On Sundays during baseball season, when there’s not a pandemic, the Rev. Tom Anastasia celebrates 7:30 a.m. Mass with his congregation at St. Matthew Catholic Church in Largo, then gets a substitute priest to cover the 9 a.m. service.
By that time, Anastasia is usually on his way to Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, where he has been the Catholic Athletes For Christ chaplain for the Tampa Bay Rays since 2013.
Sometimes he’ll arrive at the Trop wearing a Rays “Father Tom” jersey over his clerics, a gift from the St. Matthew’s choir upon his 25th anniversary of becoming a priest.
He celebrates Mass, again, in the ballpark’s auxiliary clubhouse, keeping it to a tight 30 minutes. It might be attended by players, especially from the visiting team, as well as Rays staff, media people and “fan hosts,” as the Rays call their ticket takers and ushers.
“It has been a very nice ministry,” Anastasia said.
Father Tom loves baseball. He was a Philadelphia Phillies fan while growing up in Trenton, N.J.. His official St. Matthew’s email address starts with “godrays.”
“When the Rays played the Phils in the World Series in 2008, I couldn’t lose, nor could I win. It was not easy,” he said. “This time there is no ambivalence whatsoever.”
It doesn’t have to be Sunday to spot Father Tom at the Trop. A season ticket holder since the Rays' first season, he has become a familiar sight in the stands on game days. He wears his collar, and might carry a sign saying something like, “Have holy water, will bless bats.” (He has yet to make it inside the Rays' clubhouse to bless the bats, but he has blessed Tropicana Field.)
You might be considering saying a prayer for the Rays right now. The Los Angeles Dodgers took a 3-2 lead in the World Series on Sunday, pushing the Rays to the brink. Tuesday’s Game 6 will be do-or-die.
The Tampa Bay Times reached out to Father Tom to ask: Is it okay to pray for your sports team to win?
He demurred a bit. He knows that there is a lot of praying going on during the games.
“People are saying, ‘oh please, oh please’,” he said, laughing.
But while Father Tom prays for the Rays, he never prays for any particular outcome.
“I don’t ever pray for them to win, I’m a little, uh, superstitious about that. Maybe that’s just me, personally,” he said. “I always pray nobody gets hurt, I pray for a good game, but I don’t like praying for them to win. I don’t think that’s something God concerns himself with.
“But, I’m certainly hoping they win.”
He likes to focus on the human connection that the Rays are providing, at a time when there’s less human connection and a lot of division over politics.
“Especially during an election, with too much fighting on Facebook and all that,” he said. “The Rays in the World Series is something that everyone in this area can come together on.”
With sports, he said, people remember that it’s just a game.
“The Rays realize it’s still a game,” he said. “That they have players playing for the love of the game and not the almighty buck is an asset, they always have this David and Goliath sensibility. They play best as the underdog.”
The Dodgers also participate in Catholic Athletes for Christ with a priest celebrating Mass in the media interview room at Dodger Stadium.
Brian Golden, who helps organize those services, said he’d never heard a priest pray for a team to win, but noted that over the past 51 Sundays in which a Mass was held at the stadium, the team’s record has been something like 46-5.
Rabbi Jason Rosenberg of Tampa’s Congregation Beth Am has a Twitter bio that says, “Rabbi. Baseball fan. Father. Husband. Not sure much else matters.”
“If you pray to God to help your team win, I think you’re a little off base, pardon the pun,” he said. “I don’t think God’s going to sway the outcome of a game because some people pray hard."
But Rosenberg doesn’t believe that prayer can’t apply to baseball.
“If you take the approach of wanting to thank God for everything good that happens to you, including your team winning, I think that’s okay. There’s no harm in it.”
Rosenberg said that the Rays' Brandon Lowe finally hitting “feels like a miracle,” and Randy Arozarena is “quite the revelation,” but then again, the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw "seems to be one of God’s gifts to mankind.”
He noted that his favorite Rabbi joke, which he did not come up with, is that the first words of the Bible are “In the big inning.” He talked about the longstanding theory that baseball is like an ancient epic, because they always involve a hero going to battle, leaving home to face danger and trying to get back home again.
“The other version of putting it into religious context is that the word ‘paradise’ originally meant a walled garden,” he said. “A ballpark is this enclosed green space, where you can forget everything and enjoy a few hours of life."
Even if we can only watch on television, “I do think we all need that moment of escapism right now."
Turning back to the more serious, Rabbi Rosenberg noted that someone has to lose the World Series, and that is life.
“Bad things happen to us. We can’t control them,” he said. “But what we do have a lot of control over is what we make of them. Sports is a lesson to do our best, accept the outcome and try again.”
Rosenberg has recent experience with this.
He’s a Yankees fan.