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.
At RFK Stadium, the Nationals pray in the video room, a white, cinderblock space tangled with wires and monitors. The ceiling is low, the air one puff short of stifling. The computer screen-saver features a rear view of a woman in red lace panties.
"If you know the Lord, you will go to heaven," Moeller's friend, a visiting chapel leader named Bud Smitley, told the men on a recent Sunday. "If you don't know the Lord, it could be the other way around. There's only two places: heaven and hell."
Johnson, 26, poked his tongue thoughtfully through his Bazooka bubble gum. Pitcher Gary Majewski, 25, took off his cap and hung his head. As Smitley talked about damnation, players and coaches listened in a scattered circle, on desktops, on chairs. Cepicky sat on the floor, his fists digging into the rug. He had recently been called up to the majors to play right field. This was the sweet spot that Cepicky had been swinging for all his life.
"Lord, we give You all the glory," Smitley prayed.
Afterward, in front of his locker, as Cepicky pulled on his pants, he tried to explain why he attended chapel. "You almost feel guilty for what God's given you," Cepicky, 26, said. He asks God to watch over the players. He pictures God hovering above them, along with his father. When Cepicky was 6 years old, his father died of cancer: "I leave him a ticket every day before the game."
Next to Cepicky, hunched in a chair, center fielder Church, 26, read his Baseball Chapel leaflet, excerpts from Luke. While Cepicky was feeling like a man on the rise, Church was slumping.
"I'm trying to find my groove," Church said without looking up. He had been in the batting cage during chapel time. "It's been a rough week. My swing is not good. You got the weight of the world on you. I don't think the fans realize -- this sport is built on failure."
"Failure" topped the list when the chapel leader asked utility infielder Jamey Carroll to rank his greatest fears. (No. 2 was "insignificant -- no major role"; No. 3 was "dying.") Carroll, 31, said the fear of failure was debilitating for players: "You're gripping the bat so hard, you paralyze yourself in front of 40,000 people."
In Detroit, Jeff Totten, the Detroit Tigers chapel leader, quotes a verse from 1 Peter to allay that fear. Totten, whose chapel participants are called "the God Squad," e-mails the verse to injured players: " 'Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you' -- that's one I've used quite a bit," Totten said.
Carroll, who keeps in his Bible an ivy leaf that he picked from the wall at Wrigley Field, said such verses help: "Forty thousand people are booing you 'cause you just struck out. But He's walking with you, no matter what. You're playing for one fan -- God."
It may be hard to imagine ballplayers as needy, with their seven-figure salaries, their status as American icons and their macho facade. But, Totten said, "We're there to help them forget about that role of being a hero, and meet their needs as human beings."
If God helps players cope with failure, He is also called upon for success. First base coach Don Buford closes his eyes during the national anthem and mumbles a quick, "Lord, help us to win."
"Course that doesn't always happen," Buford said with a laugh.
Which raises a theological question. As outfielder Preston Wilson, 31, who also prays during the national anthem, put it: "If the guy on the other team is a better Christian, is the other team going to win?"
Or, put another way: Do the Boston Red Sox, who have the highest chapel attendance in the major leagues, have an unfair advantage?
"I get a ton of people saying, 'Hey, Wayne, you gotta pray harder for the Brewers,' " said Wayne Beilgard, chapel leader for the Milwaukee Brewers. "I tell them, 'God doesn't choose sides in baseball. God is not a Yankees fan.' "
Yet, there is that temptation. One Sunday, during a Nationals game against the San Diego Padres, chapel leader Moeller and his friend Smitley were making the rounds. The game was not going well. Cepicky shattered a bat, and then hit squarely to the first baseman. In the outfield, Church flailed his arms as a ball rocketed over the wall.
"It's not the Lord's day," Moeller mumbled.
Jim Bowden, the Nationals general manager, invited Moeller and Smitley into his skybox. "Say a little prayer," said Bowden, gesturing to his four sons. They formed a circle, held hands and closed their eyes. "We thank you Lord, for Baseball Chapel," Smitley said.
From the stands rose a burst of groans. "What's up?" Moeller teased. "The Padres scored right there in the middle of your prayer."
The skybox prayer notwithstanding, Bowden has been a chapel fan since the 1970s when a Detroit sportswriter helped organize it. Not all management has been supportive. When Texas Rangers chapel leader Kyle Abbott played for the Phillies and the Angels in the 1990s, "players and coaches would say Christianity is a crutch." Bowden, in contrast, said he wants to build a real chapel, "with stained glass."
Nationals manager Frank Robinson would not comment. "Frank doesn't do religion," said team spokesman John Dever. When team members gathered to pray, Robinson stayed in his office, watching ESPN, with hitting coach Tom McCraw. McCraw cracked the door and said: "I don't go to chapel. I'm a sinner."
Some of the other players, such as third baseman Vinnie Castilla, said they prefer to pray at home or in church. Assistant General Manager Tony Siegle doesn't attend chapel either: "I'm Jewish."
The players not only pray, but they also discuss personal matters -- marital tension, addiction issues, family illnesses, financial stress -- drawing sometimes surprising lessons. Church was concerned because his former girlfriend was Jewish. He turned to Moeller, "I said, like, Jewish people, they don't believe in Jesus. Does that mean they're doomed? Jon nodded, like, that's what it meant. My ex-girlfriend! I was like, man, if they only knew. Other religions don't know any better. It's up to us to spread the word."
As Church played, Moeller was spreading the word, up and down the ramps of RFK, distributing 120 chapel leaflets to groundskeepers, to ticketing agents and to security guards, with a slap on the back and a "Hey, man, did you make it to Mass today?" In the radio booth, the announcer shook his head, lamenting on air, "the lack of run-production from this team. . . ."
"We're still five for five," offered Moeller, "in God's eyes."
Three Sundays later, the team gathered for chapel. Outside, batboys were rubbing up the game balls with mud. Forklifts were rumbling boxes of hot dog buns.
Inside the video room, Moeller was giving a sermon condemning steroid use. He peered out from dugout-deep green eyes: "It's not about the season; it's about eternity."
The usual guys were there. They took turns reading out loud from the Bible. Jamey Carroll gave the closing prayer: "Lord, we ask that You be in our clubhouse. It is a frustrating and trying time for our team. . . ."
Nick Johnson blew his nose in a Gatorade towel.
". . . as we go out to play and be who You want us to be . . ."
Ryan Church looked pleased. His slump was over.
". . . and to help us to play as if it's our last day . . ."
The only one missing was Matt Cepicky. After the Padres game, Cepicky was dropped. He was sent down to the AAA team in New Orleans. Moeller contacted the New Orleans' chapel leader. It would be okay.
"It's all about surrender," Moeller said. Trust in the Lord.