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The Wild Thing: Public Shaming and the Image of God

Mitch “The Wild Thing” Williams embodied the 1993 Phillies. His greasy curls bolted out from under his hat and a thick wad of chewing tobacco earned permanent resident status in his cheek. He was not the most talented player in the league, but he was certainly the most colorful. And when the Phillies took a lead into the ninth inning, they would call on the The Wild Thing to pitch well enough to hold the lead and secure the victory for the good guys.

Williams had a fairly successful career. Making it to the big leagues is a feat in itself, but he even pitched well enough to earn the closer role for the ragtag group of Phillies that nearly won the World Series. But it’s neither his antics nor his abilities that etched him in history. It was one sad moment. One mistake on a massive stage.

Today, baseball fans remember The Wild Thing for this one moment, a practice we’re all prone to repeat.

To this day, I have no idea how the Phillies made it to the 1993 World Series. Their unlikely journey forged my loyalty to the team and to the sport. As a 10-year-old, the starless roster made them all the more endearing. John Kruk looked like a crazed mountain man who loved the buffet line. Kevin Stocker barely looked old enough to vote, let alone play shortstop. Dave Hollins was like a high-strung linebacker trapped in a baseball player’s uniform.

All together, this team of very mediocre players somehow managed to win. A lot. The Wild Thing helped them along the way, successfully preserving victories in 43 games during the 1993 season, despite his all-too-true moniker. His pitches were as likely to soar over the catcher, as they were to land in his mitt. It wasn’t always pretty, but The Wild Thing got the job done. Mostly.

But then the moment arrived, in game six of the World Series against the Toronto Blue Jays. Heading into the bottom of the ninth inning, the Phillies gave Mitch Williams the ball and asked him to hold a two run lead. Then, with two Blue Jays on the bases, the mighty Joe Carter stepped to the plate. Carter, an aging superstar, swatted a massive home run in a tie game and single-handedly pierced the heart of this young fan. He ended the game and won the World Series in dramatic fashion, forever securing his place in baseball lore.

About that unfortunate moment, Mitch Williams said, “Almost as soon as it left my hands, I knew I made a mistake.”

It’s been 22 years since that mistake, but this one thing is the first association most people have when hearing Mitch Williams’ name. Williams and Carter are indelibly linked. One the hero, the other the goat. Williams is not alone in his sports infamy. Bill Buckner’s name harkens to mind for Red Sox fans. Steve Bartman for Cubs’ fans. We miss all the good and remarkable qualities of Williams, Buckner and Bartman and almost exclusively remember that one thing.

We name people by their blunders outside of sports as well. The surge in online shaming and virtual mobs has taken down prominent television hosts, politicians and pastors alike, sometimes just because of “one stupid tweet.” Some of this is justified, of course. Leaders ought to be held accountable for their actions and their miscues. But are we comfortable with a culture that does not permit mistakes?

“Every man, woman, and child bears the reflection of God.”

Perhaps this is a stretch, but I believe this same sentiment exists in how we think and talk about people living in poverty. I live in the generation that grew up watching Sally Struthers conduct charity infomercials from war-torn and famine-struck lands. These scenes of bloated bellies and flies-in-the-eyes began to forge my associations of these places and the people who lived there (somewhat rightly). Slowly, the humanity of people living in these places begins to degrade. I become fixated on one thing—their lack of financial resources—and miss so much that is beautiful and right.

When we see only that one thing, our sentiments are shaped. The Christian view of the world, of course, has a different starting point. We believe every man, woman, and child bears the reflection of God. This is the first thing we learn about humanity in the scriptures.

When we reckon with that truth, our associations and reflexes ought to be trained to see people with a new lens. This changed view allows us to see Moses as someone who led his people out of slavery, not a coward who shirked his responsibilities. It allows us to see David as brave king, not the murdering adulterer he also was. It allows us to show grace to The Wild Thing and to first see the dignity and strength of people living on a dollar-a-day. We don’t ignore the problems, mistakes and challenges facing people, of course, but we resist the urge to define them by that alone.

This post originally appeared at Smorgasblurb.

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