BUFFALO, N.Y. — Baseball fans have always thronged for the crack of the bat. But today, many also come as fans of faith — to hear Christian bands and player testimonials, even hug a Christian mascot, as America's pastime teams up with local churches for what's called "Faith Night."
"When people hear the term 'Faith Night,' they automatically picture a Billy Graham crusade," says Brent High, a sports promoter with a group called Third Coast. "And this is nowhere near what these events are."
Before a AAA Buffalo Bisons game, 1,500 extra tickets are sold to people like Noel Harris, who has brought his kids for some pre-game fellowship.
"Events like this are the perfect opportunity to show people, 'Hey, we don't all stand on the corner and wave a Bible and say if you don't come to Jesus, you're going to hell,'" says Harris, who attends the Love Joy Gospel Church.
For teams like the Bisons, whose game attendance is low, Faith Nights can be a godsend.
"We're working together to bring our communities together," says Bisons Vice President and General Manager Mike Buczkowski. "Baseball is a sport that unifies people of all walks of life, all religions."
Still, some question whether faith and fair balls are a good fit.
"When a baseball team starts to align itself with Christianity, or for that matter with Buddhism, or Hinduism or any other religion, it runs the risk of alienating people who are from other faiths," says Stephen Prothero of Boston University.
Traditionally, Faith Nights thrived in the Bible Belt at minor league games, but with their growing popularity, they have spread far beyond the Mason-Dixon Line.
And this season, for the first time, Faith Nights have been called up to the majors. The Atlanta Braves are hosting three "Faith Days" this summer, featuring testimony from players like star pitcher John Smoltz.
"The Atlanta Braves have done the best job possible to keep this truly distinct and separate from the baseball game itself," says Braves Vice President Derek Schiller.
Back in Buffalo, a local church choir belts out the “Star Spangled Banner” as Faith Night's fans go to the ballpark in search of a spiritual experience.
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