Twenty-one wins in twenty-two games. An improbable run to the World Series. One of the hottest streaks to end a season in the history of baseball. And not two pitchers the average fan could even name. Ladies and gents, your Colorado Rockies: a team performing what even an atheist could call a baseball miracle. And "miracle" is an appropriate term for a team that riled the baseball world last year by claiming that filling the dugout with Christian players would grease the skids to greatness. Last year the Rockies went public with the news that the organization was looking for players with "character." And according to team management, "character" means players who have chosen Jesus as their personal Lord and manager. "We’re nervous, to be honest with you," Rockies general manager Dan O’Dowd said at the time. "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."
Rockies chairman and CEO Charlie Monfort took it further, saying, "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." The team took some heat for its statements, especially when former players spoke of having their lockers searched for dirty magazines and feeling pressure that you had to be down with the God Squad to feel part of the team. It also raised the question of whether the team was discriminating against non-Christian players — would Jewish icon Shawn Green be welcome? What about just straight-up heathens?
But as the team makes its miracle run to the series against the Boston Red Sox this year, the Rockies are playing down their holier-than-thou image.
"Do we like players with character? There is absolutely no doubt about that," O’Dowd said in the New York Times today. "If people want to interpret character as a religious-based issue because it appears many times in the Bible, that’s their decision. I believe that character is an innate part of developing an organization, and to me, it is nothing more than doing the right thing at the right time when nobody’s looking. Nothing more complicated than that. You don’t have to be a Christian to make that decision." "There are guys who are religious, sure, but they don’t impress it upon anybody," Jewish pitcher Jason Hirsh also stepped forward to say. "It’s not like they hung a cross in my locker or anything. They’ve accepted me for who I am and what I believe in."
Have the Rockies really turned over a tolerant new leaf — as the Times report suggested — or is this merely the sin of spin? Relief pitcher Jeremy Affeldt said, "When you have as many people who believe in God as we do, it creates a humbleness about what we do. I don’t see arrogance here, I see confidence. We’re all very humbled about where this franchise has been and where it is now, and we know that what’s happening now is a very special thing."
Humility and confidence are fine — indeed, novel — traits in an athlete. But the troubling part of that statement is the assumption that Christianity by definition brings character to the table. Maybe it’s because I live in Washington, DC, a town full of politicians who blithely invade other countries with other people’s children and deny healthcare to millions of kids and say they are guided by God. Maybe it’s because I find a team using a publicly funded stadium as a platform for an event originally dubbed "Christian Family Day" exclusionary and a gross misuse of tax dollars. (Later, the events were renamed "Faith Day" to sound more inclusive.)
But for those of us who believe that freedom of religion also should mean freedom from religion at the ballpark, it doesn’t matter if you call it Buddha-Jesus-Jewish-Vishnu-Islamic-Wicca Awareness Day. We just want to go to the ballpark without feeling like we’re covertly funding Focus on the Family’s gay-retraining programs. Religion and sports: It’s a marriage in desperate need of a divorce.
That’s why it was hard not to feel a tiny taste of supernatural satisfaction upon learning Tuesday that the team website crashed following what Rockies officials called "an external, malicious attack." The team’s efforts to sell all its World Series tickets online was unprecedented and seen by many diehard Rockies fans as a way to sell tickets to out-of-town corporate entities and shut out the locals waiting in line for days to buy them in person. Unless your lord is Michael Milken, gouging home-town supporters doesn’t seem very Christian at all.
So who could be the perpetrator of this "external and malicious" attack on the Rockies website? Was it God, punishing the team for squeezing the common fan? The Devil, trying to derail their grace-driven run? Some Red Sox Nation hacker getting his jollies? Whatever, it was hard not to smile at the biblical significance for one of baseball’s most sanctimonious teams. They could throw the moneychangers out of our sporting temples, but that would leave the owners’ boxes empty. And we can’t have that.
Dave Zirin writes about sports for The Nation magazine, and is the author of "What’s My Name, Fool?" Sports and Resistance in the United States (Haymarket Books).