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A father, a family and baseball

Safe … at home!

By Chris Maxwell

Ten-year-old Dejai Oliver smacks the ball into the outfield. Players from the opposing team race to glove it and hold him to a double. But as the Little Leaguer rounds second, the throw sails over the third baseman’s head. The coach, Dejai’s father, Joe, waves the boy home. With an artful slide into home plate, Dejai scores the go-ahead run.

Without hesitation a cheering Joe runs to the plate and wraps his arms around his son in celebration.

Joe Oliver with his family: wife Kim and (l to r) children Gavin, Karrah, Lauryl and Dejai.

Seattle Mariners catcher and Little League coach Joe Oliver has plenty of hugs for his wife, Kim, and their four children: Dejai; Karrah, 8, Gavin, 3; and Lauryl, 2. Whether he wins or loses, hits home runs or strikes out, Joe knows there are more important things in life than baseball – his faith in Jesus Christ and his family.

But unfortunately the life of a professional baseball player isn’t conducive to family time. Joe says being the husband and father God wants him to be takes work and commitment.

"Being away from your family has to be the toughest part of playing ball," Joe says. "You miss special things in your children’s lives. Sure you can videotape them, but the personal experiences can never be replaced."

"Joe’s being away [during the baseball season] is the worst part, especially as I expected our babies," Kim says.

This past season Joe did more than make phone calls. He bought a video phone — a way to make calls for sights, not just sounds.

Kim describes how she and the children see his face while they talk: "Gavin thinks his daddy is a face in a box. Often, at dinnertime, Joe calls us from the clubhouse before games."

"I call every day," Joe says, "and I send gifts from time to time. It’s important when I call to listen to them tell me about the experiences of their day."

Dejai loves the things he and his dad do together — especially "going fishing and to the batting cages," he says. He also prays for his father. "I thank God for my dad being there when I need help. And I ask God to keep him safe while he goes on trips. And for my mom to help us grow up and be nice people."

Kim says, "I know Joe loves what he does, but I know he loves God, me and the children more. Baseball will not always be there."

Last year, Joe signed with Tampa Bay, partly so he could be close to his family. Then after his best off-season preparation and the most effective spring training of his career, being placed in Triple A was difficult. He tried to maintain peace, but many of his prayers asked questions and released frustrations. One day in July, he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates and became their starting catcher. Before this season he signed with the Mariners.

An illness several years ago made their seasonal routine more difficult. Joe says that his illness was the hardest experience he has faced. "I had Reiter’s syndrome, a virus that is an arthritic condition, causing swelling of the joints in the lower extremities. I could barely walk or stand up. I had a hard time sleeping because of the aching in my feet, ankles and knees. I could not do what I loved — playing baseball — and was told I might never be able to play again. But through a lot of prayer and believing I recovered."

"That summer brought us closer than ever," Kim says. "God used that time. It made me see a vulnerable side of Joe. He always needed help. It was not easy, but in many ways it helped us."

Like the apostle Paul’s epistles from prison, contentment and joy can find bases on the fields of momentary defeats. Such reminders alert the Olivers to depend on God regardless of talents or treasures.

Joe Oliver knows he will not always tag runners out at home or throw them out at second. But he dreams of being "someone who gave it all he had, who loved to have fun when he was at the ballpark.

"My family is most important," he says. "They love me if I play poorly or if I win the World Series. Love is blind.

"God loves me and I need to pass on that love to my wife and children. I want to keep playing as long as I have fun, earn a living and make my children proud of me as a father."

Joe and Kim want their children to be aware of the real issues of life. And Joe hopes to send his whole family home safely where one day they will join with angels to cheer forever.

Chris Maxwell is pastor of Evangel Assembly of God in Orlando, Fla.


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