The Bethlehem Nine

December 24, 2012

Any reader of this page quickly learns of my reverence for baseball.  The regular reader may also discern my reverence for Holy Scripture, and perhaps even comprehend my fervent belief that these two interests are divinely connected.  We’ve all heard the old joke that baseball existed even before this world, because the Bible begins with the statement that “in the big inning, God created the heavens and the earth.”  What bigger inning could there be than the one where the earth’s ground was first cultivated into a park of green grass and the high blue sky set over it to cause fielders all kinds of fits on sunny days?  Perhaps you will accept this interpretation of Genesis 1:1, or perhaps not, but in this Advent season I hope that the suggestion at least makes you think about the relationship between sport’s greatest game and life’s greatest mystery.

I have been studying this year’s Hot Stove moves by all 30 MLB teams as they try to make themselves into winners, either on the field or at least at the box office.  As the pace of free agent signings increases, I am reminded of last year and how obtaining even the most prized player of a generation does not guarantee a spot in the playoffs, much less a World Series title. Baseball is still a team game and every championship team has an excellent ensemble cast, no matter how large the contributions of certain individuals may be.

Because I was already considering a B.A.B.E.S. Christmas greeting, and because I often think of my faith in baseball terms, I began to consider the Christmas Story as a General Manager might. While it is clearly the story of one superstar figure, the great victory that is represented by the Nativity Scene actually includes many essential supporting players that became stars themselves. Evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of all these players, in very short order I had filled all the positions on the diamond and “The Bethlehem Nine” was born.  The name may not be as catchy as the Bronx Bombers or Big Red Machine, or even the Mudville Nine, but if I was a GM in the celestial league I’d really like my chances with this line-up.  The idea may be a bit over-the-top, even for me, but it’s Christmas Eve, so as a Christmas gift to me please  consider the following player evaluations in the Spirit of the Season in which they are offered.

Building the Bethlehem Nine (there was no DH in God’s plan):

Every winning club starts with a strong battery.  The B-9er’s were totally set there:

Starting Pitcher –  Holy Spirit:   Often referred to as the third-person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is actually the staff ace that all coaches dream about.  A No. 1 starter able to throw smoke (with a wind-up and delivery as pure as a dove), HS is also blessed with a devastating off-speed pitch that would upset the timing of even the most devilish hitter.  (I always smirk at a commentator’s frequent use of the word “devastating,” but the 3rd Webster’s definition – “to overwhelm” – certainly seems to apply here.)   We all marvel at Cy Young’s 517 victories, or Nolan Ryan’s 27 seasons and 5,714 strike-outs, but even those lofty numbers are nothing when compared to a pitcher who is said to have hovered over the field even before the first mound was formed.

Catcher – Joseph:  He looked like the classic lug toiling away in the tools of ignorance (sure, Mary’s innocent….), but Joseph surprised everyone by his ability to adapt and handle even this epic curve ball from the Holy Spirit.  (He’s one pitcher who calls all His own pitches.)  Joseph, of course, always preferred the straight ball, but learned to trust his pitching coach and go with whatever the staff ace decided to throw his way.  He thus proved to be an example for many backstops to come.  What other source could Yogi have had for this bit of wisdom? “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

In addition to a stellar battery, we all know how important it is for a baseball club to be strong up the middle. No problem there for this team from the House of Bread (the meaning of the name “Bethlehem”):

Shortstop – Angel Gabriel:  Every great club has a shortstop who serves as the team captain, controlling play on the field and keeping everyone positive off the field.  What better fielder could you find than one slick enough to appear magically in a house unfettered by space and time? And what better voice in the clubhouse than one able to greet the team’s new high-priced free agent with:  “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

Second Base – John the Baptist:  The second sacker always plays “second banana” to a star shortstop, but the middle-cog in a double-play combo is very important, especially one who as a veteran player graciously yielded the spotlight to a new star. (“I must decrease and He must increase.”)  Of course, despite his modesty, JtB also talked some serious trash with his rivals (“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”).  I bet no one tried to take him out with a rough slide at 2d!

Centerfield – Heavenly Host:  Even in the band-box park that is Bethlehem, you would still need a centerfielder who can cover ground and direct the corner outfielders authoritatively.  The perfect example is the anonymous angel calling out to the shepherds exactly what is happening, where they should go and even what signs to look for in the later innings. For at least one momentous night, there were in fact angels in the outfield.

In addition to needing the critical positions covered, every championship team must have strong role players.  Once again, the Bethlehem Nine filled its needs perfectly:

Right and Left field – Shepherds:  Please forgive the stereotype, but who else did you expect to find in the corner outfield positions?  These guys patiently watched over their field in isolation, but then skillfully sprang into action when the ball miraculously came their way – and they didn’t lose it in the Light!  Making even the difficult play look routine, they joyfully returned to their positions “glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them.”  Oh, that all players were so coachable and ego-free.

1st and 3rd base – Wisemen:  (I know what you’re thinking – that there were 3 wisemen, not 2. But in fact the text only uses the plural term “magi” and does not designate how many there were, just that there was more than one.)  Conventional wisdom says that a team must have big production from the power corners, although these are not usually considered “role” players.  But in fact, it is simply their role to put up the big offensive numbers which most have in the past and for which they are now likely the highest paid players on the team.  No wonder they are expected to carry the team to victory against even the toughest opponents.  These wisemen from the East (Ichiro? Matsui?) not only brought 5-tool gifts with them, they also foiled nasty King Herod’s attempt to ruin the team, first with a luxury tax and then with a plan to kill all the prospects in the farm system.   Through the ages, baseball has survived the actions of any number of evil doers who would abuse the game and its players for personal gain.  Someday we will all know the truth that it is more blessed to give than receive. (Not to mention, “love your neighbors.” I adhered to my Advent pledge of earlier this month and did not make the obvious connection between Satan and NYY.)

And that’s my starting 9 for the expansion team in Bethlehem.  But of course a winning baseball club consists of more than just the starting nine.  You need a good utility player, a clutch pinch-hitter and a lights-out bullpen.  The Billy Beane of Bethlehem had those needs covered, too.

Utility/pinch-hitter – Simeon and Anna:   It seems every World Series Champion has a journeyman player who has been around for years (Edgar Renteria), and/or an aging superstar trying to prove he still is an elite player (Lance Berkman), and each finally gets to shine in the clutch moments of the post-season action.  So we see in Simeon and Anna who while notable in their own areas for years of faithful service were not really considered important until given the opportunity to star in the Christmas Story’s victory tradition -the presentation of the Christ child for circumcision. Perfect! And perfect timing!

Set up man – Mary:  Although most people believe the structured use of the bullpen is a creation of modern baseball, there is at least one historic example of note.  Even the best starter takes an early exit sometimes; and even the greatest closer doesn’t always want to get a 6 out (or more!) save.  You need a dependable bridge that keeps you in the game who, while not the star of the team, nevertheless makes victory possible.   Why do you think a good set-up man (or, in this case – woman), can always find a team and stay in the league year after year after year?  Mary played her part faithfully and completed a long career, and for that she deserves our lasting praise, if not a life-time contract.

Closer -The Christ Child – Well, no surprise here, although I took my time making the call. He’s the one everyone is expecting to see when the game is on the line, the one against whom the opponent has “no chance.” (Think Jon Kruk against Randy Johnson in the 1993 All-Star Game.  A blasphemous comparison, perhaps, but that scene is instructive.  The Scriptures never give any physical description of Jesus, and for one at-bat at least the most powerful force in the Universe could be represented by a 6’10” lefthander with a snarling face.  Just as scary an image as a rider on a white horse with a sword in His mouth, and a telling contrast to the babe in a manger.)  As with some of the lesser great closers, the process of getting the last out may not be what you really expected, or even hoped for, but nevertheless the ending remains certain.  “Game Over” for the black hats.  “The Light shone in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

So there you have it – my best explanation of how baseball is a template for understanding anything, even the incarnation of the Great Commissioner.  I’m sure this is clearer in my mind than yours, and probably much more interesting to me than you.  But, again, I hope you find the suggestion is interesting and that perhaps it will even add a bit of cheer to your off-season.

MERRY CHRISTMAS.

(JSR) © 2012

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