by Jeff Marthins, retired missionary-athlete and current Board President
The Saints Prison Ministry softball season 2020 was not quite the way I remember it in my playing days. You know, like when we actually played softball games all summer! But then again, 2020 was unlike any previous year too. It gave me occasion to look back at what I remembered about my playing days, and one of those things was… the weather.
Throughout the softball season and, I’m sure during any outdoor ministry events, the players usually huddle up in the morning before heading out to pray for, among other things, good weather. I could tell you of many days which offered uncertain weather conditions and we ended up playing games in dry conditions. God has answered our prayers many times regarding good weather. And sometimes He didn’t…
One of my first memories of playing in the rain was in Camp Hill, PA. Before the game under cloudy skies with the threat of rain, my teammate, Frank DeConcini, prayed. He closed his prayer with, “thank you, Lord, for holding off the rain.” As the words left his lips, the skies opened up! The Lord sent a drenching rain to the field, soaking everyone. We played in the rain, slipping, and sliding in the rain. Both inmates and players alike were laughing and joking. I recall watching pitcher Dave Storms sliding in what can only be described as a slip and slide exhibition!
Fast forward to South Carolina, on a crusade now referred to as the Palm-wet-to Crusade, as it rained almost every day. Arriving to each prison, the prison was curious if we would play in such conditions. Convinced that we would play in rain, the staff had a surprised look as they escorted us to the field. I recall using large brooms to push the water off the field in a squeegee manner. The Saints players and the inmates prepared the field for play side-by-side. In one particular game with a muddy infield, outfielder Walt Nesbitt rounded second and was sprinting towards third. The third base coach yelled, “down, down, down” signaling to Walt to slide to avoid getting tagged. Walt slid headfirst into third with a wave of mud resembling a log flume. The crowd erupted into cheers, joy, and laughter. The joke was on Walt as there was no play at third! Walt stood up with his uniform now completely brown and took a bow.
During the same Palm-wet-to crusade, at another prison, the field was full of water and nowhere for it to go. There was a puddle around second base. A runner on first had to run into right field, then turn left to make the move to second base. No one was called out for running out of the baseline! However, what I remember most was the large puddle between the pitcher’s mound and home plate. The water was roughly two inches deep and any ground ball hit there would simply stop instantly and wait to be retrieved. I remember pitcher Hugh Dwyer and myself splashing through the water to get to the ball multiple times.
Finally, a New Mexico Crusade memory. I know when you think of New Mexico you might think of dry desert-like conditions however, on this afternoon, it poured rain. The prison was surprised as we took to the field, but even we were looking for shelter anywhere that we could. I don’t recall what inning, but it became apparent that the idea of staying dry was no longer an option… so we just embraced the situation. Seeing that, the inmates also abandoned the pretense of trying to stay dry and we played the remaining innings out in the rain.
No one likes to get wet or much less soaked to the skin in wet uniforms but, understanding the purpose of ministry, it becomes more bearable. What about the inmates? Why would they endure it? We’ve watched them play in the rain with us many times. Some inmates were there just as spectators standing in the rain getting wet! For many prisons, the Saints coming is a huge, welcomed event. We may be only scheduled for one day a year… or even less frequent. The inmates look at the Saints’ visit as a break from their normal routine and a chance to forget the barbed wires for a while.
To play in the rain probably took many of us back to the days of our youth when nothing could stop a game. Inmates laughed and joked and played in the rain with joy and smiles. No one complained. Even the inmates who didn’t play stood in the rain – with laughter and joy – to watch this new version of water sports!
At the end of all these games, no one went inside; they all stayed to listen to the Gospel presentation. I don’t recall how many decisions took place each time, but I know that they listened – even while standing there soaking wet. The inmates we have met throughout the years certainly appreciate the time and sacrifices made “just to play them in softball” and it shows in how many have responded to the Gospel message.
And sometimes the sacrifice is simply sacrificing comfortable dry clothes for soaking wet ones.