Just to let you know upfront: This begins with a story about baseball, but it’s not a baseball story. Then again, baseball can teach us so much about life. There wouldn’t be anything wrong if it was a baseball story, right?
Honestly, this is more about Easter than anything else. Bottom line: It’s all about salvation.
In 1998, I was a baseball writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. They were interesting times for baseball in America in general and St. Louis in particular. Only four years earlier the baseball season ended so early because of a players’ strike that there wasn’t even a World Series, the first time that had happened in 90 years. The game had lost many fans because of that, and a lot of them hadn’t returned yet to big-league ballparks.
The St. Louis Cardinals were in a postseason drought – they hadn’t been to a World Series since 1987 and hadn’t won one since 1982. Tony La Russa, who in the midst of a Hall of Fame career, was charged with changing that string of disappointment for Cardinals fans after having been named the team’s manager in 1996.
I remember during that ’96 season asking La Russa (who only had managed in the American League until then) which AL player National League fans, such as those in St. Louis, most missed out on seeing. He mentioned a few names but had no trouble lauding the talents of slugging first baseman Mark McGwire, who had made a habit of belting long home runs for La Russa when they were together with the Oakland Athletics. It was clear La Russa hoped to manage McGwire again, and that came to pass in 1997 when the Cardinals obtained him in a trade.
In the winter of 1997-’98, I spent some time talking with my boss about McGwire – already known simply as “Big Mac” throughout St. Louis. We decided that there was a good chance he could hit at least 62 home runs that coming season. Roger Maris had set the single-season record with 61 homers for the 1962 New York Yankees. McGwire had hit 34 with the Athletics and 24 with the Cardinals in 1997 for a total of 58 for the full season.
My boss decided to put me on the “McGwire beat” right from the beginning of the season – starting with spring training. I sat down with Mac for a 45-minute interview in March and spent much of that time discussing the home run record. Little did we know that would be all either of us would talk about for most of the next six months.
McGwire hit Home Run No. 61 to tie the record Sept. 7. He belted record-breaking No. 62 the next day.
It was all sports fans could talk about all summer. Did McGwire hit a home run last night? What made that season even more fun was that Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs – the Cardinals’ arch-rivals – also was on a record home run pace, and they dueled toward the record. McGwire got there first, but Sosa stayed on his heels. Both players put on impressive shows even when the games weren’t going on. Fans showed up hours before the first pitch in order to watch their batting practice, especially McGwire’s BP, as he would hit more than a dozen balls inhumanly high and deep into the ballpark.
At season’s end, McGwire had 70 home runs to set a new single-season standard. Fans who had sworn they never would return to a baseball stadium had started following the game again and buying tickets, in part because McGwire and Sosa staged such a prolific, entertaining and even friendly battle.
On the final day of the season, Sept. 27, Mac hit his final two home runs. Everyone was giddy about what they had witnessed. It was time to reflect a little.
So after talking with McGwire – along with all the other reporters — I went to Cardinals catcher Tom Lampkin. One of McGwire’s closer friends and a frequent dinner partner when they were on the road, Lampkin was a particularly articulate and bright man who loved doing especially challenging crossword puzzles. I asked him for one word that would describe what we had witnessed from McGwire that summer. He thought for a while. “Salvific,” Lampkin finally said.
Indeed, it appeared Mac had saved baseball.
Unfortunately, we know what happened in the ensuing years. Accusations surfaced of McGwire using steroids – performance-enhancing drugs – during his baseball career; not illegal but wrong. He testified before Congress and didn’t deny the steroid use, instead saying he didn’t want to talk about the past. In time, he confessed the PED usage.
Everything Mac had done during his time with the Cardinals was tainted – the home run records, the excitement, the batting practice . . . the salvation.
I felt fooled and foolish. I liked Mark. I still do. I think he was a good man who made some really bad decisions. I’m sure he regrets them. He never asked to be the “savior of baseball.” Neither did Sammy Sosa, who also has been linked to steroids.
That’s what happens when man puts his trust in man.
I thought about that on Easter Sunday. Jesus was a man. A lot of people had put their trust in him. Imagine their disappointment on Good Friday when all of the promise they had found in Jesus seemed to disappear on a cross. He let them down. They thought he might save their people from the Romans, or the poor from the privileged, the sinners from the Pharisees. And there he was – defeated, for all the world to see. A failure. Done. No salvation after all.
The problem was their perspective. They thought they had put their trust in a man. But this man was unlike any other man. He was the Christ, the Son of God, the Chosen One, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords and Prince of Peace.
Man always will disappoint. Always. Because for man it ends on the cross on Good Friday, with mistakes and bad judgment and sin and death.
But God, that’s a whole different story. God always has a purpose beyond our imagination and understanding. Jesus, God made flesh, has an empty tomb, hope, new life. Jesus has Easter.
If we can learn a lesson from that, it should be that our mistake comes when we put our trust in the wrong place. I still respect Mark McGwire, his talent and the fact that he basically is a good person. I believe that.
But true salvation only comes from putting our trust in the resurrected Jesus.