Reflections from a Lost Red Sox Season

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My beloved Boston Red Sox have been officially out of the major league baseball playoffs for a few days, but actually out of it for over a month. This has been a real bummer to my son, Matthew, and me. We are especially bummed since our favorite dirtdog of a player, Trot Nixon, is sure to leave the Sox via free agency. It looks like the Phillips household will be playing the 2004 playoff DVD this year instead of watching the real thing. But as always, there are lessons to be learned.

Perhaps the number 1 lesson is that sometimes things just don’t work. The Sox were going gang-busters up until August, and then the wheels fell completely off. Red Sox Nation has mainly blamed this on a mind-boggling string of injuries, but this is both ignoble and inaccurate (well, the string of injuries was mind-boggling). The Sox fell apart a) because they are both too old and too young – that is, their veterans physically wore down and their younger generation is largely composed of rookies who weren’t ready to step up; b) because their all-world, sure-fire 1st ballot hall of fame hitter (aka Manny Ramirez) completely quit on the team; and c) because the stats driven front office failed to appreciate the value of team character. When Trot Nixon and Jason Varitek, the two real leaders (both Christians), went down for their annual late-season injuries, it was over. The team simply lacked the character to rebound from the horrendous 5-game sweep at Fenway by the Bronx Bombers (a defeat of eschatological proportions in our home).

How is this relevant to pastoral leaders? Let me suggest a few lessons:

1. Beware of radical changes made in order to follow the hottest new theory (in this case, Money Ball baseball statistical analysis). Theo Epstein, Boston’s general manager, replaced almost the entire Red Sox lineup that won the World Series just two years ago. Every single move was at least defensible from a statistical standpoint (Pedro Martinez, Johnny Damon, Bill Mueller, Orlando Cabrera, Dave Roberts, Derek Lowe, Kevin Millar, and Bronson Arroyo – what a bunch of players!). But the aggregate loss has been staggering. When you have a winning culture and the right things are happening to produce success, don’t throw it all out because of some new approach you learned about at a pastor’s conference.

2. Character matters more than competence, especially in team endeavors. Why? One reason is that you will endure tough times and suffer painful losses. You will get knocked down. Then everything will be tested, and without character no amount of individual competence will really matter. For more on this, read David Halberstam’s excellent book on Bill Belichick, The Education of a Coach.

3. People in positions of leadership must lead, or the entire team gets infected with complacency. Here, I refer to Manny Ramirez’s phantom knee-injury and annual trade demand, which crushed the esprit of the Sox. “But Manny never said he was a leader,” you object. Yes, but when you have a lifetime OPS over a thousand, when you bat fourth on the Red Sox, and when you make $20 million a year, you could at least show up at the ballpark. The absence of Manny’s bat during the losing streak of August was even more of a moral blow than a blow to the team’s run production. Terry Francona (the manager) should have threatened to resign in protest before he sacrificed his integrity as a leader of men by coddling Manny the way he has (at least publicly). If Manny is still on the Red Sox next year, it will only prove that the Sox have no understanding of human nature. (It’s this bad – Matthew and I are actually hoping for a Manny for A Rod swap with “the team that shall not be mentioned”). Whenever those at or near the top of a team abdicate their commitment to leadership, that team always becomes susceptible to failure under stress.

4. I have been reminded that humility is a multi-faceted virtue. How grateful I am that I did not rub Phil Ryken’s nose in the dirt when the Sox swept -- swept, mind you -- the Cardinals in the 2004 World Series (despite his incessant boasting about the 1967 series, which took place before he had even learned to speak and therefore doesn’t count as a sports event in his lifetime). Nor did I mention the words “Albert Pujols” and “steroids” during his visit to South Florida this weekend. Okay, I did play the great 1988 Redskins victory over Phil’s beloved Bears on my VCR every time Phil came to my house for a year or so, timing it so that Darrell Green’s game-breaking punt return came on moments after Phil’s entry – but I have grown spiritually since then. I’m just glad I conducted myself with such humble dignity after the 2004 Red Sox championship, so that now I am immune to ribbing over this year’s Sox.

5. Lastly, there’s always next season – at least till death or Jesus comes. We still have David Ortiz, Curt Schilling, and Jonathan Papelbon (and a projected $150 payroll for next year). And, far better than these, every church always has the gospel of Jesus, the mighty Word of God, the power of the Holy Spirit, and innumerable other blessings. Therefore, though we should stumble or the world should knock us down, we always have reason to get up and get back at ’em.

Posted September 26, 2006 @ 11:05 AM by Rick Phillips
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