“I firmly believe that it doesn’t take any talent to play hard.”
— Derek Jeter, July 15
By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — One thing for sure. The priests of the two Kansas City dioceses are better priests than they are ballplayers.
But nobody — including the 2,424 people who paid $10 a head July 14 to watch the first “Pitching for Priests” slo-pitch softball game — would want that the other way around. And not a single person there asked for their money back.
In fact, the crowd came for an opportunity they don’t often get. They came to cheer priests.
Including sponsorships, the event at CommunityAmerica Ballpark, home of the American Association Kansas City T-Bones, raised $25,500 to be split between the Vocation offices of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph and the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.
And that’s the number that should be remembered.
As high school coaches are particularly fond of saying, when athletes leave everything they have on the playing field, there are only winners. The game simply ended with one team ahead.
This game ended with the Kansas City-St. Joseph taking a football score 27-25 victory in the two-hour contest that lasted until the sun went down. And had they agreed to play under the lights, the two teams might have played all night long.
Yes, they are priests firsts. But there were some athletes mixed in there.
Father Steve Cook, pastor of St. Peter and St. Therese Little Flower parishes in Kansas City, Mo., played like he grew up in the country with lots of brothers and sisters. Playing third base, he ended a KCK threat in the bottom of the second by diving to his left to glove a hot smash from the bat of Father Adam Wilczak and flip to second base for the force out.
Missouri-side seminarian Andrew Mattingly drilled the game’s first home run — a line drive that split the KCK outfield for an inside-the-park job.
Two Benedictine “ringers” from Conception Abbey (KCK also brought in its own “ringers” from St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison, Kan.) contributed with the bat especially with the glove. Shortstop Father Paul Sheller and leftfielder Father Victor Shinstock.
But the Dirty Uniform Award went to Kansas City-St. Joseph seminarian Jonathan Davis who collided at full speed with KCK catcher Father Anthony Oulette, still with the presence of mind to slap the plate and score an important run, before he laid back on the ground until the church bells stopped ringing in his head.
The crowd gave him a standing ovation as he got back to upright.
So player-coach Father Evan Harkins? What wins a 27-25 softball game?
“Defense,” said the pastor of St. James Parish in St. Joseph. “And offense. And Bishop Finn. When he pinch-hit, he rallied us. Once we saw our leader at bat, we were a well-oiled machine.”
The Missouri side did rally for six runs in the top of the sixth and final inning to break a 21-21 tie. Then they held the Kansas side clergy to a mere four runs in the bottom of the inning to seal the win.
If Bishop Finn was the Missouri side’s inspiration, the Kansas side had to be impressed with Msgr. Mike Mullen, aged undisclosed, but old enough to have played in pick-up softball and basketball games between priests of the two dioceses more than 40 years before.
Even Missouri fans cheered for him as he strode to the plate, and the entire stadium picking up the chant, “Mon-sign-or! Mon-sign-or!” With a pinch-runner assigned to do the footwork, Msgr. Mullen rapped a shot at Father Cook at third, who graciously stuck it in his pocket.
Monsignor Mullen wasn’t the only veteran of those long-ago games between the priests. Co-captain of the Missouri team was Father Ernie Gauthier, also age undisclosed. Both remembered those days fondly.
“We had two softball games at the seminaries, one at Savior of the World (on the Kansas side) and one at St. John’s). We also had two basketball games in the winter,” Msgr. Mullen recalled. (Then-Kansas City-St. Joseph Auxiliary) “Bishop (George K.) Fitzsimons would arrange things. It was just for fun and we would have dinner afterwards. It was a chance to get to know one another, and a lot of great friendships came out of it.”
“All they did was complain about our showers,” Father Gauthier joked. “That’s why we called it ‘The Toilet Bowl.’ But the Missouri guys and the Kansas guys didn’t have much contact with each other. It was a good spirit, and a good time.”
Msgr. Mullen brought his own “ringer” — his golf buddy 77-year-old Diego Segui, a veteran pitcher of 15 major league seasons, including five with the old Kansas City A’s. Segui is also the father of David Segui, who put in another 15 years in the majors as a first baseman. Fortunately for the Missouri side, it was the elder Segui who strode into the batter’s box.
But don’t tell him pitchers can’t hit.
“I hit four home runs with the A’s,” he said, rattling off the names of the pitchers he hit them off — Jim Perry, Mudcat Grant, Denny McLain and Tom Hall.
“When I was in the minor leagues, they would have me pinch-hit,” Segui said. “I hit a grand slam as a pinch-hitter in my second year in Class A.”
Segui was thrilled to feel a bat in his hands again.
“It’s been years,” he said after he rapped a single in his only at-bat and gave way to a pinch-runner. “I’m glad to be here. Monsignor (Mullen) teaches me golf, so I teach him how to hit.”
Everybody that night was glad to be there.
Sam and Erin Caughron of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish dropped $130 to bring the entire family and all 11 children — Patrick, 14; Michael, 13; Peter, 12; Theresa, 11; Clare, 10; Joseph, 8; Benjamin, 7; Daniel, 5; Alexander, 4; Charlie, 2, and one-year-old Angela.
“It’s a good cause,” Dad said. “And we’re seeing a great game.”
Patrick came for one particular priest — Father Kevin Drew, who was a member of the parish when he heard his call to the priesthood.
“We met him at Our Lady of Good Counsel when we started serving Mass,” Patrick said. “He’s just a great guy.”
They are all great guys, said Jeff Faudere of Holy Trinity Parish in Weston.
“I just wanted to watch everybody have a good time. It’s fun to get together in God’s name and enjoy ourselves,” he said.
Sister of Charity of Leavenworth Mary Laura betrayed her many years of teaching. She could help notice all the children who seemed to be having the highlight of their summer.
“It just pleases me so much to see so many people turn out,” she said. “Look at all these families and children. They are all so friendly, and they are all having such a good time.”
Their friendship dating back to their priesthoods in St. Louis and long before they came to Kansas City a decade ago, the two leaders of the dioceses couldn’t resist some gentle ribbling as Catholic Radio Network’s Jim O’Laughlin presented Bishop Finn with the traveling trophy.
“We salute the the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese. You played well,” KCK Archbishop Joseph Naumann said, but without resisting the temptation to note the rather youthful Missouri roster liberally sprinkled with seminarians and the recently ordained. “But you went to a kindergarten to get some of these players.”
Bishop Finn responded with a call for some of those young men to play in this game in the future as seminarians and priests.
“Mainly for Kansas City-St. Joseph,” he joked. “But OK, for Kansas City, Kan., too.”
O’Laughlin, who could finally draw a breath after weeks of organizing every detail of the game, looked in awe from the field at the crowd in the stands.
“We were hoping for 1,000. We got 2,400,” he said.
“I was talking to a lot of people during the game. I thought the players had fun. I though the crowd loved it,” O’Laughlin said.
Yes, they loved it, said Kansas City-St. Joseph Vocation Director Father Richard Rocha, who also did duty with a perfect a capella rendition of the National Anthem then led the crowd in pre-game prayer.
The crowd showed their love for their priests, and the priest showed it right back with their hard play, Father Rocha said.
“It was good for these young kids to see priests as athletes, as men battling in a competitive game and having fun,” he said.
“To see Father come out from the altar, out from the ambo, out from the confessional, it’s good for them to see that we are men, playing hard and having fun,” Father Rocha said.
“That’s what plants the seed of vocations,” he said. “And the money? Wow! I give all the credit to Jim O’Laughlin for coming up with this idea.”