The lives of MLB umpires and the ministry that keeps them afloat

4b2eede88b04b1dcdd497df409d7eb95What would it be like to be an MLB umpire? To deal with the continual verbal onslaught from players, coaches and fans? To be constantly reminded of your mistakes and treated like you are hardly human?

ESPN The Magazine recently ran a feature story about Pastor Dean Esskew and his ministry for MLB umpires, examining the lives and struggles of a group of people that are neglected in the world of sports. From the article: ”Pastor Dean has baptized 66 professional umpires, calling them safe in the only way that matters.”

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NEW Summer DigiMag now available for viewing

Summer 2014 DigiMag #1 FINAL2What happens when Sports Spectrum rides bikes with Switchfoot? Or how about when a biker tries to attain his Motocross dreams despite only having one arm? Or how about when a golf coach locks his keys in his car before the biggest golf tournament of the season?

Our first DigiMag of the summer is now available for viewing. This issue has exclusive feature stories on alternative rock band Switchfoot and Motocross rider Jason Griffin, and a new column from staff writer Stephen Copeland. We also have several closeups and content from the K-LOVE Fan Awards in Nashville, Tennessee, including a Q&A with Auburn head football coach Gus Malzahn.

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Chronicling the Spiritual Journey of 1999 U.S. Open Champion Payne Stewart

To understand golfer Payne Stewart—the most public of sports figures, who died the most public of deaths last October—you have to look deeper to see what changed him over the last 18 months of his life. And the best way to do that is through the eyes of his friends and colleagues.

“The one thing I think about Payne was that he was genuine,” says fellow PGA pro David Ogrin.

Ogrin knew Stewart from his college days when David played for Texas A&M and Payne starred for the Southern Methodist University Mustangs. He observed him closely for nearly 20 years and is perhaps one of the best qualified to comment on Stewart’s decade-long journey from highly successful yet highly dissatisfied pro golfer to a confident and peaceful belief in Jesus Christ in the last year and a half of his life.

“I knew him when he was the perfect Frat Rat,” Ogrin says. “I played against him for three years and knew he was a genuine hard worker. At times he could be a genuine pain in the neck, but we all knew he was a genuine champion. When he talked to you, he was genuinely interested in what you had to say.”

But Ogrin, like Stewart’s many close friends, including golfer Paul Azinger, sports agent Robert Fraley, and baseball pitcher Orel Hershiser, came to see a genuine difference in the once egotistical and often sarcastic golfer.

“In the last couple of years, Payne became a genuine Christian. He had earned everything a man could earn on his own in the golf world and found that it wasn’t enough,” Ogrin adds. “To understand what finished out the man and the grasp that it held on him, you have to see what Jesus has to offer and the place He played in Payne’s life.”

The difference, according to PGA Tour chaplain Larry Moody, was that Stewart went from having a religion he could fall back on if needed, to a personal relationship with Jesus, which carried him through the highs and lows of his final months in this bunker we call “earth.”

Moody, who often leads the Wednesday night Tour Bible study, began making the rounds on the PGA Tour in 1981, Stewart’s rookie year. He too witnessed first-hand the changes in Stewart’s life.

“We had some good talks after his father passed away in the early 90s. Then his good friend Paul Azinger was stricken with cancer in 1993. He had talked to Payne about not being in the land of the living and going to the land of the dying, but actually being in the land of the dying and heading for the land of the living.

“Although Paul was sure where he was going, Payne did not share the same confidence,” Moody adds.

All the while, Stewart’s agent Fraley and his wife Dixie, along with good friend Van Ardan, were continually talking to him about a relationship with Jesus and how the peace and joy of a personal Savior could overwhelm any golf trophy Stewart would ever win.

The most constant reminder of his need to change inside and out came from his two young children, Chelsea and Aaron. They began attending a Christian sports camp each summer in Missouri, Stewart’s home state, and they made sure of their eternal destiny during one of the camps.

“We always said they were raising Payne just like he was raising them,” Stewart’s longtime golf teacher Chuck Cook says. “They brought home the Christian life and the Christian values to him on a daily basis.”

When it came time for Tracey and Payne to select a school for the two kids, the Stewarts sought out one of the top Christian schools near their Orlando, Florida, home, the First Academy at the First Baptist Church of Orlando.

While the denominational label was ultimately unimportant, the teaching Payne received at the church proved to be one of the final mileposts of his spiritual journey.

Stewart began attending a men’s Bible study led by major league pitcher Hershiser, who also stressed the need for a personal relationship with God. Orel emphasized that being accepted by God is not based on good works but on faith in Jesus—the One who had paid the penalty for his sins and could make him righteous before a holy God.

“God used a little bit of everybody in Payne’s life,” says First Baptist associate pastor J.B. Collingsworth. “Larry Moody and Paul Azinger were factors, his kids brought it home to him daily, and he came to First Baptist Orlando, where he joined the men’s Bible study and learned many things here.”

Stewart also became good friends with golf legend Byron Nelson, one of golf’s greatest winners, who told Payne of his own need to have Jesus in his life to help, guide, and comfort him.

“Payne was as solid as they come,” Nelson says. “He loved Tracey and the kids, but he had a real love and peace in his life from Christ.”

Despite all the shared knowledge and friendly persuasion, Stewart had to settle his spiritual relationship alone, which he did—asking Christ into his life as his personal Savior and Lord privately in 1998.

Shortly after that, Payne’s son Aaron helped Dad let the world in on his changed life.

Early in the 1999 golf season, Aaron gave his dad his WWJD bracelet, which stands for “What Would Jesus Do?” The 10-year-old proved wise beyond his years when he challenged Dad to come out of the closet and let others know about his private commitment to Christ.

Moody was one of the first to hear from Payne about his bold commitment when he encountered him on the practice range at the Shell Houston Hope in April. Seeing Stewart wearing the bracelet, Moody asked for some background information and listened as Stewart told him that God had truly changed his mind, body, and spirit.

“In the last year, I knew Payne was committed to God, but in Houston was when I found he was unashamed publicly of his commitment,” Moody says.

The rest of the sports world caught on a few months later when Stewart conquered the demanding Pinehurst No. 2 layout to win his second US Open title, capping the victory with a bracelet-encircled fist thrust into the air on the 18th green.

That photo and Stewart’s spoken, public commitment were played around the world the following day as his path from carnal, clutter-filled darkness to peaceful life became clear.

Collingsworth, who became a friend of Stewart’s over the last 18 months, spoke with Stewart at a post-US Open party thrown last July by his wife to help map out his future path.

“He told me he wasn’t going to be a ‘Bible thumper;’ that wasn’t his style. But he wanted everybody to know it was Jesus, Jesus, Jesus who had done this great thing in his life, and that was all-important.”

Moody said that in the past Stewart would mock players who attended the weekly Bible study for being less than perfect and even quite human at times.

“I told him only sinners came to the Bible study, and if he wasn’t one then he shouldn’t show up because he would make the rest of us look bad,” Moody says, recalling his tongue-in-check response.

Eventually, of course, Stewart became aware that although he was less than perfect as a player or a person, he was forgiven by the One he had accepted into his life.

For Darin Hoff, who grew up with Stewart in Springfield, Missouri, and who knew Payne since age 15, the change began to come into focus when his buddy lost the US Open title to Lee Janzen in 1998.

“I saw he was truly gracious in defeat and really cheered Lee Janzen when he won. I knew that was not like the old Payne. His faith was so much more important to him than it ever had been before,” Hoff says.

Hoff was working as an assistant golf pro in South Bend, Indiana, when he received the stunning news of the death of Stewart, Fraley, Ardan, and the others. Payne’s old friend grabbed a flight to Orlando for the memorial service. He spent much of the trip thinking about his friend and the difference he had seen in his life over the last year.

“At the memorial service, I realized that I didn’t have what Payne did. It was like God was standing right there calling me to come to Him. My life was changed forever on that day, and I know I will never be the same.”

Collingsworth says that in the months since Stewart’s death, he has heard from people all over the country who have been affected by it and desire to follow the golfer’s spiritual path.

Moody, who has dealt with professional golfers for nearly two decades, can only shake his head in amazement at the pathway Stewart traveled in his professional, private, and spiritual life.

“What a tremendous legacy he has left us. How thrilled we are to know him and to know that his story is attracting so many others to what Payne has found.”

It was a winding pathway, but an eternally fulfilling one for the most public of golfers, who made the most public of life-changing commitments. And now all the world is find out about the transformation that made Payne Stewart’s life—and death—a tribute to His Savior.

By Art Stricklin

This story was published in the March 2000 issue of Sports Spectrum.

Finishing Strong

The Masters 2014

“…being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Philippians 1:6

When everything is on the line, when everyone is watching, when you or your team are counting on you for the next shot or the next play—this is the situation that true competitors always dream of and want to participate in. As a golfer, I dream of sinking a slick, downhill, 20-foot putt on the 18th hole at Augusta National to win the Masters Tournament by a shot. No matter the sport, we all want to finish strong. We want to always be able to look back in time and say that we did our best and put it all on the line in certain situations.

These same principles stand in life and faith. Remember what Paul said in Philippians: “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” We must always keep this in mind, especially in hard times. God does not give up on us; however, He does allow us to go through hard times and He does discipline us, as a father disciplines His son. Don’t lose heart. God is sovereign and in control!

Always remember Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make straight your paths.”

By Rosson Anderson

Rosson Anderson works for College Golf Fellowship and contributes devotionals to Sports Spectrum magazine. This devotional is taken from our most recent Training Table. Log in here to access our most recent Training Table. Subscribe here to receive 12 issues a year and a daily sports-related devotional.

Life’s Crossroads

LifesCrossroads

Almost 1,000 foreigners have played in the Japanese professional baseball leagues since 1951. Venezuelan-born Alex Ramirez is the only one to have achieved 2,000 career hits in Japan, and he is not shy about giving credit to God for his success.

Ramirez joined the Tokyo Yakult Swallows of Japan’s Central League in 2001. He went on to become arguably the best foreign player in Japanese baseball history, playing 13 seasons for three teams, winning a batting championship, two home run crowns and four RBI titles while playing on two Japan Series championship teams.

Now, at age 39, he is at a crossroads in his career.

After being released by the Yokohama DeNA Baystars last fall, he signed with the Gunma Diamond Pegasus of Japan’s independent Baseball Challenge League in February. He hopes for a fast start in Gunma, north of Tokyo, to prove he can still be a productive hitter and attract attention from a Central or Pacific League club in Japan’s top league, the Nippon Professional Baseball league.

Soul-Searching

Ramirez was playing Triple-A baseball with the Cleveland Indians organization when he became a Christian in 1998. He said a defining moment came in a Walmart parking lot in Buffalo, New York, while talking with his wife.

“We were having (marital) problems at the time, and she told me I had to make a decision,” he recalls. Liz told Alex she wanted him to seek help from God and nobody else.

“If you don’t do that,” she said, “we are not going to stay together.” Alex contacted the Baseball Chapel.

“I had been going to Baseball Chapel previously, not so much to seek out God, but because I was superstitious,” he recalls. “I wanted to have a good game.” He called the pastor who set him straight.

“The pastor told me I had been going to Baseball Chapel for the wrong reason. He said, ‘If you come here, there is a step you have to take, accepting God into your life on a daily basis, reading the Bible and things like that. If you can do that and get to know God and what God wants you to do, you will become a better husband,’ so that’s exactly what I did.”

He and Liz stayed together, his life was changed, and he says God has been with him ever since.

Though he calls himself a Presbyterian, in Tokyo Ramirez attends Tokyo Baptist Church. “It’s a beautiful church with the service in English and with more than 2,000 members from all over the world, and I like the way the pastor preaches the word of God there. It is just amazing,” he says.

His wife is also a believer, and they usually go to church together every time they have the opportunity and when his schedule permits.

Looking Ahead

“I believe (continuing to play baseball) is my desire, but it’s not my life,” he says. “God has already blessed me with this career, and whatever God has planned for me, I will be happy to follow that, whether or not I play baseball again. It’s not what I want; it’s what God wants for me.”

Affectionately known as “Ramichan” (-chan being a Japanese suffix attached to one’s name as a term of endearment), Ramirez has been a favorite with fans and teammates throughout his time in Japan. One of his trademarks is a brief “performance” after hitting a home run, consisting of celebratory gestures with the team mascot in front of a TV camera next to his dugout.

A native Spanish speaker but extremely fluent in English, Ramirez has learned enough Japanese to be considered tri-lingual, and he says, when he is done playing ball, he expects to take a year to study the Japanese language more intensively and become even better.

As for his future, Ramirez says, “Plan A is to play baseball. Plan B is to stay in Japan and continue operating the restaurant (Ramichan Café) and maybe start other businesses.”

His eventual goal is to become the manager of a Japanese team, but Ramichan’s future will depend on wherever God leads him, he says. The restaurant is the first of its kind in Japan because it’s the first Puerto Rican/Latin restaurant in the country.

But that wasn’t even a thought when Ramirez went to Japan in 2001; he never expected he would stay so long to have that kind of opportunity.

“I thought I would go for a year or two, make some money, then go back to the States and play,” he says. “But my attitude changed, and I had a great opportunity to play under (manager Tsutomu) Wakamatsu with the Swallows who let me play even while I was in a two-month-long slump. I came back and produced, and that’s the reason why I’m still here today.”

Blending Cultures

“After my second year, my wife and I really got to like Japan,” Ramirez says.

“The people are very nice and polite, and it’s very safe. I liked the way I was treated. Then I signed a three-year contract with Yakult, and after that, I knew this was the best place for me. I was very comfortable and learned a lot about Japanese baseball and Japanese culture.”

He left the Swallows when his contract expired after the 2007 season and spent four years with the Tokyo cross-town rival Yomiuri Giants. In 2012 and 2013, Ramirez played for the Yokohama DeNA Baystars and, on April 6, 2013, he became a member of Japan’s Meikyukai, the Golden Players Club for batters with 2,000 career hits and pitchers with 200 career victories.

The milestone hit was a home run at Jingu Stadium, home of the Swallows where he began his career in Japan, and Ramirez considers it his biggest thrill in baseball.

He and Liz also donated a substantial amount of money to victims of the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. He created a special “We Are One” home run performance and visited schools and played ball with kids and donated baseball equipment.

“My wife & I talked and prayed, and she said we can donate and give back to this country a portion of what we have received,” he says.

Starting the restaurant was Liz’s idea. “She always wanted to open one,” says Ramirez. “I told her she had been supporting me for 20 years, so it’s time for me to support her.” She goes to the Ramichan Café almost every day and cooks the Puerto Rican food. The Ramichan Café has seats for about 90 diners and there is a VIP room where Alex’s memorabilia is displayed. When he is there, he’s always willing to sign autographs and take pictures with fans.

“Japanese baseball is not only about producing, but also about attitude and respect,” he says. “You have to maintain every single day how you behave on and off the field, how to treat teammates, coaches, fans…I could not have done what I did without God’s help. There were good times, great times and some down times, but God was always there for me.”

By Wayne Gracyk

A native of New Jersey, Wayne Graczyk went to Japan in 1969 with the U.S. Air Force and is a 1977 graduate of Tokyo’s Sophia University. Wayne was the long-time (1977-2004) sports editor of the Tokyo Weekender newspaper, he covers Yomiuri Giants baseball games for Nippon TV and Radio Nippon and, since 1976, has compiled the Japan Pro Baseball Fan Handbook & Media Guide and has written the “Baseball Bullet-In” column in The Japan Times. He is a member of the Tokyo Sportswriters Club and the Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan.

Uncommon Challenge