Revisiting the Church of Baseball

Washington Nationals fans are having a great time right now. I know it’s only May, but the team has an above .500 record and locals are elated. Last year they ended the season with the worst average in baseball: .364. And the most exciting news is related to pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg. He’s expected to make his Major League Debut here pretty soon and, well, let’s just say I’ve already bought my tickets.

The Washington Post had a big (2700-word) profile on him recently, which was really enjoyable and made me like Strasburg even more. At times he sounds like he went through the Crash Davis school of media management. But late in the piece we get this:

While the Nationals might wish he were more PR-savvy, in other ways he is exactly what you would want in a future superstar. His humility earns him universal praise from those around him. In his postgame news conferences, he speaks passionately about the team and the game’s outcome.

He is deeply religious without being public about it. He’s a devoted husband and a homebody.

Before I comment on this excerpt, I just have to say how nice it is to see other people channel their inner GetReligionista. Which is exactly what I thought when I read Cathy Grossman’s take at USA Today. She links to the piece and the “religious” line above and responds:

Which means what?

That he’s not Tim Tebow– the star quarterback with Bible quotes in his eyeblack, the one in the Super Bowl TV commercial pushing the conservative Christian Focus on the Family agenda.

Or that, while God is central to his life, he doesn’t evangelize to the wider world every time there’s a microphone near him?

And if he did, would that be wrong, given that the core of evangelicalism is to bring Christ to the world. Is there a hint in this that keeping your faith “private” is good and going public with it is not?

Or is it up to us to fill in the meaning? One could be that there are many ways to evangelize. God talk is one but so is godly living — humble, faithful, generous in spirit –the clear public characteristics Stasburg is cited for in the piece.

So, is he really private about his faith (which is what, by the way? No denomination listed here).

It was kind of weird, in this really long profile, to not even mention what religion Strasburg is, much less which denomination. And I also don’t like the way we define public faith. I mean, the whole profile could be read as a long testimony to Strasburg’s faith lived out in acts of mercy to his family, friends and teammates. But because he doesn’t announce — as he waits to sign autographs until his teammates are off the field — that he’s doing it for some deity, he’s not public about his faith? I think we need a better way to talk about it and in this case, more explanation would have gone far.

And speaking of the discussion of religion and sports, did you catch the top story on CNN.com yesterday? It was John Blake’s “When did God become a sports fan?” Now normally I’m all for covering religion stories above the fold or at the top of the page or what have you, but yesterday had a bunch of major political stories going on and I couldn’t quite figure out why this story merited such promotion.

But a reader who also saw the story had a bunch of other concerns about the story (which he also liked). There’s no recent hook — it’s about athletes who invoke God: “God seems to be standing in the corner of a lot of victorious athletes these days.” And the expert quoted in the story wrote his book on the topic many years ago. Still, it’s a really interesting read. Different athletes provide different perspectives on their theology. Here’s a sample:

The late NFL Hall of Famer Reggie White, the “Minister of Defense,” was one of the first professional athletes to routinely thank Jesus after victories during his career in the 1990s.

Baker, the author, says that as far back as 1943, Gil “The Flying Parson” Dodds, an American distance runner, would give Jesus credit for his victories. Dodds signed autographs with a scriptural reference to Philippians 4:13 (“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”).

One of the first professional athletes to attract criticism for invoking God after victory was Michael Chang, an American professional tennis player.

Chang won the French Open in 1989 as a 17-year-old underdog. He was booed by a Parisian crowd when he thanked Jesus for his victory at the tournament’s trophy presentation.

Chang, who now helps runs a Christian Sports League in California, says he thanked Jesus not to gloat, but to show gratitude.

“When I go out there and share my faith, I’m not saying God is on my side and he’s not on your side,” Chang says. “The Lord loves everybody, and the Lord is on everyone’s side.”

What’s weird, I guess, is that the story doesn’t mention some key stuff. The Minister of Defense was so named in part because he was an ordained minister during his career. And “The Flying Parson” might seem like an early runner to credit but what about “The Flying Scotsman” Eric Liddell (you might remember him from Chariots of Fire)? He was a missionary and competitive runner from an even earlier era.

But, again, athletes were permitted to explain their motivation in invoking God’s name and I still learned from the piece.

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  • Julia

    Interesting discussion in the CNN story about Evangelicals. However, this CNN piece is one of the first articles I’ve seen that addresses Catholic sports figures who have been quietly crossing themselves since I can remember.

    But there’s a hole in this section about the Catholic ball player:

    Jesus also said, according to the New Testament, that the “last shall be first.” So what about the losers who are trudging off the field as the winners thank God for victory: Is God punishing them for having less faith?

    Mike Sweeney, a devout Roman Catholic who plays baseball for the Seattle, Washington, Mariners, doesn’t accept that view of faith.

    “If I’m facing Andy Pettitte on the Yankees and I’m praying for a home run, and he’s praying for a strikeout, I don’t think the result is going to show who has greater faith,” Sweeney says.

    Sweeney says athletes can sometimes reveal more about their faith when they fail.

    “It’s easy being a Christian when you’re hitting .345, but you let me know who you really are when you’re hitting .245 and going through the valley,” Sweeney says.

    Sweeney doesn’t pray for victory or point to the heavens when he gets a big hit.

    God isn’t as interested in what he says as what he does, Sweeney says.

    “Saint Francis of of Assisi says preach the gospel at all times and, when necessary, use words,” Sweeney says. “That’s something I’ve tried to live my whole life.”

    OK if Sweeney’s not praying for a victory or pointing to the sky after a big hit ala Sammy Sosa, what is he praying for?

    Catholic kids are told to pray to play well, not necessarily to win. It’s Calvinism that teaches that you can identify the saved/elect by their successful life, right? Catholics are not taught that. Caribbean folks like Sosa and others who give praise to God or point to the sky for their victories and home runs are either Protestant converts or charismatic Catholics who have adopted a lot of Evangelical veneer.

    The writer is on to something interesting, but it could be spelled out better. Maybe in the next story.

    NB Sosa was Catholic and so was McGwire. And so was Babe Ruth who pointed to the stands to say he was going to hit a home run and not the heavens to ask for one.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    When I was in the Nationals’ clubhouse recently to interview Josh Willingham, I noticed that they have what appears to be a chapel — a room with a lectern with a cross on it that I assume is where Christian players worship on Sunday morning.

  • http://boondoggle-for-free.blogspot.com nickg

    Julia said: “It’s Calvinism that teaches that you can identify the saved/elect by their successful life, right?”

    Umm, wrong.

    And, “Caribbean folks like Sosa and others who give praise to God or point to the sky for their victories and home runs are either Protestant converts or charismatic Catholics who have adopted a lot of Evangelical veneer.”

    Umm, huh?


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