God’s plan in baseball fan’s death

I was sitting in the third deck behind home plate at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Texas, munching kettle corn and sipping a Diet Dr Pepper in triple-digit heat, when the unthinkable happened the other night.

An Oakland Athletics player hit a foul ball that ricocheted into left field. Rangers All-Star outfielder Josh Hamilton picked up the ball and tossed it toward fans in the bleachers behind the out-of-town scoreboard. A man in the front row with his 6-year-old son reached for the ball, leaned a little bit too much over the railing and fell headfirst behind the left-field wall — as the entire crowd, myself included, gasped.

“Anybody hear if he’s OK?” I posted on my Facebook page, hoping a friend watching the game on television or listening to it on the radio might have information on the fan’s condition.

Play resumed almost immediately, even as ambulance sirens could be heard outside the stadium, but no announcement was made concerning the elephant in the ballpark. Later reports indicated that the fan was conscious and asking about his son as first responders tended to him, but he died on the way to the hospital. Players and fans learned of Shannon Stone’s death only after the game ended.

That night, the image of the father trying to grab the ball for his son constantly replaying in my mind, I tossed and turned until I finally dozed off about 3 a.m. Obviously, that’s the big story here — that of a young boy left without a dad and a wife forced to move forward without her husband. But a secondary story — an important one — is that of Hamilton, the reigning American League Most Valuable Player, and how he will handle his unfortunate role in this tragedy.

Anyone familiar with Hamilton and his demons knows that his Christian faith is a big deal in his life. Tmatt noted in his Sudan post just yesterday that “one of the mantras of GetReligion is that it is impossible to understand how the world really works without taking religion seriously.” Well, in Hamilton’s case, it’s impossible to understand how he works without taking his religion seriously.

Evan Grant, The Dallas Morning News’ Rangers beat writer and the main reason I pay $9.99 a month to subscribe to that newspaper’s online edition, nailed that detail in — of all things — a tweet just a few hours after the fan’s death:

There is a lot of concern out there about Josh Hamilton. I believe his faith will truly be an asset for him in dealing with this test.

But did that key angle make it into actual news stories after Hamilton talked to reporters on Friday?

Kind of.

From a GetReligion perspective, here’s the money quote that Hamilton gave to reporters who asked if he’d reached out to the victim’s family:

“I can’t imagine what they’re going through right now. … All I can think about is praying for them and knowing that God has a plan. You don’t always know what that plan is when those things happen, but you will.”

That quote made it into a few stories, including one by The New York Times. The Associated Press did not include that quote but reported that Hamilton said he was relying on his Christian faith. A Dallas Morning News piece on Hamilton’s road to recovery by baseball writer Gerry Fraley ignored the faith angle except to say, near the end, that “Hamilton will keep the Stone family in his prayers.” The Fort Worth Star-Telegram quoted Hamilton as saying he “can’t stop praying for them,” but that’s as deep as the religion angle went.

Actually, the best religion details were contained not in a mainstream media report but in the MLB.com story by Rangers writer T.R. Sullivan. Sullivan not only included the full quote on “God has a plan” but reported that the Rangers “held a team prayer meeting” before Friday night’s game. And he even included revealing details from manager Ron Washington, not necessarily known for wearing his religion on his sleeve:

Washington said he still expects his team to be ready to play the Athletics, and it took a four-game winning streak into Friday night’s game.

“I expect us to continue to play baseball the way we have been playing,” Washington said. “We all feel badly over what happened, but nobody has canceled this game. We’ve got to play. We’re not going to use what happened yesterday as an excuse for not playing baseball.

“You get on your knees, say your prayers and live with a power higher than you. We all as individuals do what we can do and move on. You don’t forget, but you move on.”

In a perfect world, reporters would ask Hamilton to elaborate on what he means when he suggests that “God has a plan” in a situation such as this. Might even be a story there.

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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.

  • http://Facebook.com/aphradonis Aphradonis

    Perhaps reporters are ignoring the “plan” statement because it’s strange and insensitive. Shannon needed to die to fulfill a plan? God always has a plan, in the warped minds of the religious. Evan’s comment is even more despicable, because he reduces Shannon to an actor whose overriding purpose was to die so Josh could experience a “test.” That reminds me of the tempting of Job, in which his entire family were reduced to cannon fodder in the battle for his soul.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    It is far MORE insensitive to argue that there is no “plan”-although as a Catholic I would more likely say there is a reason for, a purpose behind, all that happens and that God’s guiding hand will see that it leads to ultimate good.
    How is jumping gratuitously into a tragic situation like this almost immediately and saying that believing in the hidden hand of God is something that “is in the warped mind of the religious” anything but cold??? And I would add callous, insensitive, nasty, and brutish?????

  • Matt

    Aphradonis, if you look carefully at what Hamilton said, you’ll see that he was more subtle than your characterization. The point is not that “it was God’s plan for Stone to die”. That would indeed be an insensitive thing to say, but that’s not quite what Hamilton said. The key part of his statement is the last sentence: “You don’t always know what that plan is”. Hamilton is affirming that this is an awful thing to have happened and that there is no easy answer as to why (in a cosmic sense) it happened, but he is also affirming his confidence that God’s good purpose will someday (perhaps not in this life) be seen.

    This is classic Christian theodicy, and everyone (even/especially those who believe it) struggles mightily with it. One essential tenet is that long life and present pleasure are not necessarily the ultimate good. Theodicy can be hard to understand and it can be hard to accept. But it should not be (and, in Hamilton’s take, I think it wasn’t) strange or insensitive.

  • Henry

    @Aphradonis

    Because journalism is about investigating the facts of events and what lies beneath them, it is important to understand what people say and do and why, even if–perhaps especially if–their words and actions seem bizarre to some. Regardless of your assent or dissent with the sort of view Hamilton stated, regardless of your stances concerning anything at all, it is impossible to understand the actions of billions of people worldwide without thoughtfully investigating their religious beliefs. This is the world in which you live, like it or not. Throwing up your hands in frustration at what people believe will neither convince them of your worldview nor help you understand anything.

  • Josh

    I’m a fairly conservative Christian and I have to admit that when I watched an interview of the fans sitting next to Shannon, I was appalled that they said this was part of God’s plan. Reporters less religious than me would feel even more uncomfortable putting that angle into their stories. I really don’t see these omissions as part of a nefarious plan.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Nice column by the Star-Telegram’s Gil Lebreton after Hamilton hit a walkoff homer with the Rangers trailing with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    This Seattle article is interesting because it attributes a similar “God’s plan” quote to Mets outfielder Angel Pagan. The other interesting thing is how little religion there is in the linked interview with Josh Hamilton. I noticed the lack of religious reference in his post-game interview last night, which got me to thinking that this whole “God’s plan” thing may well be no more than a comforting platitude with little real religious content. Baseball players are not generally theologians, no more than journalists (or me, for that matter) so perhaps it’s just as well to not attend too closely to lines like “God has a plan”.

    BTW, the coverage on Shannon Stone has been extensive here in north Texas, but there is nothing I’ve seen or heard about his faith. He was a well-loved firefighter, family man, and baseball fanatic (they probably drove 3 hours from Brownwood to the game). The funeral will be in a Methodist Church, but that may be to accommodate the crowd. I have no idea.

    For the record, I pretty much follow with the deacon’s comment. God did not in any manner cause or will Shannon Stone’s death. The guy reached out too far and fell wrong. God certainly has a redemptive plan to bring good out of all of it, but we may never know what that is.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Meant to link this Startlegram column, which seems to me pretty typical of what I have read about Shannon Stone:

    http://www.star-telegram.com/2011/07/08/3209706/lesson-in-death-of-rangers-fans.html

  • Elijah

    Henry (#4) is quite right – the job of the journalist is to report what people are saying and doing, hopefully with some good context. Whether or not what Doofus Buttwinkle said was despicable or not is not within the province of the journalist’s report. Like Bobby, I’d like to hear more about this story.

  • Mike O.

    I can’t fault the reporter for not devling deeper into Josh Hamilton’s religious beliefs. We have to consider Josh is probably hurting inside and likely feels at least partly responsible. He offered his thoughts and prayers to the family some of which was in the form that God has a plan. Do we really want to disect Josh’s heartfelt words to try and find out what makes him tick religiously? Is this even the slightest bit appropriate the day after he saw a man fall to his death?

    Imagine a story where there is an apartment fire and a saddened neighbor tells a reporter that she knows the victims are looking down at us from heaven. It would be just as inappropriate for the reporter to ask why the neighbor thinks that. In times of tragedy it’s highly rude to start treating people involved as if it’s an investigation that demands further answers, especially so soon after the tragedy. Let them say what they believe but in the end that’s not the story. And that should be absurdly clear.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Mike O.,

    I see what you’re saying. But I think those of us at GetReligion would disagree with this statement:

    Imagine a story where there is an apartment fire and a saddened neighbor tells a reporter that she knows the victims are looking down at us from heaven. It would be just as inappropriate for the reporter to ask why the neighbor thinks that.

    I don’t think it would be insensitive at all for a reporter to follow up with, “Why do you think that?” Maybe the neighbor would say that her own faith teaches her that a loving God will embrace the victims. Maybe the neighbor would say that the victims were people of faith who believed in life after death. You can ask that kind of question — trust me, I’ve covered bombings, fires, executions, tornadoes, car wrecks, etc., in my 20-plus years as a reporter — in a sensitive way. In such a situation, a good reporter isn’t “demanding” answers but rather engaging in a real conversation and not immediately putting up a “STOP” sign when an interviewee mentions something (heaven) that might require getting into the R-word.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    I would say that a real conversation with Hamilton about what’s going on with him is probably difficult in a setting where a bunch of reporters are gathered around with tape recorders and Hamilton probably has a PR person stopping the questions after about five minutes. But the main point of the original post was that as reporters delve into how Hamilton is handling such a tragedy, they should not ignore his Christianity given that is such a big part of who he is, as has been well-documented.

  • http://www.trueffort.com meg

    so sad


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