The church of baseball

Game1WSI used to serve on the board of a Lutheran youth organization that holds youth conferences around the country. A few years ago, during the hottest weak on record there, we held our conference in St. Louis, Mo. One night we took 1,200 or so of the teenagers to a baseball game at Busch Stadium (old). When you take that many people to one game, the marketers give you a few perks such as letting you designate someone to throw out the opening pitch, letting your top-notch youth choir sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” and stuff like that.

Being the world’s greatest St. Louis Cardinals fan, the organization allowed me to escort a few of the youth onto the field and have one of our students throw out the first pitch. (She threw a fantastic strike.) All this not just to say I love the reigning world champion St. Louis Cardinals but that it was interesting to see how the marketing team works with special groups.

I thought of this while reading a lengthy feature St. Louis Post-Dispatch religion reporter Tim Townsend wrote for Sunday. The previous day’s game, which they won 8-3, was held in conjunction with a religious event called Christian Family Day. The event organizers, including 1st Baseman Albert Pujols, were allotted 9,200 tickets which they sold to area churches or gave away to youth. After the game, around 15,000 folks stayed around in the rain to listen to a MercyMe concert and hear testimonials from Pujols, So Taguchi, Braden Looper and Adam Wainwright.

The article explains how the event came about and what it hopes to accomplish. Townsend spoke with a variety of participants and organizers and wrote an informative and fair article. The final graphs give a good taste:

Bringing Jesus into the ballpark is not always easy, and [Marty] Hendin [vice president of community relations for the club] said the Cardinals kept an eye on other clubs that have had problems with similar events.

[Jeff] Miller [a senior group sales executive with the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers] said that after holding Christian Family Day in the Kauffman [(the Kansas City Royals' stadium)] parking lot before the game for a couple of years, the Royals decided to move it inside the stadium. But they still “did the Christian stuff” before the game.

“We brought in a huge banner that said ‘Jesus is King,’ and that didn’t go over too well,” said Miller. “People were calling the marketing department from their seats and complaining. It was not good.”

Hendin said that’s why the Cardinals do most of the Christian Family Day activity after the game. The Cardinals allow the organizers to hand out the player testimonial cards at the game with invitations for all ticket holders to stay afterwards, listen to the music and hear the player testimonials.

“People can choose to leave after the game,” he said. “We’re not subjecting them to any message they don’t want to be subjected to.” He said the Cardinals had also catered to Jewish groups in the past, with kosher concession stands and a cantor singing the national anthem.

During the sixth inning Saturday, some of the Christian Family Day organizers gathered in a Busch party suite to go over last-minute, post-game details. How many songs would Mercy Me play? In what order should the players speak? When will the sponsors be introduced?

After the details were settled, about 50 people bowed their heads in prayer. One after the other they lifted their voices to God, asking for help, giving thanks. Tim Loreth, 44, a painter from Hazelwood, spoke up.

“Lord, through this music and the words of these players,” he prayed, “we hope that those who don’t yet believe can enter your kingdom this afternoon.”

It would be easy for someone to write a hit piece about a Christian group like this or even something very light and fluffy. Townsend did a great job of writing respectfully and thoroughly about the group while engaging criticism of same.

I’ve illustrated this post with a picture of my friend Ric and me at Game 1 of the World Series this past October. In Detroit. Where the Cardinals won 7-2.

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  • http://www.ubirevera.com/ Paul Barnes

    So, would the devil be the Yankees then?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Not the Yankees team — the owner.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Mollie, you have guts going to Comerica Park for a World Series game and standing up to cheer the Cardinals. I don’t recommend going to the Dawg Pound of Cleveland Browns Stadium and cheering for the opposing team unless you don’t mind getting hit with dog biscuits and worse.

    As a marketing professional and evangelical (small “e”, folks) Christian, I cringed when I read the article. There is outright — and, I would argue, deliberate — confusion about the purpose of the event. As a result, the article is all over the place.

    The article leads off by stating that the group has “come to the ballpark to win souls for Jesus Christ.” (Apparently, souls are won to Jesus by hearing a few MercyMe songs and a few speakers.) Mike McHardy, GM of a Christian radio station that co-sponsors the event, says that the event is about taking the Gospel to people in the marketplace. Albert Pujols agrees, stating that the event is about giving non-Christians the opportunity to hear testimonies from Christians such as Pujols.

    But broadcaster Rick Horton says that the event is like a church outing: “The club wants to sell tickets, and churches want something fun to do together as a group. It’s a win-win, it just works.” The article continues by stating that other, similar events cater to Christians, implying that the goal is to get Christians in the seats, not to give Christians an opportunity to evangelize. And with the testimonies and concert happening long after the game, how many non-Christians are likely to stay?

    The article concludes where it started, quoting an organizer who believes that the event will be a conversion event for many:
    “Lord, through this music and the words of these players,” he prayed, “we hope that those who don’t yet believe can enter your kingdom this afternoon.”

    There are several marketing campaigns wrapped up in events like this, and some are in conflict. That makes for mixed messaging, which is at odds with effective evangelism.

  • Eric G.

    The blog has it right, but the article has it wrong: The name of the band is MercyMe, not Mercy Me. Wrong details like that bug me.

  • Rick the Texan

    When Eric says “bug”, he means “bother”.

  • Peggy

    Townsend has been writing some good articles of late. You’re gonna have some challengers to your claim as World’s Greatest Cardinal Fan here in STL Metro!

  • Matt

    Speaking of religion in the sports page, there is a fascinating article in today’s Los Angeles Times on the increasing popularity of Santeria among pro baseball players. It includes interviews with several top Cuban and Venezuelan players who are high priests in the religion. Kevin Baxter is not a religion reporter but a sports reporter, generally on the Dodgers beat these days, but he seems to have done a fine job and I thought you’d want to check it out.

  • Hans

    I was at the game of which Mollie speaks, along with many other Lutherans wearing yellow t-shirts. Interesting note about that game: it was so humid that day, when the first pitch was thrown out, you could actually hear the ball splash through the air. True story.

    Seriously, and I’m sure those of you who have been there in the summertime will agree, the entire city of Saint Louis really ought to be shut down for the months of July and August.

    For those who know anything about the lawsuit in the LCMS after our last convention, I kept thinking about this statement at the beginning of the article:

    Baseball has been called an American religion…its rules memorized and debated like Scripture

    Remember that Yankees game a few weeks ago when A-Rod was rounding second and he reportedly shouted “I’ve got it”, which caused the short stop to back off, thus causing the fly ball to drop? And you know how, technically, it wasn’t against the rules, but it was still a cheap and dirty thing to do?

    That pretty much sums up the entire delegate/election thing in the LCMS that happened before the last election and has happened again before our next convention. “Yeah, ok, technically it’s not illegal. But it’s cheap and dirty. Shame on you, Gerry K.”

    Hooray for baseball analogies.

  • Tom Schaefer

    I met Tim Townsend at a seminar in 2005 on “Muslims in America” at the University of Southern California. I found him to be a thoughtful, fair-minded reporter who was dedicated to covering religion accurately and thoroughly. Just want to put in a plug for those good religion reporters who often get overlooked.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    TOM:

    Help us follow his work! And cue us in on other folks working at the regional level. We’ll look around as much as we can.

    Like that Galveston story that Kellner tipped me on the other day. We need help!

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    A few years ago, during the hottest weak on record there, we held our conference in St. Louis, Mo.

    Hottest weak WHAT? :)

    Religion and baseball have been pals for generations. The local Appleton Foxes (class “A” Midwest League) of my youth offered free admission on Sunday afternoons with the presentation of a church bulletin (I assume they counted on brisk concession sales). I had a neighbor who would ask me for the bulletin because he didn’t want to be bothered with actually having to attend church for a free baseball game. (Let’s call him “cheap”.) If memory serves me right, I think someone sued a team in recent years over this practice.

    This is the first I’ve heard of an outreach proselytizing effort. I doubt anyone goes to a ball game for religion, at least of a spiritual variety. In Wisconsin the Packers are likened to a religion (and in some homes the “prayer” begins “Our Favre who art in Lambeau…”). This year the Miller Park Shrine is open to the adoring faithful of the NL Central leading Milwaukee Brewers (the same division that produced last year’s World Series champions….).

    Anyway, I imagine a team will find a large Rastafarian population that they will want to tap into next….