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
Saturday 06 October 2007
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."
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