Going to Bat for Kids

It was not what the terrorists intended. When the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed on September 11, 2001, the terrorists intended to strike fear in the hearts of American men and women, not faith. They meant to bring death, not life. They set out to destroy our national symbols, not resurrect them with new power. But what a few men meant for evil, God seized immediately and started using for good.
 
Eric Chavez, third baseman for the Oakland Athletics, was one of the strategic targets of God’s redemptive goodness that clear September morning. After all, who better than a baseball player, an icon of America’s game, in whom to display God’s power and foil the enemy’s plan?
 
Eric Cesar Chavez was signed by the Oakland A’s immediately after graduating from high school in 1996. The first-round draft pick slugged his way through the farm system, breaking RBI and home run records and staking his claim at third base. Five years later, at the age of 22, Chavez was three years into the big leagues, working on his first Gold Glove Award and living the fast life often linked with professional sports.
 
“I was feeling safe in the country I lived in and comfortable in the life I was living,” Chavez said. He was enjoying the baseball version of the American dream — until the alarm sounded on 9/11 and opened his eyes. It really woke me up,” he said. “The first thought that went through my head was, ‘Jesus is coming back, and I’m not ready.’ So I went to the team chaplain and said I want to be serious about a commitment to Christ.”
 
Like everything in athletics, however, this commitment came with a cost.
 
“Sometimes, just saying ‘Jesus’ or ‘God’ can be intimidating,” Chavez said. “There are a lot of egos flying around, and guys aren’t willing to step up and admit that we’ve got problems. We’ve got 10 to 15 guys who are meeting weekly for Bible study and prayer. Other guys will yell out, ‘Hypocrite!’ We say, ‘Yes, every one of us is a hypocrite. We’re not saying that we’re perfect. We’re just saying we can’t do this alone.’” 
 
Batting in runs for kids
Three years, three Gold Gloves and 287 RBIs later, Chavez has recently added a Young Life statistic to his record-breaking career. Last summer, Chavez helped send 100 kids from urban settings in the San Francisco Bay Region to camp. Ken Pries, vice president of Broadcasting and Communications for the Athletics, explained Chavez’s introduction to Young Life.
 
“I knew he had made a commitment to Christ,” Pries said. “At spring training last year, I asked him if he’d like to get involved in a Christian youth organization. He said, ‘Absolutely.’ So I told him about Young Life.”
 
Pries’ brother Randy was a Young Life area director for seven years, and his wife, Karen, was a leader for 12, so Pries was primed to educate Chavez on the mission. Chavez was a quick study and right away devised a scheme to add a little extra pop to his bat.
 
For every RBI Chavez hit in 2004, he would send a kid to camp. Now all that was needed to complete Chavez’s education was a field trip. So Pries, Chavez and their wives hopped into the Oakland A’s helicopter one August afternoon and went to Woodleaf, Young Life’s camp in northern California.
 
“God’s timing through this whole thing was a miracle,” Pries said. “We had a day game on Thursday and another game on Friday night. I asked the owner if we could use the team helicopter to take Eric to camp, and he said, ‘No problem.’ We took off here [from the Network Associates Coliseum] at 4:15 p.m. on Thursday and were back on the ground here by noon the next day.”
 
A taste of camp
It was less than 24 hours, but it felt like a lifetime to Chavez.
 
“He had never been to a summer camp his entire life,” Pries said. “His whole life had been baseball. He almost jumped out of the helicopter when we flew over camp.”
 
“I had no idea what I was about to walk into,” Chavez said. “When I got there, I was totally blown away.”
 
Pries could see that his work would be cut out for him for the next 18 hours. “We walked up to the ropes course, and the course had just closed,” Pries said. “Thank goodness! Eric was already starting to climb the ladder. I said, ‘Eric, if you get hurt, I’m not going home.’” Apparently, the slugger’s six-year contract didn’t cover the kind of swinging involved with a tight rope or a trapeze. Sliding into the club room that evening, however, Chavez was clearly safe. 
 
“The speaker was outstanding,” Chavez said. “The night we were there, he turned it on and said this is what it’s all about — Jesus died for you guys. There were about 300 kids in the room, and every single one was listening.”
 
One RBI, one life saved
One young man who was listening last summer and gave his life to Christ was a junior from Oakland named Sterling. Sterling lives in the inner city shadows, well beyond the bright lights of the stadium where Chavez works. But for seven days last summer, Chavez and Sterling were on the same team. When Sterling needed help to get to camp, Chavez stepped up to the plate and crushed the ball. At camp, Sterling discovered a new life filled with hope.
 
Hope is not what the terrorists wanted to give Americans. They plotted fear, death and destruction, but up from the ashes rose an All-American baseball player, swinging for more than just the fences — batting kids home to Jesus Christ.