Baseball

The Name of the Game: Keeping a Good Reputation in Sports

CSM Shots Of The Week 2016:  MAY 16*My recent post at Theological Matters addresses the issue of sports, reputation, and children. The full post is available here.

From halfway around the world, I got a message from my wife—“Have you seen the replays of Odor punching Bautista?” We are baseball fans in my family, and we religiously follow the Texas Rangers. My wife kept me updated while I was on a recent trip to the republic of Georgia.

Rougned Odor is the up-and-coming, fiery second baseman for the Rangers. Jose Bautista is the perennial all-star outfielder for the Toronto Blue Jays. After a series of bat flips, hard slides, and trash talking stretching back to last season, the bad blood came to its zenith with Odor’s hard right hook to the jaw of Bautista. The replays of the fight between these two players blew up the feeds on my social media page, and it has been the talk of Major League Baseball for days.

In a moment of confession, I have to admit that I felt a little satisfaction after watching the replay for the first time. It was retribution for Bautista’s home run that effectively ended the season for the Rangers last year. But then I started thinking about my son. What would I think if he landed a right hook to the jaw of an opposing player? What if he taunted the pitcher after hitting a ball over the fence?

Read the rest of the article on Theological Matters.

Hall of Fame Hellion: Ty Cobb and the Value of a Reputation

313px-ty_cobbSome names are synonymous with baseball—Babe Ruth, Cy Young, Mickey Mantle. Other baseball figures have left their mark but make us cringe when we hear their names—Barry Bonds, Pete Rose, Gaylord Perry. Greatness and scandal are not necessarily mutually exclusive in the world of professional baseball. Babe Ruth may be the most famous slugger of all time, but his reputation off the field is less than pristine. Gaylord Perry has a place in the Hall of Fame, but he even filmed a commercial for ESPN’s SportsCenter making fun of his own use of the spitball.

Another all-time baseball still great struggles with a bad reputation more than 50 years after his death. Ty Cobb was one of the greatest baseball players of all time. He is in the inaugural class of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, receiving more votes than any other inaugural class member including Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner. He played for the Detroit Tigers from 1905 to 1926 and finished his career with two more seasons playing for the Philadelphia Athletics. By the time he retired in 1928, Cobb held 43 major league regular season career records. His career batting average of .366 still stands today, and his 4,191 career hits in the “dead ball” era still rank second only to Pete Rose.

Unfortunately for Ty Cobb, his name is often associated with dirty play, fighting, and racism. Stories are told of him sharpening his spikes to cut players on the other team as he slid into the bases. Stories of racism have haunted Cobb’s legacy since his earliest days in baseball. And fighting seemed to be a somewhat regular occurrence off the field. These stories have tainted his reputation as one of the greatest players of all time.

Just last month an article was released about Ty Cobb’s tainted legacy. In this article, Charles Leerhsen, author of the recent Cobb biography Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, tried to set the record straight regarding Cobb’s life.

Leerhsen reports that much of the misinformation about Cobb’s reputation came from articles and books written by Al Stump. Apparently Stump had been hired by Doubleday & Co. to ghostwrite an autobiography of Cobb. Even though he wanted editorial control over the final product, the baseball legend died before it was ever published. Stump’s sensational stories survived as the official account of Cobb’s life. Even though several articles and books have been written to cast doubt upon Stump’s work, the reputation of Cobb as a racist, brawling cheater lingers.

The current stories regarding Cobb and racism are mixed. Gilbert King writes:

Stories of Cobb’s racial intolerance were well-documented. In 1907 during spring training in Augusta, Georgia, a black groundskeeper named Bungy, whom Cobb had known for years, attempted to shake Cobb’s hand or pat him on the shoulder.  The overly familiar greeting infuriated Cobb, who slapped him and chased him from the clubhouse. When Bungy’s wife tried to intervene, Cobb turned around and choked her until teammates pried his hands off her neck. In 1908 in Detroit, a black laborer castigated him after he accidentally stepped into some freshly poured asphalt. Cobb assaulted the laborer on the spot, knocking him to the ground. The ballplayer was found guilty of battery, but a friendly judge suspended his sentence. Cobb paid the laborer $75 to avoid a civil suit.

By contrast Leerhsen paints a different picture of Cobb as the descendant of abolitionists and an admirer of African-American baseball players. Leerhsen states:

But what about Cobb’s 19th-century Southern roots? How could someone born in Georgia in 1886 not be a racist? What I found—and again, not because I am the Babe Ruth of researchers, but because I actually did some research—is that Ty Cobb was descended from a long line of abolitionists. His great-grandfather was a minister who preached against slavery and was run out of town for it. His grandfather refused to fight in the Confederate army because of the slavery issue. And his father was an educator and state senator who spoke up for his black constituents and is known to have once broken up a lynch mob.

Cobb himself was never asked about segregation until 1952, when the Texas League was integrating, and Sporting News asked him what he thought. “The Negro should be accepted wholeheartedly, and not grudgingly,” he said. “The Negro has the right to play professional baseball and whose [sic] to say he has not?” By that time he had attended many Negro league games, sometimes throwing out the first ball and often sitting in the dugout with the players. He is quoted as saying that Willie Mays was the only modern-day player he’d pay to see and that Roy Campanella was the ballplayer that reminded him most of himself.

In theory, both reports could be accurate if his views on race evolved as he matured. But whatever the case, he is primarily remembered as a racist today. What seems to be certainly true is that Cobb had a temper that resulted in fights, including attacking fans in the stands. So even if his reputation has been marred by sensational but less-than-truthful stories, he still suffers from having not built a good reputation.

Cobb should have heeded the words of Proverbs 22:1, which read, “A good name is to be more desired than great wealth, favor is better than silver and gold.” During this lifetime, he could have handled himself with more grace and treated others with love and kindness. Not everyone will be famous like Ty Cobb and have a legacy that continues decades after death; however, in life and death we should long to maintain a good name. For Christians a good name gives us credibility before a watching world that we want to point to our Heavenly Father (Matthew 5:16)

Cobb no longer has the luxury to rebuild his reputation since he passed away in 1961. His name will likely be connected to scandal and racism as long as people continue writing about the greatest baseball players in history. However, Cobb missed a great opportunity during his lifetime to fix these problems. Leerhsen writes:

Cobb was, like the rest of us, a highly imperfect human being. He was too quick to take offense and too intolerant of those who didn’t strive for excellence with the over-the-top zeal that he did. He did not suffer fools gladly, and he thought too many others fools. He was the first baseball celebrity, and he did not always handle well the responsibilities that came with that. And yes, he once went into the stands and repeatedly punched a man who had been heckling him for more than a year, and who turned out to have less than the full complement of fingers—hence the story of him attacking a handicapped fan.

Baseball is a metaphor for life. In it we find truth that extends far beyond the diamond. In the case of Ty Cobb, we find a great player who was also a flawed human being. We are all flawed, but may we strive for our reputations to point others to Christ. Truly our reputations are worth far more than great riches.

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Charles Leerhsen, “Who Was Ty Cobb? The History We Know That’s Wrong,” Imprimis 45 (March 2016)

Charles Leerhsen, Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015).

Gilbert King, “The Knife in Ty Cobb’s Back,” Smithsonian, 30 August 2011.

Baseball and the State of the American Family

William Baseball*The following is an excerpt from my article published by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission at Canon & Culture.

Two seasons ago, I took my dad to a Major League Baseball game. My parents had come to town for a visit, and I had two tickets to a game. My dad and I sat in the stands watching the Texas Rangers and talked. We talked about life and baseball—especially where they intersected. It was during that conversation that I learned my grandfather had been offered a contract to play Major League Baseball but opted not to play in order to get a job and support his family. We reminisced about trips to St. Louis to see Ozzie Smith and the Cardinals play. We reflected on my own time as a kid playing baseball while my parents watched from the bleachers. The game of baseball was a bond we shared as father and son.

Today many are wondering about the future of baseball. The participation rate among children is declining. Some blame the slow pace of the game. Others say there are no recognizable superstars compared to basketball and football. But some studies highlight another problem—family structure.

The rest of my article can be found at Canon & Culture.

A-Rod and the Apology

Spring Training for Major League Baseball teams begins this week with the opening ritual of pitchers and catchers reporting to their respective warm-weather training destinations. In baseball world, this week should have been punctuated by the optimism that accompanies a clean slate. Baseball fans everywhere are hoping that this year will be the year their team wins the World Series. However, another baseball story has stolen the headlines from an otherwise blissfully optimistic week. The story is A-Rod.

Alex Rodriguez is one of the most polarizing figures in Major League Baseball today. By most standards, his 20-year career, 654 home runs, and 3 American League MVP’s would ensure that he be enshrined in Cooperstown at the Baseball Hall of Fame. But there is one problem—he was suspended for the entire 2014 season for using performance-enhancing drugs and attempting to obstruct the investigation into his use of PED’s.

Today A-Rod issued an apology to the fans. The perception of that apology is characterized by just a few tweets and headlines. The Associated Press called his apology “vague.”

Local Dallas-Fort Worth sports journalist and former host of the Texas Rangers radio show Bryan Dolgin pondered:

Rodriguez has played for the Mariners, Rangers, and Yankees and has been part of some dramatic moments in postseason baseball. Yet, his apology for using PED’s has apparently fallen flat. The AP described his apology this way: “Alex Rodriguez has issued a handwritten apology ‘for the mistakes that led to my suspension’ but has turned down New York’s offer to use Yankee Stadium for a news conference and has failed to detail any specifics about his use of performance-enhancing drugs.”

Even Rodriguez acknowledged in his apology that some would not believe his sincerity. He stated, “I accept the fact that many of you will not believe my apology or anything that I say at this point. I understand why and that’s on me.” Rodriguez will return to the New York Yankees this season and fight for a job at third base or designated hitter. He has three years left on his record-setting contract and stands to make a fortune these last few years. But his once hall-of-fame image has been tarnished—perhaps forever.

What can we learn from A-Rod’s mistakes and apology?

First, we need to admit our mistakes. One of the reasons A-Rod finds himself in the difficult position of being one of the most hated players in baseball is that he lied about his actions. It was bad enough that he used performance-enhancing drugs to elevate his already spectacular game. Plenty of players have done the same through the years. But A-Rod compounded his problem by lying about his actions when faced with the evidence and attempting to obstruct the investigation into his misdeeds.

Scripture gives us some good insight on admitting our faults. In 1 John 1:8–9 we read, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Ultimately, we are responsible to God for our sin. Denying that we sin is simply self-deception. When we confess our sin to God, he forgives us.

Second, our reputations are worth more than we can imagine. A-Rod still has millions left to be paid on his contract. He has made more money than any other baseball player in history. However, he seems to have lost the trust and respect of the fans and his fellow players. No amount of money is worth losing a good name.

Solomon knew the value of both wealth and a reputation. He writes, “A good name is to be more desired than great wealth, favor is better than silver and gold” (Prov 22:1). We often sacrifice our reputations for the perceived value of success, but it is not worth it. You can always find another way to earn a living or sign another contract, but it is almost impossible to rebuild a reputation that has self-destructed.

As Christians, how should we respond to this apology? Despite the headline that the Associated Press offered, I believe we should take his apology sincerely. His future actions will determine how sincere he was, but it is not our place to judge his heart. I may not cheer for A-Rod and his Yankees (a.k.a., the Evil Empire), but it has nothing to do with his apology. We need not pile on more pain and disgust when he appears to be trying to do the right thing.

Rodriguez will go down as one of the most talented baseball players of this generation, but his tarnished legacy will serve as a reminder to us that we can lose it all when we set our sights on success at all costs.

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Ronald Blum, “A-Rod makes vague apology, turns down news conference,” The Associated Press, February 17, 2015.

Alex Rodriguez Statement Text,” The Associated Press, February 17, 2015.

*Image Credit: Keith Allison, Flickr

Maintaining the Integrity of the Game

Yesterday I wrote a post about the character lessons children can learn while participating in team sports. I also included warnings to parents hoping to avoid the dangers of undermining what our kids could learn. Unfortunately, ESPN reported today that Little League Baseball has stripped the 2014 US Little League World Series title from the Jackie Robinson West (Chicago) team due to the actions of some of the adults involved.

According to the report, the team manager and the Illinois District 4 Little League administrator used falsified boundary maps to recruit better players from other districts to “build what amounts to a superteam.” These actions violated the Little League rules that are meant to ensure that all teams have an equal opportunity to advance through the tournaments and reach the World Series. Building an all-star team from multiple districts is a clear violation.

After discovering the violations and taking action, Little League International CEO Stephen D. Keener stated:

For more than 75 years, Little League has been an organization where fair play is valued over the importance of wins and losses. This is a heartbreaking decision. What these players accomplished on the field and the memories and lessons they have learned during the Little League World Series tournament is something the kids can be proud of, but it is unfortunate that the actions of adults have led to this outcome.

As our Little League operations staff learned of the many issues and actions that occurred over the course of 2014 and prior, as painful as this is, we feel it a necessary decision to maintain the integrity of the Little League program. No team can be allowed to attempt to strengthen its team by putting players on their roster that live outside their boundaries.

The most difficult part of this entire situation is that a lack of integrity on the part of adults has cost a group of boys their championship. The players did not conspire to manipulate the system; instead, it was men they should have been able to trust—coaches and local league administrators—who violated that trust and the rules.

This is a problem that is all too common in children’s sports. Adults get so focused on winning that they will sacrifice their integrity and reputations for a trophy.

When I was in college, I worked as a little league umpire for a couple of summers. One encounter with a coach still sticks out in my mind. I was calling balls and strikes from behind the plate when a boy hit the ball to right field. He hustled around the bases and slid into third just as the throw arrived. I had done what I was trained to do by running up the third baseline from home plate as I saw a play was going to happen at third base. I was standing less than six feet from the bag and watched the runner slide underneath a tag and called him safe. Immediately, a coach from the first base dugout came running across the diamond yelling at me about my call. I turned and instructed the coach to stop right before she got to the pitcher’s mound and return to the dugout. I reminded her that I had the authority to throw her out of the game if she continued to question the call I was clearly in position to make better than she could have. For the rest of the game, she grumbled about my calls and questioned my ability in front of her players in the dugout. Her actions said more about her character than my ability.

For these players from Chicago, their team’s reputation is tainted through no fault of their own. In addition, they have been shown a very poor example of how adults are to conduct themselves. The adults in this case lost sight of the most important thing—that the kids learn how to play the game with integrity. Instead these adults sent the message that you win at all costs, rules don’t apply, and integrity doesn’t matter.

Do we really want to bring up a generation of young men and women who are taught that you play to win even if it costs your name? Scripture teaches that “a good name is to be more desired than great wealth, favor is better than silver and gold” (Prov 22:1). If your name and reputation are more important than great riches, then surely they are more important than a trophy.

If we expect our kids to grow up and act like adults, then we need to act like adults. Let’s teach our kids how to play with integrity. Let’s teach them how to build a reputation. Let’s teach them that there is more to life than simply winning a game.

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Tom Farrey, “Little League punishes Chicago team,” ESPN.com, February 11, 2015.

*Image credit: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast