Sunday, August 26, 2012

A follow-up: the Red Sox, the church, and "first principles"

No, this isn't a follow-up to my rotten health report.  I don't know any more about that today than I did yesterday.

Rather, I'm already compelled to look back to this post, reflecting on the church's or a church's knowing when it's time to walk away from the usual way of doing things.  In that post I referred to my odd little pastime of running a simulated baseball team, and the unpleasant decision that the team as constructed had run its course and it was time for a rebuild from the bottom up.

Oddly enough, a real live major-league baseball team came to something like the same decision this week.  Those who follow baseball closely can hardly avoid being aware that the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers pulled off a historic trade this weekend, made monumental in baseball terms by the sheer monetary value of contracts changing hands.  Two of the players headed from Boston to Los Angeles, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, have contracts extending over multiple years to come that will bring them in excess of $100,000,000 (it just looks more impressive in numbers, doesn't it?) over the life of the contract.  To put that in perspective: only one such player (Alex Rodriguez, the infamous "A-Rod" now of the New York Yankees) had ever been traded in the history of baseball before Saturday's blockbuster.  A third player in the deal, Josh Beckett, is still owed a little over $30,000,000 on his contract for 2013 and '14.  The fourth player headed to Los Angeles is a utility infielder, which means his contract for next year is only about $1,500,000 or so.  In return, Boston is receiving five players, only one of whom is a major-league regular; the others are currently in the minor leagues, and only one or two of those have any major-league experience at all.  Ironically, the only big-leaguer in the deal, James Loney, is the least-regarded player in the package, having proven to be a disappointment over the course of his time in L.A. and making Adrian Gonzalez a particularly appealing acquisition for the Dodgers to play first base, which had been Loney's position.

Gonzalez did not disappoint in his first game in Los Angeles, homering on the second pitch thrown to him in his first at-bat Saturday.  Beckett is scheduled to make his Dodgers debut Monday night.  Crawford is currently injured, and will not be back before some time in 2013.  Nonetheless, the Dodgers can look for instant returns on their rather substantial investment as they attempt to push their way into baseball's postseason.  The Red Sox, on the other hand, are extremely unlikely to see any return on their investment this season at all.  Loney will probably finish out the season there, but is a free agent after this year and there's no guarantee the Sox will choose to keep him around.  The other players might filter onto the Red Sox roster starting next season, or maybe even not until 2014.

So what are the Red Sox thinking?

(A quick historical primer follows for the two or three readers of this blog who don't follow baseball at all.  If you are a baseball fan, you'll probably know all this stuff, so you might choose to skip ahead a bit if you wish.)

The Red Sox have had a checkered past, capturing attention as much for their failures (an eighty-six-year stretch of failure to win a World Series in particular) as for any successes.  Beginning in the 2000s a new management regime made the decision to turn away from trying to compete dollar-for-dollar with high-spending franchises such as the New York Yankees, instead focusing on developing young talent through their minor-league system and supplementing that talent with judicious spending on free agents and trade acquisitions.  In particular, the Red Sox also emphasized the development and acquisition of pitching talent, on the principle of scarcity; it was then harder to find good pitching than good hitting.

After some notable heart-breaking setbacks (the 2003 playoffs in particular), this new regime was rewarded in 2004.  The Red Sox avenged their loss to the Yankees in the 2003 playoffs with an unprecedented comeback in the American League Championship Series, winning four straight potential elimination games to get to the World Series, where they swept the St. Louis Cardinals to break that long championship drought.  Three years later, they pushed through to win a second World Series title against the Colorado Rockies.

Even by 2007, though, things were starting to change, just a little bit.  The emphasis on pitching and developing from within remained in place, but here and there an exception to their core principles happened.  A long-term and relatively expensive contract for outfielder J.D. Drew, which could at best be said to have given mediocre returns, provided a measure of vexation for Sox followers.  After 2007, though, for whatever reason (pressure to keep winning, pressure to keep up with the free-spending Yankees, pressure to keep the manic Boston sports media at bay, pressure, pressure, pressure), developing young talent and fostering pitching (and foregoing those crazy long expensive contracts) fell by the wayside.  Beckett, a trade acquisition, was handed a multi-million dollar extension after playing a big role in that 2007 championship.  Pitcher John Lackey was signed to a big contract mostly on the strength of his role in the Angels' championship in 2002.  Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matzusaka was acquired in one of those complex international transactions in which the Sox first had to pay over $50,000,000 just for the right to negotiate with Matzusaka, who they then signed to a multi-year, multi-millions deal.  Crawford, formerly of my Tampa Bay Rays, was signed to a crazy contract upon his free agent departure from St. Petersburg, and Gonzalez got a big contract extension after being acquired in a trade with the San Diego Padres, one in which the Sox gave up three major young prospects.

Individually, aside from possibly the Lackey and Matzusaka deals, it's hard to say any of them were completely wrong-headed.  Beckett, hero of the Florida Marlins 2003 World Series win, had been the major force in Boston's 2007 championship.  Crawford was easily regarded as the most talented player in his free-agent class, and nobody doubted Gonzalez's ability when he was acquired.  The trouble is, when you sink that much money into a player and for some reason that player doesn't live up to the contract, your options for remedying the situation are severely limited.  Lackey pitched rather poorly with the Sox, and his attitude went south, and finally he was injured to the point of missing this whole season.  Matzusaka, despite some successes, never completely adjusted to the differences between pro ball here and Japan, and was eventually injured himself.   Beckett has been inconsistent since his new deal, alternating good and bad years.  Crawford, sadly, got off to a poor start in 2011, lost his nerve (it's a very different thing playing in unhealthily obsessed Boston vs. Tampa-St. Pete, where barely anyone knows they have a team) and pressured himself into a deeper hole, and finally ended up injured as well.

Meanwhile, instead of fostering young talent, the Sox gave it away, and some of it is flourishing elsewhere.  Anthony Rizzo is establishing himself with the Chicago Cubs (who picked him up in a prospect trade with San Diego), and Josh Reddick, traded to the Oakland Athletics for a relief pitcher, is having a breakout year, for just two examples.  Suddenly the Red Sox, far from being the pitching-youth-payroll flexibility franchise their core principles had espoused (and that had developed and prudently spent their way to two World Series wins), were increasingly old, broken-down, and dysfunctional.  A collapse for the ages last September has been followed with a broken season in 2012, leading to this weekend's epic tradeoff of talent.

Put bluntly, if you can't find some parallels here for American Protestantism, I'm not sure you're paying attention.  Churches nowadays find themselves shrinking both in numbers and influence.  Now I've railed against numbers as a measuring stick for the church in too many blog entries to link, and I've argued that the church's cultural influence in this country came at a cost we haven't fully reckoned.  What I find increasingly evident is that the church is in many cases guilty of reacting rather like the post-2007 Sox; throw money at the problem (fancy new buildings, sophisticated media facilities, professionalized musical outfits -- be they slick praise bands or virtually professional choirs, superstar preachers?), try desperately to keep up with the Yankees (the culture against which we often see ourselves as being in competition) on their terms (accumulating wealth or "star power," gathering and wielding political influence -- rather like a club, all too often -- or making worship virtually indistinguishable from entertainment?), and losing sight of our core principles.

I found it interesting that one of the first analyses of the Red Sox trade referred to the franchise's "first principles" in arguing that the deal marks a return to those core tenets of youth-pitching-flexibility.  That phrase "first principles" is an interesting one itself, finding currency from mathematics to philosophy to economics to politics to a whole lot of other fields of endeavor, apparently even running a baseball team.

When, at last, we find ourselves aging, dysfunctional (I need only look at my own denomination for this, whether past or present), and sliding into cultural irrelevance despite our best efforts, maybe we finally start looking around for our core, our "first principles" as a means of pulling ourselves together.  Only, we are forced to wonder, what are our first principles?  What is our core?  What is the point of the church's existence?  Your church might have a mission statement, but does that church's statement really reflect what it believes is the core of its existence?  Or does its organization, its activity, or its basic behavior betray that its true core lies elsewhere?

On one level, it had better be easy to identify what -- or perhaps Who -- represents the church's first principles.  If at some point the church cannot break down its basic identity, its rationale, its very reason for existence to Jesus Christ, we've severely lost our way.  Trouble is, though, Christ is awfully easy to reinvent for our modern purposes.  Jesus as CEO? Done.  Jesus as guru provokes too many possibilities to link.  Jesus as warrior?  Go poke around Revelation (and maybe Paul or pseudo-Paul) and ignore those pesky gospels and you're home free. Jesus Christ Superstar? Sorry, couldn't resist. Jesus as Republican (or Democrat)? Easy pickings.  It's a sad game with a long history in the church: emphasize this scripture passage here, ignore that one over there, read this one a particular way, and voila! Jesus as, basically, you writ large.  Here's a helpful hint: if your concept of Jesus doesn't include at least one thing that offends you or ticks you off, you're probably missing something.

So this is what a church faces, when there's finally nothing left to do but go back to the basics.  What is our core, our reason for existing, our sine qua non?  What, or Who?  And how do we as a church live that out?  And how much are we willing to give up to recover that?  If the answer to that last question is not "everything," then ... what are we doing?

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