By Bob Hiller –
Ah, yes, spring is in the air, and you know what that means: baseball is just around the corner! Soon, opening day will come, the umpire will yell, “Play ball” and everything will be right with the world. But, if you listen to as much sports talk as I do, you will learn that baseball is largely becoming irrelevant. Once considered America’s pastime, it has been surpassed by football as this country’s most popular sport. Its star power cannot compete with the advertising gold put out by the NBA. It is becoming much more like hockey, that is, a niche sport for the purists with far less appeal to the casual fan. Fewer kids are playing baseball like they once did. Ticket prices are too high, games are too long, the players are overpaid…on and on and on the critiques goes. With all of these factors, how can baseball expect to stay relevant?
Is there anything more terrifying to us these days than being irrelevant? Relevancy is a marketing term. If you want to get a share of the market, you need to make sure what you are selling is relevant. If your product is irrelevant, you will lose customers, business, and money. Companies hire advertisers in an effort to prove that their product is relevant to your life. The job of the advertiser is to convince you that your life is lacking something if you don’t have their product. Their product is relevant because it makes you better looking, more insightful, hip and sexy, and/or an all-around better person.
In sports, then, the advertiser must convince you that your life will be better, you will be more entertained, if you spend three hours watching their on-the-field product. This is why football is such an easy sell. Fast-pace + high-impact = a huge payoff. Not so with baseball. Compared to football, baseball is much more leisurely. It requires far more intellectual investment from the fan than football. See, even if you don’t know much about football, it is not hard to appreciate a good hit. But, trying to convince the casual fan that a fifteen pitch at bat that results in a walk is actually a good thing for a batter is not as easy a sell. If you want to fully enjoy the game, baseball demands focus, mental-energy, some knowledge of the rules, and, to some extent, an appreciation of history and numbers. It is not an easy sell.
What this means, then, is everyone is seeking a way to make baseball more relevant. Some are calling for shorter seasons: 162 games seems way too high. All kinds of rule changes are proposed to shorten games: expand the strike zone, limit the time pitchers have between pitches, don’t allow the defense to shift positions, etc. Teams add between-inning entertainment to keep people excited. (I am personally a big fan of the Milwaukee Brewers’ idea of having sausage mascots race around the outfield!) ESPN talk show host Colin Cowherd suggested teams make Monday nights family nights at ballparks by eliminating beer sales and giving ticket discounts to kids. You may lose money short-term, but you are creating fans for life. (I love this idea. What is more, I think some of our churches who are so set on dismissing kids from worship services could learn something here…)
Standing in the way of major changes to baseball are the purists. They love the sport because the sport is beautiful. They don’t want it distorted or diluted to boost ticket sales. They want to revel in the delightful intricacies of the game. Nothing gets them more fired up in late July than having a tie game in the bottom of the ninth with men on first and third. They want to see historical records pressure and tease today’s players. There is something poetic about the smell of the grass, the crack of the bat, the voice of the vendors selling over-priced hotdogs and cracker jacks. The image of a small child in an oversized hat with an oversized mit at his first game with dad is enough to make a grown man well up. This is a game of myths and legends, of heroes and villains, of virtue and vice. Significant American political issues are reflected in the majors: labor unions verses big businessmen, racism verses civil rights, issues of immigration, etc. Our nation’s finest poets, politicians, musicians, and revolutionaries have been influenced by the sport. It is nine innings of strategy, athleticism, gamesmanship, skill, and luck. And, most importantly, it is just downright fun!
And some want to take all of that and make it freaking relevant? Sheesh. I thank God for purists who prevent marketing machines and fan pressure from altering that which is so beautiful. (For what it’s worth, despite the noise, baseball is experiencing a financial surge right now…)
I am convinced that relevancy destroys beauty. I saw a Humans of New York post on Instagram the other day where a Rabbi said that he was trying to change the way people understood God. Some suggested he was diluting Judaism, but if he didn’t encourage such changes, Judaism would fall into irrelevancy. What kind of self-righteous, short-sighted pride does it take for someone to think that a religion that is thousands upon thousands of years old needs to be saved from irrelevancy? I mean, can you imagine Abraham asking God, “So, just how does circumcision apply to my life?”
But, of course, we in the church bow to the idol of relevancy as well. How often do we pastors find ourselves tempted to alter the message so as to have a greater commercial impact? We find ourselves diluting the message so as to stay relevant in the lives of the people. I remember talking to a group of pastors and saying that I was going to teach on Revelation. They responded by saying that I would need to keep it practical so it stayed relevant. But, what is practical or relevant about post-partum mothers sprouting wings and flying away to hide from dragons (Rev. 12)? What is relevant about Jesus calling us to take up a cross and follow him to death? What is relevant about splashing water on the head of an infant and saying God’s name? Nothing at all! It is all terribly, terribly irrelevant to what I want to get out of life. Jesus is a terrible, terrible marketer. He is a purist, you see, who doesn’t want to sell a damn thing (pun intended) to sinners. He wants to save them from their relevant self-worship and provide them with something beautiful: a life lived in the freedom of the gospel and love towards the neighbor. Real freedom. Real love. He’s not selling it to you. He’s purchasing it for you with His own blood. He’s giving it away for free in an irrelevant piece of bread and impractical sip of wine. There is something beautifully irrelevant about Jesus and His gospel. Dear brothers and sisters, let’s keep it that way!