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Foul ball

The father of a major-league prospect recounts the swing that changed his son’s life …
and took the life of a teammate.

By Isaac Canales

I was leaning against the fence at Lakewood High School in Carson, Calif., on July 10, 2000, watching our youngest son, Coba, play football. My cell phone rang.

"Dad, what should I do? I don’t know what to do. I feel so helpless!"

It was Joshua, my oldest son. The line crackled. I could hear his voice quivering 2,000 miles away on the other end of the line in New York.

"What’s going on, mijo [my son]," I asked.

"Something terrible happened," his voice choked out. "I’m at the hospital here in Rochester. The team members, our coaches … we’re all here at the intensive care unit praying for Kelsey to come through. Something horrible happened at practice today!"

"What happened?" I persisted.

"I hit the ball really hard, Dad, just foul off the third-base line where Kelsey was crouching ready to come home. It was a screaming line drive. It hit him right on his temple!"

The Newark Volunteer Fire Department had been called to Colburn Park field, home of the Newark (N.Y.) Raptors of the Northeastern Collegiate Baseball League, for which Josh and Kelsey were playing. Kelsey Osburn had then been flown by helicopter to Strong Memorial Hospital a half hour away in Rochester. Emergency surgery followed. Kelsey slipped deeper into a coma.

"Why did God let this happen? Do you think God will heal him? Could you pray for me Pops?" Joshua’s questions rushed out in a torrent overwhelming me. I stammered out what I felt was a perfectly useless prayer. Then we stood in silence. I didn’t know what else to pray or how to answer my son’s questions.

Finally, Josh sighed deeply. "I gotta go," he said. "It’s my turn to go in. I’m staying by Kelsey. ... Bye, Dad. I love you."

"I love you too," I said. "I’m praying my head off for you."

We hung up.

I wanted to hold Kelsey. I wanted to hold the whole team in my arms and wish the hurt away. But I was too far away. Yet, I knew God wasn’t.

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I called my wife, Ritha, immediately. After talking to Josh, she contacted her supervisor and then purchased a ticket to Rochester. She was there the very next day and met the Osburns – Kelsey’s wonderful parents, and Chaun, his brother.

Kelsey had previously played for the University of Arizona Wildcats. He wore number 41. Josh told me he was the best second baseman he’s seen. He and Josh hit it off right away that summer in Newark. Both boys loved the Lord, both came from solid, loving homes, and for both of them baseball was a passion.

Ironically, the Osburns had just left Rochester to go back to Tucson the day of the accident, having spent five days with Kelsey. They had attended a Raptor game and visited the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Josh had tagged along and the family had really connected with him.

Now, as their plane arrived in Tucson, they received the tragic news. They returned immediately to Rochester to find their son in a coma, fighting for his life.

I called back to the waiting room that first night. The guys got Josh on the line.

"Are you OK?"

"No," he said. "Kelsey’s not doing well. It doesn’t look good, Dad. I have no strength left. We’re praying hard. I don’t know if I ever want to pick up a bat again!"

I prayed for Kelsey. I prayed that God would hold the Osburns in His loving arms. I prayed that my son would not be demolished, that his new friends would still love him and, if possible, not hold bitterness in their hearts for this accident that threatened Kelsey’s life.

One of my prayers was immediately answered. When the Osburns arrived, Mrs. Osburn took Josh into her arms and rocked him gently. "It’s all right, Josh," she whispered through her own tears. "We love you like our son." She held Josh close as they cried together.

Mr. Osburn cupped Josh’s face in his big hands and wiped my son’s tears aside with his thumbs. "It was not your fault, Joshua," he sobbed. "This was a freak accident. You should not feel guilty. God knows why this happened."

For six days Kelsey hung on. Then the Lord chose to take him home.

In spite of his own sorrow, Mr. Osburn was still thinking of my son. "Son," he told Josh, "don’t give up baseball. Keep laying down that bunt you and Kelsey were working on."

Joshua returned to Southern California to play for UCLA. And in a moving article written by Adam Karon in UCLA’s Daily Bruin, Karon reported how Josh inscribed the letters "K.O." in his glove the following season. "What do those letters mean?" he asked. "K.O. stands for Kelsey Osburn," Josh told him. "I want to make sure he gets a little playing time when I’m on the field." In a heartwarming turn of events, Skip Adams, UCLA’s baseball coach, moved Josh from shortstop to second base, Kelsey’s position at Arizona.

God is infinitely wise. He held my son when I could not. He was with Josh and Kelsey and the Osburns throughout their ordeal. He knew the Osburns’ love for Josh was a miracle of freedom. It released Joshua to heal and to seek the Lord above baseball or anything else. Josh has learned to trust God in life’s hardest moments. Baseball has been put in perspective. Even though he’s gone on to play in the minors for the Los Angeles Dodgers, God is first in his life. Today, Joshua, 23, sees professional baseball as a tool for sharing the love of Christ.

A handful of Raptors played out the remainder of the summer of 2000. Many went home immediately after the accident. Somehow they managed to come in third place. Josh won League MVP. But his value to the team was in more than bunts or base runs. Every game that season he led his teammates in prayer in the left field corner.

I now look back with a renewed perspective of faith on that fateful phone call on that hot July afternoon when life had seemed so pleasantly normal. And I realize that that tragic day had been no surprise to God. My son’s whole life — in fact, generations leading up to his life — had all been part of the divine preparation needed to face Kelsey’s sudden home going.

Joshua Brubaker Canales was raised a Pentecostal boy with deep Assemblies of God roots in two cultures. On his mother’s side, his great-great-grandparents, John and Lulu Waggoner, had founded First Assembly in Warren, Ohio. On my side, his grandparents, Miguel and Lupe Canales, founded the great Mision Ebenezer Family Church of Carson, Calif. Josh would be the first to tell you it was his spiritual heritage and faith in Christ that brought him through that fateful day.

His experience reminds me of Romans 5:2-5: "Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of highest privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory. We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they are good for us — they help us learn to endure. And endurance develops strength of character in us, and character strengthens our confident expectation of salvation. And this expectation will not disappoint us. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love" (New Living Translation).

Isaac Canales is president of Latin America Bible Institute in La Puente, Calif., and pastor of Mision Ebenezer Family Church (Assemblies of God) in Carson, Calif.

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