ANAMOSA - During an amazing month-long stretch in the summer of 1999, Anamosa graduate Matt Schirm, then a Coe College junior, would have a life-altering experience playing baseball in El Salvador and Nicaragua for Athletes in Action.
Little did he know when he took off on his journey in late June that summer, exactly how much it would shape him, his faith and his future.
“I really thought when I joined this team (Athletes in Action), that I would grow much more athletically than spiritually,” said Schirm, who is now the head baseball coach at Central College in Pella, and has been for the last six years.
“But actually, it was the other way around. That really surprised me. We spent more time working on our Christian lessons than we did on baseball.”
Schirm was the lone Iowan chosen to play on the prestigious Athletes in Action baseball team, and applied for the trip a month prior to leaving.
Athletes in Action (AIA) is part of a sports ministry of the Campus Crusade for Christ, which has had teams traveling throughout the world since 1980 playing the game of baseball while sharing a message of hope through Jesus Christ.
The trip would be a month-long adventure through Central America challenging locals to get to know God through the relationship with Jesus Christ, promoting international goodwill through the game of baseball while also maximizing their mental, physical and spiritual potential.
But the game was the springboard for everything.
“We really forged a great relationship with a lot of the kids there,” he said. “It was actually very difficult to leave. The kids cried when we left. I was so amazed the way the whole trip changed me. I think I learned what Christianity really is.
“I had always considered myself a good Christian, but it was only a religion to me. Learning so much more about Christianity has really given me a passion for reading the bible and knowing how to pray as well as deepening my relationship with God. I think my attitude towards life is much more positive and I can work through any problems or tough times with God’s help.”
Schirm joined the 17-member elite team on May 26 and flew to Atlanta where he participated in the AIA training camp that lasted until June 12.
While in Atlanta Schirm played semi-pro and other AIA teams while getting ready for their trip to Central America. During the training camp, Schirm earned the team’s starting catcher nod as well as taking on some of the club’s pitching duties as well.
“We had a great time in Atlanta,” he said. “We went to a Braves game, saw a civil war battlefield and did other sightseeing tours while just getting to know each other.”
After spending two-and-a-half weeks in Atlanta, the team flew to Nicaragua on June 12, and during their 17-day stay in the country traveled to different cities playing baseball.
“We pretty much played a game a day,” Schirm said. “After each game we would all gather around with the opposing team and one of the guys from each team would give his personal testimony.”
Schirm and his AIA teammates played against several university teams and even played a pair of games against the 1996 Olympic Bronze medal winning Nicaraguan team coached by legendary Major League pitcher Dennis Martinez.
“We lost both games to their Olympic team (9-0 and 16-0),” Schirm said. “But that was the best baseball I’ve ever seen and best players I’ve ever played against.”
On June 29, Schirm and the AIA team packed their bags and headed to San Salvador, El Salvador where they stayed until July 15, playing baseball in the San Salvador Olympic Village and were greeted with a nationally televised press conference orchestrated by the El Salvador media and the country’s Baseball Federation.
The AIA team played a seven-gamed series against the El Salvador National team, winning one while also conducting clinics and teaching local youth about the game of baseball with Schirm taking part in pitching, hitting, catching and baserunning drills.
“My main observations were how poverty-stricken everyone was in both Nicaragua and El Salvador,” he said. “Seeing how people live down there really makes you appreciate what we have here in the United States. Even with all of that, they were some of the most friendly people I’ve ever met.”