Mark S. Mitchell

Pastor, Writer, Follower of Jesus

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Reflections of a Major League Baseball Chaplain

I am entering into my third year as chaplain for an organization called Baseball Chapel and assigned to serve with the San Francisco Giants. Needless to say, it has been quite a ride! Every Sunday home game, I do four separate chapels for the following groups: visiting team, home team, umpires, and wives/girlfriends of players and coaches. I also do a Bible Study on Tuesday home games.

Here are five things I have learned about myself and ministry to professional baseball players.

It’s good to be a rookie again.
I have served at my church for thirty years. The more you do something the more comfortable you become. This can be good or bad. Ministry should never be done in our own strength. There should always be a sense of desperate inadequacy. Being thrown into an entirely new environment with professional baseball players who are half my age has been humbling and challenging. I am out of my comfort zone and have spent far more time on my knees than usual. This is good!

I must earn the right to be heard.
Professional baseball players are very guarded — for good reason. Everyone wants something from them, and so they are very careful about letting anyone into their lives. Can they trust that person or is he just another fan who wants an autograph, a photograph, or has an investment opportunity? When I served in Young Life ministry we used to say, “You have to earn the right to be heard.” It’s true!

Ministry takes place in a team.
One of the things I have loved about serving the Giants is that my wife, Lynn, serves with me. Lynn is our chaplain to the wives and girlfriends of our players and coaches. She joins me on Sunday home games for our wives and girlfriends chapel, and she leads a Bible Study for wives and girlfriends on Tuesday nights at the ball bark. In addition to Lynn, I have a great Spanish chaplain named Rigo Lopez. There are tons of Spanish—speaking players in MLB, and Rigo does a chapel for them on Sunday home games as well.

It’s a long season!
Spring Training starts in late February and the last game of the World Series is not played until November. The 162 game schedule is grueling, to say the least. We all tend to think the life of a professional athlete is glamorous, but it is anything but! These guys work hard, endure tons of travel and time away from their families, and suffer through countless aches, pains, and injuries. Yes, they love the game, but it is not an easy life.

It’s about more than just the players.
One of the most fun things about serving as chaplain is that I get to develop relationships with not just the players, but coaches, club house personnel (“clubbies”), field crews, concession workers, etc. There is so much more that goes on at the ball park than just what happens on the field, and some of the nicest and hardest working people in the world serve in these support capacities.

The bottom line is I have loved serving as a chaplain. It helps that I get to serve a world class organization like the Giants.


Mickey Mantle and Hearing God

While on vacation a couple of weeks ago I read two very different books. Each book dealt with subject matter I’m interested in. One was about God and the other was about baseball. It wasn’t until I was finished with both that I realized the connection.

The baseball book I read was a biography of Mickey Mantle called, The Last Boy, by Jane Leavy. Although I was a National League fan growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I remember hearing a lot about Mickey and the Yankees. He always seemed to be the guy who had it all. Despite blowing out his knee his rookie season, he could hit with legendary power and run like a gazelle. But Mickey’s life was dark and tragic. He was both a helpless alcoholic and a chronic womanizer. For the most part, he left his four sons a legacy of abandonment and pain.

The other book I read was Dallas Willard’s, Hearing God. This is a book about developing a conversational relationship with God. Dallas deals with such questions as: Does God really talk to us? How do we discern his voice? How do we know we’re not just hearing our own voice? What part does the Bible play in all of that? This is a subject in which there has been much misunderstanding and debate. I must admit, I have been one of those guys who downplayed the idea that God speaks to us in very personal and specific ways. Willard’s book was a great corrective for me. I am now listening far more intently.

What does Mickey Mantle have to do with hearing God? Well, for one, at the end of his tragic life Mickey heard from God. While in the Betty Ford Center getting treatment for his alcoholism, Mickey got sober. Even better, Mickey heard from God and began a relationship with Jesus. His old friend and fellow Yankee, Bobby Richardson, wrote this, “Some years later in Dallas, Texas, he was in the hospital, already had a liver transplant. And my phone rang in the hotel, it was early in the morning. It was Mickey and he said, ‘I’m really hurtin.’ We had prayer together on the phone. Mickey and I talked together and as I was leaving to come back to South Carolina, I received a call that he’d taken a turn for the worst. Immediately we were on a plane flying out to Dallas. And one more time, I wanted to be bold because I wanted him to spend eternity with me in heaven – walked into Baylor Medical Center, he had a smile on his face. He said, ‘Come over here, I can’t wait to tell you this.’  He said, ‘I want you to know I’m a Christian, I’ve accepted Christ as my Savior.’” Bobby cried a little bit and helped Mickey to take his first steps as a baby Christian. A few months later Mickey died of liver cancer, but Bobby still looks forward to seeing his friend again. So do I.

Mickey’s biography also spoke to me on a personal level. His was a cautionary tale. I don’t want to wait until the end of my life to hear from God. I don’t want to leave my kids a legacy of pain. I don’t want to live in such a way now that I will die with more regrets than contentment.

Then Eli realized it was the Lord who was calling the boy. 

So he said to Samuel, “Go and lie down again, and if someone calls again, 

say, ‘Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.’”

1 Samuel 3:8-9


Words Matter

Words matter. If there’s anything the Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin situation teaches us, it’s that. The old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me,” is nonsense. Words do far more damage than sticks and stones. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but they can’t kill our spirit like words can.

The Bible talks a lot about the importance of our words. This past year, if someone paid you ten dollars for every kind and helpful word you spoke about others or to others, but also collected ten dollars from you for every unkind word you spoke about or to others, would you be rich or poor? If the New Testament is right, we might all be broke. James writes, All kinds of animals have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It’s a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”

The words we say create most of the problems we face. Most problems at church or in the workplace are the result of words. Most divorces aren’t caused by adultery or desertion; they’re caused by words. Most conflicts between parents and children aren’t the result of some generation gap; they’re the result of words. Think about your own relationships for a moment. What has been said to you that has stung or crushed your spirit or just took the wind out of your sails for days? It might have been something said to you many years ago, but you remember, and it still hurts. Think about the things you’ve said that had the same impact on others. Once those words were out of your mouth they could never be retrieved. You really can’t take it back, can you? Our words become an enduring part of every relationship we have.

That’s why the Bible says so much about our words. It teaches us the words we speak will make or break the relationships we have. Learn to season your speech with grace and your relationships will grow in depth and in joy and in peace. Leave your tongue unbridled and it will poison your own life and those you love the most. No where is this more clearly stated than in Proverbs 18:20-21:

With the fruit of a man’s mouth his stomach will be satisfied; he will be satisfied with the product of his lips. Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit.

These verses speak of the power of the tongue to impact our lives and those around us. The tongue has the power to inflict both life and death. Because of its power, we’re encouraged to “love it,” which means to respect it and to use it with care. If we do so the product of our speech will bring satisfaction to our lives. We’ll “eat its fruit” and enjoy the blessing the wise use of our speech brings to our relationships.

The tongue can do great harm or it can do great good. When Daryl Green was being inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame, he reflected on the impact his father had on him. He said, “Everyone else told me I was too small. But my dad said, ‘You can run the ball.’ Everyone else said, ‘No,’ but my dad said, ‘Go.’” Green was reflecting on the difference words made in his life. Words contain the power of death: “You’re too small.” But they also contain the power of life: “You can run the ball.” What a difference words can make! With your words you can hurt or you can heal, you can build up or you can tear down.

In my next few posts, I’ll get more specific about the kind of words that bring life and the kind that bring death.


To Live in Joy

I’ve been thinking about joy lately. Where does it come from? How can I live in joy when there is so much wrong not only in this world, but in my own life?

Our church has just started a study on the letters of John. John opens his first letter by telling his readers that his whole purpose in writing was to make their joy complete (1 John 1:4). How is it that followers of Jesus can experience complete joy? We live in the same world as everyone else, we experience the same trials and troubles. The world knocks us all around, rather unmercifully at times. Where does this joy come from? How is it possible?

No one explained this better than G.K. Chesterton. In his book, Orthodoxy he wrote, “The mass of men have been forced to be gay about the little things, but sad about the big ones.” What did he mean by that? He simply meant that unbelieving people are forced to find their joy in the “little things” of this earth, but when they consider the much bigger questions of their ultimate existence, they’re sad. Chesterton writes, “…the pagan was…happier and happier as he approached the earth, but sadder and sadder as he approached the heavens. The gaiety of the best Paganism…is all a gaiety about the facts of life, not about its origin. To the pagan the small things are as sweet as the small brooks breaking out of the mountain; but the broad things are as bitter as the sea. When the pagan looks at the very core of the cosmos he is struck cold. Behind the gods, who are merely despotic, sit the fates, who are deadly.”

This past weekend I had the joy of watching my son play football at Wheaton College. Both he and his team played well and there was joy on the Wheaton College field when the game was over. While God grants us these moments of earthly joy, and it is good for us to enjoy them, the reality is that if the night had not gone so well, our joy would still be complete. This remains true even amidst life’s more devastating tragedies. Chesterton explains that in the Christian faith, “joy becomes something gigantic and sadness something special and small. The vault above us is not deaf because the universe is an idiot; the silence is not the heartless silence of an endless and aimless world… We are perhaps permitted tragedy as a sort of merciful comedy: because the frantic energy of divine things would knock us down like a drunken farce. We can take our own tears more lightly than we could take the tremendous levities of the angels. So we sit perhaps in a starry chamber of silence, while the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear.”

If Chesterton is right—and I believe he is—then we would expect to see this sort of complete joy in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was known as “a man of sorrows,” but could it be that he was restraining something deep within? I’ll let Chesterton answer that question: “The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.”

I believe it is this very real joy of his that he shares with us. We still experience the tears and the anger, as he did, but all the while the laughter of the heavens echoes in our ears.


Shout Out to Coaches

Last weekend I had the opportunity to hang with and speak to about 55 coaches and their spouses. This was a weekend conference at the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley put on by a group called Coaches Time-Out (CTO), which is part of Pro Football Outreach. My good friend, Steve Stenstrum, is the President of Pro Football Outreach and he invited me to be one of the speakers. I was joined by David and Kelli Pritchard, who spoke on marriage; Don Christiansen, who spoke on managing money; and Steve Kennelley, who spoke on leadership. Joe Broussard, the National Director for CTO, did an excellent job hosting the conference.

Part of the reason this was fun for me is that I have a heart for coaches and their spouses. As I think back to my own growing up, I can see how influential coaches were in my life. Men like Tom Burt, Bob Baird, Ron Moser at Los Altos High School and Jim Sanderson at Cal Poly had a huge impact on me. I was like wet cement and they made an imprint on me that has lasted to this day. Growing up, I never understood how much they sacrificed to invest in me and others. It makes me also appreciate the many coaches who are now part of the church I pastor and I am reminded of the important ministry they have in the lives of children.

Coaches were so important in shaping my life that I went to college as a P.E. major with the intent of being a coach. God re-routed me to pastoral ministry, but I have still done some coaching along the way. I coached varsity football for a year at Mountain View High School. I also coached wrestling for a year at Amador Valley High School in Pleasanton while serving as a youth pastor at a nearby church. One of the joys of my life was coaching all three of my kids in soccer, football and baseball. I’m not sure I was all that good at it, but I wanted to coach because of what my coaches had meant to me. Even now as a pastor, much of what I do with our staff is more like coaching than pastoring.

Coaches continue to be an important part of my life. I have a son-in-law who is a football coach at Stanford University. I am very proud of him and my daughter, who see coaching as more of a calling than a job. My own son, Matt, has had a lifelong dream of being a Division One football coach. He is now approaching his senior year at Wheaton College where he plays football. I’m more than grateful for the coaches at Wheaton College, like Mike Swider and Rodney Sandberg, who have invested in my son and have provided a sterling example of what it means to be not just a football player but a man of God.

If you get a chance, find a way to say thanks to the coaches in your life. Better yet, pay a coach’s way to one of the conferences put on by CTO next summer.


Faith, Baseball, and the SF Giants

I’ve been a Giant fan my entire life. I was weaned on Mays, McCovey, Cepeda and hot dog wrappers flying in the gusts of wind at Candlestick Park. Growing up, it seemed like we always came in second, but now we’ve won another World Series title. These are good days to be a Giant fan.

Walt Whitman said, “The game of ball is glorious,” and I think he was onto something. There are so many parallels between faith and baseball. Maybe that’s why we love it so much.

Baseball has its cathedrals – amazing ballparks, hallowed grounds, two of which were featured this past week: Comerica Park and our own blessed AT&T! The first time I walked into a big league ballpark as a boy what I felt was akin to worship.

Baseball has its saints – e.g. Lou Gehrig (the Iron Horse) and Jackie Robinson (the first African-American player of the modern era) – and sinners – e.g. “Pete Rose (who made a bet) and Barry Bonds (who took steroids). It has its Suffering Servant – the Chicago Cubs, a team “like a sheep led to the slaughter.” There is even the Great Satan: the Los Angeles Dodgers (at least for those of us in the Bay Area).

Baseball always brings out the child in you, and draws you back to your childhood, indeed makes your childhood present. “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it at all.” (Mark 10:15)

Baseball is all about TEAM. The Giants epitomized that this year. There was a lack of ego; a willingness to play whatever role contributed to the team’s success. “As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’” (1 Corinthians 12:20-21) Even in the broadcast booth this was evident as Hall of Famer, John Miller, handed the mic to young Dave Fleming to make the historic call in the 10th inning!

Baseball abounds in hope (Rom. 15:13). Even when a team is down two games to none, or three games to one, there is still hope. Even when the last out of the season is made there is always, “Next year!” Maranatha!

Finally, even our sometimes idolatrous love of our team can teach us about our salvation. So many of us in the Bay Area identify with the Giants. It’s like we’re connected to them. This is a small picture of the way we must identify with Jesus. In the Old Testament, when you brought an offering to God, you laid your hands on the head of the animal and confessed your sins. The laying of the hands on the animal showed that you identified yourself with the animal. In salvation, we identify ourselves with Jesus: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Rom. 6:5) For us, in a small way, when the Giants win, we feel like we win. When they lose, we feel like we lose. In a way, that’s also true of our relationship with Jesus. When He died, we died. When He rose, we rose. The new life He has, we have in Him.

The best part of this whole deal is that Jesus can’t really lose; as long as we identify ourselves in Him, we always win. Even in seeming defeat (the cross), dare I say, especially in seeming defeat, we have the sure hope of the resurrection. The Giants will eventually disappoint, but He never will disappoint.

Congratulations, San Francisco Giants! You’ve made me a true believer!