Saturday, May 16, 2015

Ministry in Minor League Baseball

The first weeks of May bring with them the beginning of the Frontier League Baseball season. The players reported to Rent One Park in Marion, Illinois on April 29 for the 2015 season of the Southern Illinois Miners. The Frontier League is a set of teams in independent professional baseball. Their being independent simply means these teams are not affiliated with a major league organization. The salaries are small, but the hearts are large and passionate.

I am thrilled to be serving this particular club because of the culture being nurtured by the manager, Mike Pinto. Mike has been the manager of the Miners since their first season in 2006, having declined opportunities to join other clubs of independent baseball as well as affiliated teams. Mike brings a professionalism and an attention to detail that is uncommon at this level of baseball.

Among the factors that make for good ministry with this club and at this level of professional baseball are these:

· My relationship with the manager and the coaches. From the first day of my service, Mike has welcomed me into every part of the team’s life. I am careful to not overstep my bounds, but when I consult him with opportunities to serve, Mike is quick to make room for our ministry efforts. In addition, being intentional to build relationships with the coaches (hitting, pitching, bench, etc.) and the support staff (clubhouse manager, athletic trainers, ushers, front office, etc.) has borne fruit as well.

· Baseball is a “hang out” culture. To build relationships with baseball players, one must simply show up, hang out, and talk about whatever comes up. For type A people, like your humble correspondent, this is often difficult. I am much better with an agenda and a set of objectives, but to faithfully serve this group requires flying by the seat of one’s pants. To stand around the hitting cage as batting practice takes place is invaluable. To lean on the dugout railing and to idly chat wins favor and trust. To ask questions about family, home towns, college teammates, or one’s path through baseball that landed him in Marion, Illinois is the stuff of relationship and the foundation for more meaningful and spiritual conversations in the future.

· A 4/1 ratio of appearances to talks. It seems to require four appearances at batting practices to each Sunday home Baseball Chapel talk to be effective. The more faithful I am to make time to hang out at batting practice, the more the players and coaches trust me and the more they will take their pregame time to sit with me in the dugout after batting practice on Sunday afternoon to hear my five minute talk and to pray with me.

· My home is 16.1 miles from the ballpark. From my garage to my parking place at the baseball park is short enough for me to make time to be there. If it were 30 miles, it would be significantly more difficult, but would still be worth it. If it were 50 miles, I would likely not serve well.

· These players are desperate to play baseball. If I told you the amount some of these young men are paid you wouldn’t believe it. They live with host families who provide a room, meals, and laundry when the players are in town. Some of our players have recently exhausted their college baseball eligibility and were not taken by the major league draft. Some of our players have already played a number of years in affiliated baseball, but have been released by those clubs. Some of them have been in other independent baseball organizations and still others have simply been out of baseball for a while due to injury. Some of them are Latino players from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Panama, or Mexico and staying in baseball allows them to stay in the USA and to send some money home to family. All of them are twenty-seven years or younger. All of these factors lead to a desperation to be in baseball that enables them to press through low pay and often rather Spartan conditions. This desperation also places their hearts right at the surface. After earning their trust, I find them eager to ask for advice, to air problems, or to ask for prayer. The come to Baseball Chapel services on Sundays and excitedly make time for our discussions of scripture midweek during home stands.

· Baseball Chapel’s legacy and reputation in baseball. This ministry has long been the standard for faithful ministry within professional baseball at every level. It is of tremendous value for me to be able to open a chapel talk by saying, “This afternoon, at every level of baseball from Yankee Stadium in New York to stadiums in the Dominican Republic to Rent One Park in Marion, Illinois, men just like you are sitting in dugouts to pray and to hear the truth of scripture applied to their lives in baseball.” Baseball Chapel provides handouts, in English and in Spanish, that we can download from their website to use with the players, coaches, umpires, management, wives of players, and even support staff. The faithfulness of Baseball Chapel and that of their wide network of men who serve in their ministry have paved the way for many relative newcomers, like me.

If you should have opportunity to serve a minor league baseball club, if you have any background in the sport, if you are adept at “hanging out,” or even if you can make yourself do it, please consider serving in this way. Please consider the various factors listed above as potential keys to effective ministry and jump in with both feet. I have just begun season four with our club and cannot wait to see what will occur this summer. Between this 16th day of May and the early weeks of September are a myriad of opportunities for the Lord Jesus to invade the lives of desperate young men, grizzled older coaches, ambitious management personnel, and the families of each and all.

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