Game Day embraces players off streets

Andre House’s staple means of hospitality via dinner service, laundry, showers and clothes has expanded — to the ballpark.

The addition, perhaps seemingly out of left field, is technically from the infield. It came from the pitcher who doubles as coach to be exact. Mike O’Sullivan is an André House core team member who has played baseball his whole life and spent three years coaching professional ball before dedicating a year of service in Phoenix.

O’Sullivan’s baseball community knew he was stepping up to the plate to serve hundreds of homeless guests each day, but still wanted him to be able to help people at the plate of America’s favorite pastime, too. Turns out the Detroit-area native could do both.

“There’s a baseball field on the corner of our street, and it was calling,” O’Sullivan said of his Arizona home.

André House’s latest means of showing hospitality is marketed around campus simply as “Baseball Batting Practice and Games.” They’re a double-header, if you will. Since late January, they’ve been scheduled every two weeks at University Park, except for one rainout.

“I look forward to Saturday games. It gives me a sense of purpose,” said Randy, a former André House guest. The games are rarely a full squad, so he has played nearly every position. The batter often doubles as catcher.

“It took me back to when I was a kid playing baseball in Little League, neighborhood pickup games — kids getting together and having fun,” Randy said.

He knows firsthand how easy it is for André House guests to be downtrodden and feel like they’re taking up space on a sidewalk. The games allow players to forget that for a couple of hours every other week.

“You get to feel human again. That right there is more important than the game,”

Randy, an André House guest who now has a place to call his own

Not every player is an André House guest. The core team plays, too, and community members, including the ministry’s volunteers, can draft themselves.

Pickup Baseball

Networking with a school in California and another in Michigan had shipments of bats, gloves and balls ready for the inaugural game on All Souls Day. Since then, throw-down bases have been donated, as have hats and jerseys from an array of teams — not that any of it matters in genuine pickup games. O’Sullivan spots the merchandise days and weeks later when guests come through the food line.

“Nice hat. See you at the game!” he tells them. O’Sullivan has been known to wear the jerseys on occasion too: a white Cleveland Indians jersey the day the professional players left Spring Training in Goodyear to serve at André House and a blue San Diego Padres pinstripe jersey when he talked to The Catholic Sun.

(Jesús Valencia/CATHOLIC SUN)

On game day, O’Sullivan loads up five gallons of lemonade, snacks, a used hockey bag full of equipment, 12 gloves and milk crates full of baseballs.

“We drive around the neighborhood a couple times and ask people if they want to play,” O’Sullivan said.

Teams are formed on the spot sandwiched by a 12-pitch batting practice per player — the rest field balls — and the first pitch.

“Everybody’s swinging for the fences,” Randy said.

“I’m all-time pitcher. My job is to throw strikes,” O’Sullivan said. And since he stands slightly closer than the pitcher’s mound, O’Sullivan said after the throw, his job is to “then basically dodge the ball.”

At that point, spectators — some show up just to watch — are in for a Little League style game where athletic ability runs the gamut.

“You’ve got the Three Stooges meets Marx Brothers trying to play baseball. Sometimes it’s pretty spectacular. Sometimes it’s just a joke,” Randy said. “Then again, you get that one great hit, you snag that one ground ball, and the adrenaline’s flowing. It takes me back to 40 years ago.”

Both men recalled a batter who belly-flopped back to third base and another who did the splits into first. And beat the play. There was a walk-off, three-run inside the park home run too.

O’Sullivan sees talent emerge in some, passion in others. Regardless, he’s pleased with the camaraderie and self-empowerment the games have brought. For a lot of André House guests, there’s not a whole lot to do but wait for the next thing to open, whether it’s a social service or a public restroom.

“My vision was to have a regular league and championship, but I love where we’re at. It’s so raw,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s alive and we’re right where we’re supposed to be.”