Who Saved Tribes Mike Jackson

You don’t have to be down and out and in the gutter to turn to God. You can be up and out and still be in the gutter. Mike Jackson

by Terri Nighswonger

Cleveland Indians relief pitcher Mike Jackson seemingly had everything going for him — a new wife, a great career in the Major Leagues — yet there was an emptiness that no amount of fame or fortune, or the things that fame and fortune can buy, could fill.

Jackson, 34, was born and raised in a Christian home. His mother was faithful to take her children to church every Sunday. She also was faithful to pray for her prodigal son — the last person in the family to make a commitment to Christ.

"I didn’t really understand what it was all about back then," Jackson said. "I just went to church because my mom wanted me to. I knew who the Lord was, but I’d never received Him. I’d never accepted everything that he had to offer."

Even when Jackson met Jesse Barfield, then a member of the Toronto Blue Jays, he didn’t want anything to do with Barfield’s Jesus. Still, he saw something different in the man that eventually would lead him to Christ and become his big brother in the Lord.

A friend introduced Jackson to Barfield, and the two became friends. Both are from Houston and, in the off-season, exchanged phone numbers and planned to get together to work out.

"By that time, I was nowhere near thinking about being a Christian or anything of that nature. I kind of lost his number," Jackson said. "I knew his background and was pretty sure he knew mine. I didn’t want to be involved. I was basically running from the Lord."

The following winter, Jackson and his new bride decided to visit their favorite restaurant.

"Come to find out, that was one of his (Jesse’s) favorite restaurants, too. We met him and his wife. I was kind of trying to avoid him, but I couldn’t. They were sitting right in the middle of the restaurant, so I had to go his way," he said.

As much as Jackson tried to avoid Barfield, God had a future divine appointment planned. The couples had lunch together, and Barfield’s wife, Marla, and Jackson’s wife, Tammy, exchanged phone numbers. When that happened, Jackson said, he knew he was going to be hearing from the Barfields.

"We ended up going on vacation the next off-season to Acapulco, Mexico. We had a great time. I’ll never forget it. The last night that we were there, that’s when they shared the Gospel," Jackson said. "They asked if we knew Jesus Christ and (asked) had we accepted Him into our lives? My wife also grew up with a Christian background. Her grandfather was a preacher. She had already accepted the Lord, but I didn’t. I was the last one in my family. That was one of my mother’s prayers, that we would all come to the kingdom of God and be saved."

That last night, sitting at the table, Barfield asked Jackson if he knew the Lord.

"I said I know of the Lord, but I didn’t know him personally, and I never accepted Him," Jackson said. "That night, I started weeping at the table, and I felt the presence of the Lord come upon me, and I knew that I was forgiven for my sins. We went back to the hotel, and we prayed the sinner’s prayer, and I asked the Lord Jesus to be Lord and Savior of my life. I came back home, went to church, got baptized in water and the Holy Spirit, and my life has been changed from that point on."

Today, God continues to work in Jackson’s life.

"Jesus saved me from destruction. Jesus gives me the strength daily to resist alcohol, drugs and pornography. If he can change my life, he can change anybody," he said.


Walking the walk …

Living out his faith in the public eye is not always an easy task. Jackson and fellow teammate Travis Fryman work together to keep each other accountable and on the straight and narrow.

"Travis is one of the most mature brothers in the Lord on this team," Jackson said. "We try to keep each other accountable, plus my best friend Jesse Barfield, (who’s) my big brother in the Lord, and my pastor at Glorious Way Church in Houston."

Jackson’s family spends their summers in Cleveland and then head back to Houston in the fall when school starts for their daughter, Lindsay, 6, and son, Ryan, 4.

"I don’t believe it’s any more difficult to live the Christian lifestyle in this profession than it is in any profession," said Fryman, the Indians’ 30-year-old third baseman who is injured and won’t play again until the end of the season. "The scripture tells us we are all tempted by the same thing and we share the same struggles."

Like Jackson, Fryman grew up in a Christian home and invited Christ into his life in a backyard Bible study when he was 7 years old.

"Like a lot of young people, the only understanding I had at that time was I wanted to go to heaven. I didn’t want to go to hell," he said. "In 1994 (during the players’ strike), I got to the point where I realized I needed more in my life than just having a good time. I rededicated my life to Christ. Most of my growth as a believer has taken place since 1994."

Certain aspects of the life of a professional baseball player can make it more difficult not to yield to temptations. Travel on the road, time away from the family and time alone in a hotel room can make it more difficult, Fryman said. His wife Kathleen and sons, Mason, 3, and Brandon, 1, make their home in Pensacola, Fla., in the off-season.

"You are susceptible to temptation in those areas, as well as the all-male environment with every type of background and nationality and different personalities," he said. "You are in an environment that has things that a believer doesn’t need to see, and you hear things that a believer doesn’t need to be around. You don’t have a choice. You’re constantly subjected to those things, so I think quiet time, Bible study and prayer are important. These are extremely important in the life of every believer, but particularly important in our workplace to avoid some of those temptations."

The Bible says in 2 Corinthians 5:13: "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new." (NKJ)

Jackson and Fryman know they are new creations in Christ and that God is continually transforming them into the person that He wants them to be.

"It can be hard, but the Bible says in Philippians 4:13 that ‘I can do all things through Christ Jesus that strengthens me.’ He gives me strength every day to go through whatever obstacles may come about in my life," Jackson said.


On being a witness …

"The greatest experience that a Christian can have is leading someone to Christ," Fryman said. "Many times you sow seeds and you don’t always get to be around when someone actually comes to Christ. Within the last three years at each of the last three spring trainings, I’ve had an opportunity to lead someone to Christ — teammates, as well as a friend — and that’s been very exciting. I’m not looking for the streak to continue, but three springs in a row, I’ve had that experience, and I think it’s something very special."

Fryman and Jackson take time to be involved in a Sunday chapel service when the team is at home. About half of the team’s 25-man roster regularly attends, Fryman said. Bible studies on the road also keep the players in the Word and provide opportunities to share the Gospel.

"You look at these guys, and the world thinks that these are the guys who have what they want, and the truth is, most of these guys are in great need," Fryman said. "Once you achieve a certain amount of wealth or fame or notoriety or whatever it is, they are still hollow. Most of these guys are still searching or looking for something. Unfortunately, they are filling it up with things they don’t need to fill it up with."

Letting their light shine and walking a consistent Christian walk helps other guys on the team to know where these Christian ballplayers stand.

"Most guys are pretty open and receptive. Some guys want to talk, and they will come to you and ask questions. I pray for opportunity when I pray. I may pray specifically for needs in those guys’ lives as I get to know them, but the main thing I pray for is an opportunity to share with them. It’s uncanny the opportunities that God will provide," Fryman said.

Just as Barfield witnessed to him, Jackson is more than happy to share the Gospel when the opportunity arises, but he takes a more laid-back approach.

"I learned that you can’t force the Lord on anybody. The Bible says, ‘He stands at the door of every man’s heart and knocks, and only that person can open it.’ The handle is on the inside. God is on the outside. Only we can open that door of our heart and let him come in," he said. "I think if I go out and live my life like God said, ‘Let our light shine before men,’ they will see the difference in my life. That’s how I came to the Lord. I saw something different in Jessie Barfield and his wife.

"There are other guys on the team who are seeking the Lord. We get together and try to encourage one another and strengthen one another in the Lord. I think that’s all part of being a Christian. We try to give the newer guys in the Lord encouragement to continue to study and meditate on God’s Word everyday. It encourages me to know that other guys are walking and trying to live their life according to the Word of God."


Under pressure …

Jackson, who made 694 pitching appearances in his first 12 seasons, relies on God to give him poise when he’s pitching. In 1998, his first season as the full-time closer for the Indians, Jackson had 40 saves, the third highest single-season total in the history of the ball club, and set a career high.

"To me, pressure is what you put on yourself," he said. "I don’t put any added pressure than what’s in front of me. A lot of people say, ‘Well, he’s coming in when the game’s on the line. I think the fans get more excited than I do. If God knew I couldn’t handle that situation or role, he would never put me out there. The Bible says, ‘He will never give you more than you can handle.’ "

Being in a role where he’s under pressure helps him in his spiritual walk, Jackson said. When the pressures of the world arrive, he casts all his cares upon the Lord.

"No matter what I do out there, if it’s good or bad, God’s going to receive the glory," he said. "There’s a lesson to be learned every time we go through a trial or a tribulation or a storm, and there’s a blessing that we can get out of it. That’s the way I look at it. Being out there on the mound with the game on the line, I think, is a blessing. God put me in that position, and the Indians put me in that position. They have that much confidence and faith in me that they give me the ball with the game is on the line."