Monday, February 10, 2020

My collection of collections, part 2: baseball cards

Baseball cards aren't a particularly random thing to collect (unlike souvenir monks). They are one of the most well-known things that people collect. Maybe not in the UK, though.

I first fell in love with baseball cards when I was 10 years old and we went on a family holiday to America. This was in 1987. The cards looked like this:

We had collected football stickers back home, and baseball cards were a bit like them, except that you got loads more in a pack for hardly any money at all, plus a stick of gum, and they were cards not flimsy stickers. The backs of the cards were covered in weird statistics and facts using incomprehensible terms. Of course I loved them. They were everything about America, that culture that was both foreignly weird and discomfortingly familiar. This was sports, but not as I knew it.

Baseball cards got me into baseball. I've since seen four major league baseball games while exploring North America, and been to the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown. I've watched the Boston Red Sox on Star Wars Night, and heard Art Garfunkel sing the American national anthem before a New York Mets game. But my first game was in San Diego, watching the Padres play the San Francisco Giants. Barry Bonds was the San Francisco star player and he had just been busted for using steroids, so the reaction to him from the Padres fans was savage.

Anyway, I have been a Padres fan since that first game, even though they aren't a successful team. As I've been collecting baseball cards I've tended to collect cards of Padres players, and one player in paticular, "Mr Padre", Tony Gwynn.

I still like random cards. I am about 40 cards away from completing the set of Topps cards from 1987 (there are hundreds in the set). I frequently ask friends who visit the USA to buy me a pack or two of baseball cards. But in terms of a collecting focus, Mr Padre is now it.

Tony Gwynn is a sporting hero of mine. He played for the Padres for 20 seasons. Baseball is all about the statistics and Tony's are stellar.  He won eight batting titles in his career, tied for the second-most in Major League Baseball history. He accumulated 3,141 career hits, one of just ten players to make 3,000 hits while only playing for one team. He had a .338 career batting average and never hit below .309 in any full season. Now what that means is that for about one in every three times Tony went up to bat he would get a hit and make it safely on base.  That ball comes at a batter at anything up to 95mph. Ordinary mortals can’t even see it.

In 1994, Tony was batting at .394 - almost a 40% success rate when the season was cut short because the baseball player's union called a general strike. The season ended in chaos. There was no World Series. In the summer of 94, Tony was in the form of his life, hitting .475 in 10 games in August just before the strike started. Tony was literally three hits short of .400 for the curtailed season. It's a classic 'what might have been' and remains the highest single season average since 1941.

4 of these cards look the same. But they aren't.

Tony played in the World Series in both 1984 and 1998; the only two times the Padres have made it to the World Series. In the World Series games he batted .371 - that's almost 4 hits every 10 times he went to bat. He was a 15-time All-Star - when the best players in the American League and the National League play against each other. He won seven Silver Slugger Awards for batting and five Gold Glove Awards for fielding. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2007, his first year of eligibility.

Tony Gwynn died at the age of 54, from cancer. Among the many tributes paid to Tony, many people  commented on his loyalty to the Padres, staying in San Diego even though there were several opportunities for him to leave and play elsewhere. In fact, his willingness to accept less money to stay in San Diego than move to another team got him in trouble with other baseball stars, because they said he was driving down the market value for top players.

He is "Mr Padre". When I saw his plaque in the Hall of Fame, I felt very emotional.

I've grouped some studio portrait style cards

Baseball cards have been produced by a number of different manufacturers. In addition to the regular cards (known as 'base') some players will appear on special subsets within sets (know as 'inserts'). For example, players who make the All Star team, lead the league in particular statistics, or achieve notable milestones tend to feature on these extra cards. So, as you can imagine Tony Gwynn appeared on lots of baseball cards. There are actually over 10,000 listed on various baseball card indexes.

While most of the cards in my folder were printed while Tony was still playing, new cards are still being made. This retro style one was printed last year.

So there are still plenty of cards to collect, and probably new ones will be produced this year. Currently I have about 175 different ones. I'd like to collect 394 as that seems a suitable number. I think I need to set myself a target limit before the house fills up with oblongs of cardboard.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

From a field to Anfield

This is just a silly football-related blogpost highlighting the extremes of watching football. On Saturday 1 February I was at Coronation Park, off Sloper Road in Cardiff watching Grange Albion of the South Wales Alliance Premier League play Merthyr Saints.

Merthyr set up to defend a corner

It was a decent game played in blustery conditions. Grange scored early then failed to score a number of really good chances. A couple of minutes before the end of the game, they conceded a penalty, which was duly converted, and the game ended in a draw.

Coronation Park is a football pitch next to the bus depot (site of a fun day out in times past!). I've given up making jokes about parking the bus, because my friend Tom who I go with didn't think it was funny the first fifteen times I said it. The rest of the ground backs on to houses and an abandoned playpark where the swings have been removed. I walked across the pitch and it's got daisies growing on it. It is literally a field.

Three days later I was watching Shrewsbury Town play Liverpool in the FA Cup replay at Anfield, one of the most famous grounds in football. There had been some controversy about the game because Liverpool were only going to play their under-23 team. Still, this was the first time Shrewsbury had ever played at Anfield and the universe, for once, conspired in my favour because I had some work booked in North Wales the following day, which had been in my diary for weeks before the fixture was announced. So I had a good reason to be in the vicinity.

It's fair to say Anfield was a bit different to Coronation Park.

A blue and amber huddle in a sea of red

8,000 Shrewsbury fans made the trip to Anfield, packing out the away end. It was the first time Shrewsbury had played with a Video Assisted Referee (VAR) and, as you would expect, after Shrewsbury scored, the officials rewound the tape until they found a reason to disallow the goal. What's the point of having VAR if it doesn't prevent one of the biggest clubs in the country going out of the top cup competition, after all? LiVARpool eventually went on and won the game, thanks to one of the Shrewsbury defenders panicking and heading the ball into his own net.

Shrewsbury will never have a better opportunity to win at Anfield than this game, and to lose it to an own goal is such a quintessentially Shrewsbury Town fan experience it almost beats losing for the fifth time at Wembley.

For me the contrast between where I was watching football on the Saturday and the Tuesday was the most amusing aspect. Football is football, whatever the surroundings look like. The game is still the game; the drama is still the drama; the disappointment is still the disappointment.

Friday, February 07, 2020

Book review: The Roman Cult of Mithras

I recently made a joyous discovery. As a member of a Cardiff University library in my workplace, I have borrowing rights at any Cardiff University library, including the humanities library. As I am next to that library two evenings a week at the moment for Welsh classes, I've been able to go in for a nostalgic wander.

I've been wanting to read up on Mithraism for a while. So after I had made my lending rights discovery, I had a look to see if there were any books about it. There were several. I avoided any that talked about being a "bold new interpretation" or "exciting theories" in the blurbs because those are usually signs of crank authors, and went for what seemed a fairly solid introduction: The Roman Cult of Mithras by Manfred Clauss.

Mithraism is often described as a competitor with early Christianity. It was widespread across the Roman Empire, with links mainly to military installations. Mithras was worshipped in artificially constructed caves called 'speloa' (presumably where we get the English word 'spelunking' meaning exploring caves from), or now often described as mithraea (singular: mithraeum). They were usually very small temples, with low ceilings, a carved relief showing the god Mithras killing a bull, some statues and some ritual tableware. Mithraea have been found from Hadrian's Wall to Turkey, with lots along the Danube, the outer edge of the Roman Empire where lots of army units were stationed.

We don't know a lot about Mithraism because no writings survive, so the cult has to be recontructed from the carvings and other artefacts. That's what I liked about this book. It was basically a description of archaelogical finds and the reader was left to interpret them. The author mentioned some of the theories that have been put forward but noted that it is all open to interpretation. I quite liked that openness about the lack of firm knowledge.

Information can also be gained from surviving Christian writings that regarded Mithras worshippers as pagan enemies. We have to be a bit careful taking those accounts at face value. But combined with the archaeological evidence, a picture of the cult can be built up.

  • Mithras was a religion for men. No women were members of the cult.
  • There were several stages that devotees worked through after an initiation ceremony.
  • People who joined the cult were given 'secret knowledge' once they had been initiated - that's why it's known as a "mystery cult". 
  • Priests were called "Father".
  • Devotees had a ritual meal of bread and wine together.
  • Mithras was identified as being a version of Sol, the invincible sun god. (Although sometimes not; in some depictions he just got to steer Sol's chariot for him)
  • The main motif of the bull-slaying is probably a mythologised way of saying the sun conquers night - the bull, with its crescent-shaped horns represents Luna, the moon, i.e. the night.
  • Believers may have thought worshipping Mithras, the Invincible Sun, would make them invincible - which may be why it was so popular with soldiers!

The cult of Mithras was very popular, but worshipping communities were small. There was a lot of variation in practice, and in the types of statue or scenes from Mthras's life depicted in the mithraea. It was a very personal religion, so people tended to carve or commission carvings that meant something specific to them, and place it in their local mithraeum.

Several of the mithraea that have been excavated seems to have been systematically destroyed at the end of the fifth century, with the carved wall reliefs smashed into tiny rubble. It's generally assumed that this was the work of Christian mobs - and there are comments in Christian writings about the destruction of "caves", most likely mithraea. Christianity was, of course, the official religion of the Empire by then, and the Church had become a highly organised centralised power. So it was easy for Christians to suppress the independent, isolated, small communities of Mithras worshippers.

It was really interesting learning more about this forgotten mystery cult. There are quite a few parallels with early Christian practice, and before Christianity became the unstoppable juggernaut of the Empire's official religion, the practices of Christians and Mithraists would have looked quite similar to outsiders. They would have both been bizarre little group meetings with their own peculiar ideas about god-men who were the light of the world. There is even a possible trinitarian version of Mithraism depicted on at least one carved relief.

It would be a stretch to posit a common origin for the similarities between the two religions, but it has made me wonder how much bled over from mystery religions like Mithraism into early Christian practice and teaching. It certainly seems possible.

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Maybe that weird religious mail is all just sensible marketing after all

After I posted recently about unsolicited religious mail (and how outlandish it tends to be), my friend Stewart (of late entry into the Christmas card audit fame) asked me if there was a possibility that I was on a database of people whose faith was "up for grabs".

That amused me. But then I thought about it and I thought, actually that would make sense. After all, marketing tends to work on  people who are susceptible to the product and anyone who has known me for any length of time will know I have an interest in religion. It makes a lot of sense to pitch religious ideas at people who are already known to have an interest. They are much more likely to buy into it.

I still don't know who sent me these

This is something that strikes me about the church planting craze. It seems to have slowed down a bit in Cardiff now, but one point it felt like people were moving here to plant churches every other week. But what I noticed from those is that a new church plant seemed to attract people who were already disaffected with their current church, or who were looking for a new experience, or who were between churches for whatever reason.

Having been a distant observer of my parents' church plant for a long time, I know that several of the "new" people who joined that church over time had come from other church traditions, or had moved from other areas and were looking for somewhere to call home. I don't know what the figures are for church plants comparing transfer growth with completely new conversions, but I bet the figures for transfer growth are higher than church planters would like to admit.

It's just simply easier to make sales to people who are already interested in the product. This is true of anything - it's why Amazon and other online retailers keep advertising stuff to you after you've bought something. I know people often say how stupid it is if, say, you buy a new headboard for your bed, and Amazon then keep targeting you with adverts for headboards. It does seem daft. Like how many of those will you need? But, what if you aren't happy with your purchase and decide to return it? There's a fail rate in all sales and those companies now know that you may be in the market again if your purchase doesn't work out. There's literally no other way of predicting who else would buy a headboard, so it makes sense to target that demographic.

Apply the same logic to religion, and every religious organisation looking to score 'sales' should be targeting people who are already religious, who may be feeling disaffected, alienated or bored by their current church, or even their current religion. It's got to be easier than convincing people with no interest in religion and who are doing fine without it.

So, maybe I am on a database somewhere. The question now is, how do I get off it?

Sunday, February 02, 2020

The Good Place - ethics and philosophy disguised as a sit-com [SPOILERS]

I discovered The Good Place during its first season, and I have loved it, even while it meandered a bit during it's difficult third season. Now that it has concluded I want to write a bit about it.


I will be talking about the twists and turns that the series took and so IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN IT ALL, and you want to watch it, DON'T READ THIS POST.

Seriously, there is a really good twist at the end of season one and I don't want to ruin it for you, but there is also a twist in season 4 that I want to write about here, so if you aren't up to date, come back when you are.

Or prepare to have it spoiled. Your choice.

Still reading? OK. Here we go.

The basic premise of The Good Place is that Eleanor Shelstrop (played by Kristin Bell) wakes up in a waiting room and is welcomed by an avuncular older man, Michael (played by Ted Danson), who reassures her that she is in the Good Place. Yes, she's died, but that's OK. Everything is fine. He proceeds to take her on a tour of her new residential environment, the 'Neighbourhood', which has been designed to cater to all her innermost wishes.

There's a problem, though. Eleanor is a selfish, awful person who shouldn't be in the Good Place. Her very presence causes chaos in the fabric of the post-life community she now inhabits. She confides this to her "soul mate", Chidi, who is an ethics professor and asks him to help her become a good person and worthy of her place in the Good Place.

Chidi agrees to help her and from that point on most episodes unpack a particular ethical or philosophical issue in an intelligent and accessible way. This includes serious discussions about whether "being good" out of fear of punishment, or for a reward, is actually good, or, in fact, selfish. What is true altruism? Is moral behaviour moral if you don't want to do it, but feel forced to act a certain way? Those are massive ethical questions and this is the first time I've seen them actually addressed directly in a sit-com.

(I think those are particularly pertinent questions to adherents of religions that offer the faithful the opportunity to escape hell or gain entry to paradise after death. It's coercive morality that makes people comply with expected patterns of behaviour out of fear of either going to hell or missing out on heaven. When scandals erupt from those authoritarian religions, it shouldn't really be a surprise. People in those religious environments don't consent to a certain moral code; they have it imposed on them and that's why they so often try to get away with breaking the rules that are imposed on them.)

The first series ends on a twist. None of the four main human characters had actually earned a place in the Good Place - which came as a surprise to two of them. In fact, the existential, philosophical torments of trying to help someone fake being good was an elaborate ruse. The Neighbourhood is actually part of the Bad Place, and Michael is a demon who has devised this place as a venue for eternal torture.

Unfortunately for Michael, the fake Good Place, was having a reformatory effect on Eleanor and the other characters, which is how they eventually realise they are in the Bad Place. Eleanor had changed so much she had acted in an unexpected way, admitting she didn't belong there, and causing Michael to frantically improvise. Now revealed as a demon, Michael had to resort to a finger-snapping reset of the entire Neighbourhood to end the series.

The beginning of the second series sees the main characters burn through Neighbourhood after Neighbourhood. Each time they see through the ruse. Each time Eleanor and Chidi fall in love. Each time they somehow end up becoming better people. Michael goes frantic with worry that he is about to be exposed as a fraud to his fellow demons and proposes a truce with the humans. His side of the bargain is to learn about ethics. There's a great episode about the Trolley Problem and choice-making when every option is awful. Then at the end of the series, the humans are returned to earth to see if their lives would turn out differently with different inputs into them.

That poses another interesting moral question. Can we really judge people for their actions if their actions are determined for them by their environment, their upbringing, the beliefs inculcated into them? That's a whole other branch of ethics that doesn't diminish the importance of moral decision-making, but begs the question whether it's even possible.

Into season 3, which took a while to get going. In this season the big reveal was that the entire system was broken and it was impossible for anyone to enter The Good Place because the interconnectedness of human beings meant that everyone was culpable for bad things happening. In a way, this was updated original sin, with sin inevitable because we all benefit in some way from things that disadvantage other people. The karmic mud sticks to us. Again, that was an interesting concept. Not quite as accessible as the earlier stuff, but deep nonetheless.

And so to the final season, which has just finished. In this series, the four pivotal humans are tasked with trying to improve four other people to prove that humans can become better. As a result they build an afterlife system that enable people to grow into mature, moral, responsible humans worthy of living in the Good Place. A kind of purgatory system, if you will. The main characters are transported to the real Good Place, where there is a final twist.

The actual Good Place is an eternal bliss-filled existence where you do whatever makes you happy all the time. Except, in a twist, that sort of existence turns your brain to mush. It's actually horrible and the people who are there have grown to hate it.

Eternity is one of those concepts that sounds good in the pages of a holy book, but when you actually think about it, is awful. Unending existence doing the same thing, or even unending new experiences, is not really comprehensible. It would rob existence of meaning.

The solution in the final episodes of the show are to provide a way out; a final door from the Good Place into nothingness. In a very touching final episode, each of the main characters, even Michael, reaches a point where they are ready to leave the Good Place, and cease to exist. They are reconciled to not existing any more and they are ready to go. When he announces that he has had enough, Chidi cites a Buddhist teaching about a wave crashing on the beach, which really resonated with me.

In Chidi's summary, if we see a wave on the ocean, we can measure its height and the refraction of sunlight from it, and then the wave crashes on the beach, and it ceases to exist. But the water is still there. The wave had gone, but the water has returned to its original form. It's how it was before.

I really like that as a metaphor for death. It reminds of a book I read about the universe's origin in ripples of quantum energy, and if we wanted to get all science-mystical about it, we could talk about those ripples having temporary consciousness before returning to the underlying energy grid of the universe.

The final episode was sad, but not tragic. The goodbyes were sincere not maudlin. And the concepts were as important as ever. There are very few programmes, especially comedies, that treat its audience as smart enough to think about mortality and what it means to be human, and live our lives connected to other humans in such a way that we make the world a better place.

The Good Place was a good show. It made me think a good deal. And that is what I enjoyed about it most.