Published on Saturday, June 3, 2006 by The Nation
The Rockies Pitch Religion
by Dave Zirin
In Colorado, there stands a holy shrine called Coors Field. On this site, named for the holiest of beers, a team plays that has been chosen by Jesus Christ himself to play .500 baseball in the National League West. And if you don't believe me, just ask the manager, the general manager and the team's owner.
In a remarkable article from Wednesday's USA Today, the Colorado Rockies went public with the news that the organization has been explicitly looking for players with "character." And according to the Tribe of Coors, "character" means accepting Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior. "We're nervous, to be honest with you," Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd said. "It's the first time we ever talked about these issues publicly. The last thing we want to do is offend anyone because of our beliefs." When people are nervous that they will offend you with their beliefs, it's usually because their beliefs are offensive.
As Rockies chairman and CEO Charlie Monfort said, "We had to go to hell and back to know where the Holy Grail is. We went through a tough time and took a lot of arrows."
Club president Keli McGregor chimed in, "Who knows where we go from here? The ability to handle success will be a big part of the story, too. [Note to McGregor: You're in fourth place.] There will be distractions. There will be things that can change people. But we truly do have something going on here. And [God's] using us in a powerful way."
Well, someone is using somebody, but it ain't God. San Francisco Giants first baseman-outfielder Mark Sweeney, who spent 2003 and 2004 with the Rockies, said, "You wonder if some people are going along with it just to keep their jobs. Look, I pray every day. I have faith. It's always been part of my life. But I don't want something forced on me. Do they really have to check to see whether I have a Playboy in my locker?"
Then there is manager Clint Hurdle and GM O'Dowd. Hurdle, who has guided the team to a Philistine 302-376 record since 2002, as well as fourth or fifth place finishes every year, was rewarded with a 2007 contract extension in the off-season. Hurdle also claims he became a Christian three years ago and says, "We're not going to hide it. We're not going to deny it. This is who we are."
O'Dowd, who also received a contract extension, believes that their 27-26 2006 record has resulted from the active intervention of the Almighty. "You look at things that have happened to us this year. You look at some of the moves we made and didn't make. You look at some of the games we're winning. Those aren't just a coincidence. God has definitely had a hand in this." Or maybe the management that prays together gets paid together.
O'Dowd and company bend over backward in the article to say they are "tolerant" of other views on the club, but that's contradicted by statements like this from CEO Monfort: "I don't want to offend anyone, 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." Assumedly, Shawn Green (Jew), Ichiro Suzuki (Shinto) or any of the godless players from Cuba don't have the "character" Monfort is looking for.
Also, there are only two African-American players on the Rockies active roster. Is this because Monfort doesn't think black players have character? Does the organization endorse the statement of its stadium's namesake, William Coors, who told a group of black businessmen in 1984 that Africans "lack the intellectual capacity to succeed, and it's taking them down the tubes"? These are admittedly difficult questions. But these are the questions that need to be posed when the wafting odor of discrimination clouds the air.
Then there are the fans. I spoke with journalist Tom Krattenmaker, who has studied the connection between religion and sports. Krattenmaker said, "I have concerns about what this Christianization of the Rockies means for the community that supports the team in and around Denver--a community in which evangelical Christians are probably a minority, albeit a large and influential one. Taxpayers and ticket-buyers in a religiously diverse community have a right not to see their team--a quasi-public resource--used for the purpose of advancing a specific form of religion. Have the Colorado Rockies become a faith-based organization? This can be particularly problematic when the religion in question is one that makes exclusive claims and sometimes denigrates the validity of other belief systems."
You might think MLB Commissioner Bud Selig would have something stirring to say about this issue. But Selig, who hasn't actually registered a pulse since 1994, only said meekly, "They have to do what they feel is right."
It's not surprising that Selig would play it soft. First and foremost, Bud's First Commandment is "Thou Shalt Not Criticize the Owners. Second, Selig and Major League Baseball this year are experimenting for the first time with Faith Days at the Park. As if last season's Military Appreciation Nights weren't enough, the New York Times reported yesterday that this summer "religious promotions will hit Major League Baseball. The Atlanta Braves are planning three Faith Days this season, the Arizona Diamondbacks one. The Florida Marlins have tentatively scheduled a Faith Night for September." These religious promotions are attractive to owners because they leverage a market of evangelical Christians who are accustomed to mass worship in stadiums at events staged by sports-driven proselytizers like Promise Keepers and Athletes in Action.
As part of the MLB promotion, the Times reports, "local churches will get discounted tickets to family-friendly evenings of music and sports with a Christian theme. And in return, they mobilize their vast infrastructure of e-mail and phone lists, youth programs and chaperones, and of course their bus fleets, to help fill the stands."
At one of the Faith Days in Atlanta, the team will sell special vouchers. After the game, the stands will be cleared and then only those with the specially purchased vouchers will be re-admitted. Those lucky chosen "will be treated to an hour and a half of Christian music and a testimonial from the ace pitcher John Smoltz." Smoltz is the player who in 2004 opined on gay marriage to the Associated Press, saying, "What's next? Marrying an animal?" Good times for the whole family.
The Rockies right now are a noxious reflection of a time in US history when generals speak of crusades and the President recounts his personal conversations with Yahweh. ("You're doing a heckuva job, Goddy!")
If Monfort, O'Dowd and Hurdle want to pray on their own time, more power to them. But the ballpark isn't a church. Smoltz isn't a preacher. And fans aren't a flock. Instead of using their position of commercial power to field a God Squad, the Rockies might want to think about getting some decent players. There was once this guy named Babe Ruth. Not too much for the religion, and his character was less than sterling. But I hear he could play some decent ball.
Dave Zirin is the author of "What's My Name, Fool?: Sports and Resistance in the United States" (Haymarket).
© 2006 The Nation