The general manager of the Washington Wild Things — the Washington, Pa.-based Frontier League baseball team — has apologized to a Jewish fan offended by speeches presented at a game last month, which the general manager has admitted were “highly inappropriate.”
State Rep. Rick Saccone (R-District 39) and Brig. Gen. Larry G. Powell delivered the speeches as part of the Wild Things’ July 17 “Faith and Freedom Night.” Rose Tennent, a radio personality and frequent guest host for the “Sean Hannity Show” introduced the speakers during a pregame program.
Although the event had been touted by the team in a July 12 news release as “a night celebrating everyone’s faith and honoring and remembering the brave men and women that have sacrificed and continue to sacrifice for our freedom,” Sharon and Bill Brustein of Squirrel Hill found it to be anything but. The couple, who arrived for the scheduled 5:05 p.m. start time with their two teenage grandsons, “were subjected to almost an hour of speeches” that condemned those who did not embrace Jesus and those with Democratic, liberal or progressive views, according to Sharon Brustein.
“As patriotic Jewish Americans, we were shocked to learn from the invited speakers that only those who believe in Jesus are saved from eternal damnation and can call themselves true Americans,” Brustein wrote in an email to The Chronicle. “Anyone with liberal political viewpoints and/or alternate lifestyle choices was similarly vilified. Needless to say, climate change and evolution were discarded as hoaxes.”
Brustein was dismayed that the speeches were not held prior to the scheduled start time of the game, or following the game, so those not choosing to hear them “could opt out,” she said in an interview.
“I don’t think it’s a proper venue for those types of speeches, but there is an argument that if you are going to have them, you should have them before or after the game,” Brustein said.
The more important issue for Brustein, though, was that an event in a ballpark billed as “a ‘faith night’ should include more than one faith,” she said.
Brustein claimed that Saccone’s speech “was trouble from the beginning,” arguing for “putting God back into the government” and stating, “You have to accept Jesus or you’re siding with the devil.”
Brustein also accused Saccone of “insulting President Barack Obama.”
“My husband was outraged,” she said. “We’re Democrats. And it went on and on. After 25 minutes of that my husband went to complain.”
Saccone denies the allegations.
“I said, ‘God has always been in our government,’” Saccone explained in an interview.
The point of his remarks that evening, he said, was to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the national motto “In God We Trust” and to trace that motto’s history back to its genesis when, in 1864, Pennsylvania Gov. James Pollock suggested it be stamped on the back of U.S. coins.
“That was the crux of what I was speaking about,” Saccone said, adding that it was a speech he has given scores of times around the country.
Saccone categorically denied that he insulted Obama or that he said that people who did not embrace Jesus would be siding with the devil.
He said he did not have a copy of his speech to share with The Chronicle.
Saccone added that he did not speak beyond his time limit of 10 or 15 minutes. Powell, however, did speak longer than his allotted time, according to Saccone.
Brustein said that once Powell took the stage, things got “worse.”
“He said that God created the world, and no matter what people tell you about evolution, it didn’t happen,” said Brustein. “He also said how horrible the Supreme Court was that it now allows people of the same sex to get married.”
The Chronicle could not readily obtain Powell’s telephone number for confirmation.
Sharon Brustein left her seat and headed to the manager’s office to complain during Powell’s speech. Although the manager was not in, an employee of the Wild Things in that office told her that the event was “a promotion to celebrate all faiths, and we have them all — Protestants, Presbyterians, we even have a Baptist,’” Brustein recounted.
“I said, ‘When a rabbi, a priest and an imam come on, I’ll go back to the stands,’” she said.
Following the game, and after two weeks of email correspondence between Brustein and Wild Things director of marketing and communications Christine Blaine, Brustein received an apology from general manager Steven Zavacky. Zavacky explained in his letter that the speaker originally planned for “Faith and Freedom Night” was a mother who had lost her son in the siege of the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, but “one thing led to another, and without my personal knowledge, the program was changed, and two different speakers were enlisted.”
Admitting that the speakers should have been vetted, the process “slipped through the cracks,” he wrote.
“I was not there the day of the event,” Zavacky continued, “but I understand the content was highly inappropriate. … The bottom line is the buck stops here with me and the owner.”
Risa Margulies, the Brusteins’ daughter and mother of their teenage grandsons, complained to the Wild Things about the “Faith and Freedom” event on its Facebook page and received an apology explaining the substitution of speakers “at the 11th hour.” The statement continued: “The speakers in no way reflected the thoughts of the ownership and management of the Wild Things. You should know that the park and both of our teams (the Wild Things and the Rebellion) are owned by a lovely Jewish family, so they and our entire staff meant no disrespect nor any harm.”
That family, Francine and Stuart Williams of Upper St. Clair, have been involved in the ownership of the Wild Things since its founding in 2002.
“The speakers went out of hand and went off the script,” according to Francine Williams.
The speakers also spoke beyond their time limits, she said, and Wild Things employees did not know how to cut them off in the midst of their speeches.
She also explained why the speeches were delivered at the scheduled start time of the game.
“The reason the whole thing was moved to right before the game is that Rose [Tennent] had to be at the [Republican] convention” in Cleveland, Williams said. “It was supposed to happen after the game.”
The event was marketed as a celebration of all faiths, Williams said, “and I intended it that way.” Speakers representing other faiths had been invited but “didn’t come.”
The remarks the Brusteins found offensive “were obviously not my message and never have been,” Williams said.
The Wild Things, which play at Consol Energy Park, have also hosted Jewish events, Williams noted, including a bar mitzvah, and a “Jewish school that comes in from New York and sings.”
“Whatever it was, it was,” Stuart Williams said of the event. “I wasn’t there and you weren’t there. I really have no other comment other than we support everybody.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.