Tag: UAB

A bond beyond baseball

The following story appears in my book Valley Road: Uplifting Stories from Down South. Get it here.

The baseball coach felt as if the pastor was talking directly to him. Sure, there was a congregation full of people, but the message was so pointed, so personal, that it felt like a one-on-one conversation. 

The sermon was about stepping outside of your comfort zone. The coach had always talked to his high school players about doing the right thing, about what he wanted them to do. He did the same when he was the coach at his previous job. He had never really shown them. 

“Baseball is just kind of an avenue for us,” he says.

When the church service was over and he went outside, he told his wife that he wanted to start a Bible study in their home with any player who wanted to come. He then called a friend, who had been a youth pastor at one time. He was all in to help. The next morning, the coach was preparing to tell his players of his new idea when one knocked on his door. He asked his coach if he would be all right with the players starting a Bible study in the locker room. He told the player that he would not believe what happened the day before.

“It was like God’s way of saying, ‘This is what you should do,’” he says.

The Bible study started the following Sunday. It was not mandatory, and players were told that it would not affect their playing time. It was totally separate from baseball. The coach figured on maybe a handful of players showing up. Fifteen of the eighteen on the roster came. Those numbers remained steady. Every Sunday during the baseball season, the players met at their head coach’s home for food, Bible study and fellowship. Sometimes, the studies lasted fifteen minutes. Sometimes, they lasted an hour. Afterward, they would watch the Sunday Night Baseball game on ESPN or play Wii. Players learned a lot about each other. They opened up about family, girlfriends, choices, college. They grew closer.

“It was an unbelievable time of team bonding away from baseball,” he says.

The coach’s favorite memory from those Bible studies is about a player who was selected in the Major League Baseball draft. He decided to instead play football and baseball at an Alabama university. That player came back to his old stomping grounds one Friday night for a football game. The coach stood with him on the sidelines. He asked if he missed the Friday night lights, playing sports at the high school level. The player said that he really didn’t. The coach was floored. How could an athlete not miss high school sports, his glory days? The one thing the player said he missed were those Bible studies.

“It just humbled me,” the coach says.

The coach has continued the Bible studies since becoming the head baseball coach at his third high school. After one of the studies, one of the boys called the coach thirty minutes after everyone left his home. He wanted to come back. They sat on his back porch for two hours, just talking. Without the Bible study, that relationship may have never deepened. 

“I think it’s more than a Bible study,” he says. “It brings kids closer together. To me, that’s the special part. And that’s the important stuff. We are giving them an avenue to talk to us.”

The Bible studies happen during the baseball season, though on some occasions they have begun in December because the kids wanted to start them earlier. The coach says the importance varies from kid to kid, from team to team. Each one has a different personality.

“I just think we’ve seen some kids grow closer together,” he says.

The coach led his current team to its first baseball state championship in school history not long ago. He will not go so far as to say the Bible study was why the team won it all, but it was clearly a factor. That team, he says, just had something different about it. They were close. During the playoff run, at Bible studies on Sundays, baseball was not even a topic of conversation. 

“We love it,” he says.

At a football game about five months after winning that state championship, the baseball team returned for the ring ceremony. There were four seniors on that team, and they had all started college at three different institutions. This was their first time being back together since graduating. The coach watched as they sat at their own table in the stadium’s press box, just sharing their experiences as college freshmen. It took the coach and his wife back to when they originally started the Bible study. 

The coach gestured toward the group and said to his wife, “Look how special that is.”

Pitches and promises

The sophomore pitcher circled the mound before the first batter stepped into the box, and then he bent over behind the rubber. He extended his left hand and began to use his index finger as a pencil for the cool dirt. It was winter, and the high school baseball season was just underway. He was set to face his high school’s arch rival, one of the best teams in the state of Alabama. The sophomore had already won his first three starts as a varsity pitcher, including a five-inning no-hitter, striking out nine batters in a shortened game due to the mercy rule. He was an ace. But against his team’s rival, he should have been nervous. He was a sixteen-year-old pitching against a great team, after all. But he was as cool as he could be. He was pitching with purpose.

GET VALLEY ROAD: UPLIFTING STORIES FROM DOWN SOUTH HERE

Not long before the game, he stood in his coach’s office in the stadium’s press box, and talked about his purpose with a reporter. His mother died the previous October after battling breast cancer for nearly two years. The family found out about her diagnosis on Valentine’s Day when the sophomore was an eighth-grader, in the drive-thru at a Wendy’s. When she died, his mother was fifty years old. Just before she died, her son promised her two things — that he would marry a woman who reflected her and that he would pitch his way to college baseball.

“When people lose family members, some rarely get the opportunity to talk with them and say goodbye,” he says. “Barring the situation, I feel really thankful I was able to do that. When my mom was on hospice care, I got to be around her a lot. While she wasn’t very responsive, you could tell when she was hearing and listening to you. I got the chance to tell my mom how thankful I was to have her as my mom, and she taught me more (about) life than she would ever know. Getting to tell the person who gave you everything in life how thankful you are for it and how much you love them for the sacrifices they gave to benefit your life is something that will give you peace to any situation. I also promised her things in life that I would accomplish for her – in memory of her.”

He left the press box after a fifteen-minute interview and warmed up for the game. Just prior to the first pitch, he bent down to etch his mother’s initials and the breast cancer symbol on the backside of the pitcher’s mound. He proceeded to hurl a complete-game five-hitter, allowing his only two earned runs in the top of the seventh, the final inning. His team won 3-2. He struck out six batters. He finished his first varsity season with nine wins and one loss for a team that won the area championship.

“The support I had from my baseball team that season was something that was beyond special,” he says. “I felt so close to all those guys and I knew they were behind me supporting me through that time.”

His head coach that season was supportive. After the win over the team’s biggest rival, the coach talked about how his pitcher’s tough situation ministered to his team, how instead of the team ministering to him, his family ministered to the team. He called it amazing.

Over his final two seasons of high school baseball, the pitcher compiled twelve wins against just four losses and a 1.88 earned-run average. He struck out more than one hundred batters.

For his efforts, he earned scholarship offers from several college programs around the Southeast. He chose the one closest to home, to be near his longtime girlfriend and son, who was born when he was a high school junior. His plan was to propose to his girlfriend during one of his college baseball seasons. He did so on the first weekend of the 2017 college baseball season. She said yes.

“I feel like it is a promise kept, and I am blessed to be in the situation I am in,” he says. “I will always look back to my coaches and teammates during the hardest time in my life and see the positive impact they had on my life, and where I am now is because of all they did for me during this time in my life.”

As far as his mound ritual, the pitcher no longer etches his mother’s initials in the mound, but they are written across his glove, so that she will always be there for him every time he steps on a mound. He looks back to that sophomore season as a blessed time.

“Going through things like that will always be hard, but when you have people surrounding you and providing love and encouragement, it gives you a peace about it,” he says.