Despite an unprepossessing matchup, last fall’s baseball World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and Texas Rangers was a honey, a seven-game struggle of the sort we haven’t seen for years. Game Six was a classic, featuring do-or-die comebacks from each team in an 11-inninger that ended with the Cardinals winning, 10-9, and, eventually, taking the championship.
Just as remarkable, though, was the quote given to espn.com after the sixth game by the Rangers’ Josh Hamilton, whose two-run home run in the 10th inning gave his team a 9-7 lead and, at the time, looked to be a game-winner. It concerned a conversation Hamilton says he had with God just before his memorable swing.
“He told me, ‘You haven’t hit one [a homer] in a while and this is the time you’re going to,” said Hamilton .
I still was digesting that revelation when I came across a story in the New York Times of November 2 about the horse trainer Larry Jones, whose filly Havre de Grace was favored in the Breeders Cup Classic a few days hence. Jones had been out of the sport the previous year because of burnout and physical ills, but had returned fit and, again, successful. He described what led him out of retirement thusly: “The Good Lord had a conversation with me. He told me that He had given me a talent, a blessing, and it was time for me to get my butt off the couch and start training horses.”
The quotes and their treatment caused me pause on a couple of grounds. The first was that they were buried in the body of the stories that contained them, not even rating a headline, and spurred no later discussion. You’d think the news that “God speaks to man” would cause a stir, but it didn’t.
Second, Hamilton’s assertion indicated that God not only was helping him but also was up on his stats, particularly the one showing that he’d gone homerless in his 65 previous post-season at-bats. With seven billion people on the planet and the usual array of wars, natural disasters and personal tragedies playing out, you’d think God would have plenty to occupy Him (or Her) besides our fun and games, but apparently that’s not the case.
Fact is, of course, that sports and religion are connected so closely in this land that the spectacle of athletes, etc., claiming intimacy with the deity doesn’t cause us to blink. If someone we actually know would tell us that he acted in such and such a way because of specific direction from Above we’d probably think he was daffy, but when an athlete (or a Republican presidential candidate) says that we smile benignly and continue the conversation. Decades of watching batters cross themselves before facing a pitcher, or jocks of all stripes pointing skyward after a signal achievement, have made the connection seem both natural and inevitable.
It’s not difficult to figure out why this should be so. If it’s true that there are no atheists in foxholes it’s also true that there are few in locker rooms, and for pretty much the same reason. Like war, all sports are games of inches, with barely measurable differences regularly separating success from failure. Even the most talented athlete knows full well that his day often will hinge on, say, the smidge by whether a line drive off his bat is caught or falls safely, and there’s enough randomness in the process to make it wise to propitiate the Almighty to help the breaks go his way. And—hey!—when the snoopy media drop by to talk, a shoutout to the Big Guy Upstairs might not hurt, either.
The rub comes when ostentatiously religious athletes like Tim Tebow take the field. Tebow, the Denver Broncos’ Lil’ Abnerish quarterback, has been in the playin’- and-prayin’ spotlight since his college days, punctuating his considerable gridiron feats with scriptural citations and prayerful poses that have come to be called “Tebowing.” In the process he’s become at once a celebrity with the extracurricular income to prove it, and a lightning rod for those on both sides of the religion-in-public issue that plays out in many American venues.
People who wince at Tebow’s doings often are hard pressed to explain why, but they shouldn’t be. Even granting his sincerity and good intentions (as I do), it’s enough to point out that his occupation consists of zero- sum games in which someone’s success always comes at someone else’s expense. Thus, for an athlete to imply that he enjoys God’s favor demeans his foe, who may believe himself to be equally worthy. That, I think, is what those Detroit Lions players were saying a few weeks back when they “Tebowed” after sacking or intercepting the Denver QB, although they might have expressed themselves better.
Indeed, the fact that failure and defeat are recurring themes in just about every athlete’s life probably goes farthest in explaining the group’s bent toward pietism. While most of us labor in obscurity, and rarely know if we’re winning or losing (or, even, how to keep score), the athlete’s failings are public and, thus, impossible to conceal. Every day in every sport half the teams lose, and even the best baseball hitters bat around .300, which means they fail about 70% of the time. Under those circumstances it’s tough to keep one’s chin up.
I read the other day that Plaxico Burress, the New York Jets’ pass receiver, has the motto “Everything Happens For A Reason” tattooed on his back. That’s a theological statement if there ever was one. Failure, defeat and even disgrace can be acceptable if they are seen as having the divine purpose of preparing one for greater tests to come. If Burress can believe that shooting himself in the leg in a nightclub with an illegally concealed weapon can have redeeming value, the rest of us can take heart from our own trials.