The rules shall set you free

We got a lot of minds in bondage, so it’s time we set ’em free

Don’t believe in somethin’ ’cause you saw it on TV

What good is the body without control of the brain?

Those are the rules of the game.

— “Rules of the Game,” 4th Avenue Jones

You shall know the rules, and the rules shall set you free.

Okay, I’m fudging a little on that quote, but stay with me anyway. Sometimes the rules do set us free. All of us have, from time to time, been in a position to benefit from a superior knowledge of the rules that define the situations we find ourselves in.

Don’t believe me? Think about that the next time you get a parking or speeding ticket. I know plenty of people who make it a standard practice to contest any and all tickets levied against them by local law enforcement. If the officer fails to show up, there’s a good chance your violation will get thrown out and you won’t have to pay. Those are the rules. And sometimes all it takes is being ready, in the right place, at the right time, to take advantage of the right opportunity – and bam – suddenly you’re sittin’ pretty.

If you’re Steve Martin’s character in “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” then an overbooked commercial flight is a nightmare. But if you were like I was during my college years, then every time you get ready to board the return flight of a round-trip plane ticket, you got to the gate early and hoped the flight was overbooked. Because at the time, many airlines had the standing policy of offering a free night’s stay in a local hotel to ticketed passengers who volunteered to give up their seats. Now that I’m almost out of my twenties and I travel more often, a free night’s stay in a hotel wouldn’t be that big a deal to me. But back then… shoot. A free night’s stay in somewhere nicer than my dorm room? Sign a brotha up.

Strike Three… ?

I bring all this up to set the stage to tell you about one of the most remarkable stories ever to occur in the history of sports. Unless you go out of your way to avoid casual sports conversation, there’s a good chance you’ve already heard about this, but unless you know the whole story, you might not fully understand its significance. In Game 2 of the 2005 American League Championship series between the Chicago White Sox and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (yes, that really is their name), the game was tied at 1 in the bottom of the ninth. There were two outs, no men on base, and White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski was at the plate, facing an 0-2 count from Angels pitcher Kelvim Escobar. The pitcher delivered a nasty splitter, and A.J. swung mightily – and missed. Exhaling in disappointment, A.J. turned began his walk back toward the dugout, when – ZOIP! – he was hit with a brilliant epiphany.

Major league baseball rule# 6.0.5 states that if the batter swings and misses a third strike, and the pitch that he was swinging for hits the dirt, the batter isn’t out until the catcher either tags him or throws him out at first. And Angels catcher Josh Paul never tagged him out. So Pierzynski decided, on the off chance that his third strike actually did end up in the dirt, he would just go for it. As the rest of the Angels were running toward the dugout, A.J. took off and sprinted to first base. After conferring with each other, the umpires ruled him safe at first – and the home crowd roared in approval.

Thrilled to have another chance to win the game, the White Sox took advantage. Pablo Ozuna stole second base on the very next pitch, and then Smokin’ Joe Crede hit an RBI double to bring Ozuna home.

Ballgame. Sox win, 2-1.

History will look back fondly on this White Sox team. Not only did they manage to wring out a victory with such a bizarre turn of events, they went on to sweep both the Angels and the Houston Astros to claim their first World Series title in 88 years. In the final four games of their series with L.A/Anaheim, White Sox starting pitchers Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland, Freddy Garcia and Jose Contreras set a record by pitching four consecutive complete games. This squad and the 1999 New York Yankees are the only teams ever to go through a three-round postseason with only one loss. With such an impressive run through the playoffs, it’s hard to remember how easily it could have gone the other way.

In Game 1 of that same ALCS, the Angels were supposed to be the tired ones. After having played five exhausting games against the Yankees, they had to fly to Chicago the next day to play the well-rested White Sox… and they beat those well-rested White Sox like they stole something. Outhit them, outhustled them, outfielded them, just flat-out outplayed them. So the tied score in Game 2 reached closer and closer to the end, Sox fans were starting to get nervous. Their team was being outplayed again, and they did NOT want to have to go into Anaheim in an 0-2 series hole.

Yet, when everything was at its bleakest, somehow the freak Pierzynski strike-three-that-wasn’t gave the Sox new life, and they managed to capitalize. Cynics and Angelenos (who, lets face it, are usually one-and-the-same) were incensed, claiming another Chicago fix was in the works. Considering Mayor Daley is a huge White Sox fan, well… they had a point. But the fact of the matter is Pierzynski knew the rules of the game, and his team was able to benefit from that knowledge. If that particular rule wasn’t there, then there wouldn’t be any controversy.

Which begs the question – why is the rule there, anyway?

Rules… What’s Up With That?

Any discussion of rules will inevitably get back to those types of questions. When the rules or laws of a particular situation dictate the occurrence of significant phenomena, then it makes people wonder about how those rules or laws ever came to be.

This, by the way, is one of the central questions posed within the Intelligent Design debate. It wasn’t that a bunch of lesser-known scientists with inferiority complexes sat up one morning and figured out a way to strike back at all those godless infidels in their local state university science department. I mean, come on. There are certainly a lot of backward Christians out there, but we’re not all that far gone. On the contrary, many scientists have told us that their observations about the world around us suggests that there are natural laws, laws that generally describe the way things tend to be in the observable domain we call earth. The main driving force behind the intelligent design movement to ask the question of why — why are these natural laws in place the way that they are? Is there anyone out there responsible?

In the case of the Sox/Angels third strike rule, I’m not really sure. Maybe it’s there so that if a pitcher’s slider is falling so hard that it hits the dirt, the batter still has a chance to make something happen. Maybe it was a little wild-card, monkey wrench thrown in there to liven things up and prevent pitching from being too dominant. I don’t know. But I know that people will remember it, just like people still remember the NFL’s “tuck rule” that helped the New England Patriots beat the Oakland Raiders in 2002.

And it amazes me that people will scrutinize these rules so closely. I don’t mean league officials or team personnel – it’s their job to scrutinize rules inside and out. No, I’m talking about players and fans, people who are frustrated with the outcome of the game and choose to lash out at the rule, instead of being upset at the poor play the rule illuminated. It’s always amazing to me when that happens. I remember one year, after the Los Angeles Lakers had beaten the Sacramento Kings in the playoffs (again), there were many who complained about the slanted officiating. Even noted consumer watchdog Ralph Nader got into the act, calling on the leaguer commissioner to look into the matter and ensure fairness. But no matter how terrible the officiating may have been, it was still the Kings who couldn’t put the ball in the basket when it counted most. Even diehard Kings fans have to admit that.

Rules… They Ain’t All That

Which is why, in my opinion, the rules are important – but they’re not everything.

The rules of basketball, for example, are pretty simple overall. Don’t run with the ball without bouncing it. Put the ball in the opposing team’s hoop more times than they put it in yours. On the face of things, these are very simple rules. Yet the best basketball players in the world are never defined solely by their ability to know the rules. When you’re a professional, knowing the rules is a given. It’s what you do with that knowledge, how you choose to respond to those rules that makes you distinctive or not.

For example, NBA players like Bill Laimbeer and Vlade Divac were all known for their uncanny ability to exploit the rules in their favor. Laimbeer was a very physical player, and he would often incite the wrath of opposing players with his rough style of play. But he would do covertly enough that, if his opposing player was a hothead, the referees would only see his opponent fouling him and not the other way around. This, of course, would infuriate his opponents and delight his teammates. On a good night, Laimbeer could get one of the opposing team members ejected for retaliating in violence. Divac, on the other hand, took the nonviolent approach. His defensive specialty was known as flopping. When he was guarding a player who had the ball, and his guy would make a move toward the basket, Divac would fall over — in order to make it look like the opponent charged into him. If he was successful, his team would be awarded the ball, and if the opposition had just scored a basket, it would be taken away. In both cases, Divac and Laimbeer would rarely try to blatantly violate the rules of basketball. But they knew enough about how the rules were written and enforced to do any little thing they could do in order to gain an advantage over their foes.

It’s How You Play the Game

If that sounds dirty or underhanded, well… for some people, it’s a way of life. Many attorneys, for example, are paid to do the same thing in the legal arena. Some corporate attorneys get paid six-or-seven-figure salaries to find loopholes in the tax code so that companies can pay as little in taxes as they possibly can.

This is why legality does not necessarily translate to morality. If you follow the rules – ie., the law – then, generally speaking, you’re probably doing the right thing. But that’s not an absolute truth. Sometimes, especially in the area of law, bad people do bad things to good people, and the laws can’t prevent them from doing so. The people who make the laws – legislators – do their best to try to anticipate people’s needs by drafting more and more laws to protect people. But those laws can only go so far. They can’t change people’s minds.

So most of us follow the rules most of the time, but usually only grudgingly so. We don’t necessarily like the rules as much as we like what abiding by the rules can help to ensure. I mean, look at this new NBA dress code policy. (If you haven’t heard about it, the new business-casual dress code is the league’s response to a perceived “image problem,” which is a nice euphemism for “too many wealthy White people are alienated by hip-hop culture.”) NBA players have been commenting freely in the press, saying it’s ridiculous, and one player even called it racist. Being currently employed in a corporate environment, yet still being young, Black, and talented, I can definitely see this one both ways. It’s somewhat hypocritical for the league to use hip-hop culture in it’s marketing strategy, but then later crack down on that same style and culture because it makes a few of the suits nervous. At the same time, though, the NBA is a business before it’s anything else. David Stern has a right to protect the brand of his constituents by requiring the players to dress up when they’re conducting league business. So players will whine and moan at first, but at the end of the day they’ll be trying to get paid like anybody else. So if making that happen means goodbye Rocawear, hello Ralph Lauren – so be it.

Rules Can’t Change the Heart

Rules are rules, and we’ll only obey them if we think we’ll get something worthwhile out of it.

This is why I fudged on the quote in the very beginning, and those of you who know the Bible were probably squirming around wondering what I was thinking. What Jesus really said was, “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” But he wasn’t talking about a set of rules, he was talking about Himself. He referred to himself as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. But so often people equate knowing the rules with knowing the truth, and the results can be devastating.

The rules say that all people are created equal and that no one should be subject to abuse or harassment simply because of the color of their skin. But the truth is that prejudice and ignorance lie dormant of even the most well-meaning souls, and bad things can happen if we don’t deal with it ahead of time.

The rules say that if a woman tells a man she does not want to have sex, he must comply with her words, period. But the truth is, words are only one part of the way we communicate, which is why mothers and fathers don’t want their daughters going out wearing tight skirts and low-cut blouses.

The rules say that if you work hard and put some money away in a retirement fund, that money should be there when you’re ready to retire. But the truth is, sometimes the market crashes. Sometimes white collar crimes of embezzlement and insider trading end up costing stockholders their life savings.

In other words, you can’t always trust in following the rules if you want everything to come out okay.

Rules for Christians

Many times, when my high school friends found out I was a Christian, they would ask me all sorts of questions about what I could and couldn’t do. And most of my answers had little to do with Christian orthodoxy and more to do with which stuff would get me in trouble with my parents. What they were trying to find out was, what did the rules allow me to do? Sometimes the rules were more restrictive than my friends would have thought, and other times they were more flexible than they expected. But generally speaking, they learned to equate my faith in God with an extensive set of shoulds and should-nots.

So I found it to be rather shocking when I got into college and I found other Christians who didn’t have the same rules as I had growing up. Where I had rules like “thou shalt not drink beer or smoke cigarettes,” they had rules like, “thou shalt not vote Democrat or watch R-rated movies.” After awhile, all the artificial righteousness we were gleaning from all of our rules was starting to look a little silly. I mean, how are we Christians supposed to hold each other accountable to the rules when we don’t even agree on what all the rules are, anyway?

It wasn’t until much later in my faith journey that I made a rather shocking realization:

God Doesn’t Care About the Rules

In the grand scheme of things, God doesn’t really care whether or not we follow the rules.

At least, not the way we care about it. He cares about people following rules in the same way that state troopers care about the speed limit – which is to say, only as it relates to people’s lives. State troopers aren’t inherently nosy, meddlesome folk. They wouldn’t give a rat-tail comb about the speed limit if it didn’t help save lives. Ideally, what motivates our fine state troopers is the desire to keep people safe on the highway. The rules about traffic are just an objective marker to measure the overall safety of our driving environment.

And it’s the same way with God. He doesn’t care about the rules, He cares about us. He didn’t give us these rules about how we need to live because He was bored and needed someone or something to play with. He gave us some rules as a way for us to identify the things that might make life go sour. He gave us the rules because He wants us to experience the life He’s had in mind for us – a life rich with love, joy, and excitement. He wants us to have life to the fullest.

But he knows that some things could get in the way of that. So he gave us the rules to help us see the things that might come in between us and Him. He knows, for example, that jealousy and envy tends to causes unnecessary strife and an unhealthy sense of competition. So He said, “Guess what… the situation I gave you? Be satisfied with that. Don’t go around trying to have what everybody else has. Just enjoy what I gave you.” And He knows that the whole sleeping-around-so-you-won’t-be-lonely thing actually makes you more lonely (not less), so He says, “You know what? Just be married to one person.” And so on, and so forth.

This is why the Apostle Paul, as He reflected on trying to live according to the rules, said this:

For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:3-4, NASB)

What Paul knew was that many believers would be tempted to go the way of the Pharisees, finding their accomplishment not in loving God but in feeling smug from superior knowledge. Like Agents in The Matrix, they existed solely within a system that was built on rules, and because of that, they could never be as righteous as Christ was. So Jesus, by living as God embodied in man, set out to give us a fuller picture of God by making things simpler. He basically broke all the rules down to be two simple rules – love God, and love your neighbor like yourself.

So if you’re struggling because you feel like you don’t know all the rules, then relax. You don’t need to.

Not because the rules aren’t important. They are. But what’s more important is to know the Ruler. If you do, you’ll realize that having a real, satisfying relationship with the Creator of the universe is a lot more mind-blowing and satisfying than memorizing a book of regulations.

In short, it rules.

I’m G*Natural, and thanks for mixin’ it up with me.

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