“Bless these bats,” the 68-year-old team chaplain appeals to God before games as he makes a sign of the cross and sprinkles holy water on the sporting equipment.
A 10-year veteran of offering spiritual care to Nats’ players, Rossetti is in an unusual way a perfect match for people under intense pressure. A psychologist as well as a priest, he was the longtime head of a key Catholic mental health facility serving sexually abusive priests, has done chaplaincies at the South Pole, worked in intelligence for the U.S. military and dreams of completing a priestly stint at a space station.
“I’m used to dealing with people and their humanity,” Rossetti said Thursday outside the park, which was bustling in the sunshine with security, fans and tourists sniffing around the about-to-be World Series venue. “In baseball, if you’re batting .300, you’re a star, and that means the other two times you’re striking out. The point is: Hang in there, stay in the fight. And also — redemption.”
Rossetti is just one part of the psychological and religious infrastructure Nats players will tap into, depending on their needs and beliefs. There are other chaplains and outside figures players call on. But given his long tenure, Rossetti deeply understands the spiritual support the Nats need as they face the daunting athletic and spiritual test of playing in Washington’s first World Series since 1933.
When Nats second baseman Howie Kendrick fumbled in the Nats-Dodgers series in early October (before becoming series MVP), Rossetti talked about the spiritual goal of maintaining hope (“If you couldn’t do that, you wouldn’t be here now,” he told players). When relief pitcher Aaron Barrett blew out his arm and was injured for a few years, Rossetti talked about how to struggle with anger at God — while arguing you need God’s help. He has seen many players who sought some higher power after facing something very tough, and others who did so after achieving so much and asking: Is this all there is?
When the team is in town, Rossetti gets to the park a few hours before games and makes himself available to talk, or give blessings or prayers. On Sundays he celebrates Mass before the game, usually in the press conference room. He visits with players who are injured. Outside the park he does regular priest stuff for Nats players, like baptizes players’ babies, officiates at weddings and tries "to be a positive presence in their lives.”
The normally vaunted place a cleric might have in a parish is a bit reversed in the case of a team chaplain. These are high-dollar professional athletes, and on game day — especially the current game, the World Series — Rossetti says you “try not to get in their way when they’re getting ready, don’t bother them. I try to be respectful, don’t intrude, but be present.”
Rossetti played sports in high school but was never a huge athlete or sports fan, which, according to the Catholic group that certifies him, makes him ideal for sports chaplain.
“We like chaplains who have an interest in sports but aren’t sports fanatics. If you don’t know anything about sports, it makes it hard. But if you’re a groupie you aren’t a good chaplain,” said Ray McKenna, president of Catholic Athletes for Christ. “We’ve had priests who show up to celebrate in team gear. That’s a bad idea.”
Rossetti agrees, but it’s not easy in the tornado of the World Series not to be a little star-struck.
“They seem to have a special spirit,” he said Thursday at the park. “That’s why many people think they’ll win. There’s just this joyful, positive, special presence. I mean, God loves both sides. But there is a special spirit.”
He knows his place when he addresses the players. He’s still mulling his homily for Sunday — that is, if the team doesn’t sweep and by Sunday is still in D.C.
“I try not to preach too much baseball. They don’t need another player; they need the Good News. They need a priest. They don’t need another fan,” he said (in a Nats hat, standing in line in the team store to buy a gray Nats T-shirt).
Tall and slim, with a bald head and an easy smile, Rossetti has long been something of a celebrity for a Catholic priest. He has written multiple books about priest wellness, including one in 2011 called “Why Priests Are Happy” and appears regularly in local and national media on Catholic issues. For many years he led St. Luke Institute, a Silver Spring-based mental health facility focused on priests and women in religious Catholic life facing behavioral issues. He’s now a research associate professor at Catholic University in pastoral care.
All of his fields of work have involved helping people deal with pressure. When it comes to the Nats’ players, the type of spiritual and psychological support offered is precise, finely tuned. They have to be prepared not to be knocked off their game after an error that could have easily gone either way, he said.
“The difference between a foul ball and a double down the line is a matter of inches. The slightest edge makes a difference. At the same time, you realize even if you do your best, there’s a certain uncontrollability and randomness to the game. They realize someone else is in charge of life, and it’s not me. God is in charge,” he said.
One way to cope with challenges and pressure, Rossetti and others in sports ministry said, is through spiritual ritual — routines that are picked up like tools when needed.
Rossetti said one phrase Nats’ players like to say to him is “Living the dream” — as in “I’m living the dream, Father.” He understands them to mean it in a spiritual sense: They are grateful to God and know their path isn’t entirely in their control.
Jeffrey L. Brown, who is the lead psychologist for the Boston Marathon and runs faith-based trainings for young hockey players, said it helps reduce stress for players when they are aware that their value isn’t 100 percent performance based — it’s spiritually rooted. A common phrase is “an audience of one,” said Brown, who was a college baseball pitcher. “Their performance isn’t for anyone else, it’s for God.”
McKenna said ministry can vary depending on the sport — and how aggressive it is. Ministry with high-contact sports like football and hockey, he said, has to wrestle with this question: “If you’re a Christian, you’re supposed to love everyone, and that’s antithetical to getting out there and smashing your head in.” In baseball, he said, there isn’t that direct contact with the opposition, he said. “Also, having a strong faith doesn’t make you less aggressive.”
In some evangelical circles, a theology called “health and wealth” — or prosperity gospel — is common, which implies that if you accept Jesus, you win. Sports chaplains can tap into those ideas, McKenna said.
Everyone may see God showing presence in sports in different ways. Pinch hitter Gerardo Parra was in an 0-for-22 slump in May when he requested to change his walk-up song — the tune each players picks to blare into the stadium as they approach at-bats — to “Baby Shark.” The old campfire ditty recycled as a global pop tune is now the team’s anthem.
"I think God send to me,” Parra said recently of choosing the song, according to a recent Post piece.
For Rossetti, the role of sports chaplain is straightforward: support.
“The challenge for them is: They want to stay in the majors," he said. "The pressure is already on. No one needs to kick them. Someone like me needs to say: ‘No matter what you do, God loves you. I hope you win, but even if you lose, as far as I’m concerned these guys are winners.’ ”