I’ve asserted many times, and I’ll say it again here, that what baseball is to sports, Catholicism is to religion. Both reward patience; both are obsessed with statistics, lore, and obscure rules; both are deeply traditional, yet constantly evolving; and both have been deeply tainted by scandal, yet proved remarkably resilient.
A further similarity is that both are global, and especially big in much of Latin America.
As it happens, Pope Francis is headed back to Latin America again this week, marking his fifth outing to the region (after Brazil in 2013; Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay in July 2015; Cuba in September 2015, ahead of his trip to the United States; and Mexico in 2016.)
Interestingly, he’s still not going to his native Argentina. Instead, this Sept. 6-11 trip takes him to Colombia.
Colombia is also passionate about its baseball, and has produced some impressive big-leaguers in the States such as Orlando Cabrera, Jose Quintana, Edgar Renteria, and Ernesto Frieri. Right now, Julio Teheran, playing in the Atlanta Braves system, is considered one of the game’s hottest young prospects.
Since Francis is headed there this week, I thought I’d offer my own personal list of the Top Five most important churchmen Colombia has ever produced, and then add some thoughts on which (non-Colombian) baseball player they most bring to my mind.
I doubt the pope is likely to catch a ballgame while he’s in Colombia, and anyway, his sporting passion is soccer rather than baseball. (Alarming and inexplicable, I know, but don’t hold it against him … as incredible as it sounds, there’s never been a single Argentine player who’s even had a cup of coffee in what baseball people call “The Show.”)
Still, maybe Francis will have at least a thought for these five famed Colombian clerics while he’s there.
1. Cardinal Crisanto Luque Sánchez (Player Comparison: Jackie Robinson)
Dead now for almost sixty years, Luque broke what you might call the College of Cardinal’s rough equivalent of the “color barrier,” becoming the first-ever cleric from Colombia to claim the red hat, and, at the time, one of the very few from Latin America. He was also one of the founding fathers of CELAM, the Latin American Episcopal Conference, having been present at the inaugural meeting in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Unlike Jackie Robinson, who went on to become an informal leader in the Civil Rights movement after his playing days were over, Luque’s politics leaned a bit to the right – or, perhaps better said, morally conservative and traditional. He once, for instance, petitioned a government official to remove paintings of nude figures from the National Museum.
On another occasion, Luque threatened members of his flock who sent their children to Protestant schools which had a reputation for offering high-quality educations, with excommunication.
On the other hand, Luque also threatened to withdraw the Church’s support from the government of President Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, an army general who came to power in a coup, if Rojas didn’t permit free elections and curb his authoritarian tendencies.
Luque died in 1959, after participating in the conclave that elected St. Pope John XXIII.
2. Cardinal Dario Castrillon-Hoyos (Player Comparison: Roger Maris)
Hall-of-fame slugger Roger Maris is, of course, the man who broke Babe Ruth’s single-season homerun record in 1961. Maris had enormous talent and power on the field, but off it he could sometimes come off as a bit truculent and tone-deaf, especially with the media.
For most of that storybook ’61 season, the spotlight wasn’t on Maris but his Yankees teammate Mickey Mantle, a charismatic media darling who finished the year with 54 homeruns himself before he had to stop playing in September because of a hip injury.
Castrillon-Hoyos, now 88 and retired, was a bit like that, especially during his run as the Prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy from 1996 to 2006.
Castrillon certainly had the tools to lead. He served as secretary general of CELAM from 1983 to 1991, giving him a wide network of contacts across the continent. As a pastor in Colombia, Castrillon Hoyos earned high marks for defense of the poor, including his willingness to challenge the country’s notorious drug barons, including the infamous Pablo Escobar. Once, he reportedly showed up outside a drug lord’s residence after rumors circulated that he was holding someone prisoner, banged on the door, and refused to leave until the person was freed.
Perhaps the 20th century’s foremost Colombian novelist, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, once elegized Castrillon-Hoyos as “this rustic man with the profile of an eagle.”
As a bishop and cardinal, Castrillon Hoyos enjoyed great respect from his brother prelates, and was considered a serious candidate for the papacy in 2005, after the death of St. Pope John Paul II, although in the end the choice fell to German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
Yet Castrillon-Hoyos too could sometimes be remarkably tone-deaf in terms of predictable public reaction to his statements and decisions.
In 2002, for example, Castrillón Hoyos led a now-infamous Vatican press conference after the sexual abuse crisis erupted in the United States, in which he suggested the crisis was largely an “American problem.”
It was also Castrillón Hoyos who was informally assigned the blame when Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunications of four traditionalist bishops, including one who is a Holocaust-denier, in 2009. That decision was prepared by a Vatican commission led at the time by Castrillón Hoyos.
In 2010, a 2001 letter by Castrillón Hoyos to a French bishop came to light, congratulating him for not reporting a priest suspected of sexual abuse to the French police and civil authorities: “I rejoice to have a colleague in the episcopate who, in the eyes of history and all the other bishops of the world, preferred prison rather than denouncing one of his sons, a priest,” he wrote.
In that case, the Vatican, then under Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, issued a statement that essentially cut Castrillon Hoyos loose.
“This document is another confirmation of how timely was the unification of the treatment of cases of sexual abuse of minors on the part of members of the clergy under the competence of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” it said.
3. Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo (Player Comparison: Ty Cobb)
Ty Cobb, the “Georgia Peach,” arguably was the single best player ever to set foot on a baseball field. He could bat for both power and average, he played defense like a demon, and he ran the base paths with wild abandon, stealing bases as often as most other players got hits.
Cobb was also perhaps the most ferocious competitor to ever play the game, once calling baseball “some kind of war.” He could be snarling, surly, and flat-out mean; among other things, he had a reputation for sliding into stolen bases spikes-up, sometimes shredding the legs of defenders trying to make a tag.
Lopez Trujillo, who died in 2008, had something of the same competitive drive, sometimes seeing people with whom he clashed as enemies to be vanquished.
As the Archbishop of both Bogotá and Medellin, and later the cardinal of Medellin, Lopez Trujillo played a key role in fighting Latin America’s rising liberation theology movement in the 1970s and 80s, and was widely believed to have been instrumental in blocking a sainthood process for Archbishop Oscar Romero, El Salvador’s famed martyr assassinated by a right-wing hit squad.
Later, as President of the Pontifical Council for the Family from 1990 to 2008, Lopez Trujillo was the Vatican’s most combative cultural warrior. Repeatedly, he insisted that condoms are ineffective in halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and threatened to have excommunicated Catholic parents who use IVF procedures to have a child.
Along the way, Lopez Trujillo, who was often pictured in ominous-looking sunglasses, acquired the reputation, both at home and in Rome, of being the sort of figure you didn’t want to meet in a dark alley. He had a tough, take-no-prisoners style – fans admired his toughness and clarity, while critics often described him as nasty and ruthless.
Wherever the truth lies, he was undeniably a key figure in the papacy of John Paul II, one of the most memorable and influential players on the scene during that era, and he got some attention as a possible papal candidate in 2005.
4. Father Camillo Torres (Player Comparison: Curt Flood)
Killed in 1966 during an ambush on a military patrol by the National Liberation Army (ELN) he helped to inspire, Torres, a priest-turned Marxist guerilla, became a martyr and hero to the nascent liberation theology movement all across Latin America.
Today, the armed violence and Marxist ideology Torres adopted have been repeatedly repudiated by Catholic officialdom, but the core of liberation theology itself, its “option for the poor,” has become part of Catholic social teaching. In that sense, Torres helped change the game forever.
Similarly, Curt Flood was a good player on the field for 15 seasons with the Reds, Cardinals and Senators, with a nifty lifetime batting average of .300 and seven Gold Gloves for fielding. However, his real impact was off the field, and his groundbreaking challenge to baseball’s reserve clause.
Essentially speaking, since the game’s inception in the 19th century, players at the professional level were, for all intents and purposes, indentured servants to owners. Because of something called the “reserve clause,” the rights to a player’s services when his contract expired were held exclusively by that team, so no one else could sign him without the team’s permission. The only way to leverage more money for a new contract, therefore, was basically to threaten to quit the game.
In 1969, Flood, an African-American, refused a trade to the Phillies, in part because of the team’s mediocre performance on the field, and in part because of what he regarded as a racist climate among Phillies fans. He wrote Major League Baseball demanding to be declared a free agent, saying, “I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes.”
When the MLB refused, he filed a lawsuit and pursued it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Although he ultimately lost, the pressure created by the case ultimately forced baseball to abandon the reserve clause anyway. Today, players are free to sign with anyone they want when their contracts are up, and average player salaries have skyrocketed as a result.
Thus like Torres, Flood challenged the status quo and, although he lost the battle, in other ways he won the war.
5. Father Garcia Herreros (Player Comparison: Ralph Kiner)
A six-time All-Star and member of the Baseball Hall of Fame as a player for the Pirates, Cubs and Indians, Kiner entered the broadcasting business in the early 1960s and joined the broadcast team in the inaugural season of the New York Mets in 1962. Kiner was around the Mets for the team’s entire existence until his death in 2014, and was the signature voice of the franchise for decades.
Father Garcia Herreros, meanwhile, was a Colombian leader of the Charismatic Catholic Minuto de Dios organization, who died in 1992.
Like Kiner, Herreros was a living institution as a broadcaster, hosting the country’s longest-running television program. Since its debut in 1955, generations of Colombians grew up watching the white-haired priest precede the evening news with a short homily, “One Minute for God.”
In a country with an enormous gulf between rich and poor, the iron-willed priest — a son of an army general — won wide popularity by leading charity drives to replace slums with “One Minute for God” housing projects. In times of calamity — an earthquake in Popayan and a mudslide in Armero — Herreros led national fund-raising campaigns.
In 1961, he launched the Banquete del Millon fundraiser, where the wealthy paid large amounts to eat a simple meal. The organization used the money to build housing for the poor.
Herreros occasionally stirred controversy – once, he went on air to announce that he had met Pablo Escobar and that the cocaine trafficker was, basically, “a good man.” Still, at the time of his death, millions of Colombians prayed tribute to their favorite “TV priest.”