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Saved at home plate

SUBMITTED PHOTO | A Texas Sports Reach team member prays with an inmate at a Colorado prison.

NATCHEZ — Making base hits and catching in an outfield surrounded by high walls, barbed wire, armed guards and thousands of inmates remind Coach Randy Smith he’s not in the Miss-Lou anymore.

The Cathedral girls basketball coach has been playing softball and ministering to inmates as part of a team sports prison ministry for approximately 10 years.

Smith says he and his teammates care about the inmates because of Hebrews 13:3 — “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”

“This is a chance to serve and help someone for a few hours,” Smith said. “For them, it can be a bright moment. We all sin — some of us get caught. If it was me (behind bars), I’m sure I would like someone to come see me.”

Smith started with the organization based out of Texas, called Texas Sports Reach, which has since branched out into other states, including Louisiana. Smith is currently building a Mississippi Sports Reach team.

Teams are comprised of 15 players, with five non-players who work the crowd.

Randy Smith (center, kneeling) poses with the Texas Sports Reach team at a prison in Colorado.

Smith said he really needs more non-players to join the Mississippi team.

“I’m looking for people who love the Lord and want to love on some inmates,” Smith said.

No prerequisites are required to be on the team. In fact, Smith said men on the team struggle with the same compulsions and behaviors as the men in prison — which makes them ideal witnesses because they are understanding. Religious affiliation is not important either.

“I want Baptists, Catholics, Pentecostals, Presbyterians — as many denominations as I can take,” Smith said. “Last summer Smith brought a team from Natchez to play at Winfield Correctional and Angola Prison.

“I got some Natchez people to go from First Baptist Church and First Presbyterian,” Smith said. “They’re kind of selling it for me now.”

Smith said they revisit prisons, and some inmates practice all year just to beat the Sports Reach team.

“But we rarely lose because I’ve taken some monsters that can kill a softball,” Smith said. “We can’t go to the super maximum security prisons, but we do go to federal correctional institutes. They have good teams and they practice hard.”

Smith said prisoners carrying bats and balls made a few wardens nervous, but there has never been an incident — except at the first prison Smith ever visited in Colorado, when a fight broke out off the field. Warning shots were fired and the team dog-piled on the mound — not in celebration, but for safety.

No one was injured, but Smith said he will never forgot the experience.

Other moments in the prisons will stick with Smith for positive reasons.

A young man incarcerated in a youth prison in Colorado asked Smith to deliver a letter to his father in an Arkansas prison, because he didn’t have any postage stamps. In Arkansas, Smith looked everywhere for the boy’s father, and couldn’t find him, until it started raining on the field. After retreating indoors, Smith met him and handed over the letter.

“He ended up praying and worshipping with us,” Smith said.

Funny things happen too, like when Smith was once asked to approach a group of prisoners who could easily be categorized as intimidating.

“I had to talk to 20 white supremacists,” Smith said. “I was wondering what I was going to say to those guys, but I let them do the talking. They said they were believers in white supremacy. I asked, ‘How’s that working out for you?’ They all laughed.”

Smith said many of the inmates are nonviolent offenders, in prison for drug charges or fraud. But others have killed, raped and assaulted their victims.

“As players, we don’t ask what people have done,” Smith said. “But if they tell us, we try not to hold it against them. You’ve got to treat everyone like Jesus would.”

Smith considers the ministry as simply planting a seed.

“The hope is, when they get out, they will attend a church,” Smith said. “It comes down to finding a good lady, or a church family.”

Smith said prison chaplains find that more people attend church in prison after inmates participated in sports reach games — that end in athlete testimony, Bible study and one-on-one talks.

Smith said on a recent trip to Colorado, 500 men were dedicated or rededicated their lives to Christ.

“It’s been a blessing,” Smith said.

To inquire about Mississippi Sports Reach, call Smith at 337-781-6115, or visit www.texassportsreach.com. The group will also accept donations, which is only used for Bibles, bats and softballs.