SANTA CLARITA — What in God's name, people wonder, is going on these days with professional and college athletes?
More and more, it seems, are making headlines for their unsportsmanlike conduct off the field than on it. Worse, some do so with hypocritical overtones, professing their faith before putting their worst foot forward.
Fair or foul? It's getting more difficult to tell.
Monte Brooks, seated behind his desk in his office at The Master's College, thumbing at the pages of a worn ruby-colored Bible, ponders the theological dilemma.
"We do stupid stuff," Brooks says, simply. "Even Christians do stupid things because we're sinful people and we live in a sinful world. Our hope is to forgive . . . and move on."
It isn't easy, but spirituality and the sacrifice bunt can co-exist. In fact, it is a winning combination at Master's, a conservative Christian liberal arts institution nestled among 98 acres in shady Placerita Canyon.
With the Lord as their skipper and Brooks at the helm, the Mustangs (32-10) posted their third consecutive 30-victory season. They enter the NAIA Region II playoffs as the nation's No. 15-ranked team. Master's playoff opponent and the game's date will be determined today.
Should Master's capture its first national title, it won't be cause to party but to glorify God, according to the college's mission.
Among a student body of 950 that must adhere to a strict code of conduct that prohibits alcohol, tobacco, dancing and "viewing unwholesome motion pictures," Master's players aren't swinging bats by day and swinging, well, swinging by night.
Religious overtones are heavy and integrity is paramount. Courses in Biblical study are built into the curriculum and scripture is present everywhere, from the clubhouse walls to Brooks' business card.
Players pray as a team before and after games, in small groups and with a designated prayer partner.
Said catcher Mike Wertz: "Baseball is secondary to our walk with Christ."
It may sound a bit sanctimonious in this era of police blotters making their way onto the sports pages. But Brooks, 34, who committed heavily to his faith during a four-year career as an outfielder in the San Diego Padres' minor-league organization, is profusely sincere.
"After junior college, I had ponderings over the scriptures for some time," he said. "I wanted deeply to find out what I thought was true understanding. God has called me to do what is right and to teach what scripture has to say."
Brooks, in his fourth season, doesn't manage from a pulpit, but he insists on compliance from players. Unlike most dugouts, from which barbs and chatter fly like fungoes during games, the Mustangs' bench is respectful in displaying emotion.
"We have our struggles with that," pitcher Josh Higgins said. "It's kind of part of the game to get into [an opponent's] head or his ear. But at the same time, it's not what we stand for. It may be part of baseball, but it's not glorifying God."
Of course, walking with Christ means walking your talk.
In April 1996, when eight Master's players were caught viewing pornographic material on the Internet, the school canceled its remaining nine games. Given its primary mission, there simply was no alternative.
Coach Jack Mutz, in a move unrelated to the incident, stepped down to become assistant athletic director and Brooks was promoted from an assistant.
"We made a commitment to uphold standards and abide by a policy, and it was disregarded," Brooks said. "It was heartbreaking to see those young men who you invest in not wanting to uphold standards and policies. We spent a lot of time in prayer."
Aside from the publicity black eye, the incident left the program devastated. Brooks took over in May with only five players.
"One player said, 'What are we going to do, Coach, set up a booth out there and ask people to play?' " Brooks said.
Brooks rallied the program and the Mustangs played a full season in 1997, posting a respectable 22-27 record. In 1998, the rebound was complete. Brooks led Master's to a school-record 34 victories and its first playoff berth in five years and was selected NAIA Far West Region Independents coach of the year.
Of course, Brooks characteristically takes no credit.
"Why are we winning?" he said. "God allows it to happen."
Brooks pitches in with tireless recruiting that involves more than checking out a player's swing or his slider. Mutz estimates that about half the athletes recruited by Master's ultimately find the school to be an imperfect fit. And vice-versa.
That makes stockpiling talent a challenge.
"What it comes down to is, it's a matter of finding a person who has committed his life to Christ," Mutz said. "If he committed himself to Christ yesterday, that's fine. It's a little tough, but we hold to the criteria. We don't bend it because a kid throws 90 mph or he is 7-foot tall and can dunk. I wish others who say they would [uphold standards] would do it."