Team spirit and Holy Spirit: For the Washington Nationals, religion looms large on and off the field

By Amanda Comak

The Washington Times

Published: Saturday, Oct. 12 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

Washington Nationals' Bryce Harper (34) is congratulated by teammates in the dugout after scoring with a three-run home run against the Miami Marlins during the first inning of a baseball game at Nationals Park in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013. Nationals' Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth also scored on the play. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press

It was just before noon one Sunday this summer when many Washington Nationals found their way into a nondescript room a few steps from the visitors' clubhouse at Turner Field. They shuffled in wearing shorts and T-shirts. Some had barely wiped the sleep from their eyes after a long game the night before.

They came for chapel, and for a brief interlude between one baseball game and the next.

The room itself was not set up for this purpose. It was an auxiliary room, intended mostly for news conferences, and the dropping of weights from the gym next door reverberated through the thin walls. A banner on a small podium featured the Atlanta Braves' logo. All the room held otherwise was a bunch of plastic chairs.

They talked that day about the idea that bad things can happen to good people. They talked about the devastation caused by the vicious tornadoes that ripped through Moore, Okla., and how God could let something like that happen to those people. People who lost everything — some, even their lives.

The Nationals were in the midst of a particularly poor stretch of the season. That week alone, they lost four times in a six-game span and they wouldn't play consistently the way they had expected until late August. During their time in chapel, their on-field pursuits were not mentioned once.

Some shared their thoughts; others only listened. The chaplain, a former ballplayer himself, interspersed applicable verses of the Bible with stories about his own life, perhaps as an example of how the players could relate them to theirs.

It was as far from the bright lights under which they are usually seen as they could be without leaving the stadium.

"The way this life can be structured, that reminder on Sunday is beneficial. It's calming," said manager Davey Johnson. "We're trying to make normalcy out of something — a schedule, a lifestyle — that isn't normal."

Baseball chapel services are available to players on every team, and many, the Nationals included, also hold Catholic Mass.

"It gives you a broader perspective of what's going on," said relief pitcher Craig Stammen. "Because when you get locked into the season, it's like you have tunnel vision and you're in a whole different universe from the rest of the world."

It's not part of everyone's schedule, though.

Baseball's daily rhythm is distinct, so it's sometimes easy to forget that for eight months all these men of different backgrounds and beliefs are thrown together. Some are Catholic, or Mormon, or from Protestant denominations. Some are indifferent, or apathetic. Some are Jews, or Jehovah's Witnesses, or those who have more scientific beliefs.

But this year, perhaps more than in years past, religion has become a frequent topic inside the Nationals' clubhouse. Players of differing beliefs discuss them, sometimes turning into hotly contested debates. Multiple players, regardless of whether they were actively religious, said they never had been on a team that talks about religion as much as this one.

"People always say, 'When you're with strangers you don't talk about politics, you don't talk about religion,'" Stammen said. "But we've all become good enough friends that I don't think we judge each other too much. We can talk about it a little bit. And there's guys who are very interested and inquisitive, because they don't know much about it."

Finding a purpose

Adam LaRoche was raised a Christian. He went to Bible study on Wednesday nights, and Sunday school, and church. But he eventually found himself doing those things out of obligation, and not desire. About five years ago, the even-tempered first baseman had an epiphany of sorts.

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