SEATTLE — July 15 marks the 81st annual Major League Baseball All-Star Game. While ballplayers in both the American and National Leagues take a few days of much-needed rest, there are hundreds of “minor leaguers” who are eager to learn what it takes to be an all-star on the field and off.
Ranging from age 8 to 16, these players are hoping to improve their baseball skills and deepen their Catholic faith, thanks to the Yes of former longtime Kansas City Royal firsbaseman and devoted Catholic Mike Sweeney.
“In 2003, God put it in my heart to start a Catholic baseball camp,” the five-time MLB All-Star recalled. “However, everyone said a ‘Catholic camp’ would isolate a lot of people. They would feel excluded; and we would only get 10 to 15 players.”
He opted to listen to the naysayers, played it safe and hosted Christian baseball summer camps for a number of years in the Kansas City area.
It went great until one year, at the end of camp; the kids were leaving, and parents were passing out these Christian tracts,” Sweeney explained.
The tracts spoke about the “four spiritual laws” and “walking the Roman road,” which, according to the tract, would eventually lead one to a Protestant church.
“None of this stuff is in the Bible,” said Sweeney. “It just turned my stomach. We had 400 to 500 kids who were walking away from camp and not feeling the way they should from a baseball camp that I was running.”
After a 15-year career that included stints with the Oakland Athletics, Seattle Mariners and Philadelphia Phillies, Sweeney retired from baseball in 2011. And yet the desire to run a baseball camp girded by his Catholic faith never left him.
“I felt like Samuel. Finally, I said, ‘Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.’ If we only had 10 players, so be it,” he said. “We would raise up 10 saints.”
It would appropriately be called Catholic Baseball Camp. The first camp took place in San Diego in 2012. When registration opened, it took only a few weeks for the camp to sell out. Ballplayers signed up from all over the country.
One of those campers was 13-year-old catcher Matt Fitzsimmons.
“I heard about it through our diocesan newspaper,” he explained. “So we saved up our money, and my three brothers, my parents and I drove from Iowa to San Diego for the three-day camp. We parked our camper outside the athletic field where camp was being held.”
Fitzsimmons told the Register that the camp was great.
“It was so neat to meet all these Major Leaguers and to know that they were Catholic and loved Jesus and want to talk about it,” he said.
He and his family returned home to their parish, Epiphany Catholic Church in Mason City, Iowa, on fire for the faith.
Sixteen-year-old Jack Harris from Coronado, Calif., attended the 2013 camp. He admitted that he was at first drawn to the camp by the big-name sports stars.
I had heard about all the people who were going to be there — Phil Rivers, Trevor Hoffman and Mark Loretta — and I heard we had to go to Mass as well,” he said.
Harris said that each day he liked the “spiritual stuff” more and more.
“The whole atmosphere of the camp was amazing,” he said.
He liked the camp’s motto: “Using the greatest game ever played to tell the greatest story ever told.”
Sweeney invited Harris back to camp this year as a core leader to help the younger players go through drills and be a source of support throughout the day.
“I think I got more benefits on the spiritual side [of the camp],” Harris noted. “Besides not missing Sunday Mass now, I am sometimes going to Mass before school,” said the soon-to-be junior at Coronado High School.
Believers and Nonbelievers
According to Sweeney, approximately a third of the campers are non-Catholics; but God is constantly touching lives in a profound way for believers and nonbelievers alike.
One of his favorite stories is that of a camper named Charlie, who, along with his family, attended an area megachurch. Years ago, Sweeney was courting a young lady who was part of that church.
Sweeney said, “On five occasions, I had attended that [same] church and left feeling empty and attacked [as a Catholic]. One of those Sundays, the pastor tore apart John Chapter 6 (the Bread of Life discourse), saying that Jesus’ words were just figurative, and Catholics were cannibals.”
After the first day of the camp, Sweeney received an email from Charlie’s mom.
“I thought, ‘Here it comes.’ But the email said, ‘Charlie came home and told us to read John Chapter 6. We read it as a family; and we now believe what you believe in the Eucharist.’”
Sweeney added that the mom went on to tell him that Charlie came home from camp and told her that after learning to pray the Rosary, he had never felt closer to Jesus.
“So it is conversion stories like this that I hope capture the essence of the camp,” he said, adding that his hope is that they are using the camp to fall in love with Jesus.
Campers begin the day with Mass by priests recruited from Miles Christi, a religious order of priests whose mission is to sanctify the laity, especially on college campuses. Parents, family and friends are welcome to participate in all the prayer activities of the day.
Then it is off to practice on the baseball diamond.
In between learning how to hit, field and steal bases, the camp breaks to pray the Rosary and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. Sweeney and his team of Catholic baseball players and other professional athletes share their stories about the faith.
“The kids eat this up,” explained Sweeney. “Whether it’s the baseball rosaries we give to all the campers or our uniforms with the Celtic cross on the back, the kids are immersed in the faith.”
He added that one of the best parts of the day is the sacrament of reconciliation.
We have priests spread out all over the baseball field, and the kids are lined up at third base or the outfield to confess their sins,” he said. “We make the point that it’s not that we have to go to confession, but that we get to go to confession. It is a real gift.”
Spreading the Word
Forrest Fielder and his 13-year-old son, Christopher, made the trek to San Diego from their home in Seattle in 2013 for Catholic Baseball Camp.
“It was a real spiritual blessing,” said the father of four. “My son and I loved the whole experience. What impressed me most was how much Mike loved the Catholic faith and wanted to share it.”
Fielder was so impressed with camp that he and another dad, along with his parish’s Knights of Columbus and Seattle’s Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, made a video appeal to Sweeney to come to Seattle. The video made it clear that the dads and the Knights would handle the administrative aspect of the camp; Sweeney would take care of the on-the-field stuff.
“Mike has such a passion and reverence for this game called baseball,” Fielder said. “His gift and ministry was on the field and with the kids, not in registration and administration.”
Sweeney loved the idea of coming to Seattle. The inaugural camp there will take place July 22-24. So far, around 120 kids have signed up. Fielder is confident that the camp will sell out due to the great example that Sweeney exhibits on and off the field.
While he hopes that the baseball camp can keep growing to other cities, Fielder says that it is up to Holy Spirit and Mike Sweeney. Until then ... “Play ball!”
Register correspondent Eddie O’Neill writes from Rolla, Missouri.