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MAKING PLAYERS FOR GOD; CHAPEL SERVICES FOCUS ON MINORS.

Byline: Chris Cocoles Daily News Staff Writer

``God is moving. He is raising up people to share His message, and one way He is doing it is through sports.''

-Texas Rangers pitcher John Wetteland

LANCASTER - Something is brewing inside the JetHawks' weight room. Compared with the rest of Lancaster Municipal Stadium's decadent clubhouse facilities, this is a dreary place, where you first notice not the modest collection of workout equipment but the rough, unpainted walls.

It seems an odd venue to worship the Lord, but here it is a Sunday, less than an hour before game time and the place is filled.

There is a staggering amount of diversity among the 15 or so JetHawks who have gathered. Here is a pitcher from the concrete jungles of Yonkers, N.Y., and a third baseman hailing from Belton, Texas - that booming metropolis of 12,476.

Then there is the Latin American contingent: the Puerto Rican pitcher, the Dominican infielder and the Venezuelan outfielder.

Each ingredient of this melting pot has his own values, his own opinions, his own view of life. But they're together for one common link.

``We are all Christians,'' said pitcher Brian Sweeney, the aforementioned native New Yorker. ``We want to follow in God's footsteps.''

Leading them during the baseball season is David Bowen, the JetHawks' chaplain and Baseball Chapel coordinator.

This day's service, like all of the ones made available to the players both home and away, is short, lasting about 10 minutes.

The topic, which in the past has included anything from life-after-death to temptation, is about being happy.

After a short prayer, Bowen continues his tradition of telling the group a story. This one involves two girls who find a colorful sea shell on the beach. They discover a mysterious round object in the shell and proceed to punch it out of the center.

When the girls return home, they explain to their mother what they found and the tiny object that was left behind.

``That was a pearl you threw away,'' the mother tells her children.

Said Bowen: ``The shell is what she wanted. That was what made her happy.''

He talks of appreciating what you have, stressing the theme for the day: ``Don't let go of the joy.''

``I knew who God was, but I wasn't ready to give Him control of my life. I was afraid He would take away my little bit of fun.''

- New York Mets pitcher Greg McMichael

The roots of Baseball Chapel can be traced to Detroit sportswriter Watson `Waddy' Spoelstra, who in 1973 approached then major-league commissioner Bowie Kuhn and expressed concerns about the difficulty of baseball players attending church services.

Kuhn agreed, and the nonprofit organization was born. Every major-league ballpark now offers a service prior to Sunday games.

Spoelstra served as Baseball Chapel's executive director for 10 years, followed by Dave Swanson and current director Vince Nauss.

By the late 1970's minor-league franchises were required to do the same.

``When I was a kid my mom would take me to church every Sunday,'' JetHawks outfielder Matt Sachse said. ``In the middle of the season I can't make it to church many times.''

A minor-league chapel coordinator, Rip Kirby, was appointed in 1980. Sixteen years later, all minor-league chaplains were expected to report to the organization's major-league representative.

It was Kirby who introduced Bowen, himself a former minor-leaguer who had a brief career in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, to Baseball Chapel when the two met at a Pro Athletes Outreach conference.

Bowen served as chaplain for the Antelope Valley Ravens of the now defunct Golden State League in 1995. The next year the JetHawks came to town and Bowen, also a respected actor and screenwriter, has held down the job ever since. Like every other chaplain throughout the vast minor-league conglomerate, Bowen's contributions are strictly on a volunteer basis.

He's the quintessential figure to fulfill such a role. As a former player he's been in similar situations.

``I know when to talk to them and when to leave them alone,'' Bowen said.

``I try to be as real with them as possible. . . . Let them understand who I am and why I am here. . . . I want to find out where they're at. I'm not trying to cram or shove anything down their throats.''

That said, Bowen strays away from solely reading verses from the Bible during his services, a technique that many players say is common among some of the chaplains in visiting cities.

``Other chaplains get much more theological. They just talk about God and the Bible,'' Sweeney said.

``(Bowen) gives us stories from. . . . everyday life,'' pitcher Julio Ayala said. ``Then he'll say `That's in the Bible.' ''

When Russ Koehler was sent from the JetHawks to another Seattle Mariners farm club in May, catcher Karl Thompson took over as the club's player-representative for Baseball Chapel. His primary job is to serve as liaison between Bowen and his teammates. Thompson too appreciates the approach Bowen takes to his services.

``I probably haven't read two pages of the Bible, even though I should read it more,'' Thompson said. ``So I couldn't tell you the meaning of half of what I would read anyway. It's good to see what Dave does.''

Bowen is just one of the hundreds of minor-league chaplains who help young men cope with the hazards of professional baseball, particularly the consequences of not reaching the big leagues.

Ruta Bloomfield spent eight years as the California League's chapel coordinator.

``There's more to life than baseball, especially for these kids,'' said Bloomfield, now living in Saugus and teaching at The Master's College. ``I read something in Baseball America that said only four percent of current minor-leaguers will move on to a major-league career. So what happens to the other 96 percent? They're going away with shattered dreams.''

``I want to use the talents God has given me to glorify Him.''

-Cleveland Indians infielder Travis Fryman

Sweeney was enjoying a magical 1998 season with the JetHawks, when he went 6-0 and was the Valley Division's winning pitcher in the California League All-Star game. But the first major injury of his career, a torn right labrum, required season-ending surgery.

``I was pretty much down in the dumps. Without David it would have been much harder to get through this.'' Sweeney admits. ``Not being able to worship God once a week would be difficult to get through the season.''

That's the nucleus of Baseball Chapel. Bowen makes at least two to three trips a week to the park when the JetHawks are playing at home. He hangs around the clubhouse prior to batting practice in case anyone has something on his mind.

The easy access seems to have boosted attendance in the confined spaces of the weight room on Sundays.

``It's such a bigger turnout than last year,'' said Sweeney, in his second year with the JetHawks. ``(Bowen's) word is getting around. He's doing God's teaching.''

Bowen acknowledges there is a growing phenomenon between sports and the Lord.

``It's almost a fad right now for an athlete to be born again. In the beginning I ask everyone why they are here,'' Bowen said. ``For some it's almost a good luck charm and I'm OK with that. For others it's just a cool thing to be right now.

``I want to see a better human being when it's done. Then it's a positive year for me.''

CAPTION(S):

2 Photos

PHOTO (1-2) (Photo 2 ran in AV Edition only) JetHawks Chaplain David Bowen, above, volunteers his time as the Baseball Chapel coordinator and provides church services on Sundays. Below, Bowen spends time with JetHawk Julio Ayala.

Jeff Goldwater/Daily News
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Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

 
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 26, 1998
Words:1279
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