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Touching All the Bases

By James Breig

James Penrice loves God, his family and sports – and he’s managed to link all three by writing books about religion and athletics, including Crossing Home: The Spiritual Lessons of Baseball; Goal to Go: The Spiritual Lessons of Football, and Living the Eucharist through Sports.

A native of Illinois who grew up in Michigan as one of six children, Penrice attended Catholic schools through high school and then got a degree in English from the University of Michigan. After exploring a call to the priesthood, he felt “that God was calling me to other things. After a brief stint as a Catholic school principal, I began working in parish pastoral ministry, which I have been doing for ten years.”

James Penrice

Penrice and his wife, Gina, have three grade school children. When he leaves his kids at home, he goes to work to connect to more children – and adults -- as director of religious education at St. Mary’s parish in Spring Lake, Michigan,

“I really don't look at it as something I chose,” he said of his occupation, “but something that God chose for me to do. I am responding to a calling I feel in my heart. My life from an early age has always been grounded in my faith, given to me by my parents. I've always been attracted to learning more about Catholicism and sharing what I've learned with others.”

Although he has focused on writing about sports, Penrice calls it “ironic that I've never been much of an athlete. … But I've always loved watching and following sports, to the extent that I began calling sports my ‘second religion.’ Baseball in particular has always been a passion, from the beauty of the game itself to its rich history. I've died and risen many times over with my beloved Detroit Tigers.”

Although he has not played sports, he noted that “as a dad, I’ve entered the world of coaching, with basketball and tee-ball head coaching positions now on my resume.”

Also on his resume are his sports books. “It started with baseball,” he said, “which countless writers before me have described in religious terms because of its transcendent quality. I wanted to compose an essay on some of the spiritual parallels I had recognized in baseball -- how its timelessness reflects eternity, how the element of journey on the base paths is analogous to our spiritual journey. I began to make a list of those kinds of connections, and before I knew it I had enough material for a book.”

Jesus, he claims, was a great athlete. “There is no way Jesus could have carried the cross to Calvary and endured everything he did to save us if he had not been a tremendous athlete. Jesus sacrificed his body for the good of others, which is what an athlete does.”

Penrice has some simple advice for dads who watch games in person or on TV with their children: “Enjoy it, no matter what is going on in the game. Admire great plays (by either your team or the opponent) as a show of God-given talent and human effort. Accept failures (by both players and officials) as reminders of our own imperfections. Teach them points about the game as you watch. Share stories of the teams and players you watched as a kid. A child's experience of anything is enriched by knowing some history behind it, especially their parents' history with it.”

As for teaching children how to keep sports in perspective, Penrice advises moms and dads to “remember that winning is not as important to kids as it is to their parents. Kids play sports primarily to be with their peers and to have fun. Kids will have enough stress when they grow up; they don’t need pressure to win in sports.”

(For information about Penrice’s sports books and other volumes, go to www.albahouse.org.)