Church

Opening Day

Today is opening day of the baseball season, and stadiums will be packed with cold but jubilant fans. The outcome of the game won’t really matter, not in the context of the whole season. Teams will win on opening day but finish last at the end of the season. Teams will lose on opening day, but . . . you get the idea.

Opening days are symbolic and celebratory, and that matters. But as we get older the celebration gets muted by responsibility. The kids need picked up from school the same time as first pitch; you need to visit someone special in the hospital but you listen to the broadcast in the car; you have to work. The space your life used to hold for exulting over your team on opening day has been taken by other, more meaningful, things.

Awareness dims the opening day mood, too. For football fans it’s awareness about the problematic racial dynamics between its owners and fans and players, vivified by very real concerns over what playing the game is doing to the players. Baseball doesn’t have such an acute reality check for fans, but one has been gestating the past couple of off seasons about the underlying economic model of the game as players and owners approach another collective bargaining deadline. Plus, it’s hard to stay emotionally invested, as a grown up, in an enterprise that pays its most elite players hundreds of millions of dollars.

I will be watching opening day in bits and pieces, where my schedule (and the weather) allows. All things considered, it still means something.

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Church

Tom Friedman Is Shaping How I’m Thinking About Opening Day

My team was the toast of the sport only 18 months ago. Last season’s opening day saw them win a nationally televised game, giving license to the fan base to prolong our October chest-thumping.

It didn’t last. Injuries. Regression to the mean. The existence of other players and executives who care just as much and play just as hard. You know, sports. They finished exactly .500 for the season and missed the playoffs.

This opening day finds them projected to finish third in their division. Clutch players from their World Series victory are gone. Worst of all, four of the team’s turnaround centerpieces are in their final contract years. This is it for them. This is it for my team as I’ve come to love it.

And everybody knows it.

My expectations are low. I’m going to watch and listen and read and cheer and hope–but I don’t expect glory. And that’s okay.

Conquering the mountain as the scrappy upstart who finds a path to success that others missed is awfully fun. But you can only do that once. Then the challenge becomes keeping your footing as competitors find other paths to the top and as the mountain itself shifts beneath you. For everybody in the enterprise, that demands a different set of skills.

I started listening to Tom Friedman’s new book yesterday, the central thesis of which is that, not only is technological, environmental, and economic change multiplying at heretofore unknown rates, but the pace of that change is itself multiplying in dizzying ways. This assertion sums it up: by the time governments figure out how to regulate ride sharing services, self-driving cars will be urgently demanding attention.

Sports embody this change process. Friedman has a whole chapter on sensors and data analytics as things that are dramatically accelerating change in everything from trash collection to dairy farming. And sports. We’ve come a long way since Moneyball, but the data analytic revolution it sparked has made its mark on sports for good. In contemporary sports, if you’re not fiendishly gathering and analyzing data in creative ways, you’re not winning.

Sports helps me think about the change happening in the world and how to be part of it, rather than knocked over or left behind by it. My hope this opening day is that my team has changed with sufficient intention and novelty to make this season compelling, and that I’m doing that too.

Play ball.

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Church

Opening Day Is Over

I enjoy opening day as much as any fan, but I reckon I enjoy day two through 165 more. Opening day is for projecting your highest hopes and your deepest fears onto a single game. Everything feels amplified. The remaining games, though, are the ones that make the impact.

Put those in your calendar now, but don’t plan around them the way you did opening day. Let double headers and rain outs march through your days according to the schedule. Let winnings streaks play out while you transition to a new job, and losing streaks while you potty train your puppy. The fifteen game swing on the west coast and the July 4th weekend homestand want to accompany you, equally, on the road that forks one way to keeping on and another way to giving up, here toward trying and there toward waiting, today chasing perfection and tomorrow taking a beating.

Baseball is back, people. Opening day is over.

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Church

No Cinderellas in Kansas City

Yes, the Kansas City Royals just won the World Series. Last year they came within 90 feet of winning, and I wrote this to process my disappointment. “Rooting for something is good for the soul,” I urged, and among North American sports fan bases over the past three decades, few can claim better conditioned souls than Royals fans.

But today faces us with a new question: what does it do for your soul when the thing you’ve rooted for actually comes to pass? What is a spirituality of winning? I don’t have an answer for that; rooting for losers is a kind of my thing, and not only in sports (friends will recall my impassioned advocacy of Joe Biden for President in 2008).

The closest thing I have to an answer is a confidence that the slow, incremental manner in which the Royals became winners begs to be understood as an endorsement of a certain kind of longevity of purpose that has spiritual analogues.

The General Manager who constructed this championship roster was hired in the middle of the 2006 season, a season in which KC would lose 100 games and win only 62, and during Dayton Moore’s first two seasons the team improved. They won 69 games in 2007 and 75 games in 2008.

Then they regressed. The 2009 Royals won 10 fewer games than the year before. Those were dark nights of the Royals fan’s soul for sure, and if Moore had been fired by ownership after that season, few fans would have objected. His signature line–“Trust the process”–was firmly established as an empty platitude, just another way losers justify their losing.

But 2010 saw the beginning of a slow, steady march to the top, beginning with a meager two game improvement in 2010 (67 wins). Then this:

2011-71 wins

2012-72 wins

2013-86 wins

2014-89 wins, Wild Card Winner, American League Champs

2015-95 wins, Division Winner, American League Champs, World Series Champs

For six consecutive seasons, the Royals have won more games than the year before. The most dramatic improvement came in 2013, when the team improved its record by 14 games and nearly made the playoffs. But since then the improvement has been modest. Three more wins in 2014; six more wins in 2015.

It’s not a worst-to-first story, is what I’m saying. There are no Cinderallas in Kansas City. And I’m taking a lesson from that.

What is the small improvement I can make today? This week? This year?

And to what end? Sports have an enviably easy-to-assess goal: win the championship. But in the world of jobs, kids, faith, neighbors, school, and relatives, rarely is the objective so obvious. Defining it is important.

Then we can work and live and love in a way that measures “success” not by other peoples’ standards and expectations but by our own sense of improvement. Are we getting better? Are we experiencing sustained transformation?

Maybe growth doesn’t happen by leaps and bounds, but by deliberate, measured improvement over time.

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Church

Sin Boldly: A Post About The Royals

A baseball post for the start of the World Series. Read more baseball posts here.

Fans talk about their teams’ winning and losing with moral language, especially their losing.

I am that fan. For 15 years, while sabermetric analysis was ascendant in baseball and my favorite team, the Kansas City Royals, refused to bow to On Base Percentage and Working The Count, I judged them as moral failures. My devotion to them was full of hope that they would one day experience a conversion to the Moneyball way, the truth of BABIP, and the Life of a winner, but with every draft pick spent on a power hitting high school player with a low OBP, every signing of a free agent with “character,” every hiring of a “players manager,” I grew more and more despondent.

The winners in that era–The A’s, the Red Sox, the Giants–I canonized as stoic saints of restraint and self-discipline. Theirs was not the youthful folly of chasing the 0-2 slider in the dirt. Theirs was the purity–the piety–to spit on that pitch, to work the count full, and then to hammer a fastball into the right center field gap.

Selah.

But now look at this. The Royals are about to play in their second consecutive World Series, not because their General Manager was converted to a morality of analytics, but because he and the organization maintained a devotion to a virtue an earlier era forgot, namely making lots of contact, even with bad pitches–the first sin of sabermetrics. They see fewer pitches per plate appearance of any team in baseball. They also walk and they strike out less than any team in baseball.

When it comes to the morality of sabermetrics, the Royals sin boldly, and it works. Their lack of discipline now shows as assertiveness. Their leadoff hitter, to take but one example, almost always swings at the first pitch he sees, an offense for which Bill James would see a hitter tarred and feathered. Only it works. A lot.

I just wonder about all the ways in which en earlier era’s sins turn out to be the saving practices we need today.

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Church

Quit

Baseball was the activity that most defined me as a teenager and young adult, and I nearly quit it before I’d barely started. I was 10. I couldn’t hit, catch, or throw, and the springtime games in Colorado meant a lot of standing around in the cold doing nothing interesting before getting yelled at by the coach for doing the same.

I told my parents I didn’t want to play anymore. They wouldn’t let me quit. At least not easily. Baseball was a huge thing for my dad growing up, and, with my older brother showing zero interest, I was his last chance to have a baseball player in the family. But more than that, I think my parents didn’t like the idea of letting their kid just quit. So they said I could quit but that they would be . . . wait for it . . . very disappointed.

I didn’t quit. And after a few more months I got the hang of it and shortly came to love it. For the next 10 years it was the activity I privileged over almost everything else in life.

I’m thinking about almost quitting baseball because my seven year-old wants to quit ballet and I’m not letting her. I should say she wants to quit ballet again. A few weeks before the end of the term last spring she grew tired of it, and I let her stop going. But after a ballet-free summer, she pleaded with her mom and I to start up again this fall. We gladly complied. Now, four weeks in, she wants to quit again.

We already paid for the whole season, so she’s not quitting. But also, I feel that same my-kids-not-gonna-be-a-quitter thing happening that must have been happening for my parents nearly 30 years ago now, but I don’t know if that’s that good or bad for my kid.

I’ve heard people advocating for allowing kids to try out lots of different activities and quit if they don’t like them. That helps, they say, develop a sense of what you’re interested in for its own sake and not for the sake of pleasing parents. My kid has a lot of freedom to try things out. On top of ballet, she’s done science camps, gymnastics, tap dance, music lessons–practically everything she’s ever expressed interest in. But I always smart a bit when she quits.

Yesterday, talking with a group of 12th graders, I found myself urging one of them to quit football. He hates it. He tried to quit a week ago, but the coach twisted his arm so that he stayed on the team. This week he’s been miserable, and he quit going to practice by Wednesday.

“You clearly don’t enjoy it,” I told him. “It looks to me like, emotionally at least, you’ve already quit. So just tell the coach you’re not playing anymore.” I go on to relate how, after 10 years of loving playing baseball, I quit loving it at the end of my sophomore year of college and quit. I actually phoned the coach an hour before our last game and told him I wasn’t coming. And that was that.

The 12th grader said I was right–he doesn’t enjoy it–and that he’s definitely quitting.

Did I just turn a teenager into a quitter? Why do I feel good about that?

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Leadership

Stepping Up To The Plate Ain’t What It Was

I heard a plea for leaders to “step up to the plate,” and I thought, “Do we even know what that involves anymore?”

Stepping up to the plate–i.e., taking leadership–used to mean a certain set of commitments and skills, like writing an op-ed for the local paper and getting people to sign up and attracting a crowd. But are those the expressions of leadership that a post-Christendom connection economy demands?

The rules of engaging the world as leaders who wish to make an impact have changed. More is not longer better. The righteousness of your cause can’t be equated with your eloquence in talking about it. Nobody wants your committee.

The rules have changed. Literally, in baseball, the rules for stepping to the plate have changed this season. In a time-saving move, hitters are no longer allowed to wander around outside the batters box between pitches adjusting their batting gloves and hammering at their spikes with their bat. They have to keep one foot in the batter’s box.

Hitters like Adrian Beltre (seen in the video below) are struggling to adjust to what stepping to the plate now requires.

If we’re not sure what stepping to the plate now means for us and the impact we want to have, how are we going to find out?

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Leadership

BS: A Post for Chad Andrew Herring

Note: Chad Andrew Herring helped shape this blog post, but it’s not his fault if it’s garbage. 

Here’s a really great read from last week (salty language warning). It’s about Bill James, the pioneer of sabermetrics and MoneyballHere’s the money quote:

Anything that happens, you can make up an explanation for why it happened.

Youth group attendance is down because kids are just so busy.

The Presbyterian church is in decline because of liberalism.

Preschool enrollment is tanking because the new preschool across town.

We are explanation makers. Our minds grasp at ways to account for the things happening to us, especially the unpleasant things. Almost all of those accounts are based on our own limited perception and “make sense” only as confirmations of 1) our ingrained biases and 2) our desperate hope that we’re not the cause of the problem.

Most of it fits Bill James’ description of BS–malarkey, balderdash, hooey. Not because we’re deceptive, dishonest people, but because we’re not all that interested in the truth and the demands it will make on us.

Bill James and the sabermetric community in baseball have a terrific tool for overcoming BS and offering interpretations of baseball events that are closer to the truth: data. A single baseball game produces enough data to choke a VORP. I know a guy who’s company employs people who watch every pitch of every game every day during a baseball season so they can compile all that data and sell it to teams. Data is anti-BS serum.

When employed properly (so mind the small sample size). Data must be interpreted by insightful people who are after the truth. We’ve all seen raw data bent into percentages and ratios that are baldly self-serving. Data+skilled interpretation=truth.

The church has access to data about church membership and about the makeup of our neighborhoods, and we should compile and interpret the heck out of it for the sake of a thriving gospel ministry. The most valuable source of data available to us is the lived lives of the people in our congregations and communities, and there is nothing stopping us from listening to them and then listening to them some more in order to understand as fully as we can what people are up against and how the church can help.

There’s no excuse for BS anymore.

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Faith

The Heart(break)land

I watched the last five innings of my Royals’ unlikely run through the playoffs while at a church session meeting. We debated the merits of an urban garden project while Madison Bumgarner laid waste to my teams’ hopes and dreams. When it ended, I quietly closed my laptop and turned my attention (my full attention now) to the agenda.

The heartbreak of losing is for the sports fan more wrenching than the thrill of winning. Many of us are trapped in unhealthy relationships with our sports teams and leagues, because our loyalty to them produces far more negative emotions in us than positive ones. Every team but one finishes their season a loser. Even the Royals, who seemed destined to win it all. In the end: the loser. I’m crushed. Me–who leapt up and down in my neighbors’ living room as they won the Wild Card; who cheered them on to playoff wins in Anaheim AND Kansas City with some of my favorite people in the world; who enjoyed countless texts from far-flung friends and acquaintances expressing support for my team–crushed.

Rooting for something is good for the soul, and so being a baseball fan is a holy exercise in thinking and hoping and celebrating and, finally, grieving. Losing is good for the soul. The sports media industry is ripping all of us off with its slow motion montages and canned narratives about the “will to win” (brought to you by Chevy), no doubt. But it is channeling a drama that we need to be fully human. It’s a proxy for the fundamental drama of humanity, with its failing and adjusting, redeeming and overcoming. And as a proxy you could do a lot worse.

It’s over. I’m sad. I’m restless. I want some reprieve. Tonight will be a long night, and it will be good for me.

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Church

The Process (Or: Moneyball 2.0)

“Rooting for the Royals has always been a battle between wanting them to win and wanting to be right.”

Rany Jazayerli

Everybody knows about Moneyball and how the first guy through the wall always gets bloody. Billy Beane exists as a folk hero in my imagination, and I have often drifted off to sleep these past ten years to dreams that he would plop himself down in Kansas City and work for my Royals some of the movie-worthy magic he’s worked for the Oakland A’s.

In my hand as I’ve floated on these dreams has been an iPad lit up with some baseball blog excoriating the Royals for their stubborn refusal to embrace Beane’s Moneyball reason and their stupid loyalty to baseball conventions like “intangibles” and “grit.” For seven seasons now Royals fans have been treated to a vision of General Manager Dayton Moore’s “Process” and promised that patience would be rewarded with a winning franchise. “The Process,” among Royals fans, has been a squat thumb in the eye.

Only now they’ve posted consecutive winning seasons, each one better than the one before. Now they’ve made the postseason. Now they’ve won the American League Wild Card. Now they’ve beaten the Oakland A’s in the playoffs, but not just in the playoffs–six of the last eight times they’ve played. The Process has defeated Moneyball.

Not really. I still fantasize about Billy Beane running my team. He’s crazy smart, and he’s always going to be thinking one step ahead of the industry. The team the Royals just beat is a team full of players that had failed everywhere else they’d played. But they won in Oakland. Moneyball magic.

The Process seems to me a slight variation on Moneyball’s genius. Moneyball is known for its advanced metrics, for On Base Percentage and platoon splits, and The Process has no apparent interest in any of those things. But, at bottom, Moneyball is about exploiting market inefficiencies. It’s a way of seeing the world and your competition in it. Some things are not highly valued by your opponents and are therefore readily available to you. Collect enough of the same kind of devalued commodity and you’ve got something valuable. For the A’s of 2004 it was OBP. For the Royals of today it’s contact, even weak worm-burner contact.

The Royals strike out less than any other team. They also walk less than any other team and hit fewer home runs than any other team. They strike out so infrequently because they swing at lots of bad pitches and make lots of weak contact, which is also why they hit so few home runs.

That’s a recipe for futility. Only that team just beat the team with the most walks in baseball. And they did it with a hailstorm of weak ground balls. This is the Royals formula: chopper on the infield for a hit. Bunt the runner to second. Steal third. Score on another chopper on the infield. This team won a game last month by scoring two runs in the bottom of the ninth without hitting a ball out of the infield.

Are weak contact and stolen bases the new market inefficiencies in baseball? Is Dayton Moore the new Billy Beane? He seems to have built a successful  organization around the kinds of commodities Moneyball loyalists disdain. It’s not the death of Moneyball, though. It’s the next chapter.

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