ESPN’s Dusty Baker faith no-no

July 28, 2010 - Milwaukee, WI, USA - 28 July 2010: Reds manager Dusty Baker relaxing in the dugout during the MLB game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park in Milwaukee, WI. The Reds defeated the Brewers 10-2.

The ghosts are touching him.

In keeping with the baseball theme I started Wednesday, I wanted to take a look at a compelling, 2,700-word profile of Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker.

As the reader who shared the story with GetReligion noted, the piece — obviously written before the Phillies’ Roy Halladay no-hit the Reds in the opening game of the National League Division Series — opens with a powerful scene inside a cathedral:

CINCINNATI – “Light a candle,” Dusty Baker says, his lone voice softly skimming the looming silence of the empty church. “I’m sure there’s someone out there you want to pray for.”

He lights a candle, points the flickering matchstick downward in his large hands, the athlete’s hands, dousing it into the cool sand. It is here in the solitude of St. Peter in Chains Cathedral — funded by Ohio Catholics who donated 12 cents per month toward its construction in 1841 — where Johnnie B. Baker, born Baptist in California, raised in the traditions of the southern black church, kneels alone among the long pews and nourishes his spirituality.

After several moments of prayer, he rises and walks gingerly toward the altar, marveling at the Greek architecture, the Corinthian columns and stained glass mosaics, comforted, despite its bruises, by the sanctuary and the ritual of the church.

“I come in here before homestands, sometimes a couple of times a week during the season,” said Baker. “I pray for my family, for my team, and for Barack Obama, because I’ve never seen people try to take a president down like this, never seen such anger. I mean, what did he do to anybody?”

History surrounds Baker this morning, as it does every morning. He is humbled by its density, energized by its lineage and his place in it. The ghosts are touching him.

The ghosts are touching him.

Certainly not religion ghosts, right? With that kind of utterly impressive start, surely this piece — filled with so many nuanced layers of emotion, history and vivid images — won’t require GetReligion repudiation, right?

Wrong, unfortunately.

No, readers never find out how a black Baptist ends up praying in a Catholic cathedral. No, readers never discover the role of faith in Baker dealing with cancer and the death of his father. No, readers never learn how Baker balances his religious faith — whatever form that takes outside of lighting a candle and praying — with the bars and women referenced later in the story.

Near the end, the highly talented writer alludes to a new outlook in Baker’s life post-cancer and again sprinkles religious imagery into the text:

The prodigy is long gone and the adult is left. One of his larger paintings is of a healing center in Kauai, Hawaii, from his cancer recovery. The photograph resembles a Mayan temple with beams of rainbows darting through the windows of the shelter.

“That one,” he says, “told me everything was going to be all right.”

“It changes your outlook. And I want to win the World Series. I hate the question of ‘how much longer do I want to do this?’ Why would I sell myself short? Joe Torre managed much longer than I. So has Bobby Cox. This is a heck of a life. I’ve never stopped aspiring, never stopped learning to do this job better. I take pride in being prepared. I take pride in having faith, in myself and in my players. I’m happy.

“Since cancer and my dad, all that other stuff, I try to leave it. This is a life much more fulfilling,” Dusty Baker says. “The stars are brighter. And the birds sing louder. I hear them more now than ever.”

But once again, the piece — regrettably — stops short of actual details and facts about Baker’s faith and religion. It’s a long fly to the outfield wall that just misses going out of the park.

The ghosts are touching him.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Bible Belt Blogger

    Bobby, I’ve got three things to say.
    1.) I enjoy your posts.
    2.) Howard Bryant of ESPN is one heck of a writer and this is a really great piece. This isn’t a religion piece per se so I don’t really care why a Baptist is lighting candles in a Catholic church. Because it’s not a religion piece, Bryant could have steered clear of religion completely. (That’s what a lot of reporters would do.) But he gives us a taste of Dusty Baker’s faith and a glimpse into his life without making this a Religion Story.
    3.) Go Rangers!

  • Bobby


    Really appreciate you reading GetReligion.

    Regarding your three points:

    1. Thank you!

    2. I can agree to an extent, but I think it’s a better story if he answers the questions raised in my post.

    3. I’ve got tickets for Saturday’s game. Hoping to see the clincher in person!


  • Passing By

    I was a still a Baptist the first time I prayed in a Catholic cathedral, lighting a candle, as it happens. I was 17 and ended up there because it was across the street from Dad’s office. One wonders if Mr. Baker’s story is that mundane.

    Anyway, I haven’t seen a candle in a church in years. Certainly not in that cathedral. Insurance rates you know.

  • Bobby

    Insurance rates you know.

    I wonder if Dusty had permission to light his. :-)

  • Gail F

    I don’t know if the cathedral has candles or not, but my Cincinnati church does.

    I agree with Bobby– the story would have been better with the answers to the questions he posed. And the remark about “ghosts” is a little mystifying.

    Right now the Reds are losing 7 to 4 after a splended start. Sigh.

  • Bobby

    Thanks, Gail. I watched most of the Reds’ game. Wow, everything fell apart in a hurry. Sorry about that.

  • Passing By

    Barely journalism related: they said on the news last night to not use your GPS to get to the Rangers game today because the systems will send everyone the same route and create a traffic jam.

    Good luck with the crowds, Bobby! I have to go to Dallas today and will be staying off of I-30. :-)