22 October 2003

Sports Theology

Andy Pettitte pitched a great game on Sunday night, which the Yankees won, 6-1. Eight & 2/3 innings, 6 hits, 1 walk, 7 strikeouts, only one, unearned run. (My wife thought I was in physical pain when she heard me screaming at Boone's 9th-inning, shutout-ruining, second-error-of-the-night from upstairs. She'll learn...I was.)

But this column isn't about baseball, at least not directly.

After the win, Pettitte said this to Fox Sports' Steve Lyons:

"...And the main reason is just...I've got so many people back home at my church, praying for me and I know they're there, and around all over the country praying for me and I just thank God that he just blessed me to be able to do this tonight."

Right there on live, inter-national TV, a grown man is standing there telling another grown man and about 13 million other people who are still watching that the Lord of the Universe helped him win a baseball game because a bunch of people from his church in Texas asked Him to do so.

Of course, you couldn't find the text of this quote anywhere on the internet if you so desired, which I did. I had to go to Fox Sports' web page, sign up for a free trial of RealOne Superpass and then download the video of Pettite's interview with Steve Lyons. Any of the normal news sources who had quotes from Pettitte in their game stories didn't bother to include this particular comment, which fell in the midst of a response to a question that Lyons asked about how Pettitte handled the speedy Pierre and Castillo at the top of the Marlins' lineup, but obviously encompassed more than that. Most writers left their stories to baseball, which, while a little biased against religion, is probably appropriate, in my opinion.

Getting back to the point...

Andy Pettitte is a Christian. So am I. Otherwise, we're pretty different. For one thing, he's left handed, and makes about 250 times as much money as I make every year. But this column isn't about money. It's about (get ready...)


More specifically, it's about God and Sports. My particular take on this issue is that God and Sports is a little like peanut butter and tunafish: they just don't go together. But clearly there are those who disagree with me. Andy Pettitte, for example.

It's not that I don't think God cares about the people who play sports. Clearly, if "God so loved the world..." this must have included professional athletes, right? Right.

But what about the other professional athletes? The ones competing against Andy Pettitte? This is where the issue gets dicey. You see, I'm willing to bet dollars to potluck supper buntcakes that there are Christians on the Marlins team as well. I'm not sure whom, exactly, but there's got to be somebody, and if you assert that Andy Pettitte was caused to and/or helped to win a baseball game by God, then it logically and necessarily follows that some other people, some of whom may also profess an allegiance to Christ, were specifically caused to fail by God, because God for some reason likes Andy Pettitte better, or something. I have a hard time with this notion.

For one thing, how do you explain times when Pettitte has not succeeded? Were the prayers of Pettitte's church more effective in 1997 (18-7, 2.87 ERA in 240 innings) than in 1999 (14-11, 4.70 ERA in 191 innings)? Was God angry with Andy or his church in 2002 when he sustained an injury and was only able to make 22 starts? Does God like it better when Andy pitches during the day (2.43 ERA in 2003) than at night (4.83 ERA)? Or do the people in Andy's church pray harder on Tuesdays (5-1, 2.72) than on Thursdays (1-2, 9.14)?

And if so, why? Why would Jesus care how well Andy Pettitte (or anyone else) does in any given baseball game? And why should Andy Pettitte's requests for success be honored any more than anyone else who prays to God for such things? Who does God decide to listen to when a potential game-winning field-goal is about to be kicked in a football game and there are circles of players on both sidelines praying for both it's success and failure? Can we really take him seriously when Evander "Real Deal" Holyfield thanks Jesus for helping him to turn his opponent's face into an impressive Memorex of raw hamburger? Pretty tough to imagine that the same Jesus who said, "If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also."


Back in 1996, the Yankees won their first World Series in almost two decades, and some (not all) Christians attributed their success to the presence of professing, Bible-believing Christians: Pettitte, Joe Girardi, Mariano Rivera, John Wetteland, Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden. (Doc and Straw, as you may know, only met Jesus after running thier lives into the ground with drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, and/or tax evasion. This means, therefore, that all their early success was accomplished without the supposed aid of a higher being, or at least, presumably, without a significant number of prayers on their behalf.)

So these six players somehow, supposedly, managed to sway the favor of the Lord of Creation toward themselves and their teammates, the other 19 of whom, presumably, only pray when being shot at. Frankly I find this pretty hard to believe. I don't know off-hand, how many of the 1996 Braves would profess to be Chrstians as well, but I would guess that it's less than six. It would be an interesting study, sort of an antithesis to the "Ex-Cubs Factor", to look at the correlation of born-again Christians to World Series winners over time. Informative? Probably not, but interesting. Scott Brosius, apparently also a Christian, had an interesting take on this, from the Google translation of a French Christian webpage:

"Several claim that, if our team counts many Christian players, we will gain the world Series, Brosius entrusts. It was certainly amusing not only to belong to a gaining team, but côtoyer players who gained good way, by showing the true characteristics of humility. Many guy understood that they received many things, which are actually blessings that they did not deserve. I life a really formidable experiment! "

Well, I guess that clears things right up!

A Lesson From History

So from whence does this notion come? It seems to me that it's probably rooted in the same sorts of ideas that cause someone to be a fan in the first place, to be loyal to a particular team or city's teams. Identifying with a particular place, and with the team that represents it is nothing new. People have been doing so for centuries, rooting and praying for their athletes probably since the Athens Red Sox competed against the Sparta Yankees in the first Olympics (Athens later being permanently cursed by Zeus for allowing thier star shot-putter, Bambinostotle, to defect to Sparta and become a full-time javelin thrower.) Praying for these athletes made a lot more sense, because:

A) they were actually from your city, and not just a collection of mercenary ringers.
2) If you didn't have the Olympics, you'd have probably had a war instead.

Personally, I'd pray for victory too, if it meant that I wouldn't have to fight a war. But such is no longer the case, in 21st century America, where the biggest war addressed in a baseball game is either the battle for elbow-room in the urinals or the bean-ball war on the field. And that's only when Punk-Ass is pitching.


So we're back to pondering the veracity and applicability of Andy Pettitte's statement. It seems to me that there are a few ways in which his statement might be interpreted, depending upon whether or not God exists and whether or not Andy Pettitte really knows Him very well. Let's see:

1) There is no God. Andy Pettitte is a delusional weirdo. This stuff all happens either by random chance or because someone "wanted it more".

PROS: Charles Darwin and Joe Morgan both believe at lease some aspect of this scenario. Your fate's in your own hands, which is good news for control-freaks like me!
CONS: If the Universe can exist and hold itself together without a Designer, then life isn't really worth living, which would suck, and is therefore an unacceptable conclusion.

2) There is a real God. He's on Andy Pettitte's side when it comes to baseball games, and maybe other stuff too.

PROS: Andy thinks this is true. Other people, not just athletes, do also.
CONS: Andy doesn't win all the time, which either means that God is fickle or powerless, either of which would suck, and is therefore an unacceptable conclusion.

3) There is a real God. Andy Pettitte just thinks He's on his side in these things, but really God doesn't pay that much attention to these things. He's off somewhere playing cosmic marbles with planets we'll never see or something, and it would come as a surprise to Him that Andy Pettitte thinks He helped him win a baseball game.

PROS: Joan Osbourne believes this. It would explain why Andy doesn't always win, without making Pettitte out to be either delusional or a liar. That's good.
CONS: This scenario makes God out to be in less than complete control of all things at all times, and therefore less than all-knowing and all-powerful, which would suck and is therefore an unacceptable conclusion.

4) There is a real God. He is all-powerful and has control over, indeed, has already determined the outcome, of every event in the course of human history, including professional baseball games. Therefore, any prayers offered up by Andy, his church, or other fans "around all over the country" are not so much effective in terms of swaying God's mind as they are good practice for the praying people in relating to God and potentially understanding him better. This God is only concerned about the results of baseball games in so much as His people honor him in playing them, watching them or paring about them, which is appropriate, what with Him being the Lord of the Universe and all.

PROS: I believe this one, as did a lot of saints and theologians. Blessed assurance, right? God's got it in control, so you don't hafta worry. Pretty cool, I think.
CONS: An unpopular option, since it means that ultimately we don't really have as much control over things as we think we do. Also, this option requires much more faith and a lot of residual life choices that the other options don't necessitate.

Well you know where I stand now: Extremely glad that the people who control the Google translation tools don't control any of the rest of the Universe, but for the record, I'll be praying that God helps Roger Clemens to pitch the game of his life in his swansong performance tonight and beat those backward, Neanderthal, Cretan, pagan SOB's the Florida Marlins tonight, and for David Wells to do the same on Friday night. Amen.

Let's allow Andy to have the final word, though, from that same Google-translated French Christian webpage:

"People observe how you act, how you face the situations. When I gain a world Series, it is easy for me to hold to me in front of a crowd and to thank God. And much of players make in the same way, and it is well. But I really smell that I was faithful to my Christian faith,"

We smell it, too, Andy. We smell it too.

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