Play Ball Don Kelly!

This is part 13 in my blog series on Christian Baseball players.  Today’s man of faith is Detroit Tigers Utility Man Don Kelly.

What is a Utility Man?  A utility man is an important player on any team.  It is someone that can play a variety of roles and play them well enough to help the team.  They can fill in almost anywhere in a pinch and are ready at a moments notice to pinch hit, or replace someone in the field.  They are also able to move around and play a number of positions to give the team some added flexibility with substitutions.  
Two of my favorite players, when I was growing up, were utility men.   Bip Roberts of San Diego Padres and Cincinnati Reds fame and Jose Oquendo of St Louis Cardinals fame. 
These guys played amazing roles, and were truly willing to do whatever was needed to help the team succeed.  For example, in 1988, Jose Oquendo became one of a small handful of players who played all 9 positions in the same year.  Utility men are remarkable team players.  The last 2 entries in this series have been utility men (Brent Lillibridge and Chris Heisey)

And the trend continues with Don Kelly, a utility man with the Detroit Tigers.  So far this year, he has played 6 different positions (including DH).  In his career, he has played every position except pitcher an catcher.  You can find an interview with him from WTLW TV in Ohio here. (There will be a different story playing when you go to the link, you will have to scroll down the list to find him – the interview is from last July).
career stats

In this interview, Kelly talks about some of the tough things that professional athletes have to deal with, like separation from family and the ups and downs of sporting life, and he also talks about what being a utility player is like.  This is what caught my attention.  Like he says, he needs to be ready when he gets the call play.  It may be different each day as he moves around from position to position, or waits for a chance to pinch hit, so he needs to be ready for whatever situation he will face.  This made me think of a 2 bible passages. 

Paul challenges Timothy “always be ready in season and out”  (2 Timothy 4.2)- don’t be caught off guard.  Come prepared to get in the game.

And Peter instructs us in 1 Peter 3.15 to always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us.

Utility men are ready at all times to step in and help the team – to do their part and do what is asked of them.  Don Kelly spoke of being prepared to do this in baseball, but he also speaks of spending time studying the bible and being prepared for whatever life brings his way. 

I see the role of the utility man as one who is ready to do whatever is needed to help the team be successful.  It may mean pinch hitting, pinch running, starting games at many different positions, even moving around to a few different positions in the same game.  It means being willing to do what it takes to help the team. 

This also brings to mind 1 Corinthians 9.22b where Paul writes about being all things to all people so that “by all possible means I might save some”.  As Christians, we are to show the Love of God to others and, like Jesus who went to great lengths to show his love for humanity, we are to truly be willing to do whatever it takes to give others an opportunity to encounter the living God.  It is an important role for the Christ-follower,

When I was growing up, my favorite players were utility men – it is my hope that like them, in my Christian Life, I can be whatever Christ wants me to be, to show Him to others.

As an aside, I want to draw attention to one more thing.  Kelly mentioned in the interview a “home plate event”.  That is referring to an organization in Detroit that hosts Christian faith outreach events. They are similar to Third Coast Sports, whom I have mentioned in earlier posts.  But Home Plate Detroit is an organization that has been putting these events on since 1987 in the Detroit area.  Click the link to see their website.  This has been a fruitful ministry.  (click on their “past history” tab for a list of events, speakers and attendees). Lets pray that they can keep up the great work of reaching out to the city of Detroit and surrounding  areas.

Play Ball Chris Heisey!

This is part 12 in my blog series about Christian Baseball Players who are living out their faith in the public eye and unashamedly declaring their faith and love for Christ in hopes that others may be drawn to Him or encouraged in their relationship with Him.

It is easy to see professional athletes only for the value of the entertainment that they offer.  Once they cross the lines into the field of play, they have our attention and our allegiance, but we seldom give much thought to their lives off the field.  If we do hear about them off the field, often it is to report an indiscretion or scandal that they are involved with.

We don’t often think about their life being hard.  Most of us have had big league dreams, just like each major league player has.  I know that I, for one, don’t often think about the hard things that put those dreams in doubt, or the heartbreak that failure, or in some cases success, brings.  The latter is at the heart of the story I share today.

Today, we are off to Cincinnati to visit with Reds outfielder Chris Heisey.  By his own admission, in high school, he was not good enough at baseball to be considered for a Division 1 NCAA scholarship.  So he opted to stay close to home and attend Messiah College,  a Christian liberal arts school.  Click here to read about Heisey on their web-site. (scroll to the bottom of the page)

He excelled at Messiah, and caught the attention of the Reds’ scouts, and the Reds drafted him in the 17th round of the 2006 draft.  They offered him a contract and his journey to the majors began.

Messiah College was close to his home, so his mom and dad could come and watch him play.  Then when he began pro ball, he was in constant contact with his dad, Craig, who was his proudest supporter.

But in October 2007, Craig Heisey lost his battle with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease).

Hear him talk about his dad on this Sports Spectrum podcast. (his part in the podcast is from 35:22-41:28).  You can also read about his story in this article from

The journey to the majors was not yet complete, but the rest of the way would have to take place without the contact with his father.  Heisey found this to be a difficult thing to deal with, (as we all would). But knowing that his father had a genuine relationship with God and modeled what a healthy Christian faith looks like, he was comforted and at peace even with the loss of his dad.  The saddest part would be in April of 2010, when he was called up to the majors for the first time and he was unable to share the achievement with his dad.
He was called up to replace an injured player, and has not been back to the minors since.  He was successful in his role of pinch hitter last year, tying for the most pinch hit home runs (4) with Matt Stairs (who, as an aside is from my birthplace – New Brunswick, Canada).  This year, he has again made the team out of training camp and has been pinch hitting again, and also starting some games.

Heisey is still living the dream that he has (and many of us have) had since childhood.  While he didn’t get a chance to share the dream with his father, he did learn about being a good Christian role model, and father.  Along the way, he has learned to lean of God for support when hard things come along, and he has also learned the important lessons of humility and hard work.  It has helped him keep a perspective of all that he has been entrusted with, and how to use his place and his story to tell others about God and to bring hope in the face of hardship. Great lessons for us all.

Play Ball! Brent Lillibridge

This is the 11th installment in my series on Christian Baseball players.  This time, our journey takes us to the south side of Chicago and White Sox Utility Player Brent Lillibridge. 
Now, I have mentioned a couple of times that I am a Red Sox fan, and that means that anyone that plays a big role in the Yankees losing, I become a fan of theirs very quickly.  Well, let’s travel back in time to April 26.  The White Sox are playing against the Yankees in New York.  It is the bottom of the 9th inning.  3-2 White Sox.  Yankees are have runners on, trying to complete a come back.  First up is Alex Rodriguez, and then Robinson Cano.  Both of these guys have the ability to sway the outcome of the game with a single swing of the bat.  This time though, they become the final 2 outs of the game both on great plays by Lillibridge. 
Check out the story about the game from the web site.

And so as I was looking for a story to share from the White Sox, I thought it would be great to share a little about Brent Lillibridge (and post the video of him beating the Yanks, too).  I came across this story of a trip that he and his wife Stephanie took to South Africa.  Check out the Chicago Sun-Times article here. He said that the trip gave him some great perspective on the luxuries that living in USA can afford compared to the rest of the world. 
Lillibridge  at this point, is not a regular starter but rather a role player- a fill in for an injured player, a pinch runner brought in when more speed is needed on the base paths, or a pinch hitter who will to try and make something happen.  He knows (as you can read in the Sun Times article) that the fame and success that baseball brings can be fleeting – very brief and very easily forgotten.
He shares some of what he learned on his trip to South Africa, a trip where he had an opportunity to serve others and offer something that is not fleeting – a relationship with Jesus.
It is important for all of us to gain perspective.  It invites us to think beyond ourselves, to see others around us and the needs that they have, and see how we can meet those needs.   The things that we tend to worry about and strive for are so fleeting and quickly forgotten –  so temporary.  We can be challenged to set our hearts and minds on things that will make a difference forever,  like living our life to honor God and draw others to Him. 
Brent Lillibridge knows that baseball will come to an end at some point.  He sees the time that he has to live in the spotlight as time to make a difference, to impact the lives of others, in nearby communities and around the world. 
My wife and I served as missionaries for the first 4 years of our married life.  We worked with a lot of church groups in many different settings.   We learned a lot about ourselves, and the blessings that we do have here.  We also witnessed, and experienced for ourselves, the joy and the closeness to God that comes from serving others.  It is a great way to tap into the very heart of God.  He goes to such great lengths to show His love and draw others to Him.  And what a privilege it is to be a vessel, used by the Master, to accomplish His purposes.  I encourage one and all to participate in a mission trip of some sort.  Go, step out of your comfort zone and let God use you to meet the needs of others (physical, emotional or spiritual) or if you don’t see that as possible at this season in your life, then senders are always needed.  Ones who will invest in others who are able to go.  This is an important part of any mission team, too.  Support –  prayerful, and financial, will give you an investment in the ministry that occurs, and when you hear feedback and see the fruit of what has gone on, it will draw you closer in your relationship with God, too.  Give yourself opportunity to gain perspective and see the world beyond what is immediately around you. 
Here is an example.  There are many great organizations that are doing incredible things all around the world.  I will draw your attention in this post to Unlimited Potential Inc.  This is the organization that Lillibridge and his wife went to South Africa with. Their mission is to use the sport of baseball as a means to draw people in, and then take that opportunity to tell others about God’s love and Jesus’ sacrifice for their sin.  Check out their website and pray for them as they go into the world to share God’s love.

Play Ball Carlos Zambrano!

Carlos Zambrano and his belief in God are the focus for this, the 10th installment in my series on Christian Baseball Players.

His story is an amazing one, one that started in poverty in Venezuela.  His fiery personality and clumsiness in sports led no one to believe that a future in sports would come his way.  When he finally did earn a spot on a baseball team, he usually only got the mop-up duties, playing when the outcome of the game was not in question.  But he was tenacious and determined to get better.  It worked for him as he was signed by the Chicago Cubs in 1997 (at age 16) and finally made the big league in 2001.

And now, 10 years into his big league career, he has become a star in the league both on the mound and at the plate.  He has won more than 120 games in his career and he is regarded as one of the best hitting pitchers in the game today.  He has 22 career home runs, an amazing number for a pitcher.   He twice had taken no hitters into the 8th inning, and then in August of 2008, he completed a no-hitter against the Houston Astros.

His fiery demeanor, which helped him achieve the success that he has known so far, has also been something that keeps him grounded and humbled him.   There have been some episodes that have had been well publicized. (look them up on wikipedia if you want).  There are battles with opponents, (Jim Edmonds) teammates (Michael Barrett, Derek Lee)  Cubs fans, and inanimate objects (a Gatorade cooler or two).  After last year’s meltdown with Derek Lee, he was suspended by the team to seek anger management therapy.

He is also a very caring, giving person, who remembers the hardships of his upbringing and is looking to make a difference in the lives of others in similar situations.  Check out this story about him and his wife as they adopt a boy from Guatemala.  This is a boy that they met when they were there on a mission trip with their church.  They worked with Hope of Life International, a ministry in Guatemala which works with children in orphanages, as well as building homes for families in need.  They also have a food distribution center, sustainable feeding plans and medical assistance.  Click the link to learn more about this great organization.

And you can also check out Carlos Zambrano’s foundation The Big Z Foundation here.

If anything can be said about Carlos Zambrano, it is that he is passionate.  In the above story, when asked about the struggles and meltdowns from last year, he cuts off the interviewer mid question, and says “Let’s talk about this year”.  This part of his story reminds me of Paul’s writing in Philippians 3. 13.  This is a verse that has meant a lot to me.  It says, in the second part of this verse.  But this I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead.   When we think of all those things that we do that keep us humble (most of the time not by our choice), it is easy to get caught up in feeling guilty, embarrassed and humiliated.  But God’s forgiveness knows no end.  He is always willing to forgive us if we ask Him to.  And then we get to let it go and leave it behind.  There may be consequences to face, but the guilt and weight of the sin can be forgotten.  And it is a good thing to, because as that verse says, we are going to be straining enough with what lies ahead, we don’t need to drag around the extra weight of what has already been forgiven.  
We all have things in our life that we need to let go of and walk away from, so remember that God is willing to forgive us for whatever we do, when we ask him to from a genuinely repentant heart.  In verses 7-11, we are reminded that all we could gather or get is worthless compared to knowing God.  And the best thing about knowing God is knowing that his grace is bottomless.   Paul simply, in verse 16 reminds us to live up to what we have already attained.  We have been forgiven,  let’s live in that forgiveness and grace, and keep going hard after God.  

Play Ball! Jeff Francoeur

This is the 9th post in a series about Christian Baseball players who are outspoken about their faith, and are using their position of fame and spotlight to tell others about God, and the difference He has made in their life.

Jeff Francoeur has a story to tell.  The outfielder for the Kansas City Royals has been a highly touted player, since being drafted in the first round of the 2002 draft by the Atlanta Braves.  He was quickly making his way through the minor leagues when his career nearly came to a sudden and painful end.  On July 7, 2004, Francoeur was struck in the face by a pitch.  Bones were broken, metal plates were surgically inserted, and vision was blurred.  There was question as to whether he would see clearly with his right eye again.  

A devastating injury like this could bring hopelessness to those who don’t have a coping strategy.  But Francoeur leaned on his faith in God to help him deal with the injury.  It was a faith that he began taking seriously as a sophomore in high school when he attended a Fellowship of Christian Athletes camp in South Carolina.  There, his small group leader was NFL tight end Ben Watson.  Francoeur loved sports, he lived and breathed them, and here he saw a professional athlete whose life was in sports, but his identity was not found in sport – it was found in a relationship with Jesus. Francoeur chose to begin a relationship with Jesus at that camp, and with that perspective in place, he dealt with this injury knowing that ultimately, God is in control and had a plan to use him and this part of his story to share about God’s love and goodness. You can read an article about Francoeur from the Dayton Times here.

Amazingly, 1 year after the injury, he was called up to the major leagues and he has been there ever since. He is known as a decent hitter with some power and a laser arm.  In fact his 86 outfield assists in the 5+ years that he has been in the majors are almost 20 more than then next closest over the same time frame.

Fellowship of Christian Athletes is an important organization to Francoeur.  They allowed him to meet Jesus and led him to choose a life that honors God.   Now he frequently shares his story for others to hear at FCA camps and banquets.  If you would like more information about this great organization and all that they are doing, check out their website here. 

Sharing the story of what God is doing in your life is a great way to draw others to know Him,  it will also help you build your faith because when you intentionally look at your story, you see how God is working – maybe in ways you haven’t realized before. And being aware of God at work will spark you to keep telling others about Him.  Francoeur finished a recent talk at an FCA banquet with a quote from legendary NCAA basketball coach John Wooden.  It is challenging and a good question to keep on our radar.  Wooden said “If I am ever arrested for being a Christian, I hope that there is enough evidence to convict me.”  I pray that God will help me be more aware of all He is doing, so when I see it, I will not be able to stay silent, but that I will leave enough evidence to be guilty of being an outspoken Christian.