The Home Run Derby, a made-for-TV contest that precedes Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game, is usually a frivolous folly. Players blast home runs, the fans ooh and ahh, and everyone has a good time. But Monday night’s event unexpectedly turned into a showcase of religious beliefs. Christians applauded Josh Hamilton’s first-round feats, while atheists took it on the chin from an ESPN broadcaster.
Hamilton, the 27-year-old Texas Rangers outfielder, has seen his life come full circle. In 1999, he was the No. 1 draft pick of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. From there, he descended into a miasma of drug addictions, including crack cocaine, which led to suspensions and rehab stints — losing 3½ years of his career before becoming a devout Christian and putting his life back together.
In 2007, he returned to the major leagues with the Cincinnati Reds. This past winter, he was traded to the Rangers and his career has taken off. Hamilton, who was voted to the American League’s starting lineup, leads the majors with 95 RBI.
Hamilton talks openly about his past as well as his faith and isn’t shy about invoking religion when speaking about his athletic feats, as he did on Monday night when he blasted a record 28 home runs in the first round of the Home Run Derby. Hamilton hit as many home runs in the first round as five of his competitors combined. Ultimately, Hamilton did not win the derby. Justin Morneau, who was added to the competition the day before, beat him 5-3 in the final round.
It was during Hamilton’s prodigious power display that ESPN’s Rick Reilly blurted out: “It’s a lousy day to be an atheist!”
Now, I’m the last one to castigate people speaking into live microphones, but it is interesting to me that Reilly, the longtime Sports Illustrated writer who recently made the transition to ESPN, chose those words.
As might be expected, the atheists were not happy with his comment. Their blogs were inflamed after his remarks. Some were irate, pointing out that Reilly’s comment was an instance of how it is okay to pick on atheists. Others were more resigned about what for them was another example of the misperceptions of atheism.
I’m not sure if Reilly was inferring that God had a hand in Hamilton’s home run hitting or if he was just trying to make a good quip. I e-mailed Reilly, who is in Southport, England, covering the British Open, but didn’t receive a response. I also spoke with ESPN public relations officials who told me that they had received few viewer complaints about Reilly’s remark.
A quick check of the Internet reveals only one newspaper writer mentioned Reilly’s comment. Jim Reeves of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, after taking John Kruk, another ESPN announcer, to task for saying that most of the people at Yankee Stadium were cheering for Hamilton because they want him to play for the Yankees in three or four years when he becomes a free agent, said that the best line came from Reilly.
I really don’t think that Reilly meant to disparage atheists as much as point out that Hamilton, through his faith, has turned his life around. I don’t know Reilly’s religious affiliations. Maybe he really does believe that God has a hand in everything, including home run hitting. More likely, he just got caught up in the moment.
I’m loath to call in the politically correct police. I don’t think we need to sanitize our speech. Yet, it does seem to me that there is somewhat of a double standard here. If it is okay to single out atheists, but not Jews or Muslims, where does that leave us on Buddhists? How about Christian Scientists?
Had Reilly said it was a lousy day to be a Jew or a lousy day to be a Muslim, I don’t doubt we would still be hearing about it and I’m certain the announcer would have faced some sanction from the network. In the end, I think Reilly could have come up with a better way to explain what he was seeing.