Peanuts, Cracker Jack and Jesus Make an Unsavory Mix at Ballparks
T he last time the Washington Nationals tried to mix baseball and religion, the team ended up suspending its volunteer chaplain and having to apologize for a player who suggested that Jews are destined for eternal damnation.
But as teams across the nation have discovered, religion sells seats, and so the Nationals are diving back into the faith game. In August, the Nats will become the fourth major league team to stage a Faith Night, an initiative that some franchises have rejected as inappropriate and potentially offensive.
Faith Night, which will also take place tonight at the home of the Bowie Baysox, the Baltimore Orioles' minor league affiliate, is a production of a Nashville-based Christian marketing company. It promises sports clubs it will boost attendance by selling tickets to a ballpark outing that includes a game and a concert by a Christian pop band.
When the Nationals take on the St. Louis Cardinals on Aug. 5, fans who pay an extra $10 will be able to stay after the game and visit booths from Christian colleges and shops, meet characters from the "Veggie Tales" Christian video series and hear a concert by the band MercyMe.
"If somebody comes to a team owner and says, 'We can drive an additional five [thousand] to 15,000 people to you, and you have no cost and no risk,' that's a no-brainer for a club owner," says Brent High, president of Third Coast Sports, which will run Faith Nights at 10 major league stadiums this season.
High created the program in 2002, when he was a sales manager for the minor league Nashville Sounds. A former youth minister, High showed he could boost attendance by expanding an evening at the ballpark to include a Christian concert, player testimonials and giveaways of Bibles and bobblehead dolls of Samson, Jonah and Noah. (Sorry, no Bible bobbleheads at RFK.)
So far, the major league version of Faith Night has gone off with little opposition. After the Atlanta Braves hosted a Faith Night last summer, team management made only one change -- demanding that one of the eight sponsors, the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family, not be invited back because it had used the occasion to distribute literature comparing homosexuality to alcoholism.
But although marketing executives for the Nationals and Braves say Faith Night is a sales device no different from Disco Night or Hispanic Heritage Night, they say they also realize that religion has the power to divide as much as it unites.
"Faith Night is a group sales initiative, but we don't want to offend or alienate anyone," Nats spokesman Chartese Burnett says. "We want to make sure people have a choice to participate in the celebration of Christian faith or not."
Says High: "We would not be in 46 markets if we were about the business of offending people. This is no different from Realtors Night or 4-H Night, where they're attracting a particular demographic. We go to great lengths to avoid being confrontational."
But Shmuel Herzfeld, rabbi at Ohev Sholom synagogue in the District's Shepherd Park neighborhood, calls the event "offensive and exclusionary. It sends a message that kids of a different faith aren't welcome."
Herzfeld also expressed disappointment that Baseball Chapel, an evangelical Christian group that provides unpaid chaplains to lead Bible study in the clubhouses of many professional teams, is still involved with the Nats. Two seasons ago, outfielder Ryan Church was quoted recalling a conversation he had with a chaplain from Baseball Chapel in which Church asked whether Jews such as his ex-girlfriend were "doomed" because "they don't believe in Jesus."