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Baseball’s night of miracles

As you might have heard, the national pastime’s regular season ended Wednesday night in a ho-hum sort of way.

Ho-hum, as in the most unbelievable and remarkable few hours imaginable (and I’m not even talking about my beloved Texas Rangers’ dramatic ninth-inning home run to gain home-field advantage in the American League Division Series).

Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci captured the scene:

They will go down as the most thrilling 129 minutes in baseball history. Never before and likely never again — if we even dare to assume anything else can be likely ever again — will baseball captivate and exhilarate on so many fronts in so small a window the way it did September 28, 2011.

Starting at 9:56 PM Eastern, the grand old game, said to suffer by comparison from football’s siren sisters of gambling and violence, and said to suffer from America’s shrinking attention span and capacity to contemplate, rose up and fairly screamed, “Watch this!”

At that minute, the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves clung to twin 3-2 leads and the belief that they would avoid the completion of the greatest September collapses in the history of the sport, even if, in Atlanta’s case — the Braves appeared headed for a tiebreaker game with St. Louis — it meant a 24-hour stay of execution. Boston seemed home free to October, seeing that Tampa Bay, its competitor for the wild card spot, was getting blown out by the Yankees, 7-0.

But what happened at that moment was the beginning of the end: With the Braves two outs from victory, Chase Utley of Philadelphia tied the game in Atlanta with a sacrifice fly against Craig Kimbrel, the baby-faced rookie closer for the Braves who was pitching with the earnestness of youth, but more obviously with the toll of overuse and stress from a grueling stretch run. Red-cheeked and flustered, he invited pity more than scorn.

Nothing would be the same in the next 129 minutes. Fortunes were reversed. Reputations were made and destroyed. Careers were altered.

It was 129 minutes played on the edge of a sharp knife. It wasn’t just win or go home. It was fame or infamy. Anonymity or celebrity. Cursed or blessed. Collapse or comeback. The Last Night of the Year did not bother with the in between. The scale and speed of it was mind-boggling.

Of course, the baseball gods — and even God — figured prominently in the media coverage of baseball’s night of miracles.

Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch focused on the “miracle” of the St. Louis Cardinals (enthusiastically endorsed by megafan M.Z. Hemingway of GetReligion.org fame) overcoming a double-digit deficit to win the National League wildcard over the Atlanta Braves:

So now the miracle continues. On to another city, another series, and perhaps another long and crazy Red October that could outdo the remarkable September magic they’ve already produced.

And at this point, would you dare to think anything else?

“This is a great situation for us,” said Carpenter. “How can you not be excited about what’s going on? This ball club has been unbelievable.”

In Baltimore, perhaps Orioles aficionado Terry Mattingly had something to do with the “Curse of the Andino” inflicted on the Boston Red Sox.

Or maybe the defeat was God’s will, as Red Sox slugger Adrian Gonzalez seemingly suggested after the game? From The Atlantic:

And, speaking of God, the aforementioned Gonzales (sic) said in the locker room after Wednesday’s game that “God has a plan. And it wasn’t God’s plan for us to be in the playoffs.” That happened. He actually said that. I guess it’s better than saying, “God didn’t want me to hit that curve ball.” But it helps explain why so few members of the Red Sox Nation, spread out all over the world, can’t stand this team of underachieving apologists.

Gonzalez’s explanation also caught the attention of Boston Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy:

Adrian Gonzalez chose to take the easy route of predestination.

“God has a plan,’’ he said. “And it wasn’t God’s plan for us to be in the playoffs.’’

Wow. That’ll play well in the Nation. And the owner’s box.

Wow indeed. I realize it’s a sports column, but really? “God has a plan” equals predestination? According to the Religion Newswriters Association stylebook, this is the meaning of predestination:

The belief that God predetermines whether people’s afterlife is to be spent in heaven or hell. It is most often associated with Swiss theologian John Calvin.

Does that mean the Rays are going to heaven and the Red Sox are going to … well, you get the idea?

Speaking of the Rays, Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon provided a little Godbeat fodder of his own. From MLB.com baseball columnist Hal Bodley:

It was motivational speaker Dr. Wayne Dyer who once wrote, “You’ll see it when you believe it.”

Seeing firsthand what the Rays have done is hard to believe.

They followed a script that ended early Thursday morning with a stunning 12-inning, 8-7 victory over the Yankees that had to be written by a force far greater than mere humans.

There is no other way to explain how the Rays’ unbelievable march to the postseason evolved — and ended.

“It goes beyond earthly measures,” said Rays skipper Joe Maddon, who has to be 2011 American League manager of the year. “I mean this sincerely. You can’t write this script. No one would believe how this happened tonight. We were in such a bad place, and [the Red Sox] were in such a good place.”

Does that make God a Rays fan? This devoted Rangers fan sure hopes not, since the Tampa Bay Miracles play Texas next.

A good guy, with a ghost

A recent ESPN.com headline caught my attention:

Torii Hunter one of the good guys

Now, as I may have mentioned a time or two, I’m a devoted fan of the Texas Rangers. As such, I don’t exactly root for Hunter, an All-Star outfielder for the rival Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. (I did like the movie.)

But I enjoy stories that go beyond the numbers in baseball, so I found the top of the ESPN feature on Hunter quite promising:

If Torii Hunter is not the friendliest, best-liked and most quotable player in the major leagues, he’s certainly in the starting lineup and likely batting no lower than cleanup.

“I think that’s about as safe a statement as you can make,” Angels outfielder Vernon Wells replied when asked if Hunter is the game’s friendliest player. “He’s one of those people who is legitimately kind to everyone, no matter who it is. No matter if it’s a random person working at the stadium or the best player in the game, he’s the same person. He always has time to talk to people and get to know them on a different level. It’s impressive to watch.

“He could run for mayor in Orange County and do anything he wanted to. The same in Minnesota — everywhere he goes. He’s loved everywhere. You give him enough time to get out and greet people and get them to know his personality, he could run for any position anywhere.”

At 1,400-plus words, it’s a fairly well-developed piece that offers behind-the-scenes insight into what makes Hunter the way he is.

For instance, there’s this:

Hunter says he came by this personality from two sources: his grandmother, Edna Cobbs, and his mother, Shirley (who still teaches grade school in Pine Bluff, Ark.). “My grandmother was the type of woman who always smiled and said treat people like you want to be treated and life is so much easier. My mom is the same way.”

Now, “treat people like you want to be treated” almost sounds like the Golden Rule, as advocated by Jesus Christ (see Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:31).

As I read the ESPN piece, I kept wondering if faith might play a role in how Hunter approaches his baseball career. But like a 250-pound slugger missing a fastball thrown right down the middle, this piece whiffs on that key question, leaving a big, giant ghost.

I did not have to try hard to solve the mystery. I Googled “Torii Hunter” and “faith” and found a recent Beliefnet interview with Hunter on “how his faith helps him set a good example.”

For example, what circumstances led to his relationship with Christ?

I was raised in the church by my grandmother who made sure we went to Sunday School, read the Bible and went to church every Sunday. Every night we read Bible stories before we went to bed. My mother also made sure we stayed involved in the church and the things of God. My relationship with Christ came about through that and the influences of my mother and grandmother helped my faith to grow.

And what Hunter wants others to learn from his example:

I want them to know that I try to walk like Christ in my life. If I strike out, I don’t curse, or throw my bat or hit things back in the dugout, I try to quietly just put my helmet back. I may be very upset but I try to control myself. Whether I’m down or whether things are great, I try to stay the same person all the time. I want my teammates to see that I’m following Christ. But, I’m also human, so there are times I slip and make mistakes but I know Christ forgives me.

Hmmmmm, it certainly appears — talking to you, ESPN — that Hunter is “one of the good guys” for a reason.

Pod people: From clubhouse to courthouse

For this week’s Crossroads, host Todd Wilken and I talked about media coverage of tragedy involving baseball star Josh Hamilton and about news reports on the impact of Illinois’ new civil-unions law on faith-based adoption and foster care services.

We revisited my post on Hamilton’s unfortunate role in the death of a fan at a recent Texas Rangers’ game:

An Oakland Athletics player hit a foul ball that ricocheted into left field. Rangers All-Star outfielder Josh Hamilton picked up the ball and tossed it toward fans in the bleachers behind the out-of-town scoreboard. A man in the front row with his 6-year-old son reached for the ball, leaned a little bit too much over the railing and fell headfirst behind the left-field wall — as the entire crowd, myself included, gasped.

In my original post, I noted that anyone familiar with Hamilton and his demons knows that his Christian faith is a big deal in his life. Wilken and I discussed the media’s reporting on Hamilton’s statement that he believes “God has a plan” even in such a sad circumstance. I also pointed out a subsequent quote from Hamilton that attempts to make sense of the freak accident. Here’s the version of the quote that appeared in USA Today:

Hamilton said his Christian faith, which helped him overcome alcohol and drug addiction to become one of baseball’s brightest stars, has buoyed him and his family this week. He said his family continues to pray for the Stone family.

“This is life,” Hamilton said. “There are tragedies, things that happen that you have no control over and you don’t understand them. One of them is standing in front of your maker.

“Maybe I was a little more prepared to handle a situation like this. Still, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt and affect you. It was just a random act of kindness that turned tragic.”

After my visit with Wilken, I came across another piece — this one from ESPN Dallas — on Hamilton’s faith helping him cope:

“I don’t know all of the answers to everything, but I have a relationship with God,” Hamilton said. “It’s changed my life. In some ways, I feel like I was picked. In a lot of ways, I feel like I was picked because in my situation I just happen to have faith. My family’s handled it well also. It’s been tough, but we’ve talked through some things and we’ve prayed a lot.”

In the other half of the interview, Wilken and I focused on my concerns about some of the coverage of Catholic Charities refusing to place foster children with gay couples despite Illinois’ new civil-unions law. In a later post, I found a bit more to like in a Chicago Tribune story on the legal fight. In an updated story, the Tribune reports that the state will hold off cutting foster care funding to two other faith-based organizations.

Anyway, check out the podcast. Wilken asked some enlightening questions, and I did my best to answer them.

Muslim Night at the ballpark?

Back in 2003, a friend of mine named Brent High made national headlines when he started organizing “Faith Nights” — Christian faith nights, that is — at minor-league baseball games in Nashville, Tenn.

In a 2005 feature, USA Today described High as one of the “fathers of religious promotion nights.” A year later, in 2006, the major-league Atlanta Braves called up “Faith Days” to the Big Show, and ABC News, CBS News and The New York Times – among other major media outlets – did lengthy reports on mingling sports and salvation.

Skip ahead to the present day, and USA Today has published the skeleton of a potentially enlightening and even interesting follow-up on faith-based sports marketing. Unfortunately, the skeleton is 435 words of lame, bare-bones, quasi-reporting.

The 2011 headline (in case you missed it five years ago):

Pro teams adding religion to promotional fan days

The top of the story:

Pro teams are increasingly promoting Christian, Jewish and Mormon fan days, because they help drive group ticket sales in a recession.

Pro teams are also getting religion because groups approach them and promote the events.

But some religious and secular groups don’t think such fan day promotions are appropriate.

Who are the Christian, Jewish and Mormon groups approaching teams and promoting the events, and why are they doing so? No idea. The story doesn’t bother to quote anyone identified as a Christian, Jew or Mormon.

Who are the religious and secular groups who don’t think such fan day promotions are appropriate? Well, of course, there’s space in the story to quote the critics. The (fairly predictable) religious critic:

(T)he Muslim advocacy group Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) wants equal time for other religions.

“The ultimate test of this kind of policy would be to have a Muslim Family Day — and gauge the public reaction to it,” says spokesman Ibrahim Hooper. “Given the heightened state of anti-Muslim sentiment in our society, I have a feeling there would be some objections to that.”

Has CAIR approached any major-league teams about organizing a Muslim Family Day? Would CAIR be willing to commit to buying a certain number of tickets? Is Hooper a baseball fan? Are there any Muslim baseball players who might give testimonials after games? Again, no idea. This story is about as deep as my beloved Texas Rangers’ pitching rotation most seasons.

Oh, the (fairly predictable) secular critic:

Teams have pushed ethnic heritage days for years. But religion? That’s problematic, answers Blair Scott, spokesman for American Atheists. It’s not illegal, but Scott believes it’s unethical.

“They’re out to make a buck. They’re taking advantage of people’s religiosity to make that buck. ”

Scott doubts he’ll ever see “Atheist Day” at stadiums.

“When you have a Super Bowl party in the atheist community, two people show up. We don’t tend to be big sports fans.”

“They’re taking advantage of people’s religiosity to make that buck.” Again, I’d be curious to know if Scott is himself a baseball fan. It doesn’t sound like it. As for taking advantage of people, wouldn’t it make sense to seek a response from someone — anyone — on the getting-taken-advantage-of side? A Christian, Jew or Mormon perhaps?

Moreover, USA Today might demonstrate a bit of enterprise and ingenuity and quote someone other than professional critics in a story like this. Why not go to the ballpark and find a Muslim fan to interview? Or an atheist fan?

The story would still be biased and unbalanced without input from Christian, Jewish and/or Mormon fans, but injecting real voices into the piece might drop it a few notches on the Lame-O-Meter.

Pod people: Faith & gay suicides

That great God Blog philosopher Brad A. Greenberg put it best a few weeks ago:

I make no secret of the fact that I prefer the written word to the spoken word.

Sure, I’m a talker. But I’m not a remarkably articulate speaker. The words just never seem to come out as neatly as they do on paper (though just how neatly they come out on paper is up for debate). And there are few things that frighten me, as a reporter, more than radio appearances. I’m always convinced that the interview to follow will be the one that ends my journalism career. Why? Because I need a filter, and real-time lacks the luxury.

I couldn’t agree more. Except that, unlike Brad, I’m not a talker. I prefer to hide in the back of big rooms with a reporter’s notepad in one hand and a digital recorder in the other. Alas, I like to please tmatt, the illustrious GetReligion guru, so I have joined my colleagues in the podcasting world. If you like accents with a heavy tinge of Texas/Oklahoma twang, be sure to check out my first Crossroads podcast appearance with Todd Wilken.

(I do much prefer the audio format to the TV appearances I had to do when I was religion editor at The Oklahoman and the newspaper developed a short-lived partnership with the local CBS affiliate. The newspaper voice and radio face made for a scary combination.)

But back to the podcast …

Taking off on two recent posts I did on bullying and suicides (click here and here to read them again), the interview explores whether the media have substantiated ties between traditional religious teachings on homosexuality and gay people taking their own lives.

Listen to the podcast to find out the answer. And as a bonus, enjoy a bit of discussion about my Texas Rangers’ remarkable season.

Bullying gays in God’s name?

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 9: People participate in Queer Rising's 'Take Back the Night' gay rights march October 9, 2010 in New York City. Queer Rising was formed in 2009 to demand equality, dignity and battle against hate crimes and bullying for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) community. The march was organized following two hate crimes over the past week in NYC and began and ended at the locations of the attacks, beginning at West 25th Street & 9th Avenue and ending at the Stonewall Inn. (Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty Images)

Just after 7 a.m. today, I found myself driving a minivan full of middle-school students. This still-dark-outside carpool duty frustrated me for two reasons. First, I was up late last night watching my suddenly vintage Texas Rangers throw batting practice to the San Francisco Giants. Second, a school bus that my children could ride for free stops just down the street from my house.

“Why not let your kids ride the bus?” a logical person might ask.

In fact, a logical person (at least I consider myself logical) asked his wife that very question. The logical person’s wife assured him that the carpool is the best solution to the foul-mouthed bullies who were harassing our 13-year-old son on the bus. She’d tried calling the bus driver and transportation director. That didn’t really fix the problem. I proposed that I might make a single visit to the bus and employ a baseball bat. For some reason, the logical person’s wife didn’t think that was the best idea, either.

So here we are.

So, if you ask me, “Are bullies a problem at school?” I’d answer yes. If you ask me, “Are schools doing all they can to prevent this problem?” I’d answer no. I’m not at all surprised to see this CNN report this week:

Half of all high school students say they have bullied someone in the past year, with nearly as many saying they have been the victims of bullying, according to a new study released this week.

But if you ask me to tie school bullying to religion, I’d be more hard-pressed to answer definitively. My son’s bullies certainly don’t use any kind of language that I’ve ever heard from the pulpit.

Yet the national media narrative on bullying keeps focusing on what NPR this week described as “growing concern that there may be a religious undercurrent to the harassment of teens who are seen as gay.” Surely the flood of headlines making that case has nothing to do with the “growing concern.”

Actually, NPR religion reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s report is pretty good — much better than most that I have read on this subject.

For one thing, she uses real-life examples rather than vague generalities:

Consider Justin Anderson, who graduated from Blaine High School outside Minneapolis last year. He says his teenage years were a living hell. From sixth grade on, he heard the same taunts.

“People say things like, ‘Fags should just disappear so we don’t have to deal with them anymore’; and, ‘Fags are disgusting and sinful,’ ” he told the Anoka-Hennepin School Board. “And still, there was no one intervening. I began to feel so worthless and ashamed and unloved that I began to think about taking my life.”

Anderson told his story at a public hearing last month — a hearing convened because in the past year, the district has seen a spate of student suicides. Four of those suicides have been linked to anti-gay bullying.

Justin Anderson survived. Justin Aaberg did not. Aaberg, 15, loved the cello, both playing and composing numbers like “Incinerate,” which he posted on YouTube. Justin was openly gay. He had plenty of friends, but he was repeatedly bullied in his school. In July, his mother, Tammy, found her teenage son hanging from his bed frame.

“They were calling him, ‘Faggot, you’re gay,’ ” she recalls. ” ‘The Bible says that you’re going to burn hell.’ ‘God doesn’t love you.’ Things like that.”

“Fags are disgusting and sinful.” “God doesn’t love you.” Such taunts certainly legitimize the question of religion’s role.

But the anonymous they nature of the bullies makes it impossible to really know what role religion played in these specific cases. Therein lies the rub. If you see any media reports that interview actual bullies, I’d love to hear their perspective on how their faith influences them to call classmates “faggots” and tell them to burn in hell. I am only half-joking.

Concerning the “spate of suicides”: How many is a spate? What is the overall student population? How do suicides in this district compare with national averages? Are suicides up in this district? If so, why?

More from the NPR report:

Tammy Aaberg says the school never called her, even after her son was physically assaulted. She was furious at first, but then began to understand why.

“A lot of teachers do care and do want to do something, but they’re afraid to lose their job if they step in and they’re not neutral,” she says.

Aaberg says teachers felt they couldn’t get involved — even when her son was bullied — because of the school district’s “neutrality policy,” which prohibits employees from taking sides on matters regarding sexual orientation. The district says the policy is meant to apply to the curriculum. But teachers say it’s so broadly written that they’re loath to intervene even when they hear anti-gay slurs.

Look up cop-out in your dictionary. That’s my reaction to any teacher or school official who would refuse to deal with a physical assault because of a “neutrality policy.” Give me a break.

Of course, the story relies entirely on the mother’s version of events. There’s no response from a teacher or school official. I’d love to hear firsthand from a teacher, “Yes, we knew that this child had been attacked on the playground, but the neutrality policy kept us from doing anything. Hopefully, we can change school policy to allow us to keep bullies from beating up students at our school.”

The report quotes officials from the Minnesota Family Council, “an evangelical group,” as well as the Family Research Council, also identified as “evangelical.” In both cases, more detailed descriptions of the groups involved would be helpful, as evangelical can mean so many different things.

Likewise, the story features the “Christian” mother of an 11-year-old boy who committed suicide. Again, more detailed information on the family’s religious background — and their specific faith group’s teachings on homosexuality — would be helpful.

Hagerty ends her piece this way:

And yet, despite the shifting views and alliances, there is an ongoing dilemma: How do parents and schools protect vulnerable kids without turning schools into a battleground for the culture wars?

Good question.

Creating a ghost-shaped news hole

I thought that I should write about the Texas Rangers winning the American League pennant, since fanboy Bobby Ross, Jr., is probably still sleeping off a serious Ginger Ale hangover.

Now, if you don’t get the Ginger Ale reference then you haven’t been paying attention to slugger Josh Hamilton and to one of the biggest and most dramatic personal stories in the recent history of professional sports.

That’s OK, I understand that.

This is why, when covering major events, journalists are supposed to add just a dash of background material to make sure that the average reader can understand what is going on. Hamilton’s roller-coaster ride with Satan and then with his Savior has been told, and told well, more than once. That’s not the point. The issue is how to deal with the faith element of his story in a few clear, accurate words, so that average readers can understand the drama of what is currently happening with the Rangers.

Here’s an example from the Washington Post that will show you how to do it — not.

At 10:09 p.m. Central time, when Alex Rodriguez watched Neftali Feliz’s curveball for strike three, the Rangers streamed from the dugout and pig-piled by the mound as red, white and blue confetti fell and Pat Green’s “I Like Texas” blared. They sprayed ginger ale on one another and celebrated both the greatest moment in their history and a fitting ALCS finale. They thrashed the defending champs all week, and Friday night was no different.

There’s plenty of background, as there should be, on the story of how the luckless Washington Senators became the Rangers of today, under the leadership of Nolan Ryan, he of the legendary rocket arm and Texas-sized toughness. Later on we read:

As Ryan, now the team president, watched from behind home plate, all that changed this fall. They have managed to pair the best outfielder (Josh Hamilton) and the best left-handed pitcher (Cliff Lee) on the planet. They have a bedrock third baseman (Michael Young), an electric young shortstop (Elvis Andrus) and an underrated force in left field (Cruz).

When it ended, Hamilton stood on a podium and accepted the series MVP award. Not long ago, his life and career was nearly derailed by a consuming drug addiction. He was, in his words, “a man with no soul.” That he will now play in the World Series had not yet sunk in Friday night.

“All throughout the game, I was tearing up,” Hamilton said. ” ‘Is this going to be it tonight?’ Thinking about where I was and everything I went through.”

OK, so there you have it — ginger ale and a superstar who has been through rough times, or something like that. Obviously, the assumption is that readers already know this story or that they don’t and it isn’t worth giving them another phrase or sentence to clear things up.

Over at ESPN, the ginger ale was in the Hamilton lede and, later on, there was just a hint of context.

ARLINGTON, Texas – It’s a good thing Josh Hamilton likes ginger ale.

The Texas Rangers slugger got yet another shower of the non-alcoholic bubbly after the Rangers’ 6-1 win over the Yankees in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series clinched the franchise’s first World Series berth.

Then later:

Hamilton, who has battled alcohol and drug addiction, doesn’t want to be around the smell of champagne. So before his teammates popped corks on the traditional celebration beverage of choice, they sprayed themselves — and Hamilton, of course — with ginger ale. …

When the Rangers won the AL West in Oakland, Hamilton did not take part in the clubhouse celebration. He hugged his teammates on the field and then showered and changed clothes to keep an appointment to speak to church groups in the stadium as part of Faith Day. His teammates tried to douse him with water bottles, but by the time they found him, he was already dressed and ready.

In Tampa Bay, his teammates made sure he couldn’t get away. They planned in advance the ginger ale celebration, ordering large plastic bottles of the drink along with the champagne. It was the same thing on Friday.

OK, that is subtle and gives a few hints at the larger Hamilton story. I realize that there is rarely room to baptize readers in all of the religion details in a story written on deadline, late after a playoff game. However, we are talking about the series MVP. He gets a sidebar.

For example, back at the Washington Post, the following Associated Press story ran online.

What I want to know is if this ran in the dead-tree-pulp edition. I won’t know that until I reach my office on Monday (since I do not live in a rich neighborhood on the south side of greater Baltimore, the kind of zip code in which one can subscribe to the Post). Hey readers in DC Beltway land! Care to check on that for me?

This MVP story by the AP’s Jaime Aron is direct and to the point:

ARLINGTON, Texas – Josh Hamilton fought off the tears, just in case the last out came his way.

Then Alex Rodriguez struck out and there was no holding back. His 11-year odyssey from teenage, No. 1 overall pick to drug addict to clean, sober superstar had finally reached the point every little boy dreams about: He’s going to the World Series. …

“All throughout the game I was tearing up — is this going to be it tonight? — and thinking about where I was, and everything I went through, and how God was just faithful and to bring me out of it,” Hamilton said.

A team player and a devout Christian, Hamilton was more interested in sharing the success than taking any individual glory. “I’m so excited for this team, for this city,” he said. “To be part of something like that means the world. It’s something that nobody can take away from you.”

You see, if you are going to use that kind of language — the “everything I went through” stuff — readers have to know something about what that means or they feel left out. I mean, no one needs the whole story again, complete with Billy Graham-esque altar call at the end. This is sports journalism, not evangelism.

But readers need the basics, with enough background to be able to understand the words they are reading in one of the nation’s top newspapers. Right? I mean, there’s no need to avoid the religious details or to be afraid of them. Right?

Baseball demons, angels and Jesus

Texas Rangers left fielder Josh Hamilton acknowledges the fans after it was announced he had won the American League Batting Title for the highest batting average, in the eighth inning of their MLB American League baseball game in Arlington, Texas October 3, 2010. REUTERS/Mike Stone (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

When my beloved Texas Rangers clinched the American League West championship on Sept. 25, Josh Hamilton steered clear of the champagne-and-cigar celebration in the visitors’ clubhouse in Oakland, Calif.

The difference in how various media outlets covered the absence of Hamilton, a leading AL Most Valuable Player candidate, was interesting.

ESPN Dallas seemed to go out of its way to avoid any mention of Jesus Christ or Hamilton’s Christian faith:

Hamilton, whose baseball career was derailed for several years by drug and alcohol abuse, felt it was smarter for him to avoid the champagne and beer showers in the Rangers clubhouse. So he stayed in the trainer’s room, showered and kept his commitment to speak to a large fan gathering in the stadium as part of Faith Day in Oakland.

He was able to hug teammates and celebrate with them on the field right after the final out of a 4-3 Rangers victory. A large group of his teammates got the idea to dump water on him instead of champagne as part of the celebration, but Hamilton was already dressed and headed out to his speaking engagement when they located him.

Later, there’s this:

Hamilton’s troubled past is well documented. He was a can’t-miss prospect when Tampa Bay made him the No. 1 overall pick out of high school in the 1999 draft. But drug and alcohol abuse sidetracked his career, and he was out of baseball by 2003.

He credits his religious faith for helping him overcome his addictions, and he finally made it to the majors with the Cincinnati Reds in 2007. He was traded to the Rangers in 2008 and has developed into one of the game’s most dangerous hitters.

So … Faith Day. Religious faith. At this point, I’m surprised the story went ahead and called him a Texas Ranger rather than a generic major-league baseball player.

Contrast that with the Associated Press story about Hamilton skipping the clubhouse party:

He had to convince a few teammates to not pour bottles of water on him, explaining he had other postgame activities in mind. It was church day in Oakland and Hamilton planned to join some of the Athletics in sharing stories of their faith with fans.

“So it would be kind of hypocritical of me to come in here and douse myself with alcohol and smoke cigars and then go out there and talk about Jesus,” Hamilton said.

So … Church Day. Jesus. That wasn’t so hard, was it?

My wife, children and I got to see Hamilton up close at Rangers’ spring training in Surprise, Ariz., in 2009. We were with a college group on a spring break mission trip to the Phoenix area. A friendly Hamilton posed for pictures with my children and visited with the Christian university students in our group. When one of the students asked Hamilton about his faith, he smiled and pulled a devotional guide out of his uniform sock. I was surprised and impressed.

But several months later, I was disappointed when news surfaced of Hamilton relapsing that previous winter. Photos were published involving the drunken slugger, whipped cream and women who were not his wife. Mollie posted last year on the media coverage of that incident.

This past Sunday, The Dallas Morning News recalled that incident in a remarkable Page 1 story about Hamilton and the role of his Christian faith in helping him overcome his addictions and sins:

On the chilly morning of Jan. 22, 2009, when everything else in her life seemed to be working out perfectly, Katie Hamilton received a phone call at her home outside Raleigh, N.C.

It was her husband, Josh, calling from Tempe, Ariz., where he had gone to a boot camp for athletes. Hamilton had become famous the year before for leading the American League in runs batted in and making the All-Star team in his first full season as a major leaguer.

And now he was calling his wife to tell her, through choking sobs, that after three years of sobriety, he had relapsed. He had gone out late the previous evening, alone, to a pizza restaurant, which happened to have a bar. He had a vodka and cranberry juice, then another, then went to a bar and had many more. He told her he didn’t remember everything that happened, but that there might be “pictures.” Katie told him to come home, and then she prayed.

The 1,900-word story goes into great detail to explain the role of pastors and “accountability partners” in Hamilton’s life … to describe how he sees nearly everything he does outside of baseball as a ministry … and to point out the specific steps he has taken to avoid the demons that allowed him to burn through a $4 million signing bonus in four years, including spending $100,000 in drugs in six weeks.

The writer, S.C. Gwynne, lets the story unfold naturally, mostly through the perspective of Hamilton and his wife, although others, such as Rangers general manager Jon Daniels, are quoted. Readers can determine for themselves the sincerity of Hamilton’s faith. (I must acknowledge that if I were the editor, I would have added a he says to facts such as this: he has been clean since that night in Tempe.)

But to his credit, Gwynne reports the story without condescension. Now, that should be a given in a mainstream news account. As GetReligion readers know all too well, though, that is not always the case in such reports.

If Gwynne’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s a veteran Texas journalist who reported stories with Godbeat legend Richard Ostling at Time magazine and drew GetReligion praise from Tmatt for his Texas Monthly piece on Fort Worth Episcopal — er, Anglican — Bishop Jack Iker.

Gwynne’s professionalism and experience shine through in his Hamilton story.

By the way, the Rangers’ opening playoff game against the Tampa Bay Rays starts at 12:37 p.m. my time. I’ve already filled out the proper medical excuse form to take off from work.


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