God and Baseball In a Changing Culture
As I currently write this we are on the heels of the World Series of baseball between the Boston Red Sox and the St Louis Cardinals. It’s the time of year where baseball takes the world stage and becomes one of the biggest focuses of the sporting world. For me, it represents my favorite time of the year. I love the fall and all that it brings. From the cooler weather, to the warmer food; from the holidays, to the family traditions, fall has got it all—and then of course there’s baseball. What began in the spring, as the cold dark winter finally comes to its end, finds its culmination as the coolness of fall begins to set in once again. 162 hard-fought games are now in the books and only the best teams graduate to the postseason until one team stands alone to receive the coveted pennant. For me, and for many, it is truly a wonderful time each year.
The cruel fact of the matter is that for many the MLB postseason, let alone the regular season, have seem to have lost its luster in our culture. A game that once actually lived up to its title as, “America’s favorite pastime,” has become anything but that. Just last season, the MLB’s television ratings reached an all-time low, collapsing by as much as 50 percent since the early 1990s. Likewise, the World Series, which for close to a century served as America’s preeminent sporting event, had its lowest television rating in history. Even the vaunted Yankees are not immune; as the team’s ratings dropped 39 percent just a season after plunging record lows.
The drop in excitement and attention over baseball is not too surprising to many and has actually been a long time coming. According to Gallup, baseball has not been America’s favorite sport since 1972 when football first surpassed baseball in popularity. Though initially this changing of the guard was insignificant, the growing disparity between the two sports respective popularity has become quite substantial. Indeed, those same Gallup polls today reveal that 41 percent of Americans claim football as their favorite sport as compared to only 10 percent for baseball.
If you’re looking for future proof of baseball’s decline in America, ask yourself the following: when was the last time baseball dominated the cultural consciousness of America? How many years has it been since a baseball story leapt from the sports page to the front page? Perhaps an image of Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa smashing home run records comes to mind. That was 15 years ago. Or maybe you’ll recall the Boston Red Sox snapping the curse and finally winning that elusive World Series. That was close to a decade ago. One could make the argument that Bond’s 756th home run to capture the all time record in 2007 is a story for the ages… but that’s mainly because of the controversy surrounding it (*). Instead, baseball is confined to the sports page and highlights of games are often only found in Sports Center’s Top 10 category.
Unlike the NFL or NBA, leagues of glamorous franchises and celebrity players, the MLB’s athletes are largely anonymous to the American public. Hidden under baseball caps, embattled by steroid controversy, and hailing from distant corners of the world, baseball players have arguably become America’s most unknown athletes. Ask the average person to list of a few MLB players and they might know A-Rod or Derek Jeter, but that’s it. Now compare that anonymity with the celebrity of NBA players. During “The Decision,” LeBron James had his own hour on ESPN, months of anticipation and analysis, and the undivided attention of the country. Is there any individual baseball star who could garner that kind of national press? Is there anyone left in the game that Americans care about the way they did for legends past? There was a time when Ruth and Mantle weren’t just in the sports almanac, but the American history book. When Miguel Cabrera became the first person to hit for the Triple Crown in 45 years, everyone outside of baseball diehards simply shrugged their shoulders. Can anyone honestly argue with me that there is a more difficult achievement to accomplish in the sporting world than winning the Triple Crown? This isn’t just an MVP (because Cabrera won that too) it’s leading the American League in home runs (44), batting average (.330) and runs batted in (139). Ruth never did it. Neither did DiMaggio, Aaron, Musial, Clemente or Mays. Ted Williams did it twice, and Mickey Mantle once. The last player to accomplish the feat was Carl Yastrzemski of the Boston Red Sox in 1967.
So why is it that America’s pastime has suffered such a serious decline in popularity while other leagues have not? The real issue is that the pace of the game simply does not mesh with the country’s current style of entertainment consumption. In an age of instant gratification, today’s fans desire entertainment that is fast-paced and straightforward. Baseball, conversely, is a slow, novel-like, amusement whose power lies in the accumulation and appreciation of moments. I can’t honestly remember how many times I’ve heard someone voice their disgust at the fact that baseball is my favorite sport by saying something to the degree of, “it’s so slow!” Casual fans are no longer willing to devote the mental energy demanded by a nuanced game such as baseball. Though football and basketball likewise depend on extensive strategy, they provide the quick, big play excitement that appeal to a broader audience. I’ve heard it said that baseball is the chess of the sporting world, and its pace and style of play just aren’t suitable for the short attention span of the modern sports consumer.
The truth of the matter is that baseball, though destined to remain a touchstone of American history, will continue to be marginalized in a culture of instant gratification. Baseball may never again claim the title of America’s favorite sport, but will likely remain just one of the countless entertainment options available on the screens in our living rooms and the phones in our pockets. Though there is enough nostalgia and pageantry at the baseball park to persuade even the casual fan to attend a game here and there, in a culture of more choices and less time, America’s game is getting left behind.
As I have been pondering the lack of baseball’s luster in our modern day culture, I can’t help but wonder what this might be suggesting about our spiritual state. Let’s be honest, if our goal and desire is set on instant gratification, then our aim will never be set to Scripture. The Christian walk of faith will never constitute a fast-paced, straightforward and quick result apart from our initial salvation. It’s a constant battle, a dying of the self daily, and a picking up of our cross to follow our Savior. If we are so quick to look for instant gratification (of sin) then yes, look to the cross where forgiveness is found for those who call upon His name (Romans 10:13), but the same can never be done with our sanctification.
Towards the end of his life the Apostle Paul talked about his own journey of faith to the Philippian church as being a slow, difficult, and steady process for which he had not yet completed.
“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
A similar implication can be drawn from Isaiah 40:31 that declares, “Those who wait on the Lord will gain a new strength, they will walk and not grow weary, they will run and not grow faint,” (emphasis added). The marathon of faith is often one of waiting. It’s in the times of waiting and pleading with the Lord that we often learn to trust Him and humble ourselves. If we are to believe that our own desire for instant gratification will sustain us in our walk with the Lord then we will not be able to successfully work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12).
As with baseball, many might be turned off to the “slow play” of the Christian walk. It is not instant, it is not easy, and more often than not there will be other options to choose from that seem like a better use of our time and energy.
“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
Could it not be that one of the reasons that the “road that leads to life” is so elusive for many is due to our nature in desiring the easy route? Is it convenient? Does it appeal to my desire? Is it instant? Friends, let us not forsake the process. Let us not desire only what can be obtained now. Let us pick up our cross, wait on the Lord, and hope for what is to come. Let us heed the words that Paul wrote to Timothy as an encouragement for us in a day where our culture is dictating our spiritual satisfaction.
“But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the sight of God, who gives life to everything, and of Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep this command without spot or blame until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which God will bring about in his own time—God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen.”
1 Timothy 6:11-16
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