It has been decades since the Kansas City Royals have been a contender. During that drought and growing fan disinterest, I forgot how wonderfully and uniquely American the game of baseball is.
Baseball is a game where everyone takes turns.
Baseball is a game where the defense has the ball.
Baseball is a team sport, but the focus is on individual accomplishment.
In baseball, a 5’ 6” 140 pounder can compete successfully with a 6’ 4” behemoth.
Baseball is a game best watched on the radio.
Baseball is like the US Supreme Court. Even when the umpire is wrong, the decision still stands.
In baseball you can fail seven out of ten times and still be an All Star.
Of the two great American traditions – apple pie and baseball – baseball is better because it doesn’t have any calories.
Baseball’s unique construct -- a team sport where individual effort is spotlighted, honored, and rewarded in real time for all to see -- places it in a unique position for both player and spectator. When you are at the plate and the pitcher is hurling 95 mile an hour fastballs in your direction, your teammates can cheer you on, but you are basically on your own.
When you are standing in left field and the batter launches a shot down the line, it’s up to you to break properly toward the ball and maybe dive to catch it. Your teammates might be there to pick you up, but, again, you are on your own.
Tell me, what could possibly be more American than that?
Maybe that’s why fans bond with individual baseball players in a way that is different from any other sport. Ballplayers from Ty Cobb to Babe Ruth to Joe DiMaggio to Jackie Robinson to Willie Mays to George Brett are to this day, decades and even a century later, cultural icons in a way that other sports find difficult to match. And these players are remembered more for their individual exploits than the teams they played for.
And the ballplayers who broke the rules of good taste and fair play are held in ill repute more, or so it seems, than athletes from other sports. Players are held in derision who juiced their stats through steroids, and prominent players have been banned from the game for actions that brought embarrassment. Thus, for breaking the public trust and breaking the hearts of little boys, justice was served.
On the dais at Cooperstown, Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. spoke about the special bond between player and fan, and more importantly the obligation of player to fan. Said Ripken:
“When I realized that I could use baseball to help make life better especially for the kids, baseball became a platform. By trying to set a good example, I could help influence young people in positive and productive ways. And some of this became apparent to me in my earliest playing days. So as my major league career unfolded, I started playing a little more attention to my actions. I remember when Kenny Singleton showed me a tape of me throwing my helmet down after a strikeout and all he said was, ‘How does that look?’ I remember learning about a family who saved their money to come to Baltimore to see me play. I got thrown out in the first inning and their little boy cried the whole game. I remember how I reacted with anger when dad was fired after an oh and six start, and after each of those events and others, I vowed to act better the next time. …
“As the years passed, it became clear to me that kids see it all, and it's not just some of your actions that influence, it's all of them. Whether we like it or not as big leaguers, we are role models. The only question is will it be positive or will it be negative.”
With apologies to Cal Ripken, Jr., I would add that if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you are also a role model, and as the man said, “the only question is will it be positive or will it be negative.” You represent someone, and when people see you, they expect to see a reflection of the one you represent. “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus.” (Colossians 3:17) Throwing one’s helmet does no honor to the game or to your calling. We must be better than that, for people are watching.
I love both baseball and apple pie, but somehow I believe that Whom we represent is bigger than both.