Reconditioned: Detroit, Baseball, the Tigers, the Wings, the Pistons and God

(Nathan wrote this piece–last week–not Tyler.  Thanks, technical difficulties.)

Does God think in terms of cities? We know that he did when he destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. America destroyed a couple of cities in WWII with a bomb, but sulfuric fire hasn’t fallen from the sky, bringing total destruction to a city in a long, long time. So does God think in terms of cities anymore? Evangelical culture has brought the focus to God’s relationship with individuals, causing us to place less importance on communities and societies in general. The error here, of course, is that God does foster communities, both large and small. The God of the Bible understands that human beings not only relate to him, but they also relate to each other, creating complex dynamics that affect our personal development. God seems to know that communities shape us in profound ways. Your environment will impress specific values and ideas upon you, whether you want it to or not.

I don’t know for sure exactly how God thinks (or if “thinking” is the proper term for what God does, or what God is), but let’s assume, based on the fact that the Bible does promote and support life in community, that God does care about cities. Now we can start picking any old city and wonder what God might think of it. What does God think about London these days? What did he think about it circa 1941? What does God think about Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, a small town about to get hit with Irene? What does he think about Laos or Osaka? What does he think about your city or the cities you’ve lived in?

What does God think of Detroit?

I don’t know what God thinks of Detroit; I do know what I think of Detroit, though.

I didn’t grow up in Detroit; I grew up about 45 minutes north of it, just outside Port Huron, Michigan, a town of roughly 30,000 people. Our TV stations were from Detroit and so were all of our (good) radio stations; we also received TV broadcasts from Canada and could look into that other country just by driving to the St. Clair River or the shores of Lake Huron. Our home was in the country, safe from the dangers of Detroit, but the city still loomed over me. We didn’t go to Detroit often. And why would any sensible family take their kids there unless it was to go to the zoo or a sports game? The city was dangerous, really dangerous. It still is dangerous once you get off the beaten path. You knew it was dangerous because the nightly news told you so with their endless murder and robbery reports.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Port Huron was a little Detroit (though it had a high rate of rape victims per capita), but the influence was real and it was felt.

Michigan hasn’t been my home since the summer of ’99, when I started my first year of college in New Brunswick, Canada. I’d stay at home on my breaks, of course, but the majority of my time was spent in Canada and then in Chicago when I transferred to Moody Bible Institute. When I finished college, I moved to Charlotte, NC, for a while before returning to Chicago and then back to North Carolina (Asheville this time) again. Occasional visits to family have peppered the past decade, but there has never an extended period of time in my home state. I view it from afar, as an outsider now. I don’t suspect that I’ll ever return. The economy of Michigan sort of forbids it at this point.

I have left Michigan, but Michigan hasn’t left me quite yet. Remember that Chrysler commercial that came on during the Super Bowl this year; the one with all those postcard pictures of Detroit and Eminem blaring at us? That commercial, yes, a commercial­, sent chills through my body. Commercials are stupid usually and at best they are amusing; once in a while they are pure genius, but no commercial before this one has been able to strike an emotional chord in me. And I have never owned a Chrysler car. My family owned Fords. Beyond that, I’m not even much of a car person to begin with and currently my wife and I own a Toyota. It’s not as if I have some unyielding loyalty to Detroit products or even American products. But the commercial points back towards home, a place that, along with my family and friends, raised me. It was gratifying to think of Detroit in a positive, even powerful way; to think of it as a place you could have enormous pride in if you lived there. It gave you the idea that Detroit might be an honest and true city; that its blight of crime and violence is something from yesteryear, never to return. It made me believe, even if it was a fantasy, that Detroit had turned the corner and broken through. Like Pittsburgh, maybe.

And maybe Detroit will break through, but for now it hasn’t. And other than a sense of home, there isn’t a whole lot to be proud of when thinking of Detroit; its political history is a total mess, its cityscape brings to mind Germany circa 1946, and its auto industry is only starting to come out of a long period of stasis. This isn’t even to mention atrocities like the People Mover! (It does have a great riverfront.)

How does an ex-pat keep up with the forlorn heart of southeastern Michigan? Through sports, of course! In the grand scheme of the world, sports are not important at all. They’re a fun diversion for those who have the time to pay attention. We’re talking about a bunch of highly paid people who move balls (or pucks) around, trying to score meaningless points with them. Sports do not accomplish anything practical in this world except the little economies that pop up around them. It’s just good fun and nothing more. But that good fun can lift a city’s spirits up, at least for a time. Consider how Japanese people must have felt when the their team won the women’s World Cup. They’ve been through the ringer this year with their tsunamis and earthquakes, and it had to come as something of a relief to see a symbol of their nation lifted up for the world to see; something positive instead of gut-wrenchingly horrible.

And so it has been with Detroit. In my lifetime the Detroit pro sports scene has had eight championships (Red Wings 4, Pistons 3, Tigers 1). I was too young to remember the Tigers’ World Series win over the Padres in 1984, but I do know that the win incited riots across the city. Detroiters rioted when the Pistons won back to back championships in ’89 and ’90, too. I remember those championships a little more; I had a “Hammer Time/Bad Boys” t-shirt that I sported around my elementary school, and I remember the news reports of looting. When the Red Wings won in 1997 (for the first time in forty-two years), the city was calm. Was it because hockey fans were mainly from the suburbs and, uh, white? Was there some other reason? No one rioted when the Pistons took out the Lakers in 2004. Were they all just so surprised that a team of role players beat out Shaq and Kobe that they weren’t able focus their attention on destruction?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I know that I’m glad they haven’t rioted in twenty years. And I hope they don’t riot again.

But sports can give life to a city even when the teams don’t win championships. Take a look at the 2011 version of the Detroit Tigers. They’re a decent team in the AL Central, otherwise known as baseball’s “negative run differential” division. Even if the Tigers should make it to the playoffs this year, they’ll probably have to play a far superior New York or Boston team. They’ll probably get thumped right out of round one in three games. Even if that’s what happens (and it surely is what will happen), I hope they make their way into the playoffs; not for the home team, but for the home. It will lift Detroit a little to see their beloved Tigers at least competing. Tigers will be on the brain of many Detroit citizens. And who knows, maybe they’ll surprise us all and shoot past the first round like they did in 2006. And if they do that, maybe they could sneak past even the second round in and into the World Series. And…maybe if they get that far they could beat the Phillies. Is there any way that Justin Verlander can pitch every playoff game for us?

I’m getting ahead of myself, just like any other good Detroit sports fan would. It’s nice to dream.

All of this brings me back to God.

Whenever we discuss God’s involvement in our world, some people like to point out that God wouldn’t care about the outcome of a sports game. What interest should the supreme being of the universe have in the fate of a ball that goes through a hoop? Why should the creator of all things care if that millionaire quarterback still hasn’t won his elusive Super Bowl? Considering all the suffering and pain in our world, it is appropriate to assume that God is not interested in altering the course of something so trivial as a baseball game. God would not mettle with Verlander’s arm when so many other, more significant, things are happening in the world.

Evidence from the sporting world in America should bear this conclusion out. What sane God would work it so that the New York Yankees win three championships in a row? Why would God want to give so many championships to Boston in recent years? We can only conclude that God is letting the sports world move along without any divine interference. If you need any further evidence that God is not involved in sports for the sake of the downtrodden cities of America, just turn your attention to Cleveland.

And maybe, somehow, God’s lack of involvement makes the winning so much sweeter. You know that there’s no invisible cosmic force out there having pity on you. You know that if the Tigers should win anything it is because some smart people worked it out to bring the right players to the field. You’ll look at Mike Ilitch, the same owner who has overseen the four Red Wings championships. You’ll look at Dave Dombrowski, the GM who has brought the Tigers out of the dumps (see the 2003 season) and into relevance. And you’ll look at the players, like Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, and Alex Avila. Those people (for now, at least) belong to Detroit. They are in the fabric of the city; they are something that the city can be truly proud of, no matter how inconsequential they may be. This is why you root for the home team, no matter where your home may be. I do not root for Detroit sports because I believe that Detroit or southeastern Michigan is actually better than other areas of the country; it’s not because I believe that the Chicago Bears are intrinsically evil when compared to the Lions either (though I do love to see the Bears lose). I root for Detroit sports because I want to see something good come from the city. I want to see it succeed and flourish. I want to see the people of the city with their spirits lifted, even if only for a short time. An influx of good jobs would be far better than a World Series win, but sometimes you take what you can get.

I know that God cares about people. I’m pretty sure God cares about cities. I highly doubt that God cares about sports fates. But now I’m beginning to wonder what God thinks when a particular city’s team wins or loses.

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