By BEN SHPIGEL
Published: October 23, 2007
DENVER, Oct. 22 — As a Jewish player who attended a Catholic high school and a Lutheran university, Jason Hirsh knows what being a religious minority feels like. So last December, when he was traded to the Colorado Rockies, Hirsh wondered if what he had heard about his new organization was true.
Rockies General Manager Dan O’Dowd says his Christian faith leads him to seek out players with strong moral values.
Now, Hirsh said not once during the season had he felt uncomfortable with the place Christianity occupies within the organization.
“There are guys who are religious, sure, but they don’t impress it upon anybody,” Hirsh said. “It’s not like they hung a cross in my locker or anything. They’ve accepted me for who I am and what I believe in.”
The role of religion within the Rockies’ organization first entered the public sphere in May 2006, when an article published in USA Today described the organization as adhering to a “Christian-based code of conduct” and the clubhouse as a place where Bibles were read and men’s magazines, like Maxim or Playboy, were banned.
The article included interviews with several players and front office members, but team players and officials interviewed this week said it unfairly implied that the Rockies were intent on constructing a roster consisting in large part of players with a strong Christian faith. Asked how his own Christian faith affected his decision-making, General Manager Dan O’Dowd acknowledged it came into play, but not in a religious way. He said it guided him to find players with integrity and strong moral values, regardless of their religious preference.
“Do we like players with character? There is absolutely no doubt about that,” O’Dowd said during a recent interview in his Coors Field office. “If people want to interpret character as a religious-based issue because it appears many times in the Bible, that’s their decision. I believe that character is an innate part of developing an organization, and to me, it is nothing more than doing the right thing at the right time when nobody’s looking. Nothing more complicated than that.
“You don’t have to be a Christian to make that decision.”
Even if the Rockies are not consciously doing it, reliever Matt Herges, playing for his seventh organization, said the team had the highest concentration of devout Christians he had seen during his nine major league seasons.
Every Sunday, about 10 people gather for chapel, according to reliever Jeremy Affeldt, and Tuesday afternoon Bible study sessions usually attract seven or eight players. Affeldt said players discussed life and their families as well as scripture.
“Certain guys attend chapel, certain guys don’t,” outfielder Cory Sullivan said. “I don’t think that’s any different from how it is in any other major league clubhouse. Nothing’s shoved down your throats.”
On the whole, players were relaxed in speaking about their religious convictions but said that faith was not a requirement for peer approval. The Rockies, who will face the Red Sox in the World Series beginning Wednesday, care more about whether a teammate plays hard, is unselfish and treats everyone with respect.
“I think that if they were Catholic or Baptist or didn’t believe in God but were quality players and good people and good teammates, there would be a place for them here,” Herges said. “But I do see a lot of quality people in this clubhouse. This is the tightest-knit group I’ve ever been around.”
Pitcher Mark Redman, playing for his eighth team in nine seasons, has been with the Rockies for only two months, but he, too, said he sensed a different chemistry. “I’ve been on teams with guys who you can’t wait to leave when the season’s over,” Redman said. “You don’t find a bad guy in here. I’m more than comfortable bringing my son in here. I haven’t been able to say that in the past.”
Like many sports franchises, the Rockies look for more than just talent and potential, and finding the right combination of ability and character took several years. Based on the franchise’s win-loss record early in his tenure, O’Dowd acknowledged that if he worked for another organization, “in 99 percent of other cases, I would not be here.”
In steering the Rockies toward contention, O’Dowd, who became general manager in 1999, credits ownership for supporting his plan of allotting additional resources to player development and for giving the organization’s top prospects a chance to play. He also points to his own faith for giving him the strength and patience to handle the lean years.
Only once before this season — at 82-80 in 2000 — had the Rockies finished with a winning record since O’Dowd became general manager. But one of the most embarrassing moments for the franchise came early on a December morning in 2004 when Denny Neagle, a pitcher with a $51.5 million long-term contract, was arrested here for soliciting a prostitute. It was his second scrape with the law in 14 months and it cost him his job. The Rockies terminated his contract three days later, eventually choosing to pay him $16 million to never again pitch in a Colorado uniform.
Worried that the incident would jeopardize the public trust, the Rockies redoubled their effort to emphasize responsibility and accountability. The team’s chairman and chief executive, Charlie Monfort, has said he rediscovered religion after serving 18 months’ probation for driving while impaired. The manager, Clint Hurdle, said he strengthened his faith several years ago after he quit drinking.
The team brought in free agents for face-to-face meetings and made sure their scouts were not seduced by talent without character. Along the way, the Rockies have decided not to pursue certain players, O’Dowd said. But he said no one was ever questioned about their religious affiliation.
“You can get to a point where that player’s talent is intoxicating to the point where you can make a choice to compromise,” O’Dowd said. “You begin to make yourself believe that those other things are there when they’re not. When you make character an important part of the criteria of making that decision, you have to slow yourself down because it takes time to find that out. I have a heck of a lot of an easier time accepting that than trying to win without that philosophy.”
To be sure, this is not a bunch of teetotalers, as demonstrated by the Champagne- and beer-soaked celebrations that followed their series-clinching victories. They do not censor the clubhouse stereo, either. Everything from hip-hop to alternative music, like the Amy Winehouse song “Rehab,” played on a loop Saturday morning.
“This is still a baseball clubhouse,” Herges said.
It is also one where the players, bonded by shared experiences in the minor leagues, have a chemistry that Sullivan said reminded him of his college days at Wake Forest. No fewer than 14 slots on the Rockies’ expected 25-man World Series roster will go to those who came up through the system, but even those, like Affeldt, who came from a different organization, said he fit in immediately. Affeldt called the team “a band of brothers.”
“When you have as many people who believe in God as we do, it creates a humbleness about what we do,” Affeldt said. “I don’t see arrogance here, I see confidence. We’re all very humbled about where this franchise has been and where it is now, and we know that what’s happening now is a very special thing."