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Baseball and the beauty of sacrifice

Wayne Mitchell was not simply the head baseball coach at Robert E. Lee high school in Montgomery, Ala. He was a local baseball institution. He attended Robert E. Lee high school as a student and excelled on the baseball team. In 1964, Mitchell graduated from Lee and enrolled at Huntington College where he was a star left-handed pitcher. As a freshman, he was 5-0 with a 1.00 ERA, and when he graduated, he held the school record for 20 career victories.

After college, he became an assistant baseball coach at Robert E. Lee high school from 1971-1974. He left to become the head coach at Huntington College from 1975-1978 and then returned to Robert E. Lee as the head baseball coach in 1980. When I was playing Dixie youth baseball for the National League in Montgomery, Ala., I dreamed of wearing that distinctive “L” emblazoned on a fire red baseball cap for Robert E. Lee and playing for Mitchell.

I will never forget the first time I put on that Robert E. Lee high school baseball uniform in 1984.

I did not know it at the time I made the team, but in 1978 Mitchell had been diagnosed with cancer. In January 1986, my senior year, Mitchell began experimental cancer treatments that prevented him from being with the team. Jim Arrington had the unenviable task of filling in for a local baseball coaching legend during that season. Our team prayed for coach at every practice. On two occasions, I visited him in his home with one of my teammates. On those visits he would not talk about himself, but he lit up when he talked about the team.

Mitchell was a Christian, and it was evident in the way he coached baseball and the way he persevered in the face of cancer. He could be stern, like the day he told me to decide whether I wanted to be a rock star or a baseball player, and if it was a baseball player, I should get my hair cut. I heard it as a command, not a request. He was a walking encyclopedia of baseball information and strategy, but it was very evident that coaching high school baseball was far more to him than a way to earn a living. I did not think about it this way at the time, but reflecting back, I think it baseball was his mission field. Now, I am not suggesting he was overtly evangelistic, because he was not, but that he saw coaching baseball as a way he served Christ.

He never made it back to the baseball field, dying shortly after the 1986 baseball season.

Seeing coach’s lessons in a new light

To say that I wasn't very reflective as a high school student and athlete would be an understatement. I had always loved baseball, and coach Mitchell knew as much about the game as anyone I had ever met. Three years after graduating high school, I became a Christian while following in Mitchell's footsteps playing baseball at Huntington College. It was then I realized just how much Mitchell had impacted me. It was very common for me to be in a Bible study and link what I was learning to life-lessons Mitchell had taught me on the baseball field. I would hear his voice in my head and began to understand that he had been teaching me more than baseball.

Winning by routine plays

One of his mantras was that baseball games are not won or lost by spectacular plays. According to Mitchell, baseball games were won or lost by routine plays. He would say that everybody loves the home run, the strikeout, the diving catch, but there are plenty of players who can do all of those things and make too many mistakes on routine plays. He drilled into our heads that playing time was dependent upon consistency and making the routine plays.

He also taught us that one of the most beautiful plays in baseball was a sacrifice. I distinctly remember him saying, “If someone hits a home run or makes a diving play, I don't care what you do. But, if someone lays down a sacrifice bunt or hits a sacrifice fly to move a runner over, then you better be out of that dugout cheering them when they return.”

The beauty of sacrifice

Mitchell helped teach me about the beauty of sacrifice on a baseball diamond. I began to understand something of the importance of sacrifice for a cause bigger than the individual before I ever came to saving faith in Christ. When I read that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8), and that Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24), I could not help but think about baseball and about coach Mitchell, and that is still the case. The first time I read about that the great missionary, William Carey who said about his ministry, “I can plod. I can persevere in any definite pursuit. To this I owe everything,” I remembered coach Mitchell telling us to focus on consistency and making the routine play.

Passing on the legacy

I was probably one of those players that Mitchell assumed he wasn't making much of an impact on at the time. One of the most embarrassing moments of my high school years was the time Mitchell asked me to lead the team in quoting the Lord's Prayer at the end of practice. There was a moment of awkward silence that probably lasted 5 seconds, though it felt like five hours, until I said, “I'm sorry coach, but I don't know it.” He quickly said, “No problem. I will lead us.”

Well, I do know the Lord and his model prayer now. In fact, by a miracle of God’s grace, people now call me pastor and a seminary professor. My love for the game of baseball and the influence of courageous and gracious men who also love the game, like Mitchell, have helped form and shape my life.

I am thankful for the many lessons I have learned over the years on a baseball diamond. No one will ever convince me that baseball is not the greatest game mankind has ever known. I have passed many of those lessons I learned while playing the national pastime down to my three sons as I have tutored them in the great game. My oldest son will be graduating high school this year, twenty-nine years after my last season wearing a Robert E. Lee baseball uniform. I wish he could have met Mitchell. In a sense, he has through what coach taught me, which I have passed on to him.

I am thankful for a great baseball coach who taught me about more than baseball. I think it would please him to know that I am still trying, as a Christian, to consistently make the routine plays, celebrate the beauty of sacrifice, and help my children and others to do the same.

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