I’ve never been one to post about sports. This is certainly not for lack of ability to be a sports fan. Many do not know that I thoroughly enjoy listening to sports radio and am very fond of ESPN Sportscenter when I have the cable to watch it. I think that many would be surprised at the breadth of needless and pointless sports knowledge I do possess. Despite the fact that I am a closet sports junkie in many ways, it is something that I do not connect to spiritual matters much. I usually leave these to people like my good friend Aaron Tiger who is a master at sports analogies. However, last night’s home run derby event provided a rare circumstance, an atmosphere that I found so significant that it was worth writing about.
Given that this is a post connected to sports in the middle of July, in the middle of what many might call the dreadfully boring and insurmountably long major league baseball season makes this writing all the more surprising. What is even more surprising to me is my enjoyment of baseball this season. Although I do not have a team I am particularly fond of in major league baseball, an interest has blossomed in me this season for reasons really unknown to me.
Last night was the annual home run derby that by chance I decided to watch. By “watch” I mean that I flipped back to every now and then between other television shows. It began like any other derby. Each contestant blasted about 3 to 6 balls into the stands of Yankee Stadium. I can’t explain it, but there is something about a homerun that is captivating to watch. It is such a picture of brute power and strength. The first round was no different than any other derby until the last contestant. This was a young player named Josh Hamilton from the Texas Rangers.
The first thing you would notice about Hamilton is the heavy tattooing that covered his fore arms. The visible mark, the scarlet letter, which serves as a chilling reminder of a turbulent and recent past with drug addiction. This was an addiction that took him out of baseball for three years into all the darkness and evil that cocaine addiction brings, after being picked first in the draft and labeled one of the most talent players in recent history. He now wishes he could take off his tattoos. He became a follower of Jesus, and the Lord brought him life again. Now, he is free in Christ, not to mention one of the great hitters in the game now leading the league in RBI’s. Hamilton is noted as one of the great sports stories of our time.
This added electricity and a special feeling to the derby. But no one could have foreseen the event that would soon occur as he took his place at the plate. From his first swing, Hamilton demonstrated his natural, God-given talent by catapulting one home run after another. Slowly, the crowd at Yankee stadium began to sense something special taking place and began to cheer in a way that surprised everyone. At one point, he had hit 13 home runs in a row. By the end of the round, Hamilton had hit 28 home runs, the most ever hit in a round. The stadium including spectators, players, and commentators were glazed over and amazed.
He was interviewed afterwards where he humbly thanked God and revealed that he had had a dream in which he was in the home run derby adding more to the aura of what he had just done. He had captured the night and really the heart of everyone watching and all this merely after the first round. Everyone knew that Hamilton would win this home run derby.
But what was more interesting to me was that Hamilton actually lost the home run derby. Hamilton obviously made it into the final round where he went head to head with a good player named Justin Morneau from the Minnesota Twins. Rather than including the contestants previous totals, they both started from scratch in the final round in order to make it more competitive. Morneau was first hitting 5 home runs. I think that he along with everyone else believed that this was not enough to beat the talented Hamilton to whom this night seemed to belong. Hamilton took the plate and intitially hit a couple of home runs. But then he began to ground the ball, hit pop flies, and his out total began to pile up. When he was on his last out, he had three home runs – 2 short of Morneau. There was suddenly the dawning of a sober reality that Hamilton might actually lose. One got the sense that everyone wanted him to win; I most definitely wanted to him to win. It seemed right for him to win. It seemed appropriate for him to win. Maybe he had some magic left in him. Maybe he could squeeze in three more right now. That would add even more amazement to the night. It would be the perfect story. But his final hit was not a homerun; it was a grounder to left side of the field. Disappointment was obviously the dominant feeling in the stadium. It seems that Hamilton had just grown tired and did not have it in him. Hamilton smiled as he left the plate and congratulated Morneau.
Afterwards, Hamilton was interviewed where he humbly accepted defeat. In a final question of which I do not quite remember, he paused for a moment looking into the distance as if wondering if this was the right time to say what he was about to say on national television. Then he thanked his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for the opportunity to be here. It seems to me that it was not out of shame or embarrassment that he hesitated in saying this. It seems to me that he wanted it to be seen with his life rather than his words but decided that it couldn’t hurt.
This is certainly not the first time that we have heard someone thank God or even thank Jesus Christ on television or a large public setting. We hear this quite often at the Grammy’s and occasionally at the Academy Awards. But it suddenly came to me last night that we normally do not hear this in defeat. Yet, it seems fitting that Hamilton cried Jesus in defeat, particularly when just an hour or so before victory seemed so securely in his grasp. It is times like this that help us realize that just because we follow Jesus doesn’t mean that we win the homerun derby or become champions of anything. In fact, it appears that Jesus came to teach us not how to win, but how to lose. He came to teach us the way of losing in order that others may be loved and may be saved. Much like the monumental display of 28 homeruns of Josh Hamilton, Jesus did some amazing and beautiful things in the first round of his life that made the outcome of the final round in his life all the more disappointing and hard to understand. Jesus lost, he willingly grounded into a double play for all of us (pardon the cheap analogy). But it is one of the beautiful ironies of our faith that through defeat comes victory. Familiar with the way these things go, I would guess that Hamilton had to be defeated spiritually in order for God to burn the evil and addiction out of him. But through this defeat came to him a cup of life that makes a derby victory pale in comparison. That is what I saw last night. For those who see it, for those who have ears to hear, the defeat of Josh Hamilton last night was the most victorious thing.