Peter Handrinos is a frequent
contributor to Scout.com and author of the upcoming ‘The Best New York
Sports Arguments: The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for
Few think of faith when they think
Oh, to be sure, the language of
religion has always been around the game. Its best players are ‘worshipped’
because they’re ‘icons’. Its playing fields represent ‘cathedrals’ or maybe
‘heaven’ itself. The fans are ‘the believers’ and the ‘zealots’. Some take
‘pilgrimages’ to ‘a shrine’ in Cooperstown.
That’s there in the usual
hyperbole of sports, but few realize that baseball religiosity has gone far
beyond rhetoric. Branch Rickey always claimed that ‘The Life of Christ’ inspired
him to break the game’s color line with Jackie Robinson, and former Yankee Bobby
Richardson was among several prominent players to become ministers after their
playing days. Countless other stars and role models, from Christy Mathewson and
Jim Kaat to Orel Hershiser and Jake Peavy, have devoted themselves to bible
study and church work in the daily lives. Before they played, very frequently,
By one recent estimate, more than
one-half of all front office personnel and Major Leaguers now count themselves
as ‘religious’ or ‘very religious’, and Dan Britton’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes have been prime
influences in that majority.
As the FCA’s Senior Vice President
since 1991, Britton helps oversee an organization charged with coordinating
Sunday worship services for nearly 3,000 players, coaches, staffs, and umpires
during the season. ‘Baseball Chapel’s network of approximately 400 volunteers is
also charged with one-on-one spiritual counseling, a small part of a FCA
organization that conducts thousands of Christian-themed training seminars,
retreats, studies, and services every year around themes like ‘Sharing the
Recently, Dan discussed his views
on faith and the game:
What did sports mean to you when
you were growing up?
Sports were everything. With two
brothers and a very active dad, they were the way we did life, almost 24/7.
Competition, in all different sports, really shaped my upbringing as a young
How did religion enter into your
It was really at the age of 14
when Christ really entered my life and I got really interested in how faith
could be demonstrated on the playing field. You know, ‘What does the Bible mean
in real-world terms?’
More than anything else, I
realized that my interests didn’t have to be compartmentalized - that I could
love sports, and love God, and those two loves could be a part of a greater
I suppose that realization
eventually led to your current job. How would you describe the purpose within
the Fellowship of Christian Athletes?
FCA uses the phrases, ‘the heart
and soul of sports’ and ‘for the glory’ and those are about bringing a faith
element, a spiritual dimension. We try to ask why sports are worthwhile in the
first place. ‘Why play the game? What drives us? What’s the foundation for
lasting success and happiness?’.
Those aren’t easy questions,
obviously, but it’s about that searching for the answers in the context of
baseball and other sports. We believe that the answers, ultimately, come in an
individual’s healthy relationship with the Lord. In the Bible it’s written, “All
things work together for good to those who love God.” [Romans
Outsiders don’t necessarily
connect a star athlete’s lifestyle to prayer and introspection, since so many of
them seem to have such a self-confident swagger.
At FCA, there’s a common
determination to compete, not just to please ourselves, but to please the Lord.
It does require putting aside a strictly, you know, ‘me-first’
Great athletes, generally, do have
a swagger, but here’s the thing - our surveys have routinely found that 75% or
more of them feel that the world of sports has lost its way. You can blame it on
the money, or the media attention, or parents, or society, or whatever, but
there’s a general sense that things have gotten out-of-control or
out-of-balance. The passions have gone too far, and it’s led to all kinds of
frustrations and anger, from all sides.
There’s great need to re-define
competition in a healthy and stable way, and I think FCA’s been successful
because we’ve been able to do that for so many members. We try to sum it up in a
‘Competitor’s Creed’, which you can find on our web site.
The strange thing is, a lot of the
over-heated rhetoric in sports actually uses the vocabulary of faith - it’s no
big deal to hear baseball, in particular, described in terms of ‘icons’,
‘legends’, ‘keeping the faith’, ‘shrines’, etc. How do you feel about
And that comes from the deep, deep
respect fans have for the game, but it’s so necessary to remember that, yeah,
those are just words. There is a
higher level, and that’s in God.
Do most of your members start off
young or join when they’re older?
It really varies. We welcome
anyone and everyone who wants to hear the message, from any Christian
denomination, from other faith backgrounds, or no faith background.
We used to start off in middle
schools, until we realized that there might be room for teaching at an even
earlier level, so now we have some outreach programs for grade-school kids. At
the same time, there have been plenty of instances where we’ve established new
relationships to veteran, multi-millionaire athletes.
In conventional wisdom, at least,
famous and rich athletes aren’t necessarily the most likely candidates for new
I guess not, but people come to
the Lord for different reasons. After the game’s been won or lost, and fans have
gone home and the cheering has stopped, ball players still have lives to lead.
They don’t want to feel empty in those moments. Of course they’re going to ask
questions, saying ‘Is that all there is? Can’t I be a part of a larger purpose
throughout my life?’.
I guess one of the oldest knocks
against a spiritual outlook on sports is that it can lead a ball player to be
more ‘soft’ and self-complacent. But I’m sure you
Oh, completely. I believe, at its
best, spirituality leads you to play harder and better, because you’re finding a
way to make the most of yourself, in every way. The Competitor’s Creed - if you
read it - there’s nothing soft about it. If someone’s doing his very best to
abide by it, he’s doing a lot.
What I notice, by the way, is that
there’s a double-edged sword in this area. If a Christian athlete competes in a
hard and aggressive way, he’s told, ‘Hey, that’s not Christian-like’. Then, if a
Christian athlete competes in a less aggressive way, it’s ‘Oh, he’s gone soft’.
I’d encourage athletes to get away from outside perceptions and just stay true
Have you come across instances
where people have asked you to pray that they hit a home run or something like
(chuckles) There were instances
where I’ve led a team prayer and a player would say, ‘Dan, say a really good
prayer because we’ve got to win today’. You know, what to say to that? ‘OK, if I
don’t say a really good prayer, we’ll lose?’.
I can see where there are
misunderstandings, but I’d love to emphasize this point - the Lord cares for all
his people, but only God Himself knows God’s will. It may be God’s will for a
particular team to win, or for a particular team to lose. He works through
victory and celebration, but he also works through loss and brokenness. Without
knowing His will, one way or the other, it’s upon us to always do our very best
in the context of our ability.
It’s possible to trivialize God’s
power in the context of sports.
Oh, absolutely. I’d really try to
steer away from trivializing God’s power by sort of equating him to a rabbit’s
foot. For instance, you may have heard something like this - ‘Well, our team
deserves to win the championship, because our win will glorify God’. Well, guess
what? Maybe God doesn’t need us to glorify Him in that way.
I’d just discourage athletes from,
maybe unintentionally, putting their own wishes first, even as they’re using the
language of faith.
I can see how that would be a
challenge. A Christian athlete, obviously, believes he’ll be a more effective
competitor, but it’s hard to draw a line and say so-and-so comment is
A belief in God has been a
foundation of my life since I was a teenager, but I’d never represent that it’s
a turbo-boost or something. God’s inspiration leads to spiritual wellness, and
all kinds of real-world benefits follow from that down the road, whether on or
off the field.
I’m curious about how you feel
about athletes’ demonstrating their faith by making the sign of the cross while
on the field, or pointing toward the sky, or kneeling in
Oh, it’s hard to say. You don’t
want showboating, without a doubt. At the same time, I’d never discourage a
heart-felt gesture, either.
People are so different. God
reveals Himself in so many different ways. It’s hard to come up with the
‘hard-and-fast, three spiritual rules you have to follow’, as far as that goes.
Based on your faith, what’s your
view on cheating? Is corking a bat or scuffing a baseball merely gamesmanship,
or is it something that’s fundamentally wrong?
I’d say it’s fundamentally wrong.
I believe cheating, on or off the field, directly contrary to a good Christian
As I mentioned before, an athlete
shouldn’t see his relationship with God as a rabbit’s foot or a turbo boost.
They should see it as an opportunity to reflect His glory in their lives. Doing
your best within the rules reflects His glory. I can’t see how corking a bat,
scuffing a ball - or using steroids, for that matter - reflects His glory.
I suppose some would disagree with
that view, but we’ve all seen current and former athletes really mess up their
lives, and where do you think that starts? Disasters usually don’t come as, you
know, bear traps, where everything suddenly falls apart. Most often, people go
astray in making a series of relatively small mistakes, and that leads to
unhappiness down the road. So, better to stay on the straight and narrow. As the
Reverend Martin Luther King once said, ‘It’s always the right time to do the
As you know, not all those who
profess to be Christians can actually act on the right thing. Major Leaguers,
especially, may have a lot of temptations in terms of extramarital affairs and
the like. When you come across those situations, how do you handle
(chuckles) Boy, you’re giving me
some tough ones here.
No, but seriously, that’s good,
that’s good. It’s all about bringing it into the real world.
Hypocricy does dim the light, and
I’d define it as the difference between the internal and the external, the
public and the private. There’s a division and, unfortunately, it’s especially
easy for famous athletes to be divided, because they’re so well known to the
fans on the field, but that can be so removed in their personal lives. It’s a
symptom of the hero-worship mentality that can develop,
The whole task for the FCA, as I
see it, is to help close the gap, so that that Christians’ private lives are as
good and sound as their public images.
How do you counsel athletes who
have that gap in their lives?
Well, first off, we try to build
relationships from the get-go, so there’s a basis of trust well before there’s a
problem, whatever problem it may be. From there, it’s about a lot of
communication and prayer and even assistance, as far as possible. We always
counsel in confidence, and we try to build bridges so that a troubled Christian
can find his way back to a path that can work.
Major Leaguers have a lot of
material gifts, it’s true, but I think it’s important to emphasize they’re still
very human. Just because they have the hard work and determination and good
fortune to succeed at an almost unimaginable level, that doesn’t mean they’re
immune to any of the temptations in sin.
Do you think it’s tougher for the
FCA to counsel within a team sport like baseball, as opposed to more one-on-one
The great thing about Christianity
and team sports, at the heart of it - it’s the same thing. You’re talking about
relationships. A ball club won’t win unless it builds good working
relationships, and a congregation won’t succeed unless worshipers build good
There are always opportunities out
there, no matter what the sport or the situation. We’ve been involved in
baseball, as you know, for more than 50 years, since the days of Branch Rickey,
but we’ve grown our relationships in motocross racing, for instance, in just the
last few years.
Hundreds of Major Leaguers
participate in Baseball Chapel, but many others don’t. Do you feel FCA members
have trouble relating to teammates who may not be
Not at all. I think even those who
don’t embrace religion can always respect religious people who lead lives of
virtue and integrity. Saint Francis of Assisi once said, ‘Go out and preach
Christ wherever you go, and only use words only when necessary’. I love that
quote, because it applies so much to sports. You know - we should share the love
of God in our actions, so that those around us can be drawn to the light.
One of my favorite stories is
about this one time I ran into George Brett in an elevator at the ball park.
George isn’t involved in FCA, but we’d just passed Mike Sweeney [of the Royals],
who is a team leader for us, and George said, ‘That guy’s the real deal, isn’t
he?’. I said, ‘He sure is’. He said, ‘All the time, people ask me if he’s the
real deal, and I tell them he is. On and off the field, he’s the same guy’.
That’s what it’s all about, right
there. George doesn’t necessarily embrace the organization, but he respects the
way that our members can reflect a good Christian life on the field, at home,
and in the community. That’s what it’s all about.
As of right now, the FCA’s
Baseball Chapel is the only widespread religious program being conducted within
the Major Leagues. How would you feel about Jews or Muslims organizing their own
They can do that if they want. If
there’s enough of an interest, I don’t doubt, one day there might be a
Fellowship of Jewish Athletes or a Fellowship of Muslim Athletes. People are
free to do that.
One of the misunderstandings that
can come up is when someone says, ‘Oh, you guys do this Christian retreats,
clubs, and Chapel programs, and that’s fine, but you guys are exclusive. You’re
not open to other faiths’. I guess that’s true, in that we have our own way, but
that’s sort of like showing up at the ball park and saying, ‘Well, why don’t we
play football, too?’. Because that just wouldn’t work.
You can ask around for yourself,
but I think FCA members have tremendous respect for all groups. Certainly, for
more than 50 years now, we’ve welcomed anyone who wants to hear our
I suppose there’s a special
challenge for Christian managers and executives out there. On the one hand, they
don’t want to gag themselves regarding faith, but on the other, they don’t want
to risk alienating players who don’t believe. How do you feel about
[Washington Redskins Head Coach] Joe Gibbs
has been in that position. He’s outspoken about faith in his life, as many know,
but, at the same time, he hasn’t attended team prayer meetings, based on the
possible perception that he’s going to favor worshippers [in regard to team
jobs]. That didn’t mean Coach Gibbs wasn’t committed to the Chapel program - he
just didn’t want to be misconstrued.
Again, here, I’m not sure if there
are any hard-and-fast rules. It’s up to people of good conscious to take pride
in their faith, while still respecting those who disagree. It’s up to the
individuals to decide how to go about that on a day-to-day
Do you think the FCA’s role in
sports has been misunderstood?
At times, I haven’t agreed with
the media’s coverage. I don’t want to single out particular situations. I just
hope that people avoid falling into negativity while ignoring the thousands of
success stories. I’ve seen [former NFL player] Darrell Green and [former NBA
player] David Robinson and Mike Sweeney and Bobby Richardson impact so many
people in such a positive way. I could go on. Betsy King, Andy Pettitte, Tony
Dungy, Lisa Lesley, Shaun Alexander. Many, many more.
The spotlight doesn’t necessarily
fall on those who do the right thing. People who lead lives of integrity often
lead very quiet lives, but they should be held up as role models far more often.
Is there any particular passages
in scripture that seem to reflect the Fellowship’s work in
Paul, who wrote more than half the New
Testament, constantly uses competition as a metaphor, and I really enjoy his
epistles. I suppose the one that’s quoted most often is 1 Corinthians 9:24
through , when
Paul refers “the prize” and “a crown
that will last forever.”
Another of my favorite passages is
Mark 12:30 and the reference to “all your strength” [“Love God with all your
heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength”]. That’s so simple,
but it goes right to the wholeness I mentioned before.
After more than a decade working
with baseball players in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, are you more of a
fan, less of a fan, or about the same?
The thing is - every day, I’m more
encouraged about baseball and the whole world of sports. Our ranks are growing
larger and larger every year, and there’s still so much potential for more
growth. More and more people are defining and re-defining what winning is really
The complete Table of Contents for
the ‘Baseball Men’ interview series can be found here.