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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.


I just want to be friends.

I just want to be consulted.

I just want to play meaningful games in September.

No you don’t. No you don’t. No you don’t.

If you have to qualify a desire with “just,” you’re kidding yourself. Because once you have the thing you “just” wanted, once the sparse conditions of your desire have been met, you want more. Meaningful September baseball games are hollow if you lose them, and being consulted is worthless if your ideas aren’t implemented.

Let’s be clear about what we want and aim–as far as it’s in our power–for that thing.

For the record, I want the Royals to win their division, win the American League, and then win the World Series. Anything less will be disappointing.

Monday Morning Quarterback

Note: Monday Morning Quarterback is a weekly post reviewing Sunday, the busiest, most stressful, most gratifying day in the week of a pastor/parent/spouse/citizen.

Song of The Day:


6:17. Up to put together a youth Sunday school lesson.

6:19. Watching the condensed game of the Royals Saturday win over the Astros first.

6:33. Using Wikipedia to bone up on Galatians. You know, for the teens.

7:12. I don’t need to get dressed yet, but I got a new suit yesterday and I’m eager to put it on.

7:43. Saying goodbye to Wife and Daughter for the day. They’re spending it at the Pride Parade in West Hollywood. LIttle baby’s all grows up.

7:44. Bump into neighbor out front. He compliments the suit but insults the shoes. Come this close to going back inside and changing them.

8:09. Placing Graduate Recognition gifts on the communion table while I’m thinking about it, lest I forget them.

8:19. Printing youth Sunday School lesson. Second guessing exegetical exercise for Greek euangellion. Also this: “introduce Apostle Paul’s life story (2 minutes).”

8:24. CE Director’s baby smiles at me. Day=made.

8:51. With the church nursery dislocated due to preschool building flooding, advising the Nursery Director on the best place to change diapers.

8:58. Making copies for adult education leader who agreed to fill in on two days’ notice. Copies? I’ll make you a cake right now if you ask me to.

9:34. Discussion with teens of Paul’s “zeal” relative to theirs. At this hour, they’re zealous only for donuts.

10:09. As the Introit wanes, acolyte lights three candles in 1.8 seconds, then races to lectern to lead the Call to Worship. Then spikes the snuffer on the chancel in celebration.

10:18. My lapel mic has come unclipped from my belt. Using the Children’s Time to stealthily unzip my robe and retrieve it. Assuming the worst about how this looks.

10:23. Guest preacher (whose wife and three kids have worshiped with us since the fall) thanking the congregation for welcoming his family these several months. Choking up.

10:41. Leading a recognition of our high school graduates. Choking up.

10:45. Concluding the Graduate Recognition. Someone calls out from the pews, “What are their names?!” Pounding my head and exclaiming, “Idiot!”

11:49. Post-church prospective officer discernment gathering. Participant shares that, while there’s lots of “top down” opportunities for leadership, he’d like to see more “bottom up opportunities.” Elder next to me suggests under her breath, “Well, maybe not.” Giggles.

12:02. Someone tells me I look good, “healthy.” Thank them, but ask what they think of my shoes.

12:09. Invited to lunch. Don’t mind if I do . . .

1:33. Home. Set timer for one hour and 30 minute nap.

2:12. Phone rings. Nap officially over.

3:01. Heading out to get supplies for Junior High Youth Group Year-End Party.  Frisbee: check. Pool noodle: check. Oreos: check. Water balloons: check.

3:39. Filling water balloons. In my new suit.

4:39. Students arriving for party. Nobody mentioning the suit. Baffled.

5:01. Toilet paper games in the wind don’t work. File that one away.

5:23. Water balloon pops on my new suit.

5:34. Milk spills on my new suit.

5:45. Ducking out of party for community baccalaureate service. Why do I smell like milk?

6:48. Sweating the organist for the baccalaureate. She sent me an irate email the other day, owing to the fact that nobody told her about the service til Friday but promising to be there. Composing alternate processional in my head.

6:52. Organ prelude begins playing. Fall to my knees in gratitude. Gonna stash that processional away for a rainy day, though.

7:04. Processing in with graduates. Everybody has their cameras out, but nobody’s taking my picture. Don’t they know I’m wearing a new suit?

7:09. Calling the congregation to worship. “Peace be with you . . . ” “Who are you?! And where did you get that suit?!”

7:33. Beaming as one of my students gives a baccalaureate talk. Nudging the adult leader next to me. “That one’s mine.”

8:10. Local Pastor giving the Baccalaureate Address should be done by now. Instead, he’s transitioning with, “You know what? Lemme go here . . . ”

8:12. Local Pastor: “And another thing . . . ”

8:16. Local Pastor: “And what about this?”

8:20. Local Pastor holds his iPhone to the pulpit microphone and plays a country song. People passing out in the aisles.

8:22. Lament to the adult leader next to me that my new suit has become wrinkled. He observes, “It wasn’t wrinkled when this guy started preaching.”

8:35. Students singing a Bruno Mars benediction. All is well.

9:19. Home. Daughter tells me that she went to a parade today for “The gees!”

10:12 Monday Morning Quarterback=done; suit=hung.




Monday Morning Quarterback

Note: Monday Morning Quarterback is a weekly post reviewing Sunday, the busiest, most stressful, most gratifying day in the week of a pastor/parent/spouse/citizen.

Song of The Day:

6:00. Alarm going off. Snooze not working. Remember alarm clock app I downloaded that rings until you’ve taken 10 steps with it in hand. What if I throw it?

6:01. Downstairs, finger over phone speaker, walking hurried circles around the living room. Alarm not stopping. Power down.

6:11. Coffee in hand. Phone back on. Quiet.

6:48. Finish agenda for Triennium Delegation meeting this afternoon. What’s the statute of limitations on your go-to ice breaker, anyway?

7:04. Daughter protests, “Daddy!” from her bunk as I top the stairs outside her room. She thinks it’s a school day and that I’ve come to retrieve her. “Shhh. It’s a church day.” Silence.

7:58. Take wife a cup of coffee in bed and head out the door.

8:11. Greeted by ceramic elk head on my desk. What the?!

8:15. Head of Staff arrives. Ask her, “Do you know anything about this?” hoisting the grisly elk head. She looks at the ground. “I didn’t put it there.” Awkward pause. “Do you know anything about it?” She walks away. Blurg! Pastors’ kids!

8:22. Finessing the formatting on the sign listing Christian Formation Hour room assignments is surely a sign of a poor understanding of the relationship between causes and effects (“Coffee And A Good Book” is in Room 1, by the way).

8:47. Laptop and projector assembled in sanctuary, ready to show slideshow of 30 Hour Famine pics before worship.

8:53. Frantic. Can’t find Jr. High youth group curriculum for the afternoon. I’ll be gone. Volunteers need it. Failing them. Noooooo!

9:14. Final confirmation class with students who joined as Active Members during last week’s session meeting: brief history of the Protestant Reformation. Making a point to mention Servetus. Glad we saved that til after they joined.

9:47. I just said, “vocare.” I’ve lost them.

10:08. Acolyte trying to light all six candles solo before the end of the Introit. Not . . . gonna . . . make . . . . it . . . . run over and light the last one so he can lead the Call To Worship.

10:19. Student uses Peace-passing time to narrate something for Monday Morning Quarterback. “10:19,” he says . . . wait. What was the rest of it?

10:21. Commissioning a mission volunteer during Children’s Time. Ask the kids to lay hands on his shoes. Much giggling, but I learned my lesson the last time I asked a group of children to press their palms onto an unsuspecting commissionee. Never again.

10:23. Kids singing with much clapping and west African drumming, piano and organ accompanying a pop song. Dizzy from happiness.

10:40. Folks in the balcony are swatting at something. They notice I’m watching, and someone does the hand motions to “The Eentsy Weentsy Spider.”

11:09. Talking easily with a Deacon, resting my elbow atop the metal coffee percolator. Doh!

11:22. Gotta be in two places at once. Kiss wife and daughter as they head to a carnival.

11:31. Jr. High youth group volunteer calmly remembers where all the curriculum is. Weep tears of joy.

12:12. Grabbing lunch to go.

12:39. Eating lunch in the youth room, watching a couple innings of the Royals/Indians game. Get to see this.

1:38. Driving with students to Triennium delegation meeting. They’re rotating turns playing songs from their iPhones, having trouble finding music without profanity. Sigh.

2:30. Our Triennium delegation is awesome. That is all.

3:12. Students requesting food for commute home. I need gas, so I guarantee a chance for gas station food.

3:34. After passing two gas stations with insufficient convenience marts, finally find a satisfactory one. Students suddenly realize they brought no money. Blurg!

3:52. Something amazing happens on the drive home. I didn’t do it.

4:14. Back at church in time to check in with Junior High youth group volunteers before skipping out for a commitment for wife’s work. Tell them I love them and mean every ounce of it.

4:32. Return home to find wife ironing and daughter in bath in preparation for wife’s work commitment. Daughter: “Get away from me!” I’m wanted less and less.

5:35. In the car, playing bargain bin cd find for daughter, some story about a pure and spotless lamb named Judah who thinks he’s a lion.

5:39. Daughter is bored with the fable and protests, “I want a real Bible story!” Atta girl!

6:12. Daughter from the back seat: “When are we gonna be there?!”

6:22. Arrive. Daughter asleep, hunched over the arm of her booster seat. Wake her up. She exclaims, “Wow! That was fast!”

6:46. Sipping Pinot Noir on a Pasadena patio full of pediatricians. Wonder if they can tell I’m a dunce just by looking at me or if they need to hear me speak first.

7:12. Move to the front lawn with daughter, who is eager to prepare a “feast” on the unoccupied picnic table. She brings crackers, arranges them, then prays over them.

7:15. Daughter skipping through the garden singing the Celtic Alleluia chorus we use in worship.

8:27. Daughter has set up shop in hosts living room, performing somersaults on their couch.

9:43. Home. Check email to find message from a stranger questioning a blog post I wrote 15 months ago. Head to bed.

9:55. Come back downstairs to answer email about blog post.

11:20. Monday Morning Quarterback: done.

On Opening Day And Getting Better

Note: we interrupt our normal Monday Morning Quarterback series to offer this annual post on the opening day of baseball season. 

Today is the beginning of the baseball season. I had trouble sleeping last night so I watched the last episode of Ken Burns’ marathon documentary on baseball late into the night.  My day will revolve around a 1:00 pacific start time to my team’s first game. I may even wear my team’s cap into the office. Baseball’s opening day is a big deal for me, and I make no apologies for it.

Yet I know it will end badly. My team isn’t very good. It hasn’t been for nearly three decades. It is among the least successful operations in all of sports.

These days, baseball and the fate of my team is a stand-in for measurements of value. This is for baseball an age of tremendous enlightenment, when fans have access to as much statistical data on teams and players as do the General Managers and owners, data fans can analyze themselves for the sake of long blog posts condemning the decisions of men who are paid millions to make them. This Sabermetric community within baseball has brilliantly re-framed the notion of value when it comes to a baseball player, lifting from obscurity undervalued skills (like this) and packaging valuable player contributions into novel statistics like OPS and VORP. Naturally, this community has elevated the celebrity of the guys spending teams’ money on these players and their skills, which is good if you’re name is Billy Beane but bad if it’s Dayton Moore.

More and more of my life and vocation is taken up with the question of value: where does value really reside and how is my work contributing value to the world? Here, potential is a curse. Potential is only valuable once it’s realized. In my work with youth, students’  potential for a strong faith and a compelling witness to the love of God is far less valuable to me than their actual faith–weak and confused though it may be–and their actual stammering witness to something closer to fairness on God’s part. The latter is theirs, something they can be held to and challenged to grow. The former is my projection, a thing that asks nothing of them and so gives them nothing.

My baseball team is a fitting backdrop for these kinds of considerations, especially on this opening day, because after years of drafting and developing dugouts full of potential, the team traded much of it away last winter for some proven real world value, and the bloggers went crazy in protest. “Why,” they demanded, “would you trade away six years of team control over a player who could be a superstar for two years of a player who’s only a regular star?”

The team’s rationale is simple: trading away the consensus top amateur player to get a star commodity makes the big league roster significantly better today, and six years is a long time. The opposition is fueled by an ideological purity that prizes rationality and analysis over hoping for things to “work out.” Things, they correctly point out, “work out” in increasingly predictable patterns, and if you ignore the pattern, nobody’s going to feel bad for you when it plays out to your detriment.

I have read almost every damning word aimed at my team and nodded my head in dignified agreement with many of them. Likewise, I compulsively read condemnations and dire projections about my church. Those, too, make skillful use of data and eloquently lampoon the decisions of decision makers as badly informed or, worse, immoral. I nod in agreement at some of those as well.

Yet on this opening day I take my stand on the side of measurable improvement and the risky, ill advised move that willingly disappoints ideology for the sake of the good we know we’re getting right now, which, everyone can see, improves what we are immediately. It’s older. It has less potential. It may leave us for greener pastures in 24 months. But it makes us better now. Perhaps not better enough. But better.

Today, I’m for better.

Play ball.

Jesus Was A Stat Head: A Post for Opening Day

“Fixate on the particular and you miss the big story.”

So says John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball, in a Bleacher Report post about the damage that sabermetrics have done to baseball.

I’m not buying it, for baseball or religion

For the uninitiated, a brief summary: over the past 20 years, baseball has seen the rise of a kind of player valuation that is based less and less on the perceivable “tools” of players and more and more on a searching analysis of those players’ statistical records. This has applied equally to present-day players, future prospects, and past greats. It has been a move toward measurement and quantification, and its practitioners have spawned their own measurement tools in never-before-heard statistical categories like On Base Percentage (OBP) and Value Above Replacement Player (VORP).

The most accessible account of the embodiment of this trend is Michael Lewis’s excellent book Moneyball. Lewis dug into the story of Billy Beane, the General Manager of the Oakland Athletics, who used sabermetrics data to put together a string of low-budget winning teams in the early part of the last decade. Even for non-baseball fans, it’s a great read.

The debate that Moneyball popularized, the debate that Thorn is engaging, and the debate at the heart of sabermetrics is this: what has greater value? The things you can measure or the things you can’t? Is a player’s VORP a more useful evaluation tool a scout’s observation that he can flat-out hit?

Now to religion, particularly the mainline protestant Christian version. The scouts of the mainline church have been observing for decades that membership is declining, and they’ve offered their analysis: the church can’t hit the curve balls that postmodern culture is throwing. It has no theological arm strength. It’s leadership is out of touch with the players.

None of this is based on any actual data. Like the observation of a baseball scout, this way of evaluation the church depends entirely on what one can see, and its conclusions fit nicely with the scout’s well-established narrative of success and failure. And these have been the accepted answers to questions of the church’s decline.

But what if it’s been wrong all along? What if a new generation of church sabermetricians created new tools to measure what’s really going on?

Thankfully, that’s starting to happen. In my own denomination, a Research Services division has started publishing some great analytical work that casts serious doubt on the cigar stained conventional wisdom of the church’s scouts. It’s stated goal is to help the church make “fact based decisions,” which strikes me as almost poetically consistent with the aim of sabermetrics. Because it’s debatable whether a pitcher has control problems. But it’s a fact that over the last three seasons he’s walked 6.5 batters per nine innings. It’s debatable whether the church is dying and bad theology is the culprit. But it’s a fact that in 2009 the PC(USA) saw a rise in non-white candidates for ministry, increased Asian membership and leadership, and an increase in female pastors.

The scout calls it dead arm. The sabermetrician calls it a changing delivery.

What Thorn has wrong is the forced choice between the “big story” and the particular. When applied to faith, it’s decidedly anti-incarnational to poo-poo details in favor of a grand narrative. That instinct leads to a contempt for critical study of the Bible and to half-cocked evaluations of the church’s ailments.

The Big Story is made up of the particular, the stuff you can measure and track. Further, that story arises from those particulars; it can’t be forced upon them a priori.

Play Ball and go Royals!