GOOD BOOK, GREAT BOOKSSHORTSTOP TURNED PRINCIPAL CHRIS SPEIER STILL BELIEVES IN FUNDAMENTALS | News | Phoenix | Phoenix New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Phoenix, Arizona


A little boy rings a hand bell; the school day begins. Uniformed children assemble in a classroom. They sit in neat rows, the smallest ones in front. A life-size statue of Jesus stands at the front of the room, palms raised. The principal stands at the rear of the room...
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A little boy rings a hand bell; the school day begins. Uniformed children assemble in a classroom. They sit in neat rows, the smallest ones in front. A life-size statue of Jesus stands at the front of the room, palms raised. The principal stands at the rear of the room and quietly calls the group to order. Everyone gets up and begins to pray. The students and teachers of Ville de Marie Academy in Scottsdale pray for a dozen straight minutes, reciting from memory prayers of the Catholic Church. Although the families who send students to this school attend local Catholic churches, the school is not affiliated with the Phoenix Diocese. It is an independent upstart, on a path parallel to mainstream parochial education. But this school is more of everything. More orthodox. More disciplined. More expensive.

While most parochial-school students first study Latin as high school freshmen, these students start as fifth graders. These students adhere to a dress code--polishable shoes, daily uniforms, no trendy hairstyles on girls or boys--that is as strict as a dress code can be. These students read the Great Books.

They don't, as a matter of course, study The Baseball Encyclopedia, a lower-case great book that carries the statistical life story of their principal, a former major league all-star who made an unmatched reputation for clutch hitting and dependable fielding over almost two decades in baseball. As he leads the school's 75 students through their morning prayers, it is possible to see remnants of the razor's-edge focus that carried Chris Speier through 19 major league seasons. At times like these, the students of Ville de Marie know that their principal is not up for nonsense.

Speier, which, by the way, rhymes with spire, has chosen a more challenging postbaseball career than most of his peers, who drift toward sports-bar ownership, broadcasting or, recently, a little portfolio management and lots of golf. "The stakes are much higher here," Speier says. "We're actually dealing with the souls of these kids." @rule:

@body:Speier, age 42, played shortstop for 13 seasons in the majors, for the San Francisco Giants and Montreal Expos, then became a respected utility infielder for the Twins, Cardinals, Cubs and, for his last three seasons, back with the Giants. Speier had great range, a gun for an arm and an everyday attitude. His reputation among fellow players was as a "gamer," someone who by sheer force of will turned unexceptional talent and physical prowess into occasional greatness and, ultimately, extra victories for his team.

He hit 112 home runs, had a .246 lifetime batting average, played in three All-Star games and had as teammates both Willie Mays and Will Clark. Speier probably could be coaching or managing in the minors somewhere, working his way back to the big leagues, and in fact has done instruction work for the Giants. He says he enjoys helping the younger players learn the fine points of infield play, the "1,000 different elements that go into your position." It was his concentration on those little points, the "mental aspect of baseball," that kept him in the big leagues for almost two decades.

He could be preparing for spring training with the Giants, which begins in just a few days and which wouldn't require much of a trip. Speier's tiny office at Ville de Marie, situated in an old public school that has been rehabilitated into a business park, is mere blocks from his former workplace--Scottsdale Stadium, where the Giants train and play spring games. "I don't miss playing," Speier says. "Right now, when I think about it, there's a desire to maybe manage someday. But there's also a desire for me to do what I'm doing now."

The school was founded in 1991 by a group of Catholic parents "concerned about the education" of their children, says Speier, who is involved because four of the school's pupils are his own. His salary is paid in tuition credit for his kids (about $2,200 a year per student, slightly more than tuition at area parochial schools), and his duties include administration, filling in for ill teachers, handling discipline (which involves punitive custodial chores around campus when it's not deferred to a student's parents, which it usually is) and teaching boys' P.E. "He's very devoted to the work," says the parent of one of Speier's students. "It takes an unbelievable amount of his time and energy. He's a terrific role model for the children. His faith definitely permeates his work."

For the students, Ville de Marie does not appear to be a severe place. They undergo their indoctrination into faith and reason in an orderly, efficient atmosphere, and may be the best dressed and most polite assemblage of young people in the state. They come to the school from all corners of the Phoenix area, and they come primarily from intact, deeply pious families. The school is designed to prepare these students for the temptations and distractions of a world decaying around their young lives, and to give them a place to consider the higher purpose of worldly existence.

It is a lot to ask from kids these days. Chris Speier and the parents who founded the school ask it every day. The purpose of the school, Speier says, is "to bring kids to an understanding that their call is to be holy. They have to be taught to do that.

"These kids need to be taught what's right, and what's wrong. They need to be disciplined. It's the foundation of their character, the formation of their will." @rule:

@body:Chris Speier knows will. He shaped his baseball career--and navigated a quick path to the majors--by repeatedly making breaks for himself. A Dodgers fan while growing up in the San Francisco Bay area, Speier signed with the Giants after a year of college ball. Assigned to a team in the lower minors and told to report late to spring training in Casa Grande with the rest of the bus-leaguers, Speier showed up in February, anyway, bags in hand. "I went to check in and the guy says, 'You're not supposed to be here for another ten days,'" Speier says. "And I said, 'Well, I'm not going home.'"

Given a uniform and a bunk, Speier got a better look than he would have had he followed orders. He spent his first season of pro ball at a higher level of the minors than the Giants had projected for him. Speier made his Class AA league's all-star team that summer, and halfway expected to get called up to the Giants when the big club expanded its roster for the end of the season. When he didn't get an invitation, Speier called San Francisco and asked if he could work out with the team anyway, before games. The Giants agreed--since the kid lived in the area, anyway--and Speier got a foot in the clubhouse door. "I was almost positive by the end of that season that I was going to be invited to the big club in spring training as a nonroster player," he says. "Well, I wasn't. I was really unhappy. So I called them and said, 'I've had an opportunity to see the shortstop situation for the Giants, and if you invite me to camp as a nonroster player, I'll make that club next year.'"

Which he was clearly destined to do. "I was very, very cocky," he says. @rule:
@body:Chris Speier did more for himself that first spring training than bluff his way onto the team. "I was 19, 20 years old, and had done a lot of things," he says. "I had the opportunity to travel around the country. I was making more money at that time than my father had ever made. I was kind of living a fantasy, a dream world that boys growing up would want. "Things were going very well for me on the outside. But there was something missing. I could very seldom ever put my finger on what it was.

"Until I met my wife. Until I saw the spiritual element that was the most important thing in her life. I just saw a peace she had that I never had achieved." Aleta Pagnini had worked as a flight attendant for TWA, and was employed in one of the Van Buren motels that many ball clubs used for spring headquarters in the early 1970s. Speier met her there, near the end of the preseason, then left to travel the country with the Giants. "We kind of led a crazy courtship, over the telephone and through letters," he says. "We very seldom ever saw each other."
Speier converted to Catholicism to marry Aleta after his second season, studying the faith and visiting with priests as he traveled with the Giants. Giants coach Joey Amalfitano (now a base coach with the Dodgers) helped answer some of Speier's questions, and acted as his sponsor during the conversion. Raised as a Protestant, Speier attended Sunday school as a kid, but had never spent much time pondering spirituality. Later he learned that one of his closest childhood friends, a Catholic, had been praying for years for Chris to convert. "So I had some influences unbeknownst to me, on the spiritual side, that were sort of pushing me in that direction, I guess," he says. "As I was educated and filled with what Catholicism was about, I realized I wanted this to be the central portion of my life. It was a filling of a void. "That's basically the story."

@body:Meanwhile, Speier's baseball career was exploding. After only a year in the minors, he became a sensation for the Giants, starting for their 1971 National League West championship team. He hit 15 home runs and knocked in 71 runs during his second season, led NL shortstops in fielding percentage (.982) in 1975 and made the All-Star team three straight years.

"He was the best 3-2 hitter I've ever seen," says Bob Stevens, who covered the Giants for the San Francisco Chronicle from 1958 to 1980, and who now works as the team's official scorer. "He literally made true the clich that you can play at 110 percent." Off the field, Speier applied the same intensity to his new faith. He quickly became involved in the emerging pro-life movement, speaking at high schools in the off-season and organizing a small group of fellow players into an anti-abortion advocacy group. "What I basically did was I went into every National League clubhouse and took ten minutes and explained what was happening, about all the babies that were being killed," says Speier, who used statistics and fetal photographs to "show the reality of abortion" to the players. "It was done briefly, but I really tried to hit home," he says. "It was a little scary, going into the clubhouses and stuff . . . but the principle kind of overrode any kind of inhibition I had."
Despite such outreach efforts, Speier never got the reputation as a clubhouse preacher, according to Bay Area sportswriter Stevens. "I never was evangelical," says Speier, "but I think everybody understood how I felt."

@body:Through the years, Speier's baseball career took him to five different ball clubs. The end came in San Francisco, when a nagging herniated-disk injury, combined with the mental grind of so many major league seasons, forced him to consider retirement. "I had gotten to the point where my back had limited me," he says. "As a player, you know. You were once able to get to certain balls you can't get to anymore. You're fouling pitches back that you used to hit. I could see the ability go. "That's frustrating, when the mind tells you to do something and the body's just not reacting."

Speier says that proper rehab for his back could have allowed him to play for another year or two. "But I was mentally ready to get out of the game," he says. At the time, he was not sure what he was ready to get into. Speier worked for the Giants as a roving infield instructor for a time after leaving the game as a player. Chris and Aleta Speier had settled with their children (they would eventually have six) in Scottsdale in 1984. They began meeting with a group of other parents who had begun to discuss the education of their children. About 20 families were in that group. Some had been sending their children to existing parochial schools, others were home-schooling. All felt a need to be more involved with their offspring and to educate them "in a deeply Catholic environment," Speier says.

Meetings were held over a period of several years, as the group studied other private schools around the country and brought in guest speakers. By the spring of 1991, a decision had been made to open Ville de Marie's doors the following fall. Speier, whose baseball earnings would allow him to spend time on such a project, was drafted to lead the effort to form the school, and to eventually become its top administrator.

"I bucked it and didn't really want to do it, but I realized at that time that God wanted me to do it.

"I was basically ramrodded into it," he says, smiling. "At the time, there was so much work to be done."
@body:Desks and other supplies were bought at auction; blackboards were still on the classroom walls in the converted elementary school the parents chose for the school's location. Although the budget allowed for only two full-time teachers the first year, five were needed. Several parents were recruited to teach in trade for tuition credits.

The full-time teachers were recruited from "small orthodox Catholic colleges," Speier says. "We wanted to make sure the teachers were practicing Catholics, in complete agreement with the church of Rome." For the first year, three grades were taught together in each classroom. This year, the school's second, two grades are housed in each classroom, and more full-time teachers have been hired. Grades kindergarten through tenth grade are taught, and plans call for grades 11 and 12 to be added in the next two years. Though enrollment now stands at 75, Speier says 90 pupils will be the school's eventual limit. Ville de Marie's curriculum, as guided by a committee of parents, is partially based on the Great Books approach, promoted since the early 1950s by the Chicago-based philosopher, sage, writer and encyclopedia editor Mortimer Adler. The system draws on the collected wisdom displayed in the 100 or so greatest books in Western culture. The list starts with Homer, and runs through Milton, Shakespeare, Locke and dozens more. Students study math via the writings of Euclid; science through reading Newton, Copernicus and others. A few colleges around the country have adopted the Great Books approach, and Ville de Marie has successfully recruited as teachers graduates of those schools. "We wanted to make sure that the kids got the best of what's available," says Speier. "By best I don't mean what's prevalent." @rule:

@body:Of all the Great Books, one in particular gets the most attention. The first and most important class of the day at this school is theology, and the classes that follow are taught "in conjunction with the formation of the spirit, teaching the truths of our church," Speier says. Religion, he says, "permeates the curriculum."

"Probably the biggest selling factor was the spirituality of the school," says one parent. "The whole atmosphere is very God-centered."
Every Friday, students and staff attend Mass at the nearby Our Lady of Perpetual Help. And the school demonstrated and prayed as a unit in front of a Planned Parenthood office on the recent 20th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade abortion ruling by the Supreme Court. "The kids are very aware of the pro-life side, and very anxious to pray for those people," says Speier.

As versed as the students are in Scripture, they're less exposed to state-of-the-art classroom technology. Though computer terminals have become highly fashionable accouterments in most public and parochial schools, Ville de Marie's classrooms don't have a single PC. "I don't think we'll ever be in the position where we'll have all the doodads that public schools have," says Speier.

"I've never seen a kid who couldn't learn a computer in very short order," says dad Rich Eneim. "If they're learning how to think on their own and not learning the computer at this point, we're not worried about that."
Parents all but dismiss other potential problems: The academy is neither accredited, meaning the teachers aren't certified by the state and various public-school classroom standards are unmet, nor is it affiliated with the local diocese. The school's accreditation status could create problems for students who transfer out and for college-bound graduates. "We're looking into that, but it's not important," says Speier of accreditation. "Parents do ask about it, but we feel that students will do well enough on their SATs and well enough in their interviews to get into college." He adds that similar academies around the country have had little trouble placing their graduates into colleges.

Says Patty Coover, a mother of six who pulled four of her own kids out of a parochial school to enroll them at Ville de Marie:

"I'm absolutely thrilled it's not accredited. I think accreditation has gotten to be--how can I put this?--I think it's worthless. We have all these schools accredited and we have kids who can't read and write? "I put my trust in someone like Chris Speier and his wife and the teachers in that school and my own ability to discern things. . . . My kids are learning in that school, and that's all I care about."
The academy's status with the diocese (whose schools are all accredited by the North Central accrediting association) is a stickier issue. Officially, church leaders are noncommittal about Ville de Marie. "I know there is a school over there," says Father George Matanic, vicar for Christian formation (head of education) for the diocese. "Our basic feeling is that parents make choices. People are quite aware that we support choice for education." Unofficially, they have to worry about the drain on their own schools when some of the most committed and devout parents see a need for an alternative to existing parochial education. Ville de Marie appears to be a reaction to the evolutionary changes in Catholic life that have occurred over the past few decades. The students' early emphasis on Latin, for example, is a throwback to the days before Vatican II modernized some of the church's rituals in the early 1960s, including switching Mass from Latin to English. Speier and the founding parents are careful to avoid criticism of the church or its parochial-school education, although they say their school is a correction of a whole society's failed attempt at educating itself.

"The primary educator should be parents," says Rich Eneim, citing a long-held Catholic philosophy. Before the Tempe homebuilder and his wife helped found Ville de Marie, their three children were home-schooled. "Nobody knows your kids better than you do; nobody has the same desire for their success that you do. When you boil it down, we feel it's our job. And if there is some delegation of the responsibility, we think it has to be done very carefully."
Ville de Marie parents say their friends from church are curious about, but respectful of, their decision to veer from the flock. "We get sort of the same response that we were used to when we were home-schooling," says Rich Eneim.

How the children of Ville de Marie feel about their alternative education is hard to judge and, ultimately, not all that important. Their parents have made this decision for them, and they abide by their parents. The students, at least at the high school level, are bright and totally attentive in class, yet capable of an energetic, all-class, seven-on-seven co-ed basketball game at lunchtime. Their school day is not a long, grim march toward enlightenment. Because of Ville de Marie's size, big-school extracurricular activities can't be offered, but older students who have attended other schools say they don't miss such opportunities. Parents say the reduced class size and dress code work to reduce peer pressure, and the students genuinely seem to appreciate the absence of distractions such as $150 sneakers. "It's one less thing to worry about," says one. @rule:

@body:A Ville de Marie parent describes the academy as "a safe harbor in a storm" for her children. In addition to being the school's spiritual leader, chief administrator and gym teacher, Speier also plays the role of harbormaster. He knows he is part of something special and something somewhat fragile. Yet it's doubtful that Chris Speier's baseball buddies would be too surprised to learn what he's done with the rest of his life. "Nothing surprises me about him," says Mike Sadek, a catcher for the Giants in the mid-1970s. "He was destined for something like this." Speier admits he sometimes wrestles with his current destiny. Though the rewards of running Ville de Marie are many, he says he's had to divert time away from his own family to help enrich the families of others. A project that began as a way to help his own kids has him now helping almost 80 of them. It's been more work than he ever imagined. "Would I do it again? I don't know," he says. "I was overwhelmed at first, but now I love it. When you get thrown in the water, you learn how to swim.

"I don't take credit for any of this. The school's here because God wants it to be here." And there is the tug of his past life. He tries to stay close to the game, or at least close to old friends who still play the game. Not surprisingly, one of Speier's closest friends as a player was Ryne Sandberg, the Cubs' soft-spoken slugger who winters locally, and the two try to stay in touch. "Right now I don't miss playing baseball," says Speier. "I miss the moments. I miss being out on the infield in the ninth inning with a game on the line."
In a career full of memorable moments, his favorite moment is the first one--his first game as a big leaguer. He had met his future wife just days before; the Giants opened on the road in 1971, against San Diego. He walked in his first at-bat in the first inning, scared to death. "Then I went out to the infield," he says. "I was taking ground balls from Willie McCovey. I stood there for a moment and looked behind me, and there's Mays in center field. And on the hill is Marichal. I just said, 'What am I doing here? Wake me up.'

"I can still actually feel the same feeling I had then.

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