In Baseball Now, More Teams Pray Before They Play

Jon Moeller leads the Nationals' Baseball Chapel.
Jon Moeller leads the Nationals' Baseball Chapel. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)

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By Laura Blumenfeld
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 18, 2005

Three hours before the game, in the Washington Nationals' clubhouse, Ryan Church and Matt Cepicky were razzing each other, laughing and dancing around in their shorts.

A sober voice interrupted, "Chapel, 10:45."

Church and Cepicky nodded. Another player burped. Another swallowed a light blue pill. Another swatted his bat at a teammate's bare behind.

"Chapel in thirty minutes," Jon Moeller said, working his way -- locker to locker, broad back to back -- around the room, distributing a leaflet: "What God Has Done For You." Moeller, 36, is the chapel leader for the Nationals baseball team. On Sundays, before they play, they pray.

In 300 ballparks across the country, volunteer chapel leaders hold English and Spanish services for major and minor league teams. Baseball Chapel, the Christian ministry that organizes the prayers, estimates that nearly 3,000 people worship each week in services held in bullpens, under the stands, while sitting on towels in the showers, or huddled in the laundry room reciting the gospel to the thump of dryers.

Once derided as a sign of weakness by managers and trainers, Christian prayers are now accepted and even encouraged before baseball games. In lockers, you'll find Bibles next to the Ambien and Skoal. Participants say the stress to perform, the uncertainty of injuries, and the lack of control over being traded or cut are lightened by their bond with God.

"It's about guys needing Christ," Moeller said. "It could be the security guard, or it could be [first baseman] Nick Johnson. RFK becomes a church on Sundays."

Even the team doctor, Bruce Thomas, supports weekend prayers and Wednesday Bible study. "If a player has total wellness -- their mind, body and their spiritual side -- they perform better," he said.

Praying before games is not unique to baseball, nor are its root causes. "We've seen an explosion of teams that want chaplains, in all sports," said Dan Britton, senior vice president of Fellowship of Christian Athletes. One reason, Britton said, is because "coaches look at religion as a rabbit's foot."

Another reason, Britton added, has to do with a change in the athletic culture: "The landscape of sports is so crazy -- parents beating up coaches, NBA players going into the stands, baseball players getting traded halfway through the season. A wooden bat and a leather ball make a horrible god. We say, let's go to the Bible."

Sunday mornings, Moeller, an FBI agent during the week, ministers to the Nationals, and then hikes over to the visiting team's clubhouse. The umpires pray privately with Moeller. He posts prayer times on the team board, next to other announcements: pitchers flatground 10:45-11:45; Chapel @10:45; DESIRE + PASSION = WINNING.

Attendance is voluntary and varies, about a third of team members in the major leagues, said national Baseball Chapel President Vince Nauss. Although some football and basketball teams also have chaplains, Nauss said, it is "more loosely organized" than Baseball Chapel, which sends representatives to teams as far-flung as Venezuela and Japan. Their Web site, BaseballChapel.org,which includes player testimonies, helps keep them connected.


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