By KATIE EUBANKS
“God used Carla to save my life, end of story.”
When Chris Snopek talks, you listen — the Ole Miss alumnus and former pro baseballer’s voice is a couple octaves deeper than most — and then when he says something like that, you listen harder.
Chris and Carla got saved within a day of each other, after five years of marriage, and they haven’t been the same since.
Of course, they both looked great on the outside, even before that day in March 2000.
Carla grew up in the Jackson metro area and “definitely had a belief in God, an awareness,” she says. “Seeds were definitely planted.” However, since she didn’t go to church very much, “I always felt a little out of place.”
She’d attend Fellowship of Christian Athletes or Young Life activities with friends, but “there was no personal relationship (with Jesus),” she says. “Nobody would’ve known.” But she knew.
When she met Chris at Ole Miss, “we were almost totally opposite,” she says.
“I was from Kentucky and I had a buzz cut, and I didn’t know anybody when I moved down here,” Chris says.
His friends were baseball players. Hers were fraternity and sorority members. She was studious; he was not. And she knew something spiritual was missing in her life. But as a Catholic who attended mass every Sunday and holy day, Chris thought he was good.
“I had a reverence for God, but no relationship. More routine,” he says. “There was nothing foundational in my life about love, relationship, the things God calls you to do.”
He and Carla saw each other at a gathering with mutual friends shortly before their junior year, and “I was blown away,” Chris says. One of the things he loved about her? “She could care less that I played baseball.”
Not that she was uninterested. “I just wasn’t a cleat chaser,” she explains.
They had a class together junior year — “The Lord kept putting us together,” Chris says — and started dating. They’d go to the library so Carla could study, and Chris would grab a newspaper to read.
“As if you’re not taking classes! As if you’re not also enrolled at this school!” Carla says now, laughing.
She helped him focus on things other than baseball, like studying, and she was there the day the Chicago White Sox drafted him in 1992.
“It was such a dramatic day,” Chris says. “I was supposed to go in the third or fourth round, and I wound up going in the sixth.”
Carla proved to be a calming presence in the midst of that chaos, he says.
The chaos only continued with Chris’ baseball career.
After playing single A, AA and AAA, he moved up to the major league White Sox team in 1995, the same year he and Carla got married. He played for the White Sox for three years, played briefly for the Boston Red Sox in 1998, and then played on various AAA teams from 1998 to 2002, when he retired.
“You could be moved (or traded) at any moment,” Carla says.
And for the first several years of that life, she and Chris did not know Jesus.
“I can’t believe how many years, actually, we went through the motions,” she says.
A crazy move
When their first child, Kate Russell, was born in Chicago in August 1998, she came early, and Chris was in California. (Carla delivered at 11 a.m., and Chris was there by 5.)
Ten days later, “I have a brand-new baby that I have no idea what to do with,” Carla says. “I had taken Chris to the airport, and that was a whole ordeal with the car seat — and then he calls and says, ‘You’re never going to believe this, but I’ve been traded.’
“I said, ‘When are you coming home (to help me move)?’ And he never did.”
Instead he had to report immediately to Boston, where he’d be playing for the Red Sox.
Carla then had to sell the furniture they’d purchased in Chicago. She put an ad in the paper, people came and fought over the furniture, and she developed a fever — probably from stress, she says now. The baby got a fever, too.
The next day, their plane spent three hours on the runway, with Kate Russell crying much of the time.
“But then it was so much fun (when we got there),” Carla says. “I loved Boston.”
One huge blessing: “Chris played with a guy, Jason Bere, who’d just been traded to Cleveland, and they’d just had a baby too, and they said, ‘Just come stay in our house (in Boston).’”
They continued enjoying life for the next couple of years. Carla was a dietician but took time off while the kids were little. She and Chris had “a fun marriage,” he says. Sure, there was lots of pressure to perform as an athlete, but they seemed to have a good life.
Then March 2000 happened.
From baseball to babysitting — and belief
Chris, Carla and Kate Russell were in Orlando for spring training with the Kansas City Royals.
“Then they called me into their office and said, ‘We’re going to send you to minor league camp,’” Chris recalls. It was the worst career blow he’d ever experienced.
Fortunately, God already had the people in place who would bring him and Carla through this trial — and lead them to Christ.
First, “there was this player, Mike Sweeney, who was a Christian who lived in our apartment complex,” Carla says. “Chris would say, ‘He’s always playing this Christian music.’ He (had) invited us to a Bible study that was for anyone at spring training.”
They’d gone a couple times, but “Chris was adamant … ‘I know God.’”
The same day Chris learned he was being demoted, Carla was at a Bible study just for the players’ wives, led by a lady named Barbara Cash.
“I stayed after to talk to Barb,” Carla says. “I said, ‘I just don’t feel like I have this personal relationship (with Jesus that) everybody has.’”
Barb’s reply caught Carla off guard: “You could pray to receive Christ in your life right now.” She laid out the foundational truths of the gospel — sin that separates us from God, Jesus paying for that sin so we can be made right with Him — and Carla decided to follow Jesus.
“Then (that same day) Chris came home devastated. I’d never seen him that down,” Carla says.
She hung on to Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” She tried to point her husband to that hope: “Chris, you’ve got to hear about my day. We can get through this.”
“I was consumed with baseball,” Chris says. “I’m thinking, ‘Carla, I’m trying to make a team here.’”
But he still had two days to report to minor league camp. So the next day, Carla volunteered him to watch all the kids at Barb’s house while the wives had Bible study.
“So I went from playing against Derek Jeter to babysitting a bunch of 3-year-old kids,” Chris says with a laugh.
Afterward he went to lunch with Barb’s husband, Tim, who asked, “Do you know what it means to glorify God?”
Chris said yes. After all, he’d been a churchgoer. He believed in God.
“Then (Tim) drew this pie chart,” Chris says. “He said right now I had baseball, family, God was part of it, and then I think he included some hobby or something (each as pieces of my pie). Then he drew another pie chart (with God in the middle). He said, ‘Are you glorifying God in every aspect of your life?’ Well, no.”
Chris gave his life to Christ over lunch that day. In his mind, he thought, “Might as well try it.” Then he spent the next few hours reading the Bible.
“It completely took the monkey off my back — don’t you think?” he says, turning to Carla. “In pro sports, it’s all about how you perform. With Jesus, it’s all about Him.”
Carla agrees. “He had more of the works (mentality before). Everything was about how well you did.”
Now he and Carla were radically changed. And good thing, because for the next two years, baseball life “was a constant battle.”
‘We were so hungry’
Shortly after he and Carla received Christ, Chris signed with the Seattle Mariners organization and played for their AAA Tacoma Rainiers team.
“A baseball clubhouse can be dark — there were (explicit) magazines everywhere,” he says. “But the Holy Spirit was with me. I would spend time reading the Bible.
“Having the Lord as our foundation, it gave us a chance to get through (the challenges of baseball),” he says. “I’m thankful God intervened. (As a pro athlete, usually) it’s all about you.”
“Your whole perspective changed,” Carla says.
“It made me over the next 12 months realize, I’ve got to get my priorities (straight),” Chris says.
When he and Carla were home in Jackson, they started visiting churches anytime they could.
“We were just so excited to hear the Word,” Chris says. “We’d go down (afterward) and meet with the pastor (and say) ‘Thank you so much.’”
Carla says she and Chris grew quickly in their faith, “because we were so — ”
“ — hungry,” Chris finishes.
They joined Highlands Presbyterian Church in Ridgeland in the early 2000s and have loved being part of the community there.
“I feel like we’re constantly being nurtured,” Carla says.
Meanwhile, their new faith helped their marriage grow.
“We were always floundering (before) on what we were doing, where we were going,” Carla says. “And (then) Chris was just really radically changed. Chris is the kind of person, when he hears and he knows — he’s in.
“I’m a dietician, and every now and then I’ll (eat something unhealthy) anyway. But he was really quick to let God take over and go, ‘No, that’s not right’ (when it came to spiritual matters).”
“I think it was because I could look back on how dark it was before,” he explains. As a traveling baseball player who didn’t know the Lord, he’d treated marriage, for instance, like a piece of his pie chart, no more.
“(Faith) gave us a foundation,” he says. “It gave me accountability: This is my role as a husband, as a father.”
And he and Carla have learned from each other.
“She’s been a person I can go to (who will) help me stay positive,” Chris says. “I learned that through her, and through the Word, and through people here in Jackson, friends.”
Carla admires his dedication to scripture.
“There are not that many people who get out their Bible and read it like a book — no matter what’s going on in his life. It’s inspiring to me when I’m tempted to let that go for the day,” she says.
Chris is matter-of-fact about it: “It’s been my manual,” he says. He just knows he needs it.
In the same way, “with our kids, we knew we wanted to start them out with the Word, craving that spiritual milk,” he says.
Carla says Chris has been “an extremely good example to our kids. He is a great dad.” She recalls him taking the kids to elementary school and going over the armor of God with them from the book of Ephesians, piece by piece.
“He’s an amazing vessel for so many kids, not just our kids.”
‘Don’t wait till you’re 30’
As a pro baseball player, you only get paid when you’re playing. So when Chris was home in Jackson from October to February, he needed a way to make money.
A lot of folks asked him to help their kids learn how to hit. He saw an opportunity and partnered with Chris Lotterhos, who’d played at Mississippi State University and AAA ball, and in 2001 they opened Performance Sports Academy (now P360 Performance Sports), a baseball training academy that also hosts teams, leagues and tournaments.
At first it was just a way to make money in the off-season.
“I think around the third or fourth year, I realized it’s a ministry,” Chris says. By then he’d retired and was focusing full time on the business.
His favorite scripture — one he came across after getting saved and immediately gripped onto — is Acts 4:12, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”
“We don’t throw the gospel on kids, but we’ll put that scripture on our emails and our website. We want kids to feel comfortable and not pressured,” he says. “I try to use (that scripture a lot). Then people will start asking questions. ‘What do you mean by that?’”
In the meantime, “Chris has a way of building people up and encouraging them,” Carla says.
Chris explains that he had to do that for himself as an athlete: “You have to train your brain: ‘You can do this.’ That helps me share that with kids.”
Hundreds of athletes who’ve trained under Chris have gone on to play baseball and softball in college, and some have gone pro. Now some players are bringing their own kids back to him. “I guess that’s a sign you’re getting old,” Chris deadpans.
Athletics has changed so much in the last 20 years. Of course high-schoolers train in order to make the college team, he says. But now, “middle-schoolers are training just to make the high school team. There’s so much pressure on young people. You want to let them know, don’t wait till you’re 30 to know Jesus.”
Chris also is a part-time hitting and bench coat at Madison-Ridgeland Academy, a school he says he gravitated toward because of its Christian worldview.
Carla works part time as a dietician for Essential Touchstones Psychological Services in Ridgeland, and also teaches sixth grade at “the Friday program” for homeschoolers, which meets at First Baptist Jackson.
“That’s my little joy job that I can’t give up,” she says.
Much of this interview, and indeed many of the outward “moves” in the Snopeks’ lives, has focused on Chris’ career. Carla doesn’t seem to mind.
“She’s humble, but besides Jesus, she’s been the leading thread in our family,” Chris says. “She helped raise four kids and supported me with our business.”
As he said, God used her to save his life. If she hadn’t invited him to babysit some kids at Barb and Tim Cash’s house, he might be eternally separated from Christ. And God has used Chris and Carla to influence each other as they’ve both grown in their faith.
“It’s still a challenge,” Chris admits. Nobody gets it right all the time.
But most importantly? Through he and Carla’s journey, “(God has put) our kids in a position where they can share (Jesus) with those in the community, and with our grandkids.”
That’s a pretty tasty pie chart, right there.