Christians in the outfield

GodbaseballSo I'm a fanatic of the reigning World Champion St. Louis Cardinals. But, uh, we didn't do so well this year and didn't even make it to the postseason. Good thing that the Colorado Rockies made October so interesting. From mid-September, when they were in fourth place in the National League West, they have won a crazy 21 out of 22 games, sneaking into the playoffs as the wild card team (which they accomplished by beating the San Diego Padres in a one-game playoff), and obliterating their opponents in the National League Division and championship series.

As a Colorado native who was in college when the Rockies first came to Denver, it has been awesome to watch their unlikely run. As they prepare for Game 1 of the World Series against the evil Boston Red Sox, I rather enjoyed Ben Shpigel's story about the role religion plays in the lives of the Rockies players, management and owners. Maybe I'm so used to reading stories where secular writers place the worst construction on any mixing of sports and religion, but this lede in the New York Times seemed to encapsulate the attitude of the team quite well:

As a Jewish player who attended a Catholic high school and a Lutheran university, Jason Hirsh knows what being a religious minority feels like. So last December, when he was traded to the Colorado Rockies, Hirsh wondered if what he had heard about his new organization was true.

Now, Hirsh said not once during the season had he felt uncomfortable with the place Christianity occupies within the organization.

"There are guys who are religious, sure, but they don't impress it upon anybody," Hirsh said. "It's not like they hung a cross in my locker or anything. They've accepted me for who I am and what I believe in."

Shpigel mentions that May 2006 USA Today article that riled folks with tales of Christian codes of conduct, the abolition of Playboy from the clubhouse -- replaced with the Bible. But Schpigel says that the players and officials he spoke with this week felt the article was unfair and implied that the Rockies were intent on hiring Christians. There is a story here, but not the one USA Today tried to pin on the team. Schpigel allows players to explain themselves fully:

Asked how his own Christian faith affected his decision-making, General Manager Dan O'Dowd acknowledged it came into play, but not in a religious way. He said it guided him to find players with integrity and strong moral values, regardless of their religious preference.

"Do we like players with character? There is absolutely no doubt about that," O'Dowd said during a recent interview in his Coors Field office. "If people want to interpret character as a religious-based issue because it appears many times in the Bible, that's their decision. I believe that character is an innate part of developing an organization, and to me, it is nothing more than doing the right thing at the right time when nobody's looking. Nothing more complicated than that.

"You don't have to be a Christian to make that decision."

Shpigel is a pretty darn good religion reporter for a sports reporter. He gets details about the concentration of Christians on the team, how many go to chapel on Sundays (about 10), and how many attend mid-week Bible studies (around 7).

But again, Schpigel's sources say, it's more about character, even when it's difficult. In 2004, pitcher Denny Neagle (in a $51.5 million contract) was arrested for soliciting a prostitute. He was gone three days later; the Rockies paid him $16 million to never pitch for them again. O'Dowd says that character -- and not a specific religious affiliation -- is what they look for. But it's still a clubhouse, Shpigel notes:

To be sure, this is not a bunch of teetotalers, as demonstrated by the Champagne- and beer-soaked celebrations that followed their series-clinching victories. They do not censor the clubhouse stereo, either. Everything from hip-hop to alternative music, like the Amy Winehouse song "Rehab," played on a loop Saturday morning. . . .

"When you have as many people who believe in God as we do, it creates a humbleness about what we do," [reliever Jeremy] Affeldt said. "I don't see arrogance here, I see confidence. We're all very humbled about where this franchise has been and where it is now, and we know that what's happening now is a very special thing."

As I was getting ready to post this, Mark Stricherz, my super smart friend who has a book on Democratic politics and religion coming out tomorrow (don't worry, I'll remind you tomorrow, too), sent along a story from the Washington Post.

After reading Shpigel's piece in the Times, Vince Bzdek's piece was particularly craptacular. For one thing, it was so bad that it had to run on page one of the Style section (where the Post writers remove their thin veneer of objectivity and a gush of snark comes out). So we know it's not really about sports. That was also confirmed by the reporter's inability to, you know, interview any of the Rockies instead of requoting them from previous stories. Even if they claimed previous stories distorted their views. Good work, Bzdek!

The Colorado Rockies believe in the Church of Baseball, too, and right now, many of the players and staff think God has smiled on their particular congregation. After winning 21 out of the last 22 games and ascending to the World Series for the first time in franchise history, the only way several team members can explain what's going on is to cite divine intervention -- when they are allowed to. . . .

Though team managers and Major League Baseball have tried to downplay the team's religious zeal after an article last year in USA Today quoted several managers and players as saying a Christian-based code of conduct is the root of their success, the signs are still pretty clear that the Rockies believe God is their biggest fan.

After the Padres game, for example, pitcher Ramon Ortiz, who makes the sign of the cross on the way to the mound, said he thanked God "a hundred times." Yorvit Torrealba usually makes the sign of the cross when he runs onto the field, too, and many Rockies players point a finger to heaven after a play goes their way. Several of the players, including Holliday and Todd Helton, have crosses dangling from their necks.

You know why the newspaper biz is doing so poorly? Not enough snark against religious people. I'm glad Bzdek is here to rescue the fishwrappers from obscurity. I mean, maybe not in the Washington Post newsroom, but making the sign of the cross and cross pendants aren't exactly unheard of in America. playball The tone deafness to religion is furthered by the Post's automatic hyperlinking of the word "Damascus" in the inapt and inept use of the phrase road-to-Damascus conversion. We've discussed this before. Here's another example of the inadequacy of this hit piece:

"We started going after character six or seven years ago, but we didn't follow that like we should have," [Chief Executive Officer Charlie Monfort] told USA Today. "I don't want to offend anyone, but I think character-wise we're stronger than anyone in baseball. I believe God sends signs, and we're seeing those."

Rockies officials now say their true emphasis has always been character, not religion.

Asked by the Denver Post what role religion played in assembling the team's roster, Manager Clint Hurdle said: "We look for men of character, men of skills. Their [religious beliefs] are not a question that is even brought up. That those have a common fabric with Christianity is not a coincidence. But values are the issue."

Okay, Bzdek, When someone says they emphasize character -- also mentioning that they believe God is blessing this decision -- that doesn't mean the, uh, "true emphasis" (whatever that means) of the team is religion. So the line "Rockies officials now say ..." is completely ridiculous. You use the word "now" to indicate a change. But the two quotes (that other reporters got) in which you sandwiched this supposed change don't indicate a change. I know the Style section's journalism suffers daily but this is kind of Logic 101, if not Newswriting 101.

Anyway, Bzdek ends the piece by quoting, of course, Bull Durham. You know, the whole thing about streaks and how to keep streaks alive, before closing with the sarcastic tone we love so much:

If the Rockies believe they're playing well because of their faith or because of their commitment to character, then, what the hey, they probably are.

The story of the Rockies is interesting. The religious overtones are impossible to ignore.

But newsrooms don't need to put the worst possible construction on a team just because some of them are Christian and actually care about doing their jobs as Christians. Perhaps the Washington Post even has a few Christians in its newsrooms who care about character and teamwork. It could happen.

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