More Than a Game: By Mike Stawski

More news about: Concordia-Chicago

     As I sit in the Miami airport I keep thinking to myself, 'I really hope this is worth it." I am waiting to board a plane for Medellin, Colombia to visit 3 student athletes who will be attending Concordia in the fall. This is a path I have been carving out for 11 months after I first saw Jose, Mateo, and Abelardo play baseball in a showcase in Chicago. I now fast forward to where I am today and I am hoping that all the hard work everyone has put in to bring these 3 student athletes to the states pays off.
    My expectations for this trip are fairly simple. I will get to further enhance a relationship with 3 future players, meet the man that brought these players to the states 2 years ago, and hopefully meet some local players and teach them more about baseball.  Little did I know what I was about to get myself in to.
    The boys picked me up from the airport and we all piled in a taxi and began to catch up. My fear of the language barrier began to diminish as I realized how much better each of the boys spoke English. When I had met them a year ago we could barely communicate, now we were having a full conversation and that was my first clue how hard these 3 had worked over the past 11 months. They told me about their season and how their summer was going. They spoke so proudly of their city, Medellin, and they could not wait to show me where they grew up.
    Our first order of business that day was to head to "the field". That is what they affectionately call the field they grew up playing on and to this day, still practice on. I wondered how there wasn't a more descriptive name for "the field" but I quickly found out why. In a city of 2.6 million people, "the field" was actually a softball field and the only one in the entire city.
    When I heard this I almost did not believe it. I had no idea how this could possibly work, but it does. The field is open at all times. No schedules, no time limits, no structure, and it works. When I arrived at the field I was there to meet Patrick Powers, the Chicago native who has made it his life passion to teach the Colombian people about baseball and try to help them get an education. He runs an organization in Colombia, totally free of charge, for any children that want to learn about baseball. 
    As the kids were stretching, I began to walk around with my 3 players to learn more about this organization which they volunteer at every single day. They told me about the people of the area and how appreciative they are of Patrick and all that people do to help their children. The kids then began to practice with a dozen coaches, all volunteering their time. I quickly had to get involved and began working with the infielders, with Jose, a shortstop, as my translator.
    I learned 3 things very quickly. The kids listen to every small detail you tell them, they crave the information, they were all very athletic, and they all wanted a Concordia hat!
    The next day I walked around what seemed like the entire city of Medellin with Jose, Abe, Mateo and Mateo's mother. I was taken to "the diamond" which is the only baseball field in the entire city. Once again I found a group of young children being taught baseball by volunteers. Me and the 3 boys quickly sprang into action and worked with the kids. The allure of the Concordia hat became even more prevalent on this day after I had handed a few out the day before, the word had spread! 
    I was able to experience some of the Colombian churches on my tour of the city. I ate an entire fish, or at least what looked like one. I drank what seemed like a gallon of milk which cost $1 and is a Colombian custom when walking "downtown". When 4:00pm hit, the boys and I quickly made our way to "the field" so we can work with the kids once again, a full day but a very fulfilling day.
    The next night I really got to learn more about the boys after they worked out on the field. We stood in left field next to a local girls softball team as they practiced. The three of us shared stories of our baseball careers and shared the hopes and aspirations of each player after they arrive at Concordia. It was very enlightening and very humbling as I learned where the boys have gotten to with what has been given to them. These 3 have had to work for everything they have ever received. They didn't have a lot of equipment to use, they had no travel team to be on or facilities to workout at. They had a glove, a ball, and "the field", that's it. But that is not the impressive part. They continually expressed that they did not need anything else, they had everything they needed. In a generation where everyone needs more and bigger, these 3 young men stood in front of me telling me that while they had nothing, that was fine with them because at least they are getting a chance! That was just one of my many humbling moments of the week.
    After our conversation had ended, they said "you want to play softball"? They could see the confused look on my face and explained that a softball game was probably going to happen on the field and that we should all play in it. Sure enough, it did. Remember, no schedules, no structure, no conflicts. I will admit that I did not fare well in the game. I played a solid shortstop but was not an offensive standout. We played 15 on 15 and it could not have been more fun. The boys were mega stars in Colombia.
      On one of my final days there, I decided to run a free showcase for anyone in Medellin who wanted to work out in front of an American coach. The turnout was unbelievable. Players from all over the city came including some that had not picked up a baseball in years. They just wanted a chance. The stands in the stadium quickly filled up with spectators, just to watch. There were a handful of reporters and photographers jockeying for time with me and my 3 players. The boys quickly became the most famous people in the country, simply because they were about to go to a college in the states to play baseball! Simple right? Not Medellin, this was monumental.

    When it was all said and done I was able to deliver the message I went there for. I told the attendees that if baseball is their passion and if they want to come to the states, they must continue their education; stay in school and continue to learn English. I had beaten this message into every kid I saw this week, they were probably sick of hearing it. But it was a message they needed to hear. Too many young men in Colombia believe their path to the states is through baseball only; they do not realize that a path through education can get them here quicker and keep them here longer. Since my visit I have learned that many of the kids I worked directly with have begun English speaking classes, my next very humbling moment.
    Each night when I got back to my hotel I would contact my wife through an international app since that was the only place I had service. Every night she would ask me how the day went and I could never really describe the feeling. The people of Colombia had taught me so much and I knew a text message explaining it would not do it justice.
    What did I learn? You do not need fancy uniforms, a perfect field, or endless equipment to be good at baseball. If you have the passion and motivation, the talent will be developed. I learned that you don't always have to be in a rush or have a daily schedule. It is ok to allow your day to develop organically and to "stay just a little longer" if that's what you want to do. I learned the power of appreciation. Jose, Mateo, and Abe are three of the most humble and appreciative people I have ever met. While they did not grow up with much they still appreciate the small gifts that have been granted to them, even if that is simply in the form of a handshake. Finally, I learned that if you just focus on the people around you, if you make it your life passion to give to others, to impact your community, and to love unconditionally, all the money, fame, or resources in the world could never match up to the feeling of making a difference.

    As I landed back in the Miami airport, I thought back to a week prior and I could not believe the experience I just had. I remember a statement the Coach Jose told me as I was leaving. He said, "I hope you realize the impact you have made, not just on these kids but on their kids, and their kids kids."

Was the trip worth it? It was worth more than any words can describe.