I thought I would diverge from my musings on rights and freedoms for a moment to reflect on something a little less heady. I have been a fan of the Atlanta Braves since Dale Murphy’s hey-day in the early 80s. If you are around my age and grew up in the Atlanta area you no doubt share memories of the Braves’ brief flirtation with success in Murphy’s two MVP seasons, the disheartening string of last to near last place finishes for the rest of the 80’s, and the ecstatic leap from worst to first place and subsequent World Series appearance in 1991, which began an unprecedented streak of 14 consecutive division titles.
With Bobby Cox’s impending retirement, this season represents the end of an era in Braves baseball. In his 20-year tenure as the Braves manager, Bobby has become an Atlanta sports icon and the most successful manager or head coach of any Atlanta sports franchise. His retirement, though, means more to baseball than just the interests of the Braves. As Roy Johnson, writing for espn.com, observes, “He might be the last of a breed. Managers who last almost a lifetime in one gig are all but extinct, not just in baseball but in all of today’s fire-first, think-later sports culture.” Even with his stunning streak of 14 straight division titles, he would likely have been fired by other teams for not winning enough World Series during that run (only one in 1995), or for not making the playoffs the last four seasons. Yet the Braves ownership has stuck by him and he has remained equally loyal, committed both to the success of the franchise over the long-term and to the well-being of his players.
This “fire-first, think-later sports culture,” which affects managers and players alike and is also manifested in how regularly players change teams via free agency, is emblematic of our culture in general. There are two major philosophical movements that dominate our culture today – pragmatism and existentialism. Pragmatism defines truth not by harmony with sound principle but by what works. It can be summarized in the belief, “the ends justify the means.” Pragmatism is concerned about achieving desired ends no matter what it takes to attain them, and it leads to a mindset of basing decisions on considerations of short-term gain. Existentialism teaches that the purpose of human existence is to maximize happiness or pleasure in the moment without regards for long-term consequences. This way of thinking pervades not only sports, but business, politics, and even churches. Politicians, organizations, and institutions are evaluate solely on the basis of short-term effectiveness in achieving certain outcomes, not by character or by faithful adherence to well-established rational principles.
Ironically, this same mindset that leads to managers and players always coming and going in sports also leads to rash decisions to sign coaches who experience dramatic short-term success to lucrative long-term contracts only to regret it a few short years later. The recent examples of Charlie Weiss of Notre Dame football and Paul Hewitt of Georgia Tech basketball come to mind.
Sports at its very best should help us understand better the meaning of life and inspire us to virtue and good deeds by celebrating these in our sports heroes. While I do not know where Mr. Cox’s religious loyalties lie, I do agree with Johnson’s claim that Cox’s “tenure with the Braves is a lesson in the value of loyalty and dependability,” and lament the weakening of these values in our sports culture and culture-at-large. And I would add to his analysis that such values are only consistent with a worldview that sees at the center of reality an infinite, personal God who is faithful to His people, whose commitment to them is unshakable, and who is trustworthy throughout every change of season. This God calls us to mirror Him in our faithfulness to one another in marriage, friendship, parenting, the workplace; indeed in all walks of life.