There are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and 108 stitches in a baseball. When I heard that, I gave Jesus a chance.    ~ Annie Savoy, Bull Durham

Busch

Now that I’ve pissed off 90% of you – let me elaborate.

I’m a member of Cardinal Nation by marriage. I live in Chicago Cubs territory – why would I deliberately throw myself into that rivalry? But I love a winner and the St. Louis Cardinals mostly deliver.

I enjoy baseball. From Little League to the Big Leagues the game is intriguing and entertaining to me. I embrace the nuances of strategy and skill. I suspect that’s how golf fans feel. But golf can put me to sleep on a sunny Sunday afternoon quicker than you can say Jack Nicholas – or is it, Nicholson?

Sports are fantastic for bringing people together or tearing them apart. Sports can improve your health or ruin it. One moment you’re on top of the world; the next you’re in the dirt. Sports build character or can destroy self-worth.

Sports have their place as entertainment. Let me say it again – entertainment. Individuals distorting sports to be worshiped is how trouble begins. Most of us don’t think of it as idolatry – but it’s exactly that. Without realizing, we can get caught up in competition and materialism. Winning isn’t everything.

For example, we’ve heard stories regarding high school and college program corruption – all in the name of glory … and money. High school athletes – and their families often hate – yes hate – members from rival teams. Pete Rose’s controversy for betting on his own team – tied up with greed and pride – will continue to be debated for most of our lifetimes. Striving for the almighty college sports scholarship has now taken over most communities. Perspective is lost on many.

In the Book of Jeremiah, the prophet writes:

“Small and great alike, all are greedy for gain; all practice fraud. They would repair, as though it were naught, the injury to my people.” Jeremiah 6: 13

Jeremiah is teaching us that the false assurance of well-being (it’s fine – there’s nothing wrong with what we’re doing – it’s all in fun) rationalized by society cannot reduce the harm of universal materialism and corruption. In other words, just because everyone does it – doesn’t make it right.

And this …

“Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength or the rich boast of their riches, but let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice, and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” says the Lord.   Jeremiah 9:23-24

Sports and striving for big money has for many replaced something as simple as attending church on Sunday. I witnessed the culture change while coaching girls’ softball for more than 10 seasons. Churches are all but empty while practice fields and gymnasiums are packed. People exchange the importance of thanking and praising God for their gift of athletic ability for more practice time, more competition, and more wins.

During my tenure as the local Softball Association President, I calmed many heated arguments over umpire calls, games won or lost, kids not getting enough playing time. I refused to have kids practice or play games on Sunday.

I can’t count how many times I heard the dreaded, “I’m trying to get my daughter a scholarship so she needs to play every minute of every game” (and she’s 7-years-old). I continually saw parents grasping at the possibility of the golden ticket of a college scholarship.

That’s where God wants us to be vigilant. The creeping growth of materialism, competition, pride to be victorious over another comes from Satan – he so easily gets us sidetracked by using something good and easily turns it into an obsession. Pride is dangerous. Greed is perilous.

For instance, my daughter was 9-years-old and taking pitching lessons. She enjoyed it and wanted to become a better pitcher. On a hot afternoon in a steamy gymnasium, I waited for her to finish her lesson. An acquaintance also waiting for his daughter said to me, “Do you think this will pay off?”

I questioned, “Pay off?”

He explained, “I’m putting money into pitching lessons so she’ll get a college scholarship for softball.”

“My gosh, she’s only 9-years-old!” I said. “She has a long way to go to get to that scholarship. Shouldn’t she love what’s she’s doing, first?”

He shrugged and said, “It’ll be fine – she’s got the talent!”

I mentioned it might be a bad idea to put all his eggs in one basket – or all his balls in one bucket – so to speak.

He asked, “Then, what’s your plan?”

“My plan is to have her enjoy sports, work hard academically, be a well-rounded person, save money for college and maybe she’ll be blessed to get an academic scholarship,” I said.

He justified that he preferred to bet on the athletic scholarship. His daughter had awesome skills at 9-years-old, he reasoned.

I shook my head, smiled and walked away. He and I had that same conversation several times over the years.

Fast forward nine years. During my daughter’s high school senior awards ceremony, she received one of the top academic scholarships the school offered. His daughter did not receive a scholarship – athletic or otherwise.

After the ceremony, his wife in tears, he recalled our conversation and said to me, “You did the right thing. We were in it for the money. Now we have no options for my daughter to go to college.”

No other plans made in all those years – only betting on the big money. It is one of the most heartbreaking conversations of my life.

I saw so many similar scenarios during my time with the softball league. Some parents have bought into the visions of glory and riches for their children. I admire athletes who are blessed with the talent to make it to the big leagues – it takes work, dedication, and sacrifice. The life lessons learned in sports are valuable for children – don’t get me wrong. There were so many families that had fun with the sport – but I was disturbed that just as many looked to it as a way to make money.

Today, sports professionals are seen as heroes. I love to watch a diving catch or someone getting robbed of a homer, but it’s not a heroic deed. It’s entertaining.

I know for a lot of us the spirit of fun remains in sports. But mostly I’m concerned at the messages we are promoting to our children. Working hard to achieve a goal is admirable. Self-worth based on winning or losing is wrong. Keeping the money, the contest, fellow athletes in perspective is the game.

In professional baseball, I’ve seen certain players making the sign of the cross before batting or pointing to heaven when they get a base hit. I’d like to think their actions are genuine. It’s not for me to judge. My hope is that any action appearing to praise God is what it is. And I hope that is an example that fans are understanding and embracing.

During postgame interviews, I regularly hear players praising God for a win. The athlete thanking God for getting their team to the division finals, the league championship and the ultimate goal – the World Series. When I hear those remarks I smile and I often wonder does God really care if a particular team wins? I think he does … he’s rooting for the Cardinals.

 

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