Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A’s became known for “Moneyball” – introducing the new “sabermetrics” rage to the baseball world. He was known for taking a chance on players who had been written off by most other baseball teams. When the Washington Nationals took Billy Burns in the 32nd round of the 2011 Amateur Draft, he was considered a long-shot by most to make it to the majors. The Oakland A’s traded for him last December and despite being a later round draft pick, he was called up to the majors for a brief stint earlier this year.
Burns is not a “5 tool athlete” like many top prospects. He is really known for one thing – speed. In his career, he has played 393 games and has stolen 181 bases. He has only been caught 23 times. That is a success rate of over 88%. But despite the critics and doubters that see him as a one-trick pony, he knows that if God wants him to make it as a major leaguer, he will make it. Check out this video from CBN.
Burns story makes me think of 1924 Scottish Olympian Eric Liddell. Liddell was very outspoken about his faith and his trust in God’s plan. His story is told in the movie Chariots of Fire. The famous quote from that movie is when the Liddell character says
” I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure“. I find some similarities between Liddell’s words and Burns’. Burns knows that God has a perfect plan. He is ready for whatever God brings on the field. He says ” God’s going to put me in a position that is going to allow me to make the best of that opportunity; whatever that opportunity may be for baseball.”
Burns hopes to make be an everyday player in the majors, but his is going to influence people wherever he goes. This spring, when he joined his new team - (Midland Rockhounds) at the start of the year, he sought to involve himself with a local high school ministry. He says “I’m involved with stuff like that because my walk with God is a big part of my life. So I try to help the kids in high school to have a role model, someone they can kind of follow into that path, because in high school I wasn’t a Christian at all.”
Here are my takeaways from Burns’ story.
1- God Made me Fast – God can and does do impossible things. But He also works with the amazing gifts and abilities that He has given us to use for His glory. Burns talks about this with regards to his skills and his major league potential. The CBN interviewer asks him about what his critics have said about him. Burns says ” it’s not up to me. If God wants me to make it, I’m going to make it no matter what kind of disadvantages I have on the baseball field or what weaknesses some would say I have.” God is not hindered by our apparent shortcomings. Instead, he may grant us success despite our shortcomings so that we know it is only because of Him that we are where we are, and He is glorified by our acknowledging Him and giving Him the credit for doing the things that only He is able to do.
2- Stop Running – Burns had been successful in high school. He was great on the field, he was getting good grades, he was popular with the girls, but still he felt empty. He loved playing sports and excelling, but he knew there was something more. He was known for his speed, but in his life, it was when he stopped running that he connected with God. Now, he identifies himself as a Christian who happens to play baseball. The same holds true for each of us. We can get so caught up in being busy, or in trying to do things ourselves, running from God’s plan or His leading. But when we stop and realize that it is only when following God’s plan that we find fulfillment and satisfaction, that is when He begins to change our lives in way that truly impacts us. When we make God our priority, He meets us and works His plan out in a way that can only be His doing. Let’s stop trying to do things on our own, stop trying to run from God, and let Him do amazing, miraculous, impossible things in our lives for His glory!
I know that with a title like that, I need to explain myself a little. But first, let me set the stage by introducing my subject for this post.
In 1978, the cover of Sports Illustrated featured an up and coming player in the Royals system who they labelled “This Year’s Phenom”. His name - Clint Hurdle. However Hurdle’s playing career did not match the potential the Royals saw in him when they made him the number nine overall pick in the draft. He played only 2 full seasons with the Royals, and after bouncing around to a few other teams, he played his last game in 1987. He may be considered a bust, But that was not the end of Clint Hurdle.
He began his managerial career in 1988 in the Mets system. He returned to the majors as a hitting coach with the Rockies in 1997. In 2002, he took over as manager. Hurdle had committed his life to Christ at the age of 17 but during his playing days, his commitment wavered. By his own admission, he treated God like an ATM – mostly staying away until he needed something. He also battled alcoholism.
As you can read in this story from Sports Spectrum, it was during his stint as a coach for Colorado that Hurdle recommitted his life to following Christ. As a manager, he has been quite successful. He lead the Rockies to the World Series in 2007. He was a hitting instructor for the Texas Rangers in 2010, when they won their first American League pennant, and then in 2013, he led the Pittsburgh Pirates to their first winning season in 20 years. He won the Manager of the Year award for his work, and Pittsburgh has been over .500 for the past 2 seasons, too.
Here he is explaining the ATM reference as a member of the Rangers staff.
While Hurdle still strives to be successful on the field and lead his team to the playoffs for a second straight year. His ultimate goal, as you can read here, is to hold his players accountable and help them be successful off the field as well. The article says “To inspire others, he regularly reads the writings of Christian leaders such as Chuck Swindoll and Rick Warren and challenges men with Romans 14:12, “So each of us is accountable to God.”
Hurdle challenges all men to get over their specific hurdles that keep them from having a servant’s heart.
Here are my takeaways from Hurdle’s Story:
1- Jesus is for Losers – This is a strange statement to make on a web-site about Christian Athletes but when you think about it, there is a lot of truth to the statement. In fact, Jesus himself said a couple of things that prove this point. He said “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 5.3) and “those who want to come with me must say no to the things they want, pick up their crosses and follow me. Those who want to save their lives will lose them. But those who lose t heir lives for me will find them.” Songwriter Steve Taylor wrote a song in the early 90′s called Jesus is for Losers. As the song nears it’s end, he sings “Just as I am at a total loss. Jesus is for losers broken at the foot of the cross” Clint Hurdle as a player did not meet the potential seen in him. He was a bust, a loser. As a manager, he took over a team that had lost more games than they won for 20 straight years. Yet, just like any of us, when he realized how lost he was, Jesus was there to meet him and to give his life meaning and purpose. When we realize that without God, we are doomed and will lose in the end, it is comforting to realize that Jesus died on a cross for us – to offer us a chance to be victorious and receive the most incredible reward around.
2- God is not an ATM – This is a good analogy that I had never heard before reading Hurdle’s story. But it rings so true. Many times I know that I go to God when I have an urgent need. He is convenient, I get what I need from Him and go back to living my life on my own, not surrendering control to God or anyone else. I try to hold on to control until things get desperate. Then I go to God and ask for help. When things seem to turn around, I’m ready to go it alone again. The truth is that God doesn’t exist for us, we exist for Him. He is our purpose and the only meaning in our life. God wants us to give Him complete control. This is not a one time thing. It is something that must happen daily, hourly, even minute by minute. God is gracious and will help us when we seek Him.
I find it very encouraging to learn how God is working in someone”s life. It serves a couple of purposes for me. First, if I relate at all to the stories I come across, it shows me new ways that God has been at work in my life or the lives of those around me. Second, it reinforces again that God is in control and that His plan for all of us is amazing. I am reminded that God can teach us important lessons both through our own experiences and through the experiences of others.
Today, I want to focus attention on two players in the Chicago White Sox system – outfielder Jordan Danks and catcher Josh Phegley. Both are up and coming prospects. Both have played extensively this season with the Charlotte Knights (White Sox AAA team) and have also appeared in a few games for the big club.(Danks in 39 games, Phegley 3 games.)
Both of these men have been very active with Baseball Chapel with the Knights as well. Check out this video about Knights chaplain Frank Cantadore and his relationship with Danks and Phegley.
In the video, both of the players talk about the important role that the chapel services play in their faith. For the average believer, church is an important time in the week to join with other believers, hear from God’s word and be challenged and encouraged in their faith. With attending church next to impossible during the busy season schedule, baseball chapel offers players a place to go – a “pit stop” for them to spend some time hearing from God’s word and building their faith.
Here are my takeaways from their stories:
1- See a need, meet a need – I applaud team chaplains and organizations like Baseball chapel that offer a place to connect with God and other believers. Baseball especially has a long and grueling schedule with very few off-days (and those off days are very rarely on Sundays) so to take “church” to the field and offer it as a service to anyone that is interested – be it home team, visiting team or umpires, is a great way to meet the spiritual need of those who are not able to attend a church service on a regular basis. I am planning on adding team chaplains to my prayer list , that they have a true and meaningful impact on the lives they are in contact with. What a difference they can make in the lives of people that the world sees as ones who “have it all”
2- Intentional Feeding – This story reminds us that to grow in our faith, we need to be intentional about spending time with God. Going to church or even to a weekly chapel service is important but, true growth comes from intentionally finding time to read the Bible and allow God to speak to us through His word. Both players in the video talked about how important it is for them to find time to “get in the word” or find their “daily bread”. Attending church is not enough to grow our faith. It also takes intentional time spent with God and a desire to know Him more.
3- Process or Result – It is an oft-argued point, and it surfaces in the video, too. Is the Christian ball player always successful? Are they more successful that non-believers that they are playing against. Does God grant home runs or strikeouts? I like how the chaplain addressed this. Since God wants us to worship Him whether we are winning or losing, we simply offer ourselves and our efforts to Him and trust Him to accomplish His will through us. Sometimes, that will bring success, sometimes, we will not accomplish what we set out to do. Is God still God when that happens? Is He still worthy of our praise and devotion? Absolutely. Let’s choose to honor Him in all we do and learn from the process. We’ll leave the results in His capable hands!
As a Canadian, it is always a joy to share the faith story of a fellow Canadian. Outside of the NHL’s hockey arenas, it is pretty rare to find Canadians in professional North American sports and even more rare to find one that is an outspoken Christian. There have been a few – check out my posts about fellow baseballers Adam Loewen, Trysten Magnusen, Andrew Albers, and NFLer Israel Idonije (here and here). The bonus for me in writing about Toronto’s Jesse Crain, (although truthfully, he only lived in Canada for a few months) is that he played for many years with my current hometown team – the Minnesota Twins. And while he has been injured all season this year, the first year member of the Houston Astros is battling to return to the majors and continue as a reliable reliever.
Undrafted out of high school, Crain bounced around from University of Texas to Junior College, to University of Houston, playing shortstop and pitcher along the way. After college, he was drafted in the second round by the Minnesota Twins in 2002. And just 2 years later, Crain would get the call up to the Twins.
He pitched well in his 2004 audition and earned a regular spot with the Major League club starting in 2005. And while Crain pitched a lot in the majors after arriving in 2005, he did struggle a little in 2009 and as a result, he was demoted to AAA for a little while. As you can read in this article from Athletes in Action, the demotion played an important role, not in Crain’s career, but in his life. It was during this demotion that he began attending team chapel services. And even though neither he nor his wife grew up attending church, Crain’s search for why baseball had stopped being enjoyable led him to check out these services. Time with the chaplain and questions from his aunt Judee led Crain to realize that he really had very little control over anything.
Things began turning around, and when he returned to the Majors, his perspective had changed. He said “Christ is who I want to live for now. Baseball is what I do. I just want to serve Christ and put all my trust in Him. I don’t try to control anything anymore. I will just see where the journey takes me.” Here are my takeaways from Crain’s story
1- Everything Happens for a Reason – I’ve talked about this before on this blog, but again it just rings so true. We have our plans and our ideas of how things should go. And when they don’t go the way we think they should, we begin to ask questions ranging from “why?” to “is the whole world against me?” But if we truly seek answers and are open to believing that there could be a God and He could have a plan to use whatever we are going through, we will be amazed at how following His plan always works out for our best.
2- Growing Leaders - Crain discusses in the article that neither his wife nor he had any sort of Christian background. And yet now, they are telling their stories to bible study groups, sharing their faith with wounded warriors. He has also taken a leadership role in organizing team bible studies and chapel services. It is so encouraging to see people go from no knowledge of God to a passionate devotion and desire to lead others to know Him. It is also challenging for me, having attended church my whole life, to be as excited and passionate about knowing God more and leading others to know Him too. I am reminded of David’s words in Psalm 51 – Restore to me the joy of your salvation. (emphasis mine) When I stop to consider what God has done for me, and how He has lead me thus far in life, I am amazed. I pray that I will always be moved and motivated to share His love and see it as my life’s mission – as urgently and passionately as when I first came to realize that the stories of God and the Bible were true.
Shawn Tolleson was drafted in the 30th round of the 2010 draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Claimed by the Texas Rangers this past off-season, Tolleson has been a busy man in the Rangers bull pen. Relief pitchers are the ones that take over when the pitcher who started the game is tiring and/or losing effectiveness. A relief pitcher comes in to a game often when another pitcher is starting to struggle, or has reached the limit of what they can do.
This season, Shawn Tolleson has already appeared in 54 games. For relief pitchers, it is not about statistics - Tolleson has 2 wins and 1 loss and 0 saves in those 54 games. But it is about coming along to meet the need of his team, either to preserve a lead, or to limit the damage and give his teammates a chance to catch up. Again, in baseball we can see the different roles on each team and the important role that each person plays.
And for Tolleson, relief goes beyond the baselines. Last winter he and his wife Lynley went on a relief mission trip to Zambia with Clayton and Ellen Kershaw (Clayton was Tolleson’s teammate with the Dodgers). The Kershaws, who I wrote about a few years back, are building an orphanage in Zambia. You can read about their trip in this article from MLB.com.
Tolleson is not new to mission trips like this. As you can read in this article about Baylor University Baseball’s trip to Cuba in 2010, or this article from the Baptist Standard about another Baylor trip to Mexico ,id About the Mexico trip, He says “It’s always good when you get the chance to go out and serve” … “You learn a lot about yourself when you’re out there serving God.”
His experience in Cuba also challenged him in his faith. Cuba of course is a communist country where expressions of faith in God are not very welcome. However, as the article reads, “In spite of restrictions on religious activity in Cuba, the group learned the government recognizes moral problems among its youth. As a result, it is willing to tolerate religious expression by Christians who can teach values effectively”
As such, the Baylor team had opportunities to share about their faith in God and how important it is to their daily life. Tolleson says ” the opportunity to share my testimony to Cuban high school baseball players is an experience I will remember for the rest of my life”
My takeaways from Tolleson’s story:
1-Resume doesn’t matter – I love that God uses us all. In the first story, we read about Tolleson, battling to earn and keep his job at the major league level, going side by side with Clayton Kershaw, an All-star and Cy Young award winner. God uses us all, regardless of our status or place if we are simply willing to go where He leads and do what He asks. And the way things work in God’s economy is that our willingness to serve changes our own life as much or more as the lives he allows us to impact.
2- God draws people - Cuba is a country where there are restrictions on religion, especially to outsiders. But at the same time, there is a recognition that there is a deficiency in morality in the world, and as a result, Christians are invited to come and share about God in an effort to change the culture to a more positive and morally acceptable one. God will not be silenced, and His word does not return void. I read this story and I am again reminded that people crave a God to worship and a relationship that satisfies the soul. This is only found through Jesus. And He will not be stifled by the rules of man.
3- Get out of your comfort zone - The articles about Tolleson’s faith talk about these 3 trips that he took. And while serving others in God’s name is something that we can all do in the place where we live, there is something to be said about how God connects with us and teaches us about His love for the entire world when we get out of our routines and our comfortable places and we follow His lead to the “rest of the world”. When we are following His lead, and coming face to face with the world that God so loved that He sent His one and only Son to die for, we will understand with greater depth, the love that God has for each of us. We will have our heart stirred and we will not be content to go through the motions of our life. We will be compelled to serve others in God’s name. And we will be used to make a difference in the lives of others which will in turn impact our own life. God’s plan is best. Let’s follow it with all we’ve got.
I am getting to the age where I barely remember high school. I do remember that a few days after I graduated from High School, I went to work for a construction crew that was rebuilding a busy stretch of road in my home town. I spent 12 hour days out in the hot sun either doing manual labor, or controlling traffic with one of those “stop/slow”signs. I would spend some time on the work sight thinking about what the future may hold and getting ready to start my bachelor’s degree in the fall. It was a scary time for me, knowing that the “future” was almost here and soon I would be trying to figure out my career and get “grown-up” life under way.
Two days after his high school graduation, Seattle Mariners designated hitter Corey Hart was drafted in the 10th round by the Milwaukee Brewers. Grown up life was here for him. He went to begin his professional career in Ogden, Utah. And maybe he was not completely ready for what he would encounter. He ran in to some off-field troubles that had him on the brink of being out of baseball. Hear him talk about his story in the following video from CBN.
While Hart progressed through the minors, his life was slipping from his control. He was focused on himself. He was using drugs, ruining his reputation, and losing his wife and four children. She was ready to be done with Him.
Then, their oldest daughter, who was attending a private Christian school, asked her dad to help her with a homework question. She asked what a it meant in John 3.30 mean. The verse says “He must increase, but I must decrease” He didn’t know how to answer her. And the verse in question rattled Hart. He began searching for the meaning of that verse. The search awakened a desire to learn more about God and what the Bible had to say.
His life began to change, he worked on his marriage and his family. He had decreased his focus on himself, and increased his focus on God. He asked God to help restore him, his marriage and his family. And God faithfully did just that. He says “I used to be so self-involved. I became a better person once I realized it is not about me. I think I am a better dad, a better husband, and I know I am a better person.”
Here are my takeaways from Hart’s story:
1- Increase vs decrease – We spend so much of our day trying to prove that we are good enough, trying to impress people around us and make a name for ourselves. And this is not only an issue in professional sports. We all battle this everyday. The truth is the more we put on ourselves, the more drained we will feel and yet, we will still feel inadequate and like we are failing. I talked about it a couple posts ago, but it surfaces again, so I guess I am still learning about it. We strive for independence as we get older, but contrarily, God desires for us to be dependent on Him. If we can decrease our self-centered nature, and give up control to Him. If we can decrease and allow His presence in our life to increase, we will see amazing changes happening like Hart did.
2- Learning from our Children – It was Hart’s oldest daughter who asked him about the Bible, and as you can read in this article, she asked if they could go to church. That moment was a catalyst for Hart searching out who God is and eventually giving his life to following God. Jesus talks frequently about the value of children and their faith. Again here we see God using a child to draw an adult to Him. May we never underestimate the value of the children and youth in our lives!
3- From Self-Absorbed to Other focused – Hart was so consumed with being successful as a baseball player, he put those most important to him, his wife and children, on the back burner and was almost a the point of losing them all. After inviting God to help him reset his priorities, the change has been noticed by teammates, too. As you can read in this article from Athletes in Action, Hart has taken some younger players under his wing, helping them with baseball, but also with their growing faith. When we take our eyes off of ourselves, we see that there are people around us that God may be calling us to help. Who could you be a friend/mentor to?
I enjoy writing posts for this blog. I am a sports fan but the teams I consider my favorites are not often the most successful teams in their sports. So writing these posts allows me to find reasons to cheer for teams that may not otherwise be my favorites. But occasionally, I am still conflicted. An example of this was the 2011 World Series, won by the St. Louis Cardinals. I’m a fan of Josh Hamilton (here is my post about him) and I really wanted to see the Rangers win a title. And while I also like and have blogged about Albert Pujols and Adam Wainwright, I was still hoping that the Rangers would prevail.
Then, with the Rangers just one strike away from winning it all, Cardinals third baseman at the time, David Freese stepped in to the batter’s box. On this night, he would crush the Rangers dreams not once, but twice.
He hit a two-run triple with 2 outs in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game. Then, in the 11th, he hit a walk-off home run. The Cardinals would win game 7 the next night to claim the title and Freese would be the World Series MVP.
For Freese, who was traded last off-season to the L.A. Angels of Anaheim, it must have been a dream scenario. Big hits, helping his hometown team (he grew up in St. Louis) win a World Series at home. But as you can read in the book Intentional Walk, Freese knows that “none of it would have been possible if he had not made a dramatic decision in December 2009 to turn his life over to Christ” . He had been making some bad choices in life and it was taking its toll on him.
Shortly after surrendering his life to God, he met Mike Matheny (who I blogged about earlier this season). Matheny was a Cardinals coach at the time, and Freese knows that it was an important meeting, not just for his career, but for his walk with God. Intentional Walk goes on to say “Freese knows that because of the people God put into his life, his life has changed.”
Baseball is made of plenty of highs and lows, streaks and slumps. With Freese having enjoyed some of the greatest heights that baseball offers, he was asked how hard it was to deal with some of the lows that baseball brings. His answer? “I know that the more you invest in God, the easier the lows become“. Freese goes on to say “If the word humble is not in your dictionary, it is going to find you quick.” Staying humble is the key.
Here are my takeaways from Freese’s story
1- The life of a seed - Jesus tells the story of a sower that spreads seeds. It is a process for a seed to grow into a plant that bears fruit. It requires good soil, sun, water, weeding, and patience. And when this happens, there is fruit that is produced. The same is true about our Christian faith. God brings people into our lives at important times to play important roles. They help us grow, help us identify and rid ourselves of problems, and allow us chances to continue developing. God’s timing and plan is perfect. Freese talks about the importance of meeting Matheny and other Christians just after committing his life to Christ. They helped encourage him in his faith and root him in Christ. (John 15). Who has played important roles in your life? Whose life are you impacting? How can you help them grow in their relationship with God?
2- Is humble in your dictionary – Freese has lived out some of the biggest thrills in baseball. He was the hero. With that came attention, the talk-show circuit, ovations and adulation. But baseball also has ways of bringing you down. There are injuries and slumps that can sneak up on a player at any given time. Freese talks about having lots of opportunities along the way that have taught him humility. Humility comes when we realize that God is the one in control – not us. We like to blame God or fate or other people for our circumstances when they are hard, and take credit ourselves when things are going well. Following God means trusting Him – giving Him the credit for the great things He is doing in your life, and watching Him be faithfully by your side, leading and teaching in the hard things that life brings your way. Humility means remembering to keep yourself out of the picture and let God be in the spotlight.
I appreciate my parents. And now as a father, myself, I appreciate even more the job that they did raising my brothers and I. They modeled a life where God was central and serving others was important. My wife would say the same thing about her parents. She learned a lot about what following God is all about by watching the way her parents lived their lives. I strive to be a good dad and hope that if nothing else, my children will know that God is real and that living for Him is the only way to live. The gift He offers is amazing and unending.
I’ve never met or spoken with Orioles catcher Nick Hundley, but judging by what I read in this article from Campus Crusade, he would agree with my thoughts about parenting. When talking about parenthood, he quotes Proverbs 20.7 - “Blessed are the sons of a man who lives with integrity.” He had grown up in a Christian home and is grateful for the godly example his dad was. He desires to do the same for his children. What does it mean to live with integrity? It means to live what you say – to demonstrate in your actions what you claim to believe. Hundley became a dad a last August when his daughter Allyson was born. Fatherhood has him to an increased dependency on God. He desires to show his kids the example of a Godly father, like he had in his own dad.
But baseball had become Hundley’s main focus. And after a below average year, he was searching for answers. Something needed to change. Former Padres teammate Eric Stults (whom I blogged about last season) says about Hundley “The biggest change I see is he put God back in the forefront of his life.” And with the help of a couple spiritual mentors, he has again learned to depend more and more on God. He says “Christ has infiltrated my life, and I want that to continue on a daily basis, an hourly basis, every minute of the day.” I know that when I became a dad, I realized that if I depend only on myself to raise my children, I (and they) would be in for a lot of trouble.
Here are my takeaways from Hundley’s story.
1- Fatherhood – Proverbs 20.7- What a great verse and what a great challenge. I know that it is easy to give in to the temptation of following the way of the world and trying to do everything in our own strength. But the saying is true – actions speak louder than words. Do my words reflect the importance I claim that God has for me? Does my life show the change that He has made in me? Following God and allowing our actions to reflect our devotion to Him is vital for our own existence. But as this verse reminds us, our children will be blessed if we live our life according to our belief in God. How? They will see a life of faith modeled. They will see and hear us proclaim God’s faithfulness in all times, and they will (hopefully) choose to make Him the most important part of their life.
2- Dependence vs. independence. - I lived at my parents house longer than most people do. It was the cheapest option for me in college. Living at home and working allowed me to get through college without any student loans. And while I was not “on my own” like many of my college friends, I was more or less free to come and go as I pleased. I did spend a couple of years travelling and working. That is what our world and our society tells us to stand on our own – that independence is important. But with God, we are counter-cultural. Instead of striving for independence, God wants us to be very dependent. Dependent on Him for everything. Depending on his plan to lead us where we ought to go. And while independence from our parents is an important step to growing up, complete dependence on God is the only way to survive life and all the struggles it brings.