Mike Dunn – The Long Road Home

Nevada Lonely Road

Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes through the Father except through Me.” – John 14:6.  Photo by Alan Levine

Sometimes the road back home is a long and arduous one.

Mike Dunn was born in Farmington, New Mexico.  He spent the first 17 years of his life there, where he attended Piedra Vista High School.  His journey away from home began in 2003 when he moved to Nevada for his senior year of high school; a move designed to get him in front of professional scouts while playing for Cimarron-Memorial High School in Las Vegas.  The moved worked!  In 2003, he was drafted by the Houston Astros in the 14th round of the draft.

He didn’t sign.

Instead, he enrolled at the College of Southern Nevada in Henderson.  In 2004, he was drafted again, this time by the New York Yankees in the 33rd round.  He was the 999th player selected.  He signed with the Yankees, making his debut in the Gulf Coast league in Florida and was promoted to the Staten Island Yankees.  In 2007, he pitched in Charleston, South Carolina and in 2008 he played minor league ball in both Tampa and Trenton, New Jersey.  In 2009, he was promoted to AAA, bringing him to Scranton, PA, and finally, in September, he made it all the way up to New York to make his major league debut for the Yankees.  After the 2010 season, Dunn was traded to the Marlins, whom he played for through the 2016 season.

Florida, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York.  5 states; none of them home.  As his baseball career moved him across the country, to Dunn, the Southwest would always be home.  He told the Farmington Daily Times; “I come back all the time.  Of course, I lived there my whole life, so I had a lot of friends there.  I come back to Farmington at least two, maybe three times every off-season.”

In 2016, that would all change.  Dunn signed a 3-year deal with the Colorado Rockies, who play about 380 miles from Farmington.  Colorado is rarely the top destination for pitchers, and Coors Field is famous for inflating pitcher’s statistics, due largely to the high altitude.  For Dunn, though, Colorado was the top choice.  He explained; “It was probably the one destination spot I wanted to go, based on the team they had, but also close to home.  Once Colorado got involved, I told my agent ‘let’s really try to push this,’ and if not, we were gonna go back to the other guys.”

It was a long road, but the game of baseball finally brought Dunn back home.

In the Bible, Jesus talks about another road that leads us home.  The Greek word “odos,” means road, though it is often translated as way.  Jesus says that He is the road; the only path that one can take to make it to our heavenly home.  Jesus says in John 14:6; “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through Me.”

This is one of Mike Dunn’s favorite Bible verse.  He told Rob Maadi in the book “Baseball Faith:“In one little sentence, Jesus tells you there’s no other way to heaven except through Him.  No one can boast.  No one is better than anyone else.  Everyone is made the same in God’s eyes.  Everyone is equal, no matter your race, gender, or anything.  It’s about doing what you can for the Lord while you’re here on earth.  Jesus will get you to heaven.  The road to hell is wide.  It’s an interstate, fifteen lanes wide.  The road to heaven is one way…  It’s right there in the Bible.  You can’t earn your way to heaven.  The only way is to go through Jesus.  He took the punishment for us.  We’re all sinners.  It’s our nature.  Repent, ask for forgiveness, and you will be saved.”

Jesus truly is the only way to heaven.  We can’t earn our way into eternal paradise through our good works or by being a good person.  It’s only by admitting that we are sinners and relying on the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross on our behalf that can take away our sins.  Faith in Him is the only way to heaven and the only road home.

Daniel Nava – The One Who Was Never Supposed to Make It

Daniel Nava 2.jpg

Major League Long-Shot Daniel Nava.  Photo by Dennis Heller

Daniel Nava was never supposed to be a star.

He grew up near San Mateo, California, the home of NFL quarterback Tom Brady. Brady is a superstar.  Nava’s sports career was never expected to amount to much of anything.

He was never a prospect.

He was never recruited to lead a College Baseball program.

He was never expected to make it.

When he graduated from Saint Francis High School in Mountain View, California, Nava was only 5’7’’.  His hope was to play baseball for Santa Clara University.  He didn’t make the team.  Instead, he took the volunteer job as equipment manager; performing menial tasks like washing uniforms.  His hope was that, if he stayed close enough to the team, he might one day be asked to play.

He wasn’t.

He spent two years serving as equipment managers, never making the team.  After two years, he could no longer afford to pay his tuition, so he transferred to a smaller school, the College of San Mateo College.  During his 2 years at Santa Clara, he had grown about 3 inches.  The coaches at San Mateo liked what they saw from Nava, and, this time, he made the team – as a player!  Nava performed so well at the College of San Mateo that he was able to earn a Division I baseball scholarship the following year.  The college that offered him the scholarship was Santa Clara.

Nava returned to join the team whose uniforms he once washed; this time as a player with a scholarship.  A star was born…  Almost.

Even though Nava found success at Santa Clara – batting almost .400 for the season – no one seemed to notice.  He was not heavily scouted.  He was never drafted.  He was never signed to play in the minors.

Nava, though, wasn’t quite ready to give up on his dreams.  His next option was to play for a baseball team in the independent league.  He tried out for two teams but got cut from them both.  One of the teams he tried out for was the now-defunct Chico Outlaws.  Nava didn’t make the team, however, as the season progressed, one of their outfielders stopped showing up for games.  They needed someone to take his place.  They settled for Nava.

Nava played well enough that the he caught the attention of some major league scouts.  In 2008, the Boston Red Sox decided to invest in Nava.  They paid for his contract rights, which cost them a whopping $1.00.

Nava played well enough in the minors to be called up to the Red Sox in 2010.  His appeared in his first game on June 12 against the Phillies.  He stepped up to the plate against Phillies starter Joe Blanton.  He swung at the first pitch he saw.  He hit a grand slam!

It was finally Daniel Nava’s time.

It didn’t last long.

Nava spent the entire 2011 season in Triple-A.  In 2012, he appeared in about half of the Red Sox games, being shuffled in and out of the lineup.  Unlike fellow San Mateo native Tom Brady, Nava had not become a Boston legend.

In 2013, that all changed.

The spring of 2013 was a tragic season for the city of Boston.  On April 15, a bomb exploded during the Boston Marathon, leaving a dark cloud of sadness, shock, and despair over the city.

The Red Sox next home game would not be played until June 20 against the Kansas City Royals.  In a city that desperately needed a win, the Red Sox went into the bottom of the 8th trailing 2-1.  Nava stepped up to the plate with 2 runners on.  He hit a three-run homer, giving the Red Sox a 4-2 lead.  Closer Andrew Bailey would surrender a run in the 9th, but the Red Sox ultimately held on for a 4-3 win.  The city of Boston burst into cheers.  Nava – a man who has become accustomed to persevering when all hope seemed lost – helped give a broken city hope.  He later told the Boston Globe; “You don’t script that stuff.  It just happens… I honestly felt honored and blessed to be a part of it.”

As the 2013 season progressed, Nava soon worked his way into the starting lineup on a regular basis.  He hit .303 for the year with 12 homers, playing a key role during the 2013 World Series Championship run.

Nava remained a part of the Red Sox through 2015.  Since then, he’s bounced around the league quite a bit.  He’s appeared in games for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, the Kansas City Royals, and the Philadelphia Phillies.  He’s currently in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization.

Nava says that his faith played a key role in his success on the field.  He told Rob Maadi on the Faith on the Field Show; “I know that if I didn’t have the faith in Jesus that I have – or even had when I was making this journey to the big leagues – that there’s no shot I’d even be here.  Fortunately, He had a lot of favor in my life and opened doors for me that I never could have done.  And I think it’s evident in the fact that I got cut so many times that even my best efforts sometimes didn’t get me any place.  So, having that to go back to – I hate to use this word – it kind of kept me centered.  It kept me grounded.  It kept me focused on – I’m playing a game and I’m grateful to play a game at whatever level it was.  But, moving forward, if I don’t make this team or if I never am a Big Leaguer, I have something beyond that that I can hold on to.  That helped a lot.”

One of Nava’s favorite Bible verses is Luke 1:37; for nothing will be impossible with God.  He explained to Rob Maadi;Another translation is no Word from God shall be void of power.  I really like that one.  It just kind of changes things up.  I really like that.  It’s simple.  Sometimes playing this game, as a hitter, you’re reminded of how much you fail – you don’t succeed very often. And to be reminded that sometimes these things are just out of your control.  The person who actually gave me life or gave you life is far bigger than hitting a baseball.”

When things in life aren’t going the way you hope, remember the way that Nava persevered and kept working to reach his goals.  Rely on God the way that he did.  Remember that with God, all things are possible.  Trust in Him and leave your life in His hands.

David Hess’ Major League Debut

David Hess.jpg

David Hess throws a pitch during his major league debut against the Tampa Bay Rays.  Photo by Keith Allison

You may not know much about David Hess.

That might change soon.

Since being selected in the 5th round of the 2014 draft, David Hess has been a minor league pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles.  Of course, being a minor league pitcher for the Orioles isn’t exactly a promising proposition.  While the Oriole’s organization has preached the importance of developing homegrown pitchers, their on-field success hasn’t matched their hopes.  According to Jon Meoli of the Baltimore Sun, the last homegrown Oriole pitcher to make his major league debut as a starter was Mike Wright Jr. back on May 17, 2015.  The last one before that was Kevin Gausman in May of 2013.

Few expected David Hess to be the one to break that drought.  The Orioles have higher rating pitching prospects, such as 2013 1st round pick Hunter Harvey, 2014 6th round pick Tanner Scott, 2016 first round pick Cody Sedlock, 2016, 2nd round pick Keegan Akin, and 2017 first overall pick DL Hall.  None of them has earned a major league start as of this writing.  As their names have grace the top of Orioles prospects list, hovering in the mid-twenties has been another player; David Hess.  While never considered a top prospect, Hess has quietly put in the work and found success.

In the middle of 2017, people started to notice.

After putting together yet another solid season as a 24-year old in AA Bowie, Hess began making people notice.  He entered 2018 as the Orioles #16 prospect, according to MLB.com.  Hess has been off to a good start in the minors this year, posting a 2.12 ERA and a 2-0 record in 6 starts for AAA Norfolk.

On Thursday, May 10, Hess received news.  The Orioles would be playing a doubleheader the following Saturday against the Tampa Bay Rays, and he would be added to the major league roster.  In what capacity, he didn’t yet know. It wasn’t until Buck Showalter’s post-game conference after Friday’s game that it was announced that Hess would get the start.

Hess was ecstatic!  His wife, Devin, his mom and dad, and 24 additional friends and family members would be in Baltimore to watch his start.  When he first stepped on the mound, however, things didn’t go the way he planned.

His first inning as a major league pitcher was a rough one.  After allowing CJ Cron and Joey Wendle to reach base, Hess surrender a 3-run homer to Matt Duffy.  After that, however, he settled down, going 5 more innings without allowing a run.  He picked up the win over Rays starter Chris Archer.

Hess knows that his major league debut, and everything in his life, is a gift from God.  One of his favorite Bible Verses is Lamentations 3:22-23: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.  Hess said on Twitter; New day, new mercies.  Lamentations 3:22-23 reminds us His grace is never short and always sufficient.  Hess will continue to rely on the mercies of God, be thankful for the gifts that God has given him and strive to keep God 1st in his life.  He also tweeted; The more we see that God is enough, the more we can be thankful for what He’s given and trust Him when He doesn’t.”

It will be exciting to see what God does next in Hess’ life.  Orioles fans are hoping to see him in action again soon and see what he can do next on the mound.  George Batterbsy of Camden Chat wrote the following Monday; “David Hess has earned more of a chance with the Orioles.  After throwing a quality start in his MLB debut as the 26th man in Saturday’s doubleheader, it’s time to put David Hess in the rotation for real.”

Whatever happens next, Hess will trust in God and rely each day on His mercies.

Jordy Mercer – Strength in the Midst of Change

 

Pirates at Orioles June 13, 2012

Pittsburgh Pirates Shortstop Jordy Mercer.  Photo by Keith Allison

 

When you go through a series of change, it can be a lot to handle; even if those changes are good ones.

For Jordy Mercer, 2012 was a great example.  As a kid growing up in Oklahoma, Mercer’s dream was to one day become a major league baseball player.  In 2008, he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 3rd round of the Amateur Player Draft.  Mercer kept working hard as he sought to fulfill his dream.

Fast forward to 2012.  During Spring Training, Mercer received some fantastic news – only it was news that had nothing to do with his baseball career.  Mercer learned that his wife, Kacey, was expecting a child!  The good news didn’t stop there.  On May 29, Mercer learned that he would be heading to Pittsburgh to join the Pirates.  Mercer told Pittsburgh Sporting News; it’s a dream come true.  Words can’t describe it.  It’s something you dream of when you’re a little kid.”  On August 18, Mercer’s story became even more joyous.  The Pirates had a road game against the St. Louis Cardinals.  Mercer was pinch hitter and wound up going 2 for 4.  The game lasted 19 innings, before the Pirates eventually pulled off a 6-3 victory.  When the game was finally over, the real excitement began; Mercer had to rush to the airport, with the hopes of making it back to Oklahoma and witness the birth of his baby boy, Maverick.  Mercer recalls; “I knew I was catching a plane in St. Louis… it was an 8:30 flight.  We went 19 innings which was incredible to be a part of, but I barely made my flight.  The next morning, I went to the hospital at 5:00 am, and she had it at 1:10, so it was pretty cool.”

Mercer spent the 2012 season learning.  He learned how to be a dad and how to adjust to life as a major leaguer.  Two veterans helped show Mercer the way.  Clint Barmes mentored him on how to be a shortstop while Rod Barajas – who has 7 children of his own – imparted advice on fatherhood.

It’s only been 6 years since that magical year in Mercer’s life, but a lot has changed.  After an offseason that saw key players like Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole traded out of Pittsburgh, Mercer now finds himself a veteran on a young team, and the longest tenured Pirate.  In an article in the Republican Herald, Mercer explains; “I look around and I’m the last guy here, which is kind of a weird feeling.  It’s a good feeling, too, to know that they still want me around after all these years.”

Going into the 2018, the Pirates expectation was much different than they were 2012.  While they have gotten off to a hot start, the rebuilding Pirates aren’t expected to win many games.  It’s also likely that this will be Mercer’s final season in Pittsburgh, as his contract expires after the season.  The Pirates also have two former first round picks ready to take his place in Kevin Newman and Cole Tucker.  Mercer’s role may become more about mentoring his future replacement than making a run for the playoffs.   Mercer sees it as an opportunity.  “It stinks to lose Cutch and Gerrit because not only are they good players, but I’ll miss them as friends and teammates.  You have to look at the positives, though.  We have a lot of young guys who are hungry.  They want to get better.  They want to win.  That’s’ fun… It’s really fun to see those guys ask questions because I’ve been in their shoes.  I asked questions and I’m glad I did.  I learned so much from Clint that I have a hard time even putting it into words.  Hopefully, I can pass along some of the things I’ve learned to these younger guys and maybe they can learn a few things that can help their careers.”

While 2018 may be a challenging season, Mercer will find his strength and stability in the Lord.  Mercer’s favorite Bible Verse is Psalm 16:8; “I have set the Lord always before me; because He is at my right hand I shall not be shaken.”  He explained to Blessed 2 Play;

My favorite’s Psalm 16:8…  I think that’s something that I will never forget.  I always keep that in my back pocket and even I can carry it with me on the baseball field.  If I’m not having a good day or something – it don’t even have to be on the baseball field… if things aren’t going my way, I know that’s He’s always there and for me not to be shaken because He’s always right beside me, He’s always there with me.  And I remember reading that verse the first time I read that verse and I’ll never forget where I was – what I was doing – I was laying in bed and having my daily devotion that night, and I came across that verse.  That’s the first time I ever heard that verse, and for some reason, somehow, God just spoke to me and it stuck with me.  And it’s always been on the forefront with me wherever I go; knowing that, whatever happens – not to be shaken.  For He’s gonna be there right beside me.  He’s gonna take care of me.

While 2018 may not be as exciting as 2012 was, Mercer will continue to serve God and encourage his teammates, trusting in God to give him the strength to do it!

Jackie Robinson: Turning the Other Cheek

Jackie Robinson 1

Baseball Legend Jackie Robinson.  Photos in this article are public domain photos courtesy of LOOK Magazine.

 

Every year on April 15th Major League Baseball Celebrates Jackie Robinson Day.  Every player on the field wears the number 42, as they celebrate the day in which Jackie Robinson played his first major league baseball game for the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking the color barrier back in 1947.  Robinson’s story is well-known.  There is, however, a part of the story that often goes untold; the role that the Bible played in Robinson’s success.

The story of how the Bible impacted Robinson began with his mother, Mallie.  Mallie was a strong Christian woman, who was a faithful member of her church.  When her son, Jackie, began getting into trouble as a youth, Mallie sought the help of a young African American Pastor, Karl Downs.  Downs took Robinson under his wings, teaching him the importance of prayer and of social and racial equality. Robinson continued to grow in his faith, his character, and his athletic ability.  He soon went to UCLA, where he met his wife, Rachel.  Instead of completing his degree, Robinson left school early to play baseball in the Negro League.

The Negro League was challenging for Robinson for a number of reasons.  First, teams were forced to stay in dirty motels, eat cheap junk food, and were paid very little.  Second, Robinson found that the majority of players in the league enjoyed drinking, partying, and the company of women in ways that made him uncomfortable.  Robinson refused to partake in them, earning a reputation for both his high moral standards and his stubborn refusal to bend in the face of peer pressure.

Jackie Robinson 2

While playing in the Negro League, Robinson caught the attention of a man named Branch Rickey.

Wesley Branch Rickey’s name alone gives you good insight into his upbringing.  He was named after John Wesley; the founder of Methodism, and the name “Branch” is believed to have come from Isaiah 11:1, a verse which prophesied the birth of Christ; “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.”

Rickey grew up in church, and, like Robinson, had strong moral beliefs from which he refused to stray.  His moral beliefs derailed his baseball career.  Rickey was a good catcher; good enough to make it to the pros.  However, as a Christian, he refused to play on the Sabbath.  His refusal to play that day caused his first team to trade him; his second team to trade him; and his third team to transition him from player to manager.  Rickey thrived as a manager, and later became the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers.  He was a shrewd businessman, who often drew the ire of his competitors, mostly because he continuously outsmarted them.

But, there was something eating away at Rickey.  Before his professional career began, Rickey played baseball at Ohio Wesleyan.  One of his teammates, Charles “Tommy” Thomas, was African American.  During a road trip to the University of Notre Dame, the team was planning on staying at a nearby Indiana hotel.  Players checked in one by one without incident, until it was Thomas’s turn.  The clerk rudely told Thomas that African Americans weren’t welcome at the hotel.  His teammates stood up for him, but the clerk wouldn’t budge.  Finally, shrewd Branch Rickey thought of something.  He knew that hotels allowed African American servants to sleep in their master’s rooms.  So, Rickey asked if Thomas could sleep on a cot in his room.  The clerk allowed it, so Thomas and Rickey became roommates for the night.  Rickey recalls hearing Thomas crying and rubbing his skin saying; “Black skin, black skin.  If only I could make them white.”  Thomas and Rickey remained friends for years.  Rickey, recounted this story decades later, saying that this account moved his heart to want to challenge baseball’s color barrier.

To break the color barrier, Rickey would need someone special.  He wasn’t just looking for a player with talent; there were plenty of players with the talent in Negro Leagues to succeed in the majors.  He was looking for someone who possessed several qualities; the drive to push through oppression, the strength to remain cool under incredibly intense pressure and hatred, and the strength that can only be found in Christ to get you through it all.

Rickey wanted to scout the Negro League teams to find the right person, but didn’t want his intentions discovered, for fear that he would be stopped.  He claimed interest in beginning a new Negro League Team and claimed to be scouting players for it.  His scouts found Jackie Robinson.

Rickey was impressed by the reports that he’d received, so he called Robinson in for an interview.  He began by asking Robinson if he knew why he was there.  Robinson thought that he did; because Rickey wanted him to play for a new Negro League team.  Rickey told him that he was wrong; that he wanted him to play for the Dodgers.  He knew that Robinson had the talent, but he also knew that Robinson had a temper.  He told the young player that he wasn’t sure he had the guts to make it.

This angered Robinson.  No one had ever questioned his guts before.  But, before he could respond, Rickey clarified that he was looking for someone with the guts not to fight back.  The unfair accusation made against African Americans was that they didn’t have the temperament to play in the Major Leagues; that they would be easily angered, lose their temper, and cause fights.  If an African American were to challenge this mindset, they would have insults hurled at as those who stood against them would do everything in their power to make them lose their cool.  Robinson would need to promise never to lose his temper and fight back, no matter how badly he was treated.

Rickey then quoted the Scriptures.  Matthew 5:38-42; You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you; Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.  And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.  And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.  Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

In his autobiography, “I Never Had It Made,” Robinson recalls responding plainly and simply; “I’ve got two cheeks, Mr. Rickey?  Is that it?”  He vowed to do everything in his power to ignore the hatred and racism he would face to prove that African Americans belonged in the game of baseball.

Robinson endured a hate-filled spring training in Florida in 1946 and played minor league baseball in a far more accepting environment in Montreal.  After achieving great success in the minors, he was called up to the begin the 1947 season playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

A pivotal moment in Robinson’s young career came on April 22 that year, a week into the season.  The Dodgers were playing the Phillies at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn.  It was a cold day, so the stadium was far emptier than usual.  Fans could hear what was said on the field and in the dugouts.

The Phillies had a manager named Ben Chapman.  Chapman was from Alabama and was known for his bigotry.  He had played for the Yankees in the 30’s but was traded after making Nazi salutes to fans he perceived to be Jewish.  Every time Jackie Robinson stepped into the batter’s box, Chapman would verbally assault him with hate-filled attacks.  His words were vicious and venomous.  They were so vulgar that even Segregationists in the crowds grew uncomfortable.

Robinson was beginning to lose him composure.  In his autobiography, he recalls thinking to himself; “To hell with Mr. Rickey’s ‘noble experiment.  To hell with the image of the patient, black freak I was supposed to create.  I could throw down my bat, stride over to that Phillies dugout, grab one of those white sons of b’s and smash his teen in with my despised black fist.  Then I could walk away from it all.”

But Robinson remembered his promised to turn the other cheek.  He refused to fight back, or to say a word, or to even look in the direction of the dugout.  He simply played baseball that day.

As teammates, and fans, and even Segregationists watched Robinson that day, they saw him do something they doubted they could have done themselves.  They saw a bravery, courage, and strength that deserved admiration and respect.  While certainly not every heart was touched, and not everyone changed completely, many hearts began to change that day.  Fans who walked into Ebbets field booing Robinson found themselves beginning to cheer.  Teammates who didn’t want him on the team began to consider him one of the Dodgers.  A young, white, high school student, Gil Jonas, was in attendance that day.  Prior to that game, he never thought much about the challenge that African Americans faced.  Because of what he witnessed in Robinson that day, he became an advocate of human rights and an avid fund raiser for the NAACP.

Robinson strived to put the Words of Jesus into action.  In doing so, he changed the world!

Steven Souza Jr. – The Importance of Teammates

 

Steven Souza Jr.

Outfielder, Steven Souza Jr. Photo by Keith Allison 

 

It is not good for man to be alone.

When God first created Adam in the garden, he was all alone.  No spouse.  No friends.  No family.  Our Triune God knew that we couldn’t live out our lives in His image if we had no one to love and care for.  So God created Eve to give Adam a partner, helper, and friend.  After sin entered the world, we needed each other more than ever.  We all need other people in our lives to encourage us and to keep us from straying in our walk with God.  The story of Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder, Steven Souza, shows why.

Souza was raised in church, but refers to himself as a prodigal son.  He quickly found himself wandering from the faith he was raised in and living life his own way instead.  Instead of living for others, he lived for himself.  He explained to the Increase, “I thought everything revolved around me.  Elevating myself in every environment I was in – whether I was with my family, friends, or teammates – I developed a lot of pride.”  But Souza soon found himself in a dark place and began to feel like he was losing his identity.

God sent teammate Michael Taylor into Souza’s life.  One day, as Souza’s life in a dark place continued, Taylor asked him how his walk with Christ was going.  Souza lied.  He said that everything was going fine, though that could not have been farther from the truth.  Perhaps Taylor saw through it, because the next thing he did was encourage him to start reading God’s Word.  Souza went to God in prayer that night, asking God to do something to show him that He was real.  But nothing happened.

Though God may not have performed the miracle Souza had been seeking, He was still at work in his life.  As Souza recalls; “over the next few days, God continued to bring key people into my life who pointed me towards Christ. One of those people – a friend of mine – invited me to church that week.”  God touched his heart that day.  Not long after – on January 31, 2012, Steven Souza was baptized.  He recalls now that, after his baptism, some things in his life changed completely right away, but other changes have been more of a slow, gradual, refining process.

To this day, God is still using other people in Souza’s life.  In another article on the Increase, he explained how God has continued to use others to help in his Christian life.  He said of his time with the Tampa Bay Rays;

“We have a team Bible study that meets once a week which has really blown up. There’s a giant group of guys that come and it’s been really fun to grow in community and knowledge of the Lord together. The relationships that we’ve been able to create with each other have been awesome, though there’s only so close you can get with a large group of guys. But there are two guys who I’ve really been able to really go deeper with. Alex Cobb and Chase Whitley have become two of my best friends and men with whom I have been able to establish solid accountability. Alex, Chase, and I have found a community with each other where we can challenge, encourage, and grow closer to God together. The three of us are able to really energize and uplift one another; within this brotherhood we can really feel the presence and blessing of the Lord. Desiring to go deeper with each other in our faith and friendship, we’ve committed to meeting daily with each other, whether over breakfast or by our lockers, to check in and share what’s on our hearts.   I’ve seen incredible encouragement and growth in my own life come as a result of these men’s fellowship. I remember last year Chase and Alex approached me one day with something that they had observed in my life—something that was manifesting itself on the field. I didn’t have wrong intentions in my heart, but I was coming across in a way that demonstrated less-than-Christlike behavior. Out of genuine care and concern for me, they pointed out to me the way that my demeanor was portrayed in certain situations on the field and encouraged me to be more careful about how I act so that I can be a good light for Christ. I immediately recognized what they were saying and was surprised at how I had not been able to see this. So thankful for their desire to lead me on a good path, I began to work on paying closer attention to my responses and actions during the game… This type of daily community and faithful accountability is what Jesus calls us to find in our brothers and sisters.”

In the article, Souza points to Ecclesiastes 4:9-12; “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” 

This year, things will be different for Souza.  The Rays spent the offseason clearing payroll and investing in the future.  The Rays waved Whitley, who was then claimed by the Braves.  Alex Cobb remains an unsigned free agent as of this writing.  Two other fellow Christians, Peter Bourjos and Steve Cishek, both signed with the Cubs.  After watching some of his brothers in Christ move to other cities, Souza surprisingly learned that he was the next to go.  On February 20, 2018, he – along with Yankees minor league pitcher, Taylor Widener was sent to the Arizona Diamondbacks in a 3-team trade.  The Yankees received infielder Brandon Drury in the deal, with the Rays picking up a group of prospects, headlined by pitcher Anthony Banda and infielder Nick Solak.

2018 will mark a new beginning for Souza. He begins the season on a new team in a new city in a new clubhouse.  Now, it will be him who stands alongside new teammates, encouraging them with the Gospel and serving as a living example of what a man of God should be.

Sometimes, instead of sending miracles into people’s lives to show them His presence, He sends us.  God came to Souza in his time of need through his teammates.  God uses us, too, to come into people’s lives at just the right time to point them to Christ.  We should remember that in all of our relationships and in every interaction we have.  We’re there to point other people to Jesus and to be lights that shine for Him!

Matt Forte – The Workhouse Returns to His Stable

 

Matt Forte.jpg

Former Bears Running Back, Matt Forte.  Photo by John Martinez Pavliga

 

Change can be terrifying.

Running back, Matt Forte, is going through a major change in his life right now.  After 10 seasons in the NFL, Forte will be hanging up his cleats.  Forte played college football at Tulane, was drafted by the Bears in the 2nd round of the 2008 draft, and then finished his career with the Jets.  He retires with 9,796 rushing yards, 75 touchdowns, and two Pro Bowl appearances.

In addition to having had an impressive NFL career, Forte has an impressive faith.  He has been vocal about his faith throughout his career, even announcing his retirement through Sports Spectrum.  Here are a few of the gracious words he had to share (though I also recommend checking out his entire statement);

For the past 10 years, I’ve been blessed to play professionally a game that I’ve loved since I was 6 years old.  But, after much prayer and reflection, I’ve decided to retire from the NFL. Like so many others before me, this game has enhanced my life in numerous ways. My career in the League has been nothing short of a miracle granted by God and put on display for His glory. I will cherish the many memories made on the field and the lifelong friends I’ve made over the years in the locker room…  The past 25 years playing America’s game have left me with unparalleled joy. But, it’s time for the workhorse to finally rest in his stable. While my heart is a bit heavy as I close this chapter of my life, I am excited about what the future holds. God Bless and Bear Down!

In times of anxiety and change, Forte has learned to look to God for strength.  He explains to The Increase;It’s easy to become anxious, but the Bible warns against letting worry overtake our lives. In fact, anytime we allow worry to seep into our lives, it means we’re not trusting God. We may be trusting Him, but only to the point where we feel like we’re still in control. When we begin to realize we’re not in control, anxiety rears its ugly head. I know that is when I need to lean on God and trust Him the most.”

A verse that is near to Forte’s heart is James 1:2-4; Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.  And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

Forte points out that the Bible “doesn’t say if you face trials, but when. We’re promised trials, and if you aren’t prepared for the trials that will come, you’ll find yourself overcome with anxiety. But since you know hardships are going to come, you can prepare your heart and mind to trust in the Lord’s sovereignty.  It’s one thing to say you’re not going to worry, it’s another thing to apply it to your life. For me, the more I stay conscious of my anxiety, the more I’m able to surrender it to God and trust in Him. When I feel myself getting overwhelmed, I tell myself to slow down, I go to a quiet place, and I pray. During these moments I need to realize there’s a bigger picture than what’s going on in my life this week or even this month. God calls us to take it one step at a time, without worrying about the future.

As we face changes in our own lives, we, too, can rest on God’s promises.  He promises to work all things for the good of those who love Him, to listen every time we call to Him, and to help us in every time of danger.  We never need to be afraid or feel alone.  As Psalm 46:1 reminds us; God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble!

Ben Revere – A Little Guy with Big Dreams

 

Ben Revere.jpg

Outfielder Ben Revere.  Photo by Ian D’Andrea

 

5’9’’ Ben Revere never thought he would ever be able to play major league baseball – ever.

His goal was simply to play college baseball.  During his senior year of high school, Division 1 colleges like University of Georgia, Florida, Florida State, and Miami showed interest in him.  It appeared that his dream was about to come true.

God had bigger plans.

In 2007, as Revere was planning on figuring out what school to go to, he was drafted in the 1st round of the Amateur Player Draft by the Minnesota Twins.  He thought it was a dream.  Revere told CBN; “When all that happened I was just like, ‘oh my goodness.’ It’s just, I didn’t think I was even going to go D1 because, I was the smallest guy on every team – every team.  And it just like man, you see all these kids like 6’3,” big, hit homeruns… And I’m like, ‘there’s no way I can make it.’

People doubted him.  Some said he was too small.  Others said he didn’t have a strong enough arm.  Others said he couldn’t hit with enough power.  It took him four years in the minors to prove himself, but at the end of the 2010 season, he made his major league debut.

Revere never did develop a great deal of power.  It took him 1,466 at bats before he hit his first Major League home run in the 2014 season!  What he lacked in power, however, he made up in contact.  He hit over .300 for three straight seasons from 2013-2015.  He led the National League in hits in 2014.

While Revere has been a consistent player, his baseball career has been one of constant change.  After debuting with the Twins, he was traded to the Phillies prior to the 2013 season, then to the Blue Jays at the 2015 trade deadline, and then to Nationals prior to the 2016 season.  He was granted free agency after his one season in Washington, and signed with the Angels in 2017.  He just recently signed with his 6th team, the Cincinnati Reds, in February of 2018.  He’s grateful to God for the opportunity to play.  He told CBN; “til this day, I’m just like, ‘Thank You.’ I’m just like, ‘Thank You.’ I’m just like, ‘Really, You didn’t have to give this to me.  You know, I will love You no matter what, but You give me this chance.  I’m not going to regret it.’”

One of Revere’s favorite Bible verses is Psalm 91:1-2.  In this verse, King David confesses that “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.  I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust.”  Revere told Rob Maaddi in the book “Baseball Faith;” “When I read this passage, it’s definitely heartfelt, and you realize whatever you may be going through, whatever temptations are in your life, God is saying to you: ‘don’t give up on me, and I’ll help you overcome anything and have a long life of salvation.’ Reading this passage makes me realize that God has a better plan for me.  I like to read it especially if something isn’t going well because it’s a constant reminder that the Big Man upstairs is always by your side no matter what.  You see so many athletes waste their talent because their egos become so big and they think they can handle everything on their own, but no matter what gifts and blessings God gave you, He could take it away very quickly.”

As Revere begins this new chapter in his baseball career, nothing is guaranteed.  The deal he signed is minor league deal with an invitation to spring training.  As he fights for a roster spot on a team that already has a crowded outfield, He will look to God for strength and help, grateful for the opportunity.

Carson Wentz: Strength on the Sideline

 

Carson Wentz

Eagles Quarterback, Carson Wentz.  Photo by Keith Allison

 

On February 4, 2018, millions of people had their eyes fixed on U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, as the Eagles defeated the New England Patriots 41-33 in Super Bowl LII.  As we watched Nick Foles lead the Eagles on the field, however, something amazing was also happening on the sidelines.

Carson Wentz.

Wentz is the Eagles star quarterback.  The Eagles paid a king’s ransom to trade up to the 2nd selection of the 2016 draft to select him and have been building their team around him ever since.  Wentz has done nothing but prove that he was worth it.  He’s not only been a great quarterback, but he’s also demonstrated strong character, and a selfless, team-first attitude.  He’s been quite vocal about the reason behind his attitude; his faith.  Wentz started a charity called AO1 – Audience of One.  During Week 13 of the 2017 season, the NFL sponsored a “My Cause, My Cleats” program, in which players could wear custom cleats promoting their favorite charity.  Wentz and other Eagles wore AO1 cleats, complete with the Bible Verse, Romans 5:8, which reads; but God shows His love for us in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Wentz spent the 2017 season, not only leading the Eagles to the playoffs, but by telling the world that he’s a Christian.  Wentz accomplished a great deal!

But he didn’t play in the Super Bowl.

In Week 14, in a game against the Rams in Los Angeles, Wentz tore his ACL.  After his injury, however, what Wentz did was perhaps more impressive than any of his on-field accomplishments thus far in his young career.  Instead of leaving his team to focus on his own rehab and recovery, Wentz stuck by his teammates on the sidelines.  He took on the role of encourager, mentor, and friend.  When the defense was on the field, he would sit by his replacement, Nick Foles’, side, helping him make in game adjustments.  He genuinely rooted for his team to succeed – even when that meant winning the Super Bowl without him.  Even in his weakness, Wentz showed the world what the heart of a Christian ought to look like.

Wentz, along with several other Eagles players, put together a devotional series for the YouVersion Bible App.  Here’s what Wentz had to say;

One of my favorite things about God is His creativity.  He’s blessed us all with different skills, different abilities, different passions, different things that we’re good at, and I think that’s so unique, and in 1 Peter 4:10 it says; “Each of you should use whatever gift you have receive to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”  And various forms is what really jumps out to me, ‘cause, you see, I’ve been gifted to play football, as a professional quarterback.  But there’s other people who have been gifted to be pastors, to be businessmen… to be teachers, dentists, nurses, you name it.  And we all have this different mission field.  We all have this different platform and potential reach with our influence, but, at the end of the day, we all have the same mission.  And what’s our mission?  In Acts 1:8, Jesus says; “but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Samaria and Judea, and to all the ends of the earth.”   So, at the end of the day, no matter what your job is, not matter where you’re at, no matter who you’re surrounded by, God has put it on your heart, and your mission is to tell the world about Him. To spread the Gospel.  To do it with love.  And that is our ultimate mission.  And it’s ultimately to do it for the Lord and to further His kingdom

Wentz had hoped his job this season would be to lead the Eagles to the Super Bowl as their starting quarterback – and to bring God glory on the field.  It turns out, his job was to serve as a supportive voice on the sideline.  He embraced this unexpected, unwanted job with the same zeal he uses on the field, and has brought God glory in his humility and his love for his teammates.

 

Carson Wentz 2

A photo of Carson Wentz, Zach Ertz, Nick Foles, and 3rd string quarterback Nate Sudfeld with Tony Dungy’s son, Justin, after the Super Bowl.  While Philadelphia celebrated, these 4 men of God found a quiet place to pray together.  Photo from Tony Dungy’s Twitter account

 

Trey Burton – James 1:22

 

Trey Burton.jpg

Trey Burton (#8) back in his University of Florida days.  Photo by SAM_5363

 

On a football team, you never know when the coach will call your number and need you to step up.

The Eagles have lived that reality this year.  It all started after week one, when kicker Jake Elliott was brought in for an injured Caleb Sturgis.  Than it was running back Lagarrette Blount (and, later, Jay Ajayi) stepping in for Darren Sproles.  The list kept growing.  Linebacker Joe Walker for Jordan Hicks – and then Dannell Ellerbe for Joe Walker.  Left Tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai or Jason Peters.  Nick Foles for Carson Wentz.     For a short time there was another need for a player to step up.  In a crucial Week 14 matchup in Los Angeles against the Rams, star Tight End, Zach Ertz, was out, leaving backups Brent Celek and Trey Burton to step up.  Burton was ready.  He explained to the Increase

The biggest thing I’ve learned this year, especially in the past few weeks, is that you never know what’s going to happen, so you have to be ready at any time to step in and lead. Whether on the field, in the locker room or in team Bible study, you have to prepare as if you are the starter. On the field you never know what might happen; you have to be prepared for the worst. One of your teammates might get injured and end up out for the season. You need to be ready to give it all you have on every play. As a Christ-follower, I want to be prepared in my knowledge and trust in Him so that if anyone asks me a question about my faith, I’m ready.

God has also been teaching me to appreciate my teammates more this year, not only as they compete for our team, but as many of them work hard to build up the Kingdom of Christ. As a team needs each player — gifted specifically to execute in their position on the field — so the Church has members who are all a critical part of God’s mission, able to benefit the Church with their gifts and talents. Not one teammate is greater than the others. Everyone is needed for this mission.

We, as Christians, always need to be ready to step it up.  Whether it means stepping it up to preach the Gospel, to help someone in need, to show compassion to someone who is hurting, or to defend someone who is vulnerable.  Christians are called to be people of action.  Burton explained the following in one of his portions of the Eagles You Version devotion series;

James 1:22 says. “Be doers of the word, not hearers only, deceiving yourself.”  I love this verse for many reasons.  Probably the #1 reason, though, I love this verse is because it’s counter-cultural to what we believe here in America.  A lot of times we go to church on Sunday and we listen to a great sermon or we hear our pastor preach on a topic, and that’s it.  We’re not doers, we just hear.  And so, when I started reading James, I truly fell in love with it and it kind of gave me a totally different mindset about church.  Not only should we go to church; Not only should we be listening to sermons on podcasts or YouTube or whatever it may be.  But that’s not the end of it, that’s really just the beginning.  And the same with reading the word, you know, when we’re in the Word and we’re studying Scripture – that’s not the end of it, that’s just the beginning and now it’s time to act on it.  And that’s something myself and my teammates have taken to heart this year; Not just sitting and listening and those types of things– which are great – but taking the next step and being doers of what we’ve been reading and what we’ve been studying.

We’re all called to step up as Christians.  We’re called to doers of the Word.  We’re called to rise to action and serve Him wherever and whenever we have the opportunity.