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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Final Four ghosts in long story on Kentucky’s Julius Randle

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While in Arlington, Texas, on Monday for my beloved Rangers’ season opener at the newly named Globe Life Park, I noticed a big banner outside the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium next door.

Apparently, Jerry Jones’ gigantic shrine to losing football is hosting some sort of college basketball tournament this weekend. If I understand correctly, it’s called the NCAA Men’s Final Four and involves a malady known as “March Madness.”  Hopefully, there’s a cure, but everyone involved probably would appreciate our prayers.

Speaking of the aforementioned tournament, The Dallas Morning News has a big profile — 2,000-plus words — out today on one of the teams’ players. Julius Randle, who played high school hoops in Texas, is a big star for the Kentucky Wildcats and, it seems, could win a lottery ticket from the NBA. (I’m not endorsing gambling. I’m just reporting what I read.)

In all seriousness, there’s a lot to recommend about the Morning News’ profile, headlined “How a Dallas billionaire helped Plano’s Julius Randle become Kentucky’s biggest star.” On one level, the writer does an excellent job of digging below the surface and helping readers understand the unique path that Randle has taken to tonight’s big stage:

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Visibly drained, Julius Randle ambled into Kentucky’s $30 million basketball facility. Reporters awaited. Randle knew the drill.

Towering above his inquisitors, he leaned his 6-9, 250-pound frame against a wall, the one facing eight national championship banners. It
was a surreal contrast from his very first interview, with his hometown Dallas Morning News.

Back then he was 6 foot, 145 pounds. He was 11.

“Yeah, I remember,” he said with a soft laugh.

On Saturday night, the local kid will re-emerge in North Texas as a 19-year-old man in the grandest possible basketball homecoming, with Kentucky facing Wisconsin in the Final Four semifinals before an expected crowd of 80,000 at AT&T Stadium.

A national TV audience no doubt will be reminded that Randle is the only locally produced player among a Final Four of out-of-state teams, having led Plano Prestonwood Christian to three TAPPS state titles, the most recent in March 2013.

Later that month, having already signed with Kentucky, he attended the South Regional at AT&T Stadium, watched Michigan beat Florida to make the Final Four and visualized himself playing in the vast stadium this year.

But as I read the otherwise compelling piece, I found myself frustrated by the religion ghosts (if you have no clue what a religion ghost is, check out GetReligion’s primer on “Why We’re Here”).

In keeping with the theme, I’ll rank my Final Four ghosts:

No. 4 seed:  Mention of Plano Prestonwood Christian.

Yes, it’s entirely possible that an extremely talented basketball player would be recruited to play at a Christian school and that there would be no real religion angle. But Randle’s association with a school that’s a ministry of Prestonwood Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist megachurch, made me wonder.

A quick Google search might even turn up this Baptist Press headline:

Randle takes ‘solid’ faith into Final Four

– No. 3 seed: Mention of billionaire Kenny Troutt’s vision going beyond basketball:

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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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10 years of GetReligion: Five things they didn’t tell me

Nearly four years and 500 posts ago, I became the newest GetReligionista.

Now, somehow, I’m the second-longest-tenured regular contributor after the illustrious Terry Mattingly himself.

As we celebrate GetReligion’s 10th anniversary, our esteemed editor tmatt has reflected on “why we are still here” — Part 1 and Part 2 — and talked about “Labels, labels, labels, labels!” He’s even recorded a podcastGeorge Conger and my bride Tamie Ross have shared additional insight.

Now it’s my turn.

I can’t remember exactly when I started reading GetReligion or how I came across it. But in March 2010, I jumped at the opportunity to join an all-star team that included Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, Sarah Pulliam Bailey and Brad Greenberg. As I wrote in my introductory post:

For a faithful GetReligion reader such as myself, joining the team of contributors is like a baseball fan invited to sit in the press box and share his opinions during the World Series.

Although it’s not quite in the same league as my beloved Texas Rangers, I’m a big fan of this weblog and its endeavor to pinpoint and expose the religion ghosts in the mainstream news media.

But here are five things they didn’t tell me when I signed up:

1. Writing media criticism on short deadlines is like pulling a tooth a day. Since all of us who write for GetReligion do so on a part-time basis, we’re constantly making time to post between our real jobs, our families and our other priorities (did I mention Rangers baseball?). We’re reading and analyzing stories in a hurry, then filing posts like breaking-news reporters.

2. The avalanche of email never stops.  My GetReligion story possibilities folder has 5,086 items in it as of this moment. Granted, some of those items go back to when I started. But you get the point: We’re flooded with possible stories to critique, and there’s no way we can get to everything that deserves a thoughtful analysis. Thus, the guilt files that we sometimes talk about.

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Got news? Looking at key facts in the Chris Davis timeline

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It’s the last day of the regular baseball season and for fans of the Baltimore Orioles there was a very bittersweet taste to the year. What does that have to do with religion-news coverage? While many will argue that baseball is a religion (click here for a classic), trust me that I will get to the real religion hook in this post soon enough.

While our O’s narrowly missed the playoffs, the team did have another winning season and made life uncomfortable for the Boston Red Sox. Do the math, people. It’s hard to have a winning season in the American League BEast. Cleveland Indian fans should feel thankful they are where they are.

Of course, one of the other big stories here in Charm City was Chris Davis and his Babe Ruth-ian season in terms of extra-base hits and home runs.

Although Davis has been a moon-shot slamming muscle man since high school, the rate at which he hit the long ball over the past 18 months or so raised predictable questions about performance-enhancing drugs. However, insiders noted that the big man actually lost weight entering this year and increased his foot speed, trends that rarely are linked to steroids.

So, if drugs weren’t the story, then what was the X-factor that helped calm down this anger-management case, allowing him to get his act together?

Simply stated, there is the baseball side and the personal-religious side. You would think that the two stories could be blended into one, but that does not appear to be a task The Baltimore Sun team is willing to attempt, other than the occasional tiny dose of vague God talk.

Here’s my question: What if it could be argued, looking at the timeline of the Davis lift-off into superstardom, that his marriage and his return to practicing the Christian faith of his youth were actually — in terms of on-the-record facts — crucial to this sports-news story? Should a newspaper go there, asking journalistic questions about those aspects of his life and including them as PART of the story?

With that question in mind, let’s look at the new Sun story about Davis’ year. Here is the overture:

Hank Aaron never hit as many as 53 home runs in a season. Neither did Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Frank Robinson nor Mike Schmidt.

So with 53 homers going into the final game, Orioles first baseman Chris Davis is not only the most prolific single-season slugger in club history. He’s part of a select group that includes just 17 power hitters in baseball history.

As the Orioles wrap up their season Sunday, short of the playoffs, it’s worth reflecting on what a rare show Davis gave Baltimore fans in 2013. He found that hard to do himself, talking about his season the day after the Orioles were eliminated from postseason contention. “It’s hard to reflect and look back on personal accomplishments right now, because I still have a sour taste in my mouth,” Davis said.

So what happened? Can Davis keep it going?

Davis knows he will enter next season facing a level of outside expectation he’s never experienced. If he returns to his 2012 level — 33 home runs would’ve placed him top 10 in the majors this year — fans will crinkle their noses. But he doesn’t seem concerned.

“I’ve expected it for myself for a long time,” he said. “I had struggles in Texas, and I think that’s where I got away from it. I tried to be a player that everybody else wanted me to be instead of the player I knew I was capable of being. Obviously, when you hit 50-plus home runs in a season, you’re going to draw some attention to yourself, but I just hope that everybody counts on me to be there every day and compete. The numbers are going to be there at the end of the season.”

So that’s one valid way to write the end-of-the-year story. It’s the baseball exclusive approach. What would the personal approach look like?

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About those steroid whispers and slugger Chris Davis

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If you have been following major-league baseball this year, then you probably know a little bit about Baltimore Orioles first baseman Chris Davis, the guy with 37 home runs at the All-Star Game break. If you wish, you can check him out tonight in the All-Star Home Run Derby (while pondering the question of whether Texas Ranger fanatic Bobby Ross Jr., will cheer for Davis or against him).

Now, here are a few basic facts that are highly relevant to the Twitter trouble that surrounds “Crush” Davis.

Davis is 6-foot-3-inches tall and weighs about 230 pounds. Those numbers have been roughly the same during his years in the minor and major leagues and, throughout that time, he has been known as a guy who could hit the ball about 450 feet without working up a sweat, while striking out at an even more rapid clip. He has always been a high contact-to-damage-ratio guy.

There are reports that Davis came into camp this year 10 to 15 pounds lighter and it certainly appears that he has improved his speed on the base paths, as well as his ability to hit baseballs that are pitched down and away. He has, as a left-handed hitter, developed quite a knack for hitting opposite-field golf shots (as opposed to monster blasts) into the first few rows in the stands. He is no longer trying to tear the cover off the ball during each and every at bat. His strike outs are way down and he’s batting .315.

What does this have to do with religion?

Actually, these are the kinds of numbers that matter when a slugger is being accused of using steroids. It is rare, you see, for people to lose weight and gain speed while using steroids that allow them to hit moon shots.

The religion angle — tune in any Baltimore talk-radio station or hit Twitter — is that @ChrisDavis_19 is a Christian who, especially since he got married a year or so ago, has become quite outspoken about his faith and even the possibility that he could end up working in some form of ministry.

Religion and steroid chatter? That’s a volatile mix.

As a Baltimore guy who closely follows the Orioles, I find it interesting that the religion angle of this story is EVERYWHERE when it’s addressed by the public, yet the key news story addressing this topic in The Baltimore Sun did not include any references to faith. Is Davis lying? Is his faith a sham? If one assumes that he is using PEDs, and some people do, then this would also mean that this born-again slugger is a hypocrite or worse.

It’s impossible to separate these issues. Right? However, The Sun team managed to completely skip the religion angle. Here’s the opening of that story:

Orioles first baseman Chris Davis understands that there are going to be whispers, and that those will grow louder if he continues his torrid home run pace.

He is, after all, a muscle-rippling power hitter with video-game home run totals. He knows the steroid accusations are inevitable and will accompany his pursuit of home run records this season.

“I think it sucks that guys in our day and age have to answer for mistakes that guys have made in the past. But it is part of it,” said Davis, who has 33 home runs in his first 92 games for the Orioles this season. “That’s what happened when Major League Baseball started addressing the issue. We knew we were going to have to deal with it.”

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Nolan Ryan’s son and the F-word

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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

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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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