Christians in the outfield

GodbaseballSo I’m a fanatic of the reigning World Champion St. Louis Cardinals. But, uh, we didn’t do so well this year and didn’t even make it to the postseason.

Good thing that the Colorado Rockies made October so interesting. From mid-September, when they were in fourth place in the National League West, they have won a crazy 21 out of 22 games, sneaking into the playoffs as the wild card team (which they accomplished by beating the San Diego Padres in a one-game playoff), and obliterating their opponents in the National League Division and championship series.

As a Colorado native who was in college when the Rockies first came to Denver, it has been awesome to watch their unlikely run. As they prepare for Game 1 of the World Series against the evil Boston Red Sox, I rather enjoyed Ben Shpigel’s story about the role religion plays in the lives of the Rockies players, management and owners. Maybe I’m so used to reading stories where secular writers place the worst construction on any mixing of sports and religion, but this lede in the New York Times seemed to encapsulate the attitude of the team quite well:

As a Jewish player who attended a Catholic high school and a Lutheran university, Jason Hirsh knows what being a religious minority feels like. So last December, when he was traded to the Colorado Rockies, Hirsh wondered if what he had heard about his new organization was true.

Now, Hirsh said not once during the season had he felt uncomfortable with the place Christianity occupies within the organization.

“There are guys who are religious, sure, but they don’t impress it upon anybody,” Hirsh said. “It’s not like they hung a cross in my locker or anything. They’ve accepted me for who I am and what I believe in.”

Shpigel mentions that May 2006 USA Today article that riled folks with tales of Christian codes of conduct, the abolition of Playboy from the clubhouse — replaced with the Bible. But Schpigel says that the players and officials he spoke with this week felt the article was unfair and implied that the Rockies were intent on hiring Christians. There is a story here, but not the one USA Today tried to pin on the team. Schpigel allows players to explain themselves fully:

Asked how his own Christian faith affected his decision-making, General Manager Dan O’Dowd acknowledged it came into play, but not in a religious way. He said it guided him to find players with integrity and strong moral values, regardless of their religious preference.

“Do we like players with character? There is absolutely no doubt about that,” O’Dowd said during a recent interview in his Coors Field office. “If people want to interpret character as a religious-based issue because it appears many times in the Bible, that’s their decision. I believe that character is an innate part of developing an organization, and to me, it is nothing more than doing the right thing at the right time when nobody’s looking. Nothing more complicated than that.

“You don’t have to be a Christian to make that decision.”

Shpigel is a pretty darn good religion reporter for a sports reporter. He gets details about the concentration of Christians on the team, how many go to chapel on Sundays (about 10), and how many attend mid-week Bible studies (around 7).

But again, Schpigel’s sources say, it’s more about character, even when it’s difficult. In 2004, pitcher Denny Neagle (in a $51.5 million contract) was arrested for soliciting a prostitute. He was gone three days later; the Rockies paid him $16 million to never pitch for them again. O’Dowd says that character — and not a specific religious affiliation — is what they look for. But it’s still a clubhouse, Shpigel notes:

To be sure, this is not a bunch of teetotalers, as demonstrated by the Champagne- and beer-soaked celebrations that followed their series-clinching victories. They do not censor the clubhouse stereo, either. Everything from hip-hop to alternative music, like the Amy Winehouse song “Rehab,” played on a loop Saturday morning. . . .

“When you have as many people who believe in God as we do, it creates a humbleness about what we do,” [reliever Jeremy] Affeldt said. “I don’t see arrogance here, I see confidence. We’re all very humbled about where this franchise has been and where it is now, and we know that what’s happening now is a very special thing.”

As I was getting ready to post this, Mark Stricherz, my super smart friend who has a book on Democratic politics and religion coming out tomorrow (don’t worry, I’ll remind you tomorrow, too), sent along a story from the Washington Post.

After reading Shpigel’s piece in the Times, Vince Bzdek’s piece was particularly craptacular. For one thing, it was so bad that it had to run on page one of the Style section (where the Post writers remove their thin veneer of objectivity and a gush of snark comes out). So we know it’s not really about sports. That was also confirmed by the reporter’s inability to, you know, interview any of the Rockies instead of requoting them from previous stories. Even if they claimed previous stories distorted their views. Good work, Bzdek!

The Colorado Rockies believe in the Church of Baseball, too, and right now, many of the players and staff think God has smiled on their particular congregation. After winning 21 out of the last 22 games and ascending to the World Series for the first time in franchise history, the only way several team members can explain what’s going on is to cite divine intervention — when they are allowed to. . . .

Though team managers and Major League Baseball have tried to downplay the team’s religious zeal after an article last year in USA Today quoted several managers and players as saying a Christian-based code of conduct is the root of their success, the signs are still pretty clear that the Rockies believe God is their biggest fan.

After the Padres game, for example, pitcher Ramon Ortiz, who makes the sign of the cross on the way to the mound, said he thanked God “a hundred times.” Yorvit Torrealba usually makes the sign of the cross when he runs onto the field, too, and many Rockies players point a finger to heaven after a play goes their way. Several of the players, including Holliday and Todd Helton, have crosses dangling from their necks.

You know why the newspaper biz is doing so poorly? Not enough snark against religious people. I’m glad Bzdek is here to rescue the fishwrappers from obscurity. I mean, maybe not in the Washington Post newsroom, but making the sign of the cross and cross pendants aren’t exactly unheard of in America.
The tone deafness to religion is furthered by the Post’s automatic hyperlinking of the word “Damascus” in the inapt and inept use of the phrase road-to-Damascus conversion. We’ve discussed this before. Here’s another example of the inadequacy of this hit piece:

“We started going after character six or seven years ago, but we didn’t follow that like we should have,” [Chief Executive Officer Charlie Monfort] told USA Today. “I don’t want to offend anyone, but I think character-wise we’re stronger than anyone in baseball. I believe God sends signs, and we’re seeing those.”

Rockies officials now say their true emphasis has always been character, not religion.

Asked by the Denver Post what role religion played in assembling the team’s roster, Manager Clint Hurdle said: “We look for men of character, men of skills. Their [religious beliefs] are not a question that is even brought up. That those have a common fabric with Christianity is not a coincidence. But values are the issue.”

Okay, Bzdek, When someone says they emphasize character — also mentioning that they believe God is blessing this decision — that doesn’t mean the, uh, “true emphasis” (whatever that means) of the team is religion. So the line “Rockies officials now say …” is completely ridiculous. You use the word “now” to indicate a change. But the two quotes (that other reporters got) in which you sandwiched this supposed change don’t indicate a change. I know the Style section’s journalism suffers daily but this is kind of Logic 101, if not Newswriting 101.

Anyway, Bzdek ends the piece by quoting, of course, Bull Durham. You know, the whole thing about streaks and how to keep streaks alive, before closing with the sarcastic tone we love so much:

If the Rockies believe they’re playing well because of their faith or because of their commitment to character, then, what the hey, they probably are.

The story of the Rockies is interesting. The religious overtones are impossible to ignore.

But newsrooms don’t need to put the worst possible construction on a team just because some of them are Christian and actually care about doing their jobs as Christians. Perhaps the Washington Post even has a few Christians in its newsrooms who care about character and teamwork. It could happen.

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Forgive us our trespasses

marionjonesAs interesting as celebrity scandals are, celebrity mea culpas are close behind. After Patrick Kennedy, Mel Gibson, Mark Foley and Ted Haggard ran off to rehab as part of their public repentance (and I’m sure at least two of them legitimately needed it), some began to wonder if we’d ever see an apology not tied to a substance abuse claim.

Last week’s apology from athlete Marion Jones seemed different — maybe because she was apologizing for, in part, abusing a substance. After pleading guilty to two counts of lying to federal investigators and admitting in a packed U.S. District courtroom that she took steroids, she issued a statement. Here’s how The Sydney Morning Herald reported it — with the fantastic headline “Turned out, she had feet of clay“:

Track queen Marion Jones wept as she begged for forgiveness from her family, her fans and her country after admitting to being a drug cheat.

The sprint star who swept all before her at the 2000 Sydney Olympics pleaded guilty in a US court to lying to Government investigators when she denied using performance-enhancing drugs.

“I have asked Almighty God for forgiveness … because of my actions, I am retiring from the sport of track and field, a sport that I deeply love,” she said.

In a tearful statement on the steps of the federal courthouse in White Plains, New York, Jones said: “Making these false statements to federal agents was an incredibly stupid thing for me to do, and I am responsible fully for my actions. I have no one to blame but myself for what I’ve done.

In addition to noting her request for God’s forgiveness, Jones also asked for the public’s forgiveness:

I recognize that by saying that I’m deeply sorry, it might not be enough and sufficient to address the pain and the hurt that I have caused you. Therefore, I want to ask for your forgiveness for my actions, and I hope that you can find it in your heart to forgive me.

I was curious to see how the media treated her apology. Since it’s a sports story that means we have to look to the sports pages, where opinion mixes freely with the news. Mark Zeigler of The San Diego Union-Tribune was cynical:

Understand one thing, though: This was a plea agreement in federal court, not an admission of guilt born from a heavy conscience or some sort of cathartic personal cleansing. . . .

Jones showed up in White Plains yesterday because she had to, not because she necessarily wanted to. Sooner or later you realize the fish aren’t biting and it’s time to cut bait. Yesterday was merely the act of Jones snipping the line.

Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins had more compassion for the disgraced athlete:

You’re welcome to whatever judgment you have of Marion Jones, whatever recriminations you want to heap on her for using a steroid, and lying to the prosecutors. But anyone who sat in the U.S. District courtroom as she directed her clear, firm plea of guilty to Judge Kenneth M. Karas, and then watched her deliver that shattered emotional apology, her voice cracking on words like “deeply ashamed” and “disastrous,” in front of the cream pillars of the courthouse, was hard pressed to wish much punishment on her.

It seems to me that asking for forgiveness from God or our neighbor — or forgiving others — is something that many religious adherents do regularly. The first of Luther’s 95 Theses was “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent’, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” The Lord’s Prayer — prayed by some 2 billion people worldwide — mentions a little something about repentance and forgiveness. Indeed, repentance is regularly discussed throughout Christendom.

How much more central to the life of an average Christian is this regular posture of repentance than, say, electoral politics? And yet which one gets more so-called religion coverage in America today? Sometimes it seems as if the only story angle reporters have for Christians and sin is the hypocrisy angle. It might be good for some enterprising reporter to use a public apology such as Jones’ as a hook to discuss the complex and vital topic of sin, repentance and forgiveness.

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ESPN nails it

jon kitnaThis may be one too many sports-related posts for some of you (and a good start for others), but after reading ESPN The Magazine‘s profile of Detroit Lions quarterback Jon Kitna I couldn’t let it pass. Thank you to all of you who sent us this story, and I agree with the most recent submission that this is one of the most substantive attempts to look at faith and football in a very long time.

Reporter David Fleming uses Kitna’s story as a launch pad for discussing many of the religion issues that have cropped up recently in professional football, and he does so in a thorough and evenhanded manner that allows readers to draw their own conclusions:

Like many athletes who are outspoken about something as personal as faith, Kitna — with his ubiquitous cross hats and constant biblical references — is often dismissed as a loon. But his impact in Detroit is undeniable. He is part of a team prayer group on Friday afternoons and hosts a Bible study for teammates and their wives at his home on Monday nights. …

By combining two of the most fervent elements of society — faith and football — a previously anonymous journeyman quarterback has catapulted himself into the zeitgeist.

“People feel football is too trivial for God to care about, especially with so many bad things happening in the world,” says Tim Pitcher, a spokesman for Athletes in Action, which uses sports to push Christianity. “For a lot of people, the worlds shouldn’t mix.”

Yet they do, sometimes with uncomfortable results. After the Colts won the Super Bowl last February, Tony Dungy asked his team to kneel and recite the Lord’s Prayer.

While everyone complied, several players looked at each other in disbelief at the request, which forced them to interrupt their celebrations and interviews. To reporters in the room, the moment appeared awkward and forced.

Such discord isn’t limited to NFL locker rooms. Last June, New Mexico State settled out of court with four Muslim football players who had accused coach Hal Mumme of religious discrimination. Among other things, the athletes said Mumme made the team recite the Lord’s Prayer after each practice and before every game. When they objected, he labeled them “troublemakers.” “Being a coach doesn’t give someone the right to make a football team into a religious brotherhood,” says Peter Simonson, executive director of the New Mexico chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Read the entire story, even if you don’t enjoy sports or professional football. It says a lot about out society, what is acceptable in a professional workplace and how we deal with pressure and criticism.

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LAT: Faith, family & baseball

Vladimir GuerreroThe Major League Baseball playoffs are upon us, and Kevin Baxter of the Los Angeles Times has done a great job of reminding us that football isn’t the only sport in which religion can be prevalent.

Vladimir Guerrero, a native of the Dominican Republic, plays right field for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. He was the American League’s winner of the 2004 MVP Award, is one of the best hitters in the game today and has a rocket for an arm. Opposing pitchers think he is a “freak” for his ability to hit just about anything, including balls that hit the dirt (he also doesn’t wear batting gloves). His personal story of growing up one of nine children is as compelling as any.

In other words, there is a lot to be said about Guerrero and a lot has already been said. Baxter, to his credit, took on the religion angle in writing about Guerrero before the playoffs began and came up with gold:

Two hours before taking the field for the game that would give his team the division title, the Angels’ best hitter is sitting on the floor in a tiny room behind home plate at Angel Stadium, a Bible in his lap.

Vladimir Guerrero may fear no pitcher, but he’s a little nervous about God.

“I comfort myself with the Bible,” Guerrero says. “It’s like having my family there.”

I’ve said before that sportswriters can be some of the best religion writers out there. In addition to writing event stories (a.k.a. game stories), sportswriters follow people — and people have stories to tell. In Guerrero’s case, his religion clearly plays a huge part of his life. The story is well written and well rounded. There’s plenty of baseball in there for the sports fans to chew on, but it’s a story about a person, not a machine:

In that case, Guerrero is truly blessed on this morning because he has both: the good book and members of his extended family, namely the handful of Spanish-speaking teammates he gathers every Sunday for a short chapel service led by broadcaster Jose Mota.

Today’s reading comes from Galatians 2:20, in which Paul talks about commitment and example. So Mota asks the players to name the person whose example they’ve followed in life.

Guerrero breaks into a wide smile. It’s as if Mota has thrown a batting practice fastball right in his wheelhouse.

“My mother,” he says.

So there you have it: The man many American League pitchers dread most is, at heart, a God-fearing, Bible-toting mama’s boy.

For the non-baseball fans out there, a bit of background is appropriate. Guerrero is known to struggle around this time of the year. He is the team’s superstar and he is expected to perform come autumn. A story about his spiritual and emotional life is more than appropriate and well timed.

As the Angels take on the Boston Red Sox tonight, readers of this article are going to be more informed about the man who carries a Bible with him everywhere. Isn’t that what journalism is all about?

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Religious ‘items’ in a locker

polamalu si coverAnother football weekend, yet another chance to venture into the arena of faith and sports.

For starters, The Washington Post had an interesting story about former Philadelphia Eagle running back Herb Lusk, who is better known for what happened after one of his touchdown runs than for the actual events of his short but sweet National Football League career. Here’s the top of the story:

The play was 48 Toss, and 30 years later, Dick Vermeil remembers it as if he called it last Sunday. Herb Lusk took a pitch from Ron Jaworski, headed around left end, and breezed unscathed 70 yards for a fourth-quarter touchdown. Four steps over the goal line at Giants Stadium, the Philadelphia Eagles’ running back rewrote the playbook. Alone in the end zone, with a crowd of 48,824 looking on, he celebrated with a gesture in what has since become a watershed moment in American sports.

With little ceremony and no advance warning, Lusk kept his eyes straight, dropped to his left knee, and bowed his head in prayer. A few seconds later, he stood back up and returned to the sideline, his legacy sealed.

It was, according to the experts at NFL Films, the first end-zone prayer, and it opened up an arena of public speech and symbolic actions that remains alive and well and controversial to this day.

But the story that fascinated me, for obvious reasons, came early in the week — care of Jasan Cole at Yahoo! Sports. This was a simple Q&A about Pittsburgh strong safety Troy Polamalu, who is, perhaps, best known for the awesome mane of hair that flows out from under his Steelers helmet.

But it seems that Polamalu is also a Christian believer, and Cole not only allows this subject some space in his interview, but gets into some interesting details. Cole just keeps asking questions and printing the details of the answers.

Still, I had to smile at the reporter’s reference to Polamalu having a “carefully arranged series of religious items in his locker at Heinz Field.”

Religious items? What might those be?

See if you can fill in the gaps based on this section of the interview proper, which centers on the fact that Tuesday is on the only day in the week when Polamalu and his wife have the time to go to church.

300px FedorovskayaWhy is that? Does their church have extra long services, or what?

Polamalu: … Tuesday is also our only opportunity to go to church together, so we do that.

Cole: When and where do you go?

Polamalu: It starts at 8:30 (a.m.). … It’s the Nativity of the Theotokos monastery (in Saxonburg, Pa.).

Cole: I know you’re devoutly Christian … but exactly which denomination?

Polamalu: Greek Orthodox. Theotokos literally means the Mother of God.

Cole: How long are you in services?

Polamalu: They usually go to about 12:30.

Cole: That’s a four-hour service. Is that a normal service?

Polamalu: Pretty much, especially at a monastery.

Cole: Can you describe it?

Polamalu: What’s really neat about the Orthodox church is that it’s like walking back in time 2,000 years to the time of the Apostles, when they created these services. You walk into that and it’s really like … living it. They have maintained the truth ever since the beginning.

And so forth and so on.

So, since he is an Eastern Orthodox believer, what do you think those “items” were in his locker? Might they have been icons? You think?

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Some stories reverse the mirror

Gloria Strauss 01Few stories will change a journalist’s life. Even fewer stories change a journalist’s life for the better, but that’s exactly what happened to Seattle Times sports columnist Jerry Brewer since he started writing about Gloria Strauss, the 11-year-old daughter of a local high school basketball coach, who endured a four-year fight with cancer before passing away last week.

The series, titled “A prayer for Gloria,” covers too much ground for us to review here (nine installments), but here is a recent story that movingly describes the young girl’s battle with cancer and how the family’s faith is the essential element in their lives. The story has generated unprecedented reader feedback, a multimedia slideshow, a reporter’s journal and photo packages by Steve Ringman.

A Sunday column by Times editor at large Michael R. Fancher reveals how journalists’ backgrounds and faith will shape a story and their reaction to it:

Given how personal this assignment has become, I felt I should ask Brewer and Ringman whether their own faith has affected or been affected by the story.

Brewer said his grandfather is a Baptist preacher and he grew up in a very spiritual family. “It’s still a factor in my life. It helps me feel the story. You’ve got to feel it.”

Brewer said that when the Strauss family prays, “I know the Bible passage they recite and what they mean.” But the Strauss family is Catholic. “We’re both Christians, but it’s a lot different,” he said.

Ringman said that he has not been a very spiritual person, but the story “opens an opportunity to feel God. It’s very moving and I’m surprised by that.”

gloria straussAnyone who wants to say that reporters’ personal perspectives and backgrounds do not affect the way they cover a story just needs to review this series and what Brewer has to say about how being a person comes before being a journalist. The fact is that Brewer’s religious background helped him report this series in a way that so many readers could relate to and appreciate.

The series is not without controversy. Some readers didn’t like that faith was the central message:

Brewer responds that many families use faith to help them through illness, but “very few newspapers have documented this feeling — religion, if you will — that is very strong and moving within lots of suffering families. By presenting what this family believes and focusing on it, I’m simply putting a mirror on them.”

His online journal is personal, but the stories that appear in the newspaper are told in an unbiased way with very little filtering, he wrote to one reader. “You’re left to make your own conclusions, and if you decide it’s bogus, that is perfectly fine.”

Brewer said he tries to focus on the universal elements of Gloria’s story. He added that one reader commented that what the Strauss family calls faith, that reader calls love.

Both Ringman and Brewer said they have been changed by this assignment.

“Problems seem insignificant compared to what I’ve witnessed in the Strauss family,” Ringman said. “My perspective on life really has changed, spiritually and even materially — love and our children are much more important.”

Brewer answered, “What hasn’t this story changed about my life? It’s literally changed everything. I’m a better man and a better journalist, and I realize even more so that the man comes before the journalist.

And that is exactly what reporters are supposed to do. The quality of the mirror that is put before a journalist’s subjects depends largely on the journalist. Biases and omissions can affect the way the story is played, and often that is how important aspects are lost. For Brewer and Ringman there seems to have been no difficulty in delivering this story as an unvarnished and clear picture.

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CBS slow on the prayer uptake

Cedric KillingsKudos to the Associated Press for highlighting one of the most significant issues in the Indianapolis Colts-Houston Texans game Sunday afternoon.

On a Colts kickoff, Texans defensive tackle Cedric Killings went down in a somewhat freakish injury that left him motionless on the field. The CBS announcers, filling the time gap, commented on their hopes for Killings’ recovery and on the number of Texans players holding hands. They didn’t mention that the players were on their knees, in circles, holding hands with their heads bowed.

Apparently all the announcers saw at first was a bunch of players holding hands, because it wasn’t until the very end that they mentioned that the players were likely praying for the recovery and health of Killings.

The AP comes right out and says what everyone else saw during this scary moment:

In a scene eerily reminiscent of the one played out in Buffalo two weeks earlier, the Colts and Houston found themselves unified in prayer as Texans defensive tackle Cedric Killings left the field strapped to a stretcher before resuming the game. …

As part of the Texans’ “wedge” unit, the 310-pound Killings ran up the field at full speed, going head first to open a hole. Rookie receiver Roy Hall met him at about the Texans’ 15, turning his left shoulder slightly in an effort to break through and make the tackle as players are taught. Both dropped instantly to the ground, and while Hall eventually walked away, Killings did not. …

It appears Killings and Hall will, fortunately, be all right.

Killings spent Sunday night in a Houston hospital with a neck injury and had feeling in his arms and legs. Hall walked briefly into the Colts locker room Monday wearing a bulky harness over his left shoulder, and Dungy said he expected Hall back within a few weeks.

The good news is that Killings has been able to stand in the hospital. For more good reporting, here’s the Houston Chronicle‘s Richard Justice.

At the beginning of football season I commented on Christianity Today‘s cover story on faith and football. The article pointed out the NFL’s attempt to discourage post-game prayer huddles that mixed players from both teams and Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly’s silly fuss over the huddles being offensive.

The CBS commentators’ reluctance to talk about what was happening on the field indicates the gulf that separates some of the journalists and commentators who cover this league and the players who throw their bodies out there every weekend. The religion angle in football cannot be ignored, especially in moments like we saw Sunday afternoon in Houston and in moments that unfortunately we’re going to see again and again.

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Whew, that was a close(r) one!

JxDrwyz5It seems that some GetReligion readers are sensitive about the burning issue of whether God cares which teams win and which teams lose athletic contests and whether the prayers of the sports warriors play any role in determining the outcome of contests.

So I have been watching this issue carefully.

So on the train this morning, my jet-lagged brain spotted what I thought was an interesting piece of Godtalk in a Washington Times story by Mark Zuckerman about the final Washington Nationals game played in creaky old RFK Stadium.

For a moment, I was worried — since this was, it seemed, mentioned in a press conference — that we had a reference to public prayer inside a sports stadium the District of Columbia. Here is the top of the story:

Chad Cordero stared in for the sign from Brian Schneider. At the plate stood Jayson Werth, hoping to complete a last-ditch rally by driving in the tying runners perched on first and second bases.

The Washington Nationals led the Philadelphia Phillies 5-3 with two outs in the ninth, and RFK Stadium was bouncing and swaying one last time.

Inside a crowded home dugout, Manny Acta noticed team owner Ted Lerner nervously waiting for the final out to be recorded so he could take part in postgame ceremonies. Acta started to worry.

“Ted is just standing there waiting for the game to be over,” the manager said. “And I’m like, ‘Come on, Chief. You know the guy’s 81 years old. He doesn’t need to be put through this.’”

OK, was the reference to “Chief” — with a large C — kind of a vague reference to, you know, the Big Chief upstairs who hears managers’ prayers? Was this a Latino culture thing? It should be observed that this was a request, not so much for victory, but for the team owner not to drop dead of a heart attack. That’s a good reason to pray, yes?

However, I am relieved to let readers know that this is not a church-baseball separation issue.

It appears that closer Chad Cordero’s was college nickname was “Chief” and, under Associated Press style, that would be a Big C reference. I think.

Note to the reporter: I follow the Nationals somewhat closely and I had not caught the “Chief” reference. That would have been a good thing to mention, so that sensitive politicos did not have to worry. There are tense times.

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