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Is God a Tigers fan?

Why not? Church near Comerica Park and plenty of fans keep the faith

Oct. 12, 2011  |BY PATRICIA MONTEMURRI   DETROIT FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera, sporting a T-shirt with a religious theme, jokes with New York’s Curtis Granderson and Reggie Jackson during the Yankees series. The tagline on the T-shirt is “bench press this.” / JIM McISAAC/McClatchy-Tribune

From its outdoor electronic sign to its noon, workday service, the congregation of St. John’s Episcopal Church in downtown Detroit obeys the second commandment.

God “does tell us to love our neighbors as ourselves,” said the Rev. Steven Kelly, rector of the 150-year-old church on Woodward, across a parking lot from Comerica Park. “And the Tigers are our next-door neighbors, and one of the ways we love them, is to pray for them.”

At Tuesday’s service, ahead of Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, Kelly intoned a prayer before the handful of churchgoers asking “for blessings for the Tigers that they may play to the best of their abilities and injury-free.” He will put in another prayer at noon today.

But is God really a Tigers fan?

As the home team continues its quest for a place in the World Series, metro Detroiters surely hope so.

Amen?!

“I’m not sure God picks sides,” Kelly said. “But I have friends who are priests in Texas and they’re praying for the Rangers. Maybe it just evens out.”

When the Tigers lost an AL record 119 times in 2003 Kelly hung a banner outside the church that said: “Pray for the Tigers.” The message hasn’t changed in winning times, but now it appears on an electronic sign, and it also includes the Lions.

The church bulletin also includes Tigers players, staff and management in the weekly “Pray for” column.

But do those prayers make a difference?

In 2002, the Rev. Steven Kelly holds a prayer for Bishop Wendall Gibbs during a special service at St. John’s Episcopal Church the day before the Tigers’ home opener at Comerica Park. / MANDI WRIGHT/Detroit Free Pres

“Of course!” said Stephanie Franks of Sterling Heights, who gathered with fans at Comerica Park before Game 3. “For one thing, I pray about all good things and folks.”

Franks, a 44-year-old donations specialist with the Salvation Army, added: “This city really needs it. It is not just for the sports. Positive prayer is definitely something I believe in. If they don’t advance, it still says you go out there and make an effort.

“You have got to know the downs before you can experience the ups. It’s part of the plan.”

Sports fans are accustomed to seeing players cross themselves before facing a pitch, draw crosses in the dirt with their bats or point to the heavens after a home run.

“Like all sports, baseball is being affected by the general culture. And the general culture is being affected by the rise of evangelical, dogmatic religion,” said William Baker, the University of Maine author of “Playing with God: Religion and Modern Sport” (Cambridge Harvard University, $29.95). “It’s in our politics. It’s in our artistic culture. And it certainly is in sports.”

Conservative Rabbi Jason Miller, director of Kosher Michigan, said he took no offense at Christian displays of faith on the field.

“In America, we take our sports seriously and baseball as the American pastime has been elevated to almost the level of religion,” said Miller of Farmington Hills. “When I see a player like Jose Valverde of the Tigers pointing to heaven or crossing himself, I can tell my children that he is a religious person and is grateful to God for his successful performance and God-given abilities.”

Religious traditions may praise athletes for their fortitude and strength and patience. But professional sports also has a winner-take-all ethos that runs contrary to a variety of religious teachings. The meek-shall-inherit-the-earth, but the ferocious and aggressive shall pulverize their opponent.

Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera has worn a T-shirt to practice that displays a fallen Jesus Christ with the cross on his back struggling to lift himself from the ground under the words “Lord’s Gym.”

Archbishop of Detroit Allen Vigneron, posing with visual arts teacher Matt McGuire, receives a gift last week with a familiar logo from middle schoolers at Notre Dame Marist Academy in Pontiac. / Special to the Free Press

Baseball is replete with religious references. Late Tigers broadcasting legend Ernie Harwell opened every spring training season with a recitation from the Bible’s Song of Solomon. Stadiums are sometimes referred to as “Green Cathedrals” — also the name of a book about ballparks.

As an organization, the Tigers reach out to faith-based groups for ticket sales, marketing a game as “Lutheran Night” at Comerica Park or hosting events with evangelical testimony from players such as outfielder Don Kelly and second baseman Ramon Santiago for a “Home Plate” faith day. Many other teams do the same — Kansas City has “Christian Family Night” and Philadelphia and the Florida Marlins have touted “Jewish Heritage” themes for games.

On Sunday, various Tigers gather for a service known as the Baseball Chapel. The program, now in every major league and minor league ballpark, has roots in Detroit. The late sportswriter Watson Spoelstra of the Detroit News approached commissioner Bowie Kuhn in 1973 to institute the Baseball Chapel, a Christian ministry for ballplayers.

An estimated 3,000 players and team staffers partake in Sunday services at stadiums in the U.S., Latin America and even Japan, said Steve Sisco, national director of player relations for the Baseball Chapel.

Joseph Price, a religious studies professor at Whittier College in California and the author of “Rounding the Bases: Baseball and Religion in America” (Mercer University Press, $35), said religion had been an influence in baseball from the beginning of the 20th century.

“It’s not so much an increase in the faith of the players themselves, as in the number of media opportunities in which they’re able to express their faith,” said Price, noting the explosion of sports networks, all-sports radio and Internet blogs and videos.

Last May on Home Plate day, several thousand youngsters heard testimonials from some Tigers about their faith. The flier for the event advertised testimonials from Kelly, Santiago, outfielder Ryan Raburn, pitcher Daniel Schlereth, broadcaster Rod Allen, and former Tigers Willie Horton and Frank Tanana.

About 250 youngsters involved with Save Our Neighborhoods and Streets (SONS) in Port Huron traveled to the Home Plate program, said executive director Tyrone Burrell.

“The Tigers sponsor it every year,” Burrell said, “and we hear the faith of their current and former players.

“A lot of times in our culture and society, we have hero worship of athletes. When they can share that there is something behind them, such as faith in the Lord, it’s inspirational for the kids and adults as well.”

But what about the current fight for the American League pennant, does God have a stake in that?

“Oh, heck yeah,” said Corena Makin of Grand Blanc, who was among the sold-out crowd attending Tuesday night’s Game 3 at Comerica Park. But if the Tigers don’t advance past this series, Makin said, “it doesn’t say anything bad about God.

“It’s just not their time,” she added.

Mike Lovie, a 47-year-old pipe fitter from London, Ontario, knows all about ill-timed prayers. He also attended Game 3, but rooting for the Tigers wasn’t his first choice.

“I prayed for the Red Sox,” Lovie said, “but it didn’t work:”

Contact Patricia Montemurri: 313-223-4538 or pmontemurri@freepress.com .

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