They say pitching wins baseball games. But if you ask the Colorado Rockies, accepting Jesus Christ may be more important.
The Rockies, perennial also-rans in the National League, have been one of the surprises of this young baseball season with their relatively competitive play. So last week, the team's management came out of the closet (so to speak) and acknowledged their secret to USA Today sportswriter Bob Nightengale.
It turns out the Rockies operate on a Christian code of conduct and with the belief that faith in Jesus Christ will translate into wins on the field.
You may think this is a joke, but unfortunately it's not. If you're at all intrigued by this bizarre conflation of religion and national pastime I strongly recommend that you check out the full story here. But for the time deprived, the money quote comes courtesy of Charlie Monfort, Rockies chairman and CEO and a reformed hard partier who spent 18 months on probation for drunk driving before becoming a serious Christian three years ago:
"We started to go after character six or seven years ago, but we didn't follow that like we should have. 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."
Holy crap! It's enough to make me thank God I'm a Bronx-born Yankees fan...and a Jew.
I wonder if Monfort could enlighten us as to exactly which character tests Christians have "endured" in this country to make them stronger than people of other faiths? And exactly what does any of that have to do with winning baseball games?
Now in case you think Monfort might've been speaking for himself and not the team, here's manager and fellow devout Christian Clint Hurdle chipping in with his two cents: "We're not going to hide it. We're not going to deny it. This is who we are."
Rockies General Manager Dan O'Dowd, who has to go out and actually sign people to play on the team, told Nightengale there isn't a Christian litmus test on his club, but that "we try to do the best job we can to get people with the right sense of moral values." O'Dowd also was nervous about going public with the team's Christian focus. "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."
Monfort, O'Dowd and Hurdle are dead right to worry that they'll offend people with their stated beliefs. Wanting to build a team of players with outstanding moral fiber, a team of community leaders and role models, is a worthy goal. But by connecting that ideal moral character with practicing Christianity the Rockies have set up an "us-against-them" scenario that leaves a lot of people - fans as well as players - feeling like outsiders.
First, there's the ludicrous holier-than-thou hypocrisy in their statements. Early in my career I spent time as a sportswriter, and just about every athlete and coach I spoke to would accept Satan as a teammate if they thought he'd help them win and be good in the locker room. I suspect that's also the case with the Rockies, despite the religious bluster. I mean, this is the team that over the winter signed Jose Mesa, a 39-year-old relief pitcher who earlier in his career stood trial on rape and gun charges. Mesa was acquitted in a Cleveland court, but nobody will ever describe the guy as a choirboy.
And then there's the self-righteous way the Rockies link being an evangelical or outwardly practicing Christian with possessing "the right sense of moral values." Obviously the vast majority of big league baseball players identify themselves as Christians. Sure a number of professional athletes, particularly in the NBA, are members of the Nation of Islam. But the list of great Jewish athletic heroes would fill a small pamphlet, and there aren't too many Hindus, Buddhists, Shintoists, and so on, out there either.
So are the Rockies saying that only Christian players who wear their Christianity on their sleeves have the appropriate kind of values? And by extension, are they also saying that those values make these players superior to their competitors?
When the Yankees were winning World Series in the late '90s pitcher Andy Pettitte spoke openly about the strength of his faith. But I don't remember starters David Cone and David Wells ever discussing their relationship with Jesus. Rather, Cone and Wells, Christians both, enjoyed partying with the latest celebrities to swing through town and made frequent appearances in Page Six and the other local gossip columns. On the field, Cone, Wells and Pettitte were terrific players. But we're supposed to accept that because of his religious fervor and moral rectitude Pettitte had a stronger character and therefore was the better pitcher? Cone and Wells both tossed perfect games in pinstripes. Yet God was on Pettitte's side?
Of course, what's most galling about all this is the Rockies' cynical use of religion to create an identity for a franchise that's been devoid of personality since its inception in 1993. The Rockies have reached the playoffs just once in their history. Over 14 seasons they've lost many more games than they've won. And now, even with their supposed resurgence, they're still languishing in last place in the National League West, with a record that's once again below .500.
As you'd expect, the team's uninspiring performance over the past several years has resulted in lackluster crowds at Denver's Coors Field. Attendance reached a high of 3.9 million in 1996 and 1997. But by last year it had fallen to just 1.9 million, the third worst total among the 16 teams in the National League.
In all likelihood, the Rockies' plummeting attendance figures, more than anything else, are driving their public embrace of Christianity. It's doubtful that playing the God card will make the team more competitive on the field. But it could be an effective marketing tool to build fan loyalty in an area that has no baseball tradition, creating natural bridges to ticket-buying church and prayer groups throughout the Rocky Mountain region.
Then again, the scheme also could backfire. As far as I know, there's no evidence that practicing Christians follow baseball particularly closely. In the areas of this country where evangelical Christianity is most influential - the Southeast and Southwest - NASCAR and college football are much more popular than baseball. So just because the Rockies are openly discussing their Christian principles, it doesn't mean that Christians in the area will flock to the team. Plus, the Rockies run the risk of alienating many other potential fans in the Denver area who find the religious posturing to be wildly inappropriate.
Hell, for all we know Jesus himself may have been turned off by all of Colorado's holy chatter. The Rockies did drop four straight games after the story appeared in USA Today. Perhaps God didn't appreciate being publicly linked to a bunch of losers.
Amen to that.