On June 29, 2021, a camera at Citi Field, home of the New York Mets, captured video footage of Jacob deGrom playfully engaging a teammate in a wrestling match in the outfield as other players stretched and prepared for that night’s game. After several seconds deGrom successfully pinned his opponent as a third teammate slid into view pounding an open hand to the ground three times, declaring deGrom the victor. As a lifelong Mets fan, I reflexively experienced a flash of both joy and dread at the same time. After thirteen starts, deGrom’s average number of runs allowed per nine innings (ERA) was 0.69. He was the best pitcher on the planet by a wide margin, and any hope the Mets had of playing interesting games late in the season depended on the health of a player who had already spent time on the injured list that season even before he decided to take up wrestling. Mets fans, to put it mildly, were not pleased. Mets fans have been conditioned to expect the worst for going on four decades, and the thought of deGrom’s season coming to an end while playing around in a non-baseball activity led to an eruption of angst-ridden commentary.1
In spite of my dread that news would emerge days later that deGrom had indeed been injured in the match, I also watched the video several times and realized somewhere around the fifth or sixth viewing that I was smiling. Even now, over a year later, the sight of deGrom pinning a teammate to the ground and waiting for the call of a fake referee gives me a sense of deep, visceral, maybe even spiritual, joy. I am convinced that experience of joy is due to the fact that I am witnessing something in deGrom’s play that is not a sacrament, but something similar, a sign of God’s favor in a place where I did not expect to see it: the outfield in a big-league baseball stadium.
St. Paul teaches us that athletic training is analogous to the Christian life—the struggle to avoid sin and do good.2 What I am used to seeing professional baseball players do is a metaphor for Christian discipline, the development of virtue, and the sometimes-agonizing process of sanctification. Peak athletic performance and competition is a good thing even if for no other reason than it is one of the Holy Spirit’s chosen object lessons to help us understand the very serious business of sanctified Christian living. Object lessons and metaphors for Christian living will not always be needed. The resurrection and new creation will make them obsolete, but for now it is necessary that we have the example of highly disciplined athletes engaging in serious competition, struggling to defeat each other. There may even be something spiritually beneficial about going beyond being a spectator and actually participating in an athletic contest, but the value has limits.
In play, on the other hand, we see a symbol of the gospel itself. Play is eternal, older than humans (according to Proverbs 8:30-31) and lasting forever as part of God’s restored creation (according to Zechariah 8:5). Martin Luther’s understanding of God at play is helpful.
For God in His boundless goodness dealt very familiarly with His chosen patriarch Jacob and disciplined him as though playing with him in a kindly manner. But this playing means infinite grief and the greatest anguish of heart [to Jacob]. In reality, however, it is a game, as the outcome shows when Jacob comes to Peniel. Then it will be manifest that they were pure signs of most familiar love. So God plays with him to discipline and strengthen his faith just as a godly parent takes from his son an apple with which the boy was delighted, not that he should flee from his father or turn away from him but that he should rather be incited to embrace his father all the more and beseech him, saying: “My father, give back what you have taken away!” Then the father is delighted with this test, and the son, when he recovers the apple, loves his father more ardently on seeing that such love and child’s play gives pleasure to the father.3
Christopher Boyd Brown explains that for Luther, a God who does not play games does not need faith, but “with the God who plays games, there can be only faith, trust like that of a child who is tossed in the air and can only trust that he will be caught in his father’s arms. The point of the game is not victory for one side or the other through the application of rules, but the relationship of trust (fiducia) and love that is deepened between the players.”4 One can only recognize and join God’s game by faith, but once the Christian engages in the game there are no circumstances so dire, not even death itself, that should frighten him because God is in the game with him.5
Watching a serious athlete engage in unserious play is a stunning thing to see because it is an unexpected icon of something more permanent than sport. In play we see the character of God materialize in our midst and are drawn closer to our playmate. As such, Jacob deGrom’s wrestling match in the outfield was a window into something even more significant than his performances on the pitcher’s mound.
- See this article to view the video and a sample of fan reactions: https://www.foxnews.com/sports/mets-degrom-wrestling-teammate-fans-react
- 1 Corinthians 9:24-27
- As quoted in Brown, Christopher Boyd. “Deus Ludens: God at Play in Luther’s Theology,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 81, no. 1-2 (January 2017): 164.
- Brown, “Deus Ludens,” 166.
- Brown, “Deus Ludens,” 165.