Cover Story
Masterson (Tony Gutierrez/AP) and Affeldt (Duane Burleson/AP)

Finding the strike zone

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

Issue: "Agony and ecstasy," April 7, 2012

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.

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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."

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