Team spirit and Holy Spirit — for Nationals religion looms large on and off the field

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Adam LaRoche was raised a Christian. He went to Bible study on Wednesday nights, and Sunday school, and church. But he eventually found himself doing those things out of obligation, and not desire. About five years ago, the even-tempered first baseman had an epiphany of sorts.

“I asked myself: ‘Why are we here?’” LaRoche said. “I’ve asked a few people that over the years. ‘What is our purpose on this earth?’ My opinion is that it’s to spread God’s word and that’s it. And when that finally hit me, it put baseball and all that other stuff in perspective.

“I heard one chaplain put it this way: What do you want written on your tombstone? Do you want ‘Adam LaRoche: Gold Glove, batting average, hit so many homers, and has a million dollars in his bank account,’ or do you want ‘Adam LaRoche: Man of God, integrity, raised a great family, loving.’ Let’s be honest: I don’t know anybody who wants their stats.”

LaRoche calls himself a non-denominational Christian and tells those who ask about his church, “I am a follower of Jesus.” He is probably the most vocally religious member of the Nationals. If the team is on the road and can’t find a chaplain on Sunday, LaRoche could lead the group. If a teammate knocks on his door at 2 a.m. wanting to talk about “walking in the light,” he’s happy to oblige.

LaRoche spearheaded the team’s effort to host Faith Night at Nationals Park this season. The event featured a concert by Third Day, a Christian rock band, and a handful of Nationals sharing a few thoughts with several thousand fans. Ian Desmond, Anthony Rendon, Denard Span and Stammen participated, but it was LaRoche who delivered a sermon of sorts.

He is most comfortable, though, with smaller conversations, quiet moments when teammates come to him with questions.

“What I’m very careful to do is not do it in a judgmental way, ever,” LaRoche said. “Because I’ve had guys in the past who have come up and tried to beat the Bible over my head and tell me what I shouldn’t be doing: ‘You keep doing this, you’re going to hell.’ And that is absolutely not the way to preach. Period.”

When religion emerges on the athletic stage, it sometimes can lead to an eye-roll reaction. But within the Nationals' clubhouse, LaRoche has found his beliefs allied with many peers.

“Some of the skeptics are probably those who have a misinterpretation of what a big-league ballplayer is all about,” Desmond said. “I guarantee if you ask 100 people on the street, 90 percent of them think all baseball players run around and cheat on their wives, they’re out late, howling at the moon. I think that’s a little bit of a misconception. This is a great platform, but you have to be willing to live the life you witness.”

Desmond and Stammen went through a similar process to LaRoche. Both attended Catholic school, Desmond in Florida and Stammen in Ohio, largely following the leads of their parents and doing it mostly out of habit more than any deep connection. For both, their faith grew as they matured.

Baseball, despite the view from the outside of its fast lifestyle, has helped foster that, they said.

“It’s not easy to just say, ‘Hey, I’m a Christian, I’m a believer in God. I need to steer myself away from the sin of this world,’” Desmond said. “But when you have a group of guys that you’re basically brothers with and one of them says it, it’s easier for everyone else to feel like, ‘Hey, yeah, I’m a Christian, too.’ You’re not that lone duck out there. It’s a support group.”

“I think it’s given me an open mind,” Stammen said. “When you play baseball, you meet people from Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Florida, California, Texas, and you get all different kinds of perspectives on the same thing. You learn to appreciate everybody — how they grew up and their beliefs — and not be so closed-minded on ‘What I believe is exactly right.’”

Speaking their minds

Dan Haren was raised Catholic. He went to Catholic school and then Pepperdine University. He has attended many Sunday morning chapel sessions during his 11 years in the major leagues. But it wasn’t until recently that the 33-year-old pitcher began to really study religion. It is the history of human beings that interests him.

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