Bowing Heads at the Ballpark

Sunday is game day in professional sports, but before many athletes crush each other on the gridiron or smash a ball out of the park they partake in worship services led by the team chaplain.

Every NFL, NBA and MLB team has a spiritual leader to conduct weekly worship, lead Bible classes, and be on-call for a flock of millionaire lambs seeking a holy shoulder to lean on.

"Players have a hard time connecting with church during the season with so much travel and a game virtually every Sunday, so there's a need to have an inter-denominational service at the ballpark," said Ricky Horton, chaplain for the St. Louis Cardinals and former major league pitcher. "It essentially becomes your church."

Pro players live in such an "unreal" world, Horton said, rarely even realizing what day it is during the season. "They have a lot of prestige and notoriety but the same needs as everyone else — to be accepted, humbled, understood." Horton, who was not a Christian when he became a minor league player, found spiritual guidance from his team's chaplain.

The weekly "chapels" are erected wherever space can be found, from the boiler room to the weight room to even the showers. "We haven't had any baptisms in there yet," Horton said.

Vince Nauss, president of Baseball Chapel, said the chaplains are not paid and not permitted to take anything, even autographs. "We look for people not already overextended in serving," he said. "The vast majority are baseball fans. It can be hard to discern their motive ... Someone who says 'I loved to do this, I’m a big Red Sox fan!' is not enough ... we look for people who are most interested in serving."

Coaches, personnel, umpires and about 10 players attend weekly worship, and in many cases the chaplain's wife meets with the players' wives and children.

Athletes get to where they are by a talent some call, "God-given," explained Peter Richmond, special correspondent for GQ. "They are born with athletic gift that very few people have, and in one sense don’t know how to explain it. Makes more sense they would want to be religious and have someone around them who understands their faith."

Richmond said many pro-football players grew up in "emotional and evocative churches."

"We see them praying on the 50-yard-line and think, 'Oh come on, get that out of my face,' but religion means a great deal to them," he said.

And it's not just the boys who play with balls getting blessed — motor sports have chaplains as well.

Winston Cup chaplain Dale Beaver travels with his wife and two young sons in a motorhome to spread the word to the racing community all season long. Two hours before every race, he leads a 25-minute worship service in a garage complete with singers. Motor oil has never been so glorious.

Beaver also conducts "typical pastoral duties" for the racing community such as weddings, funerals and pre-marital counseling — off season and on. But unlike Horton's role as a baseball chaplain, Beaver is a paid, full-time employee of Motor Racing Outreach.

"I travel with the Winston Cup series and there are 15 to 20 chaplains in the racing series — power boats, motorcycles, you name it," he said. "If it's got a motor on it and it races we try to have a chaplain there."

While he says drivers joke with him about blessing their cars before the flag is waved, "they realize I'm not walking around like a rabbit's foot, I'm more interested in relationships with them."

For many racers, the church on the road "is the only church they know," Beaver said. "One of our goals is to get them involved in their community when they are home. But it's kind of hard for Jeff Gordon to go into church and not be ogled a bit; so that's why they rely on what we bring to the track."

Religion and spiritual grounding are vital for many pro athletes who get swept up in a crazy life of endless games, money and temptation. And while trainers tape up wounds and coaches give throwing tips, a chaplain helps the player embrace his spirituality.

"If Sammy Sosa points to the sky, that's when we notice it but don't see that as a reflection of a much larger thing," Richmond said. "For us what might be showboating is only the tip of the iceberg, which below the water is the faith they've grown up with their entire life and to which they subscribe much of their success."