.- Retired pro baseball star Mike Sweeney has organized a Catholic baseball camp this summer in San Diego to help young boys connect their sports life and their faith life while learning from professional athletes.
“I want to try to build the Church,” Sweeney said. “There is a need for true, authentic Catholic formation in young men.”
Sweeney, a former first baseman for the Kansas City Royals who played for three other major league teams, cited Pope John Paul II’s example as an inspiration.
“Pope John Paul the Great lit a flame,” he told CNA April 19. “His idea was to use sports to bring the gospel to the Church and to the lost.”
“My goal,” he noted, is “to build up these young men, because that’s what our culture is lacking: real Catholic men of faith who are leading their families and leading their schools and their friends.”
The first annual Mike Sweeney Catholic Baseball Camp is open to both Catholic and non-Catholic youth aged 7-14. It will take place at San Diego’s Cathedral Catholic High this July 24-26 under the personal direction of Sweeney, with the help of several other prominent athletes.
Former Los Angeles Dodger infielder Mark Loretta and former San Diego Padres relief pitcher Trevor Hoffman, a likely Hall of Fame inductee, will be among the coaches. San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers will also attend.
Sweeney emphasized that faith will be a major part of the camp.
“We’re going to have authentic faith formation,” he said. “It’s not going to be baseball for 95-98 percent of the day and give them a gospel message the last ten minutes of the day.”
The camp will offer daily confession and daily Mass said by priests from the Miles Christi religious order.
Sweeney said the coaches will help apply Scripture to “the principles of baseball.” They will start out exercises with a Bible verse, explain what it means and talk about how it relates to life. Then they will talk about how the verse helps players remember something about baseball.
One typical baseball drill has a player at bat keep his eyes on a pitched baseball until it makes contact with his bat.
Sweeney said coaches will link this exercise to the scriptural verse Hebrews 12:2, which stresses “keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus.”
Attendees will hear from “great authentically Catholic speakers” and take part in praise and worship sessions, Sweeney said.
The last day of camp will feature a rosary recited around the baseball field.
“We’re going to line up around the bases. We’re going to have each kid lead half of a prayer and have the other hundred-something kids shout out the rest,” Sweeney said with enthusiasm.
The last day will also have an “open mic” night for youth to share their faith and say how God affected them during the three days of the camp.
Sweeney’s vision for the camp was based on his relationship with Fr. Kevin Lixey, a priest in Rome who created the Division of Church and Sport in Vatican City.
Though the baseball player has done Christian baseball camps before, they did not have a specifically Catholic focus.
After meeting with Fr. Lixey, Sweeney envisioned “a baseball camp that was not only Christian but authentically Catholic.”
“It’s super-cool to have an authentically on-fire Catholic faith in young men. That’s hopefully what we will accomplish,” Sweeney told CNA.
Applicants have already filled more than half of the 100 open spaces.
Sweeney’s camp is partnered with Catholic Soccer Camp, whose fifth event will take place at St. Norbert College in Green Bay, Wisc. from July 23-27. Italian professional soccer coaches Massimo Carli and Luigi “Gigi” Dussati from Verona, Italy will serve as camp leaders. Both have coached extensively at the youth, semi-professional and professional levels in northern Italy.
Fr. Jim Baraniak, the pastor of St. Norbert College and chaplain of the Green Bay Packers, will provide spiritual guidance for the event.
The camps operate in cooperation with Catholic Athletes for Christ and Varsity Catholic, a division of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students.
Sweeney sees the collaboration as an opportunity to build a reputable network of Catholic sports camps.
He has already received comments from possible organizers of a Catholic golf camp in Arizona and a Catholic basketball camp in Orange County, Calif.