Misfits and champions

A revaluation in the market for baseball players resonates in the lives of young men. It was as if a signal had radiated out from the Oakland A’s draft room and sought, laserlike, those guys who for their whole career had seen their accomplishments understood with an asterisk. The footnote at the bottom of the page said, “He’ll never go anywhere because he doesn’t look like a big league ballplayer.” — Moneyball: The art of winning an unfair game by Michael Lewis

hitterBilly Beane, the Oakland A’s general manager, wanted to assemble a winning baseball team. But Beane had a serious problem: The A’s were among Major League Baseball’s poorest franchises, and they simply couldn’t compete financially with deep-pocketed, powerhouse teams like the New York Yankees. The A’s budget for player salaries in 1999 was about $40 million, yet they had to bid for players against teams who would spend three or four times that much.

The highest-paid baseball players are remarkably talented. They are powerful hitters, athletic fielders, and pitchers with a wicked arsenal of unhittable pitches. And, though it might seem strange to say it, they are all men who look good in the uniform. The traditions of baseball scouting have always relied heavily on a certain undefinable know-it-when-you-see-it gut feeling about how a player looks when he’s on the field, and how he might blossom in the big leagues.

What Billy Beane realized, with the help of a number-crunching Harvard-educated assistant named Paul DePodesta, was that there were college ball players out there who were even more talented at generating runs and wins for their teams, but who had been overlooked by the scouts because they were too short, too fat, too slow, or had some idiosyncratic quirk in their pitching or hitting technique — in other words, they didn’t fit the classical ideals of what a ball player should look like.

None of the majors wanted these players. Their skills were economically undervalued, and a smart, poor team who recognized the skill and didn’t care about the classical ideals could be competitive by snatching up such players cheaply, for a fraction of their true value.

Without explaining themselves to the public, and especially not to the other teams, Beane and DePodesta began assembling a team that looked like it might have come from the Island of Misfit Toys. And to the amazement, even the embarrassment, of Major League Baseball, the A’s began winning games. Lots of games.

In 2002, in what became known as “the streak,” the A’s broke the previous American League record by amassing 20 consecutive wins in the regular season. The teams with the big budgets called them “lucky.” Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta knew differently — they had discovered a truth about baseball that no one else had figured out — baseball traditions were leading teams to overlook some of the most talented players in the country.

The apostle Paul took a hard look at the early church and realized that the team God had assembled wasn’t much to look at:

So where does this leave the philosophers, the scholars, and the world’s brilliant debaters? God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish. … This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength. Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And He chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God. — 1 Corinthians 1:20, 25-29, NLT

Beginning with the disciples, Jesus chose men not for their education, nor their power, nor their connections, not even for their faith, but for qualities that were hidden inside of them, qualities of the heart. And as the early church grew, while it did indeed attract men and women from the privileged classes of Jewish and Roman society, its enormous appeal and rapid spread throughout the Roman world was due to its appeal to the masses of ordinary men and women who were drawn to the person and words of Jesus Christ.

Around the world, most societies more highly value those who are from the highest class or caste over those who are more “common”, those who have gone to the “right” schools over those whose education is less formal, those who have white skin over those whose skin is darker, those who have wealth over those who are poor, males over females, city dwellers over those who live off the land.

But in Christ, all have equal standing before God, all have been given his Holy Spirit, all have been given gifts to use to serve the church, all are equally responsible for taking the Gospel of redemption to their family, their neighbors, and to the far corners of the earth.

In Christ’s church, blacks and browns and whites all have things to learn from each other, as do the wealthy and the poor, the upper and lower classes, Harvard graduates and auto body mechanics, even Republicans and Democrats.

In the realpolitik of everyday life there will be differences of opinion about policies and priorities and strategies between men and women who share the same faith and are disciples of the same Christ. But as members of the Kingdom of God, we have a foundational unity, a fundamental respect for and love of those who are not like us, because before the cross we are intrinsically equals: equally indebted to Jesus, equally valued by God.

Billy Beane’s A’s were a joke to the other major league teams, until those teams started losing to that band of underpaid misfits.

The church Jesus has assembled to represent his Gospel doesn’t look like much, either, but it is quietly building God’s Kingdom, doing God’s work, shining light in dark places, bringing hope and love where neither have ever been seen before.

The world may not give you a second look, but God wants to draft you onto his team. He knows your strengths and weaknesses, he knows your heart, and he knows what you can become once the power of Christ fills your life. The world may not value us, but in Christ we are champions.

Photo credit: Douglas Andrew Sundin

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  1. You have spoken truth again, Charlie. And on this topic, I like what I find in Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, Book III, chapter 50, at the end: “How is a man better for being thought greater by men? … For, as the humble St. Francis says, whatever anyone is in Your sight, that he is and nothing more.” And I always like to add, “…and nothing less.”

    I’m only afraid that we will never learn, that we will continue to follow our own fallible judgment, even where we have no business judging at all, and that we will continue to choose the wrong people to follow, simply because we so quickly forget about our own weaknesses and God’s greatness.

  2. Super post, Charlie.

    This reminds me of what I’ve always known, but occasionally undervalued: I’m chosen by him, to partner with him in his work. Nothing else matters. Being passed over by others, being undervalued in comparison to the perceived ‘big hitters’ of the Christian ministry or blogosphere… It doesn’t matter if he is pleased with my work.

    Best wishes, as ever, from autumnal Wales, where I’m awake in the very early hours of the night, grappling with issues to do with vocation and completing my end-of-year paper!


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