Jesus’s calling to become a Cubs fan

by Arvid Adell

Jesus does not always speak to his followers directly or doctrinally. Instead, the Bible introduces us to the themes of God’s Kingdom in parables, analogies and metaphors. Its lexicon includes banquets, vineyards, shepherds, pearls of great price, and widows searching for lost coins. All of these resonated with the first century Jews.

However, if Jesus were preaching/teaching the kerygma today, I feel quite certain he would have included modern day sports, especially baseball, as a prime simile.

A recent book entitled Baseball As A Road to God, by John Sexton, presents us with a kind of “natural theology” to understand what it means to live as a child of the divine creator. Baseball is our Rosetta Stone.

“We have our allotted innings and play them out as best we can, but always within the friendly confines of eternity.” Baseball has no clock!

“We are the only creatures who hew to the immutable laws of birth and death even as we dream of their transformation.’’ Get it? That’s baseball; that’s the human condition, that’s the gospel of hopeful redemption. (That’s also a bit of a stretch.)

Suppose Jesus offered the “sermon” at the recent annual meeting of Pietisten and used baseball as his “text.” I feel confident that I have a fairly good idea as to what he would say. He would announce, unequivocally, that all Christians must be fans of the Chicago Cubs. This would not be merely an arbitrary assertion on his part, but an inference from some indisputable biblical truths.

Which truths? First, the theological understanding that God is on the side of the Cubs. The scriptures make it very clear that the Lord is an advocate for the oppressed. The rich man Dives, feasting sumptuously every day, was not chosen by God to snuggle up next to Abraham in Paradise. Instead he promoted the helpless, feckless Lazarus, whose name in Greek means, “I need help.” Seemingly, the sole criterion for this judgment was the privation of the oppressed beggar who spent his time with the dogs living outside, looking in. All of the prophets and Jesus himself speak plainly that God favors the oppressed.

The New York Yankees are the Dives of Major League baseball, occupying the penthouse. The Cubs are Lazarus, (usually) living in the cellar, and looking up from afar. The last time “we” won the World Series was 1908, over a hundred years ago. Equally appalling, the last time we even played in the Series was in 1945, falling victim to a Detroit Tigers team featuring Virgil Trucks, Dizzy Trout, and Hal Newhouser.

Another reason is soteriological.

A few years ago, there occurred a celebrated debate between Ted Williams and Sam Snead. The issue was which sport, baseball or golf, was the more difficult. Representing baseball, Williams spoke first. “In golf, the ball sits stationary on a little peg. The golfer just stands there and hits it. Anyone can do that. But in baseball a pitcher just a short distance away throws a ball over 90 miles per hour; and it curves and drops and flutters and the batter has to use a curved wooden stick in an attempt to hit it someplace where nine men with gloves can’t catch it. Now that’s why baseball is tougher than golf.”

Nonplussed, Snead replied, “But Ted, in golf you have to play your foul balls!”

Mickey Mantle reported that during his career with the Yankees he had struck out around 1,750 times and he had received about 1,750 walks. He calculated that translates into 3,500 at bats, or five full seasons without putting the ball in play. Allegedly, when Yogi Berra heard this he responded to Mickey, “why didn’t you just skip those five years and retire early?”

As Christians we acknowledge our inabilities to always make the right connections and contacts. We can’t simply erase our past – our strikeouts and foul balls – pretending they didn’t happen or it wasn’t our fault. However, the good news is that even though we are accountable for our miss-hits and our errors, Jesus came to deal with that malady. The physician does not come to those who are healthy, but to those who are sick. Jesus came to seek and to save those who are lost.

Surely this includes the Cubs, at least metaphorically speaking. No major league baseball organization has had a more dismal diagnosis nor wandered lost in the wilderness of ineptitude to the degree the Cubs; or to put it another way, endured more “foul balls.” Jesus is on the side of the Cubs.

A third reason why all Christians should be Cubs fans is ecclesiological.

Someone once sardonically remarked, “The Church is like Noah’s Ark. If it weren’t for the storm on the outside, you couldn’t stand the stench on the inside.” Perhaps a bit overstated, but you get the point. Our churches are besmirched with all kinds of quarrels, disputes, inquisitions, and schisms. But in spite of all that smelly stuff, the Church prevails. The early Christians were loyal to the point of death. Today there are over two billion adherents.

Cubs fans constitute a secular version of the Church. Even though we have a sort of eminent domain on last place in the National League, the stands are always full, year after year. When playing “on the road” there are often as many fans rooting for the Cubs as for the home team. We are loyal to the point of being ridiculous, throwing opponents’ home run balls back on the playing field to show our disdain for our tormenters.

A clergyman friend of mine from Decatur, Illinois, reported that a businessman who was a member of his church had an appointment in Los Angeles, which required a drive to O’Hare Airport in Chicago to catch a flight to the West Coast. As he began his trip he spotted a man standing by the side of the road, wearing a royal blue Cubs cap and displaying a sign reading “Cubs Fan.” Evidently the hitchhiker’s ploy worked, because the businessman saw him at the airport, sans sign and cap, waiting to board the same plane as he. When the Decaturite exited the terminal in Los Angeles he witnessed an amusing sight. There was the same hitchhiker, holding out his thumb, only this time he wore an L.A. cap and exhibited a sign reading “Dodgers Fan.”

None of this fickle, duplicitous behavior for us North Siders! Our identity with the team is not merely nominal, it is ontological! As far as baseball is concerned, it is with the Cubs that we “live, and move, and have our being.” Like the Church, we are a unique fellowship and loyal unto death or winning the World Series, whichever comes first. And “we believe.”

The final reason for being a Cubs fan is probably the most compelling. It is eschatological (“future” eschatology, that is, not “realized”). At last, when it’s all over, we win!

The Scriptures are replete with “reverse” parables and stories that demonstrate in the end “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” That’s what Cub fans live for! At some point, the Kingdom chooses Lazarus and dismisses Dives.

One never knows for sure what will happen in baseball. In 1962 the New York Mets were born, a hodge-podge collection of over-the-hill “has beens” and aspiring “never-will-be’s.” The next year they entered the Guinness Book of Records as the losingest team during a single season in the history of modern day baseball, with 120 black marks on their resume. Jimmy Breslin chronicled the laughable misadventures of the ’63 team in his best seller, Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game? His question was rhetorical: of course not! In an attempt to console his woebegone troops, Manager Casey Stengel summoned the entire team into the locker room where he uttered those unforgettable words: “Look at it this way, men. It was a team effort. Nobody could have done it by hisself.”

Fast-forward a mere six years. The “Miracle Mets,” as they were dubbed, not only won the National League Pennant by overcoming an eight-game deficit to our beloved Chicago Cubs in the final month of the season, but they upset the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. Occasionally, we do witness the “last becoming first,” and vice versa.

So when is future eschatology going to transform itself into present, realized eschatology for the Chicago Cubs? Who knows? We are seeing signs they are trying. Three years ago the Cubs hired a new head of baseball operations, Theo Epstein, away from the Boston Red Sox. In Boston Epstein gained a reputation as a kind of magician. Under his leadership, the Red Sox won two world championships after decades of futility.

Can he emulate that with the Cubs? John Buchanan, editor of the Christian Century, reported that his baseball-loving son asked him recently, “Dad, a young Jewish man coming to Chicago from the East, rumored to be a miracle worker – could he be the One?”

Huge stretch! But all things are possible! Just make sure you are a believer and a Cubs fan.

Arvid Ardell is a retired Professor of Philosophy at Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois.

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