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.

"I asked myself: 'Why are we here?'" LaRoche said. "I've asked a few people that over the years. 'What is our purpose on this earth?' My opinion is that it's to spread God's word and that's it. And when that finally hit me, it put baseball and all that other stuff in perspective.

"I heard one chaplain put it this way: What do you want written on your tombstone? Do you want 'Adam LaRoche: Gold Glove, batting average, hit so many homers, and has a million dollars in his bank account,' or do you want 'Adam LaRoche: Man of God, integrity, raised a great family, loving.' Let's be honest: I don't know anybody who wants their stats."

LaRoche calls himself a non-denominational Christian and tells those who ask about his church, "I am a follower of Jesus." He is probably the most vocally religious member of the Nationals. If the team is on the road and can't find a chaplain on Sunday, LaRoche could lead the group. If a teammate knocks on his door at 2 a.m. wanting to talk about "walking in the light," he's happy to oblige.

LaRoche spearheaded the team's effort to host Faith Night at Nationals Park this season. The event featured a concert by Third Day, a Christian rock band, and a handful of Nationals sharing a few thoughts with several thousand fans. Ian Desmond, Anthony Rendon, Denard Span and Stammen participated, but it was LaRoche who delivered a sermon of sorts.

He is most comfortable, though, with smaller conversations, quiet moments when teammates come to him with questions.

"What I'm very careful to do is not do it in a judgmental way, ever," LaRoche said. "Because I've had guys in the past who have come up and tried to beat the Bible over my head and tell me what I shouldn't be doing: 'You keep doing this, you're going to hell.' And that is absolutely not the way to preach. Period."

When religion emerges on the athletic stage, it sometimes can lead to an eye-roll reaction. But within the Nationals' clubhouse, LaRoche has found his beliefs allied with many peers.

"Some of the skeptics are probably those who have a misinterpretation of what a big-league ballplayer is all about," Desmond said. "I guarantee if you ask 100 people on the street, 90 percent of them think all baseball players run around and cheat on their wives, they're out late, howling at the moon. I think that's a little bit of a misconception. This is a great platform, but you have to be willing to live the life you witness."

Desmond and Stammen went through a similar process to LaRoche's. Both attended Catholic school, Desmond in Florida and Stammen in Ohio, largely following the leads of their parents and doing it mostly out of habit more than any deep connection. For both, their faith grew as they matured.

Baseball, despite the view from the outside of its fast lifestyle, has helped foster that, they said.

"It's not easy to just say, 'Hey, I'm a Christian, I'm a believer in God. I need to steer myself away from the sin of this world,' " Desmond said. "But when you have a group of guys that you're basically brothers with and one of them says it, it's easier for everyone else to feel like, 'Hey, yeah, I'm a Christian, too.' You're not that lone duck out there. It's a support group."

"I think it's given me an open mind," Stammen said. "When you play baseball, you meet people from Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Florida, California, Texas, and you get all different kinds of perspectives on the same thing. You learn to appreciate everybody — how they grew up and their beliefs — and not be so closed-minded on 'What I believe is exactly right.' "

Speaking their minds

Dan Haren was raised Catholic. He went to Catholic school and then Pepperdine University. He has attended many Sunday morning chapel sessions during his 11 years in the major leagues. But it wasn't until recently that the 33-year-old pitcher began to really study religion. It is the history of human beings that interests him.

"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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