Beliefnet
This story first ran on Beliefnet in October, 2000.

When left-hander Andy Pettitte takes the mound for the New York Yankees, he will bring a devastating cut fastball, a baffling pickoff move to first base, and a devout belief in Jesus Christ as his savior. For Pettitte, they are all crucial components in him having a chance to win the game.

"When I do something good I give [the Lord] all the honor and the glory for it," says Pettitte, a born-again Christian. "It's all for his glory and his purpose."

As the Yankees and Mets lock up in the first "Subway Series" in 44 years, the two teams share remarkable similarities. Both have exceptional pitching, especially starting hurlers. Both have stumbled at times during the regular season. And both have a strong religious, especially evangelical Christian, history. When the Mets rallied to win the 1986 World Series, their catcher, the devout Gary Carter, said the epic Game 6 victory--Mookie Wilson's grounder going through Bill Buckner's legs--seemed "almost preordained." A decade later, Yankees reliever John Wetteland stood on the mound praising God when New York won another championship.

"God is moving," Wetteland said afterward in the champagne-drenched clubhouse. "He is raising up people to share his message, and one way he is doing it is through sports."

"You should walk with the Lord," Baltimore Orioles outfielder Pat Kelly once told Earl Weaver, his manager.

"You should learn to walk with the bases loaded," Weaver retorted.


It took a preacher who once dreamed of playing first base for the old Philadelphia Athletics--Billy Graham--to help bring fundamental Christianity and the national pastime together in the modern era. As a teenager, Graham played on his high school baseball team in Charlotte, N.C., and met the legendary Babe Ruth when the Yankees came through town on a barnstorming tour.

"I'll never forget meeting him," Graham says. "I remember he put his hand on my shoulder."

While Ruth was more celebrity than devout Christian, Graham says that the meeting was instrumental in him becoming a minister. "I could see how he carried himself," Graham says. In fact, about the only other celebrity that had as much impact on Graham growing up was Billy Sunday. Sunday, once an outfielder with the Pittsburgh Pirates, was the first ballplayer to use his fame to draw crowds in the name of religion. He once converted 98,264 people during a 10-day revival meeting in New York.

When Graham began his ministry, he turned to sports celebrities to help him gather a following. In 1943, he had American miler Gil Dodds, a Sullivan Award winner as the top amateur athlete in the country, run a lap around Chicago's Soldier Field before he preached to 65,000 people. But as professional sports took center stage in the 1950s, Graham turned increasingly to baseball and its stars. New York Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson joined Graham's Crusades for Christ, and their sons later roomed together in college.

Richardson and announcer Red Barber began chapel services for the Yankees. These services became a national trend in the early 1970s when Detroit News sportswriter Watson Spoelstra founded the Baseball Chapel, an entity now in all major-league cities. Former baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn allowed these religious meetings to be held at the ballpark.

"Religion is good for baseball," Graham says. "We look to baseball as our game. It's a wonderful clean sport."

But others aren't so sure. Sometimes the faithful have fostered fissures within clubhouses and soured team chemistry.

"You should walk with the Lord," Baltimore Orioles outfielder Pat Kelly once told Earl Weaver, his manager.

"You should learn to walk with the bases loaded," Weaver retorted.

Former Chicago White Sox pitcher Al Worthington, a deeply religious man, once threatened to quit the ball club unless his teammates stopped stealing opponents' signals. Chicago eventually optioned him to the minors, and he later began the baseball program at Liberty Baptist College in Lynchburg, Va., now Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.

In the late 1970s, the San Francisco Giants were seen by many as contenders. But after several players went public about their newfound Christianity, faith became a lightning rod for criticism when the team slumped on the field.

The Minnesota Twins, the last small-market team to win the World Series, saw their hopes of a dynasty end when Gary Gaetti's proselytizing rubbed teammates Kirby Puckett and Kent Hrbek the wrong way. Gaetti and Hrbek had been roommates since Class A ball. For many years, they had the same passions: baseball, bars, hunting, and fishing. But before the 1988 season, Gaetti found Christ and their friendship suffered.

"I was quoted in the paper as saying it was like a death in the family," Hrbek says. "It was like I'd lost Gary Gaetti someplace. It was like he was a different person. A lot of people took offense to that, saying it can't be that bad. But it was. I'd lost somebody I'd like to chum with and hang out with, stay up to 3 o'clock in the morning and rant and rave all over the place and have a good time."

But faith can also reunite a ball club. The Toronto Blue Jays, the last team to repeat as world champions before the Yankees, did it with two born-again sluggers, Joe Carter and Paul Molitor, leading the way.

"I was a newcomer there," says Molitor, who joined the Blue Jays before the 1993 season. "But I never felt like it. A lot of us were on the same page." When asked if he means spiritually, Molitor nods.

Divine or divisive, baseball's Christian element is the unspoken truth in many clubhouses. From his first year in New York, the Yankees' Pettitte has maintained that pursuing a religious life helps him on the mound.

"In New York, we had an opportunity to share our faith...." he once said. "And maybe the Lord is blessing us for it."

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus