WORLD Magazine / Telling the Truth / Chapter Eleven
First Person Accounts and Sports Stories

NEXT » Modern Journalism Emerges

« PREVIOUS Biblically Directed Reviewing

One of the most frequently asked questions by new reporters concerns whether, or how much, they can become part of the story. Part of the question is stylistic: Is first person ever allowed? Part is substantive: Should a reporter be a "fly on the wall," listening to conversations but not affecting them in any way?

As we have seen, Samuel Adams was content to keep himself in the background. His reluctance to become part of the story was tactically brilliant: By assuming the role of reporter rather than protagonist he was able all the better to massage the egos of those who demanded attention, such as John Hancock. It was also biblically correct: We are not to grab the best seats at the table or at church.

Throughout much of the twentieth century, American journalists also have tried to remain out of the story, and have demonstrated that standoffishness by going to great lengths to avoid the use of the first person: Writing "This reporter" rather than "I" has been one of the clumsy circumlocutions. Sometimes a modesty like that of Adams made writers more comfortable with such devices, but often their rationale emerged from the secular understanding of objectivity: describing an impersonal universe impersonally.

The rebellion against impersonality that has gone on for a generation now has mightily influenced journalism. With neutrality disappearing in appearance as well as fact, the battle of the future will be between existentialist subjectivity and biblical objectivity. The choice for reporters, although most will not understand it in these terms, will be, "Do I present my version of the story, or God’s vision (as close as I, a fallen sinner, can come to it)? Do I practice egocentrism or theocentrism?"

Reviewers, as the last chapter noted, should not only represent readers but also educate them. Reporters can use the first person altruistically and intelligently, rather than in a self-glorifying way, when they show themselves not as superheroes but as innocents abroad (to use Mark Twain’s term). Use of the first person is suicidal when reporters put on airs, but used in a self-deprecating way, with the writer becoming a partly naive tourist, it can be a dead-on transformer of dull, faceless stories into ones with plots.

For example, one World investigative cover story examined whether members of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability who have tax-deductible status were making available to the public some basic tax records, as required by law. The issue is important, since we are to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s–Jesus specifically mandated us to do so in relation to a question about taxes–but it is not one that quickens the pulse or is likely to generate a made-for-TV movie. Writer Joe Maxwell, however, turned what could have been a quagmire for readers into a quest.

Tree-sparse Gundersen Drive in Carol Stream, Ill., has lost some tax-exempt tenants to upstart Colorado Springs, but numerous evangelical superstructures remain.

I’m driving my tiny rental car into the National Association of Evangelicals parking lot on what is known locally by some as "Holy Row." This is the first leg of a week-long journey to 10 evangelical organizations based in and around Chicago, Ill., Orlando, Fla., and Washington, D.C.

I’m on a quest of sorts–searching for financial disclosure.

The article had to include financial details, but a spoonful of specific detail garnered during visits to the various groups made that medicine go down.

A wooden pelican with a fish in its mouth stands on the table in the NAE receiving room. . . .

The Orlando boulevard to Campus Crusade for Christ’s massive headquarters is lined–even in mid-winter–with blossoming pink azaleas. After I speak with two receptionists, an impressive man clad in tie, blue blazer, and pressed shirt asks me into a nearby conference room. . . ."I don’t think we publish that [the Form 990], but you are welcome to the [audit] report," he says in a rich, baritone voice that could convince Attila the Hun to accept all four Spiritual Laws.

At Ligonier Ministries in suburban Lake Mary, Fla., a painting of an English fox hunt hangs over a receptionist.

The writer, by putting himself in the story, is also able to convey the nervousness of officials.

I’m taking notes on a yellow legal pad. He seems to notice. "I can give [the information] to you," he eventually says. . . . "Are you writing a story?"

She is not sure about the tax returns. I pull out a copy of the federal law on disclosing Form 990s. She reads highlighted portions. "To be honest, I’m caught a little bit off guard."

She’ll gladly give me an audit (which she does), but adds: "Tax returns? No. . . . Why? To my knowledge we’ve never released those to somebody coming off the street."

"It’s public knowledge," I say politely.

"No, tax returns aren’t."

"Do you file a 990?"


"Then it’s public knowledge."

"Okay, if you say so. . . . I still don’t know just what it is you are doing," she says.

A story on Christian 501(c)3s.

"I can’t go by something you hand me. That doesn’t mean anything to me."

The first-person usage also allows for self-deprecating humor, with a running gag about lacking a business card.

An older woman sits at a desk, answering phones. "Hello. My name is Joe Maxwell and I would like to see a copy of your most recent annual audit and tax returns."

"Do you have a card?"

Oops. I don’t! I’ve got to get some of those things.

They ask who I am, and to see credentials. I say I’m a journalist with World, and apologize for not having a business or press card. I show them a copy of World magazine.

Jeff is flipping through it. "We’re just a little suspicious," he says.

After calling their finance manager, Carolyn suggests I make a "formal" request in writing. From my briefcase I produce a typed request, which is not, however, on World stationery, and Carolyn views it skeptically.

"I guess we’re just suspicious," Jeff reiterates.

But there is a serious point to all this, which the writer makes explicit at the conclusion of the story.

In the coming years, Christian organizations can, in fact, expect tough scrutiny from segments of society increasingly hostile to religion–and $5,000 fines could be serious threats. Outsiders–hostile or not–will ask tough questions. Christian groups that use federal tax exemptions should not deny any taxpayer a chance to examine the top salaries.

Yet four of ten groups surveyed by World flatly refused a request for lawful disclosure. Beyond that, two more–the NAE and CCC–initially refused disclosure, claiming to be exempt churches, an assertion any non-Christian might reasonably question.

World’s survey was not designed to evaluate the work or mission of any of the organizations visited; in fact, they were chosen because of their good reputations. But good groups that do not comply with every detail of the law are handing a sword to those who would seek to destroy Christian nonprofits. The best form of resisting such hostility–overt or disguised–is not by refusing lawful requests, but by so adhering to high moral and legal standards of disclosure that an adversary can do nothing but commend a group’s integrity.

Many evangelical organizations live in this tension–being not of this world and yet, by their tax-free status, being very much tied to it. If they accept the benefits of Caesar’s policy, then the witness of ECFA-member organizations must include a cheerful willingness also to live by Caesar’s rules. My journey for disclosure complete, it would appear that Jesus’ words aren’t yet fully realized among many evangelical organizations: In the United States, "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s" also means disclosing some financial information.

Action-adventure stories also can be improved at times by the judicious use of "I." Roy Maynard’s World story about illegal immigration along the Texas-Mexico border first set the stage.

The carriage-driver’s horse wore blinders, but he was too old and too tired to be spooked by the cars rumbling past him in the streets of Piedras Negras. His back sagged lower than the peso against the dollar, and a jutted-out left hip showed that he’d be crippled by arthritis within a year. The horse’s name was Samuel, and the cabby was Ernesto. That’s about the extent of useful information he was willing to provide. Yes, he said, this Mexican border town was known for its nightly tide of illegal immigration into the United States. But no, he said, he didn’t know anything about it. He knew about the tourists, and would I like to see another market, find a nice restaurant?

The carriage, painted with garish pastels and upholstered with a fabric surely once used as drapery, rattled over the potholes. It rolled past the occasional federale and by the dozens of young men smoking cigarettes on the street corners.

"What about these men?" I asked through an interpreter.

"They are maybe going to go across, yes," Ernesto replied. "Many of them stay in the hotels until it is the night they are to go. . . ."

"What about the river?" I asked.

"No, no, it is not safe. I will not take you there. I will stop working soon anyway. You don’t know what you will find. The coyotes, they are dangerous."

He was speaking of the alien smugglers, the men who charge fees of $300 to $500 for a supervised river crossing and the promise of a van ride to San Antonio, Fort Worth, or Dallas. Stay away, Ernesto said, stay away from the coyotes.

After descriptive detail about the border town and its short-term residents waiting to go across, it was time to come back to the river and the coyotes, with the first-person presence of the writer adding drama.

To the left was a decaying railroad bridge with timbers and ties blackened with creosote-soaked preservative. There was no sign of anyone; it seemed that the nightly crossings must have already been made. The Rio Grande was a 30-feet-wide slow eddy at this point, quiet and unhurried. When the cab stopped, I got out to take a closer look. How far to the other side? How deep? How cold?

"Everyone has left," Alphonso said through his friend. "Maybe I can bring you back tomorrow, during the daylight, and you can see people then."

I shook my head and started toward the embankment. The hillside leading down to the river wasn’t steep, and the bright moon outlined a rough pathway. I went down slowly, carefully, and reached level ground about 20 yards from the river. I found myself walking on denuded sand, indicating the Rio Grande was down a little.

To my left, between the bridge and me, I heard murmuring. I came around a small hill and I saw them. Men, Hispanic men of various ages and shapes and sizes, all of them quiet and intently following oral instructions. There were about two dozen of them; they were hunkered down, taking off their clothes, down to their briefs, and laying their blue jeans in front of them lengthwise. I was about 25 feet from the group; I wondered if they had seen me.

They had. The only one not taking his clothes off–the coyote, I assumed–put his hand inside his unbuttoned shirt. The half-dressed men turned to him, but he paid no attention. He wore a denim shirt, sandy boots, and a white straw cowboy hat. His mustache was untrimmed and his jeans had holes at the knees. He watched me for a moment, and when I didn’t react, the tension seemed to ease. His hand came out of his shirt; it was empty.

"American," I said. "Journalist." The words were similar in Spanish, so I thought that might get the idea across. The coyote seemed to consider this for a moment, and he turned his attention back to the men. I must have seemed to present no threat–I probably wasn’t the first American to stumble across a moonlight crossing.

The coyote’s instructions to the men continued, and they began to place their belongings–shoes, a watch, a wallet, a crucifix–on their jeans. They rolled the jeans into a tight bundle, which the coyote showed them how to hold: he pressed a pantomimed bundle against his ear with one hand. The men did the same with their bundles. Another few sentences in Spanish, and the men looked to each other for a buddy–someone to link hands with for the crossing.

When the coyote nodded, the men stood and formed a line, two-by-two, then slowly walked into the water. For the first 10 feet, the

water was only ankle-deep. Halfway through, it was waist-high. At the deepest part, just a few feet from the American bank, it reached chest-level. And then they were across. None stopped to redress; they simply began to climb the embankment on the other side.

Later the cabby told me there was likely a van parked just past the crest of that hill; the coyote would no doubt have an associate who was waiting to receive the men and begin the long drive to San Antonio or Dallas.

When the men had crested the hill, the coyote looked at me. After a few moments he walked off, through the bridge supports and out of sight.

That first person gave life to what could have been a MEGO (Mine Eyes Glaze Over) article. It provided drama and personal involvement for an issue that would otherwise be abstract. The first person can also be used to describe the mazelike qualities of bureaucracy; since almost all readers have had the experience of being shunted from one place or telephone answerer, Joe Maxwell’s attempt to learn who truly runs the federal school lunch program provided a point of contact for readers and humor as well.

"Do you know where to find the National School Lunch Program?"

The middle-aged man in a white short-sleeve button-down and tie removes his cigarette from his lips. "Pardon?" he asks.

"Do you know where to find the school lunch program? It’s supposed to be housed in the Department of Agriculture."

Standing on the steps of the south wing of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s gargantuan main building, the man wearing a USDA badge blows smoke up toward a crystal blue sky and replies: "I have no idea. Try inside, maybe."

After providing background about the half-century-old program and its role in current political debates–children will starve if Republicans have their way, it was said–the Quixotic quest could continue.

Two guards inside the south wing of the Agriculture Department building aren’t any help; they fumble through their directory looking for a listing for the National School Lunch Program. On the walls behind them are photos of the first, small, national headquarters for the USDA, a second larger one, and then the current mammoth "Agriculture Complex," which runs at least 5 city blocks by 5 city blocks. "I got the Food and Drug Administration," a male guard says. "Try calling them up."

Dialing the number he offers taps into the Department of Health and Human Services. No good.

"Do you have any idea where the school lunch program is?" the other guard, a female, is asked.

"No," comes her terse answer. Frustrated, she suggests trying across the street at the USDA’s administrative building.

Another building? How could USDA possibly need another building?

Another guard awaits at that entrance. She has no idea where to find the National School Lunch Program offices. What about Ellen Haas? I ask. One recent newspaper article quoted her as running the program.

The directory, in fact, does list Ellen Haas, and the guard calls her to say she has a visitor. Ms. Haas, it turns out, is Undersecretary of Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. School lunches must somehow fall under her realm.

Up on the second floor, down the wood-grained halls and past oil portraits of former Agriculture Secretaries, is an impressive set of glass doors opening into a suite of about eight offices and a receptionist.

A man in his thirties and a double-breasted brown suit is walking out the door and asks if he can help.

"Is this where the National School Lunch Program is run?"

"That’s in Alexandria," he says.

"Doesn’t Ellen Haas run the school lunch program?"

"Oh yeah, she runs it," explains Neal Flieger, Ms. Haas’s public relations man. (His real title is: Deputy Administrator, Governmental Affairs and Public Information, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Services.)

He explains that Ms. Haas just deals with big policy issues, and that the the real administration is done by nearly 2,000 "bureaucrats" in another building in Alexandria.

"The way the bureaucracy works is that people [like Ms. Haas] at the subcabinet level are responsible for developing policy. But the programs are run out of another building," he says.

Another building? Wow. Is a tour possible?

Mr. Flieger seems a bit irritated at this unannounced visit. "Why do you want to see a bunch of people sitting in cubicles?" he asks.

Nonetheless, he offers to meet at the Alexandria building the next morning.

The innocents-abroad theme–Wow, the reporter has himself saying–adds humor, but the point again is serious: Readers are being shown–not just told by orators–that bureaucracy is siphoning off some of the funds supposedly going to fight hunger. The uncovering continues.

In the middle of an affluent section of Alexandria, Park Center Office Building 1’s downstairs directory lists several commercial offices and vendors on the first floor, including a travel agency, furniture rental company, and hairstylist. Plants and green tile floors give the lobby a luscious look. The remainder of the directory, however, is exclusively occupied by one entity: "welcome to the usda, food and consumer services," the sign reads, and then lists three long columns of USDA Food and Consumer Services departments, subdepartments, on and on and on. . . .

The national Food and Consumer Services office in Alexandria has about 600 staffers [that administer] seven regional FCS offices nationwide with 1,200 staffers. Together they "provide cash and food" to state offices that route it to local schools.

Each school district hires its own school food services director, a trained professional who makes out meal plans in May and June for the entire upcoming school year and submits them to a state nutrition supervisor, hired by the state to insure sound nutrition standards at the local school level. These state directors then communicate with federal employees. . . .

Mr. Flieger hastens to add: "The vast majority of people who are involved in administrating and delivering school meals work for the state or local government." There are 60,000 or so individual school food service directors. . . .

He goes to a desk and produces a copy of a flow chart full of lines and boxes. Under Office of the Administrator are three branches–Analysis and Evaluation, Consumer Affairs, and Governmental Affairs and Public Information–and five unrelated sub-branches: Food Stamp Program, Financial Management, Management, Food and Consumer Services Regions, and Special Nutrition. Mr. Flieger thinks school lunch administrators are located in the Special Nutrition section.

He declines a request to visit their offices.

Since the writer had paid his dues by scouting out all these offices, he could end the article with a mock-hayseed head-scratching.

The whole thing is complicated. It is probably true that the Republicans’ call for state block grants is just a sharp plan to garner votes from simple-minded folks who run businesses to make a profit and produce efficient results, not spend money. . . . It seems clear that this federal system of feeding local school children is just too vast to be grasped without years of bureaucratic experience–and maybe not even then.

An article of that sort is far more educationally effective than either perfervid rhetoric or a treatise by a political scientist, because readers can identify with the storyteller and see for themselves what he places before their eyes.

The same sense of being an eyewitness and then arriving at judgment informed another World story based in Washington–but this time the flabbergasted head-scratcher was not the writer himself but a cabdriver hired to drive to schools patronized by politicians.

Charles Boateng’s Silver Cab Number 125 is a station wagon on a mission. Mr. Boateng, a 37-year-old Ghanan who moved to America 12 years ago, normally carries tourists to D.C. landmarks. Today he is escorting World readers toward the landmark preparatory schools of Georgetown, where many of the Democratic Party’s top elected and appointed officials send their children.

The cabdriver works hard but makes only $15,000 a year and wonders why President Clinton opposes school choice: "I don’t think it is fair. You are the leader of the country, right? You should set an example. If you want people to send their kids to public schools, then why are you sending yours to private schools?"

With that question in mind, the reporter and the cabbie appraise one school attended by Al Gore III and sons of other prominent Democrats who oppose letting poor parents have affordable alternatives to public schools.

The environs of the National Cathedral’s rolling driveway exude an Old World aura of European stone, Gothic structures and the sort of emerald lawns that make a John Deere run and an Arnold Palmer weep. Shade trees in just the appropriate spots. Here and there, a flowering white or pink dogwood. Someone spread a cloth! . . . There she sits, sharing the Cathedral’s grounds: St. Albans School for Boys, the alma mater of Al Gore. One expects the Dead Poets to convene.

In fact, here come several lads now. School is just out for the day. Most still are wearing blue blazers with slacks; one daring soul is an outrage, having matched khaki shorts with his standard coat; a few have peeled down to their white buttondowns; a shirt tail hangs out here or there. Ah, the rogues are making hay of the rules, aren’t they?

Mr. Boateng is standing by his cab now. He is listening more than looking: "Where is the noise?" he asks. "If someone told me that this was a school, you wouldn’t believe it. So quiet. So nice." So different from America’s public schools, where the best grass often is found in sidewalk cracks or a dope dealer’s pocket.

Visits to other schools were similar, and the article ended with Mr. Boateng’s conclusion about President Clinton: "If he sends his daughter to private school, then you can’t tell others to send theirs to public school."

The laid-back but perceptive reporting that typifies first-person accounts not only personalizes stories but shows readers that there is no need to approach every issue as if it were Armageddon. We should show readers the salient facts in Bible-based contextualization, but we also want to make the reading of our publications interesting and even fun, not an onerous duty. Sports coverage interests new readers, while providing a broad avenue for evocative discussion of basic questions affecting the culture.

Directed sports reporting, like all other kinds, requires elements of narrative, description, and observation. Here is an example depicting a good teacher (who is also a Christian) at work, from a baseball story with a theme of education.

Orioles manager Johnny Oates during a workout ranges over all the spring training complex. During four hours of practice he was almost always moving, always watching, rarely talking: "I want everyone on the team to know I may be watching them at any time," he explained later. The only thing that seemed to upset him is lack of diligence; he yelled at a rightfielder who stood absentmindedly when a coach hit a fly to the centerfielder, "Back him up. If you don’t want to do it, let’s go home."

Oates does take aside young players to explain probability, which is the basis of baseball strategy. When one rookie at first base seemed puzzled about why to cut off a throw from the outfield in a particular way, Oates explained patiently, "The reason is that you’ll cut the ball and get the trailing runner at second much more often than you’ll be able to get a runner at home. At the major league level the throw to have a chance at home has to be on a line in the air or on one bounce. That’s why you’re a cutoff man, not a relay man." Baseball probabilities are based on experience, and Oates is the historian, trying to convey to young men decades of observation, with one goal in mind: Old heads on young bodies.

Reporting of this kind requires you to get right up to the batting cage.

An hour standing next to Reds manager Tony Perez also shows American education as its finest, except for Perez’s frequent use of obscenities. With Jamie Quirk, a marginal utility player who is trying to catch on, Perez is insistent: "Keep your body behind the ball. Use that bleeping weight you’ve got on you. . . . Stay behind it, get your hands in front, save your hands for the last moment. . . . Keep your body back, keep the ball in front of you. Hit the bleeper on top." And Quirk does hit the next few pitches much more sharply, with Perez giving instant reinforcement: "See what you did. See where you hit that bleeping ball. See it. Got to keep the ball in front of you."

The advantage of being up close is that you see character revealed in small ways. Instead of merely concentrating on stars, you can see how God is working on players who mostly ride the bench.

One of Oates’ favorites is Tim Hulett, a marginal infielder who is also the team’s Baseball Chapel leader and autographs baseballs with a citation of Romans 6:23 next to his name: "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." Hulett is practicing catching this spring so he can be a late-inning fill-in behind the plate if needed. Jerry Narron, the Baltimore catching coach, was watching as Hulett tried to catch cut fastballs and devilish curves.

"I didn’t blink," Hulett reported after surviving one hard-to-handle pitch, and Narron praised him: "No blink, no cringe." Oates, a former catcher, watched as a pitch got by Hulett, and then said quietly, "Just knock it down with the big part of the glove. Stop pulling away." As Hulett listened and improved, Oates watched what he was creating and said, "Good, good."

The contrast between Christian perseverance and spoiled whining then became evident.

Oates watched as Paul Carey, a 25-year-old minor leaguer with a number better suited to an end in football–88–stood in the batting cage and complained about the teammate who was throwing to him, Todd Frowirth. Frowirth’s unusual sidearm, almost underhand style was bothering Carey, who was muttering, "Hard to concentrate." . . . When Carey swung at and missed the next two pitches, he weakly asked another coach who had joined the observation team, "Elrod, those last two high?" Hendricks said, "Not the last one, maybe the one before." Then Carey hit two weak ground balls and said, "Not my fault. Those were balls." Hendricks replied, "You didn’t have to swing at them." And Oates was there all the time, watching.

This article then presented more detail about struggling players and returned to the description of what a good teacher does.

What Perez sees is not what an ordinary observer sees. Hal Morris, the Reds’ first baseman, who batted .318 in 1991 but was injured part of last year and dropped to .271, put on an impressive display of power during his first batting practice session; ball after ball went over the fence, to the delight of a teenager on the other side who had brought his glove and positioned himself well. Perez, though, thought Morris was swinging for the fences too much, and would not be able to duplicate the batting practice spectacular during a game when pitchers would be throwing him knee-high fastballs. Perez kept telling Morris, "If the ball is low, don’t try to lift it. Stay on top and see what you can do. Nice and easy. You want slow feet, quick hands."

And results can come fast.

As Morris listened carefully, adjusted, and got it, Perez was pleased: "Yes, that’s a bleeping line drive. You don’t have to hit bleeping flies to drive in runs; just make contact. Keep the ball in front of you, you want to see it when you hit it. Keep that bleeper in front of you, see it when you hit it, stay low." Morris confessed that he was blind but now he saw: "I wasn’t seeing that low ball before, now I can."

Once you have paid your dues by providing solid reporting with specific detail, readers will indulge you in making explicit conclusions concerning your theme:

Making the National League takes even more drill than making the National Spelling Bee, except that there is often no other activity to fall back on should a player be eliminated. Major leaguers need to be fundamentalists, with emphasis on the fundamentals of their positions: an hour of ball-blocking for catchers, bunt-defending for infielders, hitting the cutoff man for outfielders.

There is constant teaching, and constant mentoring. If American education followed the baseball pattern of apprenticeship and careful attention to the basics, neither illiteracy nor the trade deficit would be growing.

Structurally, sports articles often have a three-part beginning, starting with description of the athlete in action.

It was only a spring training workout, but Boston Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens grunted as he threw pitch after pitch in the warm sunshine of Fort Myers, Florida. . . . He is determined to return to league-leading form this year, and also is thinking about getting back to his theological roots.

Then a quotation:

"My father passed away when I was nine," Clemens told World. "When I was young going to church was like the sun coming up. You could count on it, Wednesdays and Sundays. Then when he passed away, my mom took on three jobs, raised six of us. She was the force behind us all, she still is, but that church consistency was hard. . . . I’ve never really had it since then . . . there’s so much media and off-the-field stuff. . . ."

Finally the nut graf:

So much stuff. That’s the constant complaint, and plea, of conscientious baseball players now. An old Russian tale describes a chieftain who fought hard for the czar centuries ago and received the award of a suit of armor; the chieftain put it on and, crossing a river on his way home, fell off his horse and drowned. Today’s players enjoy the money and, to a certain extent, the adulation that comes with fame, but some of the most prominent seem to yearn for a life and faith unchoked by weeds, a simpler life of bat and ball and, sometimes, Bible. That’s what spring training means to sports chiefs like Clemens and Kirby Puckett: a time to touch home.

Some Christian sports profiles tend to get talky, as writers present players’ testimonies. You may do that succinctly, but try to show players whenever possible displaying in action the difference in their lives that a reliance on Christ makes, rather than preaching about it.

Reynolds during batting practice says "good pitch" to the pitcher when he misses one across the plate. He says "oh, Harold" to himself when he swings at a bad one, says "get down, ball" when he hits a fly out, and laughs when he hits a series of line drives. "I’m feeling pretty good up here," he said. "Knowing about Jesus’ love allows me to relax; I don’t have to earn His love by what I do. Besides, reading the Bible, the sweep of history, helps to keep things in perspective."

Avoid being too quick to claim for Christ anyone who displays a nodding acquaintance with God. You should not hesitate to criticize lazy stars with jocular theology.

Spring training contains frequent lessons about the importance of glorifying God by not taking talent for granted. Kevin Mitchell, the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1989 when he led the league in homeruns (47) and runs batted in (125), reported to the Cincinnati camp in 1993 on the last possible day before incurring fines. Before going out to take his first batting practice he talked about how he "grew up in the church" under the tutelage of his mother, who is a missionary to prisons within the Church of God in Christ denomination. Mitchell said, "It really helps to believe in the Man Upstairs. You lose your sanity if you don’t. When you’re down He’ll help you." Then, with his gut hanging out–sportswriters had asked the team’s publicity director how many pounds Mitchell was overweight–the man downstairs floundered in the batting cage, popping up balls and showing all that faith without work is fat.

Mitchell would spend half the season on the disabled list. His experience contrasted with that of another player who showed discipline both in batting practice and Bible study.

Reggie Sanders came under Perez’s withering examination during batting practice: "I want you to see everything you hit. See it when you hit. You want your head to stay back and your hands to cross the plate." Sanders paid rapt attention and successfully made adjustments, so he gained favor with his manager: "Good. Yes! Yes!! Yes! Keep your head down. You see how you hit the ball when you do it that way. Keep working on it!"

And off the field, sitting in the locker room, Sanders spoke of his faith: "I truly believe in the Lord. . . . If I have a good day or a bad day, I take it all the same, because I realize that whether someone is cheering me for a good play or booing me for a bad, the Lord always loves me for what I truly am. Even if no one else truly loves me, He does, and I’m always trying to learn more about him." Teammate Bip Roberts said he goes to Baseball Chapel meetings on Sunday but "during the season there’s not a lot of time to do much else." Sanders, however, said, "I work at baseball and I work at my faith. On the road there’s lots of time to study, so I use the niv Study Bible and that helps me get deeper into the Word."

When doing celebrity profiles, be sure to ask the important questions that secular reporters ignore.

The Associated Press reporter hanging around the White Sox clubhouse in Sarasota on March 1 was bored. His editor, realizing that some fans mix up Michael Jordan and God, was requiring him to write a story about the deity’s doings every day, but not much seemed to be happening. "Michael shagged fly balls today. . . . He took batting practice and hit 10 fly balls, 10 ground balls, and 10 line drives . . . so what? Have you run across any other angle?"

Yes. The more interesting story is not what Jordan is doing to a baseball, but what God may be doing to him. "These days I think about God a lot," Jordan told World." I read the Bible a lot. Of all the books I read, that’s the one I do read. I see that whatever happens, happens for a reason; I wouldn’t be here without the will of God. And my father’s dying last year, I try to get something positive from that."

Jordan said he has been thinking about his parents, and about how he should bring up his three small children. "My mother and father used to have two jobs so they could supply us with a better life than the one they had. And we had to go to church every Sunday. I learned that God’s in charge. . . ."

To conclude an article about Michael Jordan’s learning about God while being treated as God by some of his fans, also interview a fan.

After practice Jordan autographed a photo for a 35-year-old man in a wheelchair. The back of Tom Wright, from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, was broken in birth; he has spent his life since then paralyzed. Seven years ago Wright had his picture taken with Jordan before a game at the Boston Garden between the Chicago Bulls and the Boston Celtics; Wright framed the photo and hung it on his wall. He took it off the wall and out of the frame to journey to Sarasota, hoping that Jordan would autograph it. "This is a great day," Wright exulted as he stared at the signed photo. "I’ll put it back on my wall. It will be there forever."

No, it won’t. One day it will turn to dust. And Jordan, who is worshipped by some of his fans, knows that he cannot make the lame walk.

Sports writing is not an opportunity to indulge in hero worship; directed reporting regarding sports, as in other areas, depends on an understanding of man’s sinfulness but God’s willingness to change his creatures. Here is an example of mixing brief descriptive detail into a discussion of character development:

Will Clark showed total concentration in the batting cage and then went out to field over 100 ground balls to his right so he could take a split-second off his pivot when throwing back to a pitcher covering first base. Although Clark is generally regarded as one of the better-fielding first basemen, he went back for more work on defense when the official practice ended. "I got this work ethic from my parents," he said. "If kids don’t develop it when they’re young, it’s hard to get later on. Maybe you can have them watch people who are admirable and hope they’ll imitate them."

Then came the nut graf:

Clark had hit on a question that is key not only for baseball but for the country. Issues of welfare reform, drug rehabilitation, and prison sentencing all hinge on the teaching of responsibility and other virtues to those who often have not exercised self-control. Players and coaches agree that for both worship and work, the most effective teaching comes early . . . but there are differences of opinion about the likelihood of change among adults.

Although the article did not make the comparisons explicit, a discussion of Jewish, secular, Catholic, and evangelical emphases followed.

Theory #1 was voiced by Sandy Koufax, the great Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher of the 1960s who dropped in on the Rangers camp late in February as a favor to Texas manager Kevin Kennedy, a friend. "You can’t teach character," Koufax said as he prepared to teach pitchers the technique of using their legs more to remove some of the burden from their shoulder. "It’s something people develop in a thousand different ways, or they don’t." Koufax, 58, who is remembered not only for his Hall of Fame performances but for refusing to pitch in the World Series on Yom Kippur, seemed pessimistic: "Players with bad traits don’t change much as adults. That’s the way it is now, and was when I was playing."

Dave Winfield, a future Hall-of-Famer perhaps concluding his career with the Minnesota Twins at age 42, presented Theory #2. He turned aside questions about religion but emphasized the significance of "some kind of harrowing physical experience, something that makes a player think, ‘I’m not invincible, this talent came be taken away from me.’" The shock "has to be sharp," Winfield emphasized: "You don’t see those changes in an adult unless there’s a sharp break. By then it’s usually too late."

Theory #3 is somewhat more optimistic: Players, instead of undergoing physical disaster, can pick up good habits that will change at least their surface behavior. Tom Kelly, the 43-year-old Twins manager, went to St. Mary’s High School in South Amboy, New Jersey, and learned there that "players can be trained to take responsible actions." He wants players to "make a ritual out of doing it right," and mutters expletives about players who fool around. . . .

Theory #4 is the truly optimistic one. Mike Easler, the Red Sox batting coach–and a Baptist minister licensed by his home church in San Antonio–presented it while chewing on sunflower seeds before a wind-swept workout in Fort Myers. "A player doesn’t have to wait for something desperately physical to knock him down. The apostle Paul didn’t break a leg: God simply made him a new creature in Christ, with old things passed away. . . . My job is to mold a guy, teach him to be humble, and I pray that God will work on him so he will change not just on the outside but on the inside. . . ."

Directed sports reporting of this sort, then, displays in microcosm one of the goals of directed reporting generally: to show the nature of the world that God has made by reporting the blessings and curses that come from following or ignoring Him. The goal is not to glamorize players, but to see them as sinners who, like those not athletically gifted, need God’s greatest gift.

NEXT » Modern Journalism Emerges
« PREVIOUS Biblically Directed Reviewing