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Courtesy Ron Fox
A young Robert D. Hales in his baseball uniform follows through on a throw during the 1949-1950 high school baseball season.

SALT LAKE CITY — As a freshman starting on his high school's varsity baseball team, Elder Robert D. Hales nearly quit during a slump.

After his team lost three games in a row, the headline in the school paper read, "Hard Luck Hales Loses Again." At that point, Elder Hales attempted to turn in his uniform. But his coach had another idea. He advised the young pitcher to stop trying to "impress everybody with your fastball and curveball" in warmups, Elder Hales shared in a 1995 church magazine article.

"You probably pitch two or three innings doing that," the coach said. "Quit showing off and you won't wear out your arm."

Elder Hales obeyed his coach and pitched a shutout in his next game.

"That’s why you love a coach who will tell you what you need to hear," Elder Hales said in the article. "If you listen to your coach, you can avoid repeating your mistakes and have a better opportunity to achieve your goals. The Lord is like that, too. I don’t get tired of the chastening of the Lord or the Lord’s anointed."

Elder Hales died last Sunday after serving for 23 years as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and as a general authority for more than 40 years.

As a boy growing up in New York, Elder Hales loved baseball and dreamed of one day playing for the New York Yankees in historic Yankee Stadium.

He excelled in the sport during his high school years and eventually pitched for the University of Utah before an injury ended his career.

In July 2007, Elder Hales took the mound at Dodgers Stadium to throw out the ceremonial first pitch on Mormon Night.

Like his pitching slump experience, Elder Hales' love of baseball and personal experiences have allowed him to teach gospel lessons and principles. Three such experiences are found Elder Hales' book, "Return: Four Phases of Our Mortal Journey Home."

Accountability

As a boy, Elder Hales' love of baseball and a wise older brother helped the future apostle learn accountability.

When he was about 10 years old, Elder Hales recalled hitting a baseball over the yard fence into a neighbor's greenhouse. It wasn't the first time this had happened and the woman had never returned a single baseball.

"We said she ate them," Elder Hales wrote.

Upon hearing the crash of glass, everyone scattered and left Elder Hales standing with bat in hand next to his older brother, who informed his little brother he had two options. One, he could run away and later face his father who would inevitably ask why he didn't "face up to it?" Or second, he could confront the situation right away. Elder Hales found out later his brother's wisdom came from previous experience, he wrote.

Elder Hales rang the doorbell and confessed to the woman what he had done. He also asked if he could have his baseball back. The woman said if he was willing to do some chores, everything would work out. In time, his and all baseballs in the woman's possession were returned.

"I learned how good it feels to accept responsibility for our own actions," Elder Hales wrote. "As we do, our understanding of who we are increases."

Receiving the signals

Elder Hales' high school baseball coach was Art Smith. Coach Smith, who had played for the Chicago White Sox, taught Elder Hales how to throw a fastball that curves away from a right-handed hitter, among other memorable lessons.

"I'm even more grateful for some lessons he taught me about life," Elder Hales wrote. "He was a man of integrity."

One such lesson came during Elder Hales' first big game as a sophomore pitcher. He found himself on the mound in the bottom of the ninth with two outs, the bases loaded and the game on the line. He was also facing one of the best hitters on Long Island, New York.

The catcher signaled for Elder Hales to throw a fastball, but the pitcher worried he didn't have the arm strength that late in the game. He ignored the signals and was surprised when, with hundreds of fans watching, the catcher threw his glove down and shouted, "Throw what you want!"

"I think he did this for the coach’s benefit," Elder Hales said.

The tirade led to a meeting on the mound between coach and pitcher. After encouraging the pitcher to trust his catcher, who knew the opposing players well, the coach added that he was actually the one calling for the fastball.

As Elder Hales set up for the next throw, he noticed his catcher had taken off his mitt, sending the message that he wasn't afraid of Elder Hales' arm strength.

"He was egging me on, and it worked. I wanted to break his hand," Elder Hales wrote.

He threw as hard as he could and struck the batter out to win the game.

What Elder Hales learned was a spiritual lesson.

"I thought I knew better than my catcher, but I didn’t. He was getting his signals from the coach, and they both knew things I didn’t know. In my reluctance to follow his signs, I nearly lost the game," he wrote.

"We, too, are blessed with someone who knows things we do not know, who gives us counsel that will help us prevail in the challenges of life. There has always been a desperate need for the steady and reassuring voice of a living prophet of God: one who will speak the mind and will of God in showing the way to spiritual safety and personal peace and happiness. When we ignore his counsel because we think we know better, we are following an unfortunate pattern that is frequently detailed in the scriptures. We are risking losing not just a game but our very salvation."

A pivotal decision

As a junior in high school, Elder Hales was invited to try out for a semi-professional baseball team.

"Being invited was a real honor, extended to only a select few," he wrote.

Elder Hales went to try out as a pitcher but during battling practice he got into a rhythm and smashed several balls over the outfield fence. Soon Elder Hales had signed a contract that obligated him to play in a doubleheader each Sunday.

Because he could still attend church meetings, Elder Hales thought he had the situation figured out. But soon he received a call from his stake president inviting him to lunch on Sunday. With no way to accept the invitation, Elder Hales knew his president was on to him.

"President, I think we need to talk," he wrote.

His priesthood leader never told him what to do. He only asked Elder Hales to read some articles about athletes at Brigham Young University who didn't compete on Sunday and spoke of keeping the Sabbath Day holy. On his own, Elder Hales went to the team manager and explained he'd made a mistake. The team let him out of his contract.

"I had learned an important lesson about placing the things of God first in my life," Elder Hales wrote. "This was an important decision that helped me better understand who I was and what I should become."

Elder Hales' funeral services will be held Friday at the Salt Lake Tabernacle.