How A-Rod Can Be Saved

In the summer of 1979 I was watching
television on a Sunday afternoon
with Dave Henion at his house in Fair
Lawn, New Jersey. Dave was an elder at
the Riverside Reformed Church in Paterson,
where I supplied the pulpit as a senior
seminarian. We were watching the
Yankee game, and the pitcher was Luis
Tiant, and he was pitching a two-hitter.
His fastball was hot and his curve was
sharp and he was catching the corners.
He was cagey and he spent most of his
delivery looking at second base and he
was a pleasure to watch. But the Yanks
were making errors and they weren’t hitting,
so they lost it 2-0. Dave said, “And
that was the best game he pitched this
season.”

He should know. Dave Henion was
no mean pitcher himself. The Paterson
Dutch liked baseball, and Dave, like my
father, had grown up on the pitching of
John Timmerman, who later taught English
at Calvin College, and Johnny Vander
Meer, who later pitched for Cincinnati. My
dad was known as “Ace Meeter” from his
fastball and his good control, but Dave
was even better. He was scouted by the
Majors and got through a tryout, but he
dropped out when he had to start playing
on Sundays.

So what was he doing on the Lord’s Day
with the television on? Well, let me tell you
about Dave Henion. That same evening he
would head over to Paterson where he and
some other Riverside members would lead
a Sunday evening service for the elderly
at one of the public housing projects. He
did this frequently on Sunday nights. He
loved the Lord, he loved to worship, and he
loved baseball, in that order. The reason he
wouldn’t play on Sundays was not because
of legalism but because he didn’t want to
give up worshiping on the Lord’s Day, twice
if he could.

Now here’s the wonderful connection
in this story. Dave Henion’s ministry
to the elderly in Paterson’s public housing
had been started by Johnny Vander
Meer’s brother Jake. The late Jake Vander
Meer was the preaching baker, who was
finally ordained in the Reformed Church
in America and became Dave Henion’s
pastor at Riverside Reformed. My dad was
friendly with Jake and proud of Johnny.
 
I could tell that my father believed
that somebody to whom God had
given such a fastball as Johnny
Vander Meer’s should be allowed to
pitch on Sunday.
 

My dad told me that because Johnny had
to pitch on Sundays he was brought up
on charges by the elders at his church in
Midland Park, so he quickly joined some
other church. In my youth I thought this
was very cool, but later on Johnny’s niece
told me how much it hurt Johnny and the
rest of the family. But I could tell that my
father believed that somebody to whom
God had given such a fastball should be
allowed to pitch on Sunday.

Johnny Vander Meer’s lifetime ER A
was pretty good, but his lifetime wonloss
was only 119-121, which is not good
enough for the Baseball Hall of Fame. But
he was in the Hall of Fame as far as my
dad was concerned. When Dad took us
to Cooperstown he had to see one thing,
and he was almost frantic till he found it somewhere downstairs. It was the special
display on the back-to-back no-hitters of
Johnny Vander Meer. Johnny was the
only major league pitcher ever to pitch
two no-hitters in a row, and it is generally
conceded that this is the baseball record
that will never be broken. For who could
ever pitch three no-hitters in a row? His
record is sacred and it is safe.

Baseball is peculiar among the sports
in its relative emphasis on records and
statistics. I have heard it said by disparagers
of baseball that this is proof of how
boring the game is, and that broadcast
announcers need something to talk about
during those long stretches when nothing
happens. (Longtime Yankee announcer
Phil Rizzuto refutes this canard, for he
always had something to talk about, and
it was never statistics.) But I think it is
the game itself that generates statistics.

Baseball is a combination of team
play, like football and basketball, with
one-on-one play, like tennis. Most of the
game is the patient one-on-one drama
between the pitcher and the batter, and
every pitch with its response is parsed,
counted, numbered, and classified. Once
the batter puts the ball in play, the game
becomes team play. It is the fastest and
most explosive team play in sports, simply
by the physics of the baseball and the
speed at which it can be thrown. Yet every
significant team-play action requires
the possession, if momentary, of the ball,
which makes every action discrete, discernible,
and accountable.

There is a remarkable efficiency to
baseball play. Everything counts. In football
so much of the effort by so many
players has little to do with the ball itself
and seems wasted and fruitless. Most of
the players never touch the ball.
Play Ball
They block, they tackle, and they run passing
patterns that end up empty, even on successful
plays, because only one receiver
out of three can catch the ball. In every
play, the energy starts and develops until
the opposing energy violently overwhelms
it. Such an extravagant waste of
effort–and for most of the players, such
an exaltation of drudgery. Such wasted
labor does not bear counting, whereas in
baseball, every lowly player gets up at the
plate, faces the pitcher, and is accountable.

Baseball has three other peculiarities
that add to its knack for statistics.
First, it is the only major game in which
the defense has possession of the ball;
this serves to increase the number of actions
that can be counted. Second, the
season is so long, with so many games
played. Championships are not
decided by a single game but by
a number of games, which makes
victory more connected to averages.
Third, it is the only major
sport that includes infinity. Fair
territory is infinite. You could hit
a long home run out of the park,
even into the next county, and it’s
in fair territory as long as it flies
out between the foul lines, which
are infinite. Each inning is timeless, as
long as you can keep from making that
third out. Each game is timeless, as long
as you can tie the score. (Once I watched
a Mets game for twenty-two innings;
amazingly, they won.) The clock will not
relieve you, so you have to keep count.
Statistics give definition to the infinite.

But statistics are the law and not the
gospel. Johnny Vander Meer’s record will
never be broken, but statistically he was
a middling pitcher who lost more games
than he won. Don Larsen’s lifetime record
is only 81-91, but he pitched a perfect
game in the World Series, for which
we rightly remember him. On the other
hand, Luis Tiant was a magnificent pitcher,
but he had the bad luck to play for the
Red Sox and then for the Yankees when
they finished fourth in their division. His
statistics registered a loss that Sunday
afternoon, but it was a joy to watch him
pitch and to watch the classic tragedy of
the lonely champion being overwhelmed
in battle by the barbarians.

Ted Williams is the last modern player
to finish with batting average above
.400. I must confess that I have never
liked him. The Red Sox employed him but
he played for himself, certainly not for the
fans. After his very last home run he infamously
refused to come out of the dugout
and acknowledge the cheering of the
crowd. To his credit he served his country
in the Korean War, but notice that he
was a solo fighter pilot. I consider him a
failure because he never led his team to
a pennant, much less a World Series win.
His poor performance in the post-season
of 1946 only proves my point.

The most important statistic in baseball
is the RBI, the “run batted in,”
and the highest compliment
for a batter is “clutch
hitter.” A clutch hitter
doesn’t just get RBIs,
he gets them when
they’re needed. Which
brings us to A-Rod,
Yankee third baseman
Alex Rodriguez, who
is a phenomenally good
batter but not a clutch
hitter. His promise is undoubted,
his statistics are
astounding, and he’s on track
to hit the most home runs ever,
but he tends to produce the
most when it’s not critical. The
Yankees haven’t won a World Series
since he joined them.

A-Rod has now admitted to having
taken performance-enhancing drugs before
he joined the Yanks. His statistics are
tainted. His record of home runs is now
suspect. But so far he has not been penalized.
People were saying that “everyone
was doing it” until his erstwhile friend,
Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter, righteously
protested that everyone was not doing it.
Meanwhile A-Rod has refused to be accountable.
He wants to put it all behind
him and play on. He has assumed our
sympathy and presumed upon our mercy,
pleading the extra stress he was under
from the very high expectations laid upon
a player of such promise as himself.
Baseball prowess is not a predictor of
moral prowess. Unfortunately, the owners
and the commissioner of Major League
Baseball seem to have no greater moral
expertise than do their players. They don’t
know what to do with A-Rod. And the New
York fans, who have never really warmed
up to him, are content to take a perverse
pleasure in his misfortune. Everyone is
stuck, like armies in the trenches or, horrible
to say, a line of scrimmage.

I think there is a moral solution.
It comes from seeing baseball in Reformed
perspective. Give A-Rod judgment
mixed with mercy. Let him surrender
his lifetime records and just
play for the love of the game. Let him
play for the team. See if he can let go of
himself and be a clutch hitter.

Here’s what we offer him. He can have
a whole new set of records that
would distinguish his repentance.
Let him keep
only the statistics he records
on Sunday games.
Every home run he
has hit or will hit on
Monday through Saturday
gets erased from
his lifetime totals. He
gets to keep only those
he hit on Sundays, and
so on into the future.
The same for all his other
lifetime records. Why
Sunday? Because Sunday
is the day when you confess
your sins in public,
but also, as Dave Henion
knew, you do what you do
for love and grace and joy. And
then Monday through Saturday
you bear fruits that befit repentance.

So let’s say he finishes with more
than one-seventh the home-run total of
Barry Bonds. People can do the math. His
record and its story would be as unique
and irreplaceable as Johnny Vander
Meer’s. And that statistic would tell a
story–a moral story. I think that one of
the reasons Dave Henion and I enjoyed
watching Luis Tiant pitch that Sunday
afternoon was because he pitched his
heart out even in a losing game and for a
losing team. A-Rod, why are you playing
baseball, after all? Can you lose your life
to save it? If you could do this, you might
even save baseball too.

Daniel Meeter is pastor of
Old First Reformed Church
in Brooklyn, New York.