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Play ball! 'Mormon Night' is big in the big leagues

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 12 2009 12:19 a.m. MDT

Dale Murphy recognized the signs.There was the late-arriving crowd, the national anthem singers wearing black name tags and the 0-for-4 in the box score next to his name.Then there was this sign, held up by a fan in the center field stands before one game: "Hey Murph, no success can compensate for failure at home plate."It must be "Mormon Night."During Murphy's 18-year major league baseball career, Mormon Night at the ballpark was a regular event for the Latter-day Saint convert and two-time Most Valuable Player. With Murphy representing the church on the field, fellow Latter-day Saints would fill the stands for a ballgame with an LDS flavor — everything from a general authority throwing out the first pitch to missionaries singing "The Star-Spangled Banner."These days, several clubs across the country hold promotions tailored to Latter-day Saints. For those involved, the Mormon Night promotion and all its variations give the home team and area church members a chance to capitalize on the Mormon sense of community — and have some fun along the way.Murphy's still having fun with the memories."I could always tell where the members of the church were sitting, because they didn't get there until the second inning," he said.Murphy suspects that "Mormon Night" originated in 1978, his first full season with Atlanta. At the time, the Braves had two LDS players — Murphy and Barry Bonnell, the individual who baptized Murphy.He remembers Elder Paul H. Dunn throwing out the first pitch that year, and Mormon Night became a regular event in Atlanta over the next decade. Other National League teams scheduled similar promotions for when Murphy and the Braves came to town.Braves catcher Bruce Benedict once joked with Murphy about the nature of the promotion — "Does everybody get a free Mormon, or what?" he would ask — but the events gave church members a chance to represent themselves and connect with each other.In addition to first pitches and national anthems, Murphy recalls church members being recognized for their community involvement. The theme of Mormon Night often focused on family and genealogy, and Murphy remembers being in Pittsburgh when Willie Stargell was presented with his family history. Murphy counts these as his favorite moments."It was always a touching thing for the recipients," he said.What Murphy doesn't care to remember is his on-field performance. With fellow church members in the stands, Murphy would often press and end up hitless."You do feel kind of like you have a little extra something you're supposed to do there that night," Murphy said.Firesides were often held in conjunction with Mormon Night and featured LDS athletes such as Gifford Nielsen, Lee Johnson, Jason Buck and Steve Young. When Murphy spoke, he would stand up and say, "Sorry, 0 for 4 again.""It wasn't always my favorite night, but I hope everyone else had a good time," he said.Murphy still gets invited by major league clubs to attend their LDS promotions, and he attends when he can. While serving as a mission president in Boston, Murphy chose about 20 missionaries to sing the national anthem before a Red Sox game in Fenway Park."I can't remember how we decided who got to do that," he said.Recently, Dodger Stadium had an unmistakably LDS atmosphere. On Aug. 6, the Los Angeles Dodgers held their annual Mormon Night, with LDS apostle Elder M. Russell Ballard throwing out the first pitch and the winner of a Deseret Book-sponsored contest singing the national anthem.The San Francisco Giants held "LDS Family Night," one of the team's many "heritage night" promotions," on July 28. The team had regular Mormon promotions when the Giants played at Candlestick Park, and in recent years there has been an initiative to reintroduce such special events at the new AT&T Park. A set of 8-year-old triplets who are LDS won the opportunity to yell "play ball" at the Giants game.The Houston Astros held an "LDS Friends and Family Night" on Aug. 8, and church members in Anaheim, Calif., gathered at Angels Stadium for an Aug. 7 game.The Seattle Mariners played host to about 800 Latter-day Saints on July 7 and are planning a similar event for September. Although there is no prevailing Mormon theme at Seattle's Safeco Field, promotion participants get a discount, a souvenir and some recognition on the scoreboard.Rebecca Hale, director of public information for the Mariners, says reaching out to religious groups is a way to draw first-time spectators."A church is a really great vehicle for that because you've got that built-in audience," she said. "It's a very nice fit. It's a great way for us to reach out to various parts of the community."For some teams, the promotions are limited to ticket sales. The Arizona Diamondbacks, Cleveland Indians and San Diego Padres do initiate group sales for religious organizations, but do not have an event specific to Mormons. The Braves no longer hold Mormon Night, but a "faith day" for various religious groups is in the planning stages. Cleveland held a similar event earlier this year.Some organizations, such as the Colorado Rockies and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, have held "Mormon Night" events in the past but did not this season.The Stockton Ports, however, went all out with the theme this year.On July 24, while Utahns were celebrating Pioneer Day, the Single-A affiliate of the Oakland Athletics held a promotion called "LDS Family Night: This is the Place." Activities included a Jell-O eating contest, handcart race and pioneer stick pull while clips from "Singles Ward" and "The RM" were shown.Ben Carr, the team's director of group and inside sales, oversaw the event, which he called a success for both the team and for himself as an LDS Church member.Carr, a New Hampshire native and lifelong Red Sox fan, remembered taking part in an LDS event at Fenway Park when Murphy was the mission president in Boston. After being made aware of how many church units were within an hour of the ballpark and noticing that the Ports were playing on Pioneer Day, Carr initiated an LDS-theme promotion.Despite "low key" advertising that was limited to fliers, the event filled the 4,800-seat stadium, with church members attending from as far away as the Bay Area."We're definitely doing it again next year," Carr said.Murphy says such events can facilitate more LDS involvement in the community. In his experience, Mormon Night allowed Latter-day Saints to interact in a common venue, dispel misconceptions and let others know that "we're just kind of like everyone else.""It's about family, it's about serving," he said. "(It's) just an opportunity for the local membership of the church to get that message out there that these things are important to us."


E-mail: ashill@desnews.com

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