Baseball Men - The Man of Faith


Posted Dec 4, 2006


Our exclusive “Baseball Men” interview series continues with Dan Britton, Senior Vice President for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes

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 Die-Hard Fans’.

 

 

Few think of faith when they think of baseball.

 

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, they prayed.

 

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 Victory’.

 

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 man. 

 

How did religion enter into your life?

 

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 whole.

 

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 8:28]

 

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’ attitude.

 

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 that?

 

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 religious awareness.

 

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 disagree.

 

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 to themselves.

 

Have you come across instances where people have asked you to pray that they hit a home run or something like that?

 

(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 inappropriate.

 

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 prayer.

 

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 life.

 

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 right thing’.

 

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 it?

 

(chuckles) Boy, you’re giving me some tough ones here.

 

They’re tough.

 

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, unfortunately.

 

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 situations?

 

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 personal relationships.

 

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 religious?

 

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 programs?

 

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 message.

 

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 that?

 

[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 basis.

 

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 baseball?

 

St. 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 9:27, when St. 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 all about.

 

 

The complete Table of Contents for the ‘Baseball Men’ interview series can be found here.



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