Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Strive for Perfection

Mock...Ing...Bird.  If you haven't visited the website http://www.mbird.com/ then do it.  There are so many articles that are fascinating reads.  There are many contributors for the articles written, with most of them sticking to their topic of interest.  One of the regulars who write about the gospel and sports is Ethan Richardson, a recent graduate of UVA (Religious Studies and English) and former teacher in the inner city part of New Orleans.  He wrote a post on mockingbird titled The Dishonest Simplicity of Perfection.  He included a passage from a book about a former college baseball player's slippery slope (which I will include in this post at the end). 
All athletes struggle with failure in their selected sport but none experience it regularly like a baseball player does.  We have all heard the challenge of being a successful hitter in the game.  If you get a hit THREE OUT OF EVERY TEN at bats, then you are dang good.  That means you are failing to get a hit SEVEN of those at bats.  It's true that some of your outs could be the result of an unselfish plate appearance.  In these a hitter will maybe successfully make contact on a "Hit and Run" play.  Another example would be with a runner on second, the batters job as a team player would be to get a pitch he can hit "behind" the runner so that his teammate can advance to third base.  A simple ground ball to second, for an out, would suffice.  Either way, those are outs and usually not hard hit balls you typically WANT to hit in one of your few plate appearances for the night. 
This reach of the pursuit of perfection doesn't miss pitchers, catchers, or fielders either.  A pitcher can wind himself so tight trying NOT to miss his spot that it results in too good of a pitch that gets hammered into the gap or over the wall.  Catchers always want to call a good game, meaning they want to be on the same page as the pitcher to keep him in as good as a groove as he can.  When he messes this up, it messes with his head.  Defensively, infielders and outfielders alike, hate "booting" balls.  These errors not only are mistakes then and there but many times it lasts the whole game and affects their approach at the plate the rest of the game. 
With all of this said, I think we can agree that baseball is the hunt for perfection at any position or responsibility.  It can be ingrained in you as you work as a youngster and grow as a ballplayer.  I think it is a competitors natural instinct to STRIVE for perfection because we know we do not and cannot fulfill it.  There is a need in each of us in some way to "get better or try harder".  By no means am I suggesting this is a call for players to quit practicing so much or start taking it less seriously.  It is the opposite and it is in the approach and REACTION to failures.  As coaches we should set our players up in a way that allows them to quickly learn from a mistake but take pride in how they approach their next attempt.  A good coach doesn't "dog" a player for a physical error, he works on what caused the problem and reminds the player that he will get another chance to be successfulThis lifts the burden of performance and creates an air of grace and relaxation in a ballplayer.  This type of feeling is where you see players make unreal defensive plays, take the extra base as base runners, and make the perfect pitch in a stressful situation in the game.  Baseball is a game of "feel" and to be relaxed and confident is your best weapon.
If we as Christians and ballplayers approach life/games expecting to live up to that need of perfection we will be crushed by the failure.  We will lose the JOY a sport is designed for and, as Christians, we will lose the joy we are designed to have in Christ.  So what do we do?  I think the key is a growing realization that you will make mistakes.  When they come, as a baseball player, you have to learn from them but have a short memory as I mentioned earlier.  You cannot let it carry over to the next ground ball, the next pitch, or the next at bat.  As Christians, we are blessed that God does not see our errors anymore.  Those are gone:  past, present, and future.  They were taken care of on the cross by Jesus Christ alone.  God didn't need your help for that.  He sent Jesus (the Righteous) to do what we (the unrighteous) couldn't do.  God does not dwell on sin/errors so why do we?  Why does our sense of worth or satisfaction come from our performance, good or bad?  We MUST rest in Christ's righteousness because there is NONE without it. 
Thank God we can REST in HIS perfection for us.  We can find joy not in our love for God but His love for us that endures forever (Psalm 136)This is what grace does.  It creates the only chance for constant growth in our lives.  If we are bogged down by striving for perfection or striving to please the Holy One, then we are going to throw up our hands and walk off the field (as the excerpt shows at the bottom of this post).  Legalism creates Licentiousness, Grace creates thankfulness.  This goes for all relationships:  father/son, mother/daughter, husband/wife, brothers, sisters, coaches/ballplayers, and friends.  Relationships grow where grace is present.  When you think of others in your life, take some time away from searching for their sin or mistakes and GIVE THEM GRACEI have to preach this to myself everyday.  Not only does it help with my stress level but it produces bountiful relationshipsIt most importantly though, gives me the constant gospel reminder of the grace God has given in Jesus Christ.

Here is the words from the mockingbird article that I referred to a couple of times.  It is a great picture of a broken ballplayer who didn't live up to his unrealistic expectations.  It isn't until he washes ashore that he finally finds rest (ex. Jonah's prayer in Jonah 2:1-10).

          We here find all-star, pro-bound shortstop Henry Skrimshander at rope’s end. With the promise of a record-breaking professional career slipping through his fingers, all big-dollar offers disappearing, the on-the-field errors just continue to mount for Henry, who can’t seem to get a grip on what’s happening to his omega-narrative of baseball glory. What does it mean when your efforts can’t stop the bleeding and, in fact, are making things worse?
The final straw comes on none other than Henry Skrimshander Day, by way of a crucial routine groundball that Henry fields, but then freezes. He cannot throw. He simply freezes, hands the ball off to his pitcher, and walks off the field, to a horrified audience; he disappears. After the game ends, and his friends begin to worry about his whereabouts, Harbach brings the story back to uniformed Henry, treading water in Lake Michigan, all alone in the night sky. Here, alone, all dreams dashed by the last crushing error–he can finally see himself and the erred logic that got him there. Sure enough, it is only in the middle of the sea, in the chaos of one’s wasted perfections, that one finally washes ashore and finds rest.

           He turned around to face the campus, those few little lights pricking the distance. He let his bladder go, peed into the water. It calmed his whole body, if only for a moment.  All he’d ever wanted was for nothing to ever change. Or for things to change only in the right ways, improving little by little, day by day, forever. It sounded crazy when you said it like that, but that was what baseball had promised him, what Westish College had promised him, what Schwartzy had promised him. The dream of every day the same. Every day was like the day before but a little better. You ran the stadium a little faster. You bench-pressed a little more. You hit the ball a little harder in the cage; you watched the tape with Schwartzy afterward and gained a little insight into your swing. Your swing grew a little simpler. Everything grew simpler, little by little. You ate the food, woke up at the same time, wore the same clothes. Hitches, bad habits, useless thoughts–whatever you didn’t need slowly fell away. Whatever was simple and useful remained. You improved little by little till the day it all became perfect and stayed that way. Forever.
He knew it sounded crazy when you put it like that. To want to be perfect. To want everything to be perfect. But now it felt like that was all he’d ever craved since he’d been born. Maybe it wasn’t even baseball that he loved but only this idea of perfection, a perfectly simple life in which every move had meaning, and baseball was just the medium through which he could make that happen. Could have made that happen. It sounded crazy, sure. But what did it mean if your deepest hope, the premise on which you’d based your whole life, sounded crazy as soon as you put it in words? It meant you were crazy.
When the season ended, his teammates, even Schwartzy, gorged themselves on whatever was handy–cigarettes, beer, coffee, sleep, porn, video games, girls, dessert, books. It didn’t matter what they gorged on as long as they were gorging. Gorging didn’t make them feel good, you’d see them wandering around, dazed and bleary, but they were free to gorge and that was what mattered.
Henry knew better than to want freedom. The only life worth living was the unfree life, the life Schwartz had taught him, the life in which you were chained to  your one true wish, the wish to be simple and perfect. Then the days were sky-blue spaces you moved through with ease. You made sacrifices and the sacrifices made sense. You ate till you were full and then you drank SuperBoost, because every ounce of muscle meant something. You stoked the furnace, fed the machine. No matter how hard you worked, you could never feel harried or hurried, because you were doing what you wanted and so one moment simply produced the next. He’d never understood how his teammates could show up late for practice, or close enough to late that they had to hurry to change clothes. In three years at Westish he’d never changed clothes in a hurry.
He treaded water for a long, long while, feeling and endless spontaneous power unspooling from his limbs. It seemed he could do it forever. Finally he turned toward shore and let his limbs swim him in, aided by the waves that lapped at his back. When he reached the shore he knelt on all fours and slurped the funky algal water like an animal. He couldn’t see the lighthouse, and he wasn’t sure whether it lay to the north or the south. His body gave out all at once. His teeth were chattering, really clacking away. His shoulders convulsed, his lungs heaved. He had his whole life ahead of him; it wasn’t a comforting thought. He peeled off his wet clothes, nestled into the sand as deeply as he could, and fell asleep.

That is my pitch for the day!

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