Oct. 28, 2009
PHILADELPHIA - Brad Lidge was searching. He thought he was supposed to be a baseball player, but it seemed like all he did was have surgery. Stranded in Kissimmee, Fla., relegated to rehabilitation, Lidge needed more.
Drafted by the Houston Astros in 1998 after his junior year of college at Notre Dame, Lidge left school before graduating to start his minor-league career. But it hardly began before various ailments stalled it. While recovering from injuries to his pitching arm, Lidge followed his curiosity. The young pitcher dived into the Bible and science and history texts, searching for meaning in his problems.
The conclusions Lidge reached during those summers have provided essential comfort ever since. Lidge and the Phillies begin the World Series tonight, but during the long regular season and a bewildering slump, he retained perspective. Through careful reading, thinking, and studying - Lidge is pursuing a degree in religious archaeology, with plans to eventually work in that field - he continues to cultivate a personalized Christianity. That process began in earnest in Kissimmee.
"I didn't know if I was meant to pitch," Lidge, 32, said on a recent morning, sitting in the stands of an empty Citizens Bank Park. "Whether it was then, or this year, or the rough year in 2006 I had in Houston, I always felt there was a higher purpose to life than just being a baseball player. And sometimes, even when things aren't going very well, it just means that when they finally go right, you'll be able to serve as a better example, as a baseball player and person."
An evolving faith
Religious faith can arrive for some in a single, sublime moment, but Lidge was never struck from a proverbial horse. His beliefs took shape gradually, beginning in childhood and accelerating during those minor-league days.
The concept of faith came to define Lidge's baseball life several ways. The faith he developed while in Kissimmee allowed him to climb to the major leagues. The faith he kept in himself when discarded by the Astros allowed him to succeed as a Phillie in 2008. Phils manager Charlie Manuel's faith in Lidge helped the closer through a shockingly difficult season in 2009. And Lidge's different yet powerful faith that he would rediscover his effectiveness in the playoffs has so far proved prescient.
The pitcher's Christianity defies common classification and is subject to constant revision.
"If I had to define myself now I would be nondenominational with a heavy appreciation for and leaning theologically toward Catholicism," Lidge said. "But there are some things in Catholicism that I don't subscribe to."
That perspective hardened when Lidge and his wife, Lindsay, visited the Vatican.
"If you've seen the Sistine Chapel and you see the amount of wealth amassed there . . . if they decide there is a time when they really want to use that for God and Jesus' cause, they could spread that," Lidge said.
"They could sell all those things, auction them off and probably feed half that world's starving population. There is that much wealth stored in the Sistine Chapel. For it just to be sitting there I think is a crime. It just doesn't make sense anymore. People have given well-deserved gifts to the church, but Jesus said, 'Store for yourself not treasures on earth but treasures in heaven.' These are treasures on earth. That's not what we're supposed to be doing."
Raised in a Catholic household near Denver, Lidge attended Mass every Sunday and served as an altar boy. But religion hardly defined his younger days.
"I don't think that I was necessarily big on religion then," he said. "I was more a philosophical, rationalize-things- out type of guy."
While at Notre Dame, a school run by Holy Cross fathers, Lidge melded courses in history and philosophy with a closer focus on the spiritual texts that were required. He read Stephen Hawking and the New Testament, unwittingly preparing himself for the more serious independent study a few years later in Kissimmee.
"I really enjoyed a lot of philosophy and theology at Notre Dame," Lidge said of the coursework, some of which is required and often taught with a religious orientation. "When I did that, I sort of reworked why I believed what I did."
Lidge still identifies strongly with Catholic beliefs, but attends the Protestant-leaning Sunday chapel services with most of his teammates. His primary spiritual goal is to develop a personal connection to divinity.
Secure in his opinions but reluctant to criticize others for theirs, Lidge approaches these subjects diplomatically.
"This might be a touchy issue," he continued, before pausing. "I'm trying to think of that best word; some of the ritualistic things that are involved, some of the questions on the pope's infallibility and when that started . . . I have a lot of respect for Catholicism, but sometimes the hierarchy can get in the way of the relationship between yourself and God and Jesus."
Lidge does not always agree with the common matches of religious and political thought.
"You come to learn that a lot of times faith and reason are pitted against each other," he said. "But more often than not, they support each other.
"A lot of times people feel that conservative, sometimes right-wing, politics are more Christian than left-wing politics. That's not necessarily true. If we really want to get into it, I think Jesus would pretty much be antiwar in any circle, and that is definitely more of a left-wing approach, more Democratic than Republican. I don't favor one party. I look at the issues and see which ones I stand with morally. And I vote based on that."
Describing himself as less of a "literal Christian," Lidge does not understand why what he calls peripheral issues become divisive.
"Do you believe in evolution or not? - those can be periphery issues," Lidge said. "I choose to focus on our belief in God, which is the underlying common ground. But wars were started over those periphery issues. Christians fighting Christians."
Lidge contrasted his focus on a personal relationship with God and those who proselytize.
"There is definitely a difference," Lidge said. "A lot of people have different paths to God. Sometimes we all try to use that wide brush, that everyone needs to have the same path to God. But I have a lot of respect for other religions. It doesn't make any sense to judge other religions and say that their path to God won't lead them on a great spiritual quest as well. Christianity is the right path for me, and I find a lot of strength in it. But I would never knock someone else's path to God.
"All world religions have their origins somewhere. Christianity wouldn't exist if it weren't for Judaism, so far be it from me to undercut another person's religion. I just know that Christianity is my personal path to God. And I even know that my Christianity might even be more liberal than in a lot of circles."
As he suffered a league-leading total of 11 blown saves this season, Lidge remained serious about his job without losing perspective.
"There were times this year when I was absolutely flabbergasted that the results weren't coming around," he said.
Still, he revisited Scripture roughly three times each week, attended Sunday services and Wednesday Bible study with his teammates - and worked hard in pursuit of an online degree.
Shorty after he was traded to the Phillies, Lidge enrolled in online courses at Regis University, an institution run by Jesuit priests in Denver. Lidge finds his faith enhanced by the study of religious archaeology, specifically artifacts of the late Roman Empire, and the period when Christianity spread across Europe.
Brad and Lindsay have a daughter, Avery, 5, and a son Rowan, 10 months. But, as was the case with his days in Kissimmee, Lidge was bored on road trips, so he began using the time to develop his intellect and faith.
"There is so much downtime on the road," he said. "At home, we're super busy with kids, but on the road, I was just wasting time. I wanted to be doing something toward when baseball is over, and that's why I started taking the classes."
Lidge expects to finish his undergraduate degree within a few years. He plans to pursue a master's, and hopefully a career excavating religious artifacts in Europe, after retiring from baseball.
"I don't ever want to stop learning," he said. "You should never be satisfied with where you are in your personal quest."