Some things are required to be a successful athlete – hard work, sacrifice, coachability, success, natural skills. But those things do not guarantee that you will “make it”. Sometimes, our plans don’t work out. – Just check out this ESPN story about the birth of Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis’ third child- born in the passenger seat of a borrowed car – to see how sometimes, life can throw us a little surprise.
But A.J. Ellis wasn’t really planning on being a Major League catcher. His expectation was realistic or so he thought. He was an 18th round draft pick – a long shot from the outset. This article from kentucky.com tells how Ellis hoped to learn as much as he could about baseball by playing it professionally so he could then go into coaching. He did not expect to be the starting catcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers. But he worked his way through the minors and made his Big League debut in 2008, and two years later, an amazing thing happened. The Los Angeles Dodgers were going through a messy ownership switch and their wasn’t any money to spend on free agents to come in as starting catcher. So Ellis stayed in the mix along with a pair of serviceable veterans. Ellis was better than the others at getting on base. He also spent time learning from former teammate Brad Ausmus and claimed the starting job for himself. Now, the Dodgers have money to spend, but Ellis has already won the job, and continues to be the Dodgers #1 catcher proving to be an asset at the plate as well as behind it.
And as a catcher, it does help to have one of the best pitchers in baseball on your team. Clayton Kershaw (whom I blogged about 2 seasons ago – read it here) and Ellis are battery mates, and accountability partners. Kershaw has been actively sharing his faith and his mission to help orphans in Zambia, and Ellis has joined him in sharing his faith with any that he meets. He even wrote a forward for Kershaw’s book, Arise.
From that forward comes this challenge from Ellis:
“I encourage you to passionately embrace (…) the challenge of giving your all in every aspect of your life for the Glory of God. Seek opportunities to reach outside of your comfort zone to help those less fortunate overseas and even right across the street. Welcome a new perspective of being known first and foremost as a Christian co-worker, a Christian parent, a Christian spouse, a Christian student. ”
My thoughts from this story:
1 – God exceeds our expectation
How cool is it that Ellis was going to play as long as he could, but didn’t really expect to have a long pro baseball career. And yet here, at the age of 32, he is the starting catcher for the Dodgers. And when you take into account the challenge that he put up in the forward to Kershaw’s book, being a Christian primarily and serving God wherever he leads, it is cool to see how God is giving Ellis a chance to talk about Him in all the places and ways that being a professional athlete allows you to.
2- What are you known for?
The challenge from Ellis also asks the question that each of us needs to pose to ourselves. What do you identify ourself as? Who are we? What do we want to be known for. I want to be known as a Christian who also blogs, a Christian who is also a dad, husband, educator, etc. Putting Christ first in all areas of life and following His plan, even if it seems hard or uncomfortable, is the best way to live.
Life in pro sports is tough in some ways. Athletes become idols. Media, fans, even coaches tell them how great they are and how important they are for the hopes of all who favor that team. And when the numbers and performance live up to or exceed the expectations placed there by so many, great! But when the production starts to slip, and the doubters and critics voices gain volume, it can seem all the more harsh.
Barry Zito was drafted with the 9th overall pick in the 1999 draft by the Oakland A’s. He spent just over 1 season in the minors before turning heads in the big leagues. Zito had a great rookie season, and then, after a slow start to 2001, he turned it around for another impressive year and followed it up with a Cy Young award as the League’s top pitcher in 2002. And while he didn’t quite match his numbers from that season, his next 2 in Oakland were still very strong. Overall with the A’s he was 102-63 and allowed about 3.55 ERA. He also proved durable, not missing a single start in his entire Oakland career. All this earned him a record-setting contract with the San Francisco Giants.
Since joining the Giants, though, things have not gone as smoothly. he had a losing record in each of his first 5 years in SF, even leading the league in losses in 2008. Talk of wasted money surfaced almost immediately, websites were started suggesting that Zito be traded, critics voices were easily heard. And, for the first time in his pro career, Zito missed time due to injury. And significant time at that – limited to just 13 starts in 2011. And after pitching in the playoffs in 5 of his 7 seasons in Oakland, Zito was left off the post season roster when the Giants won the 2010 World Series. Over the past 2 seasons, he has had a resurgence and was a key part of their World Series run last season.
So dealing with insult and injury, Zito had to look inward and realize that there is more going on in life than baseball and what others think about you. Read the ESPN interview hear, or listen to Zito tell his story in this video shot at Giants Faith Day last season.
Here are my takeaways from Zito’s story:
1- Idolatry is a trap for all of us. -Barry Zito has a tattoo of a Golden Calf on his right biceps. Why? it came from the realization that he had been putting baseball, and other things too, in places of greater importance than God. The tattoo is a reminder of that past, and a challenge to avoid doing so again in the future. We put all kinds of things in competition for top spot in our lives. Money, fame, kids, busyness – all of it proves empty and lets us down when it holds the place of most importance. Even being the one that is idolized can be an idol in our life. Attention and affirmation of others can consume us and distract us from keeping the attention on God.
2- He is the Shepherd. From the Zito interview: “My best friend told me an old story I really love. A shepherd will be leading his sheep, and one of the sheep will be walking astray from the pack. The shepherd will take his rod and break the sheep’s leg, and the sheep will have to rely on the shepherd to get better. But once that leg is completely healed, that sheep never leaves the side of the shepherd ever again.”
I have been learning more and more about God as our Shepherd lately – it just keeps coming up as I read the Bible. So this story was interesting to me. At first, I thought it seems harsh for the shepherd to break the leg of the sheep. But it is for the good of the sheep that he does this – To keep it on track and to create a dependence on the shepherd. The bible talks about cutting away the dead branches that do not produce fruit, but also pruning the branches that do produce fruit so that even more fruit can be produced. Following God is hard, and there will be times of pain (just ask Job!) But God loves us and can use that pain to help us depend on Him.
To steal a line from a speaker I heard, “Is Jesus a crutch? Sure! But when you are crippled, that isn’t a bad thing”. Without God, we are crippled. Having Him to lean on is the only way we can get through this life!
Last week, San Diego Padres pitcher Eric Stults hit the first homerun of his big league career. It was a 3 run shot and was key to the Padres win. For Stults, his first homerun came in his 7th season in the Big Leagues. Check out his hit:
His journey to San Diego started with a 15th round draft pick. The Lefty called 11 minor league cities home over the course the next few years He saw a brief stints in the Majors and even spent a season in Hiroshima, Japan. You can read about his experience there in this article from The Elkhart Truth.
After spending all that time “on the farm” it isn’t a surprise to learn Stults favorite place is, well, on the farm. As you can read in this article from Athletes in Action, Stults father, and both of his grandfathers were farmers in Indiana, so it comes naturally to him. Stults says “I still really enjoy it, and I continue to work on Dad’s farm every chance I get, sowing and harvesting seeds of grain.”
And as he tells us his early life was driven by farming and by faith in God and helped mold him and guide his life. He began to understand that to know God meant a deep personal relationship. Something that impacted everyday life, not just at church times. And so Stults made following God a priority in his life. And even though no one dreams of years spent in the minor leagues, out of those trying times come some great blessings. He talks about meeting Las Vegas champlain Kenny Fine and what a blessing this relationship was in his life. He also tells a great story of an American working as the mascot for the team in Japan, taking the Stults family to a worship service.
Stults continues to grow in his faith and to be a spiritual example to fans and teammates alike. Last season, he was one of the featured speakers at a Padres faith day.
What I immediately thought about when I read this story is the parable of the sower in Matthew 13.
What struck me as I made this connection was in the AIA article when Stults talked about how he enjoyed sowing and harvesting. What a privilege it is to be called to different tasks by God. He is the one that changes hearts and a heart that changes is the by-product of a lot of people sowing seeds into their lives. We don’t always know the role we will play, and we don’t know what else has happened in the life we are speaking into. All we can do is be obedient and follow the Holy Spirit’s leading to love the people we meet and share the Gospel message with them. God will take care of the rest.
2- Our lives are like seeds.
While the parable of the sower is about the people who hear God’s message and how they respond to it, it can also be about the different seasons in our life. We all have times when we are resistant to God’s word, other times when we jump at what God is showing us, only to be trampled or choked by others who don’t seem to get it. Sometimes we try to guess the direction God is leading and act, only to find out that He had something else in mind, if our plans are not rooted in His plan, they will not last long. But when we listen to the Holy Spirit and follow God whole heartedly, we will see Him do amazing things and we will grow closer and closer to Him.
God may we be fertile soil, receptive to your leading and growing in our relationship with You. Help us to also be sowers, sharing your love with all we come in contact with!
Jackie Robinson: You want a player who doesn’t have the guts to fight back?
Branch Rickey: No. I want a player who’s got the guts *not* to fight back.
Jackie Robinson: You give me a uniform, you give me a number on my back, I’ll give you the guts.
Last Night my wife and I went to see the new movie about the life of Jackie Robinson and breaking the baseball color barrier. I first heard about this movie last summer when I wrote this post about C.J. Nitkowski, then a pitcher in the Mets organization, who played the role of Dutch Leonard, a Phillies pitcher that Robinson bats against in one of the key moments in the film. Since hearing about it, I have been eager to see it. Now that I have, let me share my thoughts about the movie and the story of Jackie Robinson.
I’ve read on line that the movie is missing any mention of Robinson’s strong faith in God, which you can read about in this article from The Wall Street Journal . Robinson biographer Arnold Rampersad wrote about Jackie’s faith ”Faith in God then began to register in him as both a mysterious force, beyond his comprehension, and a pragmatic way to negotiate the world.”
Jackie Robinson faced abuse, mostly verbal but occasionally physical, from opposing players and even teammates. He faced taunts and insults from fans, unfair rulings from umpires and differential treatment from restaurants, hotels, restaurants, etc. And yet, he was largely resistant to what would be a natural instinct for all of us – to fight back, to get revenge. Robinson credits his faith in God as the source for his patient courage to resist returning “evil for evil”. And while the movie may not have had a montage of Robinson at church or kneeling in prayer at his bedside, the fact that he was able to endure so much and focus on doing and being his best can only be attributed to God working in him. I opened this post with an oft quoted exchange from the movie. That attitude is what is at the heart of Jesus life on earth,and his instruction to turn the other cheek.
I thought the movie was spectacular. It was a sports movie that was about WAY more than sports. It was a 2 hour movie that moved along swiftly and left you ready for more. And mostly, it was a story of 2 men who changed the landscape of America’s National Pastime. And it is the faith in God of both men that led to this amazing change.
That is what spoke to me, watching the movie last night – the risk that both men took to make this happen. For Robinson the risks were obvious – physical danger, insults, danger to his family, friends, increasing tension between races. But for Branch Rickey, there were also risks. Upsetting the balance of baseball – being shunned by the other business owners, death threats and insults. It was a risky move, but one he made knowing it would make his team, and ultimately the game better.
Rickey’s own faith in God moved him to action. While his legacy in baseball is unquestioned and his contributions plentiful (farm teams, full time spring training facilities, as well as advancing batting helmets and even sabermetrics) his off the field contributions are also worth mentioning. In 1954, a college basketball coach named Don McClenan founded an organization called Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Rickey was one of the original charter members and underwriters for FCA, which today has grown into an organization that is active on campuses all around the nation, influencing and encouraging all in the sporting world to know and live for Christ. According to this article about Rickey’s part in FCA history, FCA today has “become a Christian sports ministry with over 450 offices and more than 1,000 staff members across the nation, one that God uses to bring thousands of people into His Kingdom every year. In addition, FCA is moving beyond American borders, with camps held in 21 countries last summer alone.”
42 is an amazing story of a key time in American History. What the movie did for me, as a believer, was remind me that God forgave me and calls me to forgive others, even if they are vicious to me. The forgiveness he calls us to goes against our instinct to get revenge or fight, and teaches us as much or more as it will teach those we forgive. Let’s be ready to listen and learn as we live for Him, even when it is hard.
Dexter Fowler is an outfielder for the Colorado Rockies. He has been in the majors since 2009 (with a few trips to the minors here and there). So far he has been tearing it up this season, as you can read in this article from MLB.com. He has half as many home runs in the first 2 weeks of this season as he had in 140+ games last year. He has ad some other great moments in his career too, including a game on April 27, 2009 when he tied a modern-day major league record with 5 stolen bases.
As I looked into his story more though, it was his website, where the Rockies’ center fielder caught my attention. He has a tab dedicated to his thoughts on faith. You can read it here. When I read it, my attention was grabbed by the third paragraph when he writes that “He (God) is the central part, and the heart beat of my life, my family, and my professional career as a baseball player.”
This is a thought that has always challenged me and that I see as so important to life as a Christian. Is God just a part of my life, or is his existence critical to my life continuing. Without a heartbeat, we are dead, and likewise, without Christ as the central part of our life we are spiritually dead. Just like a heartbeat impacts the whole body – and the way oxygen is used and blood distributed around the body, our relationship with God NEEDS to impact every part of our lives. It is not simply a part of our life – a category that we can open up from time to time and then put back when we don’t need it. We always need Him to be active and central to our lives.
My takeaways from Fowler:
Fowler goes on to say that “If nothing more I hope to bring faith into lives of those who have none, or have lost it along their journey through life. I am living proof that through faith in the Lord all things are possible.” That’s it. That’s what it is all about. We are put where we are to impact the lives of those around us. To encourage the discouraged, to help find the lost and to share with them what God has been doing in our lives. He has done impossible things for us – let’s give Him credit for those things, and use them to change lives.
I am grateful for this reminder to keep Christ in the center, and allow Him to impact every part of my life.
Inspiring thoughts and sayings are often more inspiring when the context with which they are shared is understood.
Martin Luther King Jr’s “dream” speech is even more potent when you really consider and understand the battle for equality that he had faced every day of his life.
“Tear Down this Wall” – Ronald Regan’s call to Soviet leader Mikail Gorbachev and Eastern Europe to increase freedom in the Eastern Bloc. These words are more impacting when you begin to understand the hardships of life in the communist world.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” says the LORD. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” Jeremiah 29.11
It is the context of this verse that I will focus about with this post. Jeremiah received this word from God to share with the Israelite people who are suffering through exile in Babylon. The Point? (or at least part of the takeaway from this passage) God is in control, even when life is hard, and his plan is for your best and for the best.
This verse is what caught the attention of Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Ian Kennedy.
Drafted in the first round of the 2006 draft by the Yankees, Kennedy signed a contract with them, and soon learned about the scrutiny that comes from being a first round pick of the most well known team in baseball.
He worked his way through the minors quickly, having pretty good success at each stop. He made his big league debut in 2007 and impressed, earning the win with 1 earned run allowed in 7 innings.
He was rated as a top prospect going into 2008, but a bad start and an injury saw him back and forth between the Yankees and AAA. It was during that up and down season, that Kennedy’s wife, showed him Jeremiah 29.11. As you can read in this article from MLB.com, Kennedy was really looking for some ray of hope to cling to. The sports world is one where there are the most critics that cheer you on in good times and hound you when you are struggling. Anyone’s confidence and pride can get rattled when critics tear you down. Kennedy held on tightly to this verse.
And he needed the reminders when 2009 came. He had to have an aneurysm removed from his right armpit and pitched only 5 times all year. That left him off the roster when the Yankees won the 2009 World Series.
Then, in December, he was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks. He has become their ace and has been their opening day pitcher for the past 3 seasons. His best year so far was 2011 when he went 21-4 with a 2.88 ERA. He finished 4th in the National League in Cy Young voting and led the Diamondbacks to the playoffs. He knows that God has brought him to this place, and he is grateful not just for where he is, but also for the journey it took to get him there
Here are my takeways from this story
1- God’s plan is the best.
We go through hard times in this life. But God uses them to help us learn to depend on Him. That alone is a lesson worth learning, but often we find that God is not done with that part of our story yet. He can use our experiences to help others going through hard times and often we find out that our “hard times” put us just where we need to be, when we need to be there, to see God at work or to help a friend in need. Our idea of success doesn’t necessarily reflect God’s. Success means following and trusting God, no matter what.
2-Who do we play (live) for?
I mentioned how hard critical people can be on our psyche. The devil wants nothing more than for us to be discouraged and sidetracked from following God and growing closer to Him. When we listen to what others are saying, we can get off-track. This is not to say that there aren’t good things that can come from loving correction or constructive criticism, but when doubt comes in and we begin to question our self-worth, we need to refocus on God and trust that He is still in control, carrying out His plan for our hope and our future.