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Local baseball teams find religion

Something was different last night at the Harrisburg
Senators
game.

Something was different last night at the Harrisburg
Senators
game.

Three blindfolded kids scrambled about the field between
innings looking for a mock-up Bible. Usually, they’re searching for a ringing
cell phone. Later, kids spun around until they got dizzy and raced to tap a
rock onto the team’s mascot. He was playing Goliath.

It was Faith Night, the first of several such events at
local minor-league ballparks this year. This night was a deeply personal
project for Senators intern Jeff Mitchell, who organized it. But it’s also part
of a bigger movement in minor-league baseball intended to draw more fans into
the park.

“Central Pennsylvania is a
very churchgoing area,” said Senators General Manager Randy Whitaker. “Baseball
is a community, church is a community, and it just makes sense.”

The Senators generally hope to boost attendance in coming
years. A major renovation of their ballpark is planned now that the team is
under private ownership. The team also plans to double or triple its six-figure
advertising budget by the end of this year, Whitaker said. At the same time,
the Senators have cut back on ticket giveaways to corporate sponsors, he said.
That is because the team has found that only a small percentage of the people
who get those tickets actually show up.

As promotions go, Faith Night was a subtle affair. Many fans
were unaware it was happening, despite the religiously themed between-inning games.

“You can’t even tell,” said Nikki Wise, 19, who came to the
game from the Mifflinburg area with her boyfriend, Blake Bilger.

The only other Faith Night events were performances before
and after the show by PowerHouse, a religious musical group from Messiah College. All the events had a Christian theme.

Attendance appeared to be normal for a spring weekday game –
1,314, according to the official count. Few
fans came to the park specifically for the promotion. Those who did were
enthusiastic, though. Events like Faith Night show kids that it is okay to be
open about their religion, said Tim Rutkowski of Cumberland County,
who brought a youth group from his church to the event.

The Senators are planning two more Faith Nights, and the
York Revolution and Lancaster Barnstormers have scheduled similar events.

Faith Night allowed Mitchell, the Senators intern who
organized the event, to combine his two passions. He is graduating this year
from Messiah College with a degree in sports
marketing.

“I’m super-pumped about it,” Mitchell said, speaking a few
hours before the event.

Asked if some people could be put off by the event, Mitchell
acknowledged that could happen, but said he was trying to make the religious
presence a gentle one.

He seemed to have pulled that off, as many fans were oblivious
to the theme of the evening. But even those fans who did not participate seemed
unperturbed by the combination of religion and baseball. A faith night is no
different than a free hot dog night, said Jackie and Dave Roberts, a sister and
brother who were having beers with a group of friends as they watched.

The Senators have a shot at the Eastern League championship,
they said.

“And we’re praying to God every day about it,” Dave Roberts
cracked.

On this night, those prayers were for naught. With the
Senators trailing the Connecticut Defenders 3-2 with two outs and two men on
base in the bottom of the ninth, Marco Yepez struck out on three consecutive
swings.

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