Baseball is a big deal in my little town, Cooperstown, New York. Though everyone’s now fairly certain that baseball wasn’t invented here, the tourist information still brands us “The Home of Baseball.” Every year, hundreds of thousands come to visit the Hall of Fame, which is located right across the street from the church where I serve. The last Sunday in July is the centerpiece of the tourist season, when the game’s worthies gather to induct a few of their own into this prestigious fellowship.
Earlier this month, four retired players, Craig Biggio, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and John Smoltz, were chosen for induction this summer. It’s an impressive total, the highest in sixty years, and it was front-page news for most of the week in our local newspaper. On the opinion page, rival analysts, including our village’s mayor, a celebrated sports writer, took up the inescapable other side of the story. What about all those retirees who are still being passed over by baseball sportswriters? What about the steroids generation?
What follows is modified from a sermon I preached on the day of the Hall of Fame Inductions in 2013, the year no players were clean enough to be honored.
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None of the candidates proposed to baseball sportswriters earned the requisite number of votes this year. It’s happened before, but it’s not just some accident of circumstance this time. There’s a simple, one word explanation for this: steroids.
The recent retirees who were proposed for this year’s ballot included many remarkable athletes, many record-breakers, many who will rightly claim a place in the history books. But most of them are known users of steroids, and many of them participated knowingly in a massive cover-up. Some of them even lied directly to a Congressional Committee that was looking into the matter. Because the Hall of Fame is intended as a kind of gathering of heroes, because sportsmanship is part of what it means to play the game well, most sportswriters just think their names don’t deserve to be etched in bronze.
It’s not a universal opinion, of course. Even the most tainted sluggers managed a few votes. But I, at least, admire the sportswriters for the stand they have taken, probably more because I think it’s good moral theology than because I stay up nights worrying about baseball’s legacy. To save the integrity of the sport, to make any sort of case for maintaining its social privileges, to preserve the idea that sports is about something other than testosterone and big money — for all sorts of good reasons — baseball needs to be honest about the damage done by the steroids era. And marking that honesty symbolically by some noticeable gaps on the wall across the street is a good place to start.
Our vestryman, John Odell, who knows a lot about both baseball and moral theology explained it this way: the players of the steroids generation were putting on some impressive athletic feats, but the game they were playing wasn’t really baseball. It wasn’t the same game that the players of the 1940s and 1980s were playing, and we hope it’s not the same game that is being played now. To play a game well means to respect its rules, and to follow them precisely. And the rules of major league baseball aren’t just about strikes and outs and foul balls. They’re about performance enhancing substances as well, the ones banned because they make competition unfair. And when you break those rules knowingly and then lie about them, you can’t rightly compare the things you accomplish with the things accomplished by those who do follow the rules.
“My heart really goes out,” John said, “to the guys of the steroids generation who did play by the rules.” Indeed he’s right — and not just because it would be fairer to induct the clean guys of the 1990s than the dirty ones. It’s all rather more tragic than that, you see. Anyone who knows baseball will always know about the asterisk that belongs beside Barry Bonds’s home run record: he, Sosa, and McGwire did beat Roger Maris, but they cheated to do it. Even the clean guys are tainted by what Bonds did. “He did very well,” they will say, “but he played in the steroids generation, so we’ll never really know what kind of player he really was.” A clean player might have been a shining star in a different generation, when the fastballs weren’t quite so fast and the hits weren’t quite so hard. But we’ll never know. In the end, even the clean guy suffers from association with the dirty ones. I don’t expect we’ll see many clean guys from the steroids era inducted: it’s just too hard to know if they were really clean. It depends on which liar you prefer to believe. It’s too hard to know how to compare them with the players of the past.
The whole generation must go, you see. There must be a gap in the record, a missing generation, to send forever the message: “We inherited a beautiful game, but we loved money and had to win at any cost. We corrupted it so badly that we almost lost the game altogether.” The steroids generation must be sacrificed if baseball is to have a new, clean start. That does seem unfair to the clean guys. But in a larger sense, anything short of this would not be truly just. And after all — and here’s where the moral theology really comes in — that is how sin works.
“If I choose to do it this way, I’m only hurting myself.” That’s what we tell ourselves, don’t we? But it’s almost always a bald-faced lie. The crooked businessman taints every one of his employees. The adulterer destroys at least two families every time. And if there’s one thing that AA has really taught the world, it’s that absolutely no one has his own drinking problem. There is a dark mystery in the working of sin — it moves almost of its own will across our lives. We can’t keep it isolated in one part of our lives, or among one group of our associates. It always spreads, like ink spilled across a stack of papers. We bring ourselves down, and we bring everyone else down with us, everyone else that matters to us, regardless of their intentions. It is always unfair, but that is its way.
And sometimes justice demands that when sin has worked its way so deeply into a group of people — a sport, a club, a church, a nation — sometimes the whole thing must go before there can be a new beginning. That’s what’s behind God’s disturbing commands to Hosea (Hos. 1:2-10). Israel was irredeemably corrupt, God is saying. There was idolatry, injustice to the poor, crooked businessmen and judges for sale. They had been given the law, they had received blessing after blessing. God had sent the prophets to warn them repeatedly. But the corruption was just too deep. And now, if there was to be any Israel at all, a whole generation must be destroyed.
God tells Hosea to announce his message to the Israelites in a particularly distasteful, and yes, rather unfair way. He is commanded to give appalling names to his children. His first son is called Jezreel — that was the site of a mighty battle in the past, where wicked queen Jezebel was killed and the dogs licked up her blood. The second child is called Lo-Ruhamah, “I will have no pity,” and the third is Lo-Ammi, “Not my people.” Through these children, God announces that he has rejected this corrupt generation. Was that really fair? How guilty was a little child, born the day before the Assyrian invasion that would make the northern kingdom of Israel disappear from history? There was great oppression, God says, but that means that some Israelites were on the receiving end. What of Hosea himself? The faithful prophet is announcing his own destruction, and that of his whole family and the land that he holds dear. The stakes are far higher here than whether your name ends up on a bronze plaque.
But God revealed that this was the only way. There would be a future for Israel. Hosea promises that one day, they would be numbered like the sand of the sea, and called “children of the living God.” But before that day, a terrible punishment would fall. Ten tribes would be lost forever, and the two that survived would go off into exile, see the destruction of the holy city, the collapse of the royal line and the priesthood. There would be a very bitter reckoning before the people could rise again from the ashes, soberly recognizing the burden of the sins of their ancestors. The Israelites were far from perfect after the exile. But they were never criticized for idolatry again. They became more conscientious about caring for the poor, and they praised fair and honest judges. God gave them a new start, and they understood just how precious a gift it was.
“Mercy and truth have met together,” Psalm 85 says, when it describes the day of new beginnings.“Mercy and truth have met together. Righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (85:10). And we rejoice that there is mercy, that there can be peace in this sin-sick world. We rejoice that we have a God who never punishes us as we truly deserve, but that mercy and peace must come hand in hand with truth and righteousness. We must face our wickedness honestly, understanding the full scope of its destructive work. We must be truly sorrowful for what we have done, desiring not to do it again. And usually we must bear the earthly penalties for the mistakes we have made. It’s what we call contrition. And in this society of ours with its Oprah-style confessions and press-conference absolutions, there are plenty of people who want to be shown mercy, but contrition sometimes seems to be in remarkably short supply.
So what would a real hero from baseball’s “steroids era” look like? Well, I don’t expect he’d be having press conferences down on Main Street complaining about how much he deserves to be let in to the Hall of Fame. And there’d be no carefully tailored memoirs to massage the evidence in his favor. He’d admit he was a failure, that he had done tremendous damage to the game and to the young people who wanted to be just like him. He’d recognize that if he was to make something good of his life, it would have to come after he’d put the game behind him.
Some time ago, I read an article in USA Today about that kind of hero from that kind of era. You know him: Darryl Strawberry. A beautiful swing, an eight-time All-Star, four World Series championships. But he became a disgrace: suspended from the game for cocaine use, arrested many times for a long list of reckless behaviors. But during one of his stints in drug rehab, Darryl Strawberry met God, and turned his life over to him. “I’m over ‘Strawberry,’” he said in the interview. “I’m over Mets. I’m over Yankees. I don’t want to exist as Darryl Strawberry, the baseball player …. That person is dead.”
Strawberry has found a new life as an ordained pastor, working with people in rehab centers, encouraging the families of children with autism. “Here I am, a baseball superstar,” he closed the interview, “falling into the pits, having everybody write you off, and then having God say, ‘I’m going to use your mess for a message.’ How beautiful is that?”
It is beautiful. It just what we would expect from the renewing work of our God. And when we turn to him, truly confessing our sins, admitting the mess we have made of our lives, desiring to put it behind us, he is merciful. Contrition brings peace. Salvation draws near and glory dwells in our land once more.
The featured image is “Boppin’” (2009) by Flickr user Professor Bop. It is licensed under Creative Commons.