Jan/Feb 2010 Joshua Cooley
Rigo Lopez sounded tired, but satisfied.
It was a crisp November evening in Palo Alto, Calif., and Lopez, an upbeat Bay Area FCA area representative, had just concluded two long days of camps. Coordinating a four-hour baseball clinic at Santa Clara University that featured major leaguers, minor leaguers and college players as instructors would have been plenty of work by itself. But the next day, Lopez and the local FCA saff hosted a similar four-hour softball camp 30 minutes away at Stanford University.
Exhaustion quickly gave way to joy, though, as Lopez recalled memorable moments. Softball players from rival colleges had united in an effort to coach their young camp teams to victory in a wild contest of the “Arizona game.” Tagg Bozied, a 30-year-old minor leaguer, had thrown all professional baseball pretense to the wind as he happily scurried around to umpire a crazy baseball skills contest. Stanford freshman outfielder Stanley Fich had playfully twirled across the field with a child on his back.
Later, Lopez checked his e-mail. One camper’s mom raved about how it was the “best baseball clinic” her son had ever attended. Another woman wrote that it was “incredibly moving, uplifting and inspirational to hear the stories of these amazing athletes and coaches.”
Said Lopez: “It’s definitely one of my favorite outreaches of the year.”
Lopez’s heart beats for baseball, kids and the gospel of Jesus Christ. The oldest of four baseball-loving brothers, he was born in Globe, Ariz., which was once a thriving Wild West mining town in the late 1800s. His parents, Rigo Sr. and Irma, emigrated from Mexico in the late 1970s shortly before Rigo Jr. was born.
Each possessing only a sixth-grade education, Rigo Sr. and Irma scratched out a living as best they could in those early days. Rigo Sr. hopped from jobs in agriculture to construction to one of Globe’s copper mines. When the mine shut down, he started a small business selling tamales. Somehow, the Lopezes helped all four sons pay for a college education.
“They’ve been great parents,” Rigo Jr. said. “They’ve been so supportive of my brothers and me in wanting us to achieve our goals.”
Rigo Jr. was also affected by his father’s evangelistic nature. Starting in the early 1980s, Rigo Sr. immersed himself in missionary work—planting churches and hosting outreaches in Mexico, working with orphanages and supplying equipment to youth baseball teams.
“My dad is an evangelist at heart,” Rigo Jr. said. “He is great with Penton people. It’s great to see him model the love of Christ. He’s a true servant in that regard.”
Rigo Sr.’s sons also inherited his love of “béisbol.” Before a knee injury derailed his career, Rigo Sr. played catcher in the early 1970s for Charros de Jalisco of the Mexican League—comparable to Double- or Triple-A teams in the U.S.
All four Lopez boys played college ball. Esteban and Emmanuel got drafted by major league teams, and Esteban is still in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ farm system.
Rigo Jr., 31, played catcher at Arizona Western College and then at the University of San Francisco, earning honorable mention all-conference honors as a senior. After playing professionally in Austria for a year, he returned to the States to work as a youth counselor and an assistant coach at San Francisco for two years (2005-06) before joining FCA.
It was during his senior year at San Francisco that he made his parents’ faith his own and trusted in Christ.
“Before that, it was more of ‘What can God do for me?’ than ‘How can God use me?’” Lopez said. “I wanted to play college and pro ball. I wanted to use God for my interests. But a disciple is a servant who sacrifices himself daily. I began to ask, ‘How can God use a small boy from a mining town?’”
That answer, in part, lies back in the Bay Area FCA Baseball and Softball Youth Challenges.
Like his father, Lopez is a spiritual farmer, spreading gospel seeds with gloves, bats and baseballs. Last fall marked the fourth straight year of the baseball camp and the second of the softball camp.
Lopez’s passion for the clinics is evident immediately. Stanford junior outfielder Kellen Kiilsgaard remembers noticing the “fire burning” in Lopez’s eyes when they first met in 2008, and Chicago White Sox outfield prospect Stefan Gartrell attests to that same passion.
“You can tell he is doing the three things he loves: spreading the gospel, helping kids and playing baseball,” said Gartrell, who worked at the 2008 camp. “His enthusiasm for the camp is infectious.”
The 2009 baseball camp hosted 118 boys (ages 8 to14) and featured major and minor leaguers from the Chicago White Sox, Oakland Athletics, Pittsburgh Pirates, San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants, as well as college players from California, San Francisco, San Jose State, Santa Clara and Stanford. At the softball camp, 50 girls of a similar age range learned from players from many of the same Bay Area universities.
It’s quite a bit of work to organize, but Lopez is happy to do it, considering the rewards.
“It’s for a bigger purpose than just wins and losses,” he said. “It’s to challenge the kids to do good and be excellent on and off the field. It’s to help them live lives of excellence in character, hear the love of Christ, and to provide these college athletes and coaches with a chance to serve and give back to kids through a game that has given them so much.”
The star-studded lineup of instructors attracts kids and provides a high level of expertise that is hard to match.
“To have that experience is priceless for any camp, FCA or not,” Kiilsgaard said. “People would kill for that kind of lineup of coaches. Throw in the fact that we’re here not only to teach baseball, but to work on integrity, and that we’re serving a greater God than baseball, and we’re firing on all cylinders.”
The presence of college athletes also provides a lot of practical, off-the-field wisdom for the campers since most of the college players don’t plan to advance to the pros.
“Sports can become so serious that we forget the more important things in life,” said Santa Clara senior pitcher Lauren Passafuime, one of the 2009 softball instructors. “But this camp combines faith, athletics and academics all in one.”
“Their jaws dropped, like they had found the secret of success from a guy they respected so much. It clicked for a lot of kids at that point.”
– Stanford outfielder
During the clinics, instructors teach campers fundamental skills in all aspects of the game and make themselves available for questions. The days end with two challenges—athletic and spiritual—as campers compete in a team hitting/fielding game before hearing the testimony of at least one of the instructors.
Last November, Tye Waller, the Oakland Athletics’ bench coach, shared a powerful message from Philippians 4:13.
“He was bringing the Word!” Lopez said.
Kiilsgaard also remembers the 2008 keynote address from Chris Minaker, a 2006 draft pick of the Seattle Mariners. Minaker shared his story of a particular college at-bat at Stanford—late innings, tight score, bases loaded—and how he prayed in the on-deck circle that God would oversee his decision making and help him relax. A few pitches later, he smacked a game-winning grand slam.
“You looked around and could see that the campers were captivated: ‘Wow, a pro ballplayer!’” Kiilsgaard recalled. “Their jaws dropped, like they had found the secret of success from a guy they respected so much. It clicked for a lot of kids at that point.”
Kiilsgaard, whose first experience with FCA was the 2008 camp, is now sold not only on the clinic, but on FCA itself.
“I think it’s tremendous,” he said. “Everything FCA stands for is great for young athletes, especially events like these where we’re not only teaching them skills to get to the next level, but making sure they understand that there is more to life than athletics. FCA does a great job of building morals in young kids and showing them the right way.”
The Bay Area FCA runs many community outreaches, but these autumn camps hold a special place in Lopez’s heart. He marvels at the spiritual fruit God continues to produce through them.
L to R: Lopez and Gartrell at the 2008 clinic with Archie Gilbert of the Oakland A's system and FCA's Clay Elliott.
Shortly after the first baseball challenge in 2006, one camper’s father met with Lopez to learn more about FCA. Soon, the man was joining Lopez in a Bible study, introducing other local Bay Area businessmen to FCA, and having lunch with FCA President/CEO Les Steckel. It’s an ongoing relationship to this day.
“They want to see FCA thrive,” Lopez said.
Last fall, two days after the baseball clinic, a mom who attended with her husband and son e-mailed Lopez the following message: “You know what? My husband, who is not a Christian yet, asked to go to church with me yesterday. He was touched by the messages you shared. Praise the Lord!”
The Mexican evangelist’s son smiled. Another seed was planted and watered.
“It’s not just fruit with kids,” Lopez said. “It’s a bigger dream and vision we have for this whole area, and we’re excited to see where the Lord takes it from here.”
--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.
Photos courtesy of Rigo Lopez