Baseball is more than a game for Christianson
NEW CASTLE – Induction into the Salem-Roanoke Baseball Hall of Fame would be not only the highlight of Dave Christianson’s year so far, but one for a lifetime. The American Legion baseball fixture has coached many boys from Craig County over the years.
Recognition like that tends to provide reflection, appreciation, and perspective. In his acceptance speech, Christianson centered on his faith and his family. He said the first person he thought of when he got the call that he would be inducted was his dad. Being one himself, he also stressed the value of the father-son relationship, as well as the importance of family, something he said cannot be described. He credited his father in law, former Salem Police Lieutenant Frank Pendleton, and his wife Evelyn for helping shape his time in Salem, as well as their daughter Pam, whom Christianson married in 1982, and his two grown sons, David and Jared, for the role they have all played in his life.
But if someone could live the month of January 2012 in Christianson’s shoes, they likely would not first focus on him as the high school superstar who was an all state first basemen from John F. Kennedy High School in Chicago. That same high school star went on to play professional ball for farm teams of the Detroit Tigers and San Diego Padres. But it would take going beyond that to understand Christianson as a man. Even his role as coach for an AAU or American Legion team, or as the creator of the Salem business “Rip City” does not complete him, fulfilling as it may be. He has enabled countless youth to sharpen their baseball skills at a place that, without him, would not otherwise exist. Dave Christianson the man can be identified by what he experienced several weeks ago, and it has nothing to do with Salem.
Any of the above accomplishments would be considered beyond impressive, but the task Christianson completed earlier this year was more a life changer. He and a group of others flew to Nicaragua on a missions trip to share the gospel with kids and adults through their love of baseball. Upon arrival, thousands of miles away from the comforts and luxury of home, Christianson was nothing less than blown away, starting with the living conditions.
“It’s hard to understand the level of poverty we are talking about,” he said. “People who don’t have shoes. We are talking about people living in huts, with dirt floors, no plumbing, no electricity, basically just shade in the jungle in the hot sun.”
Weather was just one element of adversity that was faced. It did not take long for Christianson to have his own faith tested in another country, and it happened before he even reached the final destination. After leaving the airport, the team traveled nearly five hours to where they would ultimately carry out their mission. And the method of transportation was none other than a big yellow school bus. It was a ride Christianson will never forget.
“We were on a two lane road, and there’s every animal I’ve ever seen,” said Christianson. “Horses, and oxen bigger than my Suburban, pulling wagons…there were kids playing on the side of the highway and cars going 70 to 80 miles per hour two or three feet away from these kids, just zooming right past them.”
As if that isn’t terrifying enough, the danger shifted to those on the bus for a brief moment. It began when the driver pulled out to make a pass on a hill. Once the bus pulled beside the tractor-trailer to pass, they noticed another tractor-trailer approaching at a high rate of speed on their side of the road. With hardly any time to process the situation, it would have been easy to panic.
“This guy didn’t just lock up the brakes”, he said. “How that tractor-trailer did not hit us was by the grace of God. I saw it in my mind as it happened just shearing the whole drivers side of our bus off. God protected us and got us to our destination.”
It was almost a sign of things to come. Seeing faith at work was far from over. Upon arrival, it was clear this was a place unlike any other Christianson had ever been to.
“I saw a woman out in front of her hut sweeping a few papers off of her dirt. They have nothing, and don’t expect anything,” he said. “But they are the nicest people you’ll ever meet.”
Already overwhelmed, Christianson and his team had the odds stacked against them as well from a spiritual perspective. He had been told beforehand that the men were not very receptive to hearing the messages of the gospel, and deemed Christianity, along with every other religion, as something holding them back from the life they want to live, so the task would not be easy.
Enter the gateway of baseball. And what better person to spread the message after over 30 years of playing and coaching? And the opportunity presented itself in that exact way early one hot morning.
“Some guys would walk three, five, ten miles off the mountains to get to the highway, to then take a bus to the stadium,” said Christianson. “So these guys wanted to play baseball…Jason (one of Christianson’s ministry peers) had seven full uniforms ready with bats, helmets, baseballs. really nice stuff. You can only imagine with the level of poverty how thankful they were, it was incredible.”
Just how grateful were they? The games were not only played, but they were played for a long time. Normally the Nicaraguan teams would compete against each other, but Christianson and his American buddies had a team of their own. And the natives were not satisfied with playing each other, they wanted a piece of their guests on the baseball field and would not take no for answer.
“I’m 49 years old and in pretty decent shape,” Dave said. “I got on the baseball field at seven in the morning, and played six ballgames in a row, with ten minute breaks in between. Fortunately they were only six innings. We got done at six at night. The top of my head to my toes was cramping. The heat tore us up. But we wanted to make an impression on them that we want to play baseball, but there is a bigger reason why we are here.”
That reason was displayed in between the games. Through an interpreter, they thanked the natives for playing baseball with them, and noted that’s why they left America for a week. But they went on to say that they left their families for a week to share the gospel of Jesus Christ and let them know the message that He knows them by name, and He was waiting for their acceptance, and all they had to do was ask.
Christianson credits God for using baseball to lead hundreds of men to Christ. He also says he has the desire to return, possibly as early as this month. But one important thing he stressed was the need for the mission is not just centered on Nicaragua. It exists in our own backyard, and Christianson acknowledged his willingness to share his faith just as much here in southwest Virginia.
“(God) opened the door to Nicaragua, I just went in,” he said. “It’s up to Him where I go. I’ll do it right here if God opens up that door.”
The stories of the week spent in Central America go far beyond the context of what is described here. How can 30 years around the game of baseball be squeezed into a two hour ceremony, or even more challenging, a ten minute acceptance speech?
Dave Christianson somehow got both done. During the Illinois high school playoffs, he belted a home run into the top level of the old Comiskey Park, once home of the Chicago White Sox. From there, he traveled all over the country playing and teaching baseball, and it is impossible to put a measurement on the contributions.
After winning hundreds of games as a manager and coach for amateur teams around our area, and raising two boys, one a former quarterback for a state championship Salem High School team, the other an extremely talented musician, it would be totally fair for someone to take a step back and realize enough has been done, not even counting the eternal results from the missions trip. And that assumption could easily be the right one.
But make no mistake, induction is not the end for Dave Christianson. His journey is just beginning.
By Chad Parries, Special Writer