Pitching God in prisonsPublished 9:06pm Wednesday, August 22, 2012
Niles Pastor Jeff Whittaker can now say he played softball in prison.
Of course, he was visiting friends who have been missionaries in Central America for decades, including 17 years in the Dominican Republic.
The 20-member mission team from Michiana Christian Embassy, 1922 E. Main St.p, layed 11 games in eight days in the Dominican Republic July 30-Aug. 9. Ball games were not the only activity.
“We did services, like in the central park of Santiago. Our choir sang, our drama team did their skits and team members gave testimonies about what the Lord’s done with their lives,” Whittaker said Wednesday. “Ball was a tool, like drama. A 101-year-old woman committed to the Lord.”
Several Memorial Days ago, Whittaker’s team played a benefit with Eddie Feigner, the fast-pitch softball showman who barnstormed for more than 50 years with “The King and His Court.” He died in Alabama in February 2007 at 81. His widow, Anne Marie, lives in Orlando.
“Anne Marie and I have kept in touch,” Whittaker said. “Eddie’s silly stuff turned me on, liking throwing the ball behind my back. I pitched every day through the winter. We were going to play four games on this 10-day trip. We get down there and it’s two prisons, the Dominican Air Force and a village. I’m still recovering. There were guys playing barefoot and a guy in bowling shoes, but they were swinging (Louisville Slugger) TPS Z100 (bats) that had to be someone’s signing bonus. One pastor pitched for Whitey Herzog. I used all my gimmicks, including a ball on a rubber band that snaps back and a pumpkin. We got our lunch handed to us, but this was a mission trip to preach Christ. Our first game in prison was like playing nine Ron LeFlores.”
The 1976 American League All-Star, discovered as an inmate at Jackson prison, played six seasons for the Detroit Tigers before being traded to the Montreal Expos and retiring from the Chicago White Sox in 1982.
“Our crowning glory,” Whittaker said, “was splitting a doubleheader with the Air Force.”
Whittaker, 48, a 1981 Niles graduate, has been at Embassy for 18 years. He went to Western Michigan University as a music major, toured with a music troupe for two years, 1983-1985, worked for Billy Graham and lived in Minneapolis and Wisconsin.
“I’ve got my catcher’s gear in the car right now,” he said, “but 11 games in eight days fast-pitching, I had toothaches in my shoulder. I did hit one out off the Dominican guys. In one outfield, I stepped in a big pile of manure. They had cows pasturing.”
A catcher, which explains the autographed glossy of Johnny Bench in his office, Whittaker was recruited by WMU and tried out with the Cincinnati Reds.
“I was always a catcher, but in the Dominican, my 21-year-old at Ferris State caught me. After I left town and was doing theater down in Syracuse, I came home to buy the first ticket from Ernie Banks at a lunch at the old Holiday Inn when Niles hosted the Babe Ruth World Series. I got a ball and had lunch” with the Chicago Cubs Hall of Famer.
“We host the YMCA league on our little field,” he said. “Saturday we’re going to play Sheriff Bailey’s deputies team for our annual Sunday School hog roast. We’ll give money raised to Shop with a Cop.”