Baseball sentimentality, not fate

Posted: Oct 18, 2003 12:00 AM

The customary separation of journalism and religion came to a halt these past several days on the sports pages. As the Cubs and then the Red Sox fell, phrases like "the gods of baseball" regularly hit headlines, and "destiny" or "fate" became favorite nouns. The Red Sox and Cubs were "doomed" because of "the curse of the Bambino" or "the billy goat curse."

I practically grew up at Fenway Park, so I'm suffering along with the rest of Red Sox Nation, but I'm finding this stuff about curses a bit much. Fatalism is the tribute that those apart from God pay to the notion that spiritual forces exist, so in one way it's a step up from atheism, but it is also the last refuge of those who refuse to examine closely the specific detail of failure.

God generally works through people, and people in tough circumstances need to get their emotions under control. Red Sox outfielder Trot Nixon wonderfully described the prayer he offered before heading to the plate and hitting a key home run in the Boston-Oakland series: "I asked for the Lord to quiet my nerves."

Nerves excite us but also destroy our judgment, and baseball is above all a game of non-sentimental, non-nervous judgment: for hitters, when to swing, and for managers, when to make changes.

Cubs fans have their own stories to tell, but the two major disasters in recent Red Sox history came when managers in the clutch abandoned logic and enthroned sentimentality. The ball never would have gone through Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner's legs in 1986 if the Red Sox manager had followed his usual procedure and given Buckner's creaking knees a rest by putting in a defensive replacement. The Red Sox probably would have beaten the Yankees in this year's seventh game if the current Red Sox manager had followed his usual procedure and used what had become a prize bullpen instead of leaving in Pedro Martinez.

Michael Holley of the Boston Globe called it right: "It didn't have to be this way. ... This loss came down to a decision, right and wrong. The right decision would have put the Sox in the World Series for the first time in 17 years. The wrong decision left them staring out onto the Yankee Stadium grass."

Yes, it would have been nice for Buckner to leap around with his teammates in 1986 had they won that year, and it would have been nice for Martinez to have finished the eighth inning -- but it was sentimentality, not the "gods of baseball," that stopped them. The manager's prayer should be: "Lord, quiet my nerves so that I think through this situation logically and make sure I have my strongest team on the field." Managers without steely minds or prayerful hearts go with hunches that sometimes are correct but more often fail them and those who depend on them.

World history is full of bad hunches. Eve, instead of praying to quiet the nerves excited by Satan's insinuations, saw the pretty surface of the fruit and bit in. Sentiment blinded her to God's overwhelming goodness and power. Recently, Saddam Hussein went with his hunch that the United States could be bluffed, but steely-eyed U.S. leaders cast sentiment aside. Baseball losses are obviously of minor importance compared to world-shaping and world-changing events, but they also teach lessons.

Here's one I take away from Red Sox disappointment: Don't blame "baseball gods" for man-made losses. Certainly, God is sovereign even over games, but don't confuse God's sovereignty with fatalism. He raises up kings and quiets their nerves, or He leaves them to their impulses, with disaster most of the time resulting.