The believer, minus the religion

A week after baseball’s night of miracles, my beloved Texas Rangers await the winner of tonight’s decisive American League Division Series Game 5 between the New York Yankees and Detroit Tigers.

I’m not sure which team presents the best matchup for the Rangers, but I never root for the Evil Empire. The end does not justify the means, don’t you know. I am joking (mostly). As much as I prefer to hate everyone in pinstripes, a few Yankees — such as the late Bobby Murcer, whom I interviewed during his fatal bout with cancer — make that difficult to do.

Speaking of the Yankees, I was pleased to come across an in-depth ESPN.com feature (more than 3,000 words long) with this striking title:

Mariano Rivera: The believer

The equally compelling subhead:

Faith also makes him the greatest, least understood player of his generation

That headline made me optimistic — perhaps overly so — that this piece would not be inhabited by ghosts.

In fact, as the writer rounded first base and headed for second, I still held out great hope that the story would get religion by the time the piece touched home plate:

But the biggest reason Rivera seems to stand a layer apart is his faith. Religion, in general, makes for a squirrely conversation in the big leagues and it is central to understanding him. Faith also allows him to believe in the strength and efficacy of his signature pitch, the world famous cut fastball.

Two weeks after solidifying his reputation as the best closer in the game’s history by recording his 602nd save, and with the Yankees in Florida for a season-ending three-game series with Tampa Bay, Rivera sits in front of his locker at Tropicana Field and suddenly is laughing, broadly and spontaneously, at the suggestion that the roots of his greatness are the standard athlete’s fare: a combination of the gift of a powerful right arm, consistent work ethic, tremendous, historic control and a fighter’s will.

“It’s faith,” he said. “Faith isn’t something that you decide to have. You don’t wake up and say, ‘Today, I’m going to have faith.’ It’s a process. I would never, ever be here in the big leagues without my faith. Ability, you have to have ability and you have to have talent, but I’m telling you, my talent wasn’t enough. God brought me here.

“One year in the minor leagues I was throwing 88-89, and then I was 95. Who can explain that? What happened? I don’t know. No one knows.”

Then readers learn about Rivera’s (not-so) road-to-Damascus moment:

Rivera does not pinpoint the moment that changed his life. “I was born Catholic, but I wasn’t raised Catholic because we never went to church,” he says. Rivera says it was not one clean, singular event that brought him to his spirituality, but a feeling that is generally indescribable.

“I was unhappy with the direction of my life, of where it was going. I had to do something. I was in my 20s. I was 21, think,” he says. “I gave my life to Him.”

Keep reading, and the writer (the same one who wrote a similarly tremendous-yet-flawed religion story about Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker last year) allows Rivera an incredible amount of space to discuss his belief in God.

But the story never really goes below the surface on Rivera’s faith. Based on the above passage, it would seem that he’s a Catholic, but the story never says so. The story never describes how Rivera worships or practices his faith. Is his belief in God really as vague and ritual-free as this story would lead readers to believe?

The reader who shared this story link with GetReligion said of Rivera:

I’ve read for years about his deep, personally rooted faith.

So have I. And I was excited about what appeared to be an effort by ESPN to paint a fuller picture of that faith. Unfortunately, this story whiffs at a fastball down the middle and only adds to the vague portrait of Rivera’s religion.

Dissenting viewpoints, as always, are welcomed and appreciated.

Your turn at the plate, gentle readers.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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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.

  • Kate

    As Reverend Lovejoy once said to Ned Flanders, “Ned, have you thought about one of the other major religions, there all pretty much the same.” I think a lot of journalists miss the fact that there are any details beneath the surface to explore: Don’t all Christians pretty much believe the same thing?

  • Matt

    Based on the above passage, it would seem that he’s a Catholic,

    Interestingly, I had the opposite impression. Rivera talks about his Catholic upbringing, but several of his turns of phrase struck me as sounding like a Protestant. The point of this is that, just as you say Bobby, I loved the article as far as it went but would love to know more about which Christian tradition Rivera currently identifies with, and why and how.

  • R.S.Newark

    Oh my,… how long will it take for us all to identify the reasonable fact that the people who write about religion, unhappily, will never get it. “obdurate”, “invicible ignorant” are phrases to be used with reasonable accuracy used to describe theiir unnatural mind set. Isn’t it time to cease expectations and take another course, say teaching these people by objecting legally to the misinformation they disseminate?

  • http://homepage.mac.com/bjmora/rpdenom/Reflist.html BJ Mora

    It’s as if the American culture of political correctness and “spirituality, not religion” has taken over the journalists. Would a political writer ever mention only platforms and not the party a candidate belongs to?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Where did the “that brought him to his spirituality” language come from, these days?

    Isn’t it more journalistic to actually cite a few facts about his life, his church, his activities there, etc.?

    Whence cometh this non-journalistic fog?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Oh, what BJ said.

    Imagine treating political changes and decisions with this kind of numbing imprecision.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Interestingly, I had the opposite impression.

    That is interesting. And I can see how you came to that impression.

  • http://www.caryschwarz.com Cary

    I haven’t read the whole piece, but was intriqued when Riviera said,“Faith isn’t something that you decide to have. You don’t wake up and say, ‘Today, I’m going to have faith.”
    But then later we hear that, “I gave my life to Him.”…a decidedly positive act of the will.

  • Matt

    Cary, perhaps depending on Rivera’s theological tradition (again highlighting the potentially interesting details this story didn’t tell us), this is not strange at all. A Calvinist like me would say that God’s ordaining does not in any way negate the agency and responsibility of the person who carries out the action. On the other hand, I am not sure that your former quote is something a Catholic would say.