ST. LOUIS-Baseball paused this week for its All-Star game, but its ethical challenges did not go away. Steroids gossip involved leading lights such as home-run king Barry Bonds, and an old killer claimed another victim this spring: Pitcher Josh Hancock of the St. Louis Cardinals had a blood-alcohol level of 0.157 percent, nearly twice the legal limit, when he slammed his car into the back of a tow truck on April 29 and died instantly.
This should have been the best of times for St. Louis, which finally won the World Series last year, but the Cardinals have a losing record on and off the field. The team, though, is not without resources. Ups and downs of a long season drive some players to drink or drugs but others to Christ, and St. Louis has at least six players who regularly testify to their Christian faith: starting pitchers Braden Looper and Adam Wainwright, solid players Yadier Molina and So Taguchi, and stars Albert Pujols and David Eckstein.
They each have testimonies of spiritual change that allowed them to leave behind sinful behavior. Looper in 1998 "came to understand that because of my past mistakes I needed a Savior." Wainwright notes that "the life of a baseball player has many temptations," but "through Christ's strength I have the ability to make right choices, and those choices leave me with no regrets." Molina says he could see that the lives of Christian players had meaning and purpose: "I came to a point in my life where I could no longer live without Him."
Taguchi, like many Japanese players, for years carried around a burden as great as that of Christian in Pilgrim's Progress: "I was playing minor league ball and I was struggling with the game and the transition of being so far from home and knowing little English. . . . In the past I felt like I was failing my team and myself when I made a mistake. I came to realize someone else could shoulder my burdens. That someone is Jesus." He now understands that "my destiny was to come to America, play baseball and discover that Jesus longs to have a relationship with me."
The most talented Cardinal is first baseman Albert Pujols, the son of a legendary softball pitcher in the adult leagues of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. He has told sportswriters that after the games "My dad would start drinking and he wouldn't stop. I was 9 or 10 years old, and I used to have to drag him home after his softball games. He'd have his arms draped over my shoulders, and I'm dragging him. . . . Every night I did it, I kept thinking to myself, 'I can never do this to my son when I grow up.'. . . I thank God every day I didn't pick up that bad habit from my father."
St. Louis sportswriters say that's more than words for Pujols, and for his wife, Deidre, whom he married when he was 20 on January 1, 2000. They have three children, one of whom has Down syndrome, and in 2005 they started the Pujols Family Foundation, dedicated to "the love, care and development of people with Down syndrome and their families" and to helping the poor in the Dominican Republic. The foundation website states, "In the Pujols family, God is first. Everything else is a distant second."
Pujols at age 27-and now a United States citizen, after taking the oath of allegiance on Feb. 7-garners great respect in St. Louis and among baseball fans generally. The National League Most Valuable Player in 2005, he is the only player in major league history to have hit 30 or more home runs in each of his first six seasons and the youngest ever to reach 250 career home runs. He easily made the All-Star team this year and, barring injury, is likely to be a perennial, with a Hall of Fame spot on the horizon.
Still, the Cardinal who is probably most loved is the one who was MVP of last year's World Series, 31-year-old David Eckstein. He was also the shortest athlete on the field, at a generously measured 5 feet 7 inches, and probably the least likely, since he was undrafted out of high school and not offered a college scholarship. He made the University of Florida team only after another infielder transferred to a different college and coaches noticed the little guy who spent hours improving his hitting in the batting cages.
Eckstein earned a scholarship and twice was named to both the all-SEC team and the Academic All-American team. (On the basis of his name he also was selected for the Jewish All-American team, even though there is no Judaism in his background.) "Just keep working, working, working," Eckstein told WORLD on the field before one game, when asked the reason for his success, "and don't worry. If you start worrying in this game, everything becomes even harder. Work is your friend. Worry is your enemy."
But how does he keep from worrying, in a sport where a player can hit the ball perfectly and still make an out, and a fielder's fame can ebb from one ground ball to the next? Eckstein explained, "I'm not as big as the other guys, so I've always known that I had to work real hard. But even with all that, I couldn't do anything without God. It's all Him. Let Him take control. If I go 0 for 4 I just keep working hard and praying. I'm not anxious because I know it will turn out all right. . . . My faith in Jesus is everything to me. You have to understand that He's working in His way. I've got to do everything possible to be prepared, and then to let Him take over."
Eckstein showed that preparation during pre-game fielding practice: Some players are lackadaisical about it, but at 4:10 p.m. (the game would start three hours later) he was fielding ground balls again and again. There's nothing slick about his style: His arm is not that strong, so he has to take a running step toward first base to get some momentum behind his throws. The same effort was evident in batting practice. Some players go through the ritual of bunting the first pitch, but Eckstein bunted almost half the pitches. Some players just hit up the middle, or put on a home-run show for fans, but Eckstein was practicing positional hitting: Hit one pitch to right field, the next to left.
When his pre-game practice ended, Eckstein politely signed autographs for fans, including one mom who had her children dressed in No. 5 and No. 27 jerseys-those are the numbers of Pujols and another St. Louis star, Scott Rolen-and kept calling him Mr. Ecksteen. (It's pronounced Eck-stine, but the shortstop did not correct her, nor did he correct Bud Selig when the baseball commissioner mispronounced Eckstein's name last October while awarding him his World Series MVP award. "Doesn't matter how they pronounce the name," Eckstein said. "I'm just glad to be here.")
The game itself that night was both unusual and typical for Eckstein. The strange event came right away, when he led off the game with his first home run of the year. Eckstein hit 27 in his six major league seasons before this year: He stands close to the plate, leans into pitches, and gets his reward either by using every bit of his power or by getting hit by a pitch. (He set a rookie record by being hit 21 times in 2001 and had a league-leading 27 plunks in 2002.)
The typical parts of the game came later, when Eckstein ranged far into left-field foul territory to catch a pop-up, and when he ran down to first base after a walk. He seems all energy on the field, not even standing in his shortstop position: He often walks around in little circles, and he runs into the dugout at the end of each inning. A psychologist might mutter "ADD," but Eckstein says he has "joy" just to be able to play.
WORLD asked him, "What do you pray for?" Eckstein replied, "I pray not to get hurt, and that I'll be able to take the ability God gave me and multiply it." Eckstein certainly has talent: He can hit a curveball, which Michael Jordan, a foot taller, could not. But Sports Illustrated this spring asked 413 major league baseball players, "Which player gets the most out of the least talent?"-and Eckstein received 77 percent of the votes. No other player received more than 3 percent. Eckstein was selected for the last two All-Star games not on the basis of the awesome talent that some stars have, but because of an awesome work ethic.
A batting slump in April and early May left him vote-shy for this year's All-Star game: He then raised his average to over .300, only to miss the last two weeks in June with a lower back strain. He says that such concerns are minor compared to the emotional roller coaster he rode in the seventh grade when it turned out that two sisters and a brother needed kidney dialysis and received (eventually) transplants. Eckstein wrote in his autobiography for kids, Have Heart, that "despite our family misfortune, nobody blamed God or turned bitter or asked: 'Why us?'"
He concluded, "Our faith taught us things happen for a reason. We might not know what that reason is, but our job is to move forward. . . . Having heart is easy when everything is going your way. The true test comes when things aren't." That test is frequent in major league baseball, where a player who gets three hits every 10 times at bat is a champ, and one who gets two hits every 10 times is a chump with a brief major league career. The difference: one time up of every 10. What makes the difference? Talent, sure, but any veteran baseball-watcher can reel off long lists of exceptional athletes who crashed or never even took flight. Heart counts.