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Spring training: Churches open arms & hearts to ball players

TAMPA, Fla. (BP)–New York Yankees minor leaguer Andy Phillips isn’t a member of Idlewild Baptist Church in Tampa. He says it just feels that way.

“Being a part of that church, they have just kind of opened their arms up to me and other athletes in town,” Phillips said. “It’s just been a blessing. With that being such a huge church, and yet they still take the time out for this couple of months of the year to minister to us.”

Idlewild has an active ministry to members of the New York Yankees each spring when they arrive in Tampa for spring training. And across the state, evangelist Donnie Legg of First Baptist Church in Melbourne works with the Montreal Expos during their spring stay.

“We’ve just got to get Jesus out there,” Legg said. “Baseball is going to come and go. You can get accolades and accolades on the baseball field, and it’s not going to amount to one iota in getting into heaven.”

Legg holds a baseball chapel service for the Expos every Sunday during spring training, and during the week he leads a two-hour Bible study. He said six of the team’s players have made professions of faith this year.

The objective of Legg’s ministry is introducing players to Christ and getting them to see “how real He is.”

“It’s just about discipleship and making friends, to show them that Christ is first, not baseball,” he said. “Christ is going to be there forever.”

John Zeller, Idlewild’s minister of recreation outreach, serves as the Yankees’ spring chaplain, and during the season he’s the chaplain for the New York Class A minor league team in Tampa.

“So many of these guys don’t have anywhere to go when they get down here in January and February,” Zeller said. “It’s great outreach.”

Zeller leads a chapel service every Saturday morning and has done a “40 Days of Purpose” Bible study with a group of nine minor league players. During the winter, Idlewild pastor Ken Whitten leads a weekly Bible study for players and coaches who live in Tampa during the off-season.

Although Zeller doesn’t actively use his position as chaplain to recruit people to Idlewild, the opportunity always presents itself.

“You’d be surprised how many guys come and say, ‘Where do you go to church?’ and ‘What time do you meet?’” Zeller said.

For Phillips, an Alabama native who was raised in a Southern Baptist church, the connection with Zeller led to an active involvement at Idlewild while he’s in town. Phillips and his wife, Bethany, often sing at the church and work with the youth and college ministries.

Among the players, Phillips said Idlewild has a reputation as a loving church that teaches solid biblical truth.

“That’s an awesome church,” Phillips said. “The way they’re able to reach out to guys, no matter what their spiritual level is, is amazing. There are so few opportunities [for professional baseball players] to attend church on a regular basis. They kind of bring their family to us.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: ANDY PHILLIPS.

    About the Author

  • Tim Ellsworth

    Tim Ellsworth is associate vice president for university communications at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally.

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