My son Tim and I love watching the St. Louis Cardinals play ball at Busch Stadium. Recently we had tickets to see the Cards stomp the Dodgers in a beautiful display of pitching and hitting. The most interesting aspect of the game, however, was what took place in the section of seats next to us. A sea of cardinal fans in red surrounded a lone Dodger fan decked out in a white jersey. Each time the Dodger left fielder Matt Kemp jogged out to his position, the Dodger fan unleashed a litany of verbal abuses against him. A true professional, Kemp just ignored the fan and focused on the game. After a few innings, the entire section of Cardinal fans began to cheer for Kemp as he made his way out to left field. That’s right. The Dodger fan berated him mercilessly while the home team fans cheered and clapped for him. The Cardinal fans, in addition to demonstrating why they are the best, most gracious fans in all of baseball (no bias here), completely silenced the belligerent and obnoxious Dodger fan.
As Christians, it seems we too have a habit of yelling at our own players instead of cheering for them. Even though we all worship in different ways and associate with different Christian groups, we are all blood washed believers in Jesus. The most important initial or insignia on our jersey is not the letter of our denomination or group, but the letter “J.” I wonder what would happen if we rose each day with the mindset of cheering one another on rather than trying to correct and criticize each other. Imagine if we focused on the amazing truths that unite us instead of the minor doctrinal differences that separate us (and have nothing to do with Christian orthodoxy). Too many believers, believing themselves to be the umpires, mistake unity of doctrine for the unity of faith. Hebrews 10:24 says, “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” Let’s drown out that voice of derision and division by intentionally encouraging one another daily in the Lord. Just think how speechless the devil will be when we, as members of the same team, start cheering for each other regardless of where we attend church.
Something told me Albert Pujols would not be returning to St. Louis when the dust finally settled in the free agent bidding war that would surely follow the 2011 baseball postseason. Sure, I really got tired of hearing the sportscasters say over and over again, “this may be the last time we see Albert in a Cardinal jersey.” But in my heart I knew, despite the amazing wildcard comeback, division championship, league championship, and World Series bid, when this season and postseason were over, Pujols would be leaving. That’s why I feel especially blessed to have been able to attend game seven of the World Series with my son Tim to see St.Louis win it all and watch Pujols play his final game for St. Louis.
Now we know that Pujols will be playing with the Angels having managed to land the elusive ten-year contract with a no trade clause (he stood to make millions no matter where he landed). Angel fans are pinching themselves and Card fans are in shock. At a time like this the throngs of Cardinal nation will begin to vilify the front office for their failure to sign Pujols or lash out at Sir Albert for abandoning baseball heaven for the City of Angels. But there is something more fundamental at play here than just contracts, money, and sports politics – a man’s sense of God’s path and plan for his life.
In my lifetime I cannot remember hearing about a top shelf athlete in any sport actually spending a sleepless night seeking God’s will for the next season of his life. By 7:30 a.m. the morning of his decision Pujols was quoted as saying that the Angels were tugging on his heart and that he believed God was leading him to make the move to Anaheim. The Bible says that “the steps of a righteous man are ordered of the Lord” (Psalm 37:23). The Scripture speaks of the path as something that gets brighter and brighter for the righteous and darker and darker for the wicked (Proverbs 4:18). These eternal principles apply even to ballplayers even if the fans don’t like where that path is leading.
The pundits will say it was all about the money. The sour fans will bellyache about being betrayed by his decision. But as for me, a lifelong Cards fan and spiritual leader, I am encouraged by yet another example of Sir Albert’s firm conviction to glorify God with his life. Sure the sportswriters will moan about how he is not the greatest at fan interaction and they tire about hearing of his commitment to charities that support mentally and physically challenged children, but he has proven time and time again that he lives by a consistent set of Christian values that everyone should honor and appreciate. May more Christians be so bold as to remember they are on this earth to do God’s will and honor Him wherever His path in life takes us.
In the end, it does matter where we do what we do. Albert seems to get this very critical Kingdom principle even though many Cards fans and many believers do not. So whenever I get the chance to see Sir Albert play on television on the rare occasion live in an American League ballpark, I’ll be cheering for the man of God more than for the Angel in the infield. He is more of a hero to me today than any time I had the privilege of seeing him wear the Cardinal red. Well played Sir Albert.
When the Cardinals won the world series on Friday night, I was so charged during Allen Craig’s game-winning catch that I leaped into the air with my hands outstretched and proceeded to cut my knuckles open on the popcorn ceiling above me. Today I was reflecting upon my wound, and I realized that there was a lesson to be learned from my own mistake.
Modern Christianity is often paralleled to a sporting event, but here it’s even easier to draw a conclusion from these events: Professional sports are groups of men performing to a specific rule set for the enjoyment of their spectators. How different is this from God? He’s performing every day to a specific rule set: His rule set that He outlines in his own rulebook, no less! The difference is the question of whether we are observing his performance.
I was a bit convicted this morning looking at my own hands and realizing that I’m guilty of having difficulty getting this excited about God. I asked myself: “What does it take for our collective Christianity to get so excited about God that we’re willing to ‘bloody our knuckles’ in celebration of our faith?” I don’t necessarily know the specific answer, but I believe that regardless we need to get back to a state of bloody-knuckle Christianity. If we can cheer so excitedly for professional sports teams and musicians, why not God?
In the past, and even in the present, men bloodied their knuckles on the field of battle to protect their, and our, faiths. Why are we, as spectators, so hesitant to get our own hands dirty? Wounds are a history and carry stories with them, but how many Christians have bothered to sit back and not scratch their pristine finish? Isn’t it more interesting for those who are observing YOU to hear about what caused your bloody knuckles?
However, in this reflection I believe that as modern Christians we all can do a better job. We need to turn down the outside distractions and watch the one true actor and performer in our lives, and become excited enough that we create a visible record of our excitement to tell to others. Anecdotes are one of the most powerful ways of communicating with others, so why do we sit back and prevent being a part of more interesting anecdotes?
“Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning…” (Luke 12:35, NIV).
Yesterday I had the privilege of attending the St. Louis Cardinals opening home game with Tim and Kelli (she’s the greatest baseball fan in the world…wink, wink). It is often said when it comes to baseball openers that nobody does it like the Cardinals, a team with more World Series Championships (ten) than any other team in the National League and second only to the Yankees overall. The festive atmosphere featured the return of hall of fame ball players and championship team members from past Cardinal rosters including the legendary Stan Musial, the coaching staff, current team members, and the game starting lineup all entering the stadium standing in a fleet of pickup trucks (no chariots available I guess). The standing room only crowd enjoyed the baseball food fair, opening day giveaways, prancing majestic Clydesdales, a demonstration by a trained American Bald Eagle, and a fly over by two A-10 aircraft during the National Anthem. The family friendly atmosphere drew thousands of kids to the park with their parents. Two twin boys sitting in front of us held up a sign that read, “We’re Ten today – Go Cards!” They did their best to catch the attention of television cameras (they might have for all I know). It was a one of a kind day for a one of a kind baseball organization.
But the real draw to the park is of course the team and the game. The Cardinals have already taken a commanding lead in the National League Central Division and were poised to stomp (and did stomp) the last place Houston Astros (the only team in baseball without a win yet this year). The Cardinal pitching staff including Cy Young contenders Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright is strong. The batting lineup features six regular players any of which can ruin a pitchers day and wipe away any lead the opposing team might have at the time. One swing of the bat by arguably the greatest player of all time (and a great role model) Albert Pujols and the Cards will score usually several runs (like his three run shot during the game). Opposing teams will sometimes opt to pitch around Pujols or walk him intentionally. The problem with that decision is that the pitcher now has to face Matt Holliday, one of the greatest hitters in the game. If that were not enough of a threat, you can usually count on catcher Yadier Molina to hit and at times knock one over the fence. Scrappy young Cardinal outfielder Colby Rasmus will find a way to get on base and score some runs (not to mention make some amazing plays in centerfield). Leadoff man and second baseman Skip Schumaker (converted from the outfield) can rip a double or triple when you most need him to do so. Outfielder Ryan Ludwick is always a threat when he picks up the bat. If the team stays healthy (especially the pitching staff), the 2010 St. Louis Cardinals are going to be the team to beat.
What’s interesting to me from a spiritual standpoint (I hear you saying to yourself, “you mean you can actually draw something spiritual from baseball?” – yes I can) is the depth of the Cardinal bench. If a hitter is having a bad day someone else will come in and take up the slack. Where most teams may only have a clutch hitter or two in the lineup, the Cards have a half-dozen guys that can crank out a game turning or game winning hit. The church needs to deepen the bench when it comes to our ministry service for the Lord. Everyone needs to be in shape, trained, dressed for service, and prepared to step in and make the play or hit the ball. Too often, the entire weight of the ministry is upon a few staff members, lay leaders, or committed volunteers. The deeper the ministry service bench is, the more likely we will score some runs for the Kingdom.
In retrospect, if the Cards lose a game or even throw away the season it’s no big deal really (did I really just say that?), but if the church fails to produce eternal souls are on the line. The ability of the believer to walk in victory is on the line. The fulfillment of our destiny and purpose as believers is on the line. Pleasing our Lord and Savior who certainly put on the jersey, showed up to the game, and knocked it out of the park for our benefit is on the line. Let’s all get in shape, dress for the game, be ready, stay anointed, and snap to it when he calls our number for service. It’s time for everyone in the body of Christ to get in the game.
If you are a St. Louis Cardinals fan you are sensing a little deja vu all over again given the quality of play overall by the Cards so far in Division Championship play. Chris Carpenter struggled on the mound during game one but Wainwright was nearly flawless through seven innings and pitched himself out of a jam in the eighth inning of game two. The bats and the defense, however, remind me of the painful performance against the Red Sox when they swept the Cards in the World Series.
Matt Holliday, who led his Colorado squad to championship play a few years back and is a big reason why the Cards won their division, drove an early home run over the fence to put the Cards on the board in game two. Later, to the shock and horror of Card fans all over the country, Holliday, no Jim Edmonds, ran up on a fly ball to left field, lost the ball in the lights, at the last minute inverted his glove, missed the ball, and then stumbled to the ground like a little leaguer. What should have been a game ending catch ended up prompting a Dodger rally that completely neutralized the stellar performance of the Cards ace pitcher. The result is the Cards are now down two games to none as they head back to St. Louis for Saturday’s game three of the series. They have to win three games in a row or face elimination from post season play.
The problem with Holliday’s error is not the fact that he made the error and possibly cost the Cards the World Series (a little too dramatic right?), it’s the fact that the media and sports channels keep replaying the outfielder’s baseball folly over, and over, and over again. I mean, how many of us would like to have our mistakes viewed by millions of people to begin with and then replayed until we are made into a Chevy Chase caricature of ourselves?
Like Holliday, we all make mistakes. The Devil loves to throw it back in our faces over and over again to keep us defeated and to stop our potential and success in the future. The key for Holliday (and for us), is to shake off the mistake, put the uniform back on, get back out there, knock some more balls out of the park, catch the ball next time, and bring home the championship. I’ll be watching and rooting for him just like I know Jesus is rooting for me and you.
Congratulations to the Philadelphia Phillies, the 2008 World Series Champions. They finished strong and deserve to wear the crown (until spring training and everyone basically forgets who even played in the series). The surprise of the season, however, was Tampa Bay – a surprise because they had a winning record; a surprise that they would embarrass the Yankees and the Red Sox; a surprise that they would drop the word “Devil” from their team name and become just the “Rays” (and that it would matter all that much); a surprise that they would do something to spruce up that depressing ballpark; a surprise that they would finally put the right management and coaching team to together to become the turn around franchise of the year.
My family and I enjoy vacationing in the Tampa area and try to take in a Tampa Bay ballgame if they happen to be in town. Not too long ago, watching a Tampa Bay game was like watching some bored girl in your language arts class in middle school scratch her fingernails on the chalkboard. Tim and I went to see the Yankees take on Tampa Bay a few years ago (we thought it would be fun to see some great players like Derek Jeter play the game). We picked up our tickets at the Will Call window and went inside Tropicana Field (what a field would look like if Salvador Dali designed a ballpark) to find our seats. We sat next to some retired season ticket holders (a rarity at the time – season ticket holders – not retirees) and settled in for some boiled peanuts while we waited for the Yankee exhibition to begin. I couldn’t help but notice that the park was about seventy percent empty and mentioned to my Pinellas County native on my left, “Is it always this bad?” He cut his eyes at me and replied with a gruff voice, “Yes!”
Boy what a difference a year or two can make. We returned to the ballpark this past summer to find major changes in the stadium and major ticket price increases (I guess they can do that when a team starts winning). We enthusiastically watched the Rays route the Blue Jays (even with two of my favorite former Cards players on the Toronto roster). The other noticeable change – fans – thousands and thousands of them filling and rocking the ballpark like I’d never seen.
I’ll always be a Cards fan, but I guess it doesn’t hurt to have a favorite team from the American League as well. Watching the Rays transformational season reminds me of what people can do in life with the right attitude, a commitment to make some tough choices, and a willingness to work hard for what you want. Don’t tell anyone, but I might just buy myself a Tampa Bay Rays jersey or jacket for Christmas and wear it to Busch stadium next year to watch the Cards. You never know – it might just inspire them a bit. Congratulations Rays on a great season!
The season started with such promise and then everything seemed to fall apart. To add insult to injury, I had to watch with horrified Cards fans as the Cubs took the pennant (although we all knew they would end up choking anyway in post season). I wonder which fan the Cubs will blame this year for their implosion?