In a column this morning about Josh Hamilton, the one-time universally beloved All-Star who is having a rough go of it during his first month as an Anaheim Angel, Los Angeles Times columnist T.J. Simers asks Hamilton a snide, sorta condescending question.
Hamilton, who became a born-again Christian after his well-publicized struggles with substance abuse, tells Simers that, when fans are booing him, he turns to his faith, and The Bible, for strength. Simers, perhaps predictably, has a sniggering, obnoxious response.
"Does it mention anywhere in the Bible," [Simers] asked, "what it takes to hit more home runs?"
Hamilton, showing more restraint than I might in a similar situation, says, "That would go to prayer," rather than bonk Simers on the head with his bat.
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Of all the things my non-sports-fan friends dislike about sports the most, the biggest one is how athletes are always thanking God for their achievements. It drives them crazy. The notion that God -- who of course presumably has his hands full with larger matters than the score of the Maaco Las Vegas Bowl -- would not only inject himself into the proceedings but pick one side over another is self-aggrandizing "spiritual" megalomania at its worst. It is what turns people off not only to sports but to religion, to faith. When a guy scores a touchdown and is interviewed after the game at a press conference, and the first thing he does is thank God, you can almost see everybody's eyes start rolling and their tape recorders turn off. God doesn't care whether or not you won, you dope.
But that's only what you're hearing. That's not what they're saying.
I've written about this before in my book God Save The Fan but that was a long time ago and who reads books anymore anyway. The difference between what an athlete means when he/she thanks God for his/her success is dramatically different that what a non-believer thinks they mean.
When Josh Hamilton electrified Yankee Stadium in the Home Run Derby in 2008, here's what he said afterward: "It's amazing, the last few years, what God's done in my life, and how quickly he's done it."
Now, here's what non-believers hear when he says that:
God decided that I would start hitting a ton of home runs. He likes me more than He likes anyone else in this competition. Therefore, He helped me launch those blasts. I am so close to God that He has decided I should be great in this Home Run Derby. A couple of those balls I hit, God picked them up and carried them extra feet so they would get over the fence. God cares, specifically, about this Home Run Derby, more than He cares about poverty, starvation and disease. If God liked you as much as He liked me, you might hit home runs too. But He doesn't.
But this is absolutely not what he is saying.
What Hamilton is saying when he thanks God is not that God somehow chose him over others. He is in fact saying the opposite: It is a humble acknowledgment that nothing any person does can ever be attributable to themselves. It's a guard against pride.
Christianity isn't some peripheral notion of Hamilton's life; it is his life. When you live a Christian life, everything you do, from showing up to church on Sunday, to going to the grocery store, to pumping gas, to hitting a home run, to striking out, is done for the glory of Christ. Hamilton isn't thanking Jesus for helping him hit a homer; he is thanking Jesus for everything. From the homers to the strikeouts to the millions of dollars to all the boos.
I quoted this in GSTF, but I think it's worth repeating here. After golfer Zach Johnson won The Masters in 2007, "I was not alone out there. Jesus was with me every step of the way." Now-defunct Christian blog Redeeming Prufrock explained Johnson's comments at the time:
Johnson diverted the glory for his victory towards Jesus because it never crossed his mind not to. In the midst of great personal accomplishment, of years of work ethic paying off, of the achievement of the American dream, Johnson refused to feed his pride because he knew of his own inadequacy.
Obviously, there are hypocrites and sinners and people who use the name of God to swindle and scare and cover up their own misdeeds. People are people, after all, humans, prone to succumb to our most base impulses. And I can't explain away ridiculous polls like the one that says 25 percent of Americans believe God influences sporting events. Nothing is perfect because the world isn't perfect.
But sniggering at athlete's religious beliefs -- particularly beliefs that, like Hamilton's, have saved them from the brink of self-destruction -- because they're not hitting home runs the way everyone thought they were supposed to shows a fundamental lack of understanding, even basic curiosity, in how someone else on the planet other than you might live their life. Just because Josh Hamilton believes Jesus is with him when he wins and when he loses doesn't mean he believes Jesus is only with HIM. Josh Hamilton has something to turn to in his life no matter how he's hitting. That might not work for you, and that might not work for me, but it has obviously worked for him. It's a sincere open-hearted belief. There are in fact larger issues for Josh Hamilton than whether he is off to a good start this season. There are larger issues for all of us.
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