A Lesson from Baseball

From the Pastor’s Study – 2/18/24

Baseball used to be called the “Great American pastime.”  More than a game or a diversion, it was (and to a certain degree remains) a part of the American ethos.  Baseball has been distinguished by characters so colorful that some were given stylish nicknames like “Joltin’ Joe,” “The Splendid Splinter” and “the Say Hey Kid.”  New York Yankee home run hitter George Ruth was so large in the minds of Americans that one nickname alone was insufficient.  He was “Babe,” “the Great Bambino,” “the Sultan of Swat,” etc. 

There have been single moments in baseball so dramatic that they have attained a legendary status and have been given titles all their own.  “Babe’s called shot;” Willie Mays’ “The Catch;” “The shot heard ‘round the world.” 

But baseball is not just characterized by heroes and heroic plays.  It has also been marked by heartbreaking blunders. 

In game six of the 1986 World Series, the Boston Red Sox hoped to end a seven-decade-long championship draught.  With two out in the ninth inning, a slow rolling ground ball went between the legs of veteran infielder Bill Buckner, allowing the Mets to score the winning run.  Boston lost the next game and the series.  For this one error, in spite of the fact that he had a stellar career, Buckner was mercilessly heckled by fans.  He actually sought out psychological counseling to help deal with the depression it brought him.  

Fred Merkle was only nineteen when he played first base for the 1908 New York Giants.  In the final game of the season, Merkle made a baserunning error that allowed the Chicago Cubs to win not only the game but the National League pennant instead of the Giants.  When Merkle died a half century later, the headline in the newspaper obituary highlighted his mistake.

It is not players alone who are guilty of legendary errors.  Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga had retired 26 straight.  The 27th Cleveland batter hit a grounder to first baseman Miguel Cabrera who fielded the ball easily.  He then flipped the ball to Galarraga who ran to cover first.  He beat the runner by half a step.  But umpire Jim Joyce called the runner safe.  Players and coaches argued the call.  Television replay showed clearly that the runner was out.  But the call on the field stood.  After the game Joyce tearfully apologized for the bad call.  He even contacted the commission’s office to ask that the call be reversed.  No avail.  Although generally regarded as a fine umpire, Joyce is most remembered for his imperfect call ending an otherwise perfect game.

A popular motion picture fancifully and inaccurately likened baseball to heaven.  But in this one respect there is a similarity between heaven and baseball.  Our errors or sins are part of heaven’s story – its wonder.  Heaven is not a Hall of Fame for the good and obedient.  It is home for sinners saved by grace. 

The apostle Paul made clear that his hope of heaven was not in any way founded on his goodness or his service as an apostle.  He owned himself a “chief” or foremost sinner for whom Jesus Christ died to purchase his pardon.  (I Tim. 1:15)

John Newton could be in a Christian Hall of Fame, if there was one.  He was a preacher, and the author of the best-known Christian hymn, Amazing Grace.  While walking down the street as an elderly man, an approaching friend asked how he was.  Newton famously replied, “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior.”  Newton recalled what mattered – not his own virtue, but rather his sin and the Son of God.

Heaven is a place of seeming contradiction and beautiful irony.  How?  In heaven there will be no regret, no remorse, no guilt, no shame.  Yet at the same time, heaven will be populated by individuals keenly aware that they are forgiven, clothed in righteousness not their own.  It will be a great assembly of unworthy sinners who for all eternity will acclaim the mercy, love, and grace of their great God and Savior Who promised, “their sins and iniquities will I remember no more.”  (Heb. 8:12)