Sunday, June 04, 2006

Saints in stirrups

[updated below]

The Colorado Rockies National League baseball team has come clean:
No copies of Playboy or Penthouse are in the clubhouse of baseball's Colorado Rockies. There's not even a Maxim. The only reading materials are daily newspapers, sports and car magazines and the Bible.

Music filled with obscenities, wildly popular with youth today and in many other clubhouses, is not played. A player will curse occasionally but usually in hushed tones. Quotes from Scripture are posted in the weight room. Chapel service is packed on Sundays. Prayer and fellowship groups each Tuesday are well-attended. It's not unusual for the front office executives to pray together.

On the field, the Rockies are trying to make the playoffs for the first time in 11 seasons and only the second time in their 14-year history. Behind the scenes, they quietly have become an organization guided by Christianity — open to other religious beliefs but embracing a Christian-based code of conduct they believe will bring them focus and success.

From ownership on down, it's an approach the Rockies are proud of — and something they are wary about publicizing. "We're nervous, to be honest with you," Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd says. "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."

Rockies pitcher Jason Jennings says: "They do preach character and good living here. It's a must for them, and that starts from the very top. But we're not a military group. ... Nobody is going to push their beliefs on each other or make judgments. We do believe that if you do things right and live your life right, good things are going to happen."


"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," says Rockies chairman and CEO Charlie Monfort, one of the original owners.

Monfort did, too. He says that after years of partying, including 18 months' probation for driving while impaired, he became a Christian three years ago. It influenced how he wanted to run the club, he says.

"We started to go after character six or seven years ago, but we didn't follow that like we should have," he says. "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."


The Rockies' approach is unusual in that religious doctrine is a guide for running a franchise. The club's executives emphasize they are not intolerant of other views.

"We try to do the best job we can to get people with the right sense of moral values, but we certainly don't poll our players or our organization to find out who is Christian and who isn't," says O'Dowd, who says he has had prayer sessions on the telephone with club President Keli McGregor and manager Clint Hurdle. "I know some of the guys who are Christians, but I can't tell you who is and who isn't."

Is it possible that some Rockies are playing the role of good Christians just to stay in the team's good graces? Yes, former Rockies say.

"They have a great group of guys over there, but I've never been in a clubhouse where Christianity is the main purpose," says San Francisco Giants first baseman-outfielder Mark Sweeney, a veteran of seven organizations who spent 2003 and 2004 with the Rockies. "You wonder if some people are going along with it just to keep their jobs.

"Look, I pray every day," Sweeney says. "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?"


While praising their players, Rockies executives make clear they believe God has had a hand in the team's improvement.

"You look at things that have happened to us this year," O'Dowd says. "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."


The Rockies say they welcome anyone regardless of religious beliefs. "We don't just go after Christian players," O'Dowd says. "That would be unfair to others. We go after players of character."


"Look, we don't want to come across as holier than thou. None of us are perfect," O'Dowd says. "But I just feel like if you have people with the right heart and their desires are with the right intent, what bad can come out of that?" [USA Today]
In The Nation, Dave Zirin was rightfully astounded:
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.


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."

As usual, the proof of the pudding is in the eating -- let's take a look at how the Rockies are doing at this moment in time with their brand of Jesus Ball. Not all that well, it turns out.

To begin with, we're one-third of the way through the season and the Rockies are in the cellar, the fifth team in a five team division, seven games behind the leading Diamondbacks, with a won-lost record of 27-29. That's not an insurmountable deficit, but their record so far doesn't show any great sign that these Christian Warriors have what it takes to make the grade and go all the way. They're two games under .500, and 16 of the 29 other MLB teams have better records than they do. They have losing records against the East, West and Central divisions of the National League, and lately they've lost 5 games in a row, only winning 2 of their last 13 games. They've never won more than 4 in a row all season.

They play in a hitter's ballpark where they should be favored (as all home teams are), but the best they've been able to do is play .500 ball at home. It's a truism of baseball that you can't win if you don't win at home. The Rockies have managed to get as high as 7 games above .500 (see chart above), but they're losing now, and, if their baseball decisions aren't being made on the basis of the things that baseball teams need to win, they're likely to keep losing.

In short, far from being poised for victory, as the comments in the USA Today article seemed to imply, they're actually resoundingly mediocre at best -- not the worst team in baseball, by a long shot, but far from the best. Right smack dab in the middle of the pack.

Guess they'll have to pray harder.

Baseball teams have one and only one reason for existence, to win. A baseball team that wins will be a financially successful team, one that doesn't, won't be. Fans came to see teams that win, not teams of nice people who pray well together. When a team gets a new player, or releases one, the fans have a right to know that it happened because the old player wasn't the best available for the team, and the new player is. They shouldn't have to second-guess whether it was the religious beliefs of the players that determined the moves.

(For instance, a recent press release from the Rockies says that infielder Jason Smith and Korean pitcher Sun-Woo Kim have been "set free" (interesting choice of words) -- was that because they weren't doing well, or because they weren't sufficiently devout Christians, or even Christian at all? I don't know the religious beliefs of Kim and Smith and I don't want to know, it's just not relevant to anything at all. I've been a Yankees fan for years, but I only found out that their ace reliever Mariano Riviera was a devout Christian recently. I didn't need to know that before, and I don't need to know that now, all I need to know is that Mo can shut down the opposition and help the team win games. Period.)

If the Rockies were a publicly traded company, a stockholders' suit on the basis of breach of fiduciary responsibility would seem warranted. That won't happen, and baseball's history of indulging the whims and fancies (and abuses and illegalities) of its team owners means that no one is going to take the Rockies to task for running a Prayer Club instead of a proper baseball team, but at least we can look forward to enjoying ourselves watching these foolishly stupid people lose.

But what about that "character" that the team is looking for? Well, although sports writers and announcers love to talk about which players have "character" and which don't, they're actually talking about something quite different from belief in the Lord Jesus Christ and the ability to pray convincingly: the ability to play baseball well under pressure. That's what defines baseball "character" more than anything else, so the Rockies' god-fearing All-Christian All-The-Time brand of "character" doesn't mean diddley-squat if they don't have the bats and the arms and the legs and the baseball character to win games, which is exactly the way it should be.

Thank the heavens we'll have these paragons of virtue to point out to our children when they go looking for role-models to emulate, it's just sad that if the Colorado Saints... er, Rockies... don't actually play good ball and win their games, most kids interested in baseball aren't even going to give them a second look. And that's the way it should be.

[Thanks to Peggy]

Update (6/28): I'm continuing to follow the progress of Christian Baseball in Denver, and it's not too good. The Rockies have barely managed to stay above .500 - right now they're one game above it at 39-38, after having dropped as low as 3 games under just after I originally posted this piece. I'll post again on their progress at the All-Star break (July 10-13), which is just after the half-way point in the season.

Update (7/9): I take a look at the Rockies at the All-Star break here.

More reports: 08-Aug / 20-Aug / 24-Sept

Ed Fitzgerald | 6/04/2006 10:26:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


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