Free Agent

Posted on May 27, 2011


Anytime the Cubs have a spare $50 million in the bank, it’s time to put FEMA on alert, because a disaster is coming.

‘Disaster’ is too negative a word, actually.  It implies that hearing the Cubs have cash to spend is like watching a new lottery winner claim their prize, in that all you can do is say the Serenity prayer and hope they don’t blow it all on magic lessons and gum.  And that’s sort of how it feels.

But a more positive outlook says that the $50 million is a creative challenge, a chance to defy preconceived notions of what wasteful spending looks like.  It’s a playground, a romper room of squandering capital where the only rule is ‘imagination’!  But while the possibilities are endless- and being the Cubs GM means having an empty canvas of botching it to create on and infinite colors of failure to paint with- it doesn’t matter.  The Cubbies choose the same option every time:  the free agent signing.

Free agents are players whose contracts have expired and can now sign with any team that offers them a deal.  Cub fans have seen plenty of them over the years, with Wrigley Field sometimes resembling a kind of Ellis Island for free agents, right down to the shared inability to speak English and confusion about what a cutoff man is.  In the Cubs defense, some of those free agents have succeeded, such as Dave Kingman, Randy Myers, or Andre Dawson.  But most seemed to come from a bizarro version of eHarmony that pairs mediocre athletes to the Cubs using 27 levels of compatibility, including:

* ability to underperform relative to large contract size.

* hypersensitivity to fan criticism

* media-blaming skills

* aggression towards inanimate objects like Gatorade coolers, pitching mounds, the Commissioner of baseball, etc.

I imagine that one of the hardest parts of being a free agent is that it is the sports equivalent of the New Kid.  When you’re the New Kid at school, everything feels brand new, like the entire school was just created the moment you enrolled ex nihilo.  But the reality is that the school was always there.  The friendships predated your presence.  The sports teams were playing before you matriculated.  The work of learning was happening long before you found your new locker, unless you live in California.

When a free agent joins a new team, it’s the same thing.  He isn’t coming to a place that just started trying to win the moment he arrived.  The manager doesn’t greet him by saying “I’m really glad you’re here.  We weren’t even trying to win before.  In fact, there wasn’t even really a team.  But now that you’re here, we can start.”  No, when a free agent suits up, he joins a program that’s in progress.  Whether carried out skillfully or ineptly, one thing about free agency is 100% certain:  the work of winning was happening long before they joined the team.

The book of Joshua also mentions free agency.  At its outset, the people of Israel stand at the edge of Canaan, the Promised Land.  In obedience to God’s command to conquer the nation, Joshua sends spies ahead to scout the city of Jericho.  The king of Jericho learns that they have visited the house of a prostitute named Rahab, who protects the spies by lying about their presence.  When they are safe, she tells them this:

“I know the Lord has given you this land… We are all afraid of you.  Everyone in the land is living in terror.  For we have heard how the Lord made a dry path for you through the Red Sea when you left Egypt. And we know what you did to Sihon and Og, the two Amorite kings east of the Jordan River, whose people you completely destroyed.  No wonder our hearts have melted in fear! No one has the  courage to fight after hearing such things”…

Then the two spies…reported to Joshua all that had happened to them.  “The Lord has given us the whole land,” they said, “for all the people in the land are terrified of us.”  (Josh. 2: 9-11, 23)

Out of Rahab’s mouth come the free agency money quotes.  “I know the Lord has given you this land.”  “For we have heard…”  “…our hearts have melted in fear.”  As it turns out, God’s work of winning was already underway in her country.  He wasn’t just limited to riding sidecar with the Israelites, present in their midst but only blessing their immediate actions.  Rahab’s confession is a reminder that God was also already ahead of them in the place they were going- in this case, Canaan.  The Israelites’ job was just to show up, learn God’s game plan, and plug into it.  They were free agents.

I wish someone had explained free agency to me in college.  My spam filter ate the email where the university told us that, after graduating, they would actually make people leave campus.  The thought honestly never occurred to me.  Even up until the very second when the school president handed me my degree, it never crossed my mind that I would then be forced to pack my belongings and exit, stage Real World.

So after I graduated, I did nothing.  And when I say that, I don’t mean it in the sense of, “bounced from job to job, backpacked through Costa Rica, and played daily games of ultimate Frisbee.”  I mean that I literally did nothing for 2 years.  I lived with my parents, didn’t work at all and lived off both their unbelievable patience and my life savings.  To my friends I flaunted the fact that I was taking an extended vacation from real life.  I bragged about sleeping all day and playing all night while my peers grappled with new jobs, new marriages, and the other struggles that come with an entry-level life.

It was all a cover-up.  I was a wreck.  I was Sean Connery with a blindfold on, crashing the Red October of my life into a Royal Caribbean cruise of Watching The Same SportsCenter Three Times In A Row.  The cocky college senior vanished; in his place was a helpless 22 year old with no marketable skills, one whose asylum of rational thought had been seized by the inmates of fear and self-doubt.  And so when I looked out on the world, I saw no Promised Land, only a barren ‘Krazy Kat’ landscape.  Wherever God was, I thought, He wasn’t out there, and whatever He was doing, it wasn’t any help to me.

At the time I didn’t see what Joshua’s spies did.  When they exclaimed “The Lord has given us the whole land”, the picture is of the Lord with arms stretched out in offering, as if Canaan were a surprise party He’d worked for months to throw.  I missed that.  I had no sense that God’s work of winning was already underway in the world, and, as a result, also in my life.  And so when it was time for me to cross into the Canaan of adult life, I pitched camp at the borderline and cowered at the giants in the land.  I was not a free agent.

I eventually got my act together and matured into a real adult with all the trappings, like a 401(k) and lingering guilt over my carbon footprint.  In so doing, I lived the good news of our free agency: that God has gone in front of us.  God’s omnipresence and omnipotence means that He isn’t just in every place right now, he’s in every place all the time, and when he is in every place all the time, he’s already at work. So as we walk our lives, we never step somewhere outside the work of the Lord.  And His providence to us in that free agent walk is the occasional meeting with a Rahab- someone or something that reminds us that God has already been there, saying to us in one way or another “I know the Lord has given you this land…”

Unless you count a 10 second recruiting speech I once got during 8th grade quick recall**, I don’t have any experience as an actual free agent.  But the book of Joshua validates my deeper free agent identity, and yours too.  Our lives are not solo flights across endless oceans.  We can trust that God is in the places where we’re going and already working his salvation plan, loving us enough to pave a landing strip for us in it.

**- Quick recall is an Academic Team event in which teams answer trivia questions using hand buzzers, ‘Jeopardy’ style.  It’s the type of game where a steroid scandal is kids injecting ginkgo biloba and then reading back issues of The Economist. 

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