During the lockdown, I’ve watched a few notable sports movies such as Miracle, Hoosiers, Rocky, and most recently a film about the 2002 Oakland A’s. The story of this team is intriguing. So much so that Hollywood made a movie about it called Moneyball. Instead of the movie focusing on the players, the central character of the movie is the A’s general manager Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt.
What makes Beane a prominent figure in this story is not so much because of his baseball knowledge but his leadership and unyielding vision of what he must do. With little room for money, Beane knows he can’t merely buy the best players like all the other teams. In this desperate setting, he begins to look at the fundamental aspect of what makes a great baseball team.
Here, Beane asks the basic question – what wins baseball games? His simple answer – scoring runs. Then, he asks how do you score runs? His simple answer – you need to get on base. Therefore, he concludes, if you want to win games, you have to acquire players who have a talent for getting on base – whether through hits, walks, or timely bunts. So, “getting on base” becomes his motto for developing a successful team.
Beane then develops a statistical platform to identify the players who frequently get on base. He quickly realizes that baseball executives and scouts overlook this simple yet gritty concept to get on base. Instead, the baseball gurus fixate on those who have the “star” qualities of speed, power, and posses that baseball “look.”
In one scene, the A’s scouts rave about how certain players have special attributes such as “confidence” and an “athletic body.” The scouts praise those who have a “sweet swing” and go on how “the ball jumps off their bat.” Beane scoffs at all these superficial traits and bluntly asks his scouts, “But do they get on base?” Their reaction insinuates that their answer is “eh, not really.”
Everyone begins to reject Beane’s simplistic approach. They insist that he is overlooking the “baseball qualities” that make a great team. But, Beane sees these baseball qualities as artificial and overblown. Despite receiving much angst and push back from his staff, Beane insists in utilizing his formula to win games. Yes, the players he advocates for have some baggage with them. Some are washed-up, injured, have bad mechanics, questionable personalities, but they all have one common feature – they get on base.
While these players are under valued by the trivial baseball metric of “eye candy,” they become more valuable to Beane’s method since they correspond to his vision – they get on base. Interestingly, this team of seemingly misfit toys begins to click and then excel by finishing tied with the best record in the MLB at 103-59.
What made Beane so successful? He had a clear vision and persistently stuck to that vision despite all the noise around him to do otherwise. While everyone was talking about the surface level talent of speed and power, Beane held the line in his foresight that to win games, you need players who can get on base.
We’ll notice that Beane didn’t get caught up in the hype of the mainstream perspective of a good baseball player. Rather, his thinking went outside the box and utilized simple logic in producing his team’s success when others predicted their failure.
Can we apply Beane’s simple logic and leadership persona in the Church today? In doing so, we need to begin by asking the fundamental questions much like Beane did. What gives people Jesus? Answer – the Sacraments. So, our next question is – does what we do point people to the Sacraments?
You can walk into your average Catholic parish and you’ll likely encounter a wide variety of services or ministries. Yes, these ministries can be helpful in some way, but at the end of the day, the focal point of that ministry needs to lead the faithful to the Sacraments. Much like Beane heard all these passing traits about players’ characteristics, he ended with the direct question – do they get on base? In the same way, when presented with all these various features within a church we must ask frankly, “Do they point people to the Sacraments?”
Because we’ve been overly compromised by the pleasure seeking message within the culture, we might be tempted to integrate the culture’s ways into to the church. To this effect, some people end up deciding what church they will go to by what kind of secondary services the church offers (child care, social events, book clubs, etc.)
This blending of consumerism into the church will turn the faithful into consumers that constantly insist the church needs contemporary music, more engaging ministries, better visual stimuli, charismatic pastors, and a campus that resembles a hotel that caters to our ever demanding needs. However, this picture merely harkens back to those superficial attributes Beane had to ignore lest he became distracted from the vision. While alluring as these “features” within a church are, they don’t effectively answer the crucial question – does it directly point people to the Sacraments? Does it explain to people about the Sacraments or does it in some manner guide them to the Sacraments? If yes – good, if no – you likely don’t need it.
Yes, you can make a big deal that the youth need fun activities, parents need daycare, adults need emotionally satisfying small groups, and the parish at large require nice amenities and uplifting events. But, before doing all this, one must never lose focus of the vision. Very often these outside “things” can act as clutter that inevitably distract and take us away from the focal point of the faith – the Sacraments.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus turns on two young men that are following him and asks, “What do you want?” Much like all great leaders, he is cutting through the fog by asking them directly – what is your vision? Jesus’ question here parallels Billy Beane’s “getting on base” phrase and our “give them the Sacraments” mantra.
Those Catholics who get caught in pursuing the experiences of the pop culture will inevitably lack the courage and attention to pursue the end to their happiness – God. Getting pulled in the ever-changing milieu of the pop culture, they’ll end up losing their focus in authentically pursing God. Eventually, they’ll find themselves at a “worship service” full of rock bands and engaging speakers only to realize that Jesus is not present in the Eucharist (if he is present, he won’t be the focal point). At this stage, the goal of union with God becomes an allusive itch that never gets scratched. A person in this setting desperately needs a spiritual leader that knows the goal and refuses to be manipulated by any outside noise that attempts to hide the real presence.
In Moneyball, Beane knew from the onset that he couldn’t and frankly shouldn’t try to battle with the big market teams. He decided to not play their game of superstar spending, but rather went back to the fundamentals and concentrated on what the big market teams lacked. In a similar vein, the Catholic Church doesn’t need to compete with the flashy mega-church concept to make the worship space into an endless series of service delights. We’ve got something that they don’t – the Eucharist. All this other fluff simply distracts us from the Eucharist.
A few years ago, I recall a priest describe in an Easter homily how he couldn’t compete with the Methodist church down the road. They had a helicopter drop thousands of Easter eggs for the kids. They had the best band in the area, an enormous banquet spread for their brunch and the crowds to match. But, then it dawned on the priest. He had something the Methodist church couldn’t match. He had the Second Person of the Holy Trinity literally in his church. Who cares about all that other stuff when you have Jesus in the Eucharist. A good spiritual leader has the ability to recognize that he doesn’t need to get pulled into the hype of the world. Rather, he needs to focus on the fundamentals of the faith – the Sacraments.
This is what good spiritual leaders do – they offer a clear, unambiguous vision that won’t distract their people from the final goal.
While Moneyball is a portrait of leadership in the baseball world, it can give us lessons for spiritual leaders in our present day of confusion. Look beyond the surface level glamour and look to the core component of the faith – the Sacraments. Here lies the ultimate win.