Baseball Country – A Mission and Ministry
Major League Baseball's All-Star week this past week placed the sport front-and-center as the "great American pastime". To people of faith and fandom there are many parallels between baseball and everyday life, and being a dedicated fan of a team often connects directly with elements of the spiritual, and for those so inclined, religious behaviors.
In his 2013 bestselling book, Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game, John Sexton writes, "In baseball as in religion, doubt and faith are intertwined." Sexton is the president emeritus and a law professor at New York University, and he teaches a class by the same name as his book.
Sexton wrote that he uses baseball to help students think about what religion and God mean to them, as a way for them to contemplate the world and their place in it. Baseball, Sexton wrote, has the power "to bring us to a deeper level of experience."
As Susan Sparks reminds us in her article "What Baseball Can Teach us about Faith" in Sojourner in 2016, "F. Scott Fitzgerald famously called baseball “the faith of fifty million people.” And who could forget Susan Sarandon’s opening lines in the movie Bill Durham? “I believe in the Church of Baseball . . . For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary, and there are 108 stitches in a baseball.”
The nexus of baseball and faith is what brought former professional baseball pitcher Sam Marsonek to the 50-acre leafy rural area of Jena, in Greene County, near the Pickens and Tuscaloosa County lines. But it didn't happen until after moment in the cathedral of American League Baseball, Yankee Stadium.
To the 6'6" right-handed pitcher out of Tampa, FL., baseball had been his religion for most of his life. He worked hard to develop his skill with the dream of making it to "The Show", the big leagues. He was the 24th overall pick in the first round of the 1996 MLB Draft, by the Texas Rangers. But he struggled in the Rangers farm system and was traded to the Yankees in 1999. In in 2004, after six years in the Yank's system he received the call that he had worked his whole life for, he was going to pitch in Yankee Stadium.
"Baseball was my life, my purpose from little league through12 seasons of professional ball." he remembered. "I didn't know who Jesus was. I didn't grow up in church. My God was the game but unlike God, the game began to let me down."
Baseball, like life, can be humbling, both can take you to the highest highs and then leave you in bitter disappointment. On July 11, 2004, just after his 26th birthday, Sam took the hill in front of some 55,000 fans in the Bronx. It was his first and last game in the 'bigs'.
After watching three games from the bullpen, Manager Joe Torre summoned Sam to the mound to take over a 9-3 lead from Felix Heredia in the bottom of the ninth. He pitched 1 1/3 innings giving up two hits but no runs.
With the future looking bright, Sam flew home to Tampa for the All0Star break but he never made it back to the big leagues. After a day of fishing and drinking with his brother and a friend he got on a wakeboard and severely injured his knee when a strap broke. Instead of having surgery to repair tears in his meniscus and MCL he tried rehab. It didn't work.
He started the next season in the Yank's big-league camp but ended up back in the minors. Things spiraled out of control with drinking, DUIs and other issues.
Former Alabama Baseball star Andy Phillips saw what was happening to his teammate and asked to be his roommate. As he told MLB writer Mark Feinsend in 2020, "“I just saw a guy who was searching to find who he was. The things that he was doing, the life he was living, was destructive. I think he felt like if he just did a few things better, it would fix it -- and it actually got worse.”
Hoping to give Marsonek another view of life, Phillips, a strong Christian, invited him on a mission trip to the Dominican Republic, a hotbed for baseball. Sam told this writer the trip opened his eyes. They worked with hundreds of kids who just love the game but had little to nothing, many had no shoes, gloves or shirts. They played the game for the pure joy of playing; something Sam had lost.
Something "clicked", Sam began to think about what the kids had and what he had. Later that night in his hotel room he listened to the message of a pastor.
“I don’t remember what he said -- I just remember that while he was speaking, I could not breathe,” Marsonek said during a interview for this week's Townsquare Media Tuscaloosa's West Alabama on Point public affairs program. “The last thing he said was, ‘If your pain is greater than your fear of change, then you’re ready.’ It took me a while to understand it. It’s hard for most everyone to understand, but I was going through pain because the game was about to be over.”
Marsonek gave up drinking that day and began a life to bring honor and glory to God. A life that would lead him to Baseball Country in rural West Alabama.
Baseball Country was founded in 1995. In 2016 a ministry called SCORE purchased Baseball World and lured San from high school coaching to executive director of the facility.
The move led to his wife Kristen, a physician, and their daughters beginning their own journey of faith. Sam had no idea how the move to Jena would further change his life. “I thought it was going to be just a place to train players,” Marsonek said. “It’s become so much more than just a baseball facility.”
With indoor and outdoor batting cages, playing fields, weight rooms, a cafeteria and sleeping quarters, Baseball Country has combined baseball and faith. A typical day there includes breakfast-Devotional-Team Building-Lunch-Ministry/Service-Dinner-Discipleship, Praise and Worship-Lights out.
"We just try to share the gospel through the game. It opens the door to so many opportunities through baseball, softball and the hunting ministry we have here." Sam told me during the Little League camp lunch break this past week. Baseball Country has a men's and women's ministry and a hunting ministry. They do a lot of outreach projects, they field travel ball teams, work with high school, college and major league players.
Marsonek defines the mission as advancing the gospel in kids, coaches, parents and everyone. He works the mission field for baseball, a sport that can take you places but more importantly, for his Lord, a mission field that can take you to eternity.
In the companion book to the PBS television series on baseball, Geoffrey Ward and Ken Burns write: It is a haunted game in which every player is measured against the ghosts of all who have gone before. Most of all, it is about time and timelessness, speed and grace, failure and loss, imperishable hope – and coming home. Sounds like a faith journey to me.
Baseball Country is now a ministry of Compete 4 Him Ministries, Inc. They are a 501c3 non-profit. Click on baseballcountry.com to learn more.