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Like a cosmic knuckleball, God often works in mysterious ways. The Houston Astros, of all people, should understand that. Twice this season, fate has seemed capricious.
First there was July, when these preseason favorites couldn't hit the side of a barn door and dropped to four games under .500. All that spring World Series hype felt like coke-fueled fantasy as the 'Stros underperformed under high expectations. Luke 14:11 comes to mind: "For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted."
Humbled, the Astros felt the winds shift again. They found their bats and reeled off an improbable franchise-record win streak that put them right back in contention.
Mysterious ways? You don't have to tell the Astros' Gene Pemberton anything about mysterious ways. He's the Major League's only full-time team chaplain and his flock just might be the most religious clubhouse in baseball.
On a cloudy September afternoon, Gene Pemberton is leaning against the dugout fence along the first-base line. He surveys a pregame batting practice and jokes with his "kids" as they stroll out of the locker room. With ten in a row in the win column, the atmosphere seems cheerful and relaxed.
Pemberton, a 64-year-old with silvery hair and a bowling-ball belly, began working for the Astros ten years ago. He knew owner Drayton McLane from their Central Texas town of Temple, and McLane asked him to come down and work for the team in community development. Initially, Pemberton hesitated.
"I told Drayton, I said, 'There ain't nothing in Houston but humidity and traffic,' " Pemberton twangs over the clip-clop of baseball mitts. He had served as a deacon for 19 years at Temple's Bethel Assembly of God and had worked for more than three decades selling stadium seating at American Desk Manufacturing Company.
A professed sports nut, Pemberton moved into the role of team chaplain in 1997, less for his know-how of the double steal and more for his "heart knowledge," as he puts it.
At 6 a.m. each day, he arrives at the dark, quiet Minute Maid Park and climbs up to his fourth-floor office, praying and reading for the first hour and a half of the day. It is there that the native Texan recites his mantra of humility.
"When I'm praying, I always say, 'Lord, I know I'm nothing and you know I'm nothing, but if you can use nothing, I'm available.' It's not about me; it's about Him. And that's the way our players feel here," he says. "None of them want to do it for self-applause or man's applause. They just want to do it for Jesus. It's not -- it's like the Bible says, it says, you know, you can get your rewards down here or you can get it in heaven. We'd just rather have ours in heaven."
By the All-Star break, when manager Jimy Williams got axed for the team's Job-like suffering, rewards -- at least here on earth -- seemed few and far between. Pemberton says at their lowest point, he called upon a passage from the Bible about Moses sending 12 spies into Canaan, the "land of milk and honey" (and RBIs?), where only two were brave enough to want to confront the giants there.
"People say, 'How in the world can you mess around with spoiled brats like that, millionaires like that?' " says Pemberton. "My comeback right there is that every one of those guys had a mother and a daddy. They're somebody's little boy. And just because they have success, there's times when they hit the old dark wall, too. They don't know where to go. And they're down here by their self and if we can just be there we can offer 'em hope through Jesus and just help lift 'em up, encourage 'em. So that's what I try to be, is encourager."
As team chaplain, Pemberton has duties that include giving speeches to church, religious and civic groups. If players have surgery, Pemberton says, he'll go with them to the hospital and stays in contact with their families. Every Sunday home game at the ballpark they hold a noon chapel service -- often with as many as 16 players in attendance -- though the service is not unique to the Astros.
Baseball Chapel, a ministry in its fourth decade, provides Sunday services to teams throughout the Major and Minor Leagues. According to Vince Nauss, president of the organization, about 300 pro players participate. He says that, for sheer numbers alone, the Boston Red Sox have probably had the most regulars worshiping in recent years. (Hey, if a franchise ever needed divine intervention, it's probably the Red Sox.)
But the Astros, too, have developed a reputation as one of the more devout Christian clubs in baseball, claim Pemberton and other team members. Although the Sunday chapel usually lasts only 20 minutes, the team also holds a midweek Bible study for an hour and a half and that sometimes draws a dozen players.
"[Third baseman] Mike [Lamb] says this is what he prayed for. He said, 'I'm with a team now which, you know, I can associate myself with from a biblical standpoint,' " says Pemberton, who adds that Andy Pettitte, Brad Lidge, Adam Everett, Carlos Beltran and several others have "sold out for the Lord." It's a favorite phrase for Pemberton. (And one that general manager Gerry Hunsicker probably prays is true when he sits down for contract negotiations: "So, Carlos, about the whole 'rich man-needle's eye' thing ")