Far too many journalists are "tone deaf to the music of religion," as commentator Bill Moyers once told GetReligion's own Terry Mattingly.
I get that sense about an in-depth Houston Chronicle profile of former Astros pitching great J.R. Richard that appeared on Sunday's front page.
At repeated junctures in this otherwise excellent and nuanced piece, facts and details appear that seem to scream, "There's a religion angle here! Please ask Richard about his faith journey and what he believes about God!"
Instead, it's as if the Chronicle can't hear that voice and instead moves forward with unrelated material, leaving obvious questions unanswered.
The first clue of a religion angle comes right up top.
See where Richard is speaking:
The most terrifying pitcher ever to have called the Astrodome home slowly pushes himself up from a couch and lumbers, at 68 years old, into a small room overcrowded with 100 of Houston’s homeless and neediest people.
They have come off the searing hot pavement to Lord of the Streets, an Episcopal Church and clinic on Fannin Street, for the free lunch, but first they must fill rows of foldout chairs and listen to uplifting testimonials from others like them.
Many in the audience do not know there is a guest speaker until the 6-foot-8 J.R. Richard wades through the aisle toward the pulpit.
“I don’t have no psychology degree,” he says during a private aside, “but sometimes it don’t take that.”
A church? A pulpit? Might there be a specific reason for Richard speaking at this location?
Keep going, and there are more hints — but only hints:
Thirty-eight summers ago, after the burly righthander had spent a decade with the Astros striking out 1,493 batters and dominating baseball with an effectively wild 100-mph fastball, Richard collapsed from an on-field stroke. It ended his career and derailed his life.
His millions of dollars earned dwindled by 1994. He was dispossessed and occasionally resigned to sleeping under the U.S. 59 overpass on Beechnut Street.
He recovered thanks to friends sheltering him, a Major League Baseball pension of $100,000 that kicked in at age 45, a stretch doing ministry, and a third marriage.
Usually, his hours reading scripture at his home near Hobby Airport or days fishing Galveston Bay make for a content retirement, but with a presence that still commands attention in Houston, Richard is interested in establishing a new platform to share his wisdom.
A stretch doing ministry? How did that come about? Was he a person of faith before his career went south? Or did religion rescue him? And if so, how? Specifically what happened? The Chronicle shows no interest at all in such relevant questions.
Later, readers learn that "Reckless dietary habits and depression had exacerbated his destitution."
Then there's a quote in which Richard mentions God:
“At a certain point, I had to stop blaming other people,” he says. “If you want to sit there and lie in your feces, God will sit with his hands crossed.”
What role has God played in Richard's life? How did Richard find God? Again, the story does not hear the music screaming such questions.
Later, there's this:
The temperature in the room rises as the cram of people stands for a final prayer.
What was said in the prayer? Did Richard say it or someone else? Again, radio silence from the Chronicle.
Deeper in the story:
The MLB pension saved Richard, but Lula has kept him moving. They met through church, went out on a date after Richard wrote his phone number in her Bible, and have been married since 2010.
What church? When? What was Richard doing at church? Still no interest from the Chronicle.
This story is as tone-deaf as they get. It seems almost impossible to write about Richard without delving deeper into the religion angle. But somehow, the Chronicle does.
Holy ghosts, anyone?