Sunday, February 20, 2011

The End of Winter

Don't tell me about the world. Not today. It's springtime and they're knocking baseballs around fields where the grass is damp and green in the morning and the kids are trying to hit the curve ball. ~Pete Hamill
Pitchers and catchers reported a week ago. The “regulars” rolled in just the other day. In Arizona and Florida, at least, spring has officially started. For those of us restricted to northern terrains, a sunny day and a picture of young men tossing long-ball will suffice. Baseball is as much about imagination as reality, allowing grown men to overcome abandoned dreams and to be transported in time to the simpler days of youth. For baseball fans, spring is when the cool winds of March and the smell of a leather glove awaken in the senses the hope of new beginnings, when every team is a contender. This year is no exception.

Winter in Philadelphia lingers as the last remnants of snow refuse completely to disappear, the sun’s rays meekly penetrating the cold air. Although nature bequeathed us a day or two of softness, a February flirtation with the gentle touches of spring, the winds quickly strengthened in intensity and the temperatures dropped once again, permitting us to escape the harsh chill of winter only in the daily reports of the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues.

My normal excitement level for the start of spring training and anticipation of a new season has been tempered this year by a reminder of the darker, business side of baseball, talk of money and contracts, revenue and payrolls. I speak particularly of the Albert Pujols contract negotiations, which for Cardinals fans is the source of sleepless nights and intestinal distress. For those of you living on the planet Zortec, let me explain. Pujols is in the last year of an eight-year, $111 million contract. If the Cardinals cannot find a way to sign him to a new deal by the end of this season, he becomes a free agent and the Cardinals, a team of moderate wealth and a payroll that befits its Midwestern television market, will have to compete potentially with every team in the Major Leagues to bid on his services. That means that the Yankees, the Red Sox and, God forbid, even the Cubs, will legitimately be allowed to offer Pujols any amount of money they are willing to dish out to lure him to their team. Some might call that free enterprise. I call it Armageddon.

Being a fan requires certain fortitude and a willingness to endure pain and heartbreak. Only true fans can really understand this. When everyone else says, “Grow up” or “Get a life”, we just shake our heads with the knowledge that the non-fan lacks discernment. A true fan connects to a team the way one connects to immediate family; we are wrapped up in our team’s identity, its players form part of our secret inner circle. I can criticize a player on my team, but if a Phillies fan knocks my second baseman, they just may find extra spices in their cheese steak, if you catch my drift. The star players, of course, are extra special, for they disappoint us less and provide us with the hope of a winning season and the dream of a championship. The longer a star player remains with us, the more we identify with him.

I became a Cardinals fan in the spring of 1967, when I was eight years old. Yes, I know, I am from New Jersey. It is simple really. My second grade class was studying the many different species of birds. Always one to choose favorites, I took an immediate liking to the cardinal, lured by its magnificent, bright red coat and distinctive black trim. There was simply no other bird like it. As it happens, my ornothological studies coincided precisely with when I fell in love with baseball. I had started to play the game with my older brother and his friends and learned that baseball and me were a natural fit. I quickly became consumed by it. When that summer I discovered the St. Louis Cardinals and the “birds on the bat” that adorned their uniforms, I was an immediate fan. Soon I was following my favorite team and my favorite players – Orlando Cepeda, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Curt Flood, Mike Shannon, and Tim McCarver – colorful players who lit up a ballpark with their grace and athleticism. The bond permanently cemented in the fall of 1967 when the Cardinals won the World Series; I was forever hooked. (Only years later did I discover that it was somewhat frowned upon to root for anyone other than the home team. I have finally stopped looking surprised when someone asks me, “Are you from St. Louis?” after confiding my team loyalties.)

To this day, I identify the Cardinals of my youth with Lou Brock and Bob Gibson. Although the surrounding cast occasionally changed, especially since the advent of free agency, Gibson, like Stan Musial before him, was a Cardinal for life. So was Mike Shannon, who still does the play-by-play more than 40 years later on the Cardinals’ radio network. Brock, who the Cardinals acquired from the Cubs in 1964, remained a Cardinal until he retired in 1979. I can still recite the daily lineup card for the Cardinals teams of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. At the age of eleven, I started playing Strat-O-Matic baseball, an extremely realistic, statistic-based board game, played with dice and individual player cards formulated from the previous season’s statistics. I “managed” eight straight 162-game seasons of Cardinals games, keeping box scores and calculating the season’s at bats and innings pitched, hits, runs, RBIs, walks and strikeouts, batting averages and earned run averages. To this day, I can compute batting averages in my head. I spent more time in study hall writing out that day’s lineup card and studying my team’s statistics than I did doing homework. Hmmm. Perhaps this is why I did not attend an Ivy League college, or why I wince when asked about the works of William Shakespeare. I mean, what was his batting average?

More than four decades hence, you must forgive my indulgence, then, of Albert Pujols. When a player is as uniquely talented and identified with one team as Pujols, it takes a bigger man than me to resist the need for common sense and patience in something as mundane and legalistic as a long-term contract. There is something a little disconcerting about the business of baseball. I am a fan because, for 2 ½ hours each night, baseball reminds me of what life was like when I was twelve, when the most important event was how the Cardinals did against the Mets. I did not know or care about the players’ salaries, or how much money the team made in a given season. I knew nothing of television royalties, ticket sales and merchandise revenues. I paid little attention to union disputes and work stoppages. It was the game and what it represented, devotion to a team and identification with its players, which captured my imagination.

I understand that the Cardinals must protect the future of the franchise. Pujols is 31 years old. He will turn 32 before season’s end, when his present contract expires. According to unsubstantiated reports, Pujols and his agent have asked for a contract in the range of 10 years, $300 million. The Cardinals reportedly offered Pujols somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 million over nine years, plus an equity interest in the team for life. Cardinals’ management is naturally reluctant to commit 30% of their payroll for ten years on a player who, in six or seven years, will be in the twilight of his career. The Cardinals would likely agree to pay him $30 million a year for five or six years, but they do not want to be tied into a deal that pays even a player as great as Prince Albert upwards of $30 million a year when he is 39, 40, and 41 years old. Pujols is a great player, and there is no reason to believe he will not continue to be among the best players in baseball for the next several years. But even the great ones do not play at 39 the way they played at 29.

I cannot justify the amount of money we are talking about here. And yet, despite my past moralizing over the inequality of income between the rich and the poor in the United States, when it comes to baseball you can dismiss all talk of economic justice, morality and politics. There is really only one consideration. Do what it takes to win! Pujols is a once-in-a-lifetime player. His first ten years are matched historically only by Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio. In ten seasons, Pujols has accumulated 1,900 hits, 408 home runs, 1,230 RBIs, 1,186 runs, 426 doubles, and 914 walks (compared to only 646 strikeouts). Divide each number by ten and you have pretty close to what he has done each season. He is that consistent. He has a career batting average of .331 and an on-base percentage of .426. He has never batted below .312, has never knocked in less than 103 runs, has never scored less than 99 runs. He has twice won the Gold Glove Award for his superb defensive play at first base. By all accounts, he is a great teammate and clubhouse leader.

The famous actress, Tallulah Bankhead, once said, “There have been only two geniuses in the world. Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare.” I don’t know about Shakespeare (see above), but Albert Pujols must be added to the list. If the Cardinals do not sign Pujols and make him a Cardinal for life, I dread the amount of therapy that will be needed to restore my sanity. All of Cardinal Nation will be on Prozac. I know that it will take a lot of money to sign El Hombre, and I hope he means it when he says he wants to remain a Cardinal for life. But if somehow it doesn’t work out, if Prince Albert someday betrays Cardinal red, it will induce panic-stricken psychosis in the annals of Cardinalville. He is the franchise. He is the St. Louis Cardinals.

Perhaps it is as simple as what one Cardinal fan recently advised Bill DeWitt, Jr., the Cardinals' owner, in an email to ESPN's Mike and Mike in the Morning, “He wants it. You have it. Give it to him.” I really do not know what to think about it all. In my moments of dispassion and sanity, I can understand the reluctance to give away the store. Then the fan in me takes over, and I don’t want to hear about contracts and money and long-term revenue projections. For the past six weeks, I have awakened each morning with the hope that the headlines would read, “Cards Sign Pujols for Life.” So I have stopped trying to think about it, and will focus on the game and prepare for another long and beautiful season, when my childlike fascination with baseball and the Cardinals will overtake all the messy details of life.

Ernie Harwell, the longtime announcer for the Detroit Tigers, once said, “Baseball is just a game as simple as a ball and bat. Yet, as complex as the American spirit it symbolizes, it is a sport, a business, and sometimes almost even a religion.” As a rational man with a sense for business and economics, I understand the arguments on both sides of the Pujols contract negotiations. But as a Cardinals fan, I simply cannot comprehend life without Pujols.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The President on Prayer, Humility, and the Search for Wisdom

We see an aging parent wither under a long illness, or we lose a daughter or a husband in Afghanistan, we watch a gunman open fire in a supermarket -- and we remember how fleeting life can be. And we ask ourselves how have we treated others, whether we’ve told our family and friends how much we love them. And it’s in these moments, when we feel most intensely our mortality and our own flaws and the sins of the world, that we most desperately seek to touch the face of God. – President Barack Obama, February 3, 2011
In a time of political and social turmoil around the world and divisiveness at home, as the world watched street protests and the march for democracy in Egypt and Tunisia, and as the United States continued to recover from the tragic shooting in Tucson, the President took a moment this past week to speak from the heart. For the past sixty years, ever since Dwight Eisenhower occupied the White House, our presidents have attended the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. This year was no exception and it permitted an opportunity for President Obama to speak thoughtfully and passionately about his personal faith journey, his closeness to God, and his belief in the power of prayer to provide comfort and guidance. The speech, which was both humorous and moving, should finally put to rest any lingering questions regarding the authenticity or sincerity of the president’s faith, which goes far deeper than the majority of U.S. presidents over the past century.

Obama spoke publicly “as a fellow believer” and as one who entered public service through his work on behalf of churches. He acknowledged as a child that he was exposed to very little organized religion and that he “did not come from a particularly religious family.” His father, whom he had met only once his entire life, and then only for a month, was “a non-believer throughout his life.” The president’s mother, who wielded great influence on Obama as a child, and whose Midwestern values remain embedded in his soul, was the product of Baptist and Methodist parents. But she “grew up with a certain skepticism about organized religion” and, like many apathetic and agnostic Christians, took young Barack Obama to church, if at all, only on Easter and Christmas. Despite her skepticism, however, she also was a very spiritual person, “who was instinctively guided by the Golden Rule and who nagged me constantly about the homespun values of her Kansas upbringing, values like honesty and hard work and kindness and fair play.”

It was through his mother that Obama learned to value equality between men and women, the imperative of living an ethical life, and of acting on one’s beliefs. And “despite the absence of a formal religious upbringing,” he was inspired by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and the many prominent Christian leaders of the civil rights movement who sought to “transform a nation through the force of love.” He also was influenced by more ecumenical leaders, such as Father Theodore Hesburg and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose “call to fix what was broken in our world, a call rooted in faith,” led Obama to become a community organizer and to work on behalf of “a group of churches on the Southside of Chicago.” From this experience, “working with pastors and laypeople trying to heal the wounds of hurting neighborhoods," did Obama come "to know Jesus Christ for myself and embrace Him as my lord and savior.”

Like many of us, Obama’s “faith journey has had its twists and turns.” Along the way, “[i]n the wake of failures and disappointments, I've questioned what God had in store for me and been reminded that God’s plans for us may not always match our own short-sighted desires.” As with President Lincoln, who knelt often in prayer when faced with the daily pressures of saving a nation at war with itself, Obama’s Christian faith “has been a sustaining force" during his time in office. In addition to prayer, he finds “consistent respite and fellowship” at the Chapel at Camp David and starts his mornings with “meditations from Scripture.”

At the prayer breakfast, the president subtly alluded to his critics; “when Michelle and I hear our faith questioned from time to time, we are reminded that ultimately what matters is not what other people say about us but whether we're being true to our conscience and true to our God.” He emphasized, however, the uniting force of faith. He referred to Senator Tom Coburn, a conservative Republican who disagrees with Obama on most issues, as “not only a dear friend but also a brother in Christ. . . . Even though we are on opposite sides of a whole bunch of issues, part of what has bound us together is a shared faith, a recognition that we pray to and serve the same God.”

As Obama travels around the country, he is often asked what he prays for. While he resorts to prayer on a host of issues (one of which concerns the length of Malia’s dresses), a few “common themes” recur. One arises from “the urgency of the Old Testament prophets and the Gospel itself. I pray for my ability to help those who are struggling. Christian tradition teaches that . . . we're called to work on behalf of a God that chose justice and mercy and compassion to the most vulnerable.” He spoke of those who have lost their jobs and struggle to take care of their families; people in pain, who have suffered a loss of self-esteem, or worse, their homes and access to affordable health care. He knows that, as president, he cannot help everyone, and that fixing the economy and seeking peace takes time and patience. But as he moves forward, “it is my faith [and the] biblical injunction to serve the least of these, that keeps me going and that keeps me from being overwhelmed.”

The president talked proudly of the many churches, synagogues, and faith-based organizations that work every day to solve human problems, but noted that there are limits to what private charities can do. “Now, sometimes faith groups can do the work of caring for the least of these on their own; sometimes they need a partner, whether it’s in business or government.” As an example, he discussed the work of the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, an initiative started under President George W. Bush, and which under Obama is working to expand “the way faith groups can partner with our government. . . . helping them feed more kids who otherwise would go hungry. . . . helping fatherhood groups get dads the support they need to be there for their children. . . . [and] working with non-profits to improve the lives of people around the world.” And while such work must be “aligned with our constitutional principles,” it also should be rooted in “notions of partnership and justice and the imperatives to help the poor.”

The nature and scope of some problems necessarily require a more active public involvement, for “in a caring and . . . just society, government must have a role to play.”

[T]here are some needs that require more resources than faith groups have at their disposal. There’s only so much a church can do to help all the families in need -- all those who need help making a mortgage payment, or avoiding foreclosure, or making sure their child can go to college. There’s only so much that a nonprofit can do to help a community rebuild in the wake of disaster. There’s only so much the private sector will do to help folks who are desperately sick get the care that they need.

And that's why I continue to believe . . . that our values, our love and our charity must find expression not just in our families, not just in our places of work and our places of worship, but also in our government and in our politics.
This is, of course, an area that distinguishes philosophically the president and most Democrats from many Republicans, who place greater emphasis on acts of charity and resist the role of government as compassionate benefactor. It is a debate that goes to the heart of our democracy and the role of government. There is certainly room for principled disagreement. But there is no room to question the president’s faith, or patriotism, or love of country. Perhaps this is why the president also spoke of the importance and need for humility. For however polarized and divisive our politics may become, it is always “useful to go back to Scripture to remind ourselves that none of us has all the answers -- none of us, no matter what our political party or our station in life.”

“The full breadth of human knowledge is like a grain of sand in God’s hands. And there are some mysteries in this world we cannot fully comprehend.” It is this challenge, then, the need to balance uncertainty and humility and to be open to other points of view, with the need to fight for what is right and to remain committed to one’s deeply held convictions, which forms the core of our democracy and underlies the president’s need for prayer. Only by constant “reminders of our shared hopes and our shared dreams and our shared limitations as children of God” can Americans travel forward together.

At the conclusion of his speech, the president noted that, while he hopes his prayers will be answered, he knows “that the act of prayer itself is a source of strength. It’s a reminder that our time on Earth is not just about us; that when we open ourselves to the possibility that God might have a larger purpose for our lives, there’s a chance that somehow, in ways that we may never fully know, God will use us well.” Amen, Mr. President.