Saturday, July 17, 2010

American Boys Don't Play Baseball

Every spring, I am more and more saddened to hear reports from the boys of our church when I ask them what sport will take them out onto the newly greened grass. It was once unusual for a boy to respond that he signed up for a spring sport other than baseball, but the opposite is increasingly true--the boys I know rarely play baseball. Below are what I think are some contributing factors:

Baseball involves a lot of rules. Soccer involves few. A boy can play soccer effectively if he understands five basic instructions: "1) Put the ball into that goal; don't let the ball go into your own goal. 2) Only the goalie can use his hands. 3) Throw the ball in if the other team kicks it out of bounds. 4) Stay onside. 5) Don't foul." The explanation of the Infield Fly Rule alone is more complicated. Sure, the basic operating rules of baseball are simple enough, but an alien observer could explain very few of the rules of the game after merely watching others play baseball. Many of the rules are tied to specific or rare circumstances and some would even seem to be contradictory.

Baseball requires critical thinking and planning. Soccer decisions are mostly reactive. Generally speaking, a boy can learn to play soccer better just by giving it a try. It doesn't take expert instruction to realize that he has a better chance of coming into possession of the ball if he remains in open space; he will quickly realize that dribbling the ball too much often results in a turn-over. A boy can even improve his game IQ just by mimicking better players. Conversely, to play defensive baseball in even the most basically effective way, a boy needs to spend a significant amount of time considering what to do with the baseball if and when it is hit to him. To play even the simplest position in baseball, right field, one needs to have considered at least four different circumstances before the fall is fielded every time the ball is fielded. Every time a new batter comes to the plate, the right fielder needs to have considered: How many outs are there? What runners are on base and what is their configuration? Where should I throw the ball if I catch a fly ball? Where should I throw the ball if I field a single or a double? If the ball comes to a soccer player's feet, he usually only needs to decide if he will pass, dribble, or shoot.

Baseball is not fast-paced. Soccer is fluid and continuous. Although a baseball game is highly segmented into shorter, individual pieces--each batter, each half of an inning--to the ignorant or uninterested observer, it can seem to drag on. From afar, there is not much difference between watching players in a baseball field and watching someone do yoga--there are very few moving parts. Despite the numerous complaints about boring World Cup games, the ball is continually moving in a soccer game and players are almost never stationary.

Baseball involves failure on an individual level. Contrasted with youth soccer, in which an average field player will almost never be perceived to have "blown it," failure is built into the game of baseball. On average, Derek Jeter strikes out every six at-bats. Joel Pearce hit safely in exactly one at-bat during the 1995 Hackettstown Little League season and didn't really come close in the other 30-something. Errant throws, botched ground balls, and dropped flies are all more likely to occur than be avoided in any one inning of any Little League game. When a baseball player misses a fly ball or strikes out, the failure is acutely individual. The team doesn't strike out--little Johnny strikes out. Goalie is the only position in soccer where failure perceived to have been individual. No casual observer blames the other ten players when the ball gets by the goalie, but everyone unfairly blames Bill Buckner for blowing an entire World Series in one play.

Baseball requires a significant group in order to play even a casual game. Nearly every other sport can be enjoyed with a reduced number of players. One-on-one basketball is extreme as an exception, but 3-on-3 or 4-on-4 hockey, football, and soccer all very closely resemble the original sport when adjusted to accommodate a low turn-out of players. Even a drastic modification of the playing field and rules still requires in excess of ten baseball players to enjoy baseball competitively. The group needs a field, bases, a bat, enough gloves for the field positions, and a baseball. Soccer can be played with a ball and two trash cans in a street.

I think that reduced attention spans and a general avoidance of failure-rich activities are the most disturbing culprits in the reasons baseball is losing ground. I have not even mentioned the decline in black Major League stars, World Series games starting at 9:00 p.m. EST, or the glut of other extra-curricular activities as tertiary contributing factors.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Christianity and Liberalism - Doctrine

It wasn't until I left home for Geneva College that I ever came across someone who confidently asserted that doctrine was not an important aspect to the Christian life. Before my time in Beaver Falls, PA, I had certainly met others who by their practice showed that doctrine had no place in their life. Yet on the campus of a reformed Christian college I first came to know many who tried to intellectually defend the idea.

"My church doesn't really get caught up in confessions and creeds--we just read and teach the Bible," a friend would humbly boast. "No creed but Christ," and "Deeds, not Creeds" are popular phrases among those of like mind. Is a higher state of Christianity being achieved by claiming to reject doctrine? Can all creeds be reconciled with each other? Is the Sermon on the Mount and the life/example of Jesus all we need in this life?

The second chapter of J. Gresham Machen's Christianity and Liberalism, "Doctrine," deals with some of these seemingly innocuous conjectures. The entire text can be found here. Any boldface in the excerpts below are my emphasis.

“At the outset, we are met with an objection. ‘Teachings,’ it is said, ‘are unimportant; …creeds are merely the changing expression of a unitary Christian experience, and provided only they express that experience they are all equally good. The teachings of liberalism, therefore, might be as far removed as possible from the teachings of historic Christianity, and yet the two might be at bottom the same.’...Such is the way in which expression is often given to the modern hostility to ‘doctrine.’ But is it really doctrine as such that is objected to, and not rather one particular doctrine in the interests of another? Undoubtedly, in many forms of liberalism it is the latter alternative which fits the case. There are doctrines of modern liberalism, just as tenaciously and intolerantly upheld as any doctrines that find a place in the historic creeds. Such for example are the liberal doctrines of the universal fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of man. These doctrines are, as we shall see, contrary to the doctrines of the Christian religion. But doctrines they are all the same, and as such they require intellectual defense. In seeming to object to all theology, the liberal preacher is often merely objecting to one system of theology in the interests of another. And the desired immunity from theological controversy has not yet been attained.”

“If all creeds are equally true, then since they are contradictory to one another, they are all equally false, or at least equally uncertain. We are indulging, therefore, in a mere juggling with words. To say that all creeds are equally true, and that they are based upon experience, is merely to fall back upon that agnosticism which fifty years ago was regarded as the deadliest enemy of the Church. The enemy has not really been changed into a friend merely because he has been received within the camp. Very different is the Christian conception of a creed. According to the Christian conception, a creed is not a mere expression of Christian experience, but on the contrary it is a setting forth of those facts upon which experience is based.”

“But if any one fact is clear, on the basis of this evidence, it is that the Christian movement at its inception was not just a way of life in the modern sense, but a way of life founded upon a message. It was based, not upon mere feeling, not upon a mere program of work, but upon an account of facts. In other words it was based upon doctrine.”

“The primitive Church was concerned not merely with what Jesus had said, but also, and primarily, with what Jesus had done. The world was to be redeemed through the proclamation of an event. And with the event went the meaning of the event; and the setting forth of the event with the meaning of the event was doctrine. These two elements are always combined in the Christian message. The narration of the facts is history; the narration of the facts with the meaning of the facts is doctrine. ‘Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried’--that is history. ‘He loved me and gave Himself for me’--that is doctrine. Such was the Christianity of the primitive Church.”

“The new law of the Sermon on the Mount, in itself, can only produce despair. Strange indeed is the complacency with which modern men can say that the Golden Rule and the high ethical principles of Jesus are all that they need. In reality, if the requirements for entrance into the Kingdom of God are what Jesus declares them to be, we are all undone; we have not even attained to the external righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, and how shall we attain to that righteousness of the heart which Jesus demands? …The Sermon on the Mount, like all the rest of the New Testament, really leads a man straight to the foot of the Cross.”

“Let us not deceive ourselves. A Jewish teacher of the first century can never satisfy the longing of our souls.”

“As a matter of fact, however, in the modern vituperation of ‘doctrine,’ it is not merely the great theologians or the great creeds that are being attacked, but the New Testament and our Lord Himself. In rejecting doctrine, the liberal preacher is rejecting the simple words of Paul, "Who loved me and gave Himself for me," just as much as the homoousion of the Nicene Creed. For the word "doctrine" is really used not in its narrowest, but in its broadest sense. The liberal preacher is really rejecting the whole basis of Christianity, which is a religion founded not on aspirations, but on facts. Here is found the most fundamental difference between liberalism and Christianity--liberalism is altogether in the imperative mood, while Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative; liberalism appeals to man's will, while Christianity announces, first, a gracious act of God.”

“It is often said that the divided condition of Christendom is an evil, and so it is. But the evil consists in the existence of the errors which cause the divisions and not at all in the recognition of those errors when once they exist.”

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Thoughts on the World Cup

With the World Cup final a few days away, I am nearly ready to return to my normal state of soccer hibernation for the next three years and eleven months. While my international soccer enthusiasm may wane back into a dormant state, I can say with certainty that I am already looking forward to 2014's tournament more than I ever expected.

2010 marks the year of the World Cup into which I most passionately invested myself. I have watched every game that was possible for me to watch (all of two), listened to games on the radio (three) and watched highlights of all 38 games played. I have checked scores on my Blackberry and solicited pre-game analysis from people born in England, Portugal, and Ecuador. While I have not gone so far as to refer to the game as "fĂștbol" or report scores using the word "nil," I have jumped into this World Cup with both feet. I have been an ardent soccer fan for a month.

Below are some rapid-fire thoughts on this year's tournament and/or international soccer in general:

1. Soccer on a high definition TV is amazing! Granted, so is any other sport, but the improvement over what the '92 World Cup looked like on the 14" tube set in my parents' bedroom is indescribable. For the record, the high definition screen I was watching was in the Electronics section of the Costco in New Rochelle, NY.

2. Is there a reason that the tournament must always be referred to as the "FIFA World Cup?" Is this to distinguish it from another World Cup? Who doesn't think soccer when one hears "World Cup?"

3. Let me address the "Why Americans Don't Like Soccer" theories as briefly as I can. The biggest reason professional soccer isn't big in America is because--are you ready for this?-- professional soccer has never been big in America. Duh. Do people really expect a sport to permanently catapult into the top American tier because of spiked interest every four years? The secondary reasons are related to our society's fascination with shiny objects, immediate results, and sex appeal. Watching soccer takes patience. Investing time to watch a soccer match does not always reward one with a winner and a loser. Americans who complain about soccer generally reveal more about themselves than they do identify flaws in the game.

4. In a related note, have those who were complaining about low scores noticed how the per-game goal counts have increased in the elimination round? That teams can strategically settle for a tie in group matches leads to conservative play. Conservative play leads to fewer goals.

5. I have heard several voices complain about the perceived ambiguity of stoppage time. However, I have not heard any of those same voices state the obvious advantages to a running clock--the greatest of which is the predictable time frame in which a soccer match is completed. Coming from a fan who must suffer through 18 Yankees-Red Sox games a year at up to four hours a match-up, regularity in game length is a breath of fresh air!

6. The US-Algeria game was the first soccer game I ever listened to on the radio. Not only could I not bring myself to turn the game off, but I was physically reacting to the drama of the moment. My stomach was in knots and my chest was pounding throughout the entire game.

7. There were some bad calls. There were just as many really bad calls. It would serve the public well to remember that we are the first generation to have the seemingly omnispective power to observe, review, and judge every single call in crystal clear, super slow-motion video. Officiating may not be getting worse--we may just be more aware of it than ever.

8. The sentiment that there is an anti-American conspiracy among FIFA officials speaks to a conceitedness than the American soccer fan hasn't earned yet.

9. From my days as a junior varsity soccer star in high school, I remember yellow cards only being awarded for fouls that were clearly intentional. Further, I can recall the issuance of perhaps three red cards in three years of playing high school soccer--those were for intentional fouls that were also malicious and/or dirty. It seemed like players in this World Cup were receiving yellow cards on a whim or for sneezing at someone.

10. To my admittedly untrained eye, it seemed like the American team doesn't quite possess its own style of play. Watching the US team look tentative and give up a goal early in nearly every match made it seem like they were starting each game waiting to react to the other team's plan of attack. It never seemed like the US set out to take control of the tempo or style. Maybe we're not that good yet.

11. The brazen deception of the Ghana players in the closing minutes of the elimination game against the US was offensive. I know soccer players are bred to hit the grass writhing in pain if they're even given a dirty look, but such excessive, obviously fabricated/phantom injuries were beyond the pale.