April 24, 2011

PRAISE FATHER, SON, AND HOLY MICK:

Baseball Chapel isn't just an Easter Sunday service: More than 500 volunteer chaplains celebrate services, in English and Spanish, as many as 51 weeks a year. And sports beyond baseball follow suit. (Kevin Baxter, April 23, 2011, LA Times)


The first man to try to organize religion in the locker room was former big league pitcher Clyde King, who, while managing in the minors during the mid-1950s, provided chapel services for his players.

Years later, the idea got a boost from the New York Yankees quite by accident.

Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson, who raised two sons to become ministers, was a frequent churchgoer on the road. But when teammate Mickey Mantle decided to tag along to a Baptist service in Minneapolis in August 1961, the pastor and much of the congregation became confused over who they were worshiping.

"About three minutes before the service was over, we got up to walk out. And not only half the congregation walked out with us, but the pastor came out too," Richardson recalled. "He said, 'I want a picture with Mickey and my son.' "

Yankees broadcaster Red Barber, a Methodist lay minister, heard the story and offered to lead private clubhouse prayer meetings when the team was on the road.

"That really was kind of the start of Baseball Chapel," Richardson said. "And it just kept going from there."

These days, more than 500 volunteer chaplains celebrate prayer services, in English and Spanish, as many as 51 weeks a year wherever professional baseball in played — from the major leagues and the 20 affiliated minor leagues, to training academies in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, and to the clubhouses of teams in the independent Atlantic and Golden leagues.

Dodgers bench coach Trey Hillman even helped popularize the practice in Japan during the five seasons he spent managing in Hokkaido.

Nauss estimates about a third of players and coaches in the major leagues attend at least occasionally. The Dodgers' chapel services regularly draw more than a dozen worshipers; and the Angels, who offer separate services in English and Spanish, draw almost as many.

"It just kind of keeps everybody floored during the week," Hunter said of the services. "If you stray during the week, you go to Baseball Chapel to get you right back on track."

Reporters and photographers are banned from the makeshift chapels for privacy reasons, but the chaplains say the services differ from traditional liturgy in several ways. For starters they're brief, usually lasting less than 20 minutes.

"If you took a snapshot of a Catholic mass at the time where the priest gives his homily, it would be more like that," Nauss said. "Or a Baptist church or a Presbyterian church when the pastor gives his sermon. It's a snapshot of that."

And while all the chaplains are Christian, they say they are open to ministering to players of all faiths.

"I'm there to care for anyone," said Ben Bost, the Angels' Phoenix-based chaplain during spring training last month. "You never know what people are dealing with. And a lot of times it doesn't necessarily relate to any type of specific religious background. Most of the time we're dealing with the normal struggles of life."

The work is serious business, but that doesn't mean there aren't light moments. Bost recalls conducting a spring training chapel in the shower room off the Angels' clubhouse — while a player stood naked under the water behind him.

Another chaplain told Nauss about a big league equipment manager who graciously offered the use of his office for Sunday services. But since the office walls were covered with dozens of centerfolds from men's magazines, the chaplain would arrive early and discreetly tack a shroud over the pictures.

"I remember him saying that he had a message on temptation one week," Nauss said, "and in his line of vision is one picture that he forgot to cover."

Baseball isn't the only sport that offers weekly ecumenical services. On the NASCAR and IndyCar circuits, chaplains minister to hundreds of people, from drivers and their pit crews to family members, track workers and even journalists. Professional golf's touring circuits have been offering similar open events for more than three decades, once drawing a crowd of 2,000 for an Easter service at the 18th green during the Heritage Classic.

"There's a commonality and a unity among chaplaincy that really spreads over sport," said Bost, a former professional golfer who is now a golf ministry director for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. "And if you brought in people outside of sport — Army chaplains and other people — there would be a common understanding for what's it like."

Bost said the threads to sports ministry are presence, relationship and attitude — basically just being there and being available, and not just on Sunday. In every big league city, baseball chaplains are available all day, every day.

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Posted by at April 24, 2011 9:52 AM
  

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