of significant enough size, the ultimate results can be debilitating.

As I said, I think this is something God put deep within each of us, whether we have ever put words to it or not.

This is where confession, repentance, punishment, and forgiveness are so critical – theological issues to be sure!! If there is no confession, no honest and complete grasping of a wrong committed, there can be no path forward. Repentance would be the promise of a lifestyle that denounces and rejects the violation under discussion. There must be some form of punishment and an equal level of forgiveness and restitution. “Justice” without mercy is cruel; “mercy” without justice creates anarchy. God demands both justice and mercy.

I think the two stories of Kings Saul and David are illustrative here (1 Samuel 15, 2 Samuel 11-12). Both violated God’s commandments. You could even argue that David’s sin was far worse than Saul’s. Both gave what appeared to be strikingly similar confessions. Yet, Saul was utterly rejected and eventually died with his sons on Mt. Gilboa, while David lived a long life, forgiven by God and blessed to see a child of an adulterous relationship anointed king. What was the difference?

While the text does not make this crystal clear, David’s confession and repentance must have been sincere, and Saul’s must have been spurious and contrived. In other words, Saul apologized because he was caught and had to in order that he could continue to be king (we won the World Series, so get over it), and David felt genuine sorrow and, at least in some measure, revealed a “new and contrite spirit.” Note that both kings were punished! There can be no forgiveness without adequate restitution. God did not sweep David’s sin away as if neither he nor the sin really mattered. David mattered to God, Uriah mattered to God, Bathsheba mattered to God, and for David to experience restoration he had to feel the whip of punishment, so to speak. The difference between the kings is that genuine David was restored, while fake Saul was rejected.

So, what can baseball fans learn from Saul and David? One, apologies have to be sincere and complete. I have yet to hear one Astros player apologize to any single team or player for cheating. They are mighty sorry they broke the rules, but, hey, they won the World Series so get over it. I want to hear apologies to the New York Yankees, the teams that came in behind the Astros when the playoffs rolled around, I want to hear an specific apology to Aaron Judge, I want to hear a specific apology to Yu Darvish and Clayton Kershaw and to every fan who mistakenly thought that the Astros won all those games with nothing but pure talent. Second, I want to see some legitimate punishment. I want the commissioner to publicly say that there is no way for certain to know that the 2017 World Series was won legitimately. It may have been – and the Astros may have legitimately won the right to compete in the Series. But we do not know that, and we cannot know that because the entire process has been called into question by the systemic cheating plan the Astros used. The 2017 World Series title needs to be vacated – not given to the Yankees or the Dodgers – just simply vacated and the reason why published loud and long. I want the Astros to be banned from the post season in 2020. I want them to play this season for nothing – because their cheating stole at least one season from some other teams and I want them to know what playing for futility feels like. And I want the commissioner to get to the bottom of the entirety of the cheating scandal, and if any other team was guilty then they have to be equally punished – and that includes my beloved Dodgers!! Believe me, as angry as I am now, if it is revealed that the Dodgers cheated as much or more than the Astros I will go positively apoplectic.

And, finally, if the first two items can be achieved, then we need to move on and strive to make sure nothing like this ever happens again. If the apologies are sincere, and the punishment appropriate and measured, then restitution must be equally broad and complete. No bean balls, no spiking the second baseman, no throwing beer on the right fielder. Just play ball.

You see, theology matters, even in the grassy diamond of the baseball field. What does God require of sports teams? How about justice, mercy, and a humble presence before God? (Micah 6:8, Amos 5:24)

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

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