For some Oakland Athletics fans, Saturday’s game didn’t end when the team beat the Houston Astros 2-1. While the stadium cleared and pigeons swooped in to scavenge scraps of hot dog buns, a small crowd gathered behind the third-base dugout for Faith and Family Day.
Dressed in Christian-themed T-shirts and Josh Reddick jerseys, spectators listened as eight players and coaches shared testimonials and tidbits of their private lives. Second baseman Jemile Weeks spoke of the “spiritual structure” given to him by his pastor mother. Then outfielder Seth Smith then took the mic, thanking the faithful for participating.
“Being here in California, it’s almost like you’re on the outside looking in if you do come,” he said. Fans took home a photo of Smith with his favorite scriptures.
God and baseball have long shared an uneasy coexistence. Fan faith days draw supporters and sell blocks of tickets, but teams that celebrate major religious market segments risk offending supporters who follow other faiths or who want their sports free of spiritual content.
For their part, the A’s have hosted faith-based activities for almost a decade. Organized by Team Chaplain Donnie Moore, the annual events are sponsored by the Third Coast Sports Foundation, a Nashville-based nonprofit. This is the first year the A’s officially titled the event “Faith and Family Day.”
“I think we have a phenomenal reaction from the fans, because they get to see the players up close and personal,” said Mark Holliday, the administrator for Donnie Moore Ministries. “They get to see that these are real guys, with some of the same challenges that everybody in life faces, and how their lives are beyond baseball.”
Third Coast puts together Faith and Family Days with 10 Major League Baseball teams, including the Atlanta Braves and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Entertainment varies from city to city. Some teams bring in big-name Christian musical acts, while at a Washington Nationals vs. Houston Astros game, celebrity televangelist Joel Osteen threw out the first pitch.
Oakland’s 2013 event showcased feats of strength. Wearing matching red tracksuits, team chaplain Moore and his “Radical Reality Team” — Terry Douglas and Dean Johnson—bent frying pans, shattered concrete and ripped phone books in half. “Whoever said Christians are weak,” Moore said, “they left me out.”
Cindy Towles, organizer of 510 Christian Singles, bought a block of 35 tickets for her group, which attended the game for the second year in a row.
“The atmosphere is a little bit different,” she said of the event, where she finds the people are friendlier and fans are better behaved, with less drinking and profanity. Last year, Towles brought her twin 10-year-old nieces to the game. “They just really loved it,” she said. “It was just so cool for them to see that, in some sense, Christianity could be a cool thing to be.”
Still, events that mix God and the MLB have drawn criticism. When the A’s hosted its first Jewish Heritage Night in 2011, the Council on American-Islamic Relations objected to its exclusivity, turning the issue into a national story. Murray Chass, the former national baseball writer for the New York Times, wrote a 2008 column chiding MLB Commissioner Bud Selig for allowing the events and demanding a “separation of church and baseball.”
A’s fan Cameron Sayadi agreed, voicing postgame disappointment on Saturday as he waited at the Oakland Coliseum BART station. Sayadi, a professed agnostic, stayed behind to get an autograph after the game, but was unaware of the special event.
“Baseball should be separate from all [religion], because it takes all faiths, all colors, all kinds,” Sayadi said.
The A’s Director of Ticket Sales Brian DiTucci denied hearing any such complaints directly from fans. He maintained the event is a non-denominational, post-game feature, For those who choose to stay, he added, it is “completely optional. They don’t have anything during the game.”
Ultimately, Faith and Family Day puts bodies in seats. In the four years since DiTucci became director, he said he’s seen the numbers grow, with 2013 hitting the high-water mark of 2,600 tickets sold to individuals and groups from churches and missions.
“For me, that shows that there’s a market for it,” DiTucci said. “So it’s important that we look at those opportunities from a ticket-sales perspective.”
Correction: The A’s beat the Astro’s 2-1 on Saturday. A previous version of the story listed the score incorrectly.