Baseball Gets Religion
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, can Barry Bonds get some love if baseball's homerun record falls?
But first, it has nine innings, plenty of roasted peanuts, some good hotdogs, and a side of religion. It's faith night at a Major League Baseball stadium near you. Faith nights are becoming an increasingly popular way for teams to bring fans to the stadium. Post-game Christian rock concerts and player testimonials may be part of the experience. But that leads some people to wonder whether faith nights exclude as many people as they inspire. It's our weekly Faith Matters conversation.
And with us to talk about all this are Rob Malec, manager of group sales for the Minnesota Twins. He joins us from Minneapolis. Also with us in the studio is Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of the National Synagogue in Washington D.C. Welcome to you both.
Mr. ROB MALEC (Group Sales Development Manager, Minnesota Twins): Thanks for having us.
Rabbi SHMUEL HERZFELD (The National Synagogue): Good to be here, Michel.
MARTIN: Mr. Malec, let's start with you. The Twins are having their first faith night at the Metrodome this September. Why did you decide to go for it?
Mr. MALEC: We've had great success going after folks of all types of different groups, whether it's groups of people who attend the same church or the same interest in little league baseball. This is just an extension of what we've been doing for the last 40-plus years, trying to find new ways to invite people out to the ballpark.
MARTIN: How do you put a faith night together?
Mr. MALEC: We've long been interested in doing things like post-game concerts, but they're quite expensive and we're really not set up as a producer of concerts. We're a Major League Baseball team. Our expertise is putting together nine innings of baseball and hopefully winning a ballgame for our fans. So when an organization came to us and really made it easy for us to do an event like this, we were eager to jump on board.
MARTIN: Rabbi, you're not in love with this idea.
Rabbi HERZFELD: I have strong concerns about this idea. It's clear that the baseball teams want to boost ticket sales and they're worshipping the almighty dollar. But at the end of the day there needs to be a point where they say this is not acceptable, we're not going to make money this way.
MARTIN: But wait. Wait, wait, wait. You're a baseball fan.
Rabbi HERZFELD: Right.
MARTIN: I think you have a group that goes to games together. You call it the Hebrew Nationals.
Rabbi HERZFELD: That's right.
MARTIN: You buy tickets as a group. What's the difference?
Rabbi HERZFELD: The difference is that Major League - that the team is not doing anything for us that night. We're going as a synagogue. We're going as a group. But the team is not putting their players out there on the field and talking about a faith. It's not as simple as what Rob is saying because it's not just a concert. What's going on is that baseball players from this team are going to be standing up and offering faith testimonials.
Now, if I was taking my child to that game, I would be extremely uncomfortable. First of all, whenever you put a mic in front of somebody's face and tell him to start speaking about religion, you don't know what's going to happen. This person can get up there and say something - he can say if you don't believe in Jesus, you're going to hell. We know that he could say that because it's already been said in the locker room and it hasn't been apologized for.
MARTIN: But doesn't that happen after the game? So presumably, if you weren't interested in that, you could leave?
Rabbi HERZFELD: Well, it is possible to say that, but, you know, when you create an environment - when you take an environment like sports where there's excitement and where it's, until now, been the one neutral or one of the neutral sites in the entire community, and then you say at the end of the game you're having a concert, it's hard to divorce that moment from the moments before it. And when the players are doing it on their park and their field, where they just played for nine innings, and then you say, you know, this is what's going on after the game, stick around - obviously, that's their intention, that's why they're doing the event - that gives it the imprimatur of the baseball team and of the league.
MARTIN: Rob, the promoter that you've mentioned has done about 10 of these faith nights this season at various teams around the league. Have you heard any complaints like this, people feeling that it's coercive, divisive? Have you heard any such complaints?
Mr. MALEC: No, I certainly haven't. And I think that in our marketplace here in Minnesota, people are pretty aware of what the Minnesota Twins do promotionally. We've done a Jewish Community Day. We've done a Catholic Family Fun Day. One of our most popular annual events in terms of ticket sales is our annual Lutheran Night. This is just another of the many events that we have that are bringing people who have a common faith together, no matter what that faith is.
MARTIN: Now, Rabbi, what about this? I mean, what if there's a Jewish Night, where it's a matter of sort of parity? It's not that one group's being excluded.
Rabbi HERZFELD: Let's be clear here: This is an organization that excludes people. At their event in Atlanta, there was very negative things said about homosexuality. The types of remarks that, if you said them on the air, Michel, I think that they would call for your resignation.
MARTIN: Well, hold on. Rabbi, let me just clarify. I think that in Atlanta one of the cosponsors of Faith Night - now, the event is promoted by a group called Third Coast Sports, but in Atlanta, one of the cosponsors was Focus on Family. And I think the complaint is that they distributed literature which equated homosexuality with alcoholism. I think that's the specific thing we're talking about.
Rabbi HERZFELD: Absolutely. That's very offensive - at that event. I mean it's one thing to say, well, it's great, let's just have people there who all agree and this is a community we're bringing together.
But let's talk a moment about the groups that they're bringing in. Would you bring a group that's saying racist remarks into Major League Baseball? You wouldn't. But now it gets a little bit more complicated. Before they get on, before they have full access to a Major League Baseball team, let's ask them. What are their opinions? We have to be so sensitive that the groups we bring into our communities are preaching a message of inclusion. It's all fine and good to have nights that promote faith. I promote faith. I'm a rabbi. But at the same time, we have to be sure that when we promote faiths we're promoting faiths that don't exclude people from coming that night.
MARTIN: Rob Malec, do the Twins make an effort to evaluate the literature or any other ancillary activities along with going to the game and, perhaps, having some kind of post-game entertainment?
Mr. MALEC: Any third-party sponsors that are coming in in association with any event of course our organization is going to take a careful look at. And we're very careful. We kind of consider ourselves equal opportunity in terms of ticket sales in our ballgames. If someone wants to attend a baseball game, that's our job, is to get them the opportunity to do so.
A ballpark is a place to come and have fun. And it's a place where people who have differences really forget those differences. Because you come out, the players go between the lines and they're having a good time. And that's what this event is about for us. It's not about what separates people. We get enough of that. It's a place where people, when they go see those turnstiles, they forget about that and they just start rooting for the next homerun.
MARTIN: What about the rabbi's point that some of these groups, by their very nature, are exclusionary?
Mr. MALEC: A ballpark is a place where they set those things aside and they go and they have fun.
MARTIN: Rob Malec is manager of group sales for the Minnesota Twins. He joined us from Minneapolis. Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld is from the National Synagogue in Washington, D.C. He joined me here in the studio. Gentlemen, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. MALEC: Thanks, Michel.
Rabbi HERZFELD: Thank you, Michel.
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