Faith pitches in: Baseball Chapel offers church for baseball players

Ryan Ori

O'Brien Field is a ballpark, a place to see palm trees in central Illinois, an occasional concert venue.

And a church.

On Sundays during baseball season, the ballpark serves as a makeshift house of worship.

Baseball Chapel, a nondenominational Christian ministry, offers professional players a chance at group prayer during the season.

Members of the Peoria Chiefs, who play a 140-game Midwest League schedule, usually are preparing for a game during hours when traditional services are held. Instead, they crowd into available space for a short sermon and discussion.

"We've met on picnic tables at spring training, meeting rooms, sitting on the floor in hallways. ... It doesn't have to be an elaborate thing," said Chiefs first baseman Russ Canzler. "It's a humble setting where we all put our differences aside and try to learn as much as we can about the Lord."

Baseball Chapel was created in 1974 after Detroit sportswriter Watson Spoelstra proposed the idea to baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn.

A year later every major league team had a chapel program, and by 1978 it had been added to the minor leagues and winter ball in Latin America.

Today it is available to every team in affiliated professional baseball, including winter leagues. Add in some independent-league teams, and that amounts to more than 300 chapel locations.

Baseball Chapel estimates about 3,000 players and other staff take part each week, with more than 500 team chapel leaders. They perform separate services for the home and visiting teams every Sunday.

The Springfield, Pa.-based organization has about 100 Spanish-speaking volunteers -- up from 14 in 2001 -- and continues to expand its presence in Asian professional leagues.

Emden native Bill Sampen, who serves on the not-for-profit organization's board of trustees, views Baseball Chapel as a mainstream part of the sport. Now senior associate pastor at Bethesda Baptist Church in Brownsburg, Ind., Sampen was a chapel regular before retiring from the sport in 1994.

"It's not like it's just a couple guys participating and everyone else is looking at them like they're religious freaks," Sampen said. "It's well-accepted, and it has been for a long time.

"That is due in part because Baseball Chapel has and continues to work hard at respecting the players, the organizations, their time, their space. It's never looked at as a right, but rather as a privilege. They've tried to treat it with that kind of respect. Baseball Chapel tries to do it in a way that's not intrusive or disruptive to the normal activities.

"It's not like teams change their schedule around for Baseball Chapel. It's the other way."

Sometimes, a team's last-minute change in pregame preparations cuts a scheduled 15-minute service in half.

"To me, if you've got a word, you've got a word," said Chiefs outfielder Alfred Joseph, who attends Church of the First Born, a nondenominational church in Austin, Texas.

"Sometimes all you need is five minutes and you'll get what needs to be said. Time, to me, is not a factor. If you're open to listen, I believe you'll get what you came for."

Or, as Sampen puts it: "While the setting may change, the truth of the Scriptures doesn't."

Most fans are unaware of chapel. President Vince Nauss said Baseball Chapel strives to remain low-key.

Team chapel leaders are unpaid volunteers. They are prohibited from conducting media interviews and from allowing outsiders to take part in chapel. They also are forbidden from accepting autographs, souvenirs or any gifts from players.

"It's not worth risking your credibility over something like that," Nauss said.

Chapel leaders offer cellular and home numbers and are on call to serve players in crisis.

Joey Holland, an assistant minister at Bethany Baptist Church in Peoria, has been the Chiefs' chapel leader since 2000. Dennis Schwarm, a Spanish-speaking member of the Bethany congregation, is in his second season assisting Holland.

The organization finds new volunteers through an interest form on its Web site ( and offers orientation and training before each season. Not all clergy are cut out for the rowdy setting of a baseball clubhouse, or for time constraints that prevent traditional sermons.

"We say you can't walk in there expecting it to be like your Sunday school," Nauss said. "There's going to be some rough language, maybe some dirty magazines, and not everyone's going to participate in chapel. You want to be available without being intrusive.

"Sometimes in the minor leagues you're trying to conduct chapel in the dugout while the other team takes batting practice. Baseballs are flying, the music's blaring. ... It's a lot tougher environment than what they're used to. We're invited guests to meet the needs of these guys. It all comes with the turf. We try to acclimate our guys to the culture of baseball, so they know what to expect."

Baseball is full of frustration. Even the best hitters expect to fail two-thirds of the time.

For many players, Sunday chapel offers an uplifting moment in the week.

"You get here every single day and you're doing the same thing," said Canzler, who attends St. John Bosco Catholic Church in Conyngham, Pa.

"It can get you down a little bit, where you feel almost like you're in 'Groundhog Day.' This gives you balance."

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