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I once met the president of the San Francisco Giants while walking to my church.

Nearly twenty years ago, my wife and daughter and I moved from Glendale, Arizona to a city near Oakland, California.  I had been asked by a pastor friend to be his associate pastor with the idea that when he retired, I would become the senior/lead pastor.

The day we arrived in town, a vice president for Safeway, who attended the church, dropped dead of a heart attack.

The executive’s memorial service was scheduled in the early afternoon after Sunday services, and as I walked from home toward the church, I found myself walking parallel to Peter Magowan, the president and managing general partner of my favorite baseball team, the San Francisco Giants, who was walking into the church.  (The following year, he would be named Sports Executive of the Year.)  Magowan was also the former CEO of Safeway and the current chairman of their board and had worked with the vice president.  At the time, Magowan’s group was putting the finishing touches on Pac Bell Park, the Giants’ new stadium, now termed At&T Park.

I greeted him by saying, “Hello, Mr. Magowan.”  I then told him that I had been at Candlestick Park the day before to watch the Giants play the Dodgers.  The Dodgers rallied in the ninth inning to beat the Giants, and I told Magowan that it was a tough loss.  He replied, “Tell me about it.  I didn’t sleep at all last night.”

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege … as just an average fan … of meeting many well-known people connected to baseball, mostly by asking for their autograph.  Intellectually, I know that baseball players are just ordinary individuals, but since I started collecting baseball cards in 1960 (at the age of six), I have admired baseball players, and secured the signatures of many players I first encountered on cards … and there is something magical about that experience.

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I began collecting autographs at the Grand Hotel in Anaheim, California in 1967, when I was thirteen years old.  The visiting American League teams all stayed at the Grand … except for the Kansas City A’s, who stayed at the Jolly Roger Inn.  From 1967 through 1972, I usually went to the hotel at least once per series.

The Grand could be a tough place to get autographs because the bellhops didn’t want any collectors inside the lobby.  Most of the time, we’d have to wait outside for the players to emerge as they took a taxi or the bus to what was then called Anaheim Stadium.

Around 1971, I began going to hotels in Los Angeles with friends to get the autographs of National League Teams.  Most stayed at the famous Biltmore Hotel in Pershing Square (my parents both attended The Bible Institute of Los Angeles across the square from the Biltmore in the early 1950s), while the Atlanta Braves stayed at the Sheraton West near MacArthur Park and the Giants stayed at the Ambassador Hotel (where Robert Kennedy was shot).  On several occasions, after getting autographs at the Biltmore, my friend Steve and I would walk uphill to Dodger Stadium for that night’s game.

When I became a pastor, I always hoped that a current or former major league baseball player would attend my church, but in my last church, I did have the privilege of having Irv Eatman, former 11-year NFL veteran and an offensive line coach for the Oakland Raiders, in my church.  He was the only person who wore a suit every Sunday!

I have hundreds of stories about getting the autographs of baseball players, whether at hotels, the ballparks, spring training, a golf tournament, or a card show.  But most of the time, I’d hand the player some cards, he’d sign them, he’d hand them back, I’d say, “Thank you,” and that would be it.  Sometimes, I was too intimidated to say anything to the player at all.

But as the following stories indicate, on occasion, I’d have a more extended conversation with a current or former player, such as:

Steve Garvey, San Diego, 1972.

The Dodgers used to stay at the Town & Country Inn in San Diego.  It’s a sprawling complex (my wife and I stayed there for an anniversary several years ago).  The Dodgers stayed at the back of the complex in a large tower.  They would come down an elevator and either walk through the complex to get a taxi at the front or wait for the bus in the back parking lot.

One Saturday, my friends Steve and Terri accompanied me to the hotel, and early in the afternoon, we got the autograph of Steve Garvey, who was at the time a third baseman who couldn’t throw.  Garvey and his wife Cyndy were sitting by the pool, and after we got his autograph, they began talking with us … for about twenty minutes.  They were both so nice that we couldn’t believe it.  (By contrast that day, Dodger pitcher Al Downing yelled at us when we asked him for his autograph … and he was known as Gentleman Al.)

Garvey became the National League Most Valuable Player two years later, in 1974, and I watched him hit two home runs against the Pirates in the final League Championship Game at Dodger Stadium that same year.  Garvey was a fan favorite in Los Angeles, and often came through in the clutch, especially in All-Star games, playoff games, and the World Series.

Garvey worked hard at pleasing his fans and was always a great signer.

Many years later, I saw Garvey before an exhibition game at UC Berkeley, and I told him that I thought he should be in the Hall of Fame.  He smiled and said, “Thanks.”

Cyndy went on to become a TV hostess and actress.

Six years later, I took this photo at the same hotel:

Davey Lopes, San Diego, 1978.

I once had the pennant hopes for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the front seat of my car.

In 1978, the All-Star Game was held in San Diego, and my friends Steve and John went with me to the Sheraton Harbor Hotel to get autographs the day before the game.  (It was quite a day.  George Brett was actually nice … I told Willie Stargell a story … and I had my only encounter with Howard Cosell.)

Players from both leagues would emerge from the hotel and take taxis over to the ballpark, but when Davey Lopes – second baseman for the Dodgers – came out, all the cabs were gone.  Thinking quickly, I told Lopes, “I’ll take you to the ballpark,” and after sizing up me and my friends, he said, “Okay, let’s go.”

During the fifteen minutes it took to get to the ballpark, the three of us talked to Lopes about the Dodgers’ pennant chances.  Lopes initially asked if there was anything we wanted him to sign, and he was very gracious.  Since he was leading off for the National League the next day, I told him what kind of pitches Frank Tanana, the starting pitcher for the American League, threw.  (It didn’t help.  Tanana got Lopes out.)

The whole time I was driving Lopes to the ballpark, I kept thinking to myself, “Drive perfectly.  You have the Dodgers’ leadoff hitter in your passenger seat.”

When we got to the ballpark, there were thousands of cars already there for the Monday festivities, but because Lopes was a player, we were escorted right to the front, where I dropped him off.

The Dodgers went on to win the National League pennant in 1978, only to be defeated the second year in a row by the dreaded New York Yankees in the World Series.  Lopes hit three home runs and knocked in seven runs in that Series.  I attended the last game at Dodger Stadium – Goose Gossage got the save – but I got to see the little second baseman who had been in my car hit a home run.

Pete Falcone, San Francisco, 1984.

Pete Falcone was a left-handed pitcher for the San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals, New York Mets, and the Atlanta Braves in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

At the time, I pastored a church in Santa Clara, California … in the heart of Silicon Valley.  Fridays were my day off, and that usually meant driving north to Daly City and taking BART to downtown San Francisco so I could get autographs of the visiting teams who stayed at the Westin St. Francis Hotel across from Union Square.

On this particular day, a fellow collector named Bob met me in the lobby of the St. Francis (it was a GREAT place to get autographs because nobody from the hotel ever bugged us) and we got Falcone’s autograph.  We started talking, Falcone found out I was a pastor, and he told me he was a Christian who attended a small church of thirty people in the Atlanta area.

The next thing we knew, Falcone invited both Bob and I to lunch at the restaurant in the back of the hotel.

I should have gone home and recorded as much of the conversation as I could remember, but I didn’t.  But Falcone treated us both very well … like men … and it was really cool.  At one point, we both lamented the passing of Keith Green, a Christian music artist who had died several years before in a plane crash.

After lunch, Falcone left us tickets for that night’s game.  After at least a 90-minute ride home, I loaded my brother-in-law Kevin and my four-year-old son Ryan in my 1963 Chevy Nova and headed up the 101 Freeway toward Candlestick Park.  Caught in bumper-to-bumper traffic in the fast lane, the three cars in front of me collided, and to avoid them, I quickly swerved my car to the left … and hit a chain link fence that served as a barrier.  When my head thrust forward, I chipped my two front teeth on the steering wheel.  (Those who were in the collision were all bloodied and walking around in a daze.)

I was in too much pain to proceed to the ballpark, so I turned around … found a dentist the next morning who capped my teeth temporarily … and called Falcone at the hotel and told him why I didn’t show up.

When the Braves next came to town, I said hi to him on the field.  That was the last time I ever saw him … but I’ve never forgotten his kindness.

Luke Appling and Minnie Minoso, Oakland, 1987/1988.

In the late 1980s, the Equitable Group sponsored a series of Old Timers games all over Major League Baseball.  I always looked forward to those games because it meant that former players would show up … and since some of them didn’t answer their mail, the only way to get their autographs was in person.

For example, Jack Smalling, who has compiled a list of current and former players’ addresses for years, once listed the top ten players he couldn’t find.  One of them was Jim Ray Hart, former third baseman for the San Francisco Giants.  Hart turned up before an Old Timers game at the Hyatt Hotel in Oakland, and he signed … and smeared … every card I gave him.  (He didn’t mean to smear the cards.  He probably hadn’t signed anything in so long that he didn’t know autograph protocol.)

Anyway, one Saturday afternoon, my son Ryan and I drove up to the Hyatt Hotel in Oakland to try and get the autographs of the Old Timers who were staying there.  (Fifteen years later, I would be the pastor of a church five minutes away from the site of that hotel … after it had been bulldozed down.)

That night, while waiting in the small lobby of the Hyatt, former White Sox greats Luke Appling and Minnie Minoso came into the lobby and sat down.  There were a few collectors there, and both men signed everything they were handed.  And then they started conversing with us … just like we were regular people.

Luke Appling, a shortstop with the Chicago White Sox his whole career, was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1964.  (I knew a pastor’s wife who babysat for Appling’s family when she was a teenager.)  Minnie Minoso was one of my father’s favorite players.

Minnie Minoso Signed Cards 2 001

Once again, I wish I had gone home and written down what these two men said, but the message I received from them was, “I like baseball fans, and you guys are fans, so let’s talk baseball.”  Few current or former players convey that attitude anymore.

Let me tell you about the camaraderie I once enjoyed with other collectors.  That night, I left the hotel without getting the autograph of Joe Black, a pitcher for the Dodgers from the early 1950s.  I asked a collector if he would get Black’s autograph for me if he saw him, and he said he would.  The next time I saw that collector, he gave me all six cards back … signed.

Alvin Dark, Garden Grove, California, 1980.

Alvin Dark was the shortstop for the famed 1951 New York Giants who beat the Dodgers in a three-game playoff under manager Leo Durocher, who named him team captain.  He was also the Giants’ shortstop when they swept the Indians in the 1954 World Series.

After his solid playing career was over, Dark became the manager of the San Francisco Giants in the early 1960s, managing Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, and Juan Marichal, among many others.

He also went on to manage the World Champion Oakland A’s in 1974 and the San Diego Padres a few years later.

Dark, who was a Christian, had just written a book called, When in Doubt, Fire the Manager.  The head of our church’s men’s group asked Dark … who was living about an hour south of our city near San Diego … to speak for our men’s group.

Fortunately, the head of the men’s group knew I was a huge baseball fan, and he arranged for me to sit by Dark for the evening.

Dark’s Oakland A’s beat my Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series in 1974, and I remembered watching player after player hit weak ground balls to Bert Campaneris (the A’s shortstop) or Sal Bando (their third baseman).  I asked Dark about it.

He told me, “I told our pitchers to throw the ball on the outside corner.  If a pitch was called a strike, I’d tell them to throw it another inch outside.”  Time after time, I watched as the Dodgers’ right-handed batters tried to pull those outside pitches and grounded out easily.  It was all part of a strategy!

Even though it was still painful to watch, we watched highlights of the 1974 World Series and received expert commentary from the A’s manager, who signed all the items I had … including his book … after the banquet.

That was a long time ago!

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As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I lived near Oakland, California during my last church ministry … and used to see the current manager of the Oakland A’s all the time.

Back in 2000, the A’s and Yankees were playing a best-of-five series in the American League Divisional Series for the right to go to the World Series.  The Yankees won Game 5 in Oakland and it was heartbreaking.

The Saturday after Game 5, my wife and I were working in our garage when I saw A’s manager Art Howe walking his two dogs across the street.  I had been told that he lived in the apartment complex across from us, and there he was.  My wife told me, “He looks so sad.”  I said, “He thought he was going to manage the A’s tonight in the World Series.  Instead, they’re at home and the Yankees are in the Series … again.”

After that, I saw Art Howe from time-to-time in our community.  I once passed an ice cream parlor and he was sitting next to the window.  One time, I was backing out of a parking place, turned around, and Howe was waiting to take my place.  He smiled and waved at me.

If you’re read the book Moneyball or seen the movie, Howe was the manager during that period in A’s history.

When I first started collecting autographs, it was like torture for me to overcome my introversion and ask a player to sign something.  Over time, I learned to become more extroverted while approaching players because that was the only way I was ever going to get anything signed.  I have always tended to defer to people who have a greater social status than I do, so I’m grateful for those few times that someone connected to baseball treated me like a human being.

I’ll share some other stories soon.

 

 

 

 

 

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Somebody recently asked me two similar questions: “What was your best church experience?  What was your worst church experience?”

My worst experience – by far – was the second church I served as pastor.

The church was the result of a merger between two small churches.  I was the pastor of the smaller church … my rookie pastorate.

We merged with a church five miles away whose pastor had been ill for months.

We gained property with a building … the other group gained a pastor and some money in savings.

I served as pastor of that church for 7 years.

Most people from the two churches were philosophically incompatible.

The group from my church – mostly seniors – kept looking back to the 1950s and wanted to replicate that culture in their new church.

The other group sought to be more contemporary.

Since I didn’t know the other group very well, I spent more time initially getting to know them … and found that I liked them a lot more than the group that came with me.

18 months after the merger, the whole thing blew up when 25 people from my group left the church.

For the next few years, the ministry was difficult.  I battled depression constantly … mentally resigned every other Monday … and began perusing classified ads to find another job.

In desperation, I began asking God to do something drastic.  I told Him that I saw 5 possibilities for my future:

*Stay at the church as pastor

*Move to another church as pastor

*Become a staff member at another church

*Go into secular work

*Sell the church property and start over in a new location

I told the Lord that I wasn’t smart enough to make the decision and that I would do whatever He told me to do.

In my mind, the second and third possibilities made the most sense.  The last one made the least sense.

Guess which one God chose?

The last one: sell the church property and start over in a new location.

Years later, I sat in the office of a seminary professor whom I had met for the first time.  As we were talking, he said to me, “I even read a story in a book about a pastor whose church sold their property and started over somewhere else.”

I told him, “That was me!”

And I still can’t believe we did that.

Why did we take that risk?

First, the church didn’t have a worship center.  At one time, the congregation met in their small gymnasium.  When I came to the church, they were meeting in their fellowship hall.  When 70 people were present, the place felt full … and people felt content.  Without a dedicated worship center, we looked minor league to newcomers.

Second, the church property was decaying.  There was a perpetual gas smell in the nursery.  Water flooded into a classroom when it rained.  The place looked deserted from the street because the parking lot was located in the back.  We looked at the costs of upgrading the place and it felt prohibitive for our smallish congregation.

Third, the church could not retain young families.  Young couples would come to our community for their first jobs, but because most couldn’t afford the cost of housing, they would move to Colorado or Texas where houses were more attainable.

Finally, the church lacked a vision of what it could become.  For years, we had the same ministries … Sunday School, men’s fellowship, women’s meetings, AWANA … and it just wasn’t working.

One year, we baptized just one person.

When I was in seminary, I was told, “Preach the Word and your church will grow.”  I did preach it, teaching through books like Numbers, Joshua, Judges, Nehemiah, Malachi, Mark, Acts, Ephesians … but we didn’t grow.

What was the problem?

In my view, it was our ministry philosophy toward spiritually lost people.

I believed that if I equipped God’s people well, they would go to their homes and workplaces, share their faith, win people to Christ, and then invite them to come to the church.

But it almost never happened that way … and yet we kept up that line of thinking for years.

We played it safe … just treading ministry water … and the people in our community responded accordingly.

Until we risked it all for Jesus.

The experience of selling our property and starting over somewhere else initially frightened me … but as I look back, it was one of the best decisions I ever made … even though it just about killed me.

The ministry that resulted was the best church experience I’ve ever had.

More next time!

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