TOWSON, MD. -- Brother Scott McGregor stands on the sanctuary steps facing 50 junior high school kids in blue and white plaid uniforms. He is clapping for Jesus. Soon the kids are clapping too, quickly, rhythmically, and the room jumps with upbeat piety. It is morning youth chapel at Rock Church, but it feels like a pep rally. "You all excited today?" McGregor says. "Praise Lord! Praise God! Let's worship the Lord. You all bring your Bibles? Let's open up the doors. Bring in your friends who need to touch God. Let's cause this youth group to explode the way Jesus wants it to!"

Three months ago Scott McGregor forsook pitching for preaching. He was released by the Orioles, the only major league team he ever played for, ending a 13-year career that had many peaks and recently many valleys. He pitched the game that clinched the 1979 pennant. In 1983 he won the final game of the World Series, an elegant five-hitter that was emblematic of his career. When he retired he was giving up almost nine runs a game.

McGregor cried when the announcement was made. "I guess there's a sovereign hand that said it was my time," he said. "I'm not going to question that."

He had known since 1983 that he would be going into the ministry. Days after winning the World Series he heard the prophecy of the Lord at a Leighton Ford Crusade that he would minister to the youth of the land, that he would have a healing ministry. He wrote down the presbyter's words that changed his life: "Some look at you now in the eye of the natural, but many will look at you through a spiritual eye and you will be able to say, 'This is the way, walk ye in it.' "

Today he is the youth pastor of the charismatic Rock Church, which stands on a hill in Towson overlooking the house he and his wife Cara bought to be close by. The children seated before him are his flock.

He closes his eyes and prays. "Change us, God! Change us, God! Holy Ghost! Holy Ghost! Stir up the gift, God! Stir up the gift!"

In his playing days he was called a vanilla man. Even now he dresses in shades of gray. As he raises his face to heaven, he grows flushed. His voice, a soft monotone in conversation, catches fire, becomes a rich, melodious tenor. He sings. He sways. "For you are the chosen generation! Out of darkness into His marvelous sight!"

The teacher in the back of the room is speaking in tongues. McGregor joins her. "Ahhh baaah daaah baaah." The syllables tumble out of him. "Like baby talk," he says later.

He turns to II Timothy 3. "We are living in a time of fulfillment," he tells the children. "Timothy says, 'They will be utterly self-centered.' It's a self-centered world we're living in. It's a me-ism society we live in. The world used to be a place where, like the Marines said, 'We need a few good men.' Now it's McDonald's, 'You deserve a break today.' "

His voice rises and falls. The kids listen and squirm. "Self-centeredness, self-preservation," he says. "It's a lie from the Devil."

He raises his arms to embrace them. "Kids today have such a bad self-image they turn to pleasure. They get into the ball of self-preservation and they can't turn to anyone else. They are into such condemnation, they turn to drugs. Peter says, 'I cry and cringe.' That's the way young people feel today.

"But we are not in that situation. The Bible says, 'Cast your cares upon me.' You are not under condemnation today. God has set us free. We are not going to buy this lie that we have to preserve ourselves. Not one of you is going to wake up and say, 'I am insignificant. I have no purpose.'

"You are loved," McGregor says. "We're on the top of the hill. We're looking over the whole city. We are going to go into the schools and the jails and tell people, 'I love you.' "

He mounts the steps. "We're going to do things to stop the drug thing, the suicide thing, because you are kids lit up and on fire for God. You are going to know this if it kills me, that you are a Holy Nation, a peculiar group of kids. You are going to take this city for Jesus Christ!"

An hour later McGregor is sitting in his basement surrounded by pictures of his former glory, the color draining from his face. "When I get up to preach, I get fired up," he says, loosening his tie. "The rest of the time I'm a real phleg."

All things being equal, he would have been just as happy to go sit by a pond and fish when his baseball career was over. The ministry was not his choice, he says. It was God's.

He is not the only athlete to hear the call. David Burnham, chairman of the International Sports Coalition, says there are between 100 and 200 former athletes working as ministers, and the numbers are growing all the time.

Jock pastors are as old as the games. Billy (The Evangelist) Sunday was an outfielder with a lifetime batting average of .248 before he quit baseball and became one of the country's foremost turn-of-the-century preachers. Dr. James Naismith was a seminarian before he invented basketball at the YMCA. Bob Richards, the "Flying Parson," preached the gospel and physical fitness and was an icon on the Wheaties box for generations.

Reggie White, the star defensive end for the Philadelphia Eagles, is an ordained Baptist minister. George Foreman, the former heavyweight champion, quit the ring because of his religious beliefs, made himself the pastor at the George Foreman Youth Center in Houston and has now gone back to boxing. Andre Thornton, the former Indians slugger, founded the Christian Family Outreach in Cleveland, which was expanded into Baltimore by his brother-in-law Pat Kelly, the former Oriole. Jeff Siemon, former linebacker for the Minnesota Vikings, has a master's degree in Christian apologetics and is area director for Search Ministries in Minneapolis.

Some trade on their names and their ability to attract other names. Bill Glass, the former NFL All-Pro, one of the earliest activist Christians in sports, has visited 400 prisons since 1972. "I took in Michael Jordan, I had 100 percent attendance," he says. "I took Mean Joe Green and Roger Staubach. They all come. They listen. Whether or not they'll change their lives is debatable."

Others toil in anonymity. Joe Ehrmann, the former Colt defensive tackle, teaches suburban high school Bible classes and runs a storefront ministry in the slums of Baltimore. He uses his celebrity only to teach that it is a misguided pursuit. "You tell poor people, 'That's not the answer,' it's hard for them to be convinced," he says. "Having been there and seen how empty it is, there's a certain fact to my conviction."

Larry Braziel, a former defensive back for the Baltimore Colts, answers the phone "Reverend Braziel" at the World Outreach Center in Owings Mills, Md. "You should never go into the ministry because you got trained," he says. "You go because you got called."

Braziel works out of a trailer on a lonely country road. He goes to prisons, he goes door to door, he trains ushers for church services. "If I was just a regular minister," he says, "people would look at me and say, 'Well, it's expected of him to say the things he's saying.' Being an athlete gets their attention. But it's the things I say that keeps their attention."

They have visibility and credibility, both of which can easily be abused. McGregor, who prefers to be known as Brother Scott, says most churches would already have given him his own pulpit. "I think most athletes don't get grounded," he says. "They say, 'I'm going to start a ministry. I'm going to be one of the apostles of the faith.' They get a name, Athletes Against Drugs or whatever, and they get a building 'cause they've got $1 million in the bank, and there's nothing in them because they're not being ministered to. They start leading people and things start falling apart and people say, 'Oh, there's another Christian.' They need to get grounded."

Even those who walk with the Lord can lose their footing.

McGregor was saved in the clubhouse at Memorial Stadium in the spring of 1979. Immediately he was a hot ticket on the Christian banquet circuit -- big-name athletes always are. "I'll never forget the first time a guy introduced me as knowing more about the Bible than anyone in Baltimore," he says, incredulously. "It scared me to death. I had just become a Christian. It really opened up my eyes that you can get used up.

"I testified everywhere. I'd go to Topps sports banquets and I'd start preaching. It didn't matter. I had to give God the glory. I always try to do it properly ... God and the Holy Spirit is a gentleman.

"I mean, He is God and all that. But the way to share the gospel is when people see you are changed. It's not by beating them over the head with the Bible ... "

Christians are taught that it is their great commission to spread the gospel. But McGregor soon learned that athletes who testify everywhere "usually don't last long in the Kingdom of God."

By 1983, he says, "I was dried out, just fried. It happens to so many athletes. As soon as people find out you're a Christian, they want your testimony. They run you all over. Churches are most guilty of that. At my church, that's discouraged. At my church, I'm Brother Scott."

Bart Pierce, pastor of Rock Church, says, "The athlete becomes a piece of merchandise, an object. They are hindered from coming to worship like other people.

"When I first met Scott in 1983, his spiritual depth was as shallow as it possibly could have been. Athletes learn how to have the right cliche's, to be able to praise the Lord. But -- whew! -- there was a hurt, an emptiness."

They canceled McGregor's appearances for a year. Pierce put McGregor up front at church services as an attendant so no one could ask for autographs. Together they worked on getting him grounded in the Lord.

Pierce remembers being disappointed at not seeing McGregor in church the Sunday after the 1983 World Series ended. He told himself a World Series hero was entitled to miss church just once. Then he saw McGregor coming out of the nursery, where he had been on duty, "hanging around 14 kids with poopy diapers," Pierce says. That's when he knew they were making progress.

It was around the same time that McGregor heard the prophetic word that told him things about himself only God could know. He did not question it. But the prophecy drove a wedge between him and baseball. "All of a sudden, I had two things in my life," he says. "Until then, baseball was the only thing. Baseball never had any competition. Baseball became jealous."

In the last two decades, professional sports has been born again. The question is why?

Martin E. Marty, professor of the history of modern Christianity at the University of Chicago, traces the appeal of fundamentalism in the locker room to the huge gap between where most athletes come from economically and culturally and where they end up. "If they make it, holding their world together is really hard," he says. "If you want to ward it off and are religious, religion of a certain sort can be a marvelous tool for motivation, for discipline, for remembering Mom. I met a priest on the strip in Las Vegas who said, 'Americans want religion with no paradoxes, no doubts, either you win or you lose, either God's with you or against you.' Most American religions are more ambiguous than that. Athletes prefer the unambiguous sort."

Reborn players and their ministers sound the same refrain. Everything is accelerated in sports: success, failure, the end of a career, which is a kind of death. Probably it is no coincidence that football, which has the shortest average career in professional sports -- 3.2 years -- is also the most devout.

Athletes lead deceptively fragile lives. Their life style is a sequence of red-eyes and one-nighters. Careers end as quickly as ligaments tear. Public approbation is as fleeting -- one day you're a hero, the next day you're a bum. Self-worth is a function of the scoreboard.

"The athlete is usually depicted as Superman and treated as Superman," says Bill Alexson, who conducts chapel for the Boston Celtics. "But he knows he can't fly. So how do you deal with the pressure? These guys are very vulnerable ... I tell them not only is God real, but He loves you for who you are, not what you do."

They are coddled from youth, given everything but responsibility for their own lives. There is always someone willing to fix their parking tickets or buy their drugs or find them women. Then one day there's a crisis -- a younger, swifter running back arrives in camp, a live arm goes dead. Real life intrudes. They do not know how to cope. No one ever expected them to.

"What we know about adult conversion is that one of the major factors is crisis," says Jeffrey Hadden, professor of sociology at the University of Virginia.

Maybe the crisis isn't one of the flesh. Maybe it's simply the realization that having it all isn't everything. Maybe it's the unsettling perception that all they've done is throw the ball harder, deeper or longer than someone else. Emptiness is also a crisis.

"Deep down these men know they have been given a gift," says Joe Ehrmann. "There is a great deal of guilt."

Dave Bratton, a sports minister in New York, says, "I think they ask, 'Why am I blessed? Why me? Why not someone else? If I'm blessed, someone had to bless me.' They have everything the world has to offer and they are asking, 'What did I really contribute? I have all the comforts and it just doesn't satisfy.' "

In a way, McGregor says, his life is a parable.

"Athletes are parables," he says. "They are on a giant pedestal. They fall the most. They're the ones you see fallen. It's heavy. God will use all things. Athletes are a select bunch who live out in front. We definitely express every sin, every vice. We have everything people are looking for. We show the ups and the downs. That's why it's such an awesome responsibility. We can affect people for good or for evil. God is trying to save us on one side and the Devil is trying to rip us apart on the other."

On the wall facing him is a large color portrait of himself in his bright orange Orioles uniform. He has a mustache and long hair. The year was 1978. He was 24. You can't tell it by looking at him, but God and the Devil were fighting for his soul.

He was a major league pitcher with a Topps baseball card, a high school sweetheart for a wife and a brand new son. "I had all the things I thought were heaven on earth," he says. "But I was searching ... All of a sudden, it dawned on me I wasn't happy."

The novelty of the major leagues had worn off. The tedium of proving himself, of "being in a profession where you live on a scoreboard" had set in. "I was using marijuana constantly," he says. "We partied pretty heavily, and cocaine started coming on the scene. I started getting into that some. It was like, go home after the game, drink four or five beers, smoke a couple of joints. It was something I couldn't break. I'd say, 'Guys, I'm quitting.' They said, 'Yeah sure, see you next week.'

"When I got drunk, I got ugly. I was always so quiet. So everything came flying out. Cara said she'd get scared. I didn't throw things. But I probably got mean to her. Verbally mean. I was rotten."

"He was mean to the point where I said, 'Is he going to hit me?' " Cara says. "He never did ... You see your husband drinking and smoking dope. You say, 'There's more to life than this.' You want to have fun. But that was the only form he could see."

In the spring of 1979 he hurt his arm. "It was my second outing," he says. "{Jim} Palmer pitched the first three. I came on in the fourth. I got them out 1-2-3. In the fifth, I went out and I couldn't throw the ball to home plate. I said, 'What happened?' It dawned on me that quickly: That's how quickly my career could end. That's how uncertain life is."

Christian athletes say the same thing over and over: They need something "solid" in their lives, something more than having it all. "Baseball is so unsure," McGregor says. But God loves you unconditionally. And that takes the pressure off, he says, when the curveball doesn't break. "Suddenly I had a sure foundation to stand on."

When McGregor got down on his knees and asked Jesus Christ to take control of his life, he wasn't exactly sure what to expect. "There's lots of myths," he says. "Religion comes up a lot, especially in the minors. I remember one guy said someone told him you should go sit in your room and God will come talk to you. So he went and sat in his room and nothing happened, so he left.

"Some people get bowled over. Whoa! I prayed the sinner's prayer and waited. I said, 'Jesus, you come into my life and I'm going to let you have my sin,' and I felt that lift off."

Cara was saved a week later.

One day in 1980 McGregor was standing in the parking lot of the Towson Inn at a tent meeting when he began speaking in tongues. It was embarrassing. The preacher laid hands on him. All these cars were going by. He kept thinking, "Oh God, everybody knows who I am."

Down in his basement, he practiced speaking in tongues every morning. "At first it feels like you're doing it yourself," he says. "It's a struggle, a battle. But the Bible says, 'Understanding is unfruitful.' You can't understand. You have to fight your way through it. We were overwhelmed by God. It was like, 'Wow.' "

He continued to thrive as a pitcher. He had his best years in 1982, 1983 and 1984, until he broke the ring finger on his pitching hand. In the winter of 1985 the Orioles rewarded him with a four-year, $4 million contract, and the seeds of conflict were sown.

Management began to complain that he was not working out enough in the off-season, that his heart was in the church, not the game. In 1985 he was 14-14. He was never a winning pitcher again. Hank Peters, then the Orioles general manager, met repeatedly with McGregor and his pastor. Finally, he told McGregor he might as well quit. McGregor went to the minors instead.

"He had a commitment to religion that far transcended what any club should have to expect," says Peters, now president of the Cleveland Indians. "In no way did we want to inhibit his beliefs within reason. But what's within reason?

"Because Scott was somewhat confused, he lost the ability to concentrate. The things that had made him successful left him. Sometimes when you lose it, you don't get it back."

Peters says religion can become a divisive force in the locker room. He ultimately banished chapel from the Orioles and Indians clubhouses. Chapel can meet at the stadium but not in the locker room.

It was ironic: General managers usually get upset about sinners, not the saved. "At one time, it helped him greatly," Peters says. "If he had continued socially the way he was, he might have destroyed himself. While he was moderate, he was a great pitcher. When it went past that stage and became overly devout, it worked adversely, not as a man but as a performer."

That is not a conclusion McGregor shared, but others did. "Each time I had a bad game, {Baltimore sports radio host} Stan the Fan would come on and say, 'Get rid of all the Christians,' " McGregor says. "I said, 'Next time one of the heathens has a bad game get rid of all of them.' It's threatening. So they attack it all the time."

Cara encouraged him to view the clubhouse as his ministry. "There are people hurting there," she said. He led chapel services and was also the Orioles' union representative -- though he always preached settlement, not strike.

At times he felt he was being torn asunder. "It was like, 'I don't want to do this, but this is where I have to be,' " Cara says. "There were times he'd be getting too spiritual on the mound instead of looking at it naturally. He'd be asking himself, 'Am I all messed up?' when you've just got to go out and throw the ball. He'd be looking at the losses like, 'Is this supposed to make me humble? Is this something God is using?' "

McGregor says he was always "in the game," as athletes say, though he did feel some pressure to justify his superstar salary. Last fall, after finishing the 1987 season with a 6.64 ERA, he promised to follow an intense off-season regimen. He wanted to give baseball one more full shot. "I told Scott, 'I hate to say it, but it might be too late,' " Peters says. "I think it short-circuited his career considerably."

McGregor shrugs. "I got hooked, man," he says. "I fell in love with the Lord. I got out of balance with some things maybe. I used to tell Hank, 'How many people stay the same in life?' He said, 'All you're doing is church work.' I said, 'Yeah, but in '83 I was, too.' Once I got older I probably should have concentrated on staying in better shape. I might have lost a little time to that. I worked out all last winter. It was time for my career to end."

McGregor starts work at Rock Church full time in September. They are getting his office ready. They are allowing him the time an athlete needs to make a transition into the real world. In the meantime he works out of his basement, where the shelves are heavy with brochures for his Christian Youth Athletics ministry and "Just Say No" pamphlets. He ministers to the children at youth chapel and to his 20-month-old son's diapers.

His is an activist church, an activist ministry. He has testified as a youth leader against gay rights legislation in Maryland, worked for Pat Robertson's presidential campaign and marched against abortion and pornography. He is still astonished at the reported crowd estimates of a Christian march in Washington in April, which he says were far too low. "They don't want to face it," he says, sadly. "There's a revival going on. God's real strong. You're seeing all kinds of shakings. History repeats. Things get bad. People turn back to God."

Every day, he can feel God working in his heart, stirring his soul. And this is what he wants for the children who are his charges.

"It's spiritual warfare to enter into the presence of God," he says. "That's the hardest thing with these youngsters, to get 'em to worship. You can stand up there and scream and yell, 'Worship God!' They go, 'Oh right, hallelujah.' You go, 'God, this will never work.' "

But sometimes it does. After chapel, a group of kids gathers around Brother Scott to say thanks. He prays for them, lays hands on them. "A few of them came forward and said it set them free," he says later. "Healing is not just physical, but spiritual. I've prayed for people with kidney problems, with fevers. They went to the doctor the next day and it was gone. I haven't had anything like blind eyes opening. I pray for people and they get slain in the Spirit and just fall out. It's like they faint. The power of God knocks 'em over."

It's an anointing, he says. "It pours through you. It's similar to when you go out to pitch. You get pumped up. You get excited. You feel His presence."