The Devil on a Wiffle Ball Field

It's a tradition to have a wiffle ball game in the backyard at my nephew Mason's birthday party, all the kids in attendance taking to a field that my brother marks off with spray paint on the lawn.

The field has a home run line. Hit the ball past that line and you've hit a home run.

Now this is a friendly game, no one is monitoring that line. So when the ball falls close to the line you have to trust the opposing outfielder to tell you truthfully if the ball landed past the line and was a home run.

Which, for younger kids, is agonizing. They know what they saw (that the ball was a home run) but they don't want to say it (that the ball was a home run) because a home run hurts their chances of winning. They are the outfielders, the defending team. They don't want to see or admit that a home run was scored against them.

As you can imagine, all this can create a sort of moral test for the children. Will they forthrightly admit that ball was a home run when it was a home run?

Most of the time, while you can see the pain on their face, because truth is hard sometimes, the kids admit that the ball was a home run.

But sometimes they fail, denying that a home run had been hit when the ball landed past the line. And not surprisingly, these moral failures tend to occur more often when the game is very, very close.

The whole thing is a fascinating psychological and moral experiment.

Last week when one of these moral failures occurred during the annual wiffle ball game, a particularly egregious one, my nephew Matthew, who is in college, asked me, "Why do they do that? Why do they lie about a ball being a home run?"

"Because," I said, "they are young. Winning or losing, even something as silly and inconsequential as a wiffle ball game, impacts their self-esteem. Winning makes them feel special and losing makes them feel like a loser. And so they compromise their integrity in order to build up their self-esteem."

"And truthfully," I went on to say, "nothing changes when we get older. The 'winning' and 'losing' may look different, but we are all tempted to compromise our integrity or treat others badly in order to build up our self-esteem."

Now, it's possible I wrote a book about this dynamic. How neurotic anxiety, a desire to secure a sense of significance and self-esteem, becomes "the power of the devil" in our lives.

It's just interesting to see it play out so clearly at such a young age.

Watching the devil at work during a wiffle ball game.

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11 thoughts on “The Devil on a Wiffle Ball Field”

  1. “Never teach children morals; teach them how to play baseball. That’s how you learn moral authority.”

    It looks like at least this fragment of the ethics of Stanley Hauerwas may need revisiting!

  2. One of the most interesting statements in the Bible, one that goes unnoticed, even sometimes intentionally ignored, is the one by John the Baptist concerning Jesus, when he told his own disciples, "He must increase; I must decrease".

    Even among the best of Christians there is probably the thinking, "It is so unrealistic to expect this depth of humility from human beings". It may be unrealistic to expect perfection, but it is not to unrealistic to remind one another to keep in front of us. Each time it makes us think and bow to another it softens and shapes the soul to an image we never thought possible for ourselves.

  3. Yeah, MLB -- and for that matter NFL, NBA, and NHL, Professional Sports without end, amen! -- they are now, like politics, but the continuation of (market) economics by other means.

    Btw, von Clausewitz got it bass-ackwards when he said that "war is the continuation of politics by other means". So "Why do they lie about a ball being a home run?" -- how interesting, as (another famous saying) truth is the first casualty of war. Thus does baseball become a huge test case not only for Hauerwas' ethics of childhood but indeed for his pacifism!

  4. I love golf. Especially golfing with my Dad. I don't play a lot of it because of the expense and the time away from family. But I love golf and golf courses. All the green, the water, the sand. It's so beautiful.

    And regarding virtue, golf is where I've perfected self-control. I can slice a monster drive into the woods now...and just smile. Golfing with joy has been a moral goal of mine. It's taken years, but no matter my score I'm perfectly at peace on a golf course.

  5. Not to be too hard on Stanley, because I know he'd agree with what I'm about to say, but I think we treat virtue formation like we do weight loss. We think there is some single, silver bullet that will magically make us virtuous or allow us to lose 20 pounds. Play baseball. Or, to use another example, James Smith's claim in Desiring the Kingdom that liturgy forms virtue. As Scot McKnight pointed out, the Book of Common Prayer doesn't spit out saints. Liturgy is no magic bullet.

    No, like with the goal of losing 20 pounds, there is no short cut to virtue. Only the daily asceticism and self-renunciation of trying to be more kind, gentle, patient and loving. It's a marathon, not a sprint.

  6. "And truthfully," I went on to say, "nothing changes when we get older. The 'winning' and 'losing' may look different, but we are all tempted to compromise our integrity or treat others badly in order to build up our self-esteem."

    I have officiated high school/middle school football for 20-some years. The worst games I've ever been part of have involved parents behaving badly. For some reason, they are invested in the idea that my calling holding on their son will ruin his chances for a college scholarship and a career in the NFL. Either that, or they are living vicariously through their children and trying to make up for all the times they squandered an opportunity.

    The only goal is to win and win big. And if they have to abuse and threaten anyone who stands in the way of that, personal integrity doesn't even enter the equation.

  7. Actually, to be fair to Stanley -- and I suspect you'll agree -- his comment on baseball was not meant to be a moral silver bullet but a, er, Stanleyism, i.e., an arresting ethical pensée, heuristic rather than declamatory, and in this instance certainly relying on the lore and lure of baseball, not its equivocal quotidian, let alone its sordid professional, reality.

  8. All the green, the water, the sand. It's so beautiful.
    Well, a beach will get you 2 out of 3 -- and they are perks, not punishments. And wouldn't you rather swim than play fetch? matter my score I'm perfectly at peace on a golf course.
    Then you're clearly not doing it right.

    Golfing with joy ...
    Joy who? Does your wife know about her?

    Nope, Mark Twain was right: "Golf is a good walk spoiled." For a more (shall I say?) colourful critique, see George Carlin.

  9. I think that's what "winning" looks like for many parents, neurotically speaking, gaining self-esteem and significance from the performance of their children.

  10. I only play golf in the snow now. I live around Newport Beach California Now.
    I thank the Lord for His many blessings

  11. My brother once had the opportunity to play a round by himself early in the morning on the "new" course at St. Andrew's. He reports that the rough there is truly rough, you have to reach down through gorse up to your armpit, and then say, "Aaah, I'll just take the point." And he says it was the worst game he ever played and also the best.

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