In the fourth grade, I discovered Topps baseball cards.
I’d chew the crunchy bubble gum inside each 20-cent pack and memorize the stats of all my favorite players.
I eventually sold my card collection, but I remain passionate about Major League Baseball.
In my teen years, my family moved to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and I fell in love with the Texas Rangers. As an adult, I’ve experienced America’s favorite pastime at 19 of the 30 big-league ballparks. I eventually hope to make it to all of them, including the one at the top of my bucket list: Wrigley Field in Chicago.
My work as a journalist has taken me inside clubhouses at Angel Stadium of Anaheim, Calif., Comerica Park in Detroit, Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas, Minute Maid Park in Houston, National Park in Washington, D.C., and Progressive Field in Cleveland.
Read some of my baseball stories and columns below.
Photo via iStock
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FLORENCE, Ala. — Josh Willingham stayed up most of the night praying.
After going to the World Series with the Kansas City Royals in 2014, the 35-year-old slugger had a decision to make.
A difficult one.
The 11-year major-league veteran could play another season and hope to avoid the nagging injuries that had required multiple surgeries.
Or the free-agent left fielder could choose not to sign another contract. He could become a full-time father to his three young sons and start the next chapter in his life.
“I am a family-oriented guy, and my kids were getting older,” said Willingham, who with his wife, Ginger, shared the family’s story at Mars Hill Bible School, the couple’s alma mater. “And I was missing a lot of their lives.”
Josh told his agent that if he got an offer from the Atlanta Braves or St. Louis Cardinals — the teams closest to his northwest Alabama home — he’d consider it.
“As it turns out, I did get those offers,” he recalled during a benefit dinner held before the coronavirus pandemic forced social distancing.
The night before he had to decide, fellow Christians met at Josh’s house and joined the Florence native in seeking God’s direction.
“I can remember we were all praying about it,” he said. “I just really struggled with the decision. But my only prayer was, ‘Lord, I just want to be 100 percent (certain) and have no regrets.’
“And I haven’t. It’s been a good time,” added Josh, who ended his career with 195 home runs, 632 RBIs and an .823 on-base plus slugging percentage. “I’m still involved with baseball, just in a different way — teaching little youngsters.”
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ARLINGTON, Texas — It’s not hard to stay humble when you’re unclogging a toilet.
Or when you’re throwing gopher balls to Miracle League ballplayers swinging for the fences.
At least that’s how Detroit Tigers ace Michael Fulmer, who works part-time as a plumber in the offseason and serves as a mentor to adults with developmental disabilities, describes his approach to living out his Christian faith.
“It’s a way for me to stay levelheaded,” said the 25-year-old right-hander of his part-time gig with Cyrus Wright Plumbing in his home state of Oklahoma.
Fulmer has emerged as one of baseball’s top young pitchers, winning the American League Rookie of the Year award in 2016 and earning a spot on the AL All-Star team in 2017. He has a 3.46 ERA in 58 career starts, and his fastball regularly touches 97 mph.
If you’re not a baseball aficionado, simply consider this: Now in his third season, Fuller will earn $575,000 this year.
In a Religion News Service interview during the Tigers’ three-game series with the Texas Rangers earlier this week, Fulmer said his goal — win or lose — is “to preach the Lord’s name.”
As Fulmer stepped to the mound at Globe Life Park for his start Monday (May 7), he couldn’t help but notice a special group of fans in the right-field corner.
Wings, a Christian nonprofit, offers vocational, social and residential programs for adults with developmental disabilities. The organization, based in Edmond, Okla., chartered a bus for 43 members and parents to make the 450-mile round trip to see Fulmer — one of the ministry’s biggest supporters — pitch.
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ARLINGTON, Texas — Tony Beasley never lost faith, even when he was diagnosed with cancer.
“It’s been an opportunity for me to be who I said I am,” said Beasley, the third base coach for the Texas Rangers. “My favorite verse is 2 Corinthians 5:7: ‘For we walk by faith, not by sight.’ To have an opportunity to actually live that out was a blessing.”
With a giant U.S. flag unfurled in the outfield grass and a sellout crowd of 48,350 standing to honor America, all attention centered on Beasley this week (April 3) as he returned full time to the game he loves after a year spent battling rectal cancer.
“An inspiration to us all” is how longtime Rangers public address announcer Chuck Morgan introduced the 50-year-old coach, who was invited to sing the national anthem on Opening Day.
“You can ask anybody in here just how big an impact Beasley has on everybody as far as his faith and his attitude — it’s just contagious,” outfielder Delino DeShields told a reporter in the Rangers’ clubhouse at Globe Life Park. “Even last year, he came in with a smile on his face and always had positive words.”
Under blue skies on a 76-degree night, Beasley offered a soulful rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” — and couldn’t help but reflect on his emotional journey of the past year.
“I actually closed my eyes when I sang, just to keep in rhythm with the beat and to block out the delay,” the coach said. “But it was an honor. It was a blessing.
“This time last year, I was undergoing chemotherapy,” added Beasley, who received his cancer diagnosis in January 2016, “and to be able to be back at full capacity, I just thank God for that.”
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DETROIT — The 16-year-old pitching phenom stepped into the baptistery wearing his high school baseball uniform.
Fresh dirt stains splotched his white uniform pants as Daniel Norris crept barefoot into the water to confess his faith in Jesus Christ and be immersed for the forgiveness of sins.
The hard-throwing lefty’s brother-in-law put his hand on Norris’ shoulder — just above the bright red No. 18 on his dark jersey top — and reflected on the significance of the choice.
“This is something that Daniel has been thinking about, and a lot of people have been praying about, for a long time,” Tim Haywood told a small group of family and friends at the Central Church of Christ, Norris’ home congregation in the East Tennessee mountain community of Johnson City. “In just a few moments, he’s not just going to be my brother-in-law anymore, but he’s going to be my brother.”
Norris, now 22 and a starting pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, made the decision to be baptized after a regional tournament win for his hometown Science Hill High School, where he also starred in football and basketball.
“We had just won, and obviously, the glory always goes to God,” Norris recalled in an interview with The Christian Chronicle. “For some reason, it just clicked. I said, ‘You know, right now is when I’m going to do it.’”
One of the major leagues’ top young pitching prospects — with a fastball in the mid-90s — Norris wore his uniform into the water not to show how much baseball meant to him but to acknowledge “God blessed me in my ability to play.
“I saw it as kind of a way to show God, ‘Hey, I see what you’re doing with baseball. This is an opportunity to give you glory,’” said Norris, who visited with the Chronicle in the home clubhouse at Detroit’s Comerica Park.
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ARLINGTON, Texas — On his frequent trips to the San Diego Padres’ international baseball academy in the Dominican Republic, Chad MacDonald usually takes along an extra suitcase.
It’s not because MacDonald, the Padres’ vice president and assistant general manager of player personnel, has trouble packing lightly.
“He fills it with shoes and flip-flops and things because the kids down there are playing baseball barefooted in the sticks and rocks,” said Doug Peters, senior minister for the 600-member North Davis Church of Christ, the North Texas congregation where MacDonald is active when he’s not on the road.
MacDonald, 44, got his start as a batboy for his hometown Texas Rangers — who play not far from the North Davis church building — in the 1980s.
Now in his third season with the Padres and 22nd overall on a major-league payroll, the dedicated Christian characterizes his benevolence in Latin America as “no big deal.”
“That’s easy to do,” he told The Christian Chronicle. “I love my job, but I try to live out my faith, too. So when you see people in need, you’re there to help. I think that’s somewhere in the Bible.”
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Photo: On assignment at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
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LOS ANGELES — Rex Brothers portrays himself as “just a normal dude.”
Except that he’s standing in the visitors’ clubhouse at Dodger Stadium as he makes this claim — a few hours before pitching yet another scoreless inning for the Colorado Rockies.
“People look at me as an athlete, but I want people to look at me as a normal human being, too,” says Brothers, 25, a left-handed reliever who fires 97-mph fastballs.
A faithful Church of Christ member and former Lipscomb University star, Brothers stepped into Colorado’s closer role in late May after an injury to Rafael Betancourt. The Shelbyville, Tenn., resident has been a top prospect since the Rockies made him the 34th overall pick in baseball’s 2009 amateur draft.
He has compiled amazing numbers so far this season: He has thrown 31 straight scoreless outings covering 29 innings and boasts an ERA of 0.28.
“He’s a great talent,” said Rockies pitching coach Bo McLaughlin, a fellow former Lipscomb player. “From the time we got him, we knew that he was going to help us in the big leagues.”
More importantly, fellow Christians describe Brothers as a humble, down-to-earth disciple of Jesus who pursues a higher calling than baseball.
“He’s one of those kids that right now has everything going for him, but you would think he’s just another guy in the neighborhood,” said Jon David Schwartz, youth minister for the Chapel Hill Church of Christ, Brothers’ home congregation in Tennessee.
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Photo: With James A. Maxwell and his son, Brooks, at Safeco Field in Seattle.
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“People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.” — Rogers Hornsby
SEATTLE — Talk about an awesome time: A recent Friday night found me in the right-field bleachers at Safeco Field, sipping Diet Coke from a souvenir cup and watching my favorite team, the Texas Rangers, play the hometown Mariners.
James A. Maxwell, minister of the Holgate Church of Christ in Seattle, invited me to the game while I was in town working on a story.
Maxwell, whom I first met at the National Lectureship in Philadelphia last year, sported a brand-new Mariners cap. His 12-year-old son, Brooks, chowed down ballpark garlic fries as we enjoyed America’s favorite pastime.
With Seattle fans all around me, I wore a red Rangers shirt with All-Star outfielder Josh Hamilton’s No. 32 on the back. I cheered politely — but not too loudly — for defending American League champion Texas. (My team won!)
I have mentioned before that I love God, my family and baseball — mostly in that order. My time with The Christian Chronicle has provided amazing opportunities to embrace all three of those loves.
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Photo: On assignment at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C.
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WASHINGTON — In an indoor batting cage at Nationals Park, Washington catcher Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez smashed line drive after line drive.
The sweet crack of wood (bat) striking cowhide (ball) reverberated through the Nationals’ clubhouse before a Friday night game with the Florida Marlins.
A few feet away, left fielder Josh Willingham — who bats fifth in the Washington lineup, just ahead of Rodriguez, a future Hall of Famer — awaited his turn at the plate.
Before stepping into the cage, though, Willingham, 31, took time to discuss his faith with The Christian Chronicle.
“It’s huge,” he said of his faith’s importance in his life.
Willingham grew up in Florence, Ala., at the Cross Point Church of Christ — formerly known as the Darby Drive congregation.
“One of the main things I remember, growing up in Florence at Darby Drive, is the church had a really good youth group,” said Willingham, who was baptized at age 12 after returning home from a youth rally. “That played a big hand in the faith I have now.”
He, his wife, Ginger, and their young sons, Rhett and Ryder, still attend the Cross Point church in the offseason.
Even as he lives his dream, Brothers is quick to downplay the significance of professional sports.
“God’s cutting me out and molding me to be what he wants me to be,” the pitcher says. “He can see that end result.”
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Photo: At Angel Stadium in Anaheim, Calif.
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ANAHEIM, Calif. — More than three hours before the start of a Friday night game against the Los Angeles Angels, Oakland A’s relief pitcher Brad Ziegler is hard at work.
Make that hard at play.
He’s immersed in the arcade version of “RBI Baseball” in the visitors’ clubhouse at Angel Stadium.
With a big smile, he apologizes for being late for an interview with The Christian Chronicle, but explains that he had to finish the game with teammate Jerry Blevins.
Two years after pitching a major-league record 39 consecutive scoreless innings to start his career, Ziegler, 30, still can’t get enough baseball — real or otherwise.
“Definitely,” he says, when asked if he’s a baseball fan as well as a player. “I love to watch games. They’re on in the locker room all the time.”
In fact, there’s a game on the television in the weight room where Ziegler is doing the interview. But he turns down the sound so he can focus on discussing his Christian faith.
“I don’t want to be kind of overbearing because I’ve seen how that can turn people off,” said Ziegler, a member of the East Grand Church of Christ in Springfield, Mo.
But when he signs autographs — unless it’s a team ball and space is an issue — he writes “1 John 5:5” by his name.
“I’ll have people ask me, ‘Well, what’s that mean? What’s that say?’” said Ziegler, whose father, Greg, a preacher, and his mother, Lisa, have served the Odessa Church of Christ in Missouri for 26 years. “I say, ‘Go look it up.’
“Hopefully, people will open up the Bible and see something profound that can touch their lives and make them want to dig a little deeper.”
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Photo: On assignment at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Texas.
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ARLINGTON, Texas — “It was just a magical evening.”
For most of the sellout crowd of 46,179 fans who packed Rangers Ballpark on a recent Friday night, the most exciting moment came when Texas slugger Nelson Cruz led off the 13th inning with a game-winning home run.
For three little girls who live at Christ’s Haven for Children, though, the Rangers’ 6-5 win over the New York Yankees couldn’t compete with the pregame festivities.
As they awaited a ceremony before the first pitch, 10-year-old Vivi and sisters Ashley, 9, and Natalie, 11, played in the grass near the visiting team’s on-deck circle.
The girls — sporting brand-new, matching red Rangers’ caps with white T’s — giggled and exchanged high-fives with “Rangers Captain,” the Texas mascot.
Minutes later, the girls and Christ’s Haven development director Karen Yarbrough joined Michael Young, the Rangers’ All-Star third baseman, behind home plate.
The ballpark’s main scoreboard splashed the girls’ smiling faces across the big screen as the public-address announcer introduced them and Young leaned in to greet them.
The reason for the hoopla?
For the second straight year, Young was named the Rangers’ nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award presented by Chevrolet, which gives $7,500 to the charity of the player’s choice.
And for the second straight year, Young designated Christ’s Haven as the recipient of his donation. The children’s home in Keller, Texas, north of Fort Worth, is associated with Churches of Christ.
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Photo: Interviewing Bobby Murcer in 2007.
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EDMOND, Okla. — New York Yankees legend Bobby Murcer, sporting a bald head after chemotherapy and radiation treatments, looked out the window and saw a whole new world.
“I see the beautiful, budding trees, and it reminds me of spring coming on,” said Murcer, a member of the Memorial Road Church of Christ in this Oklahoma City suburb.
In the past, said the 60-year-old Yankees broadcaster and five-time All-Star, he might have missed the bright blue sky on a sunny afternoon.
But not anymore — not since doctors diagnosed him four months ago with brain cancer.
Murcer said the diagnosis, delivered on Christmas Eve, came as a “total shock” to him and his wife, Kay. After months of headaches and fatigue, the Oklahoma City native had gone to the hospital for an MRI that Sunday morning.
Then Bobby and Kay, his bride of 40 years, sang and praised God at the Memorial Road church.
Kay grew up in the Church of Christ. Through her influence, Bobby was baptized in 1967.
Just before lunch that Sunday, the doctor called Murcer on his cell phone.
“He said, ‘Well, we got your MRI results back and you have a brain tumor,’” said Murcer, whose playing career ended in 1983.
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Photo: Interviewing Cecil Cooper at Minute Maid Park in Houston.
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HOUSTON — Bench coach Cecil Cooper’s time with the Houston Astros brought an unexpected blessing soon after he joined the team in 2005.
A few days into spring training, Cooper walked into a Sunday night service at the Kissimmee Church of Christ in Florida.
“I see the back of this guy’s head and I’m like, ‘That guy looks familiar,’” said Cooper, 56, a five-time All-Star during his 17-year playing career. “So, I walked down the aisle a little bit and peaked around and there was ‘Stretch’ Suba.”
Joseph Suba, the longtime Houston bullpen catcher and batting practice pitcher, had met Cooper the previous Friday.
But neither realized the other was a church member.
“Both of our eyes just opened up,” said Suba, who played at Oklahoma Christian in the 1970s. “He’s been an inspiration to me because we believe the same way.”
Likewise, Cooper said Suba has blessed him: “I thank God that I found someone that I can share with.”
HOUSTON (AP) — When Houston Astros starting pitcher Pete Munro arrived at the ballpark on a recent Saturday, a white-haired man with an easy smile greeted him and slipped him a handwritten message.
A bit of advice for handling the Milwaukee Brewers that night?
“I got a little Scripture for him,” said Gene Pemberton, the Astros’ chaplain. “He can stick it in his pocket and take it to the mound.”
As the major leagues’ only full-time chaplain, the 64-year-old Pemberton leads a regular Bible study for Astros players, comforts injured players at the hospital and helps with Sunday chapel services in the clubhouse.
Even more importantly, the Astros’ “spiritual coach” bonds with players and provides a supportive, reassuring presence in the grind of a 162-game regular season, said team owner Drayton McLane and players such as All-Star outfielder Lance Berkman.
“You’ve got 25 young men … who travel endlessly for six months out of the year. There’s just so much pressure,” said McLane, a prominent Texas Baptist who serves on the board of church-affiliated Baylor University. “Gene is there to help and assist wherever he can.”
ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — Thirty minutes before welcoming listeners to “the beautiful Ballpark in Arlington,” Eric Nadel and his partner, Vince Cotroneo, swing open the windows of the Texas Rangers’ air-conditioned radio booth overlooking home plate.
A brisk, 93-degree breeze rattles stat sheets and blows open the pages of the “Complete Baseball Record Book.”
And the sounds and smells of the ballpark rush in: the voices of the gap-toothed boys begging A-Rod and company for autographs; the sweet aroma of $1 Hot Dog Night; the wind-blown smoke from the fireworks that erupt after each Ranger home run.
“You don’t have the feel of the game if you don’t open the windows,” said Nadel, 52, in his 25th season calling games for a perennial cellar dweller that has won one playoff game in its history.
Nadel’s career with the Rangers has spanned six broadcast partners, 10 managers and roughly 4,000 games. He teamed with the late Mark Holtz for 13 seasons – a duo that endeared itself to a generation of Texas fans.
“More and more, I hear from people that grew up listening to me, usually to Mark Holtz and me,” Nadel said. “To know that in some way I provided a connection between them and the Rangers, it’s a wonderful feeling because it’s the same feeling I had growing up with the announcers for the Mets and Yankees.”
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Some of my favorite posts from my baseball blog:
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All my baseball blog posts:
• A walkoff win for the Rangers — and other fun at Globe Life Park. Published Aug. 25, 2016.
• Does ‘turn the other cheek’ apply to a baseball brawl? Published May 17, 2016.
• The boys are back in baseball town. Published April 16, 2016.
• What he said: ‘I’m really proud that the Texas Rangers are my team.’ Published Oct. 15, 2015.
• We’re famous! My son and I end up on TV as Rangers sweep Astros. Published Sept. 18, 2015.
• In the heat of the pennant race, it’s nice to be back ‘Deep in the Heart of Texas.’ Published Aug. 29, 2015.
• Rangers and Tigers and baseball, oh my! Joyfully checking Comerica Park off my bucket list. Published Aug. 24, 2015.
• After a weekend in Kansas City, revisiting my low ranking for the Royals’ Kauffman Stadium. Published June 8, 2015.
• Josh Hamilton’s return to Texas, and a selfie taken by my daughter. Published May 29, 2015.
• An empty stadium — not the final score — the story as Orioles play White Sox in troubled Baltimore. Published May 2, 2015.
• Time for a quiz: Which major-league teams draw the most — and least — fans? Published April 25, 2015.
• Studies in ethical fandom: Is it ever appropriate to leave a major-league baseball game early? Published April 18, 2015.
• Ghost Town Park: Five tips for enjoying major-league baseball in a nearly empty stadium, published April 14, 2015.
• Opening Day 2015: ‘People will come, Ray. People will most definitely come,’ published April 3, 2015.
• Best month of baseball ever: hit all 30 MLB ballparks in roughly 30 days, published March 28, 2015.
• Which ballpark is No. 1 on my bucket list? Hint: It has ivy-covered outfield walls, published March 12, 2015.
• Fenway Frank? Dodger Dog? Rangers Boomstick? In search of MLB’s best hot dog, published March 4, 2015.
• ‘In reality, baseball is a silly game’ — why one super-fan loves it anyway, published Feb. 25, 2015.
• America’s best ballparks: Ranking the top stadiums in the major leagues (part 2), published Feb. 19, 2015.
• America’s best ballparks: Ranking the top stadiums in the major leagues (part 1), published Feb. 14, 2015.
• A father and son enjoy baseball, make memories in 29 major-league cities, published Feb. 7, 2015.
• Trips to baseball heaven: Fans share cherished memories of first major-league games, published Jan. 31, 2015.
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Enjoyed seeing Luis and Tony Cintron for the first time in too many years tonight — along with Barry Ryan and Ricky Kalifa. We all (along with my brother Scott, who couldn't make it tonight) attended Keller High School and shared some crazy late nights and early mornings working at McDonald's in the, gulp, 1980s. #oldgangbacktogether
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