The God Squad
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.
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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 ")
"When we go on the road, like the other day at Chicago, we had quite a few in there and their rep 'ere says, 'Well, it's just like I heard. Y'all have a lot of guys that are Christians,' " says Pemberton. "A lot of times we'll have prayer meetings before the games. And guys just want to know -- we don't pray to win, never have done that."
That was, of course, the same Chicago Cubs team that the Astros had scuffled with for two consecutive weekends in bench-clearing incidents. With hurlers on both sides dotting batters, Roy Oswalt -- Christian ace, according to Pemberton -- was just one of those ejected. The retaliation beanball is almost required in baseball, even if it goes against the Christian dictum that says to turn the other cheek.
"You have to love, you have to try to be like Jesus Christ, and I think that's very tough to do in a professional league," explains Pete Munro, another Christian pitcher for the Astros. "Because it's such like in the heat of battle and so much competition, and whether you gotta hit somebody or slide in [taking somebody out], I think that's how Jesus Christ would be playing." He then adds, "I mean, I don't know if He would hit anybody in the head."
What would Jesus do? During that series with the Cubs, Munro says, "That was the only thing going through my mind. I mean, we're on the field and we started fighting, you know, am I going to punch somebody in the face or grab somebody from the back?"
Pemberton says that he's not involved in personnel decisions and that religion doesn't play a factor in management's strategy. "You won't have them worryin' about if somebody's a Christian or not. They draft on ability." But, he continues, "after they're here, sometimes we have two or three every year that accept the Lord that never was a Christian."
Right fielder Lance Berkman, who helped organize a spring training outing to see The Passion of the Christ, says that there are more Christians now than on any Astros team he's played on in the past. "Seems like everybody they call up is a believer," he says.
Hell, with this team, you need some kind of faith.
"I think it was just a breakthrough," Munro says of the recent turnaround. "I mean, we'd been struggling for so long, but we never quit praying and we never quit relying on God. He says, 'Call on Me in the day of trouble and I will deliver you.' And we kept on calling and calling and calling."
Gene Pemberton gets a sly grin when asked about late September.
"It's going to be interesting," he says. "This is where your character is revealed. And I'm glad we've got a lot of Christians. I think that'll help us reveal what we really are."