Mega Youth Baseball Program in Seattle: Success Due to Putting Family, Spiritual Life Before Sports

The success of a Seattle-area sports training program for baseball and softball players, in which more than 10,000 youths of all ages enroll each year, is because of the organization's concern for a person's spiritual and family life first, before athletic life, says its founder.

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In the last 14 years, Jose Rijo-Berger has seen more than 1,000 participants of the training program move on to play college ball and more than 60 have played professional baseball. Rijo-Berger, who says God told him to give up his career as a professional baseball player at the age of 23 in order to start the youth training program, told The Christian Post recently that family comes first in his own life and that's what his staff emphasizes to the youth and families while training.

"The kids that come into our program and work with us know we care about them as people," the husband and father of five said. "If you work with someone and they know you care about them as a person first they will play their heart out for you. If you are just a coach that tries to get them better at their sport, but you don't care about them as a person they will never play hard for you. It's so much more than that."

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He adds, "I think that what separates us is because all my coaches and myself we really care about the kids' interest. We want them to be successful in life, not just on the field. That's a big difference."

In Rijo-Berger's book, Creating Winning Relationships Through Sports – Using Athletics to Strengthen Families, Earl Bell writes in the book's foreword that "millions of parents sign up their kids to play organized sports each year with the intent that the experience will be both positive and enriching, on and off the field, for their family. Too often, this ideal fails to materialize, much to the frustration of everyone."

The frustration that many families experience in organized youth baseball is countered with the "light" reflecting in the Rijo Athletics staff's belief in Jesus, says its founder.

"The baseball world can be pretty bad at times," Rijo-Berger said. "From the yelling to the swearing to the hollering to the demeaning of the kids. It's just bad out there and so we want to be that light. When we are on the field we pray before the game. We pray after the game.

Credit : (Photo: Rijo Athletics)
(Photo: Rijo Athletics)

"I'm reading Scripture and because we do those things, people ask why do we do what we do? We don't shove Jesus down anybody's throat … We have more non-believers in our program than believers," he explained. "We just live in such a way that people ask that question and as soon as they say those words they get Jesus. It's one of those things that the entire staff and I have no problem sharing."

Rijo-Berger and the other coaches often do short Bible studies, including apologetics and some conversations about God, which "may be even a one minute conversation."

His own testimony about coming to faith in Jesus includes a childhood in which he could have easily gone in the wrong direction in a rough neighborhood, he shared. However, once he left that lifestyle and entered college he started having questions about God.

"I was fortunate enough to win a national title [in baseball] with Lewis-Clark State College," Rijo-Berger said. "When I first got to pro ball I saw the money, the cars and the girls and something inside me just said, 'This is it?' You know there has to be something more than this and so I started asking more questions about God and who he was and I started going to chapel and started listening and not doing a whole lot with it but just trying to ask questions. That off season during the first year someone asked me if I wanted to go to church with them. I said yes."

It was at Antioch Bible Church, led by Pastor Ken Hutcherson, where his pre-conceived notions about church were shattered and where he was discipled by a strong community of mature Christian men, he said.

"I went to Antioch Bible Church and Pastor Hutch was the pastor and he was funny and he was energetic, and those attending were black and white, and Asian, and every color and culture, and people were hugging and it was just a really fun good time," Rijo-Berger said. "I was really attracted to that because I had no idea that church could be that way – a multicultural church… the list goes on."

Rijo Athletics trains children ages 5 through college-aged in camps, clinics, small group and individual lessons. "We even have pro athletes," he said.

"The biggest thing we teach families is that your family shouldn't be consumed by all sports. So that means every single weekend, every single vacation is worked around your kids sports," Rijo-Berger said. "You don't miss family dinners – we preach this stuff to make sure that people balance out sports and families.

"We think sports can teach so much about life with the discipline, the focus, the structure, the team work, and all the things you need to be successful in life, along with your job, and your Christian walk, you incorporate all those things. We try to make it fun."

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