Sal Bando was a power hitter and club leader for the Oakland Athletics in the 1970s. Today he is a speaker for Catholic Athletes for Christ, an organization that helps players embrace and share their faith.
Catholic Athletes for Christ: Athletes of faith aim to evangelize sports world, attack “moral crisis”
August 25th, 2010
By George Raine
Sal Bando’s baseball legacy is well known: third baseman and captain of the Oakland Athletics during the team’s three consecutive World Series championships in the 1970s, power hitter and club leader in runs batted in. Less well known is that all the while he was equally passionate about his Catholic faith.
Always, he kept the two passions in balance.
“As I grew in my faith,” Bando said, “it did not stop me from trying to take a guy out in a double play.”
Bando, now a semi-retired businessman in Milwaukee, tells the story of being a Christ-centered athlete when speaking on behalf of Catholic Athletes for Christ, a non-profit that serves Catholic athletes in the practice of their faith, encouraging them to share their beliefs. Masses are said at stadiums across the country, an annual retreat for baseball players is hosted and a panel of athletes and coaches, largely retired but some active, is available to speak about how their Catholic faith is an essential part of their careers.
The aim is to evangelize the world of sports by offering up solid Catholic role models and helping reverse the “moral crisis in sports today.”
“We are helping players practice their faith, but the second and related goal is to not only practice it but to share it,” said Ray McKenna, 51, the founder and president of Catholic Athletes for Christ, based in Alexandria, Va., and formed in 2006. “It is to not just live your life for Christ but also to share your faith as you live.”
That was the vision of Pope John Paul II, once an avid skier, swimmer and hiker, who organized the Vatican Office of Church and Sport in 2004 on the eve of the Summer Olympic Games in Athens, a year before his death. The world of sport, the Vatican said at the time, has “gotten further away from its original ideals,” and the Church recognized “an urgent need to recall those fundamental values.”
McKenna, with a contingent of U.S. athletes, attended one of the early organizational sessions of the Vatican office. He was inspired and left his day job, as general counsel of the General Services Administration, in Washington, D.C., to establish Catholic Athletes for Christ.
McKenna had a running start: For eight years he served as a baseball chaplain, for the former Potomac Cannons, a single-A team in Woodbridge, Va., now the Potomac Nationals affiliated with the Washington Nationals.
Now the U.S. group works closely with the Vatican office, creating a network that is reaching beyond professional baseball, engaging young athletes and in many cases their parents, educators, school administrators and others. A chapter has formed at Catholic University of America as well as in Philadelphia and Charlotte, N.C. Interest is gaining too among football players – Jack Del Rio, head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, is on the advisory board – as well as soccer, basketball and hockey players.
“The goal is to try to create this well established, coherent network of Catholic athletes at all levels so we can have hundreds, perhaps thousands of well-versed Catholic athletes to share their faith far and wide,” McKenna said. There is much work to do, he added. He said that to date there is little participation in the program by Latino athletes.
Bando said the effort is expanding year over year. “It’s like having faith in a foxhole,” he said. “When you go through tough times, and let’s face it, in baseball you fail more than you succeed, guys are looking for a little divine inspiration, a little peace in their lives. At least if it is there they have a choice.”
David Casper, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Oakland Raiders tight end from 1974 to 1980, also a speakers’ bureau member, said that most people who ask him to speak “are asking for some great revelation, of which I don’t have any.”
Rather, he said, his message is that he, like everyone else, has not solved all his problems, that he is a work in progress.
“I do not have the key, the magic answer, although the answer has been around for 2,000 years,” said Casper, now an agent for Northwestern Mutual, with homes in the Chicago area and Bay Area. “People keep looking for another answer. It is not that complicated but, as someone said about football, ‘Football can be a fairly simple game but it is not easy to do.’ I think the solutions in life are fairly simple, but they are not easy.”
Casper added, “The biggest thing I have learned in my life is to be grateful for what I have, for being alive and trying to maintain some kind of an understanding that it is not necessarily all due to me.”
When Gaelyn Kelly of Davis speaks on behalf of Catholic Athletes for Christ, she urges young athletes not to do what she did when she was a diver on the Stanford University women’s swimming and diving team.
“My faith was compartmentalized as one of many interests in my life,” she said, “so being a diver was my whole identity, and my strongest desire was for success in that.”
Kelly, who began competitive springboard and platform diving at 9 years old and who was ranked among the nation’s top 20 NCAA women divers – then as Gaelyn Felix, her maiden name – realized at the end of her college career that something was missing.
“When I retired from the sport after so many years I went through an identity crisis,” she said. “I thought, ‘Well, if I am not a diver who am I?’ That is when God stepped in and reminded me that at the core, my identity is as His child.”
About that time, U.S. platform diver Laura Wilkinson won a gold medal in the 2000 Summer Olympic Games, the first for a U.S. woman since 1964 – and she did it with pain from a foot injury. When reporters rushed to her for comment, Wilkinson quoted Philippians 4:13, saying, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Kelly was wowed.
“That was a revelation for me because I got to see an athlete using the gift that God had given her and using her sport as a means to glorify God, and it was clear that Christ was the source of her strength,” she said.
Kelly, 33, married and the mother of a 5-month-old boy, said that at the time, diving “was in effect my idol or my God.”
“Rather than using my sport to glorify Him and leaning on Him as a source of strength,” she said, “I called on Him only in emergencies and really separated my faith from my sport. My sport was number one.
“The message that I love to share is encouraging others not to make the mistake I made, because I believe wholeheartedly that my career would have been much richer and fuller and successful had I had that hierarchy in place.
“My identity as a child of God would have grounded me in such a way that I would have been more free to win or lose, more free to excel,” she said, “knowing that I did not begin or end with my success or my failure.”
From August 27, 2010 issue of Catholic San Francisco.