The Associated Press
September 30, 2004, Thursday, BC cycle
Major leagues’ only full-time chaplain a confidant for Astros
BYLINE: By BOBBY ROSS JR., AP Religion Writer
SECTION: Sports News
LENGTH: 750 words
When Houston Astros starting pitcher Pete Munro arrived at the ballpark on a recent Saturday, a white-haired man with an easy smile greeted him and slipped him a handwritten message.
A bit of advice for handling the Milwaukee Brewers that night?
“I got a little Scripture for him,” said Gene Pemberton, the Astros’ chaplain. “He can stick it in his pocket and take it to the mound.”
As the major leagues’ only full-time chaplain, the 64-year-old Pemberton leads a regular Bible study for Astros players, comforts injured players at the hospital and helps with Sunday chapel services in the clubhouse.
Even more importantly, the Astros’ “spiritual coach” bonds with players and provides a supportive, reassuring presence in the grind of a 162-game regular season, said team owner Drayton McLane and players such as All-Star outfielder Lance Berkman.
“You’ve got 25 young men … who travel endlessly for six months out of the year. There’s just so much pressure,” said McLane, a prominent Texas Baptist who serves on the board of church-affiliated Baylor University. “Gene is there to help and assist wherever he can.”
Each Sunday, about 3,000 baseball players, coaches, managers, trainers and other team personnel participate in chapel programs offered to the more than 200 teams in the major and minor leagues, according to Baseball Chapel, an international ministry based in Springfield, Pa.
However, no team other than the Astros has a full-time chaplain, said Vince Nauss, the ministry’s president.
“I applaud Drayton for having the vision to do that,” Nauss said. “Perhaps over the course of time, we’ll see others follow.”
Pemberton – who for many years officiated basketball and football games at the high school and college levels – became the team’s chaplain in 1997. The former salesman, who attends a non-denominational church, has a knack for lifting players’ spirits, Berkman said.
“Don’t get the wrong idea, he’s not in the locker room constantly evangelizing players,” said Berkman, a Christian who shared his testimony at a summer youth rally with Astros pitcher Andy Pettitte. “Gene, just by his presence and the way he lives, people respect him.”
When a pitch hit shortstop Adam Everett and broke his wrist Aug. 6, Pemberton was the first person to pray for him, Everett said.
“It kind of put my mind and heart at ease,” Everett said. “I guess the biggest thing is, he’s always there when you need him.”
Pemberton insists that what he does is no big deal, whether it’s taking boxes of toys and stuffed animals donated by Astros players to a children’s home or razzing six-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens about needing to catch Steve Carlton on the career wins list.
“We got a bunch of guys who are interested in the word of God, and it’s not any put on,” said Pemberton, who often travels with the team. “They’re just as solid as they can be. … Gene Pemberton don’t add nothing, but my relationship with the Lord and his power adds something to them because they believe in him.”
In the offseason, Pemberton lives in Temple, about 170 miles northwest of Houston, not far from his friend McLane. He still sneaks away from the Astros on Friday nights to do radio analysis at Temple High School football games.
During the baseball season, he lives in a one-bedroom Houston apartment and arrives at the ballpark most days by 6 a.m., often not leaving until after midnight. The owner, the players, the coaching staff and others in the organization don’t have to look hard to find him.
On a recent Saturday, Pemberton said three players called him that day to talk. Among them was Munro, a right-hander with whom Pemberton prayed and decided he needed to share a Bible verse.
“I started reading and I knew the Lord was going to give me a Scripture and it jumped out,” said Pemberton, who shared these words from Exodus 33:14 with Munro: “And he said, ‘My presence shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest.”‘
Introducing Munro to a clubhouse visitor, Pemberton patted him on the back like an old friend.
“This guy grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in the Bronx, New York, and he’s seen the other side of it,” Pemberton said. “And when he accepted the Lord four years ago, you talk about a transformation. … This guy’s as solid as a rock. He don’t compromise anything because he’s seen the other side.”
“I know where that goes,” Munro said, smiling as he excused himself to go take batting practice.
LOAD-DATE: October 3, 2004