"It's not just a baseball clinic, it's a Bible study," the Rev. Thomas L. Shields III told the 16 boys squirming in front of him, their baseball gloves ready for action. "We're going to combine them, and we're going to have a good time."
Mr. Shields was trying out a new ministry at the Westminster Jaycees Park last week. He mixed ground balls and Scripture, base running and Christianity.
"We're in this to learn things about baseball and about life," he told the boys, ages 8 to 10, on the first day of the five-day clinic. "Let's hit the field."
And the jokesters in the group bent over and slapped the dirt near home plate.
Ministry isn't always serious work.
Mr. Shields, 44, pastor at the Westminster Reformed Presbyterian Church, is an amiable preacher with calves worthy of a World Cup soccer player and a stomach rivaling that of former Oriole first baseman Boog Powell.
He rarely uses the whistle hanging around his neck because it's unlikely the giggling, wiggling Cal Ripken wannabes wouldn't hear his booming Southern drawl.
The clinic, which cost $10 per boy for the week, started each day with a prayer. Mr. Shields thanked God for giving them a love for baseball, and he prayed they would have a safe and exciting week.
Twenty-five years ago, Mr. Shields worked as an assistant to the general manager of the Charlotte Hornets, a Double-A minor league team for the Minnesota Twins in North Carolina.
He said he was offered a job as the general manager for the Twins' Single-A team, but he turned it down.
"About the same time, I felt the Lord calling me," he said.
He went on to become a minister but never lost his love for baseball.
"As many of you know, I can't play that well," he said.
But he knows the game, and he wants the boys to learn the fundamentals. He also wants them to learn how some basic tenets of Christianity can relate to sports, that baseball can be a metaphor for life.
Mr. Shields wants them to learn about teamwork, respect, commitment and working toward excellence in their endeavors.
He called them in from the field to sit on the bleachers and read verses from the Bible that relate to sportsmanship. He held up as role models Major League players who have publicly stated they are Christians and try to live exemplary lives.
The boys also stood to learn some other lessons about life:
* You have to wait in line (to bat).
* You always have to follow through (in your throws).
* Opportunity sometimes passes you by (when the ball rolls between your legs).
* Or it hits you in the face, which is what happened to 8-year-old Stephen DiNisio of Westminster.
He was practicing making catches at first base when a ball beaned him on the right cheekbone. He took it the way Boog would have and didn't complain.
Later, rubbing the spot where a bruise was appearing, he said, "I don't want to get nailed in the face again. That hurt, kind of."
Fourteen-year-old Chris Miller of Westminster was one of three older boys helping Mr. Shields at the clinic. He said he can see connections between baseball and the Bible.
"You can't depend only on baseball. If you're with God, you can depend on him fully," he said.
The teen-ager said he enjoyed the clinic: "It's fun -- better than sitting home watching TV."
Mr. Shields wants to expand the program next year to include girls who want to learn more about softball.
To his young players, Mr. Shields distributed orange and white baseball caps with an outline of a fish on the front. The fish is an ancient symbol for the followers of Christ, he told the boys.
"We're going to be distinctive," he said, as they tried on their caps before running back to the field to toss the balls again.