Cruz bounces back, with the help of family and, maybe, faith

There is a reason sports fans see so many media images of professional athletes wearing those omnipresent Beats headphones in locker rooms.

Most athletes these days use music as a way to get pumped up before games and then to cool down afterwards. The problem, of course, is that the typical locker room is going to have a lot of trouble coming up with a common play list for what will end up at high volume on the big speakers. Techno, rap, country, heavy metal and old-school R&B don’t mix all that well. Thus, many athletes crank things up on headphones.

However, there are stars who have earned enough respect, veterans who have enough clout, that they get to play their music on their own sound systems at their lockers or even over the house systems in the weight room. Other players cut them some slack, because they’ve earned it (or they demand it). To one degree or another, everyone else in the room is going to know that this athlete needs that music. Often it’s a symbolic thing, a link to particular culture or life experience. And that’s that.

Thus, I noted with interest the following reference (a passing reference, with no follow-up information) in a Baltimore Sun article about the new shooting star in the Orioles locker room — slugger Nelson Cruz.

Cruz quickly has become a part of the Orioles family in Baltimore.

He appreciates that his teammates let him play his Christian music in the workout room, even though O’Day joked that his singing is lacking. Cruz’s Twitter feed includes photos of him and fellow Latin players, like Ubaldo Jimenez, Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop, out at dinner together on the road.

Now that’s interesting. There are some high-profile religious believers in that locker room (another former Texas Rangers slugger, Chris Davis, leaps to mind), but I had no idea that Christian faith played a role in the dramatic up-and-down drama surrounding Cruz. I wanted to know more about that. Honest, he cranks up Christian music in the team weight room? Outrageous.

I still want to know more about that. Even after yet another giant Sun feature on Cruz that ran Sunday on A1, instead of the sports page.

Why would a faith-angle matter? Well, for starters Cruz has lived a rather complex moral life in recent years. The story ran under this complex double-decker headline:

After a tumultuous year, red-hot Orioles outfielder Nelson Cruz has never been happier

Though drug scandal remains part of his story, Cruz is beloved by fans, teammates as he readies for All-Star Game

So if Cruz is a man of faith, surely the Sun team is going to ask him some questions about how his admitted past use of performance-enhancing drugs fits into that picture. Right?

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ESPN features pastor who loves umpires, hates baseball

In case you hadn’t figured it out — examples here, here and here — baseball ranks as a holy subject at GetReligion.

Sadly, my beloved Texas Rangers are enduring a forgettable season, much to the amusement of tmatt, a Baltimore resident and Orioles fan. Former Ranger Nelson Cruz, who signed with the Orioles in the offseason, has been one of the major leagues’ top sluggers this season, just as Chris Davis — another former Ranger-turned-Oriole — was last season.

Speaking of baseball — and one can never do that too much — ESPN The Magazine just published an amazing, 5,000-word profile of a pastor who ministers to umpires.

Former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey, who got kicked off our blogging island for not loving baseball enough (I kid, I kid), said this was her favorite part of the story:

The thing is, Pastor Dean hates baseball. He always has. (“I can’t stand baseball! It’s crazy!”) It gets really boring, he says, but he’s committed to watching all nine innings, to reciprocate the respect his umpires pay him when he’s preaching.

It’s a really fascinating story, filled with rich detail and insight into umpires’ lives that will resonate with baseball fans and people of faith alike.

A big chunk of background that sets the stage for the rest of the narrative:

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Half-naked dancers and public prayers in Oklahoma City

“Gonna wear my Thunderwear in Times Square.”

My friend Randy Roper, the preaching minister for my home congregation in Oklahoma, came up with that winning slogan in a 2009 contest sponsored by the Oklahoma City Thunder. As a result, Roper earned a free trip to New York for the NBA Draft Lottery. (That was, of course, before the Thunder emerged as one of the league’s top teams.)

At least once a season since then, the Thunder have asked Roper to lead the public prayer that precedes each home game.

I thought of my friend when I read a New York Times sports feature this week headlined “Praying for the Home Team in Oklahoma City.” The top of the 2,000-word story by NBA writer Andrew Keh:

OKLAHOMA CITY — Before the plumes of smoke and the shimmering pyrotechnics and the two dozen or so dancers gyrating in microscopic shorts and the hip-hop and the hairy mascot on stilts and the sponsorships — “Tonight’s free throws are brought to you by Hooters!” — there is prayer.

Chesapeake Energy Arena, home to the N.B.A.’s Oklahoma City Thunder, so fully incorporates the complete assortment of flashy sports entertainment tropes that the building has been called Loud City.

But amid the cacophony here, there is one significant difference: preceding each game is a stadiumwide prayer of invocation that on most nights briefly turns a raucous sports event into something resembling a megachurch gathering.

“We feel people’s faith is important to them,” said Dan Mahoney, the Thunder’s vice president for corporate communications and community relations, who noted that the prayers are nondenominational and that those offering them have ranged from Protestant and Roman Catholic clergy to Jewish rabbis to Native American spiritual leaders. “Gathering to support our team, we feel it’s appropriate to build in a time of reflection.”

Actually, I think Keh’s lede nails it.

I’m in the minority in Oklahoma City in that I have not become a devoted Thunder fan. My allegiance remains with baseball and my beloved Texas Rangers, three hours south of the Sooner State’s capital city. But I attend a Thunder game or two a year — usually when I can find a cheap seat up high.

And I can attest to the irony that the Times writer captures: a spiritual leader asking for God’s blessings followed by half-naked dancers gyrating all over the big screen, as this father does his best not to blush with his teenage son and daughter standing on each side of him.

But back to the journalism: Keh does an excellent job of explaining the history behind Oklahoma City’s prayer. In addition, he puts the tradition into the larger context of both the community and the NBA and sports world:

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Nolan Ryan’s son and the F-word

In his 27-year major-league career, Nolan Ryan regularly fired 100-mph fastballs. He pitched seven no-hitters and struck out 5,714 batters — both records.

Now the CEO of my beloved Texas Rangers, the 66-year-old “Ryan Express” is a baseball legend — a Hall of Fame right-hander who needs no introduction to fans.

Nolan’s son Reid Ryan, 41, is a different story.

Except for his famous father, the younger Ryan remains relatively unknown. However, the Houston Astros hired him as team president in May, increasing his profile in the Lone Star State.

Enter The Dallas Morning News.

Over the weekend, the Dallas newspaper ran an in-depth, “what makes him tick” feature on Reid Ryan.

Unfortunately for non-subscribers, most of the 1,700-word profile is hidden behind a paywall. Fortunately for you, kind GetReligion readers who so much enjoy posts on sports stories, I am a subscriber and read the whole ghost-ridden thing.

Since I pay $9.99 a month mainly to peruse the Morning News’ behind-the-scenes Rangers coverage, I was enjoying the story as a baseball fan when the first holy ghost caused my GetReligion antenna to rise.

Early in the piece, the writer eloquently describes the major turning point in Reid Ryan’s life. It occurred when he was 7 years old and was hit by a car. Let’s enter that scene:

At the hospital, the doctors had no trouble diagnosing Reid’s shattered left leg.

After the surgeons carved him open to check for internal injuries, they removed his severed spleen. When the pain lingered into the next week, they opened him up again and removed a damaged kidney they had hoped to save.

Then came the body cast.

It was sometime during his confining next two months in the hospital that Reid, described by his mother as previously “vivacious” but turned eerily “subdued,” took a silent oath.

“God blessed me with a second chance,” Reid Ryan says 34 years later. “That time shaped how I look at the world. I decided that no matter how many more years I had on this earth, I was going to be extremely positive in everything I do.”

Let’s see: The money quote that describes the most significant event in Reid Ryan’s life involves G-O-D.

Did anyone at the Morning News catch that reference or consider delving more deeply into the role of Ryan’s faith? Apparently not, because the story immediately heads in a totally different direction using a, shall we say, ironic description given the ghost just mentioned:

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Crush Davis wrestles with anger issues, with God’s help

I realize that GetReligion readers have repeatedly demonstrated their lack of interest in the world of sports or, at the very least, media coverage of stories that mix faith and sports. I remain a pretty intense sports fan, based in Baltimore.

So it’s rather remarkable that the newspaper that lands in my front yard not only produced a major story about the life and faith of hotter than hot Orioles slugger Chris Davis (hello Red Sox fans), but put it on the front page. I am not taking about the front page of the sports section, I’m talking about A1 in the Sunday issue.

The story isn’t perfect — more on that in a minute — but it’s clear that The Baltimore Sun team let Davis talk about the arc of his life and, in the end, accurately concluded that his return to evangelical Christian faith has actually had something to do with him getting his act together as a man, a husband and as an All-Star level player.

God is in the lede, which tends to happen a lot in sports coverage. The more important fact about this story is that the God factor is — to some degree — actually fleshed out in the reporting in the story.

To. Some. Degree. Here’s the long overture to the piece:

The power? That blunt-force ability to lay wood to a baseball and propel it 400, 420, 450 feet? He had it even when he was a boy. Came from God, as far as he’s concerned.

Harnessing it? Well, that’s the work of Chris Davis’ life. There’s a paradoxical quality to the Orioles’ first baseman, who has emerged this season as one of baseball’s most fearsome sluggers, a likely All-Star starter who leads the majors with 22 home runs.

Growing up in East Texas, Davis was like a puppy with big paws, bowling over everything. But even as he climbed the ranks of the game he loved, he could not find the deeper fulfillment he coveted.

Before he could put all that strength to use, he had to stop trying to overpower everything in his life. He had to tone down the perfectionist streak he inherited from his dad, Lyn, who gave him his work ethic but could also be an overbearing presence. Both men acknowledge their competitive drive created friction in their relationship. That stress, which friends and teammates watched unfold as the younger Davis was blossoming into a star athlete in Texas, is what Chris Davis says helped set the course for his success today.

He had to believe that his faith, his marriage and his team could prop him up during bad times.

All of the usual themes that dominate sports features are here. The key theme that relates to faith is Davis’ struggles, not only with perfectionism, but with anger. And what is the only thing that has helped him with his anger?

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USA Today: Jesus’ hometown was … Jerusalem

I make no secret of my allegiance to God, my family and the Texas Rangers.

So yes, when Rangers superstar slugger Josh Hamilton was “called way out west over the winter by God and $125 million,” as Fort Worth Star-Telegram sports columnist Randy Galloway described it, I felt jilted. And yes, when Hamilton — now an Anaheim Angel — struck out twice in his return to Rangers Ballpark on Friday, I rejoiced at his expense (and may have scared the neighbors).

As those who have followed Hamilton (here at GetReligion and elsewhere) know, the former No. 1 pick in Major League Baseball’s amateur draft hit rock bottom before a return to the sport’s Promised Land. He credits his recovery to his Christian faith. So not surprisingly, he spoke in religious terms after going 0-for-4 in the Angels’ 3-2 loss to my Rangers yesterday. As one of my Facebook friends described it:

I learned something new from Josh Hamilton — apparently Jesus was booed the most in Nazareth because it wasn’t a baseball town.

Another person on Facebook pointed out that the Bible actually starts with a baseball reference. Genesis 1:1 says, “In the big inning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

Humor aside, I have an actual GetReligion-related reason for this post. In reading various stories about the boos Hamilton received in Texas, I came across a USA Today story that included this interesting nugget:

Hamilton, who signed a five-year, $125 million free-agent contract with the rival Angels, says he used the power of prayer to get him through the day. He even brought up the story of Jesus being rebuked in Jerusalem, saying it was the same for him being abused in his hometown.

Really.

“Somebody came and shared that with me,” Hamilton said. “Where did people get on Jesus the most? In his hometown. It’s one of those things, where baseball-wise, this is my hometown. They got after it.”

Um, is it me or does USA Today think Jesus’ hometown was Jerusalem? (It wouldn’t be the first time, of course, that a major news organization got such a simple fact wrong.)

Luke 4:16-30 (not to mention Mark 6:1-6 and Matthew 13:53-58) tells of Jesus going to his hometown of Nazareth and making his statement about a prophet having no honor in his hometown.

The Scriptures say that Jesus did not do many miracles there because of the people’s lack of faith.

Perhaps that explains Hamilton’s abysmal performance in recent outings in Texas.

Pod people: One more Easter home run

As most of you know, Sunday was an important religious holiday.

In my “All hope is not lost” post, I already highlighted eight compelling enterprise stories that graced the nation’s Easter front pages.

But I’m not talking about that religious holiday.

I’m referring, of course, to Opening Night and the beginning of a new Major League Baseball season. (Even though my beloved Texas Rangers lost that first game, they came back and won the next two against the lowly Houston Astros, including an almost-perfect game pitched by Japanese sensation Yu Darvish).

In my original Easter post, I purposely did not mention one story with a strong religion angle that I found on the Sunday front page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. That’s because the story — a profile of Pittsburgh Pirates star Andrew McCutchen — was related more to the new baseball season than the Christian holiday.

The gist of the 3,700-word profile: star center fielder stays humble and remembers his faith.

The lede:

FORT MEADE, Fla. — Four men look at an 18-year-old baseball player, and they see a blessing.

The young man sitting in front of them has been picked by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the first round of the 2005 draft, and his life is already changing, to the tune of a $1.9 million signing bonus. The men are here, at a Red Lobster in Lakeland, Fla., a half-hour’s drive from home in the small town of Fort Meade, to pass along some wisdom before the long journey begins.

In a matter of days, Andrew McCutchen’s professional career will set sail with the Gulf Coast League Pirates. A team scout has told him that he is special, that he could be Pittsburgh’s baseball savior, the next Barry Bonds. It’s a lot for a teenager to handle, so Lorenzo McCutchen asked three trusted men of God to help lay a foundation for his son to fall back on when the world gets crazy around him.

They are attempting to speak directly into Andrew’s heart, about staying true to himself, about keeping God first, about the pitfalls of the fame that could come his way.

“We were giving him his wings,” Lorenzo recalls.

It’s truly an exceptional story that revolves around the role that faith played — and plays — in the life of McCutchen’s parents and the baseball star’s upbringing. And the piece hints at the importance of God in the center fielder’s own life:

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Sun at it again: Ghost in McLouth’s comeback

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?


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