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.

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Dave Walker