Cover Story

Baseball as it should be

Despite all the bad news, some Christian Cardinals-particularly David Eckstein-take flight

Issue: "All heart," July 14, 2007

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."

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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.

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