SAN DIEGO (BP) – Parents and ballplayers know some things simply go with being a part of California Little League’s District 66. As in towns and cities nationwide, an expectation is placed on coaches and volunteers to foster a community atmosphere. Players are encouraged to grow in their knowledge and appreciation of the sport.
But here, there are differences. Opening Day ceremonies conclude with a prayer by its administrator, who has held the position since 2004. Since that administrator also controls the schedule, no games are played on Sundays.
It makes sense for several reasons. Namely because that administrator, Rolland Slade, is unable to attend games those days as he’s busy filling the pulpit at Meridian Baptist Church in El Cajon.
The role is a labor of love for Slade, the senior pastor who is also current chairman on the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee. His passion for baseball began as a 5-year-old batboy in the mid-’60s for his brother Paul’s team, the Prince Hall Masons Yankees of the San Diego Southeastern Little League. It grew in an era when teams were named after local businesses lending their sponsorship. Thus, Slade would later become a rangy centerfielder and speedy baserunner for Kelly Trucking.
“We wore these green uniforms, because that was the color of their rigs,” Slade said. “We played teams named Mac’s Market, Fed Mart and Police & Fire, which was a split sponsorship. Later on, I played for Fed Mart, too.”
(Incidentally, the author played Junior League baseball in Centre, Ala., for Farmers & Merchants Bank, whose rivals on the diamond included Union State Bank and Jordan Funeral Home.)
“I still have my Willie Mays glove from then,” Slade said. “I became a huge Roberto Clemente fan, too. If I got on base, I was definitely going to steal second. It was only a matter of time before I got to third.”
As administrator in 2020, Slade was responsible for 1,071 players and 40 teams. That also included about 1,200 coaches and volunteers. Long before that, however, his involvement in the game had a break between his playing days and one night when he and Paul were in the middle of another Little League tradition.
“We were complaining about the coach my son Ryan had at the time,” Slade said. “Our dad told us to stop complaining and do something about it, like coach him ourselves.”
So the brothers did. Paul handled the majority of coaching duties while Rolland foreshadowed the future by focusing on managing. In 2002 he became league president. Two years later the district administrator retired and Slade was nominated to replace him.
In addition to being a coach, president and now administrator, he also served many years as an umpire. Even little Ryan Slade endured getting rung up a few times by his dad.
While the Little League season doesn’t start until March, preparations start in October with the beginning of the Little League year. By January, it’s on Slade’s daily agenda as Opening Day grows closer. During the season he puts in an estimated 10-15 hours a week in his volunteer role.
His vocation as a pastor is well-known, and not just because of clear schedules on Sundays and a prayer before the first pitch of the season. Over the years he’s been in numerous informal counseling sessions near the concession stand, dugout or in the parking lot. He’s performed vow renewals and preached funerals for former players.
“It opens up opportunities to be involved in others’ lives,” he said. “They know I’m a pastor and am there for them.”
Contrary to what many may think, he said, “It’s not about making them into professional ballplayers, but getting together with all kinds of people. Little League is a development program that uses baseball and softball as an avenue to build community.”
The league where Slade served as president is eight miles from his church. When a family moves to another area, he maintains contact with them. Last year he attended a high school division championship game and realized he had former players for both teams.
“As you carry yourself in Christ, people ask questions about your life,” he said. “They’ll come to me with questions and ask for advice about difficulties in marriage, working with their children and other things. If their kids have grown up and moved across the country, they’ll ask me to check in on them with an email, chat or something like that.”
Being administrator has given Slade the opportunity to see other community partners step up. His local team, the San Diego Padres, have done so time and again by building six baseball fields for his district as well as installing electronic scoreboards and palm trees in the outfield. Players have also received new Padres uniforms, $5 game tickets, and been able to meet former Negro League players as well as former Padre and Hall of Famer Dave Winfield.
As he has witnessed personally, churches also have the opportunity to get involved. “Go out and be a part of it,” he said.
This week, Slade will settle in to watch the Little League World Series from Williamsport, Pa. He’s become a fan of Ella Bruning, the catcher for the Abilene, Texas, team who starred in a 6-0 win over Washington Aug. 20 before the team fell 6-5 to a late rally by Michigan Monday (Aug. 23) and moved to the consolation bracket.
“I see a great picture of family and community in it,” he said. “There are fans and parents traveling so far to be there and going crazy in the stands. Support comes for both sides and from far and wide. It’s exciting to see.”