Wayne Mitchell was not simply the head baseball coach at Robert E. Lee High School in Montgomery, Ala. He was a local baseball institution.
Mitchell had attended Lee and excelled on the baseball team. In 1964, he graduated from Lee and enrolled at Huntington College where he was a star left-handed pitcher, setting the school record for 20 career victories.
After college, he became an assistant baseball coach at Lee from 1971-74. He left to become head coach at Huntington from 1975-78, then returned to Lee as head baseball coach in 1980. When I was playing Dixie youth baseball, I dreamed of wearing that distinctive “L” emblazoned on a fire red baseball cap for Robert E. Lee and playing for Mitchell. I will never forget the first time I put on that Lee uniform in 1984.
I did not know it when I made the team, but in 1978 Mitchell had been diagnosed with cancer. In January 1986, my senior year, he began experimental cancer treatments that prevented him from being with the team. On two occasions visiting in his home with one of my teammates, he would not talk about himself but lit up when he talked about the team. He never made it back to the baseball field, dying shortly after the 1986 season.
Mitchell was a Christian, and it was evident in how he coached and persevered in the face of cancer. He could be stern, like the day he told me to decide whether I wanted to be a rock star or a baseball player, and if it was a baseball player, I should get my hair cut. I heard it as a command, not a request. Mitchell was a walking baseball encyclopedia, but coaching high school baseball was far more to him than a way to earn a living. Reflecting back, I think baseball was his mission field. I am not suggesting he was overtly evangelistic, because he was not, but that he saw coaching baseball as a way he served Christ.
To say that I wasn’t very reflective as a high school student would be an understatement. Three years after graduating high school, I became a Christian while following in Mitchell’s footsteps playing baseball at Huntington College. It was then I realized just how much he had impacted me. It was very common to link what I was learning in a Bible study to life lessons he had taught me on the baseball field.
One of Mitchell’s mantras was that baseball games are not won or lost by spectacular plays. He would say that everybody loves the home run, the strikeout, the diving catch, but plenty of players can do those things yet make too many mistakes on routine plays. He drilled into our heads that playing time was dependent upon consistency and making the routine plays.
He taught us that one of the most beautiful plays in baseball is a sacrifice. I distinctly remember him saying, “If someone hits a home run or makes a diving play, I don’t care what you do. But, if someone lays down a sacrifice bunt or hits a sacrifice fly to move a runner over, then you better be out of that dugout cheering them when they return.”
I began to understand something of the importance of sacrifice for a cause bigger than the individual before I ever came to saving faith in Christ. When I read that Jesus told His disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24), I could not help but think about baseball and about coach Mitchell, and that is still the case. When I read that the great missionary William Carey said about his ministry, “I can plod. I can persevere in any definite pursuit. To this I owe everything,” I remembered coach Mitchell telling us to focus on the routine play.
Passing on the legacy
I was probably one of those players that Mitchell assumed he wasn’t making much of an impact on at the time. One of the most embarrassing moments of my high school years was the time Mitchell asked me to lead the team in the Lord’s Prayer at the end of practice. There was a moment of awkward silence that probably lasted five seconds, though it felt like five hours, until I said, “I’m sorry coach, but I don’t know it.” He quickly said, “No problem. I will lead us.”
Well, I now know the Lord and His model prayer. In fact, by a miracle of God’s grace, people now call me pastor and a seminary professor. My love for the game of baseball, and the influence of courageous and gracious men who also love the game, like Mitchell, have helped shape my life.
I am thankful for the many lessons I have learned over the years on a baseball diamond. I have passed many of those lessons down to my three sons as I have tutored them in our national pastime. My oldest son will be graduating high school this year and I wish he could have met coach Mitchell. In a sense, he has through what coach taught me, which I have passed on to him.
I am thankful for a great baseball coach who taught me about more than baseball. I think it would please him to know that I am still trying, as a Christian, to consistently make the routine plays, celebrate the beauty of sacrifice, and help my children and others do the same.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Prince is pastor of preaching at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky., and associate preaching professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. This column first appeared at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s website.)