HARRISONBURG, Va. - Almost 1,500 miles from home, James Madison head baseball coach Joe ("Spanky") McFarland spent the week before Thanksgiving with Sharing Christ Our Redeemer Enterprises (S.C.O.R.E.) International, an evangelistic athletic outreach organization in the Dominican Republic.
Amid the 80-degree temperatures and the sunny days of life in the Dominican, the group that Coach McFarland traveled with was not in the Caribbean to vacation but rather to work with children through baseball, while also sharing their religious beliefs.
S.C.O.R.E. International was founded in 1985 by Ron Bishop, former head basketball coach at Tennessee Temple University. Bishop used his sports knowledge to create the S.C.O.R.E. organization, which has since taken thousands of athletes, coaches, students, medical professionals and other willing travelers on sports mission trips to various countries.
The organization hosts week-long outreach trips that focus on sharing Christian truths with young adults of elementary through high school age. There are specific trips that center on providing baseball, basketball, football, soccer, golf, tennis, softball, volleyball and wrestling clinics to children in different tropical countries.
In addition to the sports outreach trips, S.C.O.R.E. maintains a child sponsorship program as well as a foster home for boys, a women's ministry house, a childcare facility and the opportunity for students to embark on internships and missions positions.
In the Beginning
Coach McFarland has a lengthy history of involvement with sports-related service organizations. He is involved with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes organization at a national level and has previously worked with the same people who attend sports outreach trips with S.C.O.R.E. International. Four years ago, McFarland was invited to attend his first baseball clinic outreach trip to the Dominican Republic and has since returned every year.
When McFarland traveled to the Dominican Republic in November, he was not alone. "There's a group of 200 people who go and 100 are coaches of various levels-minor, college, high school," explained Coach McFarland. "Some minor league players and general managers also go and a couple major league players go. The other 100 of the group are pastors and people who like baseball who are Christians."
The volunteers who travel on trips with S.C.O.R.E. are responsible for either raising money or paying out of pocket for all trip fees and airfare. The main reason for hosting baseball clinics in the tropics is that "the Dominican Republic is a country that makes up about 30 percent of major league baseball. They like baseball down there," said McFarland.
Though the Dominican Republic boasts many large cities, there are also quite a few rural areas that are third world by nature. The Dominican Republic shares its island with the country of Haiti and while Haiti is a country consumed with belief in voodoo powers, the Dominican President made it clear to the residents when he was elected that he wanted to turn the Dominican Republic into a Christian nation.
A Day in the Life
As a veteran of the trip, McFarland was familiar with the week's daily schedule and activities. The coaches and athletes stay in a Dominican motel for the week and each morning, begin the day with breakfast and a chapel service where local pastors share a biblical message before the teams disperse for the day. The groups board buses and bump along the road through the villages; some drive for half an hour and others drive for an hour and a half before reaching their final destination.
"You may be on an interstate or you may be on a dirt road through a sugarcane field; you don't know where until you get on the bus and someone tells you you're going to San Pedro. The new guys don't know what that means, but it means, prepare to be bumped with potholes," explained McFarland.
Upon arriving at the day's assigned baseball field, the coaches and athletes host a baseball clinic for almost three hours. The children in attendance split up with the volunteers across the field and are taught baseball fundamentals. The coaches do not know how many children to expect for each clinic because the attendance is directly related to the population of the areas where the fields are located. For many of the clinic stations, between 50 and 100 athletes show up to learn and play with the Americans. In total, there were 8,000 children that were in attendance at the baseball clinics during the four days that they occurred.
Along with attendance variation, "The fields vary as well because there are professional ballparks down there which are really nice, but if you have one of the villages way out, it's just an open field with long grass, goats, cows; it's interesting. That's what attracts the kids-the baseball," commented McFarland.
The year before McFarland embarks for the Dominican Republic, he prepares by collecting baseball gear to mail down to the Dominican Republic for the children. After the clinic is over for the day, the kids are brought together and receive gear that the coaches have transported from the United States. Either an American or Dominican major league player-someone who the athletes know and respect in the game of baseball-then speaks to the participants about God.
After sharing their time and their spiritual beliefs with everyone in attendance, the volunteers then talk to as many local children as possible about committing their life to Jesus. At that point, the local pastors step in to record addresses and invite the children and their families to churches in the area.
Connecting with the Community
When the clinics conclude, the volunteers spend their afternoon working in the local orphanages or participating in an activity called "Feeding Families." The coaches take 20 dollars to the grocery store and have someone with them who picks out different types of food and then everything is purchased and put into a bag. The team then goes to a local poor neighborhood and hands out the food items to families. According to McFarland, the experience is neat because 20 dollars can feed one Dominican family for an entire week.
In addition to the routine activities during the day, this year, the S.C.O.R.E. organization hosted a religious revival at a basketball arena in San Pedro. Former New York Yankees player Andy Pettitte was the main speaker for the event and contemporary Christian singer/songwriter Jeremy Camp led the group of 3,000 people in singing worship songs, which is a worthwhile experience.
According to Coach McFarland, there are many rewarding aspects of his trip to the Dominican Republic. "Seeing the smiles on the kids' faces when we roll up in our buses is big for me," he said. "Of course, seeing their hands come up [during the chapel times] and letting them know that right now, it's tough for them, but it doesn't have to be in eternity is a big thing too." In total, the volunteers were pleased to recount that of the 8,000 children in attendance, between 2,400 and 2,500 chose to make a spiritual commitment during the week.
The revival was a main event of this year's trip but was certainly not the only form of excitement. McFarland recalled a memorable occurrence from the trip when one day, he was coaching a group of pitchers in an open field. While he was speaking about the mechanics of baseball, the players were giggling. He was confused and wondered what was happening, but his interpreter did not seem to be aware of the situation either.
"I turned around and there was a big bull behind me, about five feet away, just eating grass, and of course, I jumped," said McFarland. In the field was an entire herd of cows that were meandering their way through the baseball clinic, which tends to create a difficult coaching situation when the players are distracted by wandering animals."
A Ticket Off the Island
For many of the players who attend the clinics, baseball is life. The educational system in the Dominican Republic is not strong and the children attend state-funded schools through middle school and then must have the means to attend private school next. For the children who cannot afford private school, their days are spent outside playing baseball with milk carton gloves and branches for bats.
Recently, the major league teams from America have taken interest and invested in the Dominican Republic. Because the children have impressive raw talent and are passionate about the sport, major league teams have built complexes and employ a scout who lives on the island year-round.
"These kids come out of the womb throwing a baseball and you just can't believe how talented they are at such a young age; that's all they do down there [play baseball], all day long. It's not like the kids up here who are in school and then play video games; they just play," commented McFarland.
If the children play well enough to catch the attention of major league scouts, they may be offered a position in the local baseball academies, where the children are educated, fed and housed. Between 40 and 50 percent of the players have the opportunity to be signed to American minor league teams, which is their ticket off the island.
When players are taken to the United States to play professional baseball but then return to the island after not succeeding, they are shunned by their families. "There is a lot of pressure on the players from their families but it's a way off the island and out of poverty," explained McFarland. Some players who return to the Dominican Republic after playing in America then transfer to play on the Caribbean League teams.
The Impact of Outreach
Other than the baseball clinic outreach, S.C.O.R.E. International sends college and high school teams to the Dominican Republic every year to play against the students at the academies. Through this sector of outreach, the organization and volunteers are still able to share their beliefs with the students, which is something that Coach McFarland may consider investing his time in farther in the future.
In past years, McFarland would travel with his son, Tyler, but the college schedule makes it difficult for athletes to take off an entire week of classes. However, McFarland is hoping that next year he will be able to take a contingent down to the Dominican Republic with him, as well as pastors and players from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes organization on campus.
"Being with that group of guys [in the Dominican Republic] who love the Lord and love baseball is a perfect combination for a guy like me," said Coach McFarland.
For more information about SCORE International, visit their website at http://www.scoreintl.org/#all. To read about the November 2011 trip in the Inside Pitch magazine, visit http://insidepitchonline.com/component/content/article/37-showcase/119-score-trip.html.
The James Madison baseball team will begin its season February 17 against Coastal Carolina. Their first home game of the 2012 season is February 22 when the Dukes host Longwood University at 4 p.m.