Promoting Christian gospel to ballplayers

Evangelical group spreads through all levels of pro baseball

March 31, 2006|By MATTHEW HAY BROWN | MATTHEW HAY BROWN,SUN REPORTER

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Brian Roberts makes his run through the Orioles' spring training clubhouse on Sunday mornings. Chapel in five minutes, the All-Star second baseman advises his teammates.

The men are busy eating breakfast, working out or getting treatment before the afternoon's Grapefruit League game. But right fielder Jay Gibbons will break away to join Roberts, as will outfielder David Newhan and a few others, in the palm-shaded outbuilding beyond the first-base grandstand at Fort Lauderdale Stadium.

Taking over a small room ordinarily occupied by the reporters who cover the team, the players will set aside the pressures of big-league baseball for a moment to turn their attention to God. During a brief service that is closed to the media, the Rev. Dave Krueger typically leads a core group of five to eight players in prayer, highlights a Bible passage and delivers a short message, participants say.

"Those days I do get in there, I definitely feel a lot better," Newhan says. "For me, it's taking a step back and realizing that despite what might be going on on the field, as good or as bad as I am, that there's something out there that's bigger than me and more important than the game."

The weekly prayer service is the work of Baseball Chapel, an evangelical ministry that has quietly spread through all levels of professional baseball, offering spiritual guidance to ballplayers while promoting the Christian gospel. Sundays during the season, the Pennsylvania-based organization says, as many as 3,000 players, coaches, umpires and staff attend services led by volunteer chapel leaders at 350 locations.

"Since guys can't come generally to a church service on a Sunday, we're able to bring a slice of that," says Vince Nauss, the president of Baseball Chapel. "Not necessarily exactly what they're used to, coming from different denominations, but basically being able to bring them a short period of time to get away from it all and hear a message from God's word and spend a few minutes in prayer."

In some big-league clubhouses, differences over religion have caused friction. Minnesota Twins teammates Gary Gaetti and Kent Hrbek, key members of the 1987 World Series championship team, had a highly publicized falling out the next year, after Gaetti became born again - a rift that was blamed by some for the team's subsequent decline. Washington Nationals outfielder Ryan Church provoked a stir last season when he said that the team's chapel leader had indicated to him that his Jewish ex-girlfriend would be condemned to eternal damnation.

Several Orioles say the team has avoided such problems.

"They don't push the rest of us to go," infielder Chris Gomez says. "Everyone knows it's there if you want to attend or utilize it."

Roberts says the chapel participants don't preach at their teammates.

"You have 25 guys on your team. You spend basically 12 hours a day for seven months together, and everybody's different," he says. "Everybody has their own beliefs, everybody has their own desires, and you can't force things on other people. All you can do is live your life the way that you feel you should and try and pass that on through your actions, through your words."

Manager Sam Perlozzo, a Catholic who has invited priests to celebrate Mass with the team, welcomes Baseball Chapel.

"I have no problems with it," Perlozzo says. "They're nice guys, they don't ruffle any feathers, and it's a comfortable situation."

American audiences have grown accustomed to baseball players crossing themselves as they step into the batter's box and football players joining at midfield for post-game prayers, but religion and sport were not always considered so compatible. Nineteenth-century preachers railed against play on Sunday; as late as 1917, New York Giants greats John McGraw and Christy Mathewson were arrested for violating the Sabbath.

It took an obscure preacher, a former ballplayer at Wheaton College, to hit on the idea of using prominent athletes to spread the gospel. When the young Rev. Billy Graham first teamed up with the champion miler Gil Dodds in the mid-1940s, it was Dodds who drew the crowds.

"It was a means for Protestant fundamentalists to achieve a certain level of cultural legitimacy and acceptance through the connection of athletics to sport," says the Wheaton sociologist James A. Mathisen.

In the 1950s, groups such as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes used sport to spread the gospel message to the masses. Baseball Chapel, in contrast, began as a ministry to elite athletes whose work kept them from making it to church on Sunday. The former Detroit sportswriter Watson Spoelstra approached then-Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn about establishing prayer meetings for players, and every team had services by the start of the 1975 season.

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