Baseball4Christ mission relied on love for Gospel as much as game
by DOUG GORMAN
First Baptist of Newnan youth pastor Brian Morgan and best friend Mike Winslett were looking for more than the ability to catch, field and throw when the two began selecting this year’s Baseball4Christ team.
A desire to share the Gospel with men, women and children in Mexico was an even bigger prerequisite.
“Our goal is to get the best Christian athlete, “ Morgan said. “A good Christian is great. A good Christian athlete is better.”
In its four-plus years, Baseball4Christ has grown into a life-changing mission for all those who have made the trek to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
Morgan and Winslett still remember meeting with a group who wanted to send some Christian golfers to Ireland on a mission trip.
The friends weren’t solid on the idea of using golf as the catalyst for spreading the Gospel.
They thought baseball was a better venue for combining sports and their Christian message.
“Mike is truly the brother that I never had,” Morgan said. “We really wanted this to work. We just thought there was nothing wrong with golf, but we knew we could reach more people through baseball.”
It didn’t take long for Baseball4Christ to go from a dream to a reality.
“We stepped outside and started talking about baseball, and who we knew who could help,” Morgan said. “We made one phone call and the doors opened. I wish I could tell you it was hard to make it happen, but the Lord really made it work.”
Baseball4Christ has turned into something special for the high school players selected to conduct clinics, camps and play games against teams from the Cancun area.
The selection process for Baseball4Christ is clear cut.
Morgan and Winslett get a recommendation from each of the high school coaches, as well as the player’s pastor. Players then apply for a spot on the team through interviews and a application process.
Morgan and Winslett also ask for access to each of the players Facebook and Twitter accounts.
“We talk very little about baseball in the beginning,” Morgan said.
Recent East Coweta graduate Tim Manning is glad he made the trip.
“The best way to describe it was awesome,” Manning. “It wasn’t just the baseball, it was a true mission trip.”
Manning was touched by a visit to poor village during the journey.
“It is so Americanized down there with all the tourism,” Manning said. “Yet just a short distance away is all this poverty. “There is a new church in this one village, but everyone lives in these tin shacks. They are still happy, it’s amazing.”
This year’s team went 5-0 against its competition, playing two games in a professional stadiums, but the outcome of the contests didn’t matter.
“Some years we have gone down there and done really well, and some years not so well,” Morgan said. “The baseball is not the most important part of the trip.”
Northgate baseball assistant Tim Lowery is one of just a few that have participated in all four mission trips. Every year, he’s gotten something new out of it.
“It’s really a blessing to be part of this,” he said. “ We are able to go and teach and play baseball, but also help lead people to Christ. It is something I want to keep doing. I will go as long as they ask me.”
The team departed Newnan at 6 a.m on Monday, June 10 and headed to Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. By 3 p.m., they were on the field at Quintana Roo Tigres Stadium, a professional field near Cancun for the first of five games.
The remainder of the journey was equally a whirlwind of activities that included clinics, camps, giving personal testimonies, handing out Spanish New Testament Bibles, and just bonding with the residents of the area, especially the children.
“We have a couple of minutes before the trip to talk to them, but I think the biggest way to prepare these kids is to just pray for them,” Morgan said. “We tell them they need to be in prayer for this trip. We tell them once they get there not to be apprehensive, but just live in the moment. We stay so busy, once we get there, it all goes by so fast.”
Players quickly feel like rock stars as young people from the region gravitated towards them during the clinics and camps, often asking for autographs, and treating the Baseball4Christ team like Major Leaguers.
“We get to see a lot of the same kids every year now,” Winslett said. “So I guess that gives what we are doing some merit. “It just seems like more and more doors are starting to open for us. I think they are starting to realize that we are not asking for anything. Now they are starting to give to us.”
Players and coaches distribute hundreds of foam balls to the young boys and girls who have few toys of their own.
“I would say every year is different because so much of it is out of our control,” Morgan said. We never know who is going to show up. We never know what quality of teams are going to show up. We don’t know if we are going to play 16-year olds, 18-year olds are what. We don’t know whether we are going to see 10 kids at camp or 100 hundred kids at camp.”
One of the camps started with only a handful of children, but after players walked through the streets and invited others to come, it nearly doubled.
“We had one little boy there who was left-handed like me, and I gave him my glove to keep,” Newnan’s Beau Shelnutt said. “All his friends wanted to see it. After that, we led him to Christ. It was really special.”
Although Cancun’s popularity is foremost for being a vacation destination, just a short bus ride from all the fancy hotels, resorts and white sandy beaches are residents living well below the poverty line.
It was an eye-opening experience for many of the players who are used to fielding ground balls on finely manicured diamonds.
Except for the pro stadiums, games were played on old-worn down fields.
“They (the players) go there thinking one thing, and then they discover things (the living conditions) are so much worse than what they thought it was going to be. Then they start seeing more and more of the poverty. They become very humbled by it,” Winslett said. “You see an amazing change between the first day and the last day. Their hearts change, and their minds change. “They come away with a whole different prospective on just how fortunate they are”
Despite their misfortune, citizens of the region are always glad to see the Baseball4Christ team each year.
“They are living in poverty, but they seem to be happy, “ Winslett said “They never ask us for anything.”
This year’s team was made up of players from East Coweta, Newnan, and The Heritage School, but rivalries were checked at the door.
“We didn’t have any problems with that, said Morgan. “These kids really got a long, there were no grudges settled. At no time did I see any rivalry talk, or t-shirts that suggested where somebody went to school.”
Shelnutt agreed with that assessment.
“I only knew one other player before this trip,” Shellnut said. “(Northgate’s) Robert Massenburg and I grew up together, but after the week, we were all best friends. I got everybody’s phone number. This was the best team I have played on.”
Manning, who didn’t get an opportunity to play against the team’s two representatives from The Heritage School in varsity play during his career, also says it was easy to bond with his new teammates.
“I didn’t know Joe Bonner or Candler Rich, but we became really good friends and are gong to hangout this summer,” Manning said.
Lowery said through Bible studies, personal testimonies, and just getting to know those around them, the Baseball4Christ team got a big reality check.
“At home we want to make sure we have the right type of baseball glove,” he said. “Over there, kids are lucky to have baseball equipment. I have seen kids get upset here because their Mom buys them the wrong type Gatorade. After this trip, they come away feeling blessed with what they have.”
Former Northgate High baseball player Wes Harvey has grown from the trip over the years, enough that he’s continued to make the trip into his college years.
Harvey, a student at the University of Georgia, has made every one of the trips to Mexico, playing the role of a counselor more than a player.
“It’s been a great experience,” Harvey said right before this year’s trip. “It gets more exciting every year.
It wasn’t always that way for Harvey.
“He was so shy when he first went with us, we thought maybe we had made a mistake,” Winslett said of Harvey. “He was younger than most of the players and really didn’t say much. Now, he is one of the first people to give his testimony His confidence level just jumped. I think he was already a solid Christian by showing he could hold his own really made a difference.”
Morgan and Winslett think playing well that first year helped bring Harvey out of his shell.
“He has grown so much from this experience,” Winslett added. “He will do anything we ask of him. I can really see him playing a bigger role in this trip, and may even taking it over someday.”
He also became a jack of all trades that first year.
“He pitched a little bit that first year, he got a clutch single to drive in a run,” Morgan said.
Morgan and Winslett also remember how Rich, headed to play football at Yale next starting this fall, began each of his talks with a few words of Spanish to break the ice.
“It’s amazing for me, how the kids, they put a lot of effort into trying to figure out what is going on,” Morgan said. “They work with kids an they are able to figure out what is going on even though they don’t understand the language.”
For the coaches, it’s refreshing to see the team bond with children despite the language barrier.
“Baseball is truly a universal game,” Lowery said. “We have interpreters, and some of the players have taken a little Spanish in high school, but even with the language differences, we don’t have any problems getting our point across or communicating. It’s a special time.”
That was certainly true during the last game of the full day of the trip.
With the Baseball4Christ jumping out to a big lead, the two squads decided to mix up the teams, sending some the players from Coweta County over to the Mexican team, and vice versa.
Shelnutt was one of the players who moved over to the Mexican team’s dugout.
“I couldn’t really understand anybody, but we were still able to communicate and have a good time,” he said. “It was a lot of fun.”
This trip helped the players realize baseball is just a game.
After just completing their pressure-filled, playoff runs during respective high school seasons, Morgan felt like the Baseball4Christ squad started to enjoy baseball in a different way.
“Our kids come away and start to see just the fun of the game,” Morgan said. “Sometimes there is so much pressure on them, they really haven’t appreciated the game. Fun is sometimes gauged on winning. With this trip, fun was gauged on just playing, and touching the lives’ of others.”
When this year’s Baseball4Christ team was finalized, they went to Mexico without a pure shortstop.
It didn’t matter. The team accomplished big things on and off the field.
“We try and to take enough players to fill in all the positions, but sometimes it just work,” Winslett said. “That’s okay, we are able to play around it.”
Morgan says there’s something special about a Christian athlete.
“If you look at this team, they are some great players,” Morgan said, “but there is also some great kids.”