One of the realities of sports journalism is that, year after year, the newspapers that cover professional teams have to find some kind of hook that justifies a feature story on each of the local superstars. This is not easy work. Think of it as the sports equivalent of the annual challenge faced by religion-news reporters who are asked to find fresh, valid angles for news reports linked to Christmas, Passover, Ramadan, Easter, etc.
Yes, we can also assume that for many people baseball is a religion in and of itself (Cue: Annie Savoy).
Thus, the team at The Washington Post is required by the unwritten laws of journalism to produce an annual feature story about pitcher Stephen Strasburg until he fades, is traded or pops his elbow again. From the very beginning these stories have been haunted by a religion ghost, as shown in this passage from his first year, when he was the most analyzed rookie in baseball:
While the Nationals might wish he were more PR-savvy, in other ways he is exactly what you would want in a future superstar. His humility earns him universal praise from those around him. In his postgame news conferences, he speaks passionately about the team and the game’s outcome.
He is deeply religious without being public about it. He’s a devoted husband and a homebody.
Do a quick Google search and you’ll find out that people are still asking what that means. What about his name? Is he Jewish? It appears not. A Mormon publication once wrote about him. Is he a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Good luck researching that. Is he just vaguely “spiritual” or what?
The key, apparently, is that Strasburg does not appear to be Tim Tebow religious, which is what really matters to public-relations pros who work for major-league teams.
Anyway, this brings us to this year’s obligatory Post profile of the superstar. The headline certainly hints at subjects beyond the pitcher’s mound:
Stephen Strasburg takes new approach, perspective into Nationals’ 2014 season
The theme of this whole story, from the spring-training lede to the last line, is that Strasburg is growing as a man and now knows that there is more to life than baseball. This new maturity is linked to becoming a father. But wait, might there be a spiritual element there?
Viera, fla. – Baseball mattered too much to Stephen Strasburg. He suspects he always knew that, but until this winter he never confessed to himself. He shared the conclusion last week without hesitation and with an unbridled smile, as he sat at his locker inside the Washington Nationals’ spring training clubhouse. The grin surfaced once Strasburg talked about his baby daughter, 5 months old, happy and healthy and growing like a weed.
“I would never admit it,” Strasburg said. “But now that I’ve had something that’s more important, and the priority of being a good dad is more important to me, I think looking back, maybe I did put a little too much emphasis on baseball. Maybe it wasn’t my only thing I was worried about. But it was definitely higher up there than I thought it was.”
A bit later this them surfaces again. Can you say “workaholism,” or perhaps even “false idols”?
Since Strasburg entered professional baseball under the weight of massive expectation, internal and external, he grappled with his perfectionist tendencies. “It’s always going to be a battle,” Strasburg said. “It’s going to be a process.” When he thinks about his daughter, though, the burden melts. Now he places his most intense focus on something other than baseball.
“I want to go out there and be successful in this game and help this team win,” Strasburg said. “But that’s not my number one priority now. That’s being the best dad I can be. That’s awesome. It’s amazing how that changes your life. Just the little things. She rolls over a little bit or she makes a new noise, it’s amazing to see. You don’t want to miss any of it.”
Now, if young man is in fact a religious believer or even an active member of a congregation linked to a traditional faith, then all of this material has religious connotations.
For me, this repeated silence raises a logical journalistic question, one similar to question suggested by the hesitancy at the Post to dig into the religious beliefs of Robert Griffin III: Who is making the choice to avoid the religious content of this story?
It might (1) be the athletes themselves, of course. It might (2) be key figures linked to the management of their teams, in this culture-wars age in which the Tebow factor is so dangerous. (3) It might be the journalists who are either tone-deaf on this topic, as Bill Moyers would say, or simply uncomfortable with religious issues and content. All of the above? Maybe.
Might there be some degree of negative bias against religious faith? What if a Griffin or a Strasburg turned out to be some kind of religious conservative in the tense context of Washington, D.C.? That’s possible, but it simply cannot be assumed.
One thing is certain: the ghost in the annual Strasburg is alive and well, even with the Post is dealing with the shape and growth of his life and, well, soul outside of baseball.