There it was, on the side of a rural road in rural Iowa. It would have been easy to miss. It was weathered and beaten and had obviously seen better days—long, long ago. If someone wanted to take the time to look more closely, they would have seen that it was a baseball cleat, but it looked nothing like the modern cleats that companies such as Nike or Addidas manufacture these days. This was definitely old school.
It was made of (now) scuffed black leather and had metal spikes that could tear open a catcher’s shins if he wasn’t wearing shin guards—or a second basemen’s leg if he was trying to complete a double play. It wasn’t elegant. There was no logo on it and it didn’t look particularly comfortable. But constant use had given it a certain character and looked as if it had a story to tell.
Once upon a time, it had clad the foot of a hotshot farmer’s kid from Oskaloosa, Iowa. The kid had a seriously wicked curveball that nobody in the area seemed to be able to hit. Other teams would line up their batters and this kid would mow them down. Nobody in the area had ever seen anything quite like it.
That curveball took the kid from Oskaloosa to Iowa State University in Ames, where the kid officially became a Cyclone (even though opposing batters already thought of him in those terms). During his collegiate years, he pretty much tore up the competition. He worked hard to develop his skill and it paid off. And then, just like in the movies, the minor leagues came calling.
He ended up in the Basin League, in South Dakota where he continued to impress anybody who was watching. Not only did he have speed, accuracy, and control; he also had incredible stamina. One long, hot summer evening, he found himself in a seemingly endless game. He had pitched the day before and should have been out of the rotation. But as the game went into extra innings—and extra, extra innings—he once more got the nod from his coach because they had gone through all of their other pitchers. In a marathon game that stretched over 14 hours, the kid set a strikeout record for a single game—fanning 27 consecutive batters before his team finally managed to bring the winning run across home plate at approximately 3 in the morning.
That kind of performance didn’t go unnoticed, and before too long scouts from the big leagues were calling. Offers to try out for the Yankees, the Orioles, and the Giants were on his table. His future looked bright and he wondered where he’d make his mark. There was only one problem. The war in Viet Nam was still raging. He was still a student at ISU, and he was kept safe from the draft by his student deferment. Accepting an offer from any of the pro teams would have meant giving up his student status and the deferment that went with it. With a draft lottery number in the low teens, he knew that before he could ever show up for his firs Major League tryout, Uncle Sam would send him a letter—and probably send him off to Viet Nam.
That really wasn’t something that the kid wanted to do. He loved his country, but he never could see the point of the US involvement in Viet Nam. It was a risk he just couldn’t take. So he remained in college and played semi-pro ball when he could—and left the offers from the majors on the table.
Eventually, the “conflict” in Viet Nam reached its inevitable conclusion. The war was over. The draft became a thing of the past, and the potential to pursue a life in the majors was resurrected. He’d stayed in shaped and continued to work on his skills. What could possibly stand in the kid’s way?
But something had happened in the interval. While he was still at Iowa State University, a stuttering, awkward college student had showed up at the kid’s door one day wanting to know if the kid would be interested in exploring the claims of Christ. The kid was unimpressed and disinclined to listen to such nonsense. But there was something about the awkward student at his door that couldn’t be dismissed.
He agreed to explore just what it was that Jesus had to say (even though he really thought he knew it all already). You could have cued the music from the familiar old Hank William’s tune, “I Saw the Light,” because something akin to that happened to the kid. And over a period of time, he found himself on the horns of a dilemma. He could either devote himself to a potentially lucrative baseball career—and everything that went with it—or he could dedicate himself to something that he believed would have eternal consequences.
In the meantime, he had actually received renewed offers from the Yankees, Oriels, and Giants—and fielded phone calls from their agents. The tension continued to grow in his mind until finally he told all the agents that he was headed in a different direction. He was going to pursue a “career” telling college students about Jesus.
So he packed up his belongings and headed out down a rural road in Iowa to where he’d begin his new career as a “campus minister” on the God-forsaken liberal campus of the University of Iowa in Iowa City. As he stopped for gas, he rearranged the stuff in the back of his station wagon. One of his baseball cleats fell out in the process, and he picked it up and—temporarily—set it on the roof. He took off, forgetting to put the shoe back in the car and after travelling a few miles down the road, swerved to avoid hitting a rabbit that crossed the road in front of him. With that sudden movement the shoe on top of the car tumbled off and settled at the side of the road. The kid drove on—oblivious to what had just happened.
That’s how one shoe ended up—alone—at the side of the road. A lot of people drove by later. Some saw the shoe. Some didn’t. Some of those that saw it wondered how a single baseball cleat ended up on the side of the road. But nobody really paid much attention to it. It was—after all—just a shoe.
Ah, but that’s not the end of the kid’s story. For years he wondered if he’d done the right thing. What would have happened if he’d pursued a pro baseball career? Would he have had a bigger platform from which to speak and influence people? What could he have done if he’d been able to donate money from the millions he might have made? The questions tormented him for years.
And of course, underneath it all was the question: “How good was I really?” He wondered how he would have fared in the Majors—facing some of the fiercest hitters ever to stare down a pitcher. Not knowing the answer haunted him for years. He also wondered about the money. What kind of impact might he have been able to have if baseball had rewarded him with a lucrative contract? Had he really done the right thing? And to be honest, he wondered what it would feel like to step out onto the turf of a major league baseball diamond. It was apparently a feeling he’d never know.
Eventually, his calling took him to Minneapolis. While he lived there he got to know a number of people within the Minneapolis Twins organization and ministered to them. During their conversations, his past baseball experiences came up. His new friends checked out his credentials and realized that he was the real deal. This guy could have played in the majors. Then one of them offered him an opportunity.
He was asked to pitch batting practice for the Twins before some of the home games. The kid (who was no longer a kid) got a uniform, a glove, and a new pair of spikes. Fully suited up, he stepped out onto the field and pitched batting practice to the Minnesota Twins’ batters on numerous occasions.
It didn’t answer all of his questions about what might have happened had he gone to the pros. But somehow, it put his mind at ease and left him with a sense of peace that he’d done the right thing all those years ago.
And he never even missed that cleat that fell off the roof of his car all those years ago.