MILWAUKEE — Champagne corks popped in the visitor clubhouse on Sunday, Oct. 7, as the Milwaukee Brewers celebrated their sweep of the Colorado Rockies, advancing them to the National League Championship Series.
Back home in Wisconsin, an extended member of the Brewer family was celebrating, too. Fr. Jerry Herda was popping a champagne cork in his backyard after watching the game on television with his family.
Fr. Herda, the Milwaukee Archdiocese’s Vicar for Ordained and Lay Ecclesial Ministry, has been a lifelong Brewers fan, but he also has a special connection to the team, having served as its Catholic chaplain for 12 seasons.
“The family was all together and we were screaming and yelling and even broke open a bottle of champagne in the backyard,” admitted Fr. Herda, following the Brewers’ 6-0 shutout of the Rockies to win the National League Division Series.
Fr. Herda’s role with the Brewers began shortly after pitcher Jeff Suppan signed with the team in 2006. A devout Catholic, Suppan asked if a Mass could be celebrated at Miller Park for players and staff prior to weekend games. As Fr. Herda explained, the St. Louis Cardinals, Suppan’s previous team, had arranged for a Mass at the ballpark on weekends and Suppan hoped that could be replicated in Milwaukee.
Then-Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, now Cardinal Dolan, appointed Fr. Herda to the role and, for the last 12 seasons, Fr. Herda has celebrated Mass in the press room of Miller Park prior to games Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning.
“It’s open to any employee of Miller Park and there are a variety of people who come,” said Fr. Herda, noting that players, coaches, ushers, security personnel and members of visiting teams are among his “parishioners” at the ballpark Masses.
The concept of ballpark Masses has been promoted by a national organization to which Fr. Herda belongs, Catholic Athletes for Christ, and to date, he said Masses are celebrated in 28 of 30 Major League ballparks.
For Fr. Herda, as a baseball fan, the opportunity was a dream come true.
“I’ve been a lifelong fan. I grew up in this area and have always been a fan, so I was excited at the opportunity to be this close to the inner workings of a baseball team. It was nerve wracking and fun all at the same time,” he said.
Fr. Herda estimated that he celebrates about 10 ballpark Masses a year and attendance at each Mass averages about 25 to 30 people.
“For some of these people, it’s the only opportunity to go to Mass. The security guards, for example, have to be there so early on Saturday and then have to be back Sunday, so there’s no other opportunity for Mass,” he explained.
Players and coaches are among the attendees, he said, noting that this season, he had a repeat worshipper from the Pittsburgh Pirates, since the team was in town for more than one weekend.
“It’s been my experience over the years that some guys are very faith-filled and really take their faith seriously, trying to live out their faith by attending Mass and wanting to participate in the sacraments. It’s nice to see that happening and I wish it would expand more,” said Fr. Herda.
He recalled that Suppan, who was released by the Brewers in 2010 and retired from baseball in 2014, was not only a regular attendee, but an evangelist of sorts, as he encouraged teammates to attend. According to Fr. Herda, Suppan’s devotion to the Eucharist was evident in his humorous comment about a similar non-denominational service also held at the ballpark on weekends.
“He’d say to (teammates), ‘Why go for the appetizer when you can come for the real meal?’” Fr. Herda relayed with a smile.
Because of time constraints, Fr. Herda said he has to limit the Masses to 30 minutes, but even in the shortened time frame, he makes sure to leave the worshippers with a message they can carry with them.
While his role primarily involves celebrating Mass at the ballpark, Fr. Herda said he has performed a few baptisms, heard confessions and recently, after the death of a longtime usher, celebrated his funeral Mass at the request of his family.
The role has also offered Fr. Herda some unconventional opportunities, such as sliding down Bernie Brewer’s Slide at Miller Park in 2016 to kick off an Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee event and throwing out the first pitch at the ballpark last year. That was a bit unnerving, Fr. Herda admitted, noting that he only had a day’s notice to prepare. Unlike a previous first pitch he threw for a strike at Wrigley Field in Chicago, thanks to parishioners who had a connection there, the pitch at Miller Park bounced before the plate. He chalked it up to lack of preparation time.
Earlier this year, Fr. Herda and Rabbi Steven Adams of Ruth Coleman Synagogue (Ovation Sarah Chudnow) in Mequon, had a little fun in the days before All Star voting ended. The two, wearing matching T-shirts shirts that read, “I Believe in Jésus Aguilar,” were an internet sensation with their conversation about voting Aguilar into the All Star Game.
“This is one Jesus we can both believe in,” said Rabbi Adams. “I don’t want anybody to read any more into this, but it’s one we can share and when it comes to Aguilar, we certainly share complete faith in his abilities and his worthiness to be in the All Star game.” Fr. Herda added, “We can both share our complete faith in the Brewers.”
Fr. Herda’s connection to the Brewers has left him with a lifetime of memories and shelves and walls filled with memorabilia. In his office, for example, a framed photo of himself with Pope Benedict XVI hangs next to his prized, framed 2011 cover of Sports Illustrated featuring a story on the National League Central Division champion Brewers and signed by Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun and T Plush (Nyjer Morgan). Brewer bobbleheads and balls signed by Rollie Fingers and Henry Aaron grace his shelves, along with a wooden carving of the Holy Family, altar bells and an ornate golden cross.
One of his treasured possessions, he said, is a signed poster from a former regular Mass attendee and recently inducted Hall of Fame pitcher, Trevor Hoffman, after his milestone 600th save.
Brewer manager Craig Counsell has a special place in Fr. Herda’s heart, too, he noted. He got to know Counsell and his family when he was pastor of St. Eugene Parish, Fox Point, and St. Monica Parish, Whitefish Bay, and Counsell who was still playing professional ball, was a member of his parish.
“That’s when I got to know his wife and kids, too,” said Fr. Herda, of the man nicknamed “Chicken” who scored the winning run in the 1997 World Series when the Florida Marlins beat the Cleveland Indians.
That winning run is the tear-jerking climax of a soon-to-be released book by Tom Friend, a sports journalist for ESPN, “The Chicken Runs at Midnight: A Daughter’s Message from Heaven That Changed a Father’s Heart and Won a World Series.” It details the faith journey of Counsell’s third base coach when he was with the Marlins, Rich Donnelly.
With the Brewers poised to make a run for the World Series championship, Fr. Herda is grateful for the opportunity he’s had to impact athletes’ faith lives.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been as long as it’s been, but it’s given me a chance to meet people I never would have and has given me access to part of baseball that I never would have had,” he said, adding he’s gotten to meet the likes of Joe Torre and Bob Uecker.
“It gives me some joy in the sense there is a connection to something I love. I love being a priest and I love sports, so it is nice to connect them together,” he said.