Thirty years ago, Jeff Totten, the Associate Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Birmingham, Michigan, had a vision to serve the youth in his church. With a love for baseball and an even greater passion for the Gospel, he arranged an opportunity for the youth from his and many other local churches to attend a Detroit Tigers’ game.
Hearing that the Tigers’ pitcher, Frank Tanana, was a Christian, Jeff wrote him a letter asking if he would be willing to share his testimony with the youth at a breakfast before the ballgame. Frank agreed, and in 1987 he shared his testimony and presented the Gospel to a group of 1,030 youth at the very first Home Plate event.
“I came to know Christ in 1983 while I was playing with the Texas Rangers,” says Frank. “Having been discipled by Doug Sherman there, I was learning how to share my faith and the Gospel message with others. When I was traded to the Tigers in ’87, Jeff and I met. When I heard about the outreach event he wanted to do — inviting people to hear the Gospel and players’ testimonies before the game — I was thrilled. I was so excited to share what God had done in my life so that others can experience Christ as I had.”
The first Home Plate event was a huge hit. The following season, Frank opened up the opportunity for all ages to participate. Year after year, the event grew as various players shared their testimonies with the attendees. Each year they needed to rent a bigger venue for the breakfast, often needing to turn people away for lack of space. In 1996, as the Tigers’ management saw the traffic that this event was bringing to their games, they offered to let Jeff host Home Plate at the ballpark.
Home Plate has become a much-anticipated yearly event at Comerica Park, selling out nearly always.
“The Tigers have been very accommodating,” says Jeff. “They are always very gracious to let us use the buildings and even let us put the program up on the scoreboard during our event. Many times, they also schedule an on-the-field clinic after our event and before the ballgame on the day of Home Plate.”
Home Plate features a variety of Tigers players (both current and former), players’ wives, the visiting team’s players, coaches, Christian artists, as well as other Christian professional athletes local to Detroit every season. This year, three umpires also shared their faith in Jesus Christ with the thousands of people who attended the event. Every year the event ends with a clear Gospel presentation, often by the same great witness who shared at the very first Home Plate: Frank Tanana.
“Being able to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ at Home Plate is the highlight of my year,” Frank says. “I’m wowed every time I experience God speaking through me as I make myself available to His call. So I look for every opportunity I can find to share the Gospel with others. This is a huge blessing for me, and more than that, I know that it also brings a tremendous smile to our Heavenly Father’s face.”
The impact of this event is phenomenal. Over the past 30 years, Jeff has seen 155,886 Home Plate tickets sold, 6,793 lives committed to Christ, and 24,610 renewed commitments to Christ. What makes this such a powerful event is purposeful design of the program and the heart of those involved each year.
“The difference between our event and many others is that we have our outreach before the game,” says Jeff. “Each person needs a specific ticket to Home Plate to attend and then they attend the game. That way we know who is coming and we give out response cards to each person. This allows us to coordinate with their churches and those that they come with to follow up with the individuals. We want to get people plugged into a community to be discipled. Many churches drive a bus from 3-4 hours away to attend this event so pastors and church leaders have plenty of time to talk with their groups about what they experienced. I’ve heard many stories of individuals coming to Christ during the drive back. Those are the stories that I love to hear because that’s what it’s all about: Lives changed for the Gospel. The follow-ups and discipleship afterwards is what can really make a difference.”
Do the events become stale or watered down after 30 years? The answer is clearly seen in the fact that the event was once again sold out this year with a total of 9,011 who participated from 361 churches or community groups from the surrounding area. What makes this event so successful is the vision and mission that has held firm.
“There hasn’t been much change in our content and certainly none in our purpose for this event,” Jeff remarks. “The reason we’re doing what we’re doing well is because of consistency. I’ve always said, ‘If we don’t have players who have solid testimonies, we won’t do it.’ We are very careful to have a solid Christian message so that the pastors with whom we’ve built trust over the years know that whoever is speaking, the Gospel will be clear and the faith never compromised.”
It’s unmistakable that God’s hand is on this ministry as it continues to impact thousands through each year’s Home Plate event. Over the past thirty years, nothing has stood in the way for this event to take place. According to Frank, they have never even had to delay because of weather.
“It’s amazing that we’ve experienced Home Plate event days with storms all around us but no rain has fallen on our services. Some of the games following our event have been rained out, but our services have never been.”
While Home Plate is a much anticipated event for Jeff, Frank, and many Tigers fans, Jeff is able to impact lives for the Gospel every day of the season in another way. As the Tigers’ organization realized the passion and heart he has for baseball and for the players, they asked him to be the team chaplain. That was 1991, and he wears that hat to this day.
As demanding as it is, Jeff’s daily ministry to the players has left him ample time to live out his passion for the one day of the season when the public comes to Home Plate.
“It’s been a great opportunity to share the Gospel with people who may or may not go to church,” says Jeff. “We are not there to exalt the players, we’re there to give them an opportunity to share their faith and, as a result, impact others for the Gospel.”
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