Trying to out the Christian baseball team

baseball prayerSometimes a reporter has an idea for a story, but the facts just don't hang together tightly, and the story must be modified to fit the facts on the ground. Usually this means the story is less dramatic. Bob Nightengale's USA Today cover story Wednesday on the supposed religious revival in the Colorado Rockies' clubhouse is such a story. It was a good idea to interview a bunch of major league ball players about their faith and how they believe it gives the historically horrific organization sudden success, but the article needed to be adjusted to fit the facts. It wasn't, and that's too bad.

The cover article was quickly followed by reports in The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News. Both articles quoted players and clubhouse managers who expressed deep disappointment with Nightengale's article. I get the feeling that no one was happy with the piece -- otherwise you'd think one of the newspapers would have found that person. The consensus seems to be that Nightengale's story falls flat on its face when it comes to portraying the Rockies clubhouse accurately.

After reading through the USAT article a couple of times, and before reading the local newspaper articles, I found myself coming to a similar conclusion, despite minimal knowledge of baseball culture and nearly no previous information on the Rockies. Nightengale overreaches in stating that the Christian aspect of the team is "from ownership on down." That's a rather grand statement. It's an apparent overstatement in this case.

I think the Rockies' story is a bit simpler and less controversial. The article strongly implies that one must be a Christian to be a member of the organization. Such is not the case. Such a policy would be idiotic for a major league sports organization.

From what I can tell, recruiting players of character has become a top priority at the organization, and those players tend to back up that reputation of good character with their words and actions. It's definitely a good story and it should be told, but the premise of the article falls through quickly:

On the field, the Rockies are trying to make the playoffs for the first time in 11 seasons and only the second time in their 14-year history. Behind the scenes, they quietly have become an organization guided by Christianity -- open to other religious beliefs but embracing a Christian-based code of conduct they believe will bring them focus and success.

From ownership on down, it's an approach the Rockies are proud of -- and something they are wary about publicizing. "We're nervous, to be honest with you," Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd says. "It's the first time we ever talked about these issues publicly. The last thing we want to do is offend anyone because of our beliefs."

The article implies that O'Dowd is backing up the article's premise -- that the Rockies ball club is an explicitly Christian organization. Nightengale reaches for anything and everything to make it stick:

  • No racy magazines in the clubhouse (despite a player's denying this in the Rocky article); only sports and car magazines and the Bible
  • No obscenity-laced music
  • Only hushed cursing
  • Scripture quotes (references not noted) in the weight room
  • Chapel is full on Sundays
  • Tuesday prayer meetings are well-attended
  • Front office executives pray together

Those quoted in the article supporting the premise that the team is stocking up on Christians in an attempt to bring the Rockies out of mediocrity support these moves on a theory known as the prosperity gospel. And the article seems to buy into that theory. The Rockies were a horrid team for many years. They have also had some personnel problems. But it's nothing that would make the Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s blush. The theology that success will follow Christians has no basis in the Gospel of Christ or in reality.

A quote in the Post article backed up the impression that the Christian dimension of the team is driven by character, not the other way around. Nightengale's view of the team doesn't quite fit the reality on the ground:

"It was just bad. I am not happy at all. Some of the best teammates I have ever had are the furthest thing from Christian," pitcher Jason Jennings said. "You don't have to be a Christian to have good character. They can be separate. It was misleading."

[First baseman] Todd Helton and Jennings were quoted supporting the article's premise regarding religion's role in the clubhouse. But both said they never were asked about religion, and were questioned only in general terms about the clubhouse environment.

"I wouldn't say it was accurate. (The writer) asked me about the guys in here and I said it's a good group. We work hard and get along well," Helton said.

Then there is the section dealing with former Rockies player Mark Sweeney, who speculates that some members of the organization are just playing along with the whole religion thing to hold on to their jobs. Since when do reporters include the speculations of former employees? Does Sweeney know this for a fact? I doubt he does. I wonder if Nightengale was able to get any of the current Rockies to talk about this. Perhaps they asked that their concerns not be mentioned publicly. If so, Nightengale should have said that anonymous players agreed with Sweeney's assessment. If not, Sweeney's speculations are worthless.

As Nightengale attempts to delve into a controversy he himself has created with a poorly premised article -- is it right for a ball club to be explicitly Christian? -- the responses mostly reflect bafflement. It's those questions that should be answered with an "I disagree with the premise of your question" answer.

Overall I am pretty disappointed with the story and I'm glad the local newspapers called USA Today out for it. There is definitely a story to be told here. The managers of the Rockies are openly Christian and their faith has helped them realize that they want to recruit players of character. But by no means is this a revival or an attempt to embrace "a Christian-based code of conduct" that the players "believe will bring them focus and success."

On a side note, the photo that accompanied the article is incredibly lame. What are the newspaper's art people implying here? That the players are looking, waiting, for the return of Jesus Christ? There are players who regularly pray together. Is this a photo of them praying? If so, say so.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the Flickr photo I found of Nomar Garciaparra praying before the start of a Chicago Cubs game.

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