By Rick Kern
In its own way, Ralph Kerr’s academic and professional pedigree is one for the record books. With a Master’s Degree in Counseling from S.U.N.Y. Brockport and a Doctorate in Educational Administration from Syracuse, Kerr has done about everything a person can do in the field of education. In the field some 30 years, his resume would probably resemble a phone book, listing everything from teaching business, to becoming a school principal, to settling in at the top of the public education as Superintendent of Schools in three different districts in New York State. Now in his “golden years,” don’t think that you can find him in a rocking chair with his feet up rusting out! Since he retired, he has also become the Founder and Director of the Teaching & Learning Institute (TLI), a frontlines support organization that recruits Christians to be involved in and ultimately run for, their local school board.
But that’s not all — to say that Ralph Kerr is playing extra innings in the game of life and hits homeruns like “The Babe,” just about nails it! Kerr is also the Owner and General Manager of the Genesee Rapids baseball team, a five-year old franchise in the New York Collegiate Baseball League (NYCBL). A wood-bat league comprised of 11 teams throughout Western and Central New York State, Kerr became interested in establishing a franchise in the NYCBL in his neighborhood of Houghton, NY, after watching his grandson playing for the Niagara Power (also a team in the league).
“Because he was in the area playing ball,” Kerr explained, “my wife and I followed him around to Olean, Wellsville, and Niagara Falls. At that time, the Niagara Power was affiliated with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), and that had a real ministry aspect to what they were trying to do.”
He continued, “It was about the same time that a major upgrade in the facilities was happening at Houghton College where there is now a state of the art baseball stadium. I realized that we had the potential here at Houghton for a terrific field and thought maybe we should look into creating a team! If we could get into the league, then that would also have a ministry and would be involved with college-age guys playing baseball. Plus, it would give the people of Houghton something to do during the summer — that was the genesis of the whole thing.”
Kerr actually played an important role in obtaining the funding for the new baseball and softball stadiums, along with a 107,000 square foot field house at Houghton College in Houghton, NY where the team plays. Reflecting on the team he said, “We want to give young men with outstanding character and good baseball skills the opportunity to develop themselves further.” He added, “Our faith based orientation provides players a unique opportunity to grow spiritually while improving their baseball skills in a very competitive league.”
While it is not Major League Baseball, the NYCBL is a summer wood-bat development league for professional baseball. Founded in 1978, the league affords college players the opportunity to develop their skills at a higher level of play, gain experience with wood bats, and be evaluated by Major League Baseball scouts. The NYCBL is located in Upstate New York and a small portion of the league’s annual budget is actually funded by Major League Baseball.
Teams play a 42-game regular season schedule with games beginning in June and ending in the last week of July. All games are nine-innings, with most doubleheaders scheduled on the weekends. An All-Star game is played in early July, and the League Championship Series concludes in the first week of August.
Many players in the NYCBL have been signed with teams from Major League Baseball, including some from the Rapids. “Over the years, several players have been drafted by major league teams,” Kerr said. “One of our players from two-years ago was actually picked up by the Los Angeles Dodgers. He’s in their organization playing Single-A ball in the Midwest.” He added, “The league is really competitive. They have a lot of scouts. The All-Star Game, which is held annually, is an event where scouts recruit a lot of kids into MLB.”
The Rapids’ mission statement concisely describes its purpose: To present to baseball players, coaches, and all whom they influence, the challenge and adventure of living for Jesus Christ in a needy world, through the game of baseball. “It is a ministry for us,” noted Kerr. “If it was just to put a baseball team on the field, that’s not something I would give my time to. What we’re trying to do, is use baseball as a medium to speak to college baseball players.”
Nonetheless, that does not mean they only draft Christians to the team — there is a decided evangelistic component to filling the roster. “We purposely recruit a mixture of young men, some are Christians, and we know that, while others are not and we know that,” Kerr reflected. “Through the ministry aspects that I mentioned, as well as the ministry of the coaches and myself to the guys, we’re hoping that if they are Christians, it will be an experience that will help them grow in Christ. And if they are not Christians, they will be intrigued by what Christ can do in their lives and that we might have an opportunity to bring them to Christ or at least plant some seed that will bear fruit in the future.”
Thus, in keeping with the spirit of the team and its purpose, church on Sunday is not optional. “Church is required, unless we’re travelling,” Kerr explained. “If we’re going to Syracuse, for instance, for a one o’clock game, obviously, we can’t go that day. Most Sundays, if not all, depending on the schedule, the boys do go to the Houghton Wesleyan Church here in Houghton.”
In the last analysis, Christian or not, Kerr and company are looking for guys with good character, who can play the game of baseball at a very high level, and mesh with the team’s core values: Integrity, Service, Teamwork, and Excellence. Accordingly, the 2017 Rapids team made the playoffs and challenged through the final game of the Divisional Championship before losing to the eventual 2017 League Champion team.
Not surprisingly, the reviews have been glowing as the Rapids’ fan base rapidly expands. “I asked some people in the community to tell us what they like about having the Rapids in town. The response from the community in Houghton has been fantastic,” said Kerr. And while Houghton residents have plenty to do, they love piling into the bleachers and cheering on the Rapids.
For example, Paul Shea, Assistant Pastor at Houghton Wesleyan Church said, “The Rapids have grown on me from year to year. I’ve been involved several ways; ambulance, bus transportation, play-by-play, team devotions, score-keeping… The joy is getting to know the players, coaches, and even some parents and new fans at home and away. The Rapids add an exciting dimension to our summers.”
Similarly, Bruce Campbell, Director of Graduate and International Admissions at St. Bonaventure University feels that, “The Genesee Rapids is baseball as it was intended to be; young men playing for the challenge, camaraderie, love of the game, and connection with the community. The latter, mutual appreciation between Rapids players and fans is especially strong and contributes to a great game environment. I’ll take a Rapids game over an MLB game any day.”
Ken Bates, Associate Professor of Business, Emeritus at Houghton College is also filled with appreciation for the team. “The Genesee Rapids bring ‘the boys of summer’ to Houghton for the months of June and July and the place just comes alive! Some of the nation’s best university-level ballplayers put on a display of talent and passion for the sport that’s both fun to watch, inspiring for all the kids in the community, and nostalgic for the old-timers reminiscing about secret wishes many of us had to be the ball players years ago.”
While he may not formally be working in public education any longer, Ralph Kerr’s passion and vision, tempered by a lifetime of experience, and love for God continue to teach sequentially emerging generations divinely imperative life-lessons. His spirituality and morality as a man of God were clearly the source for the Rapids’ core values — values that have led to an enviable reputation throughout the community. But it doesn’t stop there; Kerr has built an impressive momentum in a profoundly blessed ministry shaping the lives of young men that points them to God’s light in a dark and perverse generation.
“Every year, that gets easier because the reputation of the Rapids in the area is continuing to grow in a very positive way,” Kerr reflected. “People just like what we’re doing. We hope that will continue.”
For more information or to learn more about the Genesee Rapids faith-based summer collegiate baseball, visit their website at www.geneseerapidsbaseball.com or call them at (716) 969-0688.