The heart and soul of the Arkansas baseball team took its fire to the Dominican Republic for Christmas. The players came back with more than they took.
The holiday break is short for college athletes, especially the Arkansas baseball team. Most stay in Fayetteville for a good portion of the holidays to take advantage of fine indoor workout facilities. Time with family is limited.
If players don’t stay sharp in the three-week period before spring practices begin in January, they are losing ground on the nation’s elite also trying to make it to the College World Series.
Juniors Brandon Moore, Barrett Astin, Colby Suggs and redshirt freshman Tyler Spoon — four expected mainstays for the 2013 Hogs — gave up one full week in December to travel to the Domincan Republic for a mission trip. They took much-needed baseball equipment and gear to conduct clinics at El Catay and Sosua, D.R. But per the usual for mission trips, they received plenty in return.
Moore, Astin and Suggs are highly decorated returning pitchers for the top-ranked Hogs, third at the CWS last season. Spoon is expected to start in right field and bat in the No. 3 slot. He led in home runs and RBIs last summer in the highly regarded Alaska league, usually dominated by the Pac-12’s top pitchers.
“It was the most important thing I did this past offseason,” Astin said. “It was a life-changing experience. It reminded me of how easy I have it.”
The four players were joined by Arkansas student assistant coach Jacob Julius on a trip organized and guided by Larry Watkins, director of two Fayetteville-area ministries, Men Sharpening Men and Downline. Both feature discipleship training.
Watkins and former Arkansas baseball star Bill Bakewell have regular study session with players.
“I saw our players deal with frustrated hearts, provide orientation,” Watkins said. “They gave themselves to these kids. They got down on their knees and allowed themselves to be hugged.
“These kids don’t have daddies. Our players came face to face with what it’s like to be Christ-like and serve someone else.
“At our first camp in El Catey, Jacob organized it on the spot. Before a skill session, each guy gave their testimony.
“The platform the guys have allows them to gain instant credibility with the kids. But I saw more than Arkansas baseball players. I saw young men doing what Christ did himself when He said, ‘Let the children come to me,’ and they came and got in his lap. I saw the guys become the hands, the feet and the lap of Christ.”
The players take their cues from Moore. He stepped up in the last year to fill a leadership role from James McCann who followed Zack Cox.
“Bakewell brought me Cox,” Watkins said. “Then, Zack brought me James. And then Moore was next. I want to see who Brandon brings me because I hope Brandon is in professional baseball soon.”
Astin and Suggs are among the team captains, but Moore is the captain of the team Bible study.
“Brandon is our spiritual leader,” Astin said. “Our Bible study has grown with Brandon leading. He has a heart for the Lord. That’s his passion and he leads us in it.”
Moore aches to teach the great commission from the Bible.
“I want to teach and help equip,” Moore said. “But it’s hard to say you shared with the nations until you go share with the nations. We did that.”
There was more than just sharing. They paid for their own trips, then gave more when they arrived.
“I told them about a family that had lost their mother to cancer,” Watkins said of a trip to Montellano Village. “I told them about five kids, their shoe and clothing sizes. They filled a back pack, one for all five of the children. Julius brought boxes of toothpaste and toothbrushes for the camp kids.”
Moore loaded cases with old baseball gear from home.
“My father and I found all of the old gloves that my brother and I grew up with,” he said. “We got as much as we could find and shipped it. They’ve got nothing there. We are going to continue to ship more three or four times a year.
“What we saw is great talent. There was a 15-year-old in our clinic who the Yankees and Red Sox are scouting. It’s crazy how much talent is there.”
However, baseball gear is almost non-existent in many villages where pro aspirations are on fire.
“When times get bad, I know I really don’t have anything to worry about compared to what I saw,” Astin said. “The kids that we worked with, a lot of them had no shoes and no gloves. They were fielding ground balls bare handed.”
Suggs draws a cross behind the mound before he attacks a hitter with his 95 mph fast ball, but that’s not like putting himself on the line with youngsters on the sandlots in the Dominican Republic.
“It was a great experience,” he said. “What I know after that trip is that we are spoiled at Arkansas. We get all of this free Nike gear and we were working with kids playing baseball in sandals. We were taught perspective.”
Julius said he was blessed just to “tag along” with Moore, Astin, Suggs and Spoon.
“We learned so much,” Julius said. “And I saw in our players how much joy they have in baseball and life. All of the youngsters looked up to our guys.”
There were around 100 young players at some camp sessions. There were only 40 gloves total, so it was a challenge to create stations for instruction.
“We had four stations and one of our players at each stop,” said Julius, the former Razorback who retired last summer after five minor league seasons to begin his coaching career.
“We only had one translator and all of the kids spoke just Spanish. So our players had to communicate the best they could and it was sometimes with just body language.
“But the camp ran so smoothly. You knew that God looked over us.
“We were playing baseball, but this was not about baseball. It was about the opportunity that has been given to us and how lucky we’ve been in life.”
The Razorback group on a mission trip took presents to a needy family which recently lost its mother to cancer.
Barrett Astin gives a lift to a new friend in the Dominican Republic.
Tyler Spoon has a friend, too.
Brandon Moore provides a ride through the village, too.
Colby Suggs is with a pair of dolls.
Jacob Julius presents a Christmas present.
Tyler Spoon unloads some presents.
Brandon Moore finds a home for a baseball.
Colby Suggs sets the stage for a work station.
Colby Suggs (from left), Jacob Julius, Brandon Moore, Larry Watkins, Barrett Astin and Tyler Spoon prepare for a clinic.
Tyler Spoon (with the help of a translator) tells his story to campers.
Barrett Astin gives some pointers in batting practice.
Barrett Astin provides encouragement before a drill.
Barrett Astin helps a hitter with some soft toss.
Base running drills got the players a little conditioning work.
Colby Suggs works with a translator.
The campers at Sosua, D.R.
The campers at El Catay, D.R.
Barrett Astin (left), Jacob Julius (standing) and Colby Suggs found a hog during a trip to a village and thought it was a great photo opportunity.