Times: Evangelical Baseball Chaplins Preach to Jewish Umpires

Now this is troubling. I never knew that Christianity was virtually imposed like this on major and minor league baseball players and umpires in the clubhouse.

No. A clubhouse should not be a chapel.
On Baseball
Should a Clubhouse Be a Chapel?

The highlight of Josh Miller’s eight-year minor league umpiring career came last June, when he was the plate umpire in Roger Clemens’s final warm-up start before he resumed his major league career with the Yankees.

The lowlight of Miller’s career — besides being released at the end of last season, that is — was the discomfort he experienced throughout his career over participating in baseball chapel services every Sunday morning.

“From Day 1 it was uncomfortable,” Miller, 31, said. “I was in extended spring training, and on Sunday there was a knock on the door. I thought it was a joke. This guy was coming to preach to us in our little locker room. He had two little handouts that said Baseball Chapel and prayer of the week.”

Baseball Chapel, an evangelical group, has existed for 35 years and supplies Sunday morning chapel leaders to all major and minor league teams. “Our purpose is to glorify Jesus Christ!” its Web site, baseballchapel.org, proclaims.

“They preach to you,” Miller said in a telephone interview. “Some are more overbearing than others. At the end they ask if you have anything ‘you want me to pray for.’ The other guys would say ‘our families, safe travel.’ I’d say nothing. Then they would pray. It was very uncomfortable. They’d say Jesus this and Jesus that. At the end they’d say ‘in Jesus’ name.’ ”

In chapel services for the teams, players have the option of attending or not. Umpires may not realistically have that option.

“The players go to a separate room,” Miller said of the chapel services for the team. “For umpires, they always came to our room. They didn’t want to mix players with umpires even though they often mix the teams.”

The Sunday routine left Jewish umpires, like Miller, in a difficult position. With the umpires’ locker room as a setting for Christian prayer, they could not avoid it.

“Minor league locker rooms are small,” Miller said. “It’s not like I could hide.”

The chapel sessions, Miller added, intruded on pregame routines.

“We’d get there an hour before the game,” he related. “I always stretched and got mentally prepared. You have a guy coming in and preaching to you about something you don’t believe in, it throws you off mentally.”

Leaving the locker room was not an option for various reasons, Miller said.

“You don’t want to be rude to them because it might get back to somebody and it could affect your chances,” he said. Citing one umpire evaluator as an example, he added: “He’s a very religious guy, so I was really uncomfortable leaving. He’d ask, ‘Why are you leaving?’ I’d tell him I’m Jewish, and who knows what that would do. It was something I didn’t want to have to deal with.”

Even if he wanted to leave, Miller said, there was nowhere to go.

“In Columbus,” he said, “the locker room opens to fans. It’s not a good thing if I had blown a call the night before. Triple-A fans knew us. It was not a situation where you could walk around the stands.”

Anyway, he added: “Why should I have to leave the room? This was my office. I wanted to get prepared for the game.”

At times, Miller said, he would advise the chaplain he was Jewish.

“Half the time they’d forget and pray in Jesus’ name and pray to Jesus,” he recalled. “One time this guy found out I was Jewish, and he started talking about nonbelievers and looking at me.”

Vince Nauss, the head of Baseball Chapel, acknowledged that the circumstances Miller described were a problem he was trying to solve.

“It has come to our attention recently,” Nauss said, “and I wish our radar had been able to pick it up before. I’ve said we would take it up with our people and make sure they understand the dynamics of the umpires, that just because one umpire says yes doesn’t mean they all want to participate. I can empathize with someone who feels trapped. We’re trying to figure out what we can offer them.” At a Washington Nationals chapel service a couple of years ago, outfielder Ryan Church, who was concerned for his Jewish girlfriend, asked a chapel leader if Jews were doomed because they didn’t believe in Christ. According to newspaper articles that quoted Church about the incident, the chapel leader appeared to nod in reply.

After reading about that incident, Rabbi Ari Sunshine wrote to Commissioner Bud Selig questioning Baseball Chapel’s exclusive standing in baseball as the “sole Christian ministry granted access by Major League Baseball to all of its teams.”

Sunshine, then in Charlotte, N.C., now in Olney, Md., offered a series of ideas to change the system and make it more inclusive, and Selig replied that he shared “the concerns that you have raised, and I will take steps to ensure that much of what you have written is implemented into Major League Baseball.”

Selig, however, has taken no steps since that exchange of letters in September 2005.

“I have to leave that up to each team,” Selig said in an interview. “If players want to have that type of thing, they’re entitled to have them. I frankly think people are free to make that choice.”

But Jewish umpires in the minor leagues — there were four in Class AAA last season, three of whom have been released because they served the maximum amount of time in Class AAA (three years) or surpassed it with no prospect of a promotion to the majors — may not have a choice.

“Depending on your crew, how are they going to look at it?” said Miller, who umpired the last three seasons in the International League. “One umpire I worked with last year called me Jewie, and I said I wasn’t comfortable with it. It took a more senior guy to get him to stop.”

Randall Balmer, a professor of religion at Barnard College, said he understood the plight of Miller and others in his circumstances.

“I think there probably is a perceived coercive element in this movement in that if you’re not part of it you are somehow suspect,” Balmer said. “There’s this social obligation that very often is felt among a small group of cohorts, and in small quarters that makes it difficult.”

William Martin, a professor of the sociology of religion at Rice University, also saw potential problems for an umpire in Miller’s place. He agreed it could be difficult for an umpire to leave the locker room and subject himself to fans.

“I can recognize there might be resentment if calls were made the night before,” Martin said, adding that he also saw the potential for anti-Semitism “if it was known the Jewish umpire might be avoiding participating.”

“There could be some apprehension on the part of the umpire,” he said. “Nobody ought to be put in a position to feel awkward.”

Justin Klemm, the head of the Major League Baseball subsidiary that oversees minor league umpires and once a minor league umpire himself, said his group doesn’t get involved in baseball chapel services.

“That’s something that is provided as a service,” he said.

When he was an umpire, Klemm added, “I never felt forced to participate if I didn’t want to.” What did he do instead? Among other things, he said, “I rubbed up baseballs.”

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