Mike Sweeney rounded third base many times during his career as a Major League Baseball All-Star, but on his faith journey, he’s also come home to a deeper understanding of his Catholic faith. Now retired from the major leagues, he continues to grow in his faith as he shares his love for Christ and baseball with hundreds of young people at the Catholic Baseball Camps he started in 2012.
During the three-day camps in the San Diego, Seattle and Kansas City areas, boys and girls ages 8-16 and their parents, as well as coaches and priests who serve the kids, are inspired by the prayerful Catholic focus on and off the diamond with the sacraments, praying the Rosary, testimonies, spiritual direction and teachings.
“Our mission statement or motto for the camp is ‘Using the greatest game ever played to tell the greatest story ever told,’” Sweeney said. “We want to use baseball to share the Gospel. Thanks be to God, we’re doing a great job of that.”
Building the camp
During his 16 years as a major-league first baseman and catcher, Sweeney heard a lot of criticism of Catholicism from those who tried to convince him to leave the Church. As he considered leaving, he decided to research the Faith first. Reading Scripture, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and other sources strengthened his Catholic faith and inspired him to start the camps.
“Through these camps, God’s really revealed to me that there is beauty, truth and 2,000 years of history in the Catholic Church,” he said. “I’ve always been proud to be a Christian, but these camps have really made me proud to be a Catholic.”
From 2001-06 while playing for the Kansas City Royals, Sweeney ran baseball camps in the Kansas City area with a Christian — but not Catholic — focus.
Non-Catholic friends told him no one would come to a Catholic camp. Nonetheless, he said, “God put this beautiful vision on my heart and my mind and gave me the strength to fulfill it.”
Sweeney organized the first Catholic Baseball Camp in San Diego in 2012, the year after he closed out a major-league career that saw him hit 215 home runs and make five All-Star game appearances. With the success of the San Diego camp — which is sold out and will be held June 30-July 2 — Sweeney has added July camps in Shawnee, Kansas, and Kent, Washington.
Heroes, kids connect
Each day of camp starts with Mass. Between drills, skills clinics and scrimmages, campers listen to coaches’ testimonies. They end the day by praying the Rosary on rosaries with baseball-shaped beads, and many go to confession.
The camps have drawn families from around the country. “The response and the way it’s grown so quickly, I think, surprised us all,” said Mark Loretta, a two-time All-Star who retired after playing 15 seasons for the Milwaukee Brewers and four other teams, and who is in his third season as a coach at the San Diego camp. More than 150 kids come to each camp to improve their baseball skills and meet their heroes — active and retired pro baseball and football players such as Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, former Padres closer Trevor Hoffman, Hall-of-Famer George Brett and current Seattle Mariners ace and Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez.
‘Closer to Christ’
Almost a third of the campers are Protestant, Sweeney said. “Not only is it impacting Catholics, it’s impacting kids that are Jewish, Muslim, coaches, grandparents, great grandparents.”
|Mass is held before camp. Photo by Matthew J. Downey, Catholic Baseball Camp
Kids come because they love the game, not always to practice the Faith, but there is an opportunity to pray that many take advantage of, said Father Martin Latiff, a member of the Miles Christi order who has served at all the San Diego camps.
“They just saw the witness of so many other boys embracing the Faith,” Father Martin said. “The camp reaches out to each one of the boys wherever they are at, really.” Founded in Argentina, Miles Christi priests and brothers are devoted to the sanctification of the laity.
God is working with each of the kids, he said. “After the boys come to the camp, they see there’s such a powerful connection with Christ,” Father Latiff said. “We see him in the Eucharist or when we come to confession that they come out from the camp with great desires to participate in the Eucharist more frequently, pray more often, go to confession and develop a deeper dealing and friendship with Christ.”
In addition to being spiritual guides, Father Martin and other Miles Christi priests play baseball with the kids and often connect sports and faith in their homilies.
Though they may come for baseball, some of the kids say the highlight of the camp was going to confession on second base or praying the Rosary, Sweeney said.
“There have been many cases of both parents and children who have come closer to Christ, deepened their relationship with our Lord and also come closer to their practice of the Faith and the sacraments,” Father Martin said. “The camp helps them reinvigorate their love for Christ and the Blessed Mother, the saints, the Church and those who maybe have not been exposed before to the Faith.”
Growing in faith
Along with the youth and their families, the coaches and spiritual directors are impacted by the camp, Sweeney said.
|Mike Sweeney Sr. works with a player on hitting. Photo by Matthew J. Downey, Catholic Baseball Camp
Loretta said Catholic Baseball Camp has helped him be more open about his Catholic faith and share it in different ways. “In some ways, it’s helped me come out of my shell a little bit in regard to talking about faith.” Receiving spiritual direction at the camp has helped his faith, he said.
Serving youth at the camp enables Father Martin to be God’s instrument in their lives, but also has benefited him spiritually, he said.
“When we serve others, particularly through the offering of Mass, the sacraments, spiritual direction and any way we can help others become closer to Christ, we always get affirmed and encouraged in our own faith and apostolate,” Father Martin said.
Teaching kids about faith and baseball has made Sweeney bolder and prouder of his Catholic faith, he said.
“I realize I do have a personal friendship with Jesus, and I’m also an example to these kids,” said Sweeney, a father of five. “It’s really given me a great responsibility to live out my faith. Going to daily Mass, praying the Rosary with my family every evening and making sure I’m living out my faith.”
Susan Klemond writes from Minnesota.
|Camp Leads Youth to the Church
When he arrived at Catholic Baseball Camp in San Diego last summer, Gavin Stafford wasn’t expecting that before even reaching the baseball field, he would enter into a totally new world.
|Gavin Stafford will be baptized into
the Church this summer. Courtesy photo
At the beginning of the camp, Gavin, then 8 years old, sat down in a Catholic chapel for the first time and experienced Mass.
Not from a Catholic background, Gavin had never been to a formal church service. But after camp leader and retired major league baseball player Mike Sweeney offered an introduction to the Eucharist and the Little Leaguer participated in Mass during the three mornings of the camp, “going to church” became the camp highlight — even surpassing the chance to meet pro players such as Sweeney.
Gavin, who lives in Rancho Santa Fe, California, with his grandmother, Renee Stafford, asked after camp if he could go to church. Renee brought him to a nearby parish and eventually enrolled him in a Catholic school.
Gavin will be baptized in the Church this summer and will receive his first Communion early next year. Renee also became Catholic this year at the Easter Vigil.
“I always wished that I had been Catholic, but I just wasn’t,” she said. “When Gavin said to me ‘Why can’t I be Catholic?’ It felt like, why and how do you become a Catholic?”
Along with his baptism, Gavin said he is excited to go back to Catholic Baseball Camp this summer. “This has been the best year ever,” he said. “I get to learn about Jesus."