From Baseball by John Updike
It looks easy from a distance,
easy and lazy, even,
until you stand up to the plate
and see the fastball sailing inside,
an inch from your chin,
or circle in the outfield
straining to get a bead
on a small black dot
a city block or more high,
a dark star that could fall
on your head like a leaden meteor.
The grass, the dirt, the deadly hops
between your feet and overeager glove:
football can be learned,
and basketball finessed, but
there is no hiding from baseball
the fact that some are chosen
and some are not—those whose mitts
feel too left-handed,
who are scared at third base
of the pulled line drive,
and at first base are scared
of the shortstop's wild throw
that stretches you out like a gutted deer.
There is nowhere to hide when the ball's
spotlight swivels your way,
and the chatter around you falls still,
and the mothers on the sidelines,
your own among them, hold their breaths,
and you whiff on a terrible pitch
or in the infield achieve
something with the ball so
ridiculous you blush for years.
It's easy to do...
This spring marks my fifteenth and final season as a baseball mom. It has always puzzled me that two of my sons like baseball so much. It’s a game of brutal and unforgiving precision, but they welcome “the ball's spotlight” because they love to compete.
Baseball, as they say, is a game of failure. The most successful batter in history, Ty Cobb, posted a lifetime .366 batting average. That’s a 36% success rate (64% failure) and no, my boys have never come close to that. In case you missed it, that means a very good baseball player fails to hit two out of every three at bats. (All my years on the bleachers and that fact still surprises me.) Baseball is the only game that tracks errors, and that stat is posted on the scoreboard in large lighted numbers. The home plate umpire judges every ball that leaves my pitcher’s hand to be a success or a failure (also tracked on the scoreboard), and the infield ump judges every windup to see if he balks.
What makes baseball unique is not only the frequency of failure or the presence of continual judgment; it’s the exposure. As Updike notes, there’s “nowhere to hide” on the diamond. Because in batting, fielding, pitching, and throwing, a player is for a moment solely responsible for what happens with the ball, baseball is a team sport that unfolds as a series of largely individual moments on a field constructed to ensure maximum visibility.
In other words, my sons’ failures and shortcomings on the baseball field are really easy for everyone to see.
Making an error on the ballfield is a human mistake, exposing weakness or imperfection, not sin. But mistakes can have a funny way of revealing hidden sin. A player’s reaction to a humiliating error or strikeout, or to his teammates’ mistakes, can be sinful. If a player curses, tosses a bat, fakes an injury, or talks smack to an opponent, his pride is showing. Likewise, if he brings an attitude into the dugout, talks back to the coach, or blames a teammate for a loss, he has allowed the embarrassments of playing the game to uncover hidden sins. Learning to deal with mistakes publicly – “something with the ball so ridiculous you blush for years” – is humbling, which is why the baseball diamond can become a place of grace.
Pastor Carl Haak has commented, “Sin exposed is grace revealed.” God, in His grace and mercy, exposes our weaknesses and sins so that we are aware of our true condition and our desperate need for a Savior. David knew what this felt like. His sin with Bathsheba weighed heavily on him for a year before God sent the prophet Nathan to hold David accountable, and what a miserable year: “When I kept silent, my bones grew old/ Through my groaning all the day long./ For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me…” (Psalm 32:3-4)
By God’s grace, sin confronted and confessed can be forgiven and healed. The repentance David expressed in Psalm 51 gave him a cleaned-up conscience (peace, v.10), deep gratitude for God’s mercy (joy, v.8), and a restoration of fellowship with His beloved Shepherd (worship, v. 14). Finally, God granted David a new testimony, a public declaration of His faithfulness in David’s weakness: “Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners will be converted to You.” (v.13) Certainly facing his sin was very painful, but David learned he needed exactly that: “Search me, O God, and know my heart… and see if there is any wicked way within me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Psalm 139:23-24) God met David in the depth of his shame and changed his heart and his future.
Consider Peter, another very famous failure. Even as late as the last Passover meal, Peter had been full of bluster and unaware of his own shortcomings, declaring that he would follow and defend Jesus against any challenge. Instead, he glibly denied Jesus three times. (see Matthew 26:69-75) Peter cried bitter tears when he failed his Master, but he needed to know the sin in his own heart before he could ever acknowledge the depth of his need for God, or lead others to do the same.
This story is so important that all four gospels include it. Peter did not write any of the gospels, nor were any of the other disciples present when Peter denied Christ. That means the only way anyone would have known about Peter’s denial was if Peter himself shared the story. Peter was so truly humbled that he exposed his own sin for the glory of God. Given the mighty work that God would do through Peter – once he was truly yielded to God’s will rather than his own agenda – the apostle’s denial, restoration, and subsequent ministry still testify powerfully to God’s grace today. Through the power of God, Peter’s success became the direct result of his failure.
Christians in America don’t like to talk about failure or defeat. We prefer to claim strength and victory, but in fact we fail more often than baseball players. This is no surprise to God. He sent His son to claim the victory against sin and death because we could never hope to win it on our own. But before I can claim that victory through Jesus for myself, I have to admit that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” includes ME. (Romans 3:23)
Baseball is a game that teaches us to risk exposure and play anyway. The diamond and the dugout are places where players confront their weakness, imperfection, and even sin, and learn to persevere. A batter shakes off the last strikeout and swings smarter the next time- maybe. A fielder sprints out to his base in spite of his game-changing error the previous inning, praying he doesn’t do it again. As my graduating senior pitcher told his brother the other day: “There’s nothing more humbling than having to shake a guy’s hand after he’s just drilled your pitch to the fence.” More than any other game, baseball mortifies pride. And this is exactly where God wants us: “But He gives more grace. Therefore He says: God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6)
The ability to embrace the humiliation and come out swinging again is not only the secret of baseball; it is the pattern of the Christian life. Our good Father meets us in exactly the place where we fail or fall short, and uses that place as a starting point for our good and His glory. It’s by His grace, then, that we say: