I have to be an Example – Ender Inciarte – Atlanta Braves – All Star Focus part 4

Braves All-Star outfielder Ender Inciarte

As a job, I am a “Site Coordinator” for an after school program that operates at a school in the greater metro Twin Cities. I oversee a staff 0f 15-20 who plan and carry out a daily before and after school program during the school year, and full-day programming in the summer. I have a boss and a group of supervisors that I answer to, but at the site, I am the leader.

So an important question to ask when you are in a leadership position is: How should I lead? What is my leadership style? I am a firm believer that a good leader values people and leads by example (i.e. is willing to do whatever task they are assigning others to do). A good leader is willing to practice what he/she preaches.  These thoughts came to mind today as I looked into the story of Ender Inciarte, All-Star outfielder for the Atlanta Braves.

Inciarte is a Gold Glove Outfielder

Enciarte signed his first pro contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks back in 2008 as an 18 year old. Signed out of his native Venezuela, Inciarte worked his way through the Diamondbacks system but was left unprotected and selected in the Rule 5 draft by the Philadelphia Phillies in 2012.  He earned a spot with the Phillies out of Spring Training, but did not appear in the Opening Day game. After the game, he was demoted which for a Rule 5 player, means he was available to be reclaimed by Arizona. And that is what happened. He climbed the minor league ladder for a couple more seasons before making his debut with Arizona on May 2, 2014. He would play 118 games for the Diamondbacks that year, finishing 5th in Rookie of the year voting. He played one more season in Arizona before being traded to the Atlanta Braves. Last year with the Braves, Inciarte won a Gold Glove award for center field. Thus year, he already has 2 5-hit games for the Braves, christened their new stadium by recording the first out, the first hit and the first home run at the new Ball Park.

How do you win a Gold Glove? You keep some tricks up your sleeve and you have an accurate, strong throwing arm.  Check out this play from a game last season.

The speedy Inciarte has been a consistent leadoff hitter for the Braves for the past 2 seasons. Baseball gives him an escape from worry about what is happening in Venezuela

You can learn more about Inciarte and his thoughts about the political upheaval in his native Venezuela from this article from the Atlanta Journal Constitution. He recently tweeted. “I ask God every day and every night for the lives of all the people that go out every day to fight for liberty in the streets.”  You can also read about his excitement to play in the All-Star game on Tuesday, or you can check out this capture from his Instagram account. He wrote “I feel very humble and proud to be able to represent my team in the All star game. Faith in God and hard work has brought me even farther than what i ever thought. But the kid never stops dreaming. 

But it was in the book “Baseball Faith” by Rob Maaddi that I really was challenged by Inciarte and his faith.  He says “Religion is just a word. My religion is God, so I try to play for Him. Hopefully one day, people can see Him through me. I try to be a better person, a better example because if I follow Him, I have to set an example for others. 

Here are my takeaways from Inciarte’s story.

Inciarte knows he is called to be an example for others of what living for God looks like.

1- I have to set an example for others – There is a true statement that someone made once about examples. It says “You are always an example for others, are you being a good example or a bad one?”  What kind of example am I? Do my words reflect what I claim to believe? Do my actions line up with my words?  A verse that has meant a lot to me is 1 Timothy 4.12.  It says “ Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”  Those 5 areas really cover all of life.  How can we be an example in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity?  For me, it comes down to understanding/admitting what God has done in my life. It is like in Acts 4.20.  Peter and John stirred up the city by healing a lame man at the temple. The leaders didn’t know what to do with them, so they decided to warn the two of them not to speak anymore about this healing or about Jesus. Peter answers “We cannot stay quiet about what we have seen and heard”. What have you seen and heard God do in your life? How have you experienced His love, forgiveness and Supernatural work? It had become so engrained in their lives that it came out of them, and they knew that they wouldn’t be able to hold it in. I pray that we all are so moved by what God has been doing in us that we are unable to hold it in either. Inciarte said “If I follow Him, I have to set an example for others.”

2- Pray for others –  I speak often about hard things that we go through. Let’s also remember that even if we are not in the midst of trouble and pain, we don’t have to look very far to find others in a hard situation. Inciarte is playing baseball and playing at a high level. He implied that baseball is a time when he can take his mind off of the trouble in his Homeland. But every day he is praying for the people there and the battle for liberty that they are fighting. Even if we are from here or our home is not in some form of political unrest the truth is that there is a world around us that are not living in the freedom that comes from knowing and living for Jesus. Pray for opportunities to share that freedom with them through your encouragement, your words and your example.

This is What I Got – Robbie Ray – Arizona Diamondbacks – All Star Focus Part 3

Diamondbacks pitcher Robbie Ray

A few years back, I wrote a blog post about New York Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera. Part of his story was that one day, as he was throwing with a teammate, practicing his cut fastball (aka cutter) the baseball just began to move unpredictably. It was the pitch that made Mariano Rivera an All-Star and Hall of Famer. Teams would know that the cutter was coming and they still couldn’t hit it. Now Rivera is a legend and maybe the best that ever played the game. But the goal for all pitchers is to be unhittable – to make batters miss, even if they know what is coming. Robbie Ray has been pretty successful at making batters miss.  He will be the focus for the Living Up to My Name post for today.

Ray hit his first career home run against Tampa Bay’s Chris Archer in 2016

Ray was drafted by the Washington Nationals in the 12th round of the 2010 draft. He worked his way through the Nationals system, and in 2013 he was traded to the Detroit Tigers as part of a package of players sent to get Doug Fister. He would start the 2014 campaign with the Tigers AAA team in Toledo. He was brought up to make his debut in May, and pitched in 9 games with the Tigers that year. Another trade brought him to Arizona where he is now in his third season as part of the Diamondbacks rotation. After a rough start to the year, he has really turned things around and has earned an All-Star spot – the first of his career. He is 8-4 with an era just over 3. He has also struck out 128 batters in 100 innings.This article from CBN calls him a fastball specialist. Like Rivera, you know what you are going to get with Ray, you simply have to figure out how to hit it. And many fail at this. Ray is one of only 12 pitchers in baseball history to average 11 strikeouts per nine innings over the course of an entire season.  He says “I’m not an aimer. I’m more of a hard nose, in your face kind of pitcher. I’m coming at you and with my best stuff all the time. I’m not a guy that’s gonna nibble on corners. I’m not looking to trick you. I’m coming at you with what I got and that’s it!Last year I felt like there were starts where I could tell the guy ‘hey this is what’s coming’ and he still wasn’t gonna hit it.” Check out Ray sharing his thoughts on pitching in the majors below.

Included in that piece was Ray sharing the importance of faith in his life as a baseball player and as a dad. He says “I think its just trusting Him daily. What really put it in perspective for me is when I had my first son. And I realized the relationship I have with my Heavenly Father is a lot similar to that. He can disobey me but I could still love him. And so I know every time I mess up, every time I do something wrong – that God still loves me.” As a member of the Tigers, he was an active participant in some Faith Days.  You can check out his faith story from his days with the Tigers here.

Here are my takeaways from Ray’s story:

Ray is a Fastball pitcher. He says “I’m not an aimer. I’m more of a hard nose, in your face kind of pitcher. I’m coming at you and with my best stuff all the time.”

1- This is what I got –  Ray is a fastball specialist. He may mix in a few different versions of the fastball, but ultimately, his weapon is the fastball. He admits that he isn’t a finesse pitcher, trying to catch the corner of the plate and keep you guessing about what is coming. He just simply brings fastball after fastball and dares batters to hit one. And frequently, they are unable to do so. Let’s compare that to our Christian faith. Some people get caught up worrying about how to present the gospel message in a relevant way that will draw people outside the Christian circles. We try to find clever new ways to sneak the message in. Even when I worked in youth ministry, it was a tricky line to walk to plan a fun event, but still have some spiritual aspect to the night. Lately, I’ve realized that we don’t really need a trick or a hook.  Jesus is the hook. He alone is relevant, and the best message we could share with others. Let’s be like Robbie Ray with his fastball. “Here it is. This is what I’ve got. I’m not going to hide it, or try to trick you”.  It is my story, the way that I have seen God work in my life.  I’m just going to present it to you. What you do with it is up to you and your willingness to let God speak to you.

Ray with son (photo borrowed from Twitter) He says being a dad has given him perspective on his relationship with God

2- Father/child relationship – I am constantly amazed how many lessons I learn from being a dad. I really resonated with what Robbie said in the video about the perspective he gained from becoming a father.  I have 4 daughters and I thought as I heard his words that it would be horrible if they thought they could do something that would make me stop loving them. That breaks my heart to think that. A favorite book that my daughters always liked was the kids book “I’ll love you forever” but Robert Munsch. That is what I want my kids to know. No matter their behavior, their rebellion, whatever they do, I want them to hear my voice out loud or in their head saying “I’ll Love you forever, I’ll Like you for always, as long as I’m living my baby you’ll be”. But yet when it comes to God, our perfect, flawless Heavenly Father, we imagine that we can fall out of His love. He is perfect and He is filled with perfect love for each of us. He created us and made us just the way He wanted us to be. He also made us with the choice of whether we would follow Him or turn away from Him. But His love remains perfect. He will Love us forever and Like us for always, as Long as we’re living our Savior he wants to be. – Not quite as catchy as a rhyme, but so very true! Do you believe it? Will you allow Him to show His love to you no matter what choices you’ve made in your life. I promise you it will change your life for the best.

Achieving Success – Jose Altuve – Houston Astros – All Star Focus part 2

Altuve’s been a Silver Slugger, Stolen base champs and a 5 time All-Star.

I’ve always had a good imagination. Especially when it came to sports.  At home, I would play some form of baseball game with a glove and a tennis ball either in the basement bouncing the ball off a wall and catching it.  I drew a box on another wall and that was the first baseman. If I got the ball to that box before the count in my head reached five then I got the guy out. On nice days in the summer, I would move the game outside and bounce the ball off the slanted roof of the house. This time the first baseman was a decorative iron post that my father had placed between 2 sections of our split driveway. I played out the results of many World Series Championships in my basement and on my driveway.

Now this may seem lonely to you, but I assure you it was just part of my practice regime. I also played little league one or two nights per week.  You see, I like many young boys, I dreamt of being a professional baseball player.  I had dreams of making it to the big leagues and becoming a star based on my solid defense, great speed and adept base stealing instincts. I was a legend in my own mind when it came to such things.  I could spray hits all over the field. I could draw walks, bunt for base hits and was a reliable fielder. I could read by a pitcher’s motions when he was going to throw to the plate and get a great jump to steal bases.  My Hall of Fame career numbers were coming together nicely. But then reality set in. My playing days would be done at age 15. Retirement for me would be church league softball for a decade before those days too would end. When it came to baseball, I had not achieved great success.

Astros 2B Jose Altuve

Jose Altuve knows success. The 27 year old Venezuelan second baseman for the Houston Astros has made a huge name for himself since bursting on the Major League scene in 2011 at the age of 21. In the past 6 seasons, Altuve has 5 All-Star game appearances. He has won 2 batting titles, 2 stolen base crowns, 3 Silver Sluggers and a Gold Glove. He became the 9th fastest player in history to reach 1,000 hits and in 2014 became the first player in over 80 years to have 130 hits and 4o stolen bases before the All-Star game. Not bad for Altuve who is among the shortest players in the Major Leagues. In fact, according to this article from Sports Illustrated, Altuve was cut from an Astros tryout in Venezuela at age 16 because of his height. He was told not to come back, but he came back the next day anyway, and caught the eyes of some of the scouts.  Enough that they offered him a signing bonus and started his journey to Houston. Five years later, he arrived in the Majors.

But despite all of this incredible success, Altuve has a different measure for success than most.  As you can hear (or read, depending on your Spanish fluency) in this video from MLB.com, for Altuve, success is found in following God’s will and staying close to Him. Check it out.

Altuve (left) with fellow All-Star participant Aaron Judge – the height difference is more than a foot.

As you can read in this article from the Houston Chronicle, Altuve grew up in a family that focused on achieving success. He says “I grew up in a family that always told me that to achieve success, we needed to have God first. To achieve success wasn’t to get to the major leagues or have the best season in the world. The best success is to live your life the way God wants you to. If you can do that, if you can be good with God, then I think you will have success in your life.”

Here are my takeaways from Altuve’s story

Altuve has been great on offense and defense.

1- Rejected and Returning – According to the SI story, Altuve was cut by the Astros because of his height. With his father’s persuading, he went back the next day and caught the attention of some scouts with his play and hard work. That is hard to do when we are rejected, cut, told to go home and never come back. Altuve persisted and finally caught the attention of the right people and his journey was underway. Jesus does the same thing for us. He is willing to offer more chances to people who reject him and turn away from Him. Revelation 3 tells us that He stands at the door and knocks. If anyone hears (his) voice and opens the door, (He) will come in and eat with them and they with (Him). If we turn away from Him, He still knocks. If we try to ignore Him, He shows up. When we run away from Him, He runs after us,  Let’s never forget the lengths God goes to to offer His love and forgiveness to each of us.

2- Measure of Success – Altuve has accomplished a great deal in his short time in the Majors.  He has won many accolades and awards. But when asked about success. Altuve shared that the only measure of success he cares about is being successful in following God. That is what true success looks like – living for Him and putting Him ahead of everything else. Does that always equal All-Star Games and million dollar contracts? No. But is it always the best plan? Yes. My life is not a failure because I didn’t achieve my goals of playing professional baseball. My life is a success because I choose to live my life for His purposes. Am I perfect? no! Do I mess up, and put other things ahead of Him? I do. But life lived at its best is lived for Christ. And He will help us be successful. Let’s connect with Him and make honoring and pleasing Him be our measure of success.

Just Go Play – Nolan Arenado – Colorado Rockies – Modern Monday All Star Focus pt 1

Rockies All-Star third baseman Nolan Arenado

The All-Star rosters have been named and barring injury or opting out, those will be the guys we see in the Mid-Summer classic. This year, for the first time in several years, home field advantage in the World Series is not riding on this game. I know that it was not a very popular with fans that the winner of this exhibition game be given the significant advantage for the World Series, but I like that it gave the game some meaning and some reason to keep it competitive. So with that, gone, this year, I will simply be focussing on the All-Stars themselves, especially those whose story I have shared or plan to share on these pages. I will start with the starting third baseman for the National League – Nolan Arenado. He is one of 2 Rockies in the starting lineup, joining Charlie Blackmon (whom I blogged about at All-Star time a few years ago)

Arenado is definitely is a star. Only 26 years old, he has been an All Star twice before, he is on a streak of 4 Gold Gloves (in 4 major league seasons), 2 Silver Sluggers, 2 N.L. Home Run and Rbi crowns. And a couple weeks ago, on Father’s Day, he hit for the cycle, finishing the feat off with dramatic flare by hitting a walk-off home run to win the game.  Check out the video below. That is a pretty solid return for the Rockies second round pick in the 2009 MLB draft.

So Offense? Check.  How about defense.  Got that covered, too. Check out this gem from earlier this week also against the Giants.

Arenado is a 4-time Gold Glove winner

And on July 11, Arenado will play in his 3rd All-Star game.  As you can read in this article from Mile High Sports, Arenado, despite the accolades, is still looking to improve. He says I’m still learning. I’m still learning who I am as a ball player and how I am handling this game. I feel like I’m getting better every day. Hopefully I have a few more years in this league.”  He goes on to share that it is easy to overthink the game of baseball.  He says “I wish when I was younger I would have heard just go play,- Enjoy this and go play.”  Further in the article, we read about a tattoo that Arenado has on his left forearm. It reads “Matthew 19.26”  That verse says “Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible. Why this passage? Arenado explains “When it comes to baseball I start to become a different animal. I start to just focus on the game. But my faith keeps me level headed. It makes me know that I have someone to rely on.

Here are my takeaways from Arenado’s story:

2 time Silver Slugger Arenado will play in his third All Star game on July 11

1- Just Play – Last Sunday, I heard a message at church about Trust. Trusting God when life gets hard, trusting Him at all times.  It is so easy to get distracted, to try and deal with things in our own strength and to allow ourselves to doubt or hesitate when it comes to following God and going where He leads us. Arenado talks about how in earlier in his career, he wished he had been told to “just play”.  I see these as similar things. He implied that the game can get in your head, you can have doubt in your abilities or try to tweak your game and end up overthinking it and making it worse.  I feel like that is how it is with Trusting God. An analogy used in the message on Sunday, and one that I have used myself from time to time in teaching Bible to kids is that of a chair. 99.9 percent of the time, we sit in a chair without giving it a second thought. We don’t inspect the chair, the back, the legs to make sure that it isn’t going to fall apart or cause us to fall, we don’t ask someone else to try it first and make sure it is OK, we don’t ask our friends to think about us and pray for us before we park our butt on the chair, – we just sit and expect that the chair will hold. Why are we so trusting? Because the chair has always held us before. But a chair is an inanimate object, made by imperfect people and we are still so trusting. Why don’t we have this same trust in the God who created the universe and promises to have plans to give us hope and a future? He has also always held us before. He has our best interests in mind and is able to do things that we see as impossible (see point #2). Yet, we don’t blindly trust God’s plan or path for our lives. We hesitate, we seek second opinions, we see what others are doing and try to follow them instead. Arenado wished he heard people telling him not to overthink baseball, and “just play”. We also need to not overthink life and all that could go wrong or distract us.  Just Trust! He is more reliable than a chair, trust Him and put your all into following His plan!

Arenado says his faith in God helps him stay level-headed when the game and life try to throw him off.

2- With God All Things are Possible – So am I saying that following God will eliminate our pain, discomfort and embarrassment? Not even a little. Jesus promised that in this world we will have trouble. But He is by our side and He has overcome the world (John 16.33). So even when pain, discomfort, embarrassment and hardship comes our way, keep trusting in Him, Keep going all out for Him. And when the unimaginable heartbreak that life has a way of confronting us with shows up, only complete dependence on Him will carry us through. How can we trust Him when doing so seems to lead to hard things? Well, we can remember that hard things come to everyone – Pain and sorrow are never far away in this life. But again, I am reminded of one of the great promises the Bible tells us. Philippians 4.13 says “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”. That phrase “all things” covers more than we think. It means God can lead us to peaks of amazing accomplishments, AND he can lead us out of deep valleys of pain and despair. Let’s remember both sides and that God is there with us through it ALL!! He can help us. He wants to help us. and with Him on our side, all things are possible.

TBT – Homeless not Hopeless – J.R. Richard – Houston Astros

Astros pitcher J.R. Richard.

I was going to label this article “The Best Player You’ve Never Heard of” but changed it to the new title which fit the story more. I do wonder though how many fans remember J.R. Richard. I am a child of the `80s. I was a huge sports fan and an avid card collector. I have 2 older brothers, and they would buy some cards too, but not with my interest or passion. When they grew out of the card collecting phase, I inherited their collections too. Those days introduced me to J.R. Richard of the Houston Astros.  I knew he existed, I had some of his cards, but it was only when I looked into his story recently that I really learned about the incredible journey of highest highs and lowest lows that he experienced..

At 6’8″, Richard was an intimidating presence on the mound. He had large hands as well.

During his career, he was one of the best and it seemed like there was no ceiling to what he could do. From this Bleacher Report article, we read about the senior season he had at Lincoln High School. It reads “As a pitcher, imagine not losing a single high school game for your career, and not giving up a single run in your senior year.” The result of such a stellar year was the #2 draft pick in the 1969 amateur draft. He signed with the Astros and began in their minor league system. His results strong enough that he moved quickly through the minors and was called up to Houston in September 1971 at the age of 21. How did the debut go? He tied a record for most strikeouts in a debut with 15 – and the lineup included future Hall of Famers Bobby Bonds, Willie Mays (who he struck out 3 times) and Willie McCovey. Not a bad way to start a career.  He would struggle with controlling his electric stuff a little and would not make it to the majors to stay until 1975.  Once he did make it though, the numbers don’t lie. 4 straight seasons with at least 18 wins, 2 seasons with more than 300 strikeouts, Cy Young and MVP consideration.  This ESPN article shows his dominance in his short career, putting up the best numbers of any pitcher in Astros history (a history that includes Mike Scott and Nolan Ryan).

In 1980, he made his All-Star debut, being named the starting pitcher for the National League team. Here is that All-Star Game appearance.

He would leave after 2 innings possibly with some back or shoulder pain, I couldn’t find out for sure. He would make another start, but leave the game due to blurriness and “dead” arm. The Astros put him on the Disabled List, some fans thinking he was lazy or unhappy. On July 30, just 3 weeks after his All-Star game appearance, during a light workout, Richard collapsed. He would wind up in the hospital, undergoing surgery that saved his life. Read more about it in this Astrosdaily article. It was later discovered that Richard had suffered a series of strokes. He would not play in another Major League game.

J.R. Richard and teammate Nolan Ryan. They could have been the top 1-2 pitching tandem in history

And this was just the start of the tragic phase of Richard’s life. A couple marriages that ended in divorce and some bad business decisions left Richard broke. He wound up living under an overpass a few miles away from the Astrodome where Richard dominated for half a decade. Astro fans would drive by not realizing that one of the best they’d seen was now homeless.

But homeless does not mean hopeless. As you can read from this CBN article, Richard sees this time as a season when God really helped him see Him more clearly.  He says “I was forgotten. For a while [it hurt], but then you get over it. You’ve got to look at the goodness. It made me look more deeply at myself, to realize it isn’t about your friends, it isn’t about materialistic things in life. It isn’t about the car, the nice house or whatever. It’s about God and God alone!”  He connected with a Houston pastor and was able to get back on his feet. Since then, he has become a minister and written a book about his life. I plan to read the book soon and learn more about this incredible story.

Here are my takeaways from Richard’s story

Richard’s book Still Throwing Heat.

1- It’s Not Always our Doing – I’ve shared stories on this blog where the hard things that life has brought on the subject of the post are largely brought on by their bad choices. It is the stories of hardship and devastation that come from circumstances beyond our control that are the hardest to wrap our minds around.  Now that is not to say that all of the bad things that happened to J.R. Richard were out of nowhere. Like all of us, I’m sure that some of the hardship that found him was logical consequence for decisions he made. That is part of all of our stories. But some of it also were just the circumstances that came his way – the hand he was dealt. Don’t you find it comforting though that God is the dealer who deals us the “hands we are dealt”. He is in control of all, and even in the midst of the worst days, He remains in control.  More than being in control, though, he has a plan to turn our hardship into something good. He has lessons for us in faith, asking us to trust Him in the midst of it all and see Him bring something amazing out of the pain and hardship.

2- Homeless not hopeless – When we reach our lowest points, and we see that God is still in the muck with us, we can feel hope starting to build in us. In this world we will have trouble but He has overcome the world (John 16.33). The Bible also reminds us that we are not “home” in this world, just like Jesus wasn’t home here. (John 17.16) And whatever comes our way, this world is NOT our home, it is NOT what we live for, it is NOT where our hope lies.  Our hope lies in Jesus preparing a place for those who love and follow Him. J.R. Richard found the hope of Christ in homelessness. He is now a minister looking to share that hope with others who don’t yet see it. Let’s remember what Christ has carried us through. Let’s remember that there are lost and hurting all around us and let’s use the life God has given us to draw others to Him. It truly is about God and God alone!