What does baseball have to do with fatherhood?

October 7, 2014

“Without fathers, there is no baseball, only football and basketball.” – Diana Schaub, National Affairs

Baseball is uniquely a sport that fathers pass on to their children.

When Willie Mays speaks of his dad teaching him how to walk when he was 6-months old by enticing him with a rolling baseball, he is telling the story of baseball. Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman tells how his CPA father took a late lunch every single day so he could throw him batting practice after school. After 16 years in the big leagues, Chipper Jones headed home and had his mom video his swing so his dad could help him rebuild it. In historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s memoir Wait Till Next Year, she explains the formative role her father’s love of baseball had on her life and career pursuits, “By the time I had mastered the art of scorekeeping, a lasting bond had been forged among my father, baseball, and me . . . These nightly recounting of the Dodgers’ progress provided my first lessons in the narrative art.”

A game that’s taught, not caught

No child will love and pass down the game of baseball simply because someone bought him a glove, ball and bat. He cannot play catch with himself, hit himself ground balls or throw himself batting practice. No child will figure out on their own what in the world a suicide squeeze, sacrifice, infield fly, frozen rope, Texas leaguer or balk means. The mechanics, mystery, nuance and jargon of baseball demand that one has to be personally discipled in its craft and patiently taught its glories. A baseball scorebook resembles mysterious hieroglyphics until the signs and symbols are patiently given meaning by a learned tutor. Very little in baseball is seeker-friendly or self-evident, and few people pick up the game on their own.

Almost no one ever develops a passionate love for baseball as an adult (my wife being a glorious exception). That is not the way the game works. Baseball is a game full of subtleties, which are passed on through generations like a treasured family heirloom. Baseball demands the daily attentiveness of its zealous followers in a consistent and rhythmic sort of way. When columnist Thomas Boswell asserts, “Conversation is the blood of baseball,” he is describing the warp and woof of its distinctiveness (How Life Imitates the World Series). As famed Orioles manager Earl Weaver once quipped, “This ain’t football. We do this every day.” Football and basketball are sports of athleticism and can be peer oriented, but baseball uniquely remains a sport of persistence and usually demands a father’s involvement and investment. In almost every case when a Major League Baseball player is asked, “How did you develop a love for the game?” his first words are, “My dad.”

My passion and love for the game began with my dad placing a baseball in my crib. It grew with countless conversations and times of catch, ground balls and batting practice with my father. The makeshift pitching mound in my backyard and the red clay of the little Dixie Youth Baseball Park, Joe Marshall Field in Montgomery, Ala., will always be more sacred to me than Fenway or any other big league park. As we picked up balls after another round batting practice, the conversations between father and son helped usher me from boyhood to manhood.

Losing our American pastime

But I write this post with a fear that we are losing the great game. I do not mean losing at the turnstile, but we are losing what has always made the game enduring and great. I fear we are losing what has made the game of baseball so much more than “just a game” in our national ethos.

George Will explains, “Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona.” Jon Meacham asserts, “To wave off baseball as ‘just a game’ is like referring to the global events of 1939-1945 as ‘just a war.’” These serious cultural thinkers understand that baseball, a constant in American life since the 1850’s, has been the quintessentially American game and a significant culture reflecting and shaping institution. Branch Rickey wrote in The American Diamond, “It is almost impossible to find any team sport that so critically and clearly tests the mettle of each man alone on almost every play and yet fuses them all together into a group working in team competition. That is the paradox of this game that makes it so well suited to the American temperament.”

Baseball requires a kind of individual moral courage that keeps persisting for the good of the team in the face of inevitable repeated personal failures. The national game reflected the national character in a way that uniquely embedded it in the American family experience. Fathers naturally related the daily and rhythmic narrative of baseball to the narrative of life as they reared children.

Absentee fathers and cultural decline

But, I fear baseball is becoming “just a game” in the American experience because fatherhood is in decline. The youth baseball experience is being abstracted from the family and professionalized in contemporary American culture. Absentee fathers have led to the cultural decline of baseball as the national pastime in America. But it must be noted that there are varying kinds of absentee fathers. Some tragically do not live in the home with their children, but others are in the home but hire or farm out much of the parenting. Even in Christian families, providing stuff and paying for opportunities is often counted as engaged parental involvement because we have lost a theology of presence.

The emergence of baseball academies, specialized paid instructors, and travel baseball teams is a symptom of a larger cultural problem. All of these opportunities can be helpful and have a place as a supplement to a player’s baseball development, but they too often become substitutes for what has made the game of baseball great and deeply entrenched in American culture.

Every time I see a father fiddling with his iPhone while paying another man $40 an hour to sit a ball on a tee or soft toss for his son, I realize we are losing the game. Baseball is a game enamored with history and conversation, which have linked generations with a connectedness and shared language. The familial rootedness of baseball contributed to its emergence as the national pastime, and the hectic, virtual world we inhabit today makes its value largely unintelligible. Our industrialized, mass production culture has led to an unthinking value of quick, cheap, and disposable over slow, valuable, and lasting. The downgrade is evident in the range of American performing arts—including sport.

Severing baseball from fathers and local communities is turning the great game into “just a game.” Any American father can be privy to a wealth of resources in books and on the Internet about the fundamentals of baseball that is unparalleled in history. With minimal effort, he can learn drills and patiently work with his son on a daily basis to learn and develop the needed skills. But, it seems many dads would rather pay $40 and be an absentee dad for the instructional hour.

After all, the baseball academies and instructors dangle the possibility of obtaining a college scholarship or a Major League Baseball career if you sign up for their professional lessons. Baseball’s value is corrupted when it is simply seen as a possible means to some utilitarian end. Such notions are fantasy any way. Only two percent of High School baseball players receive any scholarship money to play baseball in college. A family’s time would be more wisely invested by trying to hit it big in the lottery (which I do not recommend).

A father’s presence and the gospel

Absentee dads, whether physically absent or emotionally absent, will not hand down a love and passion for baseball. A father who refuses to take the time to teach a game like baseball that demands patience will probably not take time for other complex and mysterious things either—far more important things.

It is not just baseball that demands a father’s presence. The good news of Jesus Christ is a simple yet infinitely profound message. The Bible takes us through the most important story in the history of the cosmos. The biblical gospel story has all kinds of twists and turns, nuances, and mystery (Eph. 3:3-10; 5:32; Col. 1:26-27). It is the story that defines every one of our personal stories. Passing on “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) to the next generation takes time, patience, and never-ending conversations (Deut. 6:4-9; Psalm 78:1-8) about “the mystery of the gospel” (Eph. 6:19).

Just like the dad dropping his son off with the baseball professionals, too many Christian fathers act as if they do not have time to read the long complex story of the Bible and have countless conversations with their children about the gospel and biblical truth. It is much easier and efficient to drop them off and allow the professionals at the church with seminary degrees to take care of serious religious stuff. Too many dads think what really matters is paying for their children to have the best opportunities and college one day. They tend to prefer the gospel tract approach to teaching faith and life, just the facts, hopefully get them saved, and make sure they get a good education and well paying job. But, in a faith with a Savior who took on human flesh and dwelt among us, we ought to know better. Faithfully teaching our children about the glory of the incarnate, crucified, and resurrected Christ demands time, patience, and presence.

Without fathers, there is no baseball—and unfortunately, that is one of the smallest tragedies of absentee dads. There is a reason grown men have often cried when Field of Dreams ends with Ray playing catch with his dad. But I fear we are heading toward a time when many men will be unmoved and puzzled by what they see as a strange ending to the movie. If so, we will have lost far more than baseball.

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24