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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When Law Robbed the Phillies

To provoke students to think about whether the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery and similar inequalities related to property, I brought to class today a little piece of Major League Baseball and constitutional history. Anyone remember Curt Flood, the man for whom the Phillies in 1969 traded Richie Allen (my childhood hero)? Funny, he never played for the Phils:

So when the Cardinals traded him to Philadelphia that October, Flood, 31 at the time, was not much inclined to go, even though he had no choice if he wanted to stay in the game. That’s how the reserve clause worked. The owners insisted it preserved balance between the teams; of course, it also let them buy and keep talent on the extremely cheap. Such collusive, anticompetitive conduct would normally have violated the Sherman Antitrust Act. But in 1922, the United States Supreme Court had held that the business of baseball was somehow not interstate commerce covered by that law, and in 1953 it ruled, equally ludicrously, that Congress had wanted it that way.

Over the years, the court refused to extend that tortured logic to theatrical productions, basketball, boxing and football. But something about baseball — here, all those clichés about its hold on the American psyche apparently held true — blinded even the most revered jurists, including Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Earl Warren, Hugo Black, William O. Douglas and Felix Frankfurter. (Only the historically disparaged justices Stanley Reed and Harold Burton, who dissented from the 1953 ruling, got it right.) That the Supreme Court would reverse two of its own precedents seemed highly unlikely.

And that was what Marvin Miller, the firebrand executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, told Flood. His lawsuit, Miller warned, was “a million-to-one shot.” Bringing free agency to the game was on Miller’s agenda, but not for a while; at a time when baseball’s minimum salary was $10,000 and players got $15 daily meal money, his union was just too weak. And with his $90,000 annual salary — big bucks at the time — Flood was not the most sympathetic plaintiff. But backed by representatives from the various teams, Miller agreed to bankroll Flood’s case, retaining Arthur Goldberg, late of the Supreme Court, to handle it.

Flood himself was undeterred by the inevitable blacklisting to come. He liked living on the edge — he was the type to throw baseballs with his phone number written on them to pretty women in the stands — and was a contrarian, always itching for a fight. Then there was his race, and his rage. Other black stars, like Mays, Aaron and Ernie Banks, rocked no boats. But Flood always had, attacking segregated training camps in Florida, appearing at an N.A.A.C.P. rally in Mississippi and, with the help of a court order and police protection, moving into a white neighborhood in the Bay Area. To him, protests were nothing new.

And coincidentally (or providentially), I also read today why Curt Flood may not have wanted to play in Philadelphia (for reasons similar to Richie Allen’s:

Winter was a leader of the very powerful Philadelphia Klan, which at its height claimed some fifty thousand members in the metropolitan area. He was one of the movement’s most effective publicists and evangelists, but he was also deeply involved in factional struggles. In a striking portent of his later political allegiance, Winter earned notoriety by forming a personal elite bodyguard and enforcement squad known as the Super-Secret Society, the “S. S. S.” (at this early date, the similarity of name to the German S. S. is coincidental. And no jokes, please, about Double Secret Probation). The “Night Riders” of this “Black-Robed Gang” beat and intimidated opponents who questioned Winter’s shady financial dealings. Winter’s tactics included exposing the Klan membership of his opponents, seeking thereby to attract boycotts and demonstrations against them by Catholics and other hostile groups. His critics accused him of “building up a far more autocratic organization than Rome ever dared to build.” In 1925-26, the Philadelphia Klan’s klaverns (lodges) were riven by violence, lawsuits, and spectacular mutual expulsions.

In 1928, the Klan nationwide was galvanized anew by the threat of a Catholic Presidential candidate in the form of Al Smith. In that year, Winter published in his What Price Tolerance? (Hewlett, N.Y.: All-American Book, Lecture and Research Bureau, 1928) a comprehensive statement of anti-Catholic ideology. The book gives an excellent idea of the kind of rhetoric used by Klan leaders in their speeches intended to recruit new members, and to fire up supporters.

For Winter, Catholic “aggression” was expressed in the Catholic marriage laws, which denied the validity of Protestant marriage and family life, and in the sectarian schools, which created and sustained a whole alternative society and cultural life. Surging Catholic power threatened to overwhelm American society and values. In the previous century, the Church in the United States had grown from fifty thousand adherents and 35 priests to twenty million faithful with a vast network of clergy, schools, and seminaries. By the 1920s, there was a “general staff” – perhaps a provisional government? – in the form of the elaborate bureaucracy of the National Catholic Welfare Council. The nightmare was that all Americans would someday be subjected to this tyranny, and that a Catholic would someday attain the presidency. Catholic strength was founded on “Alienism”, “the unassimilated hordes of Europe”, which threatened American racial purity.

The shadow of racism was large in Philadelphia.

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.

The Sabbatarian Option for the Benedictines

Noah Millman legitimately wants specifics about the Benedictine Option (and here I thought it was an after dinner cocktail):

Ok, then: monasteries were communities of celibates who held property in common. Anyone from the outside could join the community by taking the necessary vows, and non-votaries could visit, even dwell with the community for a time. But the monastic community was constituted by rules of considerable complexity, and it played a unique economic role in the larger society by virtue of its distinctive legal status. So I’d expect discussion of the Benedict Option to center on what such communities such look like, how they should relate to the larger, less-tethered community of co-religionists and the larger society as a whole. Should Benedict-Option Christians found communities outside of major cities, so as to be able to fully express their ethos, and encourage non-Benedict-Option Christians to visit them there? What should the economic relationship be between communal organs and individual adherents? What should the rules be for joining – or leaving? What kinds of legal protections would such communities need as corporate bodies? And how should adherents behave when they are among “gentiles?”

These are the kinds of questions that actual ethical communities – groups like the Amish and Mennonites, yes, but also Orthodox Jews, Mormons, American Sikhs, utopian Socialists, kibbutzniks, all kinds of groups – have wrestled with at their founding. Communal organization for a self-conscious ethical group within a foreign society – not necessarily hostile nor necessarily friendly, but foreign – is not a new problem. I’d expect advocates of the Benedict Option to be particularly interested in such forerunning models, and to be discussing how they might or might not be applied to the specific challenges of small-o orthodox Christianity in a society that still retains the trappings of Christianity but, from their perspective, can no longer be called Christian in any meaningful sense.

That, however, doesn’t seem to be the center of the discussion about the Benedict Option, at least not so far as I have seen. Instead, most of what I’ve seen is discussion of how corrupt and threatening to Christianity the surrounding culture is becoming, and how small-o orthodox Christians need to recognize that fact and prepare for it, combined with repeated assurance that the Benedict Option does not mean withdrawing from the world or compromising the Christian obligation to witness, spread the gospel, be in the world while not of it, etc. In other words, I hear a lot about why the Benedict Option is important, and a lot about what the Benedict Option isn’t, but very little that I can grasp with any kind of firmness about what the blasted thing is in the first place.

Protestants were not (and still aren’t) big on monasticism. Protestantism was a piety for life in the world and the doctrine that undergirded that real life was vocation.

But Protestants were also big on sanctifying the Lord’s Day, as in setting it apart:

This Sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs beforehand, do not only observe an holy rest, all the day, from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations, but also are taken up, the whole time, in the public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy. (Confession of Faith, 21.8)

You could argue, then, that every Sunday is a kind of monastic retreat from the world and that’s certainly how many Protestants practiced it. Even my Baptist parents knew this and so when the prospects of Little League came, I had to decline because I would be compelled to play baseball on Sundays. Why my brother and I could watch the Phillies on Sundays thanks to the television was a question we didn’t ask. We wanted to watch. We weren’t in charge.

What if the wider Christian world (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant) treated Sunday as a day for a kind of monastic existence? No work, no inappropriate reading, no sex, lots of bread, even more beer. Couldn’t this be a way to set Christians apart without having to become celibate and so see Christianity go the way of the Shakers?

Play Ball!

A hymn for the beginning of the baseball season:

Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

That used to be a stanza that one could well imagine a Cubs’ fan singing poignantly. This year, it may well apply to the Fightin’s faithful.

Make My Joy Complete?

After last night’s Phillies’ 1-0 victory over the Braves — their tenth in-a-row — it is hard not to feel down-right gleeful as a Phillies fan. Not only have the Phils seemed to work out many kinks from an injury ridden season and a poor first half, but they are doing this without Jimmy Rollins who was 2007 MVP of the National League. (Does Phil’s GM Reuben Amaro get enough credit for acquiring Wilson Valdez, even while receiving accolades for picking up Roy Oswald to make up for the indiscretion of giving up Cliff Lee?)

The problem with my joy is that it comes with knowledge of friends’ grief. Back in 2008 when the Phils won it all, they owed part of their success to the Met’s failure. Granted, the Metropolitans’ September ’08 performance was not as bad as 2007 when the Phils came from 7 1/2 games back to win the division (and then get crushed by the Rockies in the first round). But the Mets did have a 3 1/2 game lead in 2008 with three weeks to go. Normally, a Philadelphia fan gets a huge kick from seeing the home team win and any New York team lose — yes, Philadelphia does not always wear its inferiority complex with aplomb — who does? But in this case, my sidekick at Old Life is a Mets fan. So I couldn’t celebrate as heartily as I wanted because I could well imagine some of John Muether’s pain. By the way, one way I have found to like Mets fans — it is very hard, after all — is to remember that these are New Yorkers who decided not to root for the Yankees. That makes their value go way up.

This year the Metropolitans have not been a factor since the All-Star game, so my mirth could find outlets even in the company of Mr. Muether. But now comes my empathy for a friend who is a fairly strong Braves fan. He will remain nameless, but knowing his own hopes for the Braves and how the Phils may have seriously hurt Atlanta’s chance to make the playoffs, my step today has been a little heavier than it would be if say the Phils had just swept Blue Jays. (Does Canada even deserve a baseball franchise? Why not Canadian baseball with only 2 outs per inning and bases 100 meters apart?)

It may be a stretch, but I find an analogy here in the realm of debates about 2k. The opponents appear to be very quick and ready to celebrate apparent contradictions, failure to answer questions, and departures from Reformed worthies. The spirit that informs anti-modern 2k proponents is one of a Philadelphia fan after an Eagles defeat of the New York Football Giants — strident and ungracious. I am not one to play the 1 Cor. 13 card. Sometimes debate gets personal and feelings get hurt. It comes with the territory and certainly the blogosphere encourages bluster. But I cannot figure out why anti-2k folks feel the urge not only to win but to subject the other side to humiliation.

Of course, they haven’t won any more than another Phillies pennant will somehow make up for the losingest franchise in professional sports history.