Preach, Brother Leitch, Preach!

Please check out this column from my favorite sportswriter Will Leitch. (And I’m not just saying that because he’s a die-hard St. Louis Cardinals fan like myself.) His latest piece for Sports on Earth, headlined “Thank God for Homers,” takes on the curious way that some other sportswriters handle Josh Hamilton’s religious utterances.

It’s basically a public service announcement to sports writers. But it works as a PSA for all writers, particularly those of us from different religious cultures than evangelical. It begins:

In a column this morning about Josh Hamilton, the one-time universally beloved All-Star who is having a rough go of it during his first month as an Anaheim Angel, Los Angeles Times columnist T.J. Simers asks Hamilton a snide, sorta condescending question.

Hamilton, who became a born-again Christian after his well-publicized struggles with substance abuse, tells Simers that, when fans are booing him, he turns to his faith, and The Bible, for strength. Simers, perhaps predictably, has a sniggering, obnoxious response.

“Does it mention anywhere in the Bible,” [Simers] asked, “what it takes to hit more home runs?”

Leitch explains that many people dislike athletes thanking God for their achievements. Drives them crazy, he says. They dislike the notion that God cares about little things like sports accomplishments. And they dislike the notion that God favors one team over another. Sportswriters roll their eyes and shut down their tape recorders when God gets mentioned. But, Leitch says, there’s a huge disparity between what these athletes are saying, and what the writers are hearing. For instance:

When Josh Hamilton won the Home Run Derby in 2008, here’s what he said afterward: “It’s amazing, the last few years, what God’s done in my life, and how quickly he’s done it.”

Now, here’s what non-believers hear when he says that:

God decided that I would start hitting a ton of home runs. He likes me more than He likes anyone else in this competition. Therefore, he made me win. I am so close to God that He has decided I should win this Home Run Derby. A couple of those balls I hit, God picked them up and carried them extra feet so they would get over the fence. God cares, specifically, about this Home Run Derby, more than he cares about poverty, starvation and disease. If God liked you as much as he liked me, you might hit home runs too. But he doesn’t.

But this is absolutely not what he is saying.

What Hamilton is saying when he thanks God is not that God somehow chose him over others. He is in fact saying the opposite: It is a humble acknowledgment that nothing any person does can ever be attributable to themselves. It’s a guard against pride.

Christianity isn’t some peripheral notion of Hamilton’s life; it is his life. When you live a Christian life, everything you do, from showing up to church on Sunday, to going to the grocery store, to pumping gas, to hitting a home run, to striking out, is done for the glory of Christ. Hamilton isn’t thanking Jesus for helping him hit a homer; he is thanking Jesus for everything. From the homers to the strikeouts to the millions of dollars to all the boos.

It goes on, in beautiful fashion, and I can’t help but think the general admonishment is good for all reporters to hear. We should make sure we’re hearing what’s actually being said. Leitch chastizes the sniggering at religious beliefs and says it shows a “fundamental lack of understanding, even basic curiosity, in how someone else on the planet other than you might live their life.”

Preach, Brother Leitch, preach!

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  • Excellent points on the journalistic issues, Mollie!

    As for Josh Hamilton, his comments made a lot more sense to me when he played for the Rangers than they do now that he’s an Angel. 🙂 Seriously, Josh still seems to be dealing with a lot of demons, and some of his faith-based talk comes across as rehearsed and convenient, which I’m sure doesn’t help with sportswriters (or fans of his former team).

  • peterc

    I recall Leitch posting on Deadspin some years ago about how he listened to christian music in his youth, and even including some youtube clips of dc talk. Although I can’t seem to find that post now, here is an interview with him where he shares his faith background:

    Although he may not claim to be a christian today, he seems to have insight into it as a result of his past, and that probably helped him write a very insightful article.

  • Maureen O’Brien

    I wasn’t aware that baseball players, or Christian baseball players, have an obligation to be eloquent and “unrehearsed.” Do they run rhetoric classes during practice, or do the farm teams also run Toastmasters?

    Sportswriters are supposed to be the ones with the linguistic skill, not athletes.

  • jigawatt

    I love the “here’s what nonbelievers hear” part. But I wonder if their misunderstanding is sometimes put-on. Kinda like those reporters who gasp in horror when a Christian interviewee says he actually believes the Bible.

    And I gotta wonder how they’d handle a Muslim ballplayer who gave praise to Allah or a Buddhist who credited meditation. The best way to determine someone’s bias is to see who he gives the benefit of the doubt to, and who he withholds it from.

  • As a non-believer, I may say that the “what non-believers hear” paragraph gets it just right. But the explanation of what I should be hearing is not convincing at all. Hamilton says, “It’s amazing, the last few years, what God’s done in my life, and how quickly he’s done it.” Amazing how much time God has sent him to the grocery store and gas station?