Finding the Strike Zone in the Cactus League

26 Mar

As a new season begins, two upfront evangelical pitchers talk baseball and life

Marvin Olasky
World Magazine

GOODYEAR and SCOTTSDALE, Arizona—The past half-year has been an extraordinary period for high-profile Christians in sports, one that raises the question: What’s next?

It started with Tim Tebow’s run of last-minute Denver Bronco victories, and kids all over the country kneeling—”Tebowing”—in imitation of their hero. It continued with Jeremy Lin’s out-of-nowhere ascendency to New York Knicks point-guard brilliance, the first Asian-American to be such a hit, and in a media market that magnified “Linsanity.” Neither Tebow nor Lin shied away from testifying to their faith in Christ when opportunities arose.

Will a young evangelical baseball player similarly emerge this year? It’s harder, because baseball coverage is traditionally more localized than national, and with 162 games rather than football’s 16, the spotlight on particular moments during the regular season isn’t that intense. But here’s one nominee for a baseball breakout star: Justin Masterson, who celebrated his 27th birthday on March 22.

Masterson is a PK—preacher’s kid—starting his fifth major league season. He is scheduled to be Cleveland’s opening day pitcher on April 5, after compiling last year a 3.21 earned run average with 12 wins. (That would have been 16 or more with better hitting support, Cleveland sportswriters say.) He throws fastballs that can reach 97 mph, heavy-drop sinkers (some say that’s his best pitch) that range from 84 to 94 mph, and sliders or change-ups that come in at 77 to 83 mph.

Masterson, born in Jamaica where his dad was a seminary dean, grew up in the Midwest as his father pastored churches in Indiana and Ohio. The pitcher says PKs either follow their dads or become “crazy rebels.” Masterson did a couple of mildly crazy things as a teenager— police arrested him and a friend for stealing a street sign, and he volunteered with Habitat for Humanity to work off a community service sentence—but he says he realized when young that he is a sinner and “needs Jesus.”

In high school Masterson shaved his head as part of a Halloween costume—he was Mr. Clean—and kept the bald look to top off what is now a 6-foot-6-inch, 250-pound frame. He also read a WORLD cover story (“Throwing heat and taking heat,” Aug. 3, 2002) on Atlanta pitcher John Smoltz, who said he loved playing but also felt called to start a Christian school: The following year Masterson told a Dayton Daily News sportswriter, “My father is a pastor, and I want to spread God’s word too. If I make it in professional baseball, what better stage is there?”

After playing baseball for two years at Bethel, a small Christian college in Indiana, Masterson transferred to San Diego State, coached by Hall-of-Famer Tony Gwynn. Then came minor league stints and a major league call-up in 2008. Along the way some teammates nicknamed him “Jesus … because they’d go to a bar or a party and I’d go hang out with them, but not drink. They thought it interesting, with some of the other Christians they had encountered, that I’d still be willing to hang out with them and make sure they didn’t kill themselves. … I told them, ‘I’m not Jesus, but if you’re thinking about Him, that’s OK.'”

In the minor leagues Masterson gained another nickname, “The Shepherd,” because he became known for paying attention to lonely and homesick Latin American players: “They stick with each other because they don’t really know English that well. I know enough Spanish to make a fool of myself, and once you do that they feel more confident to make fools of themselves when trying to speak English. … It blossomed into some fun relationships and the opportunity to hang out with them and try to get them to chapel or talk to them about God.”

Masterson passed up the sexual opportunities that present themselves to college and professional athletes: Asked whether girls were throwing themselves at him, he laughed and responded, “They might try to, but girls scare me.” Masterson married four years ago a woman he met at Bethel: He and Meryl have a 1-year-old, Eden Joy, “and hope to fill the world with a whole bunch of little ones.” Many major league players have told me that it’s hard to turn down readily available sex on the road, but Masterson says, “I could not live with myself to even think about the idea of cheating on my wife.”

Some pitchers have their own prosperity gospel—praise God from whom all strikeouts flow, ignore Him at other times—and Masterson wants none of it: “In baseball you see a lot of guys who get a base hit and point up that they’re giving glory to Christ. Then they strike out and you don’t see them walk back to the dugout doing the same thing: “Thank you for the strikeout.” My prayer always before the game is that whether I give up five homeruns or have a perfect game, I’ll show Christ. … What the outcome is, I don’t know. … Maybe that man hit a home run off me today because God was trying to work in his life. Or maybe I just made a bad pitch.”

Many baseball players have manic-depressive swings depending on how their last game went, but Meryl Masterson speaks about how even-tempered her husband is, and he says the secret is faith that “Christ controls it all.” Trusting in God’s sovereignty, Masterson says, does not make him less competitive: “Watch me play.” Once, when told he was too nice to hit a batter crowding the plate, he replied, “‘I’ll hit the first guy of the game,’ and I did—with a fastball right in the gut. … Whether I win or lose I’m going to put it all on the line and know that whatever happens, I still have Christ in my life.”

Masterson admitted that he is not immune to praying, “Lord, I could really use a strikeout right here”—but adds, “If He doesn’t give it me, I’m not like, ‘Oh, God, why have you forsaken me?'” He says his usual response is, “I could have made a better pitch.” He tries to communicate that attitude to others, but realizes he has a lot to learn: During the off-season he attends East 91st Street Christian Church in Indianapolis, “a good Bible-believing church.”

Sportswriters, often a cynical bunch, will be looking for evidence that Christ doesn’t make a difference. One Cleveland sportswriter, Jodie Valade, wrote last August, “It might be nice, perhaps, if one day Justin Masterson really exploded, really expressed the emotions churning beneath that perpetually cheerful exterior. … If he spouted off the bitterness everyone knows must be simmering somewhere deep down, if he’d stop being so gosh-darn merry and upbeat about everything tossed his way.”

Valade did admit that Masterson’s “perpetual optimism” and “unflappable demeanor” have “helped him progress from an unsteady pitcher” to a prime-time starter. This year he’ll begin having the benefits and pressures of major league wealth, as his salary jumps from $468,000 in 2011 to $3.83 million for 2012. Sportswriters will be watching carefully to see if success goes to his head.

They do say Masterson is well-regarded by his teammates, in part because of efforts like one last year that aided utility infielder Jack Hannahan, who was batting only .217. The Indians were in Boston when Hannahan’s wife went into labor, two months prematurely. The only way for Hannahan to get to the hospital in time was by private jet—at a cost of at least $35,000 that Hannahan did not have. Masterson learned about the problem and talked with teammates: Together they came up with the money. Hannahan flew to Cleveland and rushed to the hospital. Fifteen minutes later his wife gave birth.

Masterson may be the player best-positioned to become baseball’s breakout Tebow or Lin, but every team has Christians who don’t hide their faith. For example, Jeremy Affeldt of the San Francisco Giants writes weekly posts for his personal blog on topics such as “Living like Jesus,” discipleship, and social justice: He wrote recently about the importance of both clean water and indestructible soccer balls in poor countries, and also noted that the greatest injustice anyone could experience is not knowing who Jesus is.

Affeldt, 32, went to Northwest Christian School in Spokane, then headed to Florida for minor league ball: “That’s when I took myself to church and read the Bible on my own.” In recent years he has been reading books by Christian authors including New York pastor Tim Keller: “The Reason for God is pretty awesome. I really enjoyed the book. I pass it out.” (See “Book of the Year,” June 28, 2008.)

Affeldt has seemed headed for stardom several times during his decade-long major league career, but each time a physical ailment—blisters, a partially torn rib-cage muscle, a groin injury—sidelined the left-handed relief pitcher: “I went through times when I was quitting this game because I failed so much. … I was wondering if I should be doing this for a living. … During those times I truly was leaning a lot on God. … So now when I’m dealing with some young guys who are going bad, I have stories to tell. If I was always succeeding, then I would have no stories.”

Now, Affeldt has a tattoo on his forearm that proclaims “Solus Christus,” Christ alone. He got it on Mother’s Day last year because his wife, Larisa, wanted a tattoo but she wanted him “to do it first, so I said, ‘OK, I’m a big church history guy and the five solas of church history are very important to me.'” (The Protestant Reformation emphasized five solas—living by Scripture alone, Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, glory to God alone.) Larisa went for an “Eternity” tattoo on her wrist because during the baseball season her husband is on the road half the time: When she’s caring alone for their two small children, she wants a reminder of the long-range perspective. (A third child is due in September.)

I asked Affeldt how he gets along with San Francisco’s powerful gay contingent. Affeldt’s goal is to “love them as my neighbor. Then hopefully in my love for them they will have a situation where they can find Jesus.” He’s “gotten to know a few people from the community, and they are in a lot of pain,” in part because they “feel judged.” He said homosexuality is a sin but he doesn’t lead with that fact.

Father-son memories

Masterson said his dad “set a great example for me, as did my mother, of how to love Christ and love others.”

I called Masterson’s father to ask about bringing up Justin, who was “not a perfect child, but good.” The primary parenting key, Mark Masterson said, was “trusting God.” Second came involvement—playing catch, serving as an assistant coach—without making demands: no special traveling teams with extended seasons, just regular baseball. (Justin Masterson recalled, “It was never the ‘you need to do this.’ It was, ‘you enjoy it, let’s do it.'”)

Dad and boy both told me about one favorite memory, a Bethel College tournament game. Bethel trailed 2-1. Justin was at bat with a man on. Mark yelled encouragement from the stands. Justin replied, “This one’s for you, Dad”—and he hit a game-winning homerun. Justin: “It was the most incredible experience—just having my dad there and screaming it out and being able to do it at that moment. … It has been a blessing to be able to play the game of baseball, and now I get paid to do it.” — Marvin Olasky

Five favorite evangelical interviewees

Outfielder Andy Van Slyke was the first Christian major leaguer I interviewed two decades ago. The first two players up for the Los Angeles Dodgers in a March 7 Tempe training game this year were Tony Gwynn Jr. and Jerry Hairston Jr., both sons of major leaguers, but then came Scott Van Slyke, one of Andy’s four children.

That brought back memories. On average, Christians in baseball are not more epistemologically articulate than the general populace—many belong to the “big man upstairs” school of theology—but some have thought through their faith and its implication. Here are comments from five who impressed me:

• John Smoltz on why Christian schools are important—”Kids need the ability to differentiate between evolution and Christian understanding. … They need the weapons to defend Christianity, to be able to understand and debate the differences between religions, to know what’s happening in the world and how to compete.” (See “Throwing heat and taking heat,” Aug. 3, 2002.)

• Mike Easler, a star hitter who became a Baptist minister and hitting coach—”My job is to mold a guy, teach him to be humble. I pray that God will work on him so he will change not just on the outside but on the inside.” (See “The ‘Hit Man’ returns,” Sept. 5, 1998.)

• Harold Reynolds “Christians who play passively haven’t gone deep enough into Scripture. Biblical meekness has nothing to do with weakness; you’re meek before the Lord by glorifying Him, and that means using all the talent He’s given you, and the only way to do that is by playing hard.”

• Curt Schilling, who professed Christ in 1997 but didn’t talk about the change with reporters and fans until 2004—”I’ve learned that you should never hide your faith. I wasted seven years. People didn’t know.” (See “Public profession,” March 19, 2005.)

• Andy Van Slyke “Before I became a Christian my baseball life was such a roller coaster—good days, bad days—that it was wearing me out. … But God doesn’t save us because of our performance, and whether it’s a good performance or a bad performance it’s not going to threaten our relationship with God. That’s a comforting thing to know.” — Marvin Olasky


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