Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Getting On Base


I re-watched MoneyBall the other night. It's based on a true story of a former ball player-turned-MLB scout and General Manager of the Oakland A's, Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt), who attempts to rebuild the "runt of the litter" A's on a limited budget. He recognizes major league baseball is an "unfair game" where there are rich teams and poor teams, and they are the poorest of the poor. 

Billy knows it's either business as usual of managing the decline and keeping things status quo, or "thinking differently" with an unconventional approach. He takes a chance on Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill), a young statistician with a degree in Economics from Yale and pilfers him from the unappreciative Cleveland Indians so he can run numbers for him. "Baseball thinking is medieval," Brand tells Billy, "They are asking all the wrong questions. And if I say it to anyone, I'm ostracized, I'm a leper." It takes a lot of calculated risk on Billy's part, putting his faith in a different way of doing things (statistical analysis) and in Pete himself. If Billy fails, he fails big and can be easily written off with his "little experiment." But in reality, he has little to lose...because they are losing already.

You can see this "medieval thinking" in a great scene with Billy in the board room with all the scouts trying to replace three of their top players. As his managers go around the table trading their insights about players and potential, Billy knows nothing is going to change because his old-school colleagues are acting as if it's business as usual. In fact, they don't even see the problem.

"You guys are just talking. Talking. Lalalala. Like this is business as usual. It's not."

"We're trying to solve the problem, Billy."

"Not like this you're not. You're not even looking at the problem."

"Okay, what's the problem?"

"Look Billy, we all understand what the problem is, we..."

"Okay, good. What's the problem?"

"The problem is we have to replace three key players in our lineup..."

"Nope. What's the problem?" 

"Same as it's ever been. We've got to replace with what we have existing...."

"Nope. What's the problem?"

"We need 38 home runs, 120 RBIs, and...."

"Wrong. The problem we are trying to solve is there are rich teams and there are poor teams. Then there's 50 feet of crap. And then there's us. It's an unfair game. And now we've been gutted, organ donors for the rich. Boston's taken our kidneys, Yankee's taken our heart, and you guys are sitting around talking the same old good body nonsense like we're selling jeans, like we're looking for Fabio. We've got to think differently." 

Billy sees the potential to rebuild in "cheap players;" that is, undervalued players with various defects who have been passed over by everyone else who nevertheless have potential to do one thing: Get on base. He doesn't care if they are walked or whatever; their on-base percentage is all that matters to him. Getting on base eventually translates to runs, which means wins...and Billy wants to win, not just manage a mediocre decline to maintain the status quo. 

He meets resistance from his managers, scouts, and team at every turn, and for a while their initial losing streak seems to prove the inevitable: that the experiment has failed. But Billy sticks to his plan while he's "taking it in the teeth" from everyone, and little by little, base by base, things start to turn around. It's a big gamble...but it pays off in the end, and fundamentally changed the game of baseball.

In a way, the Church--from the individual parish to the KOC to the Bishops themselves--is like those old guys in the board room: they might recognize but can't answer the question "what's the problem?", and when they try to, they use the same line of thinking that worked fifty years ago.

The Church today is like the Oakland A's in MoneyBall. There have been a few players willing to "try something new." One is Church of the Nativity in Timoninum, Maryland, where the pastor there took a playbook from Rick Warren and attempted to overlay what worked with Protestant pastoral initiatives on a Catholic framework. Whether that is appropriate or not to do is up for debate. My family and I were curious about it a number of years ago after reading the book Rebuilt, which details the parish's transformation. It was kind of a Protestant-Catholic fusion which was unconventional to say the least. It was a novel "success" in the sense of bringing more people into an otherwise dying parish in an bold manner, and I at least give the pastor and his team credit for at least doing something beyond "business as usual." 

We see the Holy Father taking initiatives to "make a mess" of things. We see a Synod on Synodality trying to democratize the Church. We see the Knights re-doing their regalia. All in the hopes of "bringing people in." 

I'm just a guy on the ground. But I have to be honest, I think they are are not seeing the problem in it's entirety, because they are not asking the right questions. And if they are, we must admit, many are not willing to break out of the mold to address it because "business as usual" is not working--but anything else is simply too risky to "how we have always done things." And so it is Band-Aids on a nicked aorta. 

So, what is the problem? 

Is it we don't have enough parish programs? That we need more youth ministry?

Nope. What's the problem?

Is it the laity need more of a voice? More participation of women? 

Nope. What's the problem?

Is it culture? That we need to "get with the times" and be more inclusive?

Nope. What's the problem?

Is it that people are leaving Catholicism for Orthodoxy, or their local mega church? Are we not hardcore enough? Not welcoming enough?

Nope. What's the problem?

What's the problem?

What. Is. The. Problem.

We're asking the wrong questions, and I believe the problem is we have lost faith. We have lost faith in the Church, Her apostles, and the hierarchy. We have lost faith in the supernatural, in grace, in miracles. We have lost faith in the ability to transform the culture, because we are losing the battle for culture. 

But here's the thing--we have everything we need; the solution to "the problem" is right under our noses. 

We have the Truth. We have the promises of Christ to never abandon his Church. We know how the story ends, that He conquered death by death. We have the power of the sacraments, and the example of the saints--who were the moneyballers throughout history, who thought differently and were willing to suffer and labor and be ostracized because of their unfailing faith in the promises of the savior (Lk 9:1-25). 

Our Lord sent the disciples out one by one to "get on base." He didn't discount Saul because he was persecuting the Church, but chose him as His appointed messenger (Acts 9:1-25). We can see Paul opposing Peter's reticence to eat with the uncircumcised (Gal 2:11-14), which was a radical departure from everything Peter ever knew. But the New Covenant does not work while still holding on to the Old, for no one puts new wine in old wineskins (Lk 5:37). For the Lord Christ is "doing a new thing" (Is 43:19).

In order to get base runs, we need to do the hard, risky work of thinking differently. We can't be saying to ourselves, "I'm a good Catholic," or "I go to Mass on Sundays," or "I write checks and volunteer at my local parish." These are all good things, but they are the wrong questions. The question we should be asking is, "Why am I not a saint? Why am I not trusting the Lord when he promises we will work miracles in his name?" (Lk 10:9). 

We do not think big because we do not have faith. And even if we have faith, we must be willing to go out into the vineyard and do the work. Otherwise we become like the brother who says to the father  "I will go" and does not (Mt 21:28-32).

At the end of MoneyBall, Billy is recruited to be the new General Manager of the Boston Redsox, because their owner believes in what Beane is doing and that the "business as usual" dinosaur of MLB thinking needs to change. While tempted, Billy ultimately declines the $12.5M offer (and the chance to become the highest paid GM in history), and stays with the A's. The Sox ultimately go on to win big that season using Billy's "Moneyball" approach, but Billy has no regrets. He has already won the ultimate game. But he didn't get there with a "business as usual" approach.

We can often feel like we're on a losing team remaining in the Church. We are a laughing stock to the world, and the hierarchy is full of hypocrisy and cronyism. We are hemorrhaging believers from the pew, and our priests are aging out. We might be tempted towards Eastern Orthodoxy, or non-demoninationalism, or atheism, or something altogether. For those who remain, it can sometimes feel like the band of misfit players on the Oakland A's. But as the story ends, those players know the wins are in them; they just need someone to inspire them to dig deep and find them.

Wars are won battle by battle. And as any general knows, you have to think differently to win. Runs are scored base by base. It doesn't matter if you get on base by a walk or a home run. We need to start thinking differently as Catholics--we need to do the work of becoming saints not to be an all-star, but because by doing so we inspire our teammates to greatness, to be their best selves--who God made them to be. Some are pitchers, some are catchers, some play left-field. Some are lefties, some are righties. But we get to Heaven together as Catholics--every player matters.

As a Church, we need to get on base. We need to take the risk of looking like fools, of getting out of our comfort zones, of believing with everything we have, and of sacrificing for those who are lost. We get on base, we score runs. We score runs, we win. Maybe not in the eyes of the world, but we're not playing for them. We must think big, not mediocre. We are competing for the crown which never fades.  And we must run our race to win (1 Cor 9:24). 


  1. This is excellent

    Jesus did the math when choosing the 12, didn't He?

    One of the local mega churches has tons of sports leagues. Maybe our local Catholic parishes should each have a softball or kickball team to drive this philosophy home?

  2. Agree! Probably the best thing you’ve done, at least since I started reading, has been to take the risks you speak of. Your transparency has shed light on the hidden and exposed sins we run from. Maybe instead of more sports or planning teams we could have healing and deliverance teams form. The saints in the pews have that formula and are doing the heavy lifting of their souls. Thanks