January 16, 2015
The Gospel According to Baseball
A few months ago, you might recall, Kolten Wong signed a baseball with a Bible verse that doesn’t exist. At least, somebody claimed to have a baseball signed by Kolten Wong (the signature looks right) under which a non-existent Bible verse is written in what looks plausibly like the hand of Kolten Wong. Psalms 3:16 doesn’t exist because the third Psalm has only eight verses.*
For no valuable reason, I’ve since spent a lot of time wondering about how that verse got there. I can spin some hypothesis easily enough: The Psalms are the most famous and most quotable book of the Bible, while John 3:16 is the most famous and quotable verse in the Bible, so it’d be easy to mash them up—either because you’re in a hurry or because you’re fronting. But unlike a lot of ballplayers, Wong rarely tacks on extra inscriptions when he signs a baseball; his personal touch is usually limited to his uniform number, a habit that included even signed “89” baseballs when he was assigned that number in spring training a couple years back. Further, Wong does have a favorite bible verse, and it’s not Psalm 3:16. It’s Proverbs 3:6. I know this is his favorite verse because he tattooed it on his back. “It was pretty painful,” he said, according to the book Intentional Walk. Which is to say, this isn’t a guy who would have to reach for something biblical to write. Maybe the inscription was requested? Maybe Wong initially miswrote Proverbs as Psalms and tried to salvage it instead of crossing it out? I think we’ll never know the answer. He moves in mysterious ways. Kolten Wong, I mean. Kolten Wong moves in mysterious ways.
But there’s a deeper question here than how Kolten Wong came to invent Psalms 3:16, and it’s this: What would Psalms 3:16 say if there was a Psalms 3:16? If we took a Bayesian approach to this question, we’d start with what we know: It’s in the Bible, so it probably has to do with Bible stuffs. We would add to that the second thing we now know: It was cited by a baseball player. Baseball players don’t pick favorite Bible verses randomly. As I’ve come to discover, the Baseball Bible is a very specific version of the Bible.
Baseball Bible says: You Can Do It!
This is the most Baseball Bible verse. Not only is it tremendously common—besides Owings, J.R. Towles, Mark Eichorn, Albert Belle, Kaleb Cowart, Carlos Beltran, Tony Clark, Justin Masterson and Daniel Nava attach this verse to their signatures—it is particularly apt encouragement for somebody whose life and livelihood depends on the ability to motivate himself. (Bryce Harper’s verse—Luke 1:37, “For nothing is impossible with God”—also applies.) Replace “him who gives me strength” with, say, “the refreshing and rejuvenating taste of Gatorade” or “the moisture-wicking design innovation of Under Armour” and you’ve got an endorsement deal. It’s the sort of verse that, if it didn’t exist, some coach would have had to make up and attribute to Jesus or Branch Rickey.
(Paul wrote this verse while he was in prison, so it appeals to football players, too.)
Baseball Bible says: You serve the world by being a great baseball player.
There are three kinds of jobs: 1. The ones that you do because you and your family will starve otherwise. You don't really choose; you do what you can get. This is noble. Labor is noble. 2. The ones you do because they make the world a better place, by building the amount of good or decreasing the amount of evil in the world. Also noble. Self-sacrifice for others is noble. 3. The ones you do because they make you rich, they’re easy, they’re fun, they make you feel like a bigshot, you were too lazy to find one of those jobs in category 2--or, simply, your skill set led you to them, even though they're not exactly changing the world. There’s nothing wrong with these category 3 jobs (I hope; heaven help me otherwise) but people who have category 3 jobs periodically feel anxiety that they aren’t doing more. “Is this why I exist?” the professional poker player surely wonders, and so on.
Romans 8:28 is, on one level, a reassurance (as Philippians 4:13 was) that a powerful ally is working on your behalf. But it’s appealing especially to athletes (and all category 3 workers) because it implies a purpose to what each person has been “called” to. It promises that being a fourth outfielder is to His purposes, and that in even your part-time play (“in all things”) He is working “for the good.” There is no need to feel guilty, though of course you feel guilty anyway, having access to the darkest parts of your own desires and prejudices.
Less common, but arguably a clearer expression of the sentiment, was signed by Bill Sampen: Colossians 3:23. “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord.”
Baseball Bible Says: Share your faith.
Other John 14:6 signers: Appel, Frank Tanana, Pat Combs. This would be the section where we would put John 3:16 (Reggie Willits, Jerry Don Gleaton, Greg Gagne), or Acts 4:12 (Eric Show), or John 3:36 (Tanana, Gary Wayne), or Romans 10:9 (Turner Ward) or Romans 1:16 (Matt Mieske). “I sign because I want to get the word out, man,” says Josh Hamilton, and so athletes who want to use their fame as a platform use the signature as a sort of Christianity instruction manual. While the others verses in Baseball Bible give a little window into the player’s fears and aspirations, this category is a little bit like Baseball Bible spam. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, if you’re proud of what you’re selling.
It’s a little bit of a paradox of the sport: Baseball clubhouses are nominally filled with religion—how many other workplaces have chapel?—yet there are few places in the world where it would be more challenging to live in a Biblical way, right? The money, the women, the relentless feeding of one’s ego. And so there’s an emphasis in the Baseball Bible on verses that are about staying humble:
1 Peter 5:6: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.” (Josh Hamilton, A.J. Ellis)
or about subjugating one’s ego:
John 3:30: “He must become greater. I must become less.” (James Ramsey)
Nobody, so far as I can find, signs with Matthew 19:21: “Jesus answered, 'If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor.'"
There are more, of course. If there’s a verse existent about God being one’s rock, it’s been inscribed (by, among others, Cam Bedrosian and John Wetteland). “Be strong and courageous,” according to Scott Fletcher’s verse from Joshua. Those are what we can call the Strength verses. I am strong, I can do anything.
Then there are the Humble verses. There’s the “while we were still sinners” verse from Romans that John Olerud put on the back of his self-published baseball card (!):
The Humble verses would include Sid Bream’s “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” verse from Galatians. Josh Hamilton’s “by his wounds you have been healed” verse from 1 Peter. “For it is by grace you have been saved,” Kyle Gibson’s verse from Ecclesiastes. I am nothing, I am the worst, I need help in the worst way.
The other thousands and thousands of verses in the actual Bible are, of course, not part of the Baseball Bible. There’s nothing in the Baseball Bible about Zerubbabel’s temple or which days not to work on. It’s a simple Bible, capturing in broad strokes the way many of us (religious or secular) tend to see ourselves in an era of unprecedented wealth, health, and self-determination: We are at risk of underestimating our potential; we are at risk of overestimating our importance.
So these are, by and large, the two testaments of the Baseball Bible: The Strong Athlete half, and the Humble Sinner half. Every once in a while, they overlap: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up,” says Robbie Ross’ verse James 4:10. You get to choose how you want to read that: If you think it’s being applied to sports, it’s a sort of a paradox; embracing humility in order to achieve wealth and greatness in a pointless fame-machine. If you think it’s being applied not to sports but to life, then it’s a reminder of the anxious feeling of fraudulence that many of us probably feel. In a sense, the Baseball Bible has nothing to do with Baseball, and nothing to do with the Bible. It’s about strengthening our confidence and defeating our pride. It’s about achieving more but aspiring for less. Perhaps no verse sums it all up better than Psalms 3:16: “Nothing I desire is worthwhile but that purpose which is desired for me, and for which I have been ably prepared.”
* “looks like psalms 3:11 to me,” said the unhelpful Redditer.