True character

Four theories of change, but only one offers true hope

Issue: "Aging in place," March 31, 2001

I had hoped to head over to spring training again this year and interview more players, but what I thought would be a pleasant first cruise for the Bush faith-based initiative has turned into an iceberg watch. So the closest I've gotten to March baseball is watching my 10-year-old Ben play, reading Ed Veith's comparison of the good sport with the XFL (see page 29), and hearing the news of Dave Swanson's death.

Swanson, a spiritual mentor to hundreds of professional athletes, co-founded Baseball Chapel and from 1974 to 1995 set up pre-game chapel services for major-league baseball and National Football League teams. He died at age 74 this year as spring training was starting. We talked some in 1993 and 1994 as I was interviewing players at a time when "character education" was all the rage.

Since the great majority of our subscribers now were not subscribers then, let me introduce most of you to the four theories of Character Ed. that dominated the thinking of the baseball folks I met then. The most distinguished proponent of what I'd call Theory No. 1 was Sandy Koufax, the Hall of Fame pitcher of the 1960s who was an occasional spring training instructor during the 1990s. "You can't teach character," Koufax said: "It's something people develop in a thousand different ways, or they don't." Koufax, famous not only for his superb pitching but his refusal to pitch on the Jewish fast day of Yom Kippur, was pessimistic: "Players with bad traits don't change much as adults. That's the way it is now, and was when I was playing."

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Theory No. 2 allows for change, but only after disaster. Dave Winfield, the outfielder inducted into the Hall of Fame last year, said that players change by going through "some kind of harrowing physical experience, something that makes a player think, I'm not invincible, this talent can be taken away from me." Winfield emphasized that the shock "has to be sharp.... You don't see those changes in an adult unless there's a sharp break. By then it's usually too late."

Theory No. 3 is somewhat more optimistic: Players, instead of undergoing physical disaster, can pick up good habits that will change at least their surface behavior. Minnesota Twins manager Tom Kelly attended St. Mary's High School in South Amboy, N.J., and learned there that "players can be trained to take responsible actions." He wanted players to "make a ritual out of doing it right," and explained that he could not teach virtue or character, but he could teach habits of responsibility.

Theory No. 4 is the truly optimistic one. Mike Easler, now a St. Louis Cardinal batting coach and also a Baptist minister licensed by his home church in San Antonio, presented it while chewing on sunflower seeds before a spring training workout: "A player doesn't have to wait for something desperately physical to knock him down. The Apostle Paul didn't break a leg: God simply made him a new creature in Christ, with old things passed away.... My job is to mold a guy, teach him to be humble, and I pray that God will work on him so he will change not just on the outside but on the inside."

Character education is vital for ballplayers: Newly rich, and recipients of adulation since childhood, many fall prey to numerous temptations. Most of us in ordinary life are not as vulnerable, but we need help as well. The problem is that if Theories 1 or 2 are true, not much can be done to help major leaguers or regular guys. Theory 3 offers some hope, even though it affects surface behavior but not deeper belief. Apart from God's grace in changing a person on the inside, behavioral change is the best we can hope for. Sometimes it's enough to keep a person going as long as some tumultuous event doesn't break the flow of ritual.

But Theory No. 4 is the truly optimistic one, and Dave Swanson did God's work by creating an environment in which major leaguers who thought they were the center of the world could learn something about the true center. A player might drop in on a chapel service near the locker room simply because a pal was going and find spiritual help he did not even know to ask for. A player worried about a flaw in his swing might realize that he has a hole in his soul. And God just might fill it as He often does, not when we're looking to be transformed, but when we're merely trying to get by.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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