July/Aug 2012 More than a Game Dave Pond
It all started with a simple Internet search in late 2009. According to FCA Softball National Director Bob Pinto, a few clicks were all it took to spark the beginning of FCA’s softball ministry. As an avid fan and longtime prep and collegiate softball coach, Pinto discovered that FCA didn’t have a ministry specifically focused on the game he loved. Immediately he knew what he needed to do.
“I felt the Holy Spirit calling me there,” said Pinto, whose collegiate coaching résumé includes stops at Long Island University (NY), Adelphi University (NY), the University of New Haven (CT) and Lake Sumter Community College (FL). “I made a call to Jeff Duke of the FCA Coaches Ministry, who lives in the same town as me. Then Jeff made a call, and one thing led to another. Now here we are.”
Like any good coach or manager, Pinto soon realized that, in order for FCA Softball to be a success, he needed to assemble the right roster—a dynamic group of believers who could connect with softball players around the nation.
Pinto’s first “hire” was an easy one. All he had to do was look across the dinner table. For more than 10 years, it’s a setting he has shared with softball legend Dr. Dot Richardson, a two-time Olympic gold medalist also famous for her career as an orthopedist. After their 14-year friendship turned into a courtship, the pair wed in September 2001 and will celebrate their 11th anniversary this year.
After recruiting his wife, Pinto continued to assemble an all-star lineup that included a number of the game’s greatest players, coaches and Olympic heroes.
One of the first to sign on was three-time Olympic gold medalist Leah O’Brien-Amico, who co-hosts the sportsthemed More Than Conquerors program on Trinity Broadcast Network. Also on board was Jennie Finch, the Olympic gold medalist described by Time magazine as the most famous softball player in history. College coaching legend Patty Gasso from the University of Oklahoma joined the team as well.
“There are so many amazing Christian women involved in softball, but those four—everyone in the game knows who they are,” Pinto said. “God has blessed the FCA Softball ministry with the top women in the game.”
According to Pinto, what is perhaps most amazing is how God lifted up the new ministry out of the ashes of heartbreak. Softball players across the U.S. and 125 other countries mourned the decision of the International Olympic Committee to shelve the sport after four Olympics’ worth of competition from 1996 to 2008.
“For girls, Olympic softball was the equivalent of professional teams for guys,” Pinto said. “That’s what these women looked forward to as they grew up playing the game. Right now there are millions of women devastated that they don’t have that dream anymore.”
The devastation and even anger, however, has proven to be a blessing. According to Pinto, it’s provided one more way that he and his FCA Softball leaders can reach into broken hearts and share the love and truth of Christ. Through learning about a relationship with Jesus, players can find purpose that goes beyond gold medals and learn to compete for the higher purpose of His glory.
“Today’s softball players need Christ more than ever,” Pinto said. “God doesn’t look at these women as softball players; He looks at them as His daughters. That’s really what we try to stress out there.”
The decision to remove softball and its male counterpart, baseball, from the Olympic Games was made just prior to the 2008 Games in Beijing. According to IOC rules, leaders of the sport cannot petition to return until after the 2016 Olympics. But Pinto remains hopeful that the game will return to the Olympic stage, if only to allow Christ to shine through the efforts and testimonies of its players, past and present.
“I do believe that softball will return to the Olympics,” he said. “And, although it won’t be Leah, Jennie and Dot playing, I pray we’ll be able to use that platform as a ministry opportunity. God has a plan, and we just have to be patient, trust Him and watch as He reveals it.”
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FCA Softball didn’t gain its official ministry status until March 2011, but Pinto and his team, which now includes Scott Gilpin and Kristina Myles, hit the ground running long before that. They trained, raised support, created FCA Softball’s online presence, and began sharing Christ with competitors at a number of regional and national tournaments and competitions.
One of the major milestones in the ministry’s young history came in January 2012 when FCA Softball hosted its inaugural “God & Country Weekend” in Plant City, Fla. For the event, a group of FCA all-stars faced off against the nationally loved Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball team—a traveling team of military veterans and active-duty soldiers who lost limbs while serving overseas—in a weekend of games and other fan-friendly events.
During the event, the teams played three exhibition games, took swings in a home run derby, held autograph sessions and, of course, shared their faith. According to Pinto, the event allowed FCA Softball members to not only thank U.S. veterans for their service and sacrifice, but also to share Jesus with those both on the field and in the stands.
“Jennie, Dot and Leah all had a chance to speak, and we were blessed with a real opportunity to evangelize and encourage the Wounded Warriors and the crowd,” said Pinto, who has already scheduled more FCA Softball God & Country weekends this year. “It’s been an amazing adventure.”
Beyond the God & Country Weekend, Pinto and other members of FCA Softball have traveled to a variety of national events in order to raise awareness and offer ministry. They attended the Women's College World Series this spring and the National Fastpitch Coaches Association’s (NFCA) annual convention, at which they hosted a breakfast for participating coaches. And, since the majority of prep and college tournaments include a degree of travel, FCA Softball members have seized many opportunities to lead Sunday-morning devotionals for teams playing away from their home churches.
“God gave these women the gift to play the sport they love at a high level, and all He wants in return is for them to use their gifts to glorify Him,” Pinto said. “FCA Softball has been blessed with some of the most amazing athletes that God has ever put on the planet and, when you say their names, people say, ‘Wow, you’ve got the Babe Ruths and Mickey Mantles of softball involved in this ministry.’ These are the kind of role models that our kids really need—not the ones from the entertainment industry. With one look at these women, you can see the godly examples, role models and competitors they really are.”
As FCA Softball prepares for the future, Pinto and its leaders take comfort in knowing that, no matter where they are or who’s involved, God will continue to use the ministry for His glory.
“God is in control, so I’m certain that FCA Softball’s future is very bright and exciting,” Pinto said. “I always feel like the ministry is not doing enough for the Lord, but then the Holy Spirit reminds me that God will use the ministry how, when and where He pleases. In that respect, I can’t be anything but pleased.”
THE BIGGEST NAMES IN THE GAME
These women have Hall-of-Fame careers on the softball diamond, but now get to know their hearts through the ministry of FCA Softball.
Fame came early for Dot Richardson. At the age of 13, her talent on the diamond was drawing attention as the Orlando, Fla., native became the youngest player to compete in a Women’s Fastpitch National Championship. Now a member of the National Softball Hall of Fame, Richardson went on to a career that included unrivaled on-field accomplishments.
Between 1972 and 2000, Richardson played on 10 championship teams, earned 15 All-American honors, won seven Erv Lind Awards as the top defensive player in the Women’s Major Fastpitch National Championship, won two Olympic gold medals, and was a member of five Pan American teams and four ISF World Championship teams.
But oh, how much more there is to life. Richardson holds that sentiment as truth and now shares that message with others as the chair of FCA Softball’s leadership board.
“When you go out there in training, practice and competition, you just realize it’s really not about the game,” she said. “As athletes, we recognize the gifts God has given us—not just in sports, but in life—but we need to see them as an opportunity to glorify Him.”
Although softball provided the platform for Richardson’s international fame—perhaps most highlighted after her game-winning home run in the 1996 Olympics—“Dr. Dot’s” God-given gifts weren’t restricted to the diamond.
“As athletes, we recognize the gifts God has given us–not just in sports, but in life–but we need to see them as an opportunity to glorify Him.” – Dot Richardson
While on scholarship at UCLA, Richardson became interested in athletic training and how the human body worked. Soon, she began an academic journey that led her through medical school, an orthopedic residency at the University of Southern California, and finally to the state-of-the-art National Training Center (NTC) in Clermont, Fla., where she currently leads the center’s sports training program.
“Medicine is a fantastic way to serve the Lord,” said Richardson, who took leave from her residency to participate in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. “You recognize immediately that you’re not the healer; He is. And He’s working through your hands, mind and heart to help others see Him. It’s never about me as a physician; it’s about glorifying the Lord.”
The NTC is a 300-acre sports, health, fitness and education campus that unites world-class sports and athletic facilities with a hospital, medical office buildings, community college and four-year university. It also hosts a number of softball tournaments each year, which allows Richardson and other FCA team members to share about Christ through between-game devotionals.
“It’s awesome because you can really feel the presence of the Lord during those times and how genuinely thankful the families are,” Richardson said. “They tell us that their daughters love this sport so much but that they felt guilty as parents that they were missing church by coming to tournaments. But that’s the beauty of FCA. When people are around a group of others with the same beliefs and faith, they realize the opportunity they have to worship and serve Him with the gifts they’ve been given.”
For Richardson, that means continuing to go where God leads her—in softball, medicine and life.
“The Lord is always with you, so He’s the constant; everything else is just worldly,” she said. “God comes first, so just try to listen to Him. The doors that open and the doors that close always lead you to where He wants you to be.”
Ask the average sports fan to name one of the world’s top softball players, and they’ll often respond with the name, “Jennie Finch.”
Although the blond-haired, blue-eyed University of Arizona alum was both a two-time NCAA national player of the year and Olympic gold medalist, her fame has transcended the game thanks in part to her appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel Live! and through features in Glamour, Vanity Fair and other international publications.
According to Finch, her rapid rise to fame was uncomfortable at first, until God helped her to see it as a way of sharing Christ.
“I’m so grateful to have the platform of softball to share His good news,” she said. “God continues to provide opportunities for me to share my testimony, and thankfully He reaffirms and forgives along the way.”
With so many distractions in life, Finch said it’s always been important to surround herself with strong believers, which, began at home and has continued at every stop in her life and career.
“God is moving in and through our sport, and I’m humbled to take part in it and grow as part of FCA Softball.” – Jennie Finch
“My parents made sure He was always the foundation of and in our everyday lives,” she said. “Since then, God has placed so many amazing women and friends in my life. Looking back, I can see what a huge blessing that’s been.”
It was through tragedy that Finch learned how greatly the pursuit of on-field success paled in comparison to Christ. As she and her Olympic teammates prepared for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Sue Candrea, the wife of U.S. Head Coach Mike Candrea, died of complications from a brain aneurysm while traveling with the team.
“That hit us all very hard,” Finch said. “We were so tunneled into one goal, which was winning the gold, but after losing someone so close to us, the gold meant nothing anymore.”
Even so, the grief-stricken U.S. players won the gold in Athens, but the whole journey had given Finch a new perspective on life.
“I remember being on the podium with my teammates and basically living the moment we had dreamed about for so long,” she said. “As the gold medal was placed around my neck, I looked up at Coach Candrea and saw him in tears, hugging his daughter and son. God used that moment to show me and tell me how short life really is. We’re here one minute and gone the next. It’s so important to find hope in Him and live for a higher purpose: to share about Him.”
Finch is retired now and, along with her husband, professional baseball player Casey Daigle, is raising two sons, Ace and Diesel, to know and love the Lord. She is the author of the book Throw Like a Girl and hosts camps, clinics and speaking engagements in addition to her work with FCA Softball.
“I just want to continue to follow God’s will,” she said. “I have a huge heart for children, and I love using the platform I’ve been given to help encourage and inspire young athletes. It’s such a blessing to have this platform and Christian fellowship in the softball community. God is moving in and through our sport, and I’m humbled to take part in it and grow as part of FCA Softball.”
Growing up in California, Patty Gasso spent her days playing sports in the park that bordered her backyard. Although she says she was best at flag football, Gasso spent the majority of her time on one of the park’s four softball diamonds, chalk-lined sanctuaries that helped give life to her aspirations as a coach. Now, those dreams have become reality, landing her among the game's elite.
Her coaching career began in 1991 at Long Beach City College, where she guided her teams to four conference titles in five years. Gasso enjoyed living and working “at home” in California, but she dreamed of one day facing higher levels of competition.
In 1995, Gasso got her opportunity when the position of head coach opened up at the University of Oklahoma. That October, Gasso; her husband, Jim; and their 7-year-old son, J.T., ventured inland exchanging California’s sand and surf for the red dirt of Norman, Okla.
“I absolutely loved my time at Long Beach City College, but, when it came to coaching, I wanted more of a challenge,” said Gasso, who at the time was pregnant with the couple’s second son, D.J. “I had no idea that would send me all the way to Oklahoma, but that’s where God placed me and my family. In California, we had lived literally four blocks from the ocean, and I could see it from my front yard. People thought we were crazy and it wouldn’t last because we were leaving family and had no relatives or acquaintances in Oklahoma.”
“I believe that my job is to play a large part in forming these athletes for their futures. They come in as girls, and my goal is to make sure they leave as women, hopefully strong women with a heart for God.” – Patty Gasso
Gasso has since proved her critics wrong by not just lasting at OU, but thriving.
Entering the 2012 season, Gasso—a four-time Big 12 Coach of the Year—had led her Sooner squads to an overall record of 817-269-2 (.752), which included six trips to the Women’s College World Series and one national championship in 2000.
While she is grateful for the on-field success, Gasso said that the greatest satisfaction comes from seeing her players develop and mature off the field.
“The emphasis on winning is not as prioritized as people might think,” Gasso said. “I’m most proud of watching the transition and what happens between the time when athletes come into our program as freshmen and leave as seniors. I believe that my job is to play a large part in forming these athletes for their futures. They come in as girls, and my goal is to make sure they leave as women, hopefully strong women with a heart for God.”
Gasso’s passion for developing softball players is only surpassed by her love for sharing Christ. According to the coaching legend, FCA Softball allows her to use the gifts God has given her to bring Him glory.
“I love my players, and I want them to know the truth,” Gasso said. “Young athletes don’t understand that it’s okay to make mistakes and it’s okay to doubt. God wants to be our best friend and talk with us every day. He is a loving and forgiving God, and I think FCA does a wonderful job reaching out to all athletes to share this message.”
Leah O’Brien-Amico’s Olympic experiences have been truly unique. In 1996, she was one of only a few collegiate members of Team USA , and eight years later in Athens, she was the squad’s only mom. Now, after winning three gold medals, the former softball star is a mother of three, TV broadcaster and softball coach—all of which gives
her a special opportunity to proclaim Christ’s glory on television, at home and on the field.
“People really enjoy hearing from Olympians who are willing to share their knowledge,” she said. “I believe God gave me this platform so I can share His love with others. I’m able to connect through sports and encourage people with what matters most in life—we’re here for a purpose and can impact others in big ways.”
It wasn’t until college that O’Brien-Amico began to understand what it meant to walk with Christ on a daily basis. A star first baseman and outfielder at the University of Arizona, she watched as a younger teammate, Julie Reitan, proclaimed Christ through her actions both on and off the field.
“Julie was solid in her faith and lived in a way that was just different,” O’Brien-Amico said. “She was set apart, and her standard of living for the Lord was high. At the time, I called myself a Christian but my values were only as solid as my surroundings. Julie invited me to a Bible study, and when I went I realized that I had no knowledge of what the Bible truly taught. That began my walk with Jesus.”
“[FCA Softball] helps to teach athletes that our sport is just something we do and that our true identity is found in Jesus alone.” – Leah O’Brien-Amico
In June 1997, Reitan—an outfielder who had battled Type 1 diabetes and helped the Wildcats win the school’s second consecutive NCAA National Championship earlier that year—died of hypoglycemia, a low blood sugar disorder that is usually not fatal.
The death of her friend made a dramatic difference in the life and faith of O’Brien-Amico.
“Ever since then, I’ve been passionate about making every day count for the Lord,” she said. “I want to be a witness and share whenever and wherever I have the opportunity.”
As her schedule allows, O’Brien-Amico now speaks at churches, banquets and other events around the country as a way of impacting those she meets for Christ. She also teaches at camps—including those run by former Olympic teammate Jennie Finch—where she also leads Sunday morning devotions for those in attendance.
Also a broadcaster and softball analyst, O’Brien-Amico can be seen on ESPN and other channels covering the NCAA , as well as on TBN’s More Than Conquerors, which she co-hosts alongside former NBA star A.C. Green and former major league pitcher Frank Pastore.
“We interview players and coaches from all sports about their stories and tie in how Jesus has worked in their lives through it all,” O’Brien-Amico said. “As hosts, we usually highlight key points and talk further about how these stories relate to what God wants to do in all of our lives right where we are.”
O’Brien-Amico has been instrumental in the growth of FCA Softball, which she says helps athletes grow in their faith and understand that they can use sports and their talents to bring glory to God.
“When I first talked to Bob and he mentioned what he wanted to do with FCA Softball, I knew it was evident that God had given him a vision for where he could make an impact,” she said. “FCA helps teach athletes how to live out their faith in everything they do instead of following Christ only in church and living another way the rest of the week. I believe it helps to teach athletes that our sport is just something we do and that our true identity is found in Jesus alone.”
|BRING IT HOME: More Than Medals
When softball was removed from the Olympics following the 2008 Games, players and lovers of the game were devastated—especially young women with dreams of winning gold for their country on the diamond. Now, without Olympic competition, competitors are being forced to ask themselves why they play the game. If there’s no Olympic gold, what’s the point?
Thankfully, FCA Softball is reaching out to those athletes to let them know that there can still be meaning in their diamond moments. In fact, it’s a purpose that is much greater than gold.
As athletes and coaches, we are given athletic gifts for a reason. And surprisingly, it has very little to do with winning championships or medals.
When we were born, we were knit together by God Himself and given specific gifts and talents. We can draw near to Him and bring Him glory by learning how to use those gifts and talents and putting them to work for His Kingdom. Whether we win a championship with these gifts or lose every game on the schedule, it makes no difference as long as we are focused on doing our best for Him, remaining close to Him, and showing His love to others.
But why would we care about serving God through our sports? If His creating us for that purpose isn’t enough, maybe this will shed some light: without establishing a relationship with Him, we have no hope for eternity.
According to Scripture, all of us have fallen short of the glory of God through our sins and missteps. Because God is entirely pure and holy, we cannot live in His presence while stained with sin. However, because He loves us so much, He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to pay the price for our sins once and for all. Through His blood, which He shed on the cross more than 2,000 years ago, we can be forgiven and saved from eternal separation from Him. The only thing we have to do is receive His death in our place and accept His invitation into a relationship with Him.
Whether you are a softball player or an athlete or coach of any sport, know that you have purpose in your game. Through using the gifts given to you by God, you can show the world His power and truth and also experience His Spirit alive inside you as you compete. And medals and titles aside, when we embrace the salvation of Christ and a relationship with Him, we are all given the greatest prize of all: an eternity in Heaven with our Lord.
If you have questions about a relationship with Christ or what it means to be saved, call FCA’s National Support Center at 1-800-289-0909 or visit www.morethanwinning.org.
--For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. To subscribe to STV, click here.
Courtesy of USA Softball; Ty Russell/University of Oklahoma; Leah O’Brien-Amico; Dot Richardson; Bob Pinto