Baseball season is underway. Anyone else feel like it just ended last week? I’m sure the Yankees will have their place, as will the Mets or Cards, so (yawn) wake me when it’s over.
However, in the interest of America’s Pasttime’s grandiose return, I thought I’d tell you about my brief stint in major league baseball. It’s not what you’re thinking, but stay with me anyway. As some of you, my loyal readers, know, I suffered an accident in 1981 that rendered me paralyzed and caused me to tool around in a wheelchair for the last twenty-five years. The testimony of that incident is so amazing I’ve been asked to share it literally thousands of times. In conversation, before corporate staffs, at youth retreats, in churches, civic events, stadiums, television, you name it.
One of my fondest memories was to share my “story” for a weekly chapel service at Walk Thru the Bible Ministries, back when my sister was on staff there. In matter of fact, it was she who got me the gig. So there I sat, telling my account before Bruce Wilkinson (“The Prayer of Jabez”) and those wonderful employees and staff, when afterward, my sister’s boss asked to speak with me in his office. I had no clue what was up, but after some minutes of milling around and being introduced to my sis’s workmates, I headed over to Walt’s office.
“I thought your testimony was quite moving,” he said. “How would you like to share it with the Braves and the Dodgers this Sunday?”
Turned out Walt was the chaplain of the Braves and he often scheduled others to speak in chapel services before each Sunday’s home game for both the Braves and the visiting teams. The world champion Dodgers were coming to town and he had been looking for a speaker. I told him “of course” and he gave me the instructions of where to park (the player’s lot!) and where to meet him (in the tunnel of old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium), where he would take me to the clubhouses of both teams. I felt like I floating in a dream.
In 1982 the Braves were in first place, having set a club record of 13 straight wins to open the season. They had been coasting all summer and the series with the defending champs was causing a buzz in Atlanta. Each game was a sellout. And here was little ol’ me going before the two most publicized teams in baseball in late July. Could the lowly Braves supplant the perennial powerhouse LA squad? This was the Braves of Horner, Murph, Garber, Chambliss, Pascual, Hubbard and Watson. But over in the other clubhouse sat the menace of Baker, Garvey, Sax, Valenzuela, Yeager, Cey and Guerrero.
Walt met me in the tunnel and led me to a door bearing the name “Visitors Clubhouse”. There was a high concrete step, easily negotiable with my Dad’s help, so after a wheelie and lift, we were in. Suddenly I saw guys I only knew from TV, standing in front of lockers lined with the famous Dodger blue. Their famous manager sat at a table over to my left yukking it up with other coaches, swearing profusely. When he saw Walt, whom he knew, he simply nodded then raised the decibels of his swearing. We were directed by an attendant to an area off the dressing room where the chapel service would take place. It was strictly voluntary but Walt told me usually there would be about 10-15 who could be expected to attend. Following the attendant, “the Penguin” passed right in front of me and off to the right stood Valenzuela, he of the upward gaze, laughing and chattering in his dialect with a fellow Hispanic.
Entering the training room, I was taken by the sight of Steve Garvey, almost in the buff, getting rubbed down. He and Walt greeted each other and we passed, my head still swimming in the fantasy of where I found myself, and how so incredibly normal it felt. These guys were not the darlings of television as they roamed the clubhouse in jock straps and towels. They were average workers getting ready for their shift. Everyone was friendly, asking me how I was doing, glad to have me there, see me in chapel, etc.
Walt was just about right. A dozen or so showed up including Dusty, Garvey, Sax, Landreaux, Scioscia and a handful of others. I only had about ten minutes to share but each listened politely and greeted me warmly when it was over.
Over in the Braves clubhouse, larger, plusher and less crowded, we spent some time with the Braves spiritual leader and second-baseman Glenn Hubbard. I was intrigued by his old school glove and he let me try it on, the very glove he would be snagging line shots with just moments away. First year player Brett Butler hung out with us and the conversation was very centered on the Lord and again, I began to see them less as media darlings and more as men I could sit in a church pew with. The Braves photographer got a few snapshots of me with some of the players and then I heard him say, “Joe, will you come get in the picture?” I looked around and drew a breath as walking toward me was the legendary player and coach, the toast of Atlanta, manager Joe Torre. He was quite kind and gracious as he placed his hand on my shoulder, posed for a shot and even chatted a few minutes.
Probably twenty or so gathered for the service, coaches and players, and it was hard not to feel a sense of awe in the crowded weight room. Hall of Famers and all-stars sat all around me, still as stone, listening intently as I shared something totally unrelated to their trade. But for those moments, the Lord was having His say in their lives. Little did I know then that this would be the first in a string of ten years I would go down to the old ball park and participate in major league baseball. The meeting broke up, I got to tell Chris Chambliss that my mom thought he was the “cutest guy on the team,” and he blushed and flashed a gleaming smile. In twenty minutes, he would be hitting a grand slam in the bottom of the first.
I wish I could say my little pep talk worked. The truth is, the Braves were in decline, even though they would hold on and win the west, but lose to the Cards in the playoffs. The weekend I showed up they would go on a 2-19 slide and almost wipe away the record start of thirteen straight wins. They would blame hitting, fielding, pitching, summer heat, even Chief Noc-A-Homa. But as I reflect, it may have been me.
The moral of this story is, if you need a motivational speaker, you may want to go for Lasorda. I caught him on TV a week later at the Crystal Cathedral. The cussing manager sure gave a fine speech.
I could tell of a whole lot more. Meeting Giant pitcher Dave Dravecky shortly before losing his arm to cancer. Gary Carter and his well-worn, well-marked Bible. Chatting with Braves’ skipper Bobby Cox in the tunnel for a half hour while waiting for the team to come back in from batting practice. The Braves’ third-baseman who gave me a glove to give to Graham when he was old enough to play, and when I asked him to sign it, quite humbly said, “Nah, he doesn’t need my name on it.” Getting to take my wife with me to the Marriott Marquis to speak to the Green Bay Packers. I could also tell of the time I almost called down a rookie player named Deion for cutting up with another rookie named Justice on the back row.
So many memories. All in all, I was pretty fortunate that I got the call up to the “Show.” I even stayed around for a decade when most guys never make it through a season. ‘Scuse me, I gotta run. That’s Mr. Schuerholz calling again.