ATLANTA (BP)–It is springtime, the time of the year when a young man’s fancy turns to … America’s favorite pastime, baseball. Of course, young men do not have exclusive rights on celebrating the arrival of another baseball season. It is the privilege of all sports-minded, TBS and ESPN-watching, peanuts-and-cracker jacks-loving, swinging-for-the-fences baseball fans.
In case you haven’t noticed, the 2005 Major League Baseball season has begun, and the Atlanta Braves would like to have the kind of season that would accommodate the fanaticism of their adherents throughout the Southeast and across the nation. In fact, Georgia’s MLB franchise has high hopes of winning an unprecedented 14th consecutive division title.
A roster of aspiring rookies and seasoned veterans marks the current edition of the Braves. John Smoltz, who had a terrific spring training and is back in the starting rotation after four seasons as the club’s closer, is the anchor of an experienced pitching staff.
In 2004 Braves manager Bobby Cox notched his 2,000th career victory and was selected as the National League Manager of the Year. The Braves have won more games (1,341) in the past 14 years than any other team in baseball.
However, there is a dimension to the Atlanta Braves team that transcends athletic prowess, Silver Slugger awards, Gold Glove awards and division championships; that is faith and character. In fact, the Lord Jesus Christ has some visible and very vocal ambassadors on this year’s team.
For example, Smoltz, the stalwart right-hander, grew up as a Catholic in Michigan. Reflecting on his religious heritage the talented pitcher commented, “I was taught moral principles from childhood and tried to win God’s approval by good works, but I was motivated by guilt. I finally came to realize that if anyone is trying to impress God, it is not of Him. Then in 1995 as a result of the Braves chapel services led by Walt Wiley, I came to understand my need to have a personal relationship with Christ.”
Neither is first baseman Adam LaRoche shy about speaking of the importance of having a personal relationship with Christ. The All-American high school star stated, “My goal is not to make a lot of money or acquire fame, but to daily walk by faith.”
Julio Franco, who is MLB’s oldest current player and will become 47 on August 23, declared, “I’ve been a Christian for 15 years.” Franco sat at his locker, unwrapped a rather large Subway sandwich and twisted the top off a gallon jar of apple juice, then paused to bow his head and give thanks for God’s blessings and provisions. It is likely that all who were in the room noted his prayer of thanksgiving.
Franco, known for his powerful physique and bulging biceps, admitted, “I want to play until I’m 50 years old. I know that my body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and I want to keep my body healthy. I believe the key to that is discipline and obedience.”
As a part of his witness, Franco has chosen the Christian song “God is in Control” by Twila Paris to be played over the Turner Field public address system each time he comes to the plate.
Ryan Langerhans, a promising rookie who hit a towering home run on March 29, the night of this interview, related, “I was saved on my 14th birthday and baptized at Central Baptist Church in Round Rock, Texas. I always want Jesus to be the center point of my life. My biggest challenge is just being consistent, but I know that I want to be a good example to others.”
Smoltz, who has had almost 20 years to assess the assets and liabilities of the sport, remarked, “Professional baseball makes for a very hectic lifestyle. Sometimes we have lots of time on our hands and sometimes we have no time at all. When you are on the road you are most vulnerable, more likely to waste time; it is a challenge to be consistent.”
Speaking of his faith with deep conviction and passion, Smoltz testified, “All of this, all of the things of the world, are temporary. The world tries to tell us that what we have down here is so good, but I am sure the rewards and joys of heaven transcend anything this world has to offer.”
Smoltz added, “I would like for everyone to know the joy I have known since 1995. I want to share that joy and I want to be open and unashamed about my faith, but I also realize I can’t force my beliefs on others. You can’t witness by thinking everyone is a nail and you are a hammer.”
Smoltz continued, “I saw Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of Christ’ and thought, ‘How can anybody sin after watching that movie?’ but that was a foolish thought. We can’t be kept from sin by a movie. But as we surrender to Christ we can begin to win some victories over temptation and sin.”
“Before that movie I might have been afraid to take a stand for Christ, but now that is the furthest thing from my mind. I am not one bit ashamed of Christ,” Smoltz confidently affirmed.
When asked about the apparent use of steroids as a performance-enhancing drug among some major league baseball players, Smoltz boldly remarked, “That is cheating and it’s wrong! When the use of steroids creates a playing field that is not level, it’s just wrong. I am dead against it!”
Smoltz and Langerhans both shared Scripture verses that have meant much to them through the years. Smoltz cited John 15:5 which says, “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit; for without me ye can do nothing.”
The Braves pitcher commented, “I realize the source of my strength. I tried to do it apart from Him for a long time. I’m learning to receive His strength and grace.”
Langerhans explained, “One verse that has meant much to me is Joshua 1:9, which states, ‘Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of good courage: be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee withersoever thou goest.’ Our family had a friend who battled cancer and was sustained by that verse and it has blessed me, too.”
The rookie outfielder commented, “I try to get the Word of God down in my heart, because I realize what you put down in your mind and heart will come out.”
Smoltz and LaRoche offered some wise counsel for today’s youth. The skillful right-hander said, “Our youth live in a troubled world today with multiple pressures and watered down morals. They need to experience God’s love and realize that through the gift of free will He provides opportunities to dream big. Never stop dreaming.”
LaRoche commented, “I’d tell them to wake up and put on the whole armor of God and surrender to Him every day. I try to do that every day, but it is much easier to say than to do.”
Professional athletes have a tremendous platform from which they can have a positive or a negative influence. Baptists can be grateful that there are some Atlanta Braves that are not only marked by the familiar logo of the team, but by the compelling cross of Christ.
J. Gerald Harris is editor of The Christian Index, the state Baptist newspaper in Georgia. Used by permission.