As the St. Louis Cardinals made their improbable drive to the World Series title last fall, rushing from 10 1/2 games out in August to a World Series berth, special assistant general manager Matt Slater looked to his Catholic faith for spiritual guidance and emotional stability. Sunday Mass with his family, regular prayer, and a concern for the well-being of the players, not just the box scores, helped him maintain a healthy perspective. The Cardinals went on to clinch a playoff spot in the final regular season game, win a last-game squeaker for the National League title and eke out a seventh-game World Series win against the Texas Rangers last October.
The Catholic roots of the team run across decades.
“I rely on my Catholic faith every day,” said Slater. “It is the backbone of everything I do. It gives me inner peace. It gives me strength to go on with the ups and downs of a baseball season, and the ups and downs of my life.”
Slater, 41, who is married and has three children, has worked in major league front offices since his freshman year at Jesuit-run Marquette University. He called the Cardinals “a very religious group of guys” that has a Bible study group and a number of Catholics in administrative positions, from General Manager John Mozeliak and Assistant General Manager Mike Girsch to traveling secretary C.J. Cherry and trainer Greg Hauck.
The Catholic roots of the team run across decades, including Stan Musial, one of baseball’s all-time great hitters, who played out his whole 22-year career with the Cardinals (1941-1963). “Stan the Man” never missed Mass, despite constant road trips, and once asked for a pay cut when he didn’t perform to his own expectations.
Another noted Catholic is Hall of Fame manager Red Schoendienst, who led the club to the 1967 World Series over the Boston Red Sox. More recent World Series heroes are also vocal about their Catholic faith. Pitcher Jeff Suppan won Game 3 to help the Cardinals earn the 2004 title and shortstop David Eckstein was the MVP for the 2006 World Series. In 2004, Suppan attended the first meeting of the Vatican’s newly formed Office for Church and Sport in Rome.
One of the more famous Cardinal fans is himself a newly elevated cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, who grew up in Ballwin, a St. Louis suburb. Though he now sports a Yankees cap since he was named archbishop of New York three years ago, the cardinal still holds his first home team dear.
The team’s chaplain, Father David A. Walter, a retired priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, is a walking encyclopedia of the Cardinals’ Catholic connections. Noting that Sunday Mass has been offered in the clubhouse for more than 20 years, he said, “The significant fact is that neither the archdiocese nor the priests went to the team to ask if they could offer Mass; it was the Cardinals’ management themselves who came to the archdiocese and asked if a priest could be assigned to say Mass.”
He added, “We are dealing with some very good practicing Catholics at the highest level of the ball club. What is also wonderful is that those who come to Mass are from the front office, the players and the stadium staff, the ticket takers, the ushers, the maintenance crew everyone together. Even players from the opposing team. There is the understanding that when we are there for Mass, everyone is a Christian, equal before God.”
Currently, the Mass is coordinated by Catholic Athletes for Christ, which works with a number of professional teams to provide chaplains and the sacraments for players and other personnel.
After a stunning championship season, what can we expect from St. Louis this year? Slater, who is now the team’s director of player personnel, noted the loss of superstar Albert Pujols to free agency, but added that the Cardinals “have always known how to do our best with the talent we have.”
Brian Caulfield is editor of Fathers for Good for the Knights of Columbus.