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Playing ball in Austin

An Austin baseball program provides gospel-centered mentorship, fun, and hope for kids in the inner city

In 2009, Matt Price was 23 and had recently moved to Austin when a friend asked him to help coach the baseball team at Reagan High School, an academically failing school where Price found discouraged players and a ballfield full of weeds and potholes. 

The baseball team told him they had nowhere to play during the summer, so Price and a friend organized a summer team. In the process, they built relationships with the players—many of whom had no fathers at home—and talked about the gospel.

Price soon learned about Major League Baseball’s Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program: It provides baseball and player development for inner-city kids. Price contacted Major League Baseball, which surprised him when it said he could run an RBI program that included Christian discipleship. Price quit his bank job to launch RBI Austin in January 2011.

Since then, RBI Austin has flourished, growing from 100 kids in 2011 to nearly 1,500 in 2019, with 350 coaches and 200 other volunteers. Price started it to provide mentorships and opportunities for kids in East Austin. Still, it’s sometimes a challenge to help kids growing up in difficult circumstances.

"Our hope is to give people an avenue to engage in relationships with people who are different than them."

RBI Austin offers baseball and softball teams, one-on-one mentoring, and discipleship groups that meet in coaches’ homes. Teams pray together before and after games and study Biblical lessons during practices. Coaches frequently drive players to and from games. Price said he has seen “more fruitful conversations and growth in car rides than even on the ballfield.” 

Many kids in the program come from low-income or single-parent homes. RBI coach Jimmie Naumann said players sometimes disappear from the team suddenly because a parent is struggling with an addiction. These situations make coaching harder, he said. He remembers one 7-year-old boy whose mother was an addict: “You could just see it wearing on the kid. … We just tried to do as much as we could to just take that kid in and love him.”

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Hank Aaron about to get his 3,000th hit in Cincinnati, 1970 (CSU Archives/Everett Collection/Alamy)

Sports

Hank Aaron, home run hero

Relying on Christ, “Hammerin’ Hank” thrived on the ballfield despite immense racial prejudice

When fulfilling what he considered his Christian duty to make Major League Baseball accessible to elite black players, Branch Rickey needed a man of solid Christian character to help accomplish his goal. Hence, the Brooklyn Dodgers general manager hired Jackie Robinson.

How fitting, then, that another Christian would come along in Henry Aaron to build on Robinson’s legacy.

Known for breaking Babe Ruth’s hallowed career home run record in 1974, “Hammerin’ Hank” died on Jan. 22, just weeks shy of his 87th birthday. Aaron’s 755 career homers still rank second all-time among major leaguers, behind only Barry Bonds’ 762—a number whose legitimacy remains questionable due to suspicions that Bonds used performance-enhancing drugs.

Aaron experienced much of the same discrimination Robinson faced as a player: During his minor league days in the South Atlantic League, Aaron—the league’s Most Valuable Player—could not stay in the same hotels as most of his teammates. On the field, he suffered verbal abuse from both players and fans.

While closing in on Ruth’s record in the early 1970s, he received hate mail and death threats daily and even needed FBI protection at the ballparks where he played. Sometimes he slept at the ballpark due to fears for his safety.

Through it all, though, “Aaron dealt with the extreme racism of his day much in the way Robinson did—with quiet humility, class, confidence, and the excellence of his play,” Shawn A. Akers wrote for Charisma News.

Aaron’s Christian faith had much to do with that. A onetime Catholic who became a Baptist, he used to keep a copy of Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ in his locker.

A reporter once asked Aaron how he remained calm despite the daily hate-filled invective he faced for trying to break a revered white player’s record: “When I was in the ballpark, I felt there was nothing that could bother me,” Aaron responded. “I felt safe. I felt like I was surrounded by angels and I had God’s hand on my shoulder. I didn’t feel like anything could bother me.”

Providentially, roughly midway through Aaron’s 23-year career in the major leagues, his employer, the Milwaukee Braves, relocated to Atlanta—the heart of the civil rights movement. Much of the South was still coming to terms with desegregation when the Braves arrived there in 1966: To put it mildly, the idea of blacks and whites attending the same schools and eating at the same restaurants did not sit well with many whites.

“I kept feeling more and more strongly that I had to break the record not only for myself and for Jackie Robinson and for black people, but also to strike back at the vicious little people who wanted to keep me from doing it,” Aaron wrote in his autobiography, I Had a Hammer.

“All that hatred left a deep scar on me. I was just a man doing something that God had given me the power to do, and I was living like an outcast in my own country.”

That made Los Angeles Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully’s call of Aaron’s record-breaking home run at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium on April 8, 1974, all the more poignant:

“What a marvelous moment for baseball! What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia! What a marvelous moment for the country and the world! A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol!”

Two white fans even ran onto the field and clapped Aaron on the back to celebrate the occasion—proof that even in the South, white fans could embrace an African American as their hero.

—A version of this story appears in the Feb. 13, 2021, issue under the headline “Home run hero.”

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Al Drago/AP

The Washington Football Team plays against the Philadelphia Eagles in front of empty seats at Fedex Field on Sept. 13. (Al Drago/AP)

Sports

2021 sports outlook

From Super Bowl attendance to team nicknames, here are five sports predictions for the New Year

No one could have predicted 2020’s crazy sports season.

Governing bodies at all levels of sports truncated, canceled, or postponed events and even entire seasons due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Teams competed for championships before mostly empty venues. Separately, athletes protested and teams dropped controversial nicknames in the name of social justice.

Against that backdrop, here are five sports predictions for 2021:

Expect the lowest attendance and television ratings in Super Bowl history. Tampa will host the National Football League’s signature event this February. While Florida is among the few states whose economy is completely open, the NFL isn’t likely to allow a packed house at Raymond James Stadium—not with the surge in COVID-19 cases in late 2020.

The NFL’s decision to let players protest racism and police brutality by kneeling during “The Star-Spangled Banner” has alienated many fans. The website Deadline in December blamed, in part, “backlash from some fans over the league’s social justice efforts” for the NFL’s struggling ratings, down 7 percent through the season’s first 13 weeks. In an October Rasmussen survey, 32 percent of U.S. adults said they were less likely to watch NFL games due to players’ Black Lives Matter protests.

COVID-19 will continue to impact sports beyond the Super Bowl. The NCAA is already considering hosting the 2021 March Madness men’s basketball tournament in a single “bubble” city, as the NBA did with its playoffs. Indianapolis, home of the NCAA’s headquarters, is a leading candidate.

The Summer Olympics, meanwhile, are scheduled to start July 23 in Tokyo after being postponed due to the pandemic. Both the International Olympic Committee and Japanese officials have expressed confidence the games will take place as planned.

Still, if the pandemic does not subside in early 2021, expect the committee to move the Summer Games to 2022—after the Winter Games take place in Beijing.

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