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Cultural hardball

In an increasingly hostile culture, pastors and Christian ballplayers both face brushback pitches. Will they stand up to the pressure?

Daniel Murphy waits for a pitch during a spring training game against the Miami Marlins at Roger Dean Stadium on March 11 in Jupiter, Fla. Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Cultural hardball
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In baseball terminology, a brushback is a pitch, often used for intimidation purposes, thrown near a batter’s head. … Brushbacks can result in warnings, ejections, or even bench-clearing brawls.” —Urban Dictionary

Does life imitate baseball or does baseball imitate life? Two Christians—one a second baseman, one a pastor—faced brushbacks as winter turned to spring.

Baseball’s high inside fastball came in Port St. Lucie, Fla., where a little-known 50-year-old ex-player, Billy Bean (not the famous Moneyball general manager, Billy Beane) found himself sitting on the New York Mets bench. The Major League Baseball (MLB) hierarchy last July 15 made Bean, who sells real estate in Miami, its first “Ambassador of Inclusion” and tasked him, according to MLB.com, with developing “educational training initiatives against sexism, homophobia and prejudice.”

Bean, a career .226 outfielder with an average of 18 hits per year during his six seasons, was the subject of a one-hour documentary hosted by Bob Costas that premiered on Feb. 10 on the MLB Network. The reason: Bean after his career ended announced that he is gay. New York General Manager Sandy Alderson invited Bean to talk with players, and Bean, wearing a Mets cap and windbreaker, did so on March 3.

Mike Vorkunov of NJ Advance Media then asked Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy, known as a devout Christian, to comment on Bean’s visit. Murphy forthrightly responded. “I do disagree with the fact that Billy is a homosexual. That doesn’t mean I can’t still invest in him and get to know him. I don’t think the fact that someone is a homosexual should completely shut the door on investing in them in a relational aspect. Getting to know him. That, I would say, you can still accept them but I do disagree with the lifestyle, 100 percent.”

Vorkunov also quoted Murphy’s observation that Christians haven’t been “articulate enough in describing what our actual stance is on homosexuality. We love the people. We disagree [with] the lifestyle.” Murphy expressed some self-criticism: “There are aspects of my life that I’m trying to surrender to Christ … like my pride.” The quotation concluded, “just because I disagree with the lifestyle doesn’t mean I’m just never going to speak to Billy Bean every time he walks through the door. That’s not love.”

Murphy wasn’t looking for trouble: MLB was paying Bean to provoke discussion. General Manager Alderson was sending him to hang with players. A reporter asked Murphy to respond. Nevertheless, some gays vociferously attacked Murphy not only for his opposition to homosexuality but for calling it a “lifestyle.” Many of the more than 300 Google-listed media reports on the dust-up followed that line: Bean himself wrote that Murphy “spoke his truth.” A Mets spokesman quickly told ESPN that Murphy “will no longer address his religious beliefs and will stick to baseball.”

Ironically, last year Murphy missed opening day to be present at the birth of his child. He spoke out about the importance of doing that and received an invitation to the White House. No one then told him he should just talk about baseball. In a complimentary article, Slate writer Jessica Grose even quoted Murphy’s reason for ordering his priorities that way: He tries “to take Jesus Christ and put him in the center of everything.”

SOME 50 MILES SOUTH of the Mets ballpark sits Lake Worth, a city of 36,000 snuggled against the Atlantic Ocean. One of Lake Worth’s five city commissioners is Andy Amoroso, owner of the downtown Studio 205, which he advertises as “the only Pride store in Palm Beach County. Unique gifts, vintage items, adult humor, and Florida style!” Behind the dresses and trinkets in the front of the store is a room with DVDs titled Amateur Playthings, Guys Going Crazy, Transexual Road Trip, and other names too gross to be listed here, along with homosexual full frontal nudity magazines for $1.99. Two piles of T-shirts are also for sale: One has a drawing of a pitcher, the other a drawing of a catcher.

‘We’ve been very careful with our message: Repent. Fall in Love with Jesus. That changes everything.’ —Mike Olive

Mike Olive, pastor of Common Ground, a Southern Baptist church, late last year bought Coastars, a downtown coffee bar three blocks from Studio 205. Coastars had sometimes packed in audiences to hear bands, so Olive thought it made sense for his congregation of 100 to meet there: He renamed the coffee bar Common Grounds, with an s. Olive heard that Amoroso was saying Common Ground Church was anti-gay, so he went to Amoroso’s store to say that wasn’t true. Olive told me, “We’ve been very careful with our message: Repent. Fall in Love with Jesus. That changes everything.” Olive says Amoroso told him, “You better not have a church there. That better not be a church.”

Amoroso was not in his store when I visited, and he did not return my telephone calls—nor did Lake Worth city manager Michael Bornstein. William Waters, Lake Worth’s “Director for Community Sustainability” (which means he oversees building, zoning, and code compliance), did call back.

Waters last fall sent associates an email saying of Common Ground Church, “We need to watch it as it has a lot of downtown people concerned.” Waters admitted Amoroso (and others) had talked with him about Common Grounds. Early in February a code enforcement agent, Gerald Coscia, wearing a black hoodie, videotaped the Common Grounds service.

Coscia then filed a report “for future court proceedings” stating the church was operating without a business license and describing what he saw: “An overhead TV or projection with scripture verse on it. … People holding what appeared to be bibles or religious books as one had a cross on it.” Pastor Olive, pointing out that the coffee bar does have a license, said he had “a Twilight Zone moment “ when he saw Coscia’s statement, which “reads like a KGB report.” The city then sent a letter to the owner of the property that houses the coffee bar, threatening fines of $200-$500 per day and possible foreclosure. Brushback.

IN THE WEEK FOLLOWING Murphy’s response to Billy Bean and his subsequent silencing, I tried to gauge reaction within baseball and among fans generally. I spoke with St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, author of an excellent new book, The Matheny Manifesto, which includes a chapter titled “Stand Your Ground.” In it, Matheny wrote, “I am, without apology, a Christian.” He also noted that some people wear “their religious beliefs on their sleeves. … While I may admire their boldness, I am simply not that type of person.” True to his book, Matheny responded to my questions cautiously: “A lot of guys have agendas, things they like to talk about. Hasn’t been an issue with our fan base, hasn’t been an issue inside our clubhouse, so that’s not something we’ve had to deal with.”

Murphy of the Mets, though, had to deal with it—and he respectfully but boldly responded. After his Mets visit Billy Bean talked to Yankees, Phillies, and other players: None talked back to reporters on the record. The sounds of silence spoke loudly in much of the baseball world. I sampled Twitter accounts of several hundred players who tweet about all kinds of subjects and did not find any commenting on Billy Bean. Only retired pitcher Curt Schilling tweeted the Murphy news: “Reporters ask outspoken Christian MLB player about homosexual teammates, here’s his honest answer.”

A chilling effect was also obvious when I contacted the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which stipulates that “neither heterosexual sex outside of marriage nor any homosexual act constitute an alternative lifestyle acceptable to God.” Deborah Hamilton of Hamilton Strategies, FCA’s public relations firm, told me that FCA would not comment on the silencing of Murphy, who was a student FCA member and has run an off-season FCA camp in Jacksonville. Hamilton said, “FCA would like to maintain a friendly position in the sports world and being a Christian organization, they have a firm, biblical foundation, but they would prefer not to get involved at this level on this issue at this time.”

Several baseball reporters told me they have seen a chilling effect in recent years. Stan McNeal of FOX Sports Midwest said, “Players used to be guarded before the camera, but afterward they’d open up. Now it doesn’t make any difference: They know you always have to be careful.” Other journalists also lamented the reduction of free speech. When I told a group of white, black, and Hispanic pastors in Lake Wales, Fla., about Ambassador of Inclusion Bean and the silencing of Murphy, John Kimbrough asked, “Why exclude someone who thinks differently?” Another said, “Sounds like an intolerant message of intolerance.” Many web commenters took Murphy’s side, stating, “There is a double standard. … There’s something asymmetrical about all this.”

WHILE THE NEW YORK METS were establishing a new standard regarding freedom of speech, Lake Worth city officials were coming up with a new standard regarding freedom of worship. Olive felt the brushback pitch whiz by his ear, but he did not back off the plate. Early in March he organized two prayer rallies in front of City Hall. At the one I attended, about 60 persons, many wearing Love>Hate T-shirts, sang “Amazing Grace.” They then prayed in groups of five or six. Later, pastors—black, Hispanic, white—prayed publicly from the City Hall steps. The rally concluded with all saying the Lord’s Prayer.

Olive stated, “This is about Christians living with the light on, unashamed, living and loving Jesus in public. The Truth can never be silenced. … We are not mad at the city. We are here to see a positive change come to our City.” One African-American pastor, Francis Bruno of the Rock of Salvation Church, said, “Fear should not be a part of the Christian’s life.” Coming to Olive’s support was a 2-month-old weekly newspaper, The Lake Worth Tribune, put out almost single-handedly by an aggressive young editor-publisher, Margaret Menge, an occasional contributor to WORLD in 2000 during Florida’s hanging chad controversy.

Also on Olive’s side was the public interest law firm Liberty Counsel: Attorney Richard Mast sent a no-nonsense demand letter to city officials showing they had swung and missed three times. He said they were violating the city code by telling churches they needed a business license. He said they were violating Florida law by imposing a tax on churches and requiring a license. He said they were violating the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by restricting freedom of religion: “Any attempt to require a license for public assembly on private property is an unconstitutional prior restraint on the freedom of assembly. When the gathering is for political or religious purposes, the offense against the Constitution is even greater.”

With the Lake Worth brushback not working, city officials quickly talked of a “misunderstanding” and said they only wanted the coffee bar/church to pay $160 for a safety inspection. Olive told me officials were “trying hard to change the narrative,” since an attack on freedom of religion did not play well: The city’s original case report said nothing about safety, and the city’s emphasis was on church licensing, even though the coffee bar already had a license. Liberty Counsel’s Mast said city officials “are hiding the ball here, and not answering a basic question, because they know that they will lose.”

Waters told me on March 12 that he had just met with Pastor Olive, and a meeting of the minds seemed on the way. Waters said the coffee bar has two exits, which safety rules require, so Olive probably would need only to install another exit sign and have the path of travel to the back door clearly demarcated. Later, Olive told me it wasn’t quite that easy—“Waters talked about fire department approval. I hope he’s not just kicking the can down the road”—but the pastor said the tone of city officials “has definitely changed.”

THE NEW YORK METS GAME in Port St. Lucie on March 12 began with the traditional singing of our national anthem. Fans started applauding at the last line: “the land of the free, and the home of the brave.” But will teens hoping for a baseball career have to start thinking like judges hoping for Supreme Court consideration: Don’t leave a paper trail? Don’t talk about anything controversial? I had good relations with Mets management when I interviewed knuckleballer R.A. Dickey three years ago (Dickey now pitches in Toronto); but this time Mets officials avoided discussion, even when I sat in their ballpark’s executive offices.

That refusal even to deal with objections shows how evangelicals (and Orthodox Jews) face a major problem, particularly in places that aren’t far from a segregationist past. Mets officials and many other Americans apparently see today’s gay movement as the continuation of yesterday’s civil rights movement. Having celebrated Jackie Robinson’s heroism and brilliance, they don’t want to be accused of dragging their feet in what is portrayed as a parallel drive for freedom. Christians can stress how different the two are, but the contrast often doesn’t register.

Down the coast in Lake Worth, officials were planning a March 28-29 “Pridefest 2015” gay celebration with the slogan “#We are winning.” The gay lobby is certainly on a roll, but is it overplaying its hand? A dozen miles from Port St. Lucie my wife and I kayaked into a surprisingly jungly part of Florida. The kayak business owner, Tom Wright, flew in Afghanistan for three years. He bemoaned a loss of freedom of speech on many issues, then mentioned his sister is a lesbian, “and I love her. She also does not go out of her way to advertise it or go after special treatment or considerations. … If somebody wants to be lesbian or gay, that’s fine but don’t force it on me. Don’t throw it in my face.” Stop the brushbacks.

Fans could still cheer an announcement at a Grapefruit League game in Fort Myers (temperature 81) that the temperature in Boston was 19. And yet, if fans like me thought we could escape the political and cultural arguments that roil America by immersing ourselves in baseball, we were wrong.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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