By James Wilson
Bruce Bochy is one of the most successful managers in major league baseball history. He arrived at his true destiny along the roadway of being one of her less spectacular players. A back-up catcher for the San Diego Padres during much of his career he batted below .250 and showed no spectacular skill behind the plate. Set free to manage upon his retirement he has so far won nearly eighteen hundred games and taken his teams to four world championships. He has managed two teams and taken both from loser to winner in his first season at the helm. He knows well the difference between the pursuits of excellence and perfection.
In pursuing perfection a person devotes all efforts to the pinnacle of one dimension of personhood, i.e. professional achievement. In honoring excellence persons seek the best of all the facets of their personalities with – typically – central focus on the reality we are creations-in-progress of a loving God. Bruce Bochy is no exception.
Bochy is not the only faith-based seeker of excellence on his team. Jeremy Affeldt, now retired, was one of the heroes of the Giants’ 2014 march to a third world championship on Bochy’s watch. In addition to pursuing excellence on the field, Affeldt is a crusader in the fight against child poverty and writes a weekly blog witnessing his faith. Jake Peavy, another championship pitcher, gives frequent interviews extolling His Lord as the source of whatever he has gained. Other faith-filled players include all-stars like catcher Buster Posey, outfielder Angel Pagan, and pitchers Sergio Romo and Madison Bumgarner. Together they project an atmosphere more geared to excellence than mere perfection and it shows in every dimension of their personalities. They do not preach; they just live their faith.
So what’s wrong with pursuing perfection? It’s not wrong so much as it is deficient. Bochy managed the San Diego Padres into four playoff seasons and one national league pennant in the twelve seasons of his tenure. Dick Williams, the only other Padres skipper to bring home the pennant, got them to the playoffs once in the four seasons of his leadership. Bochy’s strategy for dealing with dysfunction in the clubhouse is to invite the team to his home for a barbecue. Williams was famous for refusing to speak to players who displeased him. Bochy is no pushover, but he does recognize each player as a person and he seeks to manage and develop the fullness of the person living inside each of his players. He drew the best from his players across the board and the fruit is evident. Williams knew baseball like few others, yet after one glorious season with the chronically troubled club it all fell apart and Williams was shown the door.
Excellence and perfection are not necessarily coterminous; if they were Bochy’s teams would win the World Series every year. But perfection can only be achieved when it is there to be had. Excellence is within reach of anyone and nets far greater fruit. A Dick Williams will get the best baseball his players can give but will never achieve what they do not already have. A Bruce Bochy will get the best person his players can become and that will net more and better baseball alongside every other aspect of personality – better than what they had to begin with. The only catch is that a pursuer of perfection goes after what he wants to be; a seeker of excellence must ask who he is called and created to become.
Okay, but why insist pursuit of excellence is limited to people of Christian faith?
I insist on no such thing. Theoretically anyone with a brain can see a bigger picture than a player’s stats reveals. The point is well made in the baseball movie, Trouble With The Curve, when the aging baseball scout portrayed by Clint Eastwood arranges for a slumping hitter to visit with his parents. With his morale problem solved the player begins to perform, and the scout gives no indication his insight might be the product of faith. But truth is truth and it is true we do not create ourselves. Any insight that makes a better person is logically the result of revelation from the Creator – Who else knows us inside and out?
My own favorite ball player of all time is the late Tony Gwynn. Although not a Christian until late in his life, Gwynn pursued excellence throughout that life. When pressured to hit for more power he laughingly replied that he knew who he was – a contact hitter. He accepted mentoring from Ted Williams, but this enabled him to hit to all fields. A poor fielder when he made All American at university, he refused to pigeon-hole himself as a hitter only. He worked on fielding skills until he earned his first Gold Glove award in 1986. A fifteen-time all-star he was never selected as his league’s most valuable player. He laughed that off too, saying MVP voters loved the home run; he was somebody else and content to be that person.
Exposed to dugout racism, he showed class, even coming to the aid of one who bullied him when the latter went bankrupt some years later. He remained with the San Diego Padres his entire career – a rarity in modern times – making a good deal less money but providing stability for his family in the community in which they were born and raised. His batting average of .394 in 1994 was the highest for a national leaguer since 1930 and the closest anyone has come to the magical .400 since Williams did it in 1941. Was he a gifted hitter? Absolutely, but the work habits he learned from his father made him much better. Was he a man who chose to enjoy life and give to others, never expecting the bowing and scraping so often associated with sports icons? He most certainly was, becoming a mentor to others during his playing career and even moreso as head coach of the San Diego State Aztecs – his alma mater – later.
And, oh yes, the man who always professed to know it was grace that landed him a starting baseball role at university finally gave his heart to Jesus Christ not long before his death. In his lifelong pursuit of excellence Tony Gwynn simply took the logical next step toward becoming who he was.
While accepting Christ is not a pre-condition for pursuing excellence or perfection, there are consequences for those who chase self-development for its own sake. Dwight Gooden was arguably the most talented power pitcher of the 1980s; more than half his wins came before he turned twenty-five and his career was derailed by cocaine and alcohol addiction. His New York Mets team-mate, Darryl Strawberry, and one of the premier hitters of that era, also saw his career short-circuited by addiction. Both men admit to having been full of themselves before undergoing successful rehabilitation. Gooden still suffers occasional relapses; Strawberry found the living God-in-Christ and has stayed sober. He now devotes his life to offering the help he so desperately needed to other athletes – his peers. In so doing he is becoming all he was meant to be…he is becoming excellent.
Christian believers are no more free of pitfalls and catastrophic weakness than their pre-believing brethren. It is likewise possible to pursue excellence without a prior commitment to King Jesus. But the grace to transcend our default narcissism comes from but one source; it flows much more freely when we acknowledge and choose to serve that Source, and there does come a time when that choice can no longer be postponed. In the iconic world of high performance sport I know of no more iconic representative of this reality than Bruce Bochy.
James A. Wilson is the author of Living As Ambassadors of Relationships, The Holy Spirit and the End Times, and Kingdom in Pursuit – available at local bookstores or by e-mailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org