Of Cubs and Humans and Good Thieves

Wrigley Field is one of America’s sacred spaces. Even if one prefers a different team, […]

Eric Dorman / 7.30.18

Wrigley Field is one of America’s sacred spaces. Even if one prefers a different team, no morally serious person dislikes the Cubs, and thousands of Americans every year take pilgrimages to The Friendly Confines. That’s partly why stealing a ball intended for a child at Wrigley produces such outrage. For a lot of Americans, it’s desecration of the blessed sacrament.

That’s what happened last Sunday night. During the fourth inning, First Base Coach Will Venable tossed a ball to a young fan and the fan dropped it beneath the seat. Then, a self-absorbed, middle-aged cretin scooped it up, handed it off to his wife and celebrated. Thankfully, the camera picked up the horrifying incident, and not only did the Cubs organization make sure the child in question received a Javy Báez autographed baseball — a real prize — but the video circulated on the internet, making the miscreant infamous across the country.

News media quickly descended as well, sharing the 12-second video and commenting on the thief’s shameless greed. The momentum of the outrage led to thousands of responses on social media, some even calling for Wrigley to ban (i.e. excommunicate) the man for his unrepentant, despicable behavior.

Stealing baseballs from children is terrible anywhere. Doing it at Wrigley is blasphemous.

Of course, many of you will know by now that the story isn’t nearly as simple as that. The man — who understandably refused to give his name to media — actually did not steal anything. In reality, he’d helped the same little boy get a ball just two innings earlier, as well as two other kids. Further, he and his wife didn’t even keep the disputed ball. They took a quick picture with the ball and then handed it off to another child next to them. That’s a total of four baseballs retrieved and four given away to kids, for those keeping score at home. The “thief” left the stadium happy, empty-handed and unaware.

Eventually, enough people came to the man’s defense, media outlets started printing updates and retractions, and the nameless man thanked the organization and those around him for clearing everything up. He called his defenders “heroes.” In a world of doxxing, that’s probably not an exaggeration.

I’ve written about this outrage machine before. I certainly wish it would die, and we all need to do our part in verifying whether a story is true before we grab our torches and pitchforks (and even when the story is true, we should probably leave sharp objects at home). Obviously, stealing baseballs intended for children actually would be worth calling out. It’s disgusting, and unfortunately, it’s happened before.

Given that it didn’t happen in this case, however, it raises some interesting questions. One of those questions is: do human beings, particularly in America, actually believe what they say they believe about other human beings? “The Wrigley Incident” seems to answer that question with a confident “no.”

According to recent studies, 45% of Americans believe that bad people are rare, and only 19% of Americans believe that people tend to be bad. 79% of Americans with a household income over $100,000 per year say the world is generally good, and still more than half with household incomes under $50,000 say the same. Overall, 60% of Americans believe that there are more good people than bad in the entire world. The real shocker is that America is one of the more cynical countries on these fronts. Ask the same questions in the UK or in Germany and you’ll find even greater optimism.

So what is it that drives people to assume, based on 12 seconds of video, that the man is behaving so wickedly? Didn’t they just say that humanity is basically good? Why not give him the benefit of the doubt? Suspend judgment? Presume innocence until faced with clear evidence? Because, at bottom, we’re Augustinians.

In the abstract, Americans say that people are essentially good. But according to the General Social Survey, when asked if they actually trust other persons — that is, if they consider their neighbors or strangers on the street — only one-third say people are trustworthy.

In other words, we believe in the inherent goodness and honesty of people as a group but not as individuals. Somewhere deep inside, we know that other persons are potentially dangerous creatures worthy of skepticism at best, and we treat them as such. We don’t walk down certain alleys at night. We don’t accept candy from strangers. We don’t broadcast our PIN numbers. In the Wrigley case, the man wasn’t guilty, and even though we’ve seen people act kindly or righteously before, it doesn’t seem to matter. We know instinctively that those are exceptions.

Our hearts truly bear the written law. It doesn’t accuse us only, but it accuses our neighbors, friends, families and spouses. We know that no one is righteous. And, while we pay lip-service to a rosier view, it takes quite a lot of work to suppress knowledge of the truth: generally speaking, people are corrupted. In theological language, we’re fallen.

Joining mobs to attack the evildoers is a way of distancing ourselves from what we all fear. Given similar circumstances, we wonder whether we’d be the one ripping the baseball — the sacrament — out of the hands of a child just to satiate our own flesh. In fact, if not in this circumstance, we already know that there’s probably something or someone who would produce that reaction in each of us.

We have been just as bad and likely will be again. We are deserving of death and hell. But here’s the assurance: we’re also able to say in response, as Luther did, “What of it?”

Part of the goodness of the Good News is that we don’t have to join the mob. We don’t have to crucify the unrighteous — ourselves or others. The Righteous was crucified on our behalf. No, human beings aren’t basically good and trustworthy. Yes, we are capable of robbing children of good gifts. We’re capable of even worse. But we can rest in the hope that, as bad as we are — as individuals, as a species — God in Christ stands in for us. Christ — the Good Thief — has stolen our sins away and he dispenses unmatched, unlimited grace.