Controversial religion often kept under wraps
By Kevin Baxter
Los Angeles Times
White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, unlike many players, is willing to talk
about his Santeria religion.
CHICAGO - On a shelf in the office of Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie
Guillen, mixed in among the family photos, the Roberto Clemente
bobblehead and the Napoleon Dynamite figurine, are four small but
intimidating religious icons.
"If you see my saints, you'll be like, 'Golly, they're ugly,' " Guillen
had said before inviting a visitor to come in. "They've got blood.
They've got feathers. You go to the Catholic church, the (saints) have
got real nice clothes.
"My religion, you see a lot of different things you never see."
Guillen's religion is Santeria, a largely misunderstood Afro-Cuba
spiritual tradition that incorporates the worship of orisha -
multidimensional beings who represent the forces of nature - with
beliefs of the Yoruba and Bantu people of Africa and elements of Roman
Catholicism. And Guillen, born in Venezuela, is one of a growing number
of Latin American players, managers and coaches who are followers of the
How many major leaguers have converted to Santeria is impossible to say
because most, aware of the stigma the religion has in the United States,
refuse to talk about their faith.
"It's like the forbidden fruit," one player said. "It's something
personal. It's something you don't talk about."
But among those who have acknowledged their devotion are Los Angeles
Angels pitcher Francisco Rodriguez and Florida Marlins third baseman
Miguel Cabrera - both Venezuelan - and the White Sox's Cuban-born
pitcher Jose Contreras, all of whom have been All-Stars and won World
Series rings. Others, such as Reds shortstop Alex Gonzalez and Chicago
Cubs infielder Ronny Cedeno, have experimented with it.
"It's something beautiful," said Contreras, who became a babalao, or
Santeria high priest, before defecting from Cuba in 2002. "And it helps
me a lot. It gives me peace and tranquillity, but more than that."
Rodriguez, who points to the heavens after each save, also says Santeria
brought him a calmness on the field.
"I'm not trying to do it to help me," he said. "I've been with
(Santeria) for a while. I like it. (But) I'm Catholic, too. You cannot
do anything without God."
Santeria - the name translates roughly as "the way of the saints" - has
long been derided (think Pedro Cerrano, the character in the movie
"Major League" who turns to the gods to get out of a batting slump) and
dismissed in Judeo-Christian society as a primitive cult based solely on
bloody animal sacrifices and voodoo, both of which it has. But the
syncretic religion is much deeper than that, focused primarily on the
worship of orisha, or saints, who govern a specific area of life.
"Santeria always was a religion that was persecuted," said Miguel De La
Torre, professor of social ethics at Denver's Iliff School of Theology
and author of "Santeria: The Beliefs and Rituals of a Growing Religion
"You had to keep it secret. For self-survival and to survive in this
culture, you had to keep it secret because it was seen as a primitive
religion. The U.S. culture has described Santeria as some type of a
blood-letting evil religion. The media has really characterized Santeria
as something that people from lower classes celebrate."
But, De La Torre said, as it grows it's becoming more mainstream.
Although he says placing figures on the religion's adherents is
guesswork at best, De La Torre's book says some scholars estimate that
100 million worshippers are identified with Santeria in the Americas.
About half a million of those are believed to be in the U.S., which, if
true, De La Torre writes, means "there may be more practitioners of
Santeria than some of the mainline U.S. Protestant denominations."
Much of the misunderstand regarding Santeria stems from some of the
religion's worship rituals. Each orisha, besides having distinct
personality traits, also has a favorite number, color and food to which
devotees must pay special attention during worship.
For example, Chango, the lord of thunder and Santeria's most popular
orisha, likes the numbers four and six, the colors red and white and
prefers roosters. When offering a sacrifice to him, the animal's blood
is sprinkled on sacred stones.
For the last couple of seasons the Marlins' Cabrera, like Guillen, has
worn multicolored Santeria beads and kept a number of lighted candles
and Santeria icons in his locker, frequently making offers of money and
drink to them. Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, an art dealer, even had a
protective carrying case specially built so Cabrera could take his most
imposing item - the likeness of a carved skull on a four-foot stick -
with him on the road.
But Cabrera has refused to speak to U.S. reporters about his religion,
ending a recent interview with two journalists when they asked about the
things in his locker.
"It's my stuff," he snapped. "What do you want to know for?"
The success of Guillen, Cabrera and Rodriguez has inspired many young
players in their native Venezuela to look into Santeria, which has long
had a strong following in the South American country. As a result, some
teams have begun addressing religion with players they sign there.
"The only thing that helps Cabrera, you know, is the athletic ability.
Don't tell me that because he is (praying to) any kind of saint he is a
better player," said Tampa Bay Devil Rays executive Andres Reiner, who
pioneered the idea of a developmental academy in Venezuela more than 15
years ago with the Houston Astros. "Like I said so many times to a bunch
of young players: It's not enough to go to bed at night and try to
convince God, you know, 'Please get me to the major leagues.' No. you
will have to make all the effort to get there. God has no time for that."
Yet Reiner and others concede that religious beliefs - especially those
imported from home - can give young players something to hold on to when
they're struggling to adapt to a new language and culture while trying
to perform at a high level.
Hall of Famer Tony Perez, who is from Cuba, where Santeria is prevalent,
says players who turn to that religion for help or comfort are no
different from Catholics, Protestants or Jews who look to their faiths
for the same thing.
"I always crossed myself when I went to the plate because I wanted to
thank God because I was healthy," said Perez, a Catholic. "It gives you
something to believe in. I don't think you're going to be a better
hitter or a better player because you do Santeria. But I believe that it
can help you if you ask for help to be healthy all year."
Guillen said that, while he's proud of his religion, he refuses to force
it on anyone.
"I never, never, never, never talked to any of my friends and said,
'Listen, this thing works. Listen, this thing helps,'" he said. "If you
want to come in, I'm not going to knock on your door. You knock on my door."
Publication date: 06-28-2007