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Tigers Davis tells of unlikely path to MLB

Detroit outfielder Rajai Davis was the 1,134th player drafted overall in the 2001 MLB draft; not a very hopeful place to start from if you want to play in the big leagues.

Davis, who played ball at the U. of Connecticut, was picked up by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 38th round. From the outset, things were difficult for Davis, which led him to turn to God.

When Davis began developing his relationship with God, his whole life began to take on a new look, including his baseball career.

Born in Norwich, Connecticut, Davis grew up going to church, but for him it was nothing more than a ritual.

“My mom took me to church, her parents went to church,” he says. “Going to church was something that we all did, it was tradition.

“In 2002, I got to my brink. I wasn’t playing, I wasn’t on the track that I wanted to be on, so I started reading the Bible in the morning time, I prayed before I’d get up to bat, I’d read the [Bible] at night.”

This became a part of Davis’ daily life, which began to change him.

“It became something that I looked forward to doing,” he says. “I would gain strength in just listening to the Word, and then I would apply that word to the field, and I would believe that God was going to work through me.”

If you would like to know and experience a personal relationship with God, like Rajai Davis, go here.

Davis played six minor league seasons before making his debut in 2006 with the Pirates. He says that it’s hard to remain encouraged in the major leagues, especially with all the changes that go on.

“(Baseball) is a tough business,” says Davis, now a key player for the Tigers. “It’s a ‘What have you done for me lately?’ business, it’s ‘What are you doing for me now?’ So to take that into perspective, but still be encouraged is very difficult at this level.”

Davis has experienced the business aspect of the league first hand, having changed teams several times. The Detroit Tigers are his fifth team in his nine-year major league career. He began in Pittsburgh, and then was traded to the San Francisco Giants in 2007. The next year, he moved across the Bay and joined the Oakland Athletics, where he played for three years. After the 2010 season, the Athletics traded him to the Toronto Blue Jays, where he spent the next three years. In 2014, Davis took his talents to the Motor City, where he plays as a starting outfielder. This season, he stole more bases (36) than the entire Detroit team did last season.

Davis recognizes the importance of staying grounded in his faith, especially in the major leagues.

“It’s difficult because your ego tends to get in the way,” he says. “What I do is I try to surround myself with the right people so that they might influence my spirituality more than my faults, my failures.”

Detroit right fielder and five-time All-Star, Torii Hunter, has been one of those “right people” in Davis’ life.

“He has spent years perfecting his craft at the major league level,” Davis says. “So his words of encouragement are well-received by me.”

Spending time with positive influences, as well as frequently reading the Bible, has helped Davis in his journey through life.

“I believe that my faith in Christ [is] going to help strengthen me,” he says, “and all things [are] going to work together for my good because I love Him.”

Go to BeyondTheUltimate.com to watch a video of Rajai and read more about him.

By AIA intern Jonathan Gallardo

Photos by Athletes in Action

Bobby Randall reflects on season with AIA

XENIA, OH – Two weeks after the Xenia Scouts’ 2014 Great Lakes Summer Collegiate League baseball season ended, former Major League player and 2014 Scouts manager Bobby Randall fielded questions from sports editor John Bombatch on the team’s exciting season. The franchise hosted the GLSCL All-Star Game, held a scouting combine for several Major League scouts, and finished third in the regular season out of nine teams with a 21-19 record.

QUESTION: What would you say were some of the best parts of the Xenia Scouts 2014 season for you as the team’s manager?

ANSWER: The best parts were the men I worked with and the players I coached. (General Manager) John Henschen took care of all the details wonderfully to allow us to work with the team, and (Assistant Coach) Matt Richter was really the glue handling all the pitching responsibilities, which was our biggest challenge. And he worked a miracle since we were so shorthanded pitching wise. (Assistant Coach) Taylor Hargrove was a tremendous servant to fill in all the gaps needed and do it so well. Both Matt and Taylor threw batting practice practically every day, which was a load since we had so many hitters.

I always am uplifted by the spiritual values we are organized by and put into practice. These were our foundation of success from the staff to the players.

One of the other highlights was a five-game stretch where we played complete, excellent baseball, which gave us a standard to keep striving for. The other was a losing streak of seven or eight games where we kept battling to win. Sometimes it feels like you will never lose and other times you feel as if you will never win.

Q: You had said early on in the season that you weren’t sure what to expect from the players, but that you saw how hard they were willing to work to improve over their summer. Can you give an example or two of how hard some of the players worked?

A: There are not many things that can be controlled, but three of them are: 1. ATTITUDE 2. PREPARATION 3. EFFORT. Our coaches and players were great examples of all three of these and contributed to our winning season. I cannot pick out one or two players, because it was a total effort by everyone. One of our themes was “A HARD 90 EVERY TIME.”

Q: You’ve coached at the college and professional levels of the sport. Does the 2014 Xenia Scouts team have any similarities to other teams you’ve coached?

A: This year’s team was certainly one to remember for their relentless effort and their excellent attitude. This is the first time in my coaching career that we played two lineups and alternated them daily. Rarely was there anyone pouting because they were not in the lineup every day. Also, we used pinch hitters quite often, and they learned to accept being pinch hit for. We did develop a servant attitude.

Q: The team slowly began to grow its fan base as the season wore on. Would you like to say anything to the fans who did come out to watch the team play?

A: Thanks to the fans who supported us. What a joy when we won our last (home) game on a walk off hit. The reaction from our fans just added to it.

Q: What is it like to work for a sports institution such as Athletes In Action, and what was that experience like for you?

A: I truly enjoy coaching for AIA, because of their values, It is probably the only place I would coach. Each time I have coached for AIA, I have come away knowing that eternal values have been emphasized and imparted to the young men. Life changing. This Christ-centered approach makes the baseball so enjoyable.

Q: How will you remember the 2014 Xenia Scouts team?

A: I will remember the coaches and players of this Summer’s team fondly, because of their heart and effort. No one ever gave up or gave in. It was a special bond with everyone and we had a lot of fun as well.

Q: You spent the Summer in Xenia. What were some of your favorite experiences while being here, and what are your thoughts of this area?

A: Our family loved Xenia. The small-town atmosphere and the people we met, and the church we attended. One of the young ladies who works for AIA, Katie Campbell, was a friend from my time at the University of Kansas. She lived across the street from us. It was great to see her again. And we loved the AIA campus and the beautiful field where we played our home games.

Q: The summer season is over. What do you do when you’re not managing the Xenia Scouts?

A: I am an adjunct instructor on Economics and Statistics at Manhattan Christian College in Manhattan, Kansas.

Q: Will you be returning as the Scouts’ manager next season? If not, what are your plans for the future?

A: Coaching in the summer is a big commitment for me and my family so there are two parts to that question: First, to be asked to do it again. Often, with the travel, I thought a younger coach could be a big advantage in a lot of ways. And second, if it is good for my family, that’s always my first consideration.

(John Bombatch is sports editor for Greene County Newspapers.)

www.xeniagazette.com

Kister finds new meaning on the mound

Tommy Kister never wastes an opportunity. A senior pitcher at The Master’s College, Kister has spent the past three summers competing with Athletes in Action’s baseball teams, impacting others both on and off the field.

Kister first played for the Xenia Scouts, an AIA affiliate, in 2011.

“I didn’t have the greatest season [freshman year at Master’s],” Kister says. “Going into the summer I got an opportunity to close, and I just really wanted to make the most of it.”

Kister hoped to rekindle his love of the game.

“I wanted to regain my confidence and enjoy the game again,” he says. “[Freshman year] I thought I was letting everyone down, so that summer I just wanted to have fun out there.”

“Win or lose, it doesn’t matter what happens” 

Matthew Richter, assistant general manager and assistant coach for the Scouts, has watched Kister grow as a player.

“[His first season] he established himself really quickly as our closer,” Richter says. “He set our record for saves that summer and also pitched in the Great Lakes League All-Star Game.”

During that first summer season Kister realized he was playing for himself, forgetting his faith.

“My first year, God really showed me how baseball was an idol in my life,” Kister says. “My main focus was to go out there and try to play my best to win for my sake and for my team’s sake, rather than putting [my faith] on display.”

Since then, his motives have changed.

“Win or lose, it doesn’t matter what happens as long as I am out there competing for Christ and giving Him thanks through my play,” Kister says. “That really changed how I go about playing the game.”

“I was getting frustrated with my game”

Kister continued to gain experience on the mound. He pitched relief during his sophomore year at Master’s. Then he spent the 2012 summer season in Alaska playing on AIA’s highest level team, the Chugiak-Eagle River Chinooks. The adjustment was hard.

“I was getting frustrated with my game,” Kister says. “I was not having success. And God showed me that I was slowly letting baseball become an idol again in my life.”

The struggle pointed him back to his faith.

“I was coming off a really good year of summer ball in Ohio and a really good year at Master’s,” Kister says. “God used my time in Alaska to humble me and remind me that I need to rely on Him through this hard time.”

Kister returned to college his junior year as a more experienced player. He closed again for the Master’s team, and helped them reach the NAIA World Series.

“I’ve come to learn that my faith is everything”

As Kister geared up for another summer with the Scouts, his coaches wanted to transition him into a starting pitcher role.

“[Freshman and sophomore year] he was just a two-pitch guy,” Richter says. “To be a starter, he really needed a third pitch that he could use as a weapon. He developed a change-up [to add to his slider and fastball].”

Kister eventually became the Scouts’ number one pitcher, a position he enjoyed.

“It was just fun for me because I hadn’t started since high school,” Kister says. “I was excited to be able to do that again. I just wanted to make the most of it and have fun with it.”

During his second season with the Scouts, Kister went on to lead the league in almost every pitching category. As a result, he was named the 2013 Great Lakes League Pitcher of the Year.

He was also invited to pitch in the Cape Cod Baseball League, the number one collegiate baseball league in the country.

“He was almost a novelty [in Cape Cod], the way he was using his pitches,” Richter says. “He was very effective for them as well.”

In spite of his success, Kister says his identity is no longer rooted in how well he plays, but rather in what he believes.

“I’ve come to learn these past couple years that my faith is everything,” Kister says. “Apart from Christ, I am nothing.”

“When he talks, everybody listens” 

With a new outlook, Kister feels compelled to share his faith with others.

“God has blessed me to have a heart for people,” Kister says. “I truly believe that [Christians] have a knowledge of the greatest thing in life, and people really need to know that.”

Scouts general manager John Henschen thinks that Kister’s consistent actions and attitude add weight to his words.

“He’s a rock,” Henschen says. “He’s a quiet leader. He uses his words wisely. When he talks, everybody listens.”

Kister believes his actions have the ability to start conversations.

“[My actions] will help set me apart from people so that they will see the difference,” Kister says. “It opens up that opportunity for me to share with people about my faith.”

“There are so many people out there who are searching for that true joy and that true satisfaction,” Kister says. “My heart hurts for them because they’re not finding it, because they’re not looking toward Christ. They’re looking toward [other] things.”

If you would like to know and experience a personal relationship with God, like Tommy Kistergo here.

Kister wasn’t always eager to talk about his faith, but credits his time with the Scouts for equipping him to share his beliefs more comfortably.

“Playing [with them] definitely gave me a good foundation of how to explain the [Christian faith] to someone and how to break it down, especially with baseball players,” Kister says. “[I learned how to] give my faith story, how to relate it to them and how to be confident in it, too.”

With a baseball schedule spanning the time from January through July, Kister continues to rely on his faith to provide him with the strength needed to compete.

“I’ve come to see that when I try to do things on my own, I fail,” he says. “I get tired. I need Christ in my life to persevere through the trials and everyday life. I need Him to be with me.”

By AIA writer Colleen Browning

 

Ridgemen give back

WEBSTER, N.Y. – Like most summer days, the Rochester Ridgemen’s baseball players spent Jun. 16 on the diamond honing skills. However, the players weren’t working on their game but on that of the members of the Webster Athletic Association Challenger Division.

The players, whose team participates in the New York Collegiate Baseball League, spent the afternoon at Empire Park helping with a game between the Dodgers and Yankees of the Challenger Division, which aims to provide a baseball opportunity for kids with physical and mental disabilities.

“It was neat to get out there and see the kids’ smiles and the pure joy they get out of playing the game,” Ridgemenand ChallengerLLsaid Ridgemen pitcher/infielder Joel Belk. “As you get older and play at higher levels of baseball, people tend to lose that joy for the game and it becomes more like a business, but seeing these kids laugh and encourage their teammates and even the other team reminded us why we play the game.”

For WAA Vice President Bob Dayton, it isn’t often that his players get the opportunity to work with college players.

“The players were wonderful with our WAA Challenger kids during the game at Empire Park,” says Dayton. “The support and assistance from the guys was a nice display of their character and faith.”

The Ridgemen seek excellence in both baseball and serving the community.

“It was a great afternoon,” says Ridgemen General Manager Chris Rainwater. “Our guys want to be a blessing in the Rochester community this summer, but today we were blessed by the opportunity to hang out with these kids.”

This is the team’s first season in the Rochester area after playing as the Alfred Thunder for several years. The Ridgemen, who play their home games at Webster’s Basket Road Stadium, recently announced their new identity after being known as the Rochester Athletes in Action.

“With the move to the Webster area, we really wanted our team name to be meaningful to the community,” says Rainwater. “Through talking with some local people we were told that the old high school’s team name was the Ridgemen, and we thought it would be a perfect fit. We are really excited to be here this summer and to be a part of the baseball tradition in the Webster area.”

Ron Kampff, WAA Challenger Baseball Commissioner commented, “It’s nice to have athletes who care about the community and not just themselves. We are very fortunate to have a team like this playing in Webster.”

The Webster Post/Webster Herald contributed to this story. Photo courtesy Webster Post/Herald.

Brown shares about a summer with AIA

brownaiaMOUNT VERNON, OH – The past two months have been an amazing journey that has been such a powerful experience for me in my life. Just one week after our season ended at MVNU in pool play at the NCCAA national tournament, I set out on May 28th from my home in Westerville, Ohio for a six-hour car drive to upstate New York to a small town called Alfred. Feelings of apprehension and nerves were hitting me hard with each mile. This was going to be the longest I had been away from home by myself in my entire life. I was going to be staying with a host family that I had never met, and I was going to be playing in a highly competitive collegiate league with players from all over the United States. I was excited for the challenge athletically and spiritually. The prospect of playing with a Christian organization called Athletes in Action was very attractive for me, but I did not know how great the summer would actually turn out to be.As I stand on the other side of the journey, I look back and can honestly say this was one of the best summers of my life. All my feelings of apprehension were washed away day by day. My host family turned out to be the perfect fit. I could not have asked for a better situation, I had four host siblings who were all a blast to be with and my roommate was an outfielder from Chicago with a great sense of humor that matched mine perfectly. My host mom took great care of me and my roommate, packing us lunches to take with us on trips, and my host dad was so supportive at all of our games. The Ryan family is an amazing group of people that I feel blessed to have been able to stay with.

Playing with Athletes in Action was the best decision I could have made for the summer. I gained 23 great friends from all over the country. We participated in daily group Bible Studies hearing from three separate chaplains from Athletes in Action staff on the campuses of Colorado State, UCLA, and Ball State. Over the course of the summer, we participated in numerous community service projects as well as visiting a homeless shelter in Rochester to serve food. We participated in prison ministry playing softball against the inmates at a local prison. We visited a nursing home and shared a meal with people who normally do not receive visits from even their families. The highlight of our ministry by far, though, was the opportunity to share the Gospel with the opposing teams in the league. We shared the AIA principles that were life changing for me as an athlete

Our team name was the Alfred Thunder and we were in the New York Collegiate Baseball League (NYCBL). The NYCBL is one of eight leagues that make up the National Alliance of College Summer Baseball. It is partially funded by Major League Baseball and is a tool for development and scouting for amateur baseball players. Within the NYCBL, there are two divisions – East and West. The Alfred Thunder participated in the West Division. The schedule consisted of 44 games within a two-month span. Every day, we would play at 7 p.m. We would be picked up sometime in the early afternoon and we would head to our home church to have discipleship together.

On the mound, I had a very successful summer. On the first day of training camp, the pitchers were standing in one spot and you could say that I was the “Roy Oswalt”of the staff. I was the smallest pitcher of the staff standing at 6-1. The rest of the pitchers were in the range of 6-3 to 6-6. Despite my disadvantage in physique I tied for the team lead in appearances with 13, complete games with 2, led the team in strikeouts with 30 in 34 innings pitched, and I was selected to the NYCBL West Division All-Star Team.

Playing in the NYCBL was a great experience for me and without a doubt helped me grow as a pitcher. I am so thankful for the success I had this summer, but more importantly I grew immensely in my spiritual walk with the Lord. The discipleships with the team were by far the best part of the experience for me. One thing that I gained from this experience was the realization that God is the only thing that will satisfy the desires of my heart. I had always agreed with that statement intellectually, but I think this summer was the first time that all my inmost being realized the truth in that. God is enough, God is enough to satisfy the desires of my heart, and nothing else will ever come close. The game of baseball may fail me, my abilities on the field may fail me, but He will never fail me. He is the solid rock on which I stand. I am excited to head back to Mount Vernon to start another championship run with the Cougars in a new conference. We’ll all be back on campus in no time!

Cunniff finds success with AIA Baseball

Cayden CunniffMARSHALL, Texas (8/30/11) – East Texas Baptist University sophomore catcher Cayden Cunniff wanted to stay busy this summer and wasn’t necessarily looking forward to leaving the quiet, peaceful, Christian-based atmosphere at ETBU. Ideally, he wanted to stay busy with something that would both benefit his baseball career and his spiritual life, and going home for the summer wasn’t exactly what he felt like doing.

That restlessness, along with an early-season suggestion by Tigers head coach Sam Blackmon, led Cunniff to a season with the Alfred Thunder, in upstate New York, as part of Athletes in Action’s summer baseball league. Now that he’s back at ETBU, Cunniff definitely feels the experience was exactly what he was looking for.

“I was kind of praying…I struggle a little more at home, and it’s easier here to do the right things with a Christian environment,” said Cunniff, a native of Joshua, Texas. “I was kind of worried about the summer. Even though I was kind of wanting to go home I knew that sometimes for me I struggle with some influences there so a couple of weeks after I started praying about that I got this opportunity.”

Blackmon has encouraged other Tigers to pursue summer ball with Athletes in Action, including one of Cunniff’s senior teammates last season, Ryan Yezak. He felt that Cunniff would be a great fit and that the experience would benefit his two-year catcher both on and off the field.

“I believe Athletes in Action helps develop players with Christian leadership skills,” Blackmon said. “For Cayden and for our program I felt that Cayden being involved in that setting this summer would only enhance that in him as a leader. A few weeks into it, we visited and you could just tell the difference in his confidence level not only from playing but from the confidence level of being a Christian leader. I can already tell the difference from him being away this summer.”

The baseball part of the experience, at least at the start, was intimidating. Although Blackmon had stressed to Cunniff that his baseball skills would work fine with Athletes in Action, Cunniff had to prove it to himself.

“I was a little intimidated at first, when I first got there,” he said. “At training camp everyone seemed like they were a foot taller than me. It was good competition but I saw that it wasn’t really overpowering. I definitely had to be at the top of my game to compete but I liked the challenge and knew it was going to make me a better player.”

Cunniff was one of two catchers on the Thunder roster, and he and Matt O’Neill, of Avernia University, split time throughout most of the season. When O’Neill sustained an injury late in the summer, however, Cunniff became the full-time catcher the rest of the way.

“Overall I was pleased with the way I played and I got the chance to catch a lot of innings,” he said. “I’ve just always wanted to catch, I enjoy the defensive part of it a lot and to me as a defensive catcher it’s all about keeping mistakes to a minimum. I practice blocking and stuff every day and my goal is to just get better at everything, and playing this summer allowed me to do that against good competition.”

What makes Athletes in Action a little different than other summer collegiate organizations is the off-the-field spiritual emphasis. Cunniff said the Thunder took part in daily devotional sessions and also had some mission-type activities, such as playing a softball game against a group of prisoners at a state prison. During this experience he said the players were able to share the Gospel with inmates.

“It was a really cool experience, and since I’m a Criminal Justice major it just kind of fit for me,” Cunniff said. “Having that opportunity to share the Gospel with people in need was a cool thing.”

Cunniff has already been invited back to play in the league, and he is looking forward to the opportunity. Blackmon, from a coaching standpoint, can already see the growth and maturity in his young catcher.

“Cayden has had an impact on our program since he arrived as a freshman,” he said. “It has been a pleasure to watch him mature into not only a great baseball player, but also a strong Christian leader as well. He is very dedicated to his academic studies and the weight room. He brings everyone that is around him to a higher level.”