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Jason Byassee


The Matheny Manifesto

Baseball, life, and faith.

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The better parts of the book have to do with manners. And these are really, really good. Matheny had a faceful of youth sports done rudely with one of his children in a hockey league. Other parents yelled at their kids, at the refs, at one another—Matheny personally broke up a fight in a parking lot before an inebriated dad asked for his autograph. This just in: children don't want this. Kids are already under enormous self-imposed pressure to perform. The last thing they need is detailed public instruction screamed by the people they love most in the world. Why do we marvel when they quit?

As a youth sports manager, Matheny's job was to instill love and passion for the game. His players and their parents would conduct themselves with class. He would teach baseball the right way—played with courtesy toward opponents, toward one another, toward the umps (who, he promised, would perform miserably), and, most important, toward the game. Matheny teaches baseball as a craft. His players would honor that craft. They may also win. But that was ancillary. It seemed to work. His organization, the Missouri Warriors, has mushroomed into more teams who have indeed had a lot of ancillary. And there was that call from the Cards.

Matheny is on to something. We have screwed up parenting. He suggests that as youth sports have grown (and parents have made this their primary social outlet), with kids traveling all over the country in fancy uniforms, and managers imitating Billy Martin—kicking dirt on umpires little older or more competent than the players—and quoting Vince Lombardi that "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing," sports have suffered. So have the souls of the little ones playing them. A youth sports manager's greatest challenge, Matheny believes, is to mold the character of the kids. They should be decent human beings above all—hopefully for the rest of their lives. So should their parents. Flannery O'Connor famously described Christian faith as a matter of "mystery and manners," of God's wild intrusion into human affairs and our rigorous and detailed reordering of our life by the power of the Holy Spirit. I hear echoes of this liturgical (not a word Matheny uses!) vision of things throughout this book. Just as a second baseman has to learn the intricate and demanding steps of turning a double play by mental preparedness and rote repetition on the way to being able to improvise successfully and beautifully, so too do Christians have to concentrate, practice, and honor the craft of discipleship. Aristotle would approve; so would Thomas Aquinas and Stanley Hauerwas.

Matheny distills his manifesto into bullet points. Key one: leadership. The coach is right even when he's wrong. Kids hear their parents disrespecting authority in their coaches, teachers, and I would add pastors, and they should cut it out, especially when they're "sure" they're right and the coach is wrong. And leaders should be big enough to apologize when they err. Key two: confidence. A manager at every level should let the catcher call the pitcher's pitches and not take over. Do weekend warrior dads really think they can see (in every sense) as well as the eyes behind the plate? Teaching the game the right way means giving it over to the players to learn themselves. Key three: teamwork. He tells stories here of aging baseball stars who go out of their way to treat rookies and fans and umpires with kindness, when clearly they don't have to. Key four: faith, and here Matheny does show it's harder to get thrown out of a game without cussing (a fellow coach jokes that he can only get thrown out for loitering!). Key five: class, and his gem of an example is umpires and catchers going out of their way to give each other time to recover when hit by a pitch. Key six: character. His players will not respond in kind when disrespected by opponents. Key seven: toughness. We rarely learn things the easy way. Sure it's cool for a big leaguer to play hurt, but not for a child to. And key eight: humility, which he shows throughout by honoring the granular texture of the game. Baseball has been a "pacesetter" for his life, he says in a nice turn of phrase, and he honors it here.

My only caution is a certain nostalgia about the good ole days, perhaps attributable to his co-writer, but it seems to run deep, both in the writer and in his sport. Sure enough, as Matheny quotes Nolan Ryan, kids today seem only to play with uniforms on, and kids used to play anything involving a ball because … it was fun. Video games are the choice du jour, not the sandlot. Christians are often tempted to look back nostalgically, but we shouldn't do it. In a truly moving vignette, Matheny recalls watching the film 42 with an older black man in the theater weeping and delighting like he's in church. As even a superficial grasp of history shows, we human beings have only ever been sinners. We are now too. The Christian claiming to be counter-cultural while releasing a bestseller about managing one of baseball's greatest franchise seems … odd. That way lies the cultural resentment of the old moral majority, winning presidential elections while claiming to be persecuted, and it's a tired trope.

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