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Dancing with a Limp

Updated: 2 days ago

I was eight year old when I began playing Little League baseball in the village of Finleyville, Pennsylvania. The passing decades have erased most of the memories of playing for Carlson Ford, but once in a great while a few hazy images arise like mist out of years gone by. If I strain I catch fleeting glimpses of energetic boys on summer days playing baseball on the field across the railroad tracks. However, even after six decades, the presence of coach Bill Saunders is seared upon my mind.

Bill Saunders, or Mr. Bill as we kids called him, was an African American gentleman who lived on the same side of the tracks as my relatives. The wrong side as many people saw it, though as an eight year old I hadn’t learned that distinction, given that my aunts and uncles lived next door. Bill Saunders was a good man and devoted to his boys of summer. He arrived at practice rain or shine, even after a long day working in the garage at a local car dealership. Bill Saunders enthusiastically assisted the head coach, who I cannot name, picture, or bring to mind. Mr. Bill, though, is far more than a bit player in the drama that has been my life.

Mr. Bill tirelessly worked to help us grasp the fundamentals of baseball. Regardless of how unskilled we were, and in my case completely, he never used shame to motivate us, a tactic so common among other coaches of that era. He was tender-hearted and spoke to every boy, Black, or white, or brown, with respect and dignity. I still hold the memory of his large calloused hand squeezing my shoulder when I returned to the dugout after striking out once again, as well as his incomparable smile as he assured me, “You’ll get em next time!”

Our Little League teams were sponsored by area businesses, with names like Finleyville Furniture, the Lions, Finleyville Pharmacy, and Carlson Ford embroidered across the front of our uniforms. The season began each year with spring try outs, every kid hoping beyond hope that he would make a team, a right of passage far more than the simple chance to play ball on the sweltering days of a Western Pennsylvania summer.

The less skilled players, those not picked for the regular teams, would be sent to the minor league, which was a prescription of pure humiliation. I do remember the hot Saturday afternoon in May of 1960 when the team rosters were read aloud after the last day of tryouts, boys surrounding the dugout hoping to hear their name assigned to a club. When I heard my name read I was overjoyed, with the accompanying relief that I dodged the fatal blow of being sent to minors. My friend Eddy unfortunately didn’t make the cut and he was devastated. Eddy started crying in front of everyone, even though I knew it embarrassed him. I remember that moment because of one person. Mr. Bill.

While boys were celebrating, getting their uniforms, and bragging about the start of the season, Mr. Bill sat with Eddy behind the dugout and comforted him, his strong arms around Eddy’s shoulders, whispering in Eddy’s ear. Weeks later I saw Mr. Bill hanging out at Eddy’s minor league game to cheer him on. I felt better about myself when Mr. Bill was around.

The first time I saw Bill Saunders walk onto the field I wondered why he was there. Maybe he was the guy who cut the grass or lined the field. He seemed old by a kid’s standard, and he moved with an extreme limp. As he walked Mr. Bill dipped one shoulder so severely that I though he was going to topple over.

As sad as it is to admit, that handicap was the first thing, and for a while the only thing, I saw about Mr. Bill. It didn’t take long for that limp to magically disappear from mind behind the glow of who Bill Saunders was as a human being. His limp may have identified him, but it never defined him. Not Mr.Bill.

As I look back across the decades, Bill Saunders’ handicap made his commitment to the boys of summer baseball all the more amazing. He may not have been the picture of athletic prowess, but he knew the game, and more importantly he knew how to access the hearts of young boys. Mr. Bill could reach deep inside a kid and bring out the best. That wasn’t just limited to the skills of baseball. He modeled what it took to be a good man, a person of faith, and a human being who treated others with dignity and respect.

Mr. Bill never hid himself or his handicap. He didn’t seem to mind that people noticed. He embraced his limp and jumped right out there to do what he loved, which on warm summer evenings was coaching Little League baseball. His determination to be more than his weakness leaked out on anyone who got to know Mr. Bill, and somehow it unmasked part of his strength.

A few years later I became close friends with Mr. Bill’s grandson Brian, as well as Mr. Bill’s dear wife Della, who took me under her sizable spiritual wing. I learned over the years the part Jesus played in their lives, a living testimony of 2 Corinthians 12: 9, 10.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (NIV)

Boast in weakness? Delight in weakness? When I am weak I am strong? These thoughts seem so counterintuitive in this “You need to measure up to be acceptable” world. But I have seen it to be true many times across my Christian life, first and foremost in the person of Bill Saunders. He was a living demonstration that the object of embarrassment, even shame, can become the place of honor when given over to the strength and purposes of Jesus.

Bill Saunders’ kindness, respect, tender words, and gentle hand made a difference in my life. I am an old guy now, far older that Bill Saunders when he went to meet the Lord. Yet as boy and man I am forever grateful that Mr. Bill decided to dance in life. Mr. Bill’s limp enabled him to keep in step with what truly mattered. I see clearly now that Bill Saunders’ confidence and moral courage reflected the way of Jesus to me. Mr. Bill was a wounded healer.


Terry Wardle is the founder and President of Healing Care Ministries. He is a popular author and dynamic speaker who leads seminars and retreats that equip pastors, counselors, clinicians, and spiritual directors. Terry and his wife, Cheryl, have three adult children and six grandchildren. They reside in Ashland, Ohio.

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1 comentario

08 jul 2022

He removes the shame of woundedness . I abide within His Grace.

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