The Winning Pitcher

by Jim Papile

I was really captured by the photo above the fold on the sports page of a recent Sunday’s New York Times. It was taken in a rural village in Zambia, Africa. The photo was of a group of African children and two young, white Americans, comfortably nestled together. Everyone was grinning. Instantly transported, my memory of similar trips, similar pictures, let me feel the heat of the African sun, smell the cook fires, and hear the laughter of the children. It was as if I was in the picture myself. But it’s not just me. It’s about all of us, young and old, who aren’t professional athletes, who don’t have fabulously fit bodies, fame or fortune; but who can’t wait to take that next short term mission trip to Haiti, or Kenya, Colombia, New Orleans, or Appalachia.

In early January I was getting on a plane in Washington, DC for a mission trip of my own to Liberia. I met a young woman, with a great, big backpack, traveling alone to do a mission in Tanzania. Her trip, she told me, would include, not just the plane ride, but also a rigorous two day bus ride. I think about the young people who I have shared trips with, challenged physically, or emotionally, yet who worked uncomplainingly in hot, dusty places to bring the good news of God’s love, and themselves, to help others. I keep hearing from these travelers that they get much more from those they go to serve than they give. All effective mission trips are about the transformation of the missioner more than about the project. When we sign up for our first trip it’s invariably with the notion that we are going off with the express purpose to help “those needy people.” If we’re paying attention we soon figure out, as our young pitcher did, that we get in touch with our own humanity in ways we may have never expected. Just from the look on his face I know Kershaw did.

In the article Times writer Karen Crouse wrote:

“The Los Angeles left-hander, Clayton Kershaw, held the African audience in sway from his first practice pitch. A world removed from the grandeur of Dodger Stadium, the barefoot stood in awe as they watched Kershaw’s curveball dip and spin.”

As much as it delighted the children, Kershaw’s pitching had a serious purpose. He was getting in a few precious minutes of training. Any young pitcher with a great future knows that training time is vital. With the season just weeks away Crouse reports that the biggest anxiety he had with the trip was that he would miss a week of training.

Baseball players, like most of us, need to be focused. Whether a pitcher, fielder, or designated hitter; or in our cases, a doctor, teacher, or realtor, focus is the name of the game. If we are to be successful then we need to concentrate, all the time. In our busy lives even taking one day off feels risky. Why else do we take smart phones, ipads and lap tops with us on vacation? We want our emails; on the beach, on a hike in the mountains, or visiting the Louvre in Paris. Wherever you are you will see somebody texting or emailing, guaranteed. I’m sure this is exactly what made Kershaw nervous when he decided to join his wife on the trip to Africa. “Will I still have the same edge when I get back as I have now? Will I lose some speed off my fast ball, the break in my slider?” Or if it’s you or me; “will my office mate get the new contract, will I lose that client?” My guess is that what the young pitcher learned on his first mission was that it’s the very act of getting out of the routine that allows one to see the world in a profoundly different and important way. Baseball is Kershaw’s life right now, and it should be. How many of us have his gift, his talent. But he knows now too, that life can be more than baseball.

It’s wonderful when a baseball star like Kershaw “gets it” and makes it to the sports page of the New York Times. But how about the rest of us? Summer is the most popular time to take a mission trip. If you haven’t already experienced a short term mission trip this summer is great time to bench your smart phone and step to the plate.

The Rev. James Papile is the Rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, Reston VA and often writes about baseball, the church and faith.

Past Posts