Youth Travel Baseball & Running from the Rules to the Communion Table

The Youth Travel Baseball season can be pretty grueling. One Spring seven years ago, I […]

Howie Espenshied / 4.24.15

caputotrophiessmThe Youth Travel Baseball season can be pretty grueling. One Spring seven years ago, I coached our son’s 13u (13 year old and under) travel team. We played an 83 game season! There were tournaments with 3 to 5 games every weekend, and countless games during the week. Somehow our son got all his homework done that season.

It was my first season coaching travel ball, and I was putting together a brand new team. Metro-Atlanta is one of the epicenters for travel baseball, so, with all the competition around, a first year team tends to take its lumps until it gels. We were fortunate enough though to have a player named Austin, who became the top home-run hitter in the state that season for our age group. That’s the kind of kid you can build a new team around. Getting Austin to commit to play for us brought in some other high level players. That made us pretty good, and much more quickly than we should have been. Yes, there is a college-style recruiting aspect to all of this – even at age 13. Some teams were known to put players from other states on their roster, and then they would fly them in for games! Those teams usually either had a coach who bankrolled those kinds of situations, or they agreed as a team (and as parents) to absorb the cost so that they could “import” that special player.

It was an intense season, and our son’s last season before he went on to high school athletics. On top of that, Austin’s family had a certain weekend commitment that often made him late for some of the weekend games, usually at out of town tournaments. Austin’s Catholic family would absolutely not miss a weekend mass service, even if it made him late for a game, and even though they knew that the team (and coaches) relied so heavily on him. A few times, when we were at small town, South Georgia tournaments, Austin’s family drove 50+ miles to find the nearest early morning Saturday or Sunday mass.


One of my rules as head coach was that every player was required to show up to the field one hour prior to game time. If they didn’t show up on time, they didn’t play in that game – no exceptions. Everyone knew the rule, at least until I had to ask that we make an exception for Austin. One particular weekend early in the season, at a very remote location, Austin’s parents knocked on my hotel room door the night before a big 10AM game and told me that the nearest mass was 60+ miles away and didn’t start until 8AM. Best case, he was going to make it back to the field just before game time. They had gone on record prior to that with a protest of my game time arrival rule, insisting that their religious reasons should be met with an exception, but that they would try to comply.

So I did some hotel room door-knocking of my own that night, asking parents and players if they thought it would be OK if we make an exception to the rule ONLY so that Austin’s family could attend mass on the weekends. The response was unanimous. No family thought that Austin’s family should be penalized for going to mass, and, since none of the rest of them held the same conviction, none of them felt that they should be afforded a similar exception. Was the positive response due to the fact that they all knew that Austin was the best player on the team? Probably. Still, I remain shocked to this day that (for the rest of that season) no family ever sought to cash in on the slippery slope of other possible exceptions that the Austin exception had provided.


Despite all that, I remained frustrated with Austin’s family throughout that season for putting me in that situation. My traditional, American, Protestant self couldn’t understand why a family felt like they couldn’t skip church for any reason. It sounded so…..legalistic – as though if they missed church one week, and then died before mass the following week, their souls would be in jeopardy. Maybe there’s some truth to that. I don’t know. I never asked.

Seven years later, my vantage point has changed. My family now attends a church where the pastors implore us every week to “run to the table”. But it’s not because our souls will be in jeopardy if we don’t take communion. It’s because the table is our Ebenezer Stone – our reminder that “he who is forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7:47). The table is our reminder that we have been forgiven “much” and that truth can compel us (possibly) to love “much”.

I didn’t know Austin’s family well enough to know why they were running “to the table” every week. I’m not sure that the “why” matters much to me anymore. However, now, with a new grandson and a hope to one day coach another travel baseball team (we grandparents never tire of living out our dreams vicariously) I know that the “rules sheet” I pass out at that first practice will include an exception for those who (for whatever reason) need an extra minute or two to run to the table.