After I posted Tim Townsend's story on Christian Family Day at St. Louis' Busch Stadium, a few readers sent along an article on baseball and Santeria. Los Angeles Times sportswriter Kevin Baxter penned a thorough and engaging account of the rise of Santeria practice among Major League players from Latin America:
On a shelf in the office of Chicago White Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen, mixed in among the family photos, the Roberto Clemente bobblehead and the Napoleon Dynamite figurine, are four small but intimidating religious icons.
"If you see my saints, you'll be like 'Golly, they're ugly,'" Guillen had said before inviting a visitor to come in. "They've got blood. They've got feathers. You go to the Catholic church, the [saints] have got real nice clothes. My religion, you see a lot of different things you never see."
Guillen's religion is Santeria, a largely misunderstood Afro-Cuba spiritual tradition that incorporates the worship of orisha -- multidimensional beings who represent the forces of nature -- with beliefs of the Yoruba and Bantu people of Africa and elements of Roman Catholicism. And Guillen, born in Venezuela, is one of a growing number of Latin American players, managers and coaches who are followers of the faith.
The article is fantastic, but I had one problem with it. Baxter repeatedly says the religion is misunderstood without substantiating that it's misunderstood. He references a scene from the movie Major League where the religion is joked about (I riffed on this for the post's headline) and says that "Judeo-Christian society" dismisses the religion as a blood-letting cult. But no one who has a problem with Santeria is actually quoted in the article -- either anti-animal cruelty advocates or religious opponents. It is at the very least theoretically possible that people oppose, joke about or dismiss Santeria while fully cognizant of what it teaches. I'm not sure it's up to the reporter to be the arbiter of what's understood and what's misunderstood. Rather, he should report about it and let the reader decide. Including quotes from practitioners who feel it is misunderstood is perfectly acceptable, but crossing the editorial line to make a judgment about same is questionable.
Other than that, however, the piece is remarkably thorough and smart, particularly considering its writer's expertise is sports. Baxter explains how Santeria practitioners sacrifice vegetables as well as animals and have complex relationships with chosen saints. He also talks to athletes who have felt their religious views were under attack:
"When you talk about that religion in the States, people think you're a monster," said Guillen, whose children were baptized in the Catholic faith and have become, like their father, babalaos. "Sometimes you have to be careful what you say about religion and when and how. Because in this country there's so many different ideas, people get offended so easy.
"People call me a criminal because we do stuff with blood and animals. I don't blame these people. They believe what they believe and I believe what I believe. Have I ever killed an animal in the States to do my religion? No. I did in my country."
Guillen said there's another popular misconception with Santeria -- indeed, with many religions -- and that's the belief that how you worship will determine how you play.
"Some people think because [their] religion works they're going to get a hit or pitch better," he said "That's no reason to do it. I think the main reason to have a religion is faith and belief. No matter what you believe and what you have faith in, you have to make it work.
Not that I don't find baseball to be the game with the most similarities to religion, but it's still shocking to see a sportswriter get religion better than almost all the other reporters out there. Good work, Baxter.