National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

To Swing for Eternal Fences

Do You Play Sports or Do Sports Play You?


March 29-April 4, 2009 Issue | Posted 3/20/09 at 10:01 AM


The smell of freshly cut grass, the sound of a massive yet attentive crowd, the taste of hot dogs, peanuts and Cracker Jacks — taken together, these things can only mean one thing: The great American pastime is back for another season.

While many Major League Baseball players are known as much for their off-the-field antics as for their game-time heroics, a growing number are making a name for themselves as devoted Catholics.

Baseball catcher Vinny Rottino is one of them. The 28-year-old from Racine, Wisc., made his big-league debut in 2006 with the Milwaukee Brewers and has been called up for service each September since then. The rest of each of those seasons he has played for the AAA minor-league Nashville Sound of the Pacific Coast League.

He eagerly awaits the day when he’s called up to the parent club’s permanent roster, but he’s not consumed by his ambition.

“My mission is to live my faith in God and his Son Jesus Christ as the central focus in my life,” Rottino told the Register. “Hopefully, by God’s grace, others will see my life as an example to live by, as I have seen in so many other great Christian Catholic men and women.”

Rottino is a member of Catholic Athletes for Christ, an organization set up to serve Catholic athletes and to share the Gospel of Christ in and through athletics. As a member of CAC, he joyfully accepts the mantle of role model for young people.

He also knows that as a professional ballplayer he’s been graced with a powerful platform to share the Catholic faith.

“Most of the guys on the team respect your faith if they do not believe what you believe,” says Rottino. “Sometimes our evangelical Protestant brothers will have some anti-Catholic things to say, but I try to keep my conversations constructive.”

Church and Sport

Catholic Athletes for Christ began in 2006 when Ray McKenna, an attorney based in Washington, D.C., envisioned a national community of Catholic athletes who would support one another and spread the Gospel.

McKenna had been inspired by Pope John Paul II, an athlete and avid outdoorsman himself, who in 2004 began the Office of Church and Sports as a way to evangelize the world of organized athletics. Under the auspices of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, this Vatican office represents the first formal foray of the Holy See into the wide world of sports.

Father Kevin Lixey, a Legion of Christ priest who grew up in Flint, Mich., serves as the head of this office. Asked about its specific challenges and opportunities, he cites several.

“First is that of promoting, both in theory and in practice, a vision of sports that is educational and formative,” says Father Lixey. “Second is the goal of promoting peace and fellowship among diverse peoples and nations through sports.”

The 40-year-old priest points out that sports, when played with respect for the dignity of all persons — onlookers as well as athletes — can become an integral part of human development and an extraordinary expression of man’s aspiration for excellence.

Father Lixey also recognizes that a gap exists between the ideal and the norm.

“The commercialization of sport and the desire to win at all costs can threaten the recreational, educational and formative dimension of sport,” he explains. “Today, sport is at risk. There are symptoms of an illness in sport that calls into question the values that are at the very basis of athletic activity.”

Family First

In suburban Philadelphia, licensed Catholic therapist Peter Kleponis is seeing the phenomenon of “sports running families” rather than the other way around. The inversion of the proper order can have disastrous effects on marriages and families, he says.

Kleponis describes a common scenario in which husband and wife are like two ships passing in the night — every night. Family dinner is routinely missed. Quality time takes place in the car on the drive to the field — or the rink or the court or some combination of any number of venues.

“I call it parental peer pressure,” says Kleponis. “These moms and dads want to be good parents and, in order to do so, they have kids signed up for several sports every season. The message sent to the child is that in order to gain approval and love from Mom and Dad they must perform well for the team and for their parents.”

The counselor notes that, not infrequently, Dad is subconsciously striving to relive his own athletic memories (or make up for his dashed goals) through the achievements of his sons.

As well, there is pressure for student athletes to get into the best high school or college due to their athletic abilities or the number of extracurricular activities they participate in.

Kleponis says families can experience real suffering from living out a sports-centered lifestyle.

“When I deal with this issue with families,” he says, “so often the kids are relieved when I tell them that they don’t have to do this.”

He recommends several family policies to families who seem to be falling into this trap. First, he says, children should not play multiple sports in one season. Second, no kids should be on traveling sports teams. And last but not least: Parents need to make it clear that Sunday is dedicated to the family and the Lord — even when that means relegating sports to the backseat.

Father Lixey seconds these suggestions. “Parents need to ask themselves what their real motives are for their child’s involvement in sports,” he says. “Is it to help them develop a well-rounded human formation, or is it for some other motive?”

In the end, the experts agree: Whether you are an all-star forward in the NBA or a defensive end on the pee-wee football team, God needs to be No. 1 in your life — just as he is for Vinny Rottino and the other Catholic Athletes for Christ.

And just as he was for St. Paul two millennia ago (see 1 Corinthians 9:25): Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one.

Play ball!

Eddie O’Neill writes from

Green Bay, Wisconsin.