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

"When I've gone to chapel in the past it's for all the wrong reasons," he said. "It's probably because I've had three bad games in a row. I think when you believe in a higher power, most of the time you're always asking for something. So I stopped going because I felt like I was just going there to ask for things, or to go through the motions."

Haren spent many days in Washington exploring the National Museum of Natural History, studying the science and history of the world. He read a Time magazine poll that posed the question: If science found a fact that contradicted the tenets of your faith, what would you believe? Sixty-four percent of Americans said they would continue to hold on to their religious beliefs. He mentioned the poll to LaRoche one day this year.

"Adam is one of the more open-minded people on the team," Haren said. "A lot of people just close themselves off. You believe one way or the other, and when you hear something else you just completely block it off. (The results of that poll), I think, bother me a little bit. I don't know why, but it just does. I don't want to seem like I'm testing their faith or anything, but I like to understand it from an intellectual standpoint.

"I like to hear what they have to say and then I kind of take it all in and give a rebuttal. Then they take it all in and come back to me. If it ever gets to the point of them or me becoming upset, it stops right there because I think there's certain things that are good to talk about, but this is really a workplace."

Still, Haren and others have challenged the more ardent believers in the Nationals' clubhouse this season, bringing different viewpoints to the table. Haren is inquisitive and studious, asking outfielder Bryce Harper about his Mormon faith or engaging LaRoche and Desmond with questions about the Bible. All are willing to talk with him, even if the conversation gets loud.

"I'm sitting on the bus and I'll just (put my head in my hands) because, of course, Haren has his views and Scott Hairston has his views and Desmond and Span and (LaRoche)," said Harper, the only Mormon on the team. "But I try to stay away from it as much as I can. I just sit there and laugh and listen. It's pretty fun to hear what they have to say because they all get so heated about it."

Harper, who attended seminary classes at 5 a.m. on weekdays in high school, writes "Luke 1:37" on every autograph he signs. "For with God, nothing shall be impossible." It's his own way of spreading the gospel.

Harper decided not to go on a Mormon mission because of his career, though he considered it. That fits for him because proselytizing isn't his style. "If somebody asks me about it, I'll tell them about it, but I'm not going to be Mr. Tim Tebow," he said, clarifying that he does not mean that in a derogatory way.

"I'm going to try to be the best person I can off the field (and promote my faith that way)," Harper said. "What I say is, 'I try to be the best walking Book of Mormon as I can.'"

Diverse beliefs, mutual goal

Within the melting pot that is the Nationals clubhouse, most of those interviewed for this story agreed on a few things.

First, that the exchange of ideas and open-mindedness to listen to other opinions was important and, overall, positive.

"I'll have a debate with anybody," LaRoche said. "They may get mad, but we're still great friends an hour later. I've found, the majority of the time, if we're willing to open up about it, guys are incredibly receptive."

Second, part of why they're able to do that is because there isn't a lot of unsolicited preaching. Those who hold fervent religious beliefs stressed that timing is important, and some said they mostly avoid the topic unless approached.

"You don't ever want to push it on somebody because I've had teammates in the past, before I was walking in the light, that would," Desmond said. "It was just too much, and that pushed me away."

Setting aside each individual's religious beliefs, they agree that the common ground is where they can retreat to living their lives in a good, moral way.

"Religion or not, I'm all about being a good human being, treating people like you want to be treated," Haren said. "I'm definitely not perfect by any means. But I try my best to live by that rule: trying to be the best person I can possibly be — a good role model for your kids, a good husband for your wife."

The debates will continue to rage, and the goal is not for one to tell another, "You're right and I'm wrong." Between the scouting reports, the relentless schedule and all the rest, the exchanges of ideas will go on.

"I really think there's something inside of us that feels good to accept a higher power," Haren said. "When people say, 'God will show me the way,' or 'Things happen for a reason,' I think that feels good for people to let themselves feel like they're being guided. That's comforting for people of any religion.

"That does appeal to me too, but I just like to focus more on the reason and really understand it. What exactly does this mean?"

Amanda Comak covered the Washington Nationals for The Washington Times. Twitter: acomak

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