The Perfect Game

Posted on February 1st, 2011
Image © Sgame | Dreamstime.com

Professional bowling, which ESPN and ABC air during hours when much of the American public is watching the NFL on CBS and FOX, doesn’t get much play in the national sports media. You won’t find a bowling column in this week’s Sports Illustrated and if you look at a list of all the sports featured at ESPN.com, bowling isn’t one of them. (Cricket and Bassmaster are.) But thanks to circumstances as unusual as picking up a 7-10 split, the PBA’s 2011 Tournament of Champions was one of the top stories on SportsCenter last weekend—a weekend that included the NFL conference championship games and several high-profile college basketball match-ups.

If you haven’t seen the highlights, the Tournament of Champions was notable for two reasons: First, Tom Daugherty (who had broken 200 in 63 of his last 72 games) bowled a 100, the lowest score in the history of the tour (causing countless recreational bowlers to wonder whether they might make it in the PBA). Second, in the same match, Daugherty’s opponent, Finland’s Mika Koivuniemi (who won the event) bowled a 299, one pin short of a perfect game. And that one pin nearly fell, wobbling for a bit before deciding to stay put.

If you were to browse the plaques at your neighborhood bowling alley and take notice of the number of perfect games that people there have bowled, you might be less than impressed with Koivuniemi’s feat. But bowling a 300 in a Tuesday night amateur league is much different than bowling a 300 in a nationally televised PBA event where lane conditions are tightly regulated and everyone in the room is focused on a single bowler. Perfect games in professional tournaments on national television are rare.

It should be no surprise that ESPN took the time to tell sports fans about the worst game in PBA history; nor should anyone be surprised that the network told its viewers about Koivuniemi’s near-perfect outing. Sports fans love perfection. Baseball fans know Don Larsen, who had a respectable but unremarkable career as Major League pitcher, for one reason: He is the only person to have pitched a perfect game in the postseason. His perfect game (27 batters, 27 outs) in 1956 gave the Yankees a 3–2 World Series lead over the Brooklyn Dodgers. (The Yanks eventually won the series 4–3.) And baseball fans are frustrated that Armando Galarraga lost a perfect game last June thanks to a blown call with two outs in the ninth inning. Women’s college basketball, which has to fight for viewers against more popular men’s sports, gets the most attention during seasons when the University of Connecticut is working on a perfect record. Last November, viewers with little interest in horse racing tuned in to see whether Zenyatta could finish her career with a perfect record. (She lost, barely.)

Our love for perfection is a product of our brokenness. We are so familiar with the flaws and shortcomings of humanness that the thought of someone bowling 12 consecutive strikes or retiring 27 consecutive batters is incredible. As imperfect people, we’re impressed by perfection.

Yet Christ calls us to be perfect. In his sermon on the mount, after teaching his audience the difficult lessons of turning the other cheek and loving their enemies, he says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48, NRSV). The author of Hebrews tells us to “go on toward perfection” (Hebrews 6:1, NRSV); and Paul prays that the Corinthian Christians to whom he writes “may become perfect” (2 Corinthians 13:9, NRSV). How do we reconcile all of these commands to be perfect with the knowledge that we are all sinners who “fall short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23)?

We must recognize that we are incapable of achieving perfection on our own. Knocking over that final pin or picking up that tricky split (figuratively speaking) is impossible apart from God’s grace. Perfection is not the result of eliminating sin completely from our lives. Rather, it is the result of surrendering ourselves completely to God. We do this through habits of prayer and worship and service and Holy Communion. As we submit to God, the temptations of greed and apathy and pride will lose their hold and we will grow into the perfect persons whom God created us to be.

We think of sports as being contests of physical skill and strength, but any successful athlete will tell you that being mentally sharp is as important to their success as being physically fit. A pitcher gets in trouble when he starts thinking about pitching a perfect game instead of focusing on getting the next batter out. A coach who leads a team to a perfect season lives by the cliché, “taking it one game at a time.” Likewise, we should keep our focus on God and allow the Spirit to guide us instead of getting caught up in our desires and expectations.

So be perfect as God is perfect, but don’t try to do it on your own. There will always be pins you can’t knock down.

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