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.”

Click here to read…

Saltwater in the nose

Switchfoot Bali

I parked my car and hurried into the gas station to buy a bag of ice.

It was 5 a.m., and I was running slightly behind.

I had started coaching a golf team at a Christian high school in Charlotte that spring, and it was the morning of our conference tournament, our biggest tournament of the year. Though I was originally hesitant to accept the coaching position, I looked back on the season and believed it might have been the best thing I had done with my life in a long, long time—something that forced me to find meaning in relationships again when my tendency was to isolate myself in coffeehouses and pubs writing things that take an eternity to get published, a process that continually seems to bring me to the edge of my identity, some daily flip of a coin between fulfillment and worthlessness.

On this particular morning, I needed to get a bag of ice for our team cooler before I picked up the bus and the boys at the high school. “That will be $2.19,” the gas station clerk said to me.

I gave him a few dollars, thanked him, and quickly walked out to my car. The sun was yet to come up, and it was a beautiful spring morning.

I reached into my right pocket for my keys. Nothing. I reached into my left pocket. Nothing.

Maybe I didn’t lock my car, I thought.

I tried pulling the handle on the driver-side door. Locked. Then the back-left door. Locked. I walked around to the other side of the car and pulled the handle on the back-right door. Locked. Then the passenger-side door. Locked.

That’s when I saw my keys in my ignition, locked in my car, the bus keys also on the keychain.

I stared at my keys for a second or two, a million thoughts racing through my mind and a thousand words that can’t be printed. I hadn’t locked my keys in my car for at least four years, and here I was, on the one day I couldn’t make a bone-headed mistake, and I had made one.

I’d see if I could push the windows down, I thought. I danced around the car, trying each and every window, but none of them budged. I desperately jumped on top of the roof of my car and tried to push open the sunroof. Nothing.

There I was…on the top of my car…defeated.

What would my players say? What would their parents say? How would they get to the tournament without the bus? Surely, I thought, my days of coaching golf were over…after one year.

I jumped back down and saw the bag of ice sitting on the pavement. I looked at it, disgusted, as if it had just laid its hands on my sister, as if the bag of ice had hands. All of this for a bag of ice, I said to myself, a stupid bag of ice.

Frantic, I ran back into the gas station to see if the clerk had a hanger. Then I asked a woman driving a public transportation bus if she had a hanger. Then I talked to a man in a food delivery truck to see if he had a hanger. Then I called my roommate and woke him up to bring a hanger. The next person I talked to, I decided, I was going to ask for a baseball bat.

I was desperate. So I marched over to one of the gas pumps and picked up a plastic squeegee, as if I was wielding a sword, and stomped back to my car, on a mission. I took the handle and tried to bash through my back-right window. At this point, I didn’t even care. This was the biggest day in my first year as a head coach, and I had no way of getting my players to the tournament.

I swung once…twice…three times. Nothing.

For a split second, I thought about taking my elbow and ramming it through the glass. I’m still on my parents insurance, I thought to myself, shrugging. I may as well go to the hospital one last time. But my insanity stopped there. The only thing worse than missing the tournament would be showing up at the tournament bloodied up with glass in my skin.

To make a long story short (that is actually already a long story thus debunking the cliché), a kind, African-American man came over with one of his friends. They had a couple of gadgets to pry open the sunroof, and my roommate eventually showed up with a hanger. The men/angels fidgeted with it for a while, and eventually unlocked my car. I took their addresses and told them I would send them something.

I again looked at the bag of ice on the pavement, quite possibly the worst purchase I’ve ever made. It was the angriest I’ve been over an inanimate object that wasn’t a golf ball.

As I drove to the high school, at one point, I looked down at my speedometer and realized that I was unknowingly traveling nearly 90 miles per hour in my Chrysler Concorde down the Interstate, which is never a good thing, especially in a beat-up Concorde with over 200,000 miles on it. I think it made me realize how much I had allowed the chaos to control me, how I had become a captive to it all, how I was putting my life at risk and had nearly bashed out one of my windows with my elbow.

Once I finally arrived at the bus garage and transferred the cooler onto the bus, I whipped the bus into the high school parking lot to pick up my players. That’s when I heard a gentle thump by my feet.

I looked down. The cooler had tipped over.

Again, I stared down at the ice, which was now scattered all over the floor of the bus.

That’s when I thought back to my interview with Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman about surfing. “Surfing adds to the levity,” he told me. “It lets air into the room, and maybe some saltwater into the nose. It’s a reminder that you can’t take yourself too seriously.”

Once I took a step back, all I could do was laugh. It was as if God was smiling down on me saying, “I know you’ve had a rough morning already; now, I’m just going to turn this into an even better story. Don’t can’t take yourself too seriously.”

We arrived at the course (on time, somehow), and before the boys got off the bus, I told them to glorify God through the game of golf and enjoy God through the gift of golf, to stay focused but not take themselves too seriously, to not allow the chaos of the day to control them, as I had done that morning.

And then I apologized for the warm Gatorade.

ColumnSigBy Stephen Copeland

This column appeared in Sports Spectrum’s first issue of its three Summer 2014 issues. Stephen Copeland is a staff writer and columnist at Sports Spectrum magazine. His column tackles sports and faith from another angle, whether it’s humorous, personal or controversial. Follow him on Twitter-@steve_copeland or email him at stephen.copeland@sportsspectrum.com.

Scars For A Cause

i“Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Matthew 26:41

They are calling Group G the “Group of Death” in the 2014 FIFA World Cup, consisting of Germany, Portugal, Ghana, and the United States. Merely advancing out of the group would be an incredible accomplishment, especially for the United States. The fact that it’s a more difficult road for, say, a team like the United States, almost makes the journey more exciting. The greater the pain, the more scars there are, the greater the reward.

I’ve been trying to approach sin and temptation with this same mindset. I recently heard a sermon by John Piper based on the premise: You don’t have to sin to feel its power. He gives the analogy of increasing weights on a rope hooked at people’s ankles, one by one, pulling them over a cliff into the pits of sin. As the weight increases, Piper says, you feel the temptation of sin, even without sinning. As the analogy goes, after the weight pulls two people over the side of the cliff, it steadily increases with the third person until the cord finally snaps. The third person’s ankles are bleeding, but he has not sinned. Piper then exclaims something along the lines of, “Do I have any soldiers out there? I want to see some scars for a cause! You don’t have to sin to feel its power.”

Do you have any scars for a cause? Or do you fall over the cliff time and time again? Show God He is much more rewarding, more pleasureful, and more fulfilling than your sin that so easily entangles.

By Stephen Copeland

Stephen Copeland is a staff writer for 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.

Freddie Freeman: Potter and Clay

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“We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; per- severance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” Romans 5:3-5

Atlanta Braves 24-year-old star Freddie Freeman lost his mom to cancer more than 10 years ago when he was in his early teens. At first, he asked the question many ask when a loved one is lost: Why? Why did this happen? Why did she have to go so soon? Why? Why? Why?

Early on Freeman pushed God away, but a few years ago he came to the realization that God took his mom so she wouldn’t have to suffer any longer.

“My mom was in pain, and He took her to a nice place, and she’s not in pain anymore,” he told the Priority Magazine’s Robert Mitchell. “I finally truly believed that a couple of years later. Then I was just like, ‘I have to do this for Him because He did what’s best for my
mom.’ Faith plays into it a lot.”

Isaiah 45:9 also asks a great question in respect to asking God ‘Why?’: “Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’ Does your work say, ‘The potter has no hands’?”

Trusting God that He knows what is best will get us through the difficult days. It won’t take away the pain, but it will, through His help, make the pain bearable and produce perseverance, character; and hope.

By Brett Honeycutt

Brett Honeycutt is the managing editor of Sports Spectrum. 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.

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.

Log in here to view. To receive 12 issues of Sports Spectrum magazine a year, three issues each season, subscribe HERE. Enjoy.

Brad Guzan’s Unexpected Journey

Our biggest breakthrough moments sometimes come when we least expect them.

In 2005, United States goalkeeper Brad Guzan had thought he played poorly in place of Chivas USA’s injured keeper. The squad finished with an abysmal 4-22 record in its first season, and Guzan believed much of it fell on him.

“I was young,” he says. “I wasn’t sure I was ready mentally, physically. And I wasn’t sure if I was good enough. We were not winning games…So that point was definitely a low for me. There were a lot of question marks going through my head.”

At the end of the season, however, Guzan received an email inviting him to the U.S. National team’s camp in January. It was an invitation to represent his country. The thing he least expected.

It was a huge confidence boost after a rookie year that seemed like it couldn’t have gone worse. And two years later, his stardom continued to rise, as he was named the 2007 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year. This led to an opportunity to play for Aston Villa in one of the world’s best soccer leagues, the English Premier League in 2008, where he has remained ever since. Being in such a competitive league hasn’t been easy, but he has come a long way since Chivas USA’s 4-22 record in 2005.

“It was a trying four years for me, the first four years in England,” Guzan says. “It was difficult because you would play a game, do well and the next week you would find yourself on the bench. So it was inconsistent football that I was experiencing and I was looking for the consistency… (But) you have to be professional. You have to be persistent…You just have to keep fighting…I knew that if I kept going I would be given an opportunity at some point.”

One thing that has remained consistent, in a position as mentally trying as goalkeeping, is the thing keeps him steady in all circumstances—good or bad.

“When things are going well for you, you can’t get too high,” Guzan says. “When things aren’t going your way, you can’t get too low…I think as athletes, everyone gets caught in the heat of the moment, then maybe do things that they regret later on. For me, I am no different. I am not perfect…But God loves everyone. You have to be able to open yourself to Him and allow Him into your life. And if you do that, the forgiveness, the relief that comes off your shoulders, knowing that you have God’s love, you are able to follow Him through your life’s journey.”

In March of 2013, Guzan started in place of an injured Tim Howard for the men’s national team in two 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil qualifiers and did not give up a goal in either match.

“For me, how my personal life, my faith life and my sport life—they all come together,” Guzan says. “I think they have to. I think that is just natural. You don’t have one without the other and most importantly you have to have Jesus in your life…As I said, it hasn’t always been a rosy road to success. There are always going to be bumps along the way. And through those difficulties, Jesus is what helped me get through all of those struggles.”

By Stephen Copeland

Stephen Copeland is a staff writer and columnist at Sports Spectrum magazine.

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.

‘All In One Rhythm’

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“For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.” 1 John 5:7-8

The official slogan of the 2014 FIFA World Cup is “All in One Rhythm,” or, in Portuguese, “Juntos num so ritmo.” I love these four words. Not only is it a perfect description of the World Cup—how teams from around the world come together to participate in the sport of soccer, all in one rhythm—but it also makes me want to apply it to my own spirituality.

One of the most remarkable things in the Christian faith, to me, is the concept of the trinity. Just thinking about the triune God—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—points my heart and mind toward something worth discovering.

One of my mentors describes this three-person deity and their relationship and union with one another as a dance. Somehow, someway, they are all in one rhythm, making up one being, serving different functions. What is even more remarkable to me is that this Triune God welcomes us into the dance, inviting us to join the rhythm, as He lives in us and through us.

By Stephen Copeland

Stephen Copeland is a staff writer for 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.

Uncommon Challenge