Batting for Jesus

Most sports fans are used to praying for a win but one of baseball's rags-to-riches teams have more reason than most to believe a higher power is answering

When one of the poorest, least fancied teams in professional baseball suddenly races out of nowhere and qualifies for the World Series playoffs, you might call it, well, a miracle.

As it turns out, that's exactly how the Colorado Rockies – a team who previously seemed to be little more than a punching bag for the bigger, better, more lavishly funded organisations who play America's favourite sport – view their nail-biting, against-the-odds, come-back-from-way-behind progress into this autumn's post-season.

The team's chief executive is a born-again Christian. So is the general manager and the team coach. Their two star players, along with many other members of their regular line-up, are not only believers but attend team-organised Bible studies.

The team doesn't like to talk about it much – mainly because the overlords of Major League Baseball don't think it's good for business – but they have an explicit policy to recruit as many Christian ball players as they can.

In other words, the Rockies – uniquely, even in a country as religion-obsessed as America – play faith-based baseball. And, in their view, God just rewarded them – big time.

"You look at some of the moves we made and didn't make," general manager Dan O'Dowd said in the only interview he has given on the subject, long before the Rockies' remarkable ascension over the past few weeks. "You look at some of the games we're winning. Those aren't just a coincidence. God has definitely had a hand in this."

Anyone who fancies the Almighty has better things to do than determine the outcome of baseball games might want to consider just what the Rockies have achieved. At the beginning of September, they were fourth out of five in the National League Western division and seemingly headed to yet another cold Colorado winter chewing over another disappointing season. Then they started winning, and didn't stop. They won 13 of their last 14 regular-season games – a freak occurrence in a sport that has always been more about failure than success, where even the strongest teams usually win no more than six games of every 10.

The Rockies' record brought them even with the San Diego Padres for the fourth National League play-off berth, and forced a tie-breaker game which they won by the skin of their teeth. This week, they've been playing the Philadelphia Phillies in the first round of the race towards the World Series, and they have pounded them twice. One more victory, and they will progress to the league championship – one step below the fabled World Series itself.

That line of Dan O'Dowd's about God having a hand in it may have been more prescient than he realised. Anyone familiar with that other, more widely known sporting "hand of God" couldn't help notice the manner in which the Rockies clinched their tie-breaker against San Diego last Monday night.

The game was a thriller, the score see-sawing until the two sides were tied at six runs apiece after the regulation nine innings. San Diego eventually broke the game open with two runs in the top half of the 13th inning, only to see the Rockies bounce back with two runs of their own, leaving their star hitter, Matt Holliday, just 90ft away from victory at third base.

On the first pitch faced by the next batter, Holliday came tearing towards home plate and collided with the Padres' catcher, who had the ball in time to intercept him and get him out. But the ball flopped out of the catcher's hand, and the umpire quickly ruled Holliday safe. The run was in, the Rockies were up 9-8, and the game was over.

Except that the umpire appeared to have made the wrong call. Close inspection of the replay suggested Holliday never actually touched home plate, as the rules require, because the catcher's foot was in the way.

Asked about it afterwards, Holliday pleaded ignorance – not least because he threw himself head first to the ground, and bloodied his chin as he thumped into the dirt. But, like a certain Argentinian football player, he also ascribed the moment to a higher power. In his first post-game interview – the blood still on his chin – he thanked God for the victory, and for all the blessings of the baseball season.

The line was never replayed and when the interview later appeared on the Major League Baseball website the reference to God was absent.

Until O'Dowd and other club officials talked about their faith, in an article that apppeared in USA Today, the Rockies' faith-based approach was kept so secret it came as news even to other ball players and managers who face the Rockies 15 or 20 times a year. After the USA Today piece came out, the team managers clearly felt embarrassed at the revelation and have never mentioned it again.

But Christianity guides their clubhouse like nothing else. Players are not allowed pictures of naked women on their lockers. They don't listen to loud, obscenity-laden rap music like other clubs. Players are strongly encouraged to attend chapel every Sunday, and Bible studies on Tuesday nights.

For some people, the God-squad approach is too much. "They have a great group of guys over there but I've never been in a clubhouse where Christianity is the main purpose," one former Rockies player, Mark Sweeney, told USA Today. "You wonder if some people are going along with it just to keep their jobs."

The Rockies' come-to-Jesus moment came three years ago, when a pitcher called Denny Neagle was charged with soliciting a prostitute. The club decided to swallow the $16m (£8m) remaining on his contract – a huge sum, for a club with a total budget less than three times that – and let him go for the sake of moral purity.

Chief executive Charlie Monfort had recently converted to Christianity after getting into legal trouble for driving while "impaired". Clint Hurdle, the team coach, converted at much the same time.

The Neagle episode convinced them that Christian values and clean living were the best ways to build a winning team spirit. It didn't hurt that Colorado is home to several high-profile evangelical organisations. The beer-producing Coors family, whose name adorns the Rockies' home stadium, have a long history of involvement in conservative Christian groups. Colorado Springs, the town where the Rockies nurture their up-and-coming talent, is home to Focus on the Family, the powerful right-wing political lobbying group, as well as evangelical publishers and several mega-churches.

One side-effect of the policy – one never discussed in American sports circles – is that the Rockies are one of the whitest teams in baseball. The game is dominated by players from the Caribbean and Latin America, but somehow the Rockies have a roster with one fresh-scrubbed all-American farm boy after another. Their catcher is Venezuelan, their second baseman is Japanese, but otherwise they are whiter than white.

This may be the first professional sports team to put Christianity at the centre of its mission, but it is hardly the first instance of Americans combining their passion for team games with religious zeal. It's not uncommon to see American football players, especially in heartland states like Texas and Oklahoma, praying together before a big match. Even in baseball, it's no secret some players turn to Christianity for their inspiration.

And its not just the players. Fans have long been known to invoke higher powers.

When the Boston Red Sox broke what many fans believed to be a long-standing curse and won the World Series in 2004, their star pitcher Curt Schilling explicitly ascribed his performance to a higher power – not least because he played through the pain of an ankle injury that caused his foot to bleed all over one of his socks. His "bloody sock" has since gone down in Red Sox lore as an object of veneration just as sacred as the medieval holy relics paraded by the Catholic Church. That said, the Major League Baseball organisation – the monopoly which runs all aspects of the professional sport in the US – frowns on any open expression of a particular religious viewpoint. Not everyone, after all, is a Christian. (The commissioner, Bud Selig, happens to be Jewish.)

Last year, the Washington Nationals team was forced to issue an apology after one of its outfielders, Ryan Church, suggested in a newspaper interview that Jews were "doomed" because they "don't believe in Jesus".

Church also issued a statement, presumably under the guidance of his superiors, in which he insisted: "I am not the type of person who would call into question the religious beliefs of others."

It's understandable, then, if the Rockies prefer not to talk too much about their convictions. That said, they don't always hold them in. After the Padres game, the pitcher who closed out the game, Ramon Ortiz, said he thanked God "a hundred times".

When Charlie Monfort, the chief executive, talked to USA Today, he was even more explicit about what it means to be blessed with divine favour. "I don't want to offend anyone," he said, "but I think character-wise we're stronger than anyone in baseball. Christians, and what they've endured, are some of the strongest people in baseball. I believe God sends signs, and we're seeing those."

News
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised
people
Life and Style
tech

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

Sport
Louis van Gaal at the Hawthorns prior to Manchester United's game against West Brom
football

Follow the latest updates from the Monday night Premier League fixture

News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
News
Brian Harvey turned up at Downing Street today demanding to speak to the Prime Minister
news

Met Police confirm there was a 'minor disturbance' and that no-one was arrested

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010
films

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Voices
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'
voices

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

News
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)
news

Concerns raised phenomenon is threatening resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
gaming

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past