Baseball’s Rockies seek revival on two levels

January 4, 2008 at 3:07 pm Leave a comment

Source: USA Today

Here is an article from June 2006 about the Colorado Rockies’ faith:

No copies of Playboy or Penthouse are in the clubhouse of baseball’s Colorado Rockies. There’s not even a Maxim. The only reading materials are daily newspapers, sports and car magazines and the Bible.

Music filled with obscenities, wildly popular with youth today and in many other clubhouses, is not played. A player will curse occasionally but usually in hushed tones. Quotes from Scripture are posted in the weight room. Chapel service is packed on Sundays. Prayer and fellowship groups each Tuesday are well-attended. It’s not unusual for the front office executives to pray together.

On the field, the Rockies are trying to make the playoffs for the first time in 11 seasons and only the second time in their 14-year history. Behind the scenes, they quietly have become an organization guided by Christianity — open to other religious beliefs but embracing a Christian-based code of conduct they believe will bring them focus and success.

From ownership on down, it’s an approach the Rockies are proud of — and something they are wary about publicizing. “We’re nervous, to be honest with you,” Rockies general manager Dan O’Dowd says. “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 pitcher Jason Jennings says: “They do preach character and good living here. It’s a must for them, and that starts from the very top. But we’re not a military group. … Nobody is going to push their beliefs on each other or make judgments. We do believe that if you do things right and live your life right, good things are going to happen.”

The Rockies, at 27-24 entering Tuesday, are having their best season since 1995 with a payroll of $44 million, the lowest in the National League’s West Division. Their season ticketholders and fans are, for the most part, unaware of the significance the Rockies place on Christian values.

“I had no idea they were a Christian team. … I would love for them to talk about their Christianity publicly,” says Tim Boettcher, 42, a season ticketholder for 12 years and an elder at the Hosanna Lutheran Church in Littleton, Colo. “It makes sense because of the way they conduct themselves. You don’t see the showboating and the trash talking. … They look like a team and act like a team.”

That’s a departure from the team’s recent past. Colorado has averaged 91 losses the last five years, the legacy of costly personnel decisions that didn’t pan out.

“We had to go to hell and back to know where the Holy Grail is. We went through a tough time and took a lot of arrows,” says Rockies chairman and CEO Charlie Monfort, one of the original owners.

Monfort did, too. He says that after years of partying, including 18 months’ probation for driving while impaired, he became a Christian three years ago. It influenced how he wanted to run the club, he says.

“We started to go after character six or seven years ago, but we didn’t follow that like we should have,” he says. “I don’t want to offend anyone, but 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 use of faith as a motivator and team-builder isn’t unusual in sports.

A few minor league teams — particularly in the South — have held Faith Night promotions for churchgoing fans that have featured rock concerts and even sermons. It’s common to see groups of professional football and basketball players in postgame prayer circles.

The Rockies’ approach is unusual in that religious doctrine is a guide for running a franchise. The club’s executives emphasize they are not intolerant of other views.

“We try to do the best job we can to get people with the right sense of moral values, but we certainly don’t poll our players or our organization to find out who is Christian and who isn’t,” says O’Dowd, who says he has had prayer sessions on the telephone with club President Keli McGregor and manager Clint Hurdle. “I know some of the guys who are Christians, but I can’t tell you who is and who isn’t.”

Is it possible that some Rockies are playing the role of good Christians just to stay in the team’s good graces? Yes, former Rockies say.

“They have a great group of guys over there, but I’ve never been in a clubhouse where Christianity is the main purpose,” says San Francisco Giants first baseman-outfielder Mark Sweeney, a veteran of seven organizations who spent 2003 and 2004 with the Rockies. “You wonder if some people are going along with it just to keep their jobs.

“Look, I pray every day,” Sweeney says. “I have faith. It’s always been part of my life. But I don’t want something forced on me. Do they really have to check to see whether I have a Playboy in my locker?”

Approach not for everyone

Other baseball executives say they appreciate the Rockies’ new emphasis on good character but say they would never try to build a team of Christian believers.

“You don’t hear about it so much with their players, but you hear about it with their front office,” San Diego Padres general manager Kevin Towers says. “That’s not us. … We wouldn’t do that. But who’s to say they’re wrong for doing that?”

The Rockies, who tied for the second-worst record in baseball last year at 67-95, are on pace to finish with a franchise-record 86 wins. They have had at least a share of first place for 32 days and were in first as recently as May 21.

They have fine pitching, led by starters Aaron Cook, Jeff Francis and Jennings, and a bullpen anchored by Brian Fuentes is on target for the lowest earned run average in franchise history.

Their defense ranks third in the league. All-Star first baseman Todd Helton, the face of the organization, has been joined by rising outfield stars Matt Holliday and Brad Hawpe.

“I’m very proud of the comeback they’ve made,” says baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, adding he was unaware of the extent of the team’s focus on religious values. “They have to do what they feel is right.”

Helton, a regular at the team’s chapel services, says: “There is a plan for everything. … We have a lot of good people in here, people who care about each other. People who want to do what’s right.”

Hurdle, 48, who says he became a Christian three years ago, says of the team’s devotion: “We’re not going to hide it. We’re not going to deny it. This is who we are.”

While praising their players, Rockies executives make clear they believe God has had a hand in the team’s improvement.

“You look at things that have happened to us this year,” O’Dowd says. “You look at some of the moves we made and didn’t make. You look at some of the games we’re winning. Those aren’t just a coincidence. God has definitely had a hand in this.”

Arrest sparks change

By the time the sun rose Dec. 4, 2004, Rockies management had vowed the direction of the organization would change. Pitcher Denny Neagle had been charged with soliciting a prostitute, another embarrassment for a franchise that had not been competitive for years.

“God gave us a challenge right then and there,” McGregor says. “You always say you want to do the right thing, but often in this business we warp our values and do less than what’s the right thing.”

Colorado released Neagle three days after his arrest — he joined the Tampa Bay Devil Rays but did not stick — and ended up paying $16 million of the $19 million owed him on his contract.

“It was an expensive, painful education,” McGregor says.

Monfort says: “We had a great thing with the fans, making the playoffs in ’95, selling out, and we just became arrogant. The honeymoon started waning, and we went into panic mode” by spending millions on free agent players who didn’t pan out.

The Rockies say they welcome anyone regardless of religious beliefs. “We don’t just go after Christian players,” O’Dowd says. “That would be unfair to others. We go after players of character.”

There have been exceptions. When the Rockies signed reliever Jose Mesa last December, they were aware of his 1996 rape charge, for which he was acquitted. O’Dowd, who knew Mesa, talked extensively to him and his agent before signing him. Mesa has appeared in the most games of any Rockies pitcher this season (27, with a 0-1 record and 3.52 ERA).

“Look, we don’t want to come across as holier than thou. None of us are perfect,” O’Dowd says. “But I just feel like if you have people with the right heart and their desires are with the right intent, what bad can come out of that?”

Monfort and McGregor have never shared their religious views at owners meetings, Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf says.

“It’s interesting, but I had no idea. I don’t think any of us do,” says Reinsdorf, who, like Selig, is Jewish. “I do believe character is very important. But only to a point. Does this mean … Babe Ruth (a Hall of Famer and notorious carouser) could never have played there?”

The Rockies’ clean-living approach is reflected throughout the organization, including its minor league teams, Monfort says. “I don’t want our 17-, 18-year-old kids to sign, leave mom and dad and be on the road for the first time and have to see and be part of” a typical clubhouse culture, he says.

Winning still important

Religion’s role in baseball occasionally has created controversy, most recently in Washington.

The Washington Nationals suspended a volunteer chaplain and issued an apology last year after outfielder Ryan Church, a devout Christian, made public conversations he had with the chaplain about an ex-girlfriend who was Jewish. Church told The Washington Post he had asked Jon Moeller whether Jews were “doomed” because they “don’t believe in Jesus.” Church said Moeller “nodded, like, that’s what it meant.”

After Jewish community leaders complained, Church issued a statement saying, “I am not the type of person who would call into question the religious beliefs of others.”

Helton echoes Rockies executives who say the team rejects intolerance. “I have never noticed anybody feeling uncomfortable here,” he says. “We have good people here. … Guys who stay out of trouble. Guys who go to Bible study every Tuesday. But it’s still a baseball clubhouse.”

Monfort says he realizes fans aren’t going to flock to Coors Field to watch nice guys finish last. There still must be success on the field.

Colorado drew at least 3 million each of the first nine years of the franchise. But the Rockies haven’t sold more than 2.7 million tickets in a season since 2001, and attendance fell to a franchise-low 1.9 million last year. They’re on pace to draw 2 million this year.

“After the whole thing with Denny Neagle and contracts that didn’t work out, they were the laughingstock on several different levels. It really left a bad taste for people,” says Scot Minshall, 33, general manager of Jackson’s Sports Rock bar, across the street from Coors Field. “Now there’s actually something to cheer for.”

As for whether the cheering will last, McGregor says, “Who knows where we go from here? The ability to handle success will be a big part of the story, too. There will be distractions. There will be things that can change people. But we truly do have something going on here. And (God’s) using us in a powerful way.”

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