Baseball for Sabbatarians

With the completion of the 2018 season, an old article from the Nicotine Theological Journal (October 2007) on fans, pennant races, and keeping the Lord’s Day holy (and an excuse for an image of Mr. Utley):

NTJ Diarist: Day of Stress and Worry

It seems a distant memory now. But the last Lord’s Day of the 2007 Major League Baseball season created great conflict for the NTJ’s editors. Each of us grew up rooting for either the Mets or the Phillies. We are also committed to sanctifying the Sabbath. Consequently, the prospects of the Eastern Division’s title being settled on a day reserved for rest and worship generated considerable soul searching and much distraction by earthly and perishable things.

What follows is a confession of the editors’ unsuccessful efforts to keep September 30th holy. (The Phillies’ fan’s account is in bold for the victor’s emphasis.)

September 29, 4:35 pm: I was prepared to give up on the Metropolitans the night before. As their home losing streak extended to five games, they surrendered first place at last to the Phillies. Still I followed this afternoon’s game on the Internet, and, remarkably, John Maine came within a few outs of the first no-hitter in Mets history. The 13-0 shellacking of the hapless Marlins, combined with the Phillies loss, virtually wiped clean weeks of futility. We were tied again, and the Mets had their mojo back.

6:45 pm: I have a bad feeling of foreboding as I go out for the annual progressive supper on our block in Philadelphia. Could it be that the Phillies’ rise to first place yesterday is only setting us up for an even more depressing defeat tomorrow, the perfect way to cap a season in which they achieved 10,000 losses? The team looked bad today in their 4-2 loss to Washington. Thankfully, the neighbors bring lots of wine and don’t talk much about sports. Avoidance mixed with a buzz is bliss.

September 30, 8:30 am: Does God hear the prayers of the not-so-righteous? I am hoping and praying for discipline to concentrate on today’s services and sermons. But I can’t help think how great it will be if the Phillies actually surpass the Mets and win the division. I am also hoping that the season ends today. A playoff game tomorrow will be agonizing.

10:30 am: A sermon on Christ the resurrected King prompts my mind to drift. Is it impious to employ the resurrection as a metaphor for this horrible month? Will the Mets’ September humiliation yield to their October exaltation? That’s an inviting way to frame the narrative, and it pleases me to imagine how it will silence the obnoxious swagger of Phillies fans.

11:40 am: The pastor is preaching from the Beatitudes and I am doing my best not to think about the game this afternoon. But the notion that those who mourn are blessed gives me a perfect retort to gloating Mets fans should they win. The mourning Phillies fans would seem to qualify as those deserving of the Lord’s blessing. Even so, such a benediction doesn’t bring needed consolation.

2:30 pm: Before an afternoon nap I need to return an email about an ecclesiastical matter, surely a work of necessity. The problem is that I must get to my webmail via my homepage, which is the web page of Sports Illustrated. I am careful to pass over it quickly with barely a glance. All I remember seeing is a reference to the “Miracle Mets.” Oh yeah. 1969 . . . 1986 . . . and now, 2007.

3:05 pm: It suddenly dawns on me: si.com did not refer to the “Miracle Mets.” It said something like, “Mets need a Miracle at Shea.” Hmm. That’s a strange way to overstate the challenge. All we need today is the ordinary providence of Beltran’s bat, Glavine’s arm, and Reyes’ speed. So why the miracle talk?

3:20 pm: Overcome with confusion, I go back to si.com, which now features a photo of a forlorn Tom Glavine. I read where the Marlins scored seven runs off the future Hall-of-Famer in the first inning. SEVEN: the number of fullness and completeness and, well, Sabbath. It’s over. There will be no miracle today. I sense no impulse to check the Phillies score.

4:20 pm: My wife and I are out on our Sabbath stroll through the neighborhood and I am searching for signs of the outcome of the game at Citizens Bank Park. I am worried. I see no little pennants mounted on cars to show allegiance to the victors. I also hear no shouts or honking of horns. The town is way too quiet. I am preparing to find another team for which to root – too bad the Eagles only play on the Lord’s Day.

5:25 pm: I am tempted to check the score at one of the baseball websites so that I can concentrate better during the evening service. I resist temptation.

6:40 pm: Godliness, the seminary intern instructs the flock in the evening sermon, is manifested in obedience to God’s command. I suppose that includes the fourth commandment. I fall under conviction and take at least a measure of comfort in considering that I will not face a trial like this next week. Not with the way the Jets are playing.

7:10 pm: I stand with the pastor at the back door to greet exiting worshipers. While talking to the pastor I learn that one of the families in the church was celebrating the Phillies’ win in such a lively manner that the pastor and his wife heard the revelry from a few doors down the street. I am stunned. The Phillies have at least tied for the division.

8:15 pm: I begin to pack for a trip, oddly enough, to Philadelphia. I cringe at the satisfaction my friends will enact. I flee, where I have in the past, to the Psalms: “You have made us the taunt of our neighbors, the derision and scorn of those around us – a laughing stock among the peoples. All day long my disgrace is before me, and shame has covered my face at the sight of the enemy and the avenger.”

8:45 pm: I finally give in to temptation and check the Internet for scores. I justify this by observing that the sun is officially and Pharisaically down. There I read the staggering news that the Mets also lost. I can barely believe the results. The Phillies were 7 games out with two weeks to go. They did not merely make the playoffs as the wild card team, but won the division outright. Praise God from whom all blessings flow.

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So Long, Mr. Utley

I hesitate to write about Philadelphia sports here because my partner in crime is a New York fan (Mets, Rangers, Jets, Knicks). But since I just learned that John Muether was at the game in Philadelphia last night where Chase Utley may have put on a Phillies uniform for the last time, all restraint is off.

This has been a bad year for Phillies fans. It’s not as if we haven’t been here before. After all, the Phillies have the most losses of any team in professional sports. The problem is that for a brief time, between 2008 and 2010, Phillies fans were tempted to think that a new era had dawned. This was going to be a time when the Phillies vied with the Yankees and Red Sox for talent and post-season victories. And so the organization doled out all sorts of money on pitching talent, all the while forgetting that the starting rotation for the 2008 World Champion Phillies was Cole Hamels, Jamie Moyer, and Brett Myers. BRETT FRIGGIN’ MYERS!!! If you can win with one lefty that gets hot in the playoffs, then why not keep adding bats to your line-up and forget pitching.

One of the Phillies’ big bats was Chase Utley who now will play with former Phillie, Jimmy Rollins, for the Los Angeles Dodgers (a team that haunts any Phillies fan from the 1970s who had to endure that rain-soaked Dodgers defeat of Steve Carlton while the commissioner of baseball — Bowie Kuhn — looked on and refused to call the game). I had the pleasure of meeting Chase Utley in January of 2006 while both of us waited for a plane at LAX. Of course, he was seated in first class. I wasn’t sure whether to acknowledge his presence; as a fifty-year old man I didn’t think being a star-struck fan would necessarily be fitting. But I summoned up some courage, went over to Chase who was seated with his wife, stuck out my hand and while shaking his said, “Mr. Utley, I hope you stick around with the team.” That was a time when contract negotiations were ongoing and he subsequently signed a seven-year deal.

I should be sadder to see him go. I did enjoy the way he played the game and kept it at that. The sports-talk station in Philadelphia to which I listen (and that drives the missus nuts) has a fairly moving audio montage of Utley’s career. It did bring back some great memories.

But the truth is, I have felt like Utley has been gone for a while now. He has had at least three injury prone seasons and has not played at the level that characterized his early career. If truth be told, I wish Chase would have retired at least two years ago so that fans would not have to see him in decline. Here the gold standard for me as a Phillies fan is Mike Schmidt. In 1989, seemingly out of the blue, Schmidt retired only forty games into a season when he was only batting .203 but still had the hotter months, when he generally flourished, ahead of him. But because he could not perform up to his own perfectionist standards, he stepped down.

I sort of wish Utley would do that. I’m sad to see him leave Philadelphia. I’ve been even sadder to see him get old.