Sun at it again: Ghost in McLouth’s comeback

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GetReligion readers, near and far, please pause and ponder the bizarre circumstances that were required to put me and Bobby “I like baseball in 100-degree-plus weather” Ross, Jr., in the same location — a pub near the Religion Newswriters Association meetings near the Beltway — on the night when his beloved Texas Rangers (who just couldn’t do their duty against the Oakland A’s) face my Baltimore Orioles, who are back in the playoffs after, what, 50 years?

OMG, it’s almost enough to make someone a Calvinist.

But I am not a Calvinist (or a Protestant, for that matter), so let’s move on.

Clearly, it’s time for another God and baseball story, care of those tone-deaf folks (when religion is concerned) at the newspaper that lands in my front yard. By now, it should be well established among readers of this blog that The Baltimore Sun team has never encountered a sports story with a clear religion angle that cannot be turned into a normal sports story about a person of vague good character who somehow rises above all odds and succeeds when least expected, etc., etc., etc.

Sometimes, all you need to do is type said athlete’s name into a search engine and add another logical term — think “faith,” “church” or “Christian” in many cases — and the story comes into focus. In fact, just about any time you read a sports story and the experts and insiders keep rattling on and on about character, humility, “inner strength” and similar virtues, you are probably dealing with a religious believer of some kind, roughly nine times out of 10 or better.

This brings me to one of the most interesting stories of the year here in Birdland, which is Gold-Glove left fielder Nate McLouth’s rise from the dead, career wise, after losing his way in Atlanta and in his second, ill-fated stint in Pittsburgh. The story opens with a great anecdote, which I will share even though it has next to nothing to do with this post. It does, however, set the scene:

Triple-A Norfolk manager Ron Johnson had seen enough. All year the Orioles had sifted through the scrap heap and shipped former All-Stars and wanna-bes alike to the minors to be evaluated by Johnson, a baseball lifer with a keen eye for talent.

Johnson had been watching the newest addition, the short outfielder with wavy blond surfer hair and a sculpted physique, and he finally snapped after the guy swung defensively and hit weakly to left.

The husky Johnson lumbered over to the 30-year-old and said, “Let me ask you a question. Aren’t you Nate McLouth?”

A sly smile — one that his friends say is his mischievous trademark — crossed McLouth’s lips. He immediately understood Johnson’s point, responding with, “Let it eat?” — baseball jargon meaning, “You want me to be more aggressive and get after it?”

“Absolutely. Be who you are. You’ve won a Gold Glove. You’ve put up major numbers in the big leagues. You’re a good player. You’re not old.” Johnson said to McLouth that night.

“I mean, this guy should be in his prime,” Johnson said. “So I don’t know if that had anything to do with it, but it helped. And it got crazy. He hit like nine home runs in a month. And we got that player again. He is Nate McLouth again.”

So the question this story — which is 2,250 words long — has to answer is rather simple: Who is the real McLouth and how did he get back on his baseball horse and back into the game?” For me, it’s the first half of that equation that matters the most.

The long and the short of it is that McLouth gave his heart to the city of Pittsburgh and then got traded when he least expected it. Chaos, and even depression, was the result. There are hints that he had strong ties to the city, was active in public service, etc. He felt cut off and lost.

Of course, the story keeps talking about his strong relationships with his teammates, strong character and all of that. The usual.

What kept him going? What helped him hold things together until he got another chance to make good? What turned this story of depression and failure into what the Sun team calls one of the biggest news stories in the Orioles’ stunning comeback year?

At the very, very end of this long story, there is this:

His resurgence ranks as one of the biggest surprises in this inexplicable Orioles’ season. But not for those who knew him when. …

Yet, in the past three years, he admits he occasionally thought about quitting. Something kept gnawing at him, though. Maybe it was his deep religious faith or his “overcoming” nature, but he had to give his career another shot.

“It’s part of the path that God has laid out for my life. And I don’t question it. Were the last couple years tough? Heck yeah they were. But I know I am stronger and better because of it,” he said. “Baseball is a funny, funny game. Two months ago look where I am at and then today. It’s an awesome blessing to be here.”

McLouth, who will be a free agent at season’s end, would like to return to the Orioles in 2013, and the club would like to have him back. So many things can change between late September and this winter, however, that it’s hard to predict what will happen.

For now, the club and the player are just enjoying a mutually beneficial relationship. No one is asking why; they’re just thrilled that Nate McLouth, somehow, is Nate McLouth again.

“When you look at guys that have done it, and then basically have gone down the wrong career path, you start thinking, ‘Man, if we can just get this guy to come back up, we’ve got something good,’” Norfolk’s Johnson said. “It’s still all there, it’s never gone anywhere. I mean, he is the best story of the year. He’s got to be.”

So what is the nature of this “deep religious faith”? What role did it play in Pittsburgh and his service to others? What role might it play in the life of this man in the city of Baltimore? Might readers be given one or two relevant facts here? Follow the time and the money and all that?

Let’s see. Click on Google. Insert these terms: “Nate McLouth,” “Christian” and “church.”

Click. Oh, there is a religion angle to this story. Well, what do you know?

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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