Dodgers' hitting coach Ward a spiritual mentor to players

by Tim Ellsworth, posted Friday, October 27, 2017 (23 days ago)

LOS ANGELES (BP) -- Turner Ward was signing autographs in the players' parking lot after a game in Pittsburgh several years ago when a boy approached him with a stack of baseball cards. After signing some of the cards, Ward came across one he had never seen before with a picture of him and his son Tucker.

Los Angeles Dodgers hitting coach Turner Ward and his wife Donna on the field are Dodger Stadium after game 1 of the World Series.
Photo courtesy of Turner Ward
"Hey, that's pretty neat," Ward said. "Would you mind if I kept this one?"

The boy's mother was quick to accommodate the request. The boy, however, started crying. Ward began to drive off after the encounter but felt bad about keeping the card.

He turned around, found the boy, pulled a brand new glove out of the trunk and gave it to him, along with an autograph and the Scripture verse that always accompanied his signature.

"That kid will probably never forget that," said Alex Bruns, a lifelong friend of Ward and his family. "It kind of shows what kind of guy Turner is."

The "kind of guy" Ward is has changed over the years as he's learned what it means to follow Christ. But the hitting coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who will take on the Houston Astros in the third game of the World Series Friday night (Oct. 27), knows that life is about growth, and he knows that his strength comes from God and His word.

"I think if I ever get to the point where I'm saying, 'Well, I've made it. I'm finally at the place where God wants me,' that's just so crazy to think that way," Ward told Baptist Press.

A native of the Mobile, Ala., area, Ward grew up attending church occasionally, but he said it wasn't a huge part of his family. He attended a revival service at another nearby church, Shelton Beach Road Baptist Church, as a teenager and remembers the preacher talking a lot about heaven and hell.

"He painted a good picture of where I didn't want to go," Ward recalled. "I really felt the Holy Spirit talking to me that night about making a decision and submitting my life to Christ."

He didn't do so that night, but the following night Ward did make a profession of faith. He strayed from the Lord over the years as he progressed in baseball, during his college career at the University of South Alabama, through the minor leagues and into the big leagues, where he played for six teams over a 12-year career.

Baseball, and not Jesus Christ, became Ward's god. He fulfilled a lifelong dream when the Cleveland Indians called him up at age 25. He thought he had arrived and that reaching his dream would bring satisfaction.

Ward soon found, however, that the target kept moving. Reaching the big leagues wasn't enough. Then he wanted to play every day to make more money. When his team (the Blue Jays) won back-to-back World Series, even that didn't satisfy Ward's desires.

"It's like nothing can fill that void of Christ," Ward said.

So, at about age 30, Ward realized he wasn't being obedient, and he wasn't living the life that the Lord wanted for him.

"Lord, I'm going to surrender my life to you, and if that means I never play baseball again, I'm going to live my life for you," Ward prayed. Ward's growth in Christ has been steady and consistent since then.

"Turner has a heart for God," said Ed Litton, pastor of Redemption Church in Mobile. "He's a strong witness, and he really believes that the Lord saved him for a purpose. He believes that purpose is to use whatever influence he has for the glory of God."

Ward and his wife Donna are active members of Redemption Church. In fact, Ward even served as the church's interim youth pastor at one point.

Though Ward's schedule makes it difficult for him to stay connected to the church year-round, "When he's here, he's all here," Litton said.

As the hitting coach for the Dodgers, Ward has made it a priority to build meaningful relationships with his players. One of his biggest projects –- which has been widely reported on through various sports reports and social media -- has been Yasiel Puig, the talented Cuban with raw natural ability but who has reportedly frustrated the Dodgers with his nagging injuries, lack of focus and overall immaturity.

Puig, however, has made great strides under Ward's guidance, posting career highs in 2017 in games, home runs and RBIs. Ward's rapport with Puig, which Ward says is based on mutual trust, has been credited as one of the reasons for Puig's turnaround.

"Number one, with any of these guys, I'm really trying to show how much I care -- how much I love them, really," Ward said. "I wanted to hear (Puig's) story of how he came here from Cuba. I think doing that relationship early and trying to understand him more, that's only helped it grow."

Sometimes that requires tough love. Sometimes Ward has had to tell Puig, "Hey man, you've got to straighten up." Other times he's said to Puig bluntly, "Hey man, you know what? You need Jesus."

"He knows without a doubt that I have his best interest -- that I really love him, and that I want to help him, more importantly, grow as a person, but in that process help him grow as a player," Ward said.

Brian Hommel, the chaplain for the Arizona Diamondbacks, where Ward served as hitting coach before moving to the Dodgers, isn't surprised by Puig's flourishing. Hommel saw Ward invest similarly in players in Arizona, including slugger Paul Goldschmidt.

"Turner helped him understand what it means to walk with Jesus," Hommel said.

Ward and Goldschmidt would read a selection from Proverbs every day and sit in the dugout together discussing it. They read other books together, with Ward serving as a spiritual mentor to Goldschmidt.

"He is like a father figure," Hommel said of Ward. "He's a guy who loves Jesus and loves people and looks for opportunities to try to encourage guys."

The matchup between the Dodgers and Astros will be televised tonight on FOX at 7:20 p.m. Central.

Tim Ellsworth is associate vice president for university communications at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.
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