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A baseball team built on faith

October 24, 2007|Dave Zirin and Tom Krattenmaker | Tom Krattenmaker, a writer based in Portland, Ore., is working on a book about the evangelical movement within professional sports. Dave Zirin is the author of "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports."

With their out-of-nowhere winning streak, the Colorado Rockies are reminding us what sport can be at its best: exhilarating, uplifting, even inspiring. The Rockies enter the World Series tonight after 21 victories in their last 22 games.

One might even call such a streak miraculous, a description much of the team would happily accept. The Rockies have become known as the closest thing Major League Baseball has to a faith-based club. The front office runs the franchise based on what it describes as Christian principles, and it consciously recruits players judged to have "moral values" and "character."

"I think character-wise we're stronger than anyone in baseball," Chief Executive Charlie Monfort told USA Today in May 2006. "Christians, and what they've endured, are some of the strongest people in baseball. I believe God sends signs, and we're seeing those." Among them: a team refreshingly free of off-field misbehavior and a clubhouse where there are more Bibles than issues of Maxim.

Many religious baseball fans have embraced this formulation as well. "I think God's promise is that regardless of the outcome, he is with you," one Rockies supporter said. "But I also know that he has power to take seemingly hopeless situations -- a cancer patient being healed, a marriage restored or an average team winning 21 of 22 -- and intervene to make something very special happen so that people might recognize that something beyond just people was involved."

The Rockies' playoffs triumph is almost enough to make believers out of sporting heathens too. But faith and sports are not the match made in heaven some would have us believe -- as moments from the Rockies' storybook season make clear.

You might recall this play: Left fielder Matt Holliday slid safely at home plate to score the winning run in the 13th inning of the crucial, one-game playoff with the San Diego Padres that sent his Rockies into the postseason. The problem, as replays made clear, was that he never touched home.

When asked about the call after the game, Holliday apparently felt no duty to confess. That's in keeping with the values and norms of professional sports, where competitors never give an inch, even to the truth. But Holliday went on to implicate God in the umpire's error by publicly thanking the Lord for the victory and the season's many blessings.

Holliday -- who, like so many athletes, is known to point skyward to God after triumphant moments -- isn't the first Christian competitor caught in a conflict between the values of his faith and the values of winning. Another notorious case came in 1990 -- the infamous "fifth down" play that propelled the University of Colorado football team to the national championship.

Bill McCartney wasn't just the Colorado Buffaloes' coach, he was also the founder of Promise Keepers, a Christian men's movement founded on the rock of biblically-based integrity. Pressured to concede the game, McCartney faced an excruciating choice between victory on the one hand and honesty and fair play on the other. McCartney chose victory, not because he was a bad person but because the pull of sports values is overwhelming, and it places little weight on ethics.

And that's the problem with evangelical Christianity going all-in for sports, as if the two go together like cookies and milk. Out of view of fans, several evangelical ministries are hard at work in professional leagues, enlisting high-profile players in their effort to spread the Christian message to the sports-consuming public. But are sports -- a Manichaean world of winners and losers, a mega-business awash in materialism and violence -- really an appropriate platform for pushing religion?

Recent months have brought forth high-profile sports scandals galore: New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick's videotape cheating, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick's dogfighting, gambling by an NBA referee, not to mention the endless cavalcade of athletes caught using performance-enhancing drugs.

So those looking to spread the good word may have chosen a dubious mouthpiece. There's also reason to question whether pro sports wants too-close an association with the evangelical stripe of Christianity that predominates in sports, one that emphasizes belief in Jesus Christ as the sole route to salvation. As Rockies General Manager Dan O'Dowd admitted to USA Today last year, the team was "nervous" about offending non-Christians. Since then, the organization has downplayed the Christian-team story line, and O'Dowd told Sports Illustrated recently that the Christian angle was overblown. "Many people in this organization have a ton of faith," he said, "and I'm certainly one of them. But it's not anything we talk about. Our focus is on getting players of good character."

But there was Holliday thanking God after his questionable winning run against the Padres, and Jamey Carroll, the scrappy Rockies infielder who hit the ball that sent Holliday home, likewise waxing religious in the champagne-drenched clubhouse. With such gestures have come the predictable talk among religious fans about God's role in the Rockies' run, and against that has come the predictable backlash from those who have had their fill of religiosity in sports.

By all means, let's all revel in the story of the Colorado Rockies. (Granted, that may prove difficult for fans of their vanquished opponents in San Diego, Philadelphia and Phoenix.) Let's credit them for a remarkable run to the World Series. But let's not pretend it's the ultimate expression of, or advertisement for, Christianity.

The many nonevangelicals in the fan base -- and we are still a majority -- deserve a measure of distance between church and sport. Frankly, so does religion.

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