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Baseball Phenom from Dominican Republic Passes on $700K to Serve Mission

by | Jul. 13, 2018

Mormon Life

Marcelino Leonardo remembers the first scripture he ever memorized. And why wouldn’t he? As a poor, 8-year-old boy on the sun-scorched streets of the Dominican Republic, he was the kind of kid who adored Primary almost as much as he loved playing ball.

It was during those early days in church that he was introduced to 1 Nephi 3:7.

“And it came to pass that I, Nephi, said unto my father: I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.”

More than a decade later, the scripture easily remains his favorite. But for the young man currently serving as a full-time missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Maryland Baltimore Mission, it’s not just a verse to recite. It’s a way of life and a heavenly promise that guides him from day to day and from decision to decision.Image title

Even the expensive ones.

As a teen in the Dominican Republic, the energetic Leonardo developed a passion and a rare gift for baseball. When friends went home because the sun burned bright or the rains dumped, Leonardo pressed on with workouts and drills.

As buzz built around his formidable talents, Leonardo’s vision of missionary work changed. Once committed to serve a mission no matter what might come, the young athlete realized he could be a missionary in any circumstance.

“I saw that you can be a missionary and you don’t need a name tag,” Leonardo told me during a recent interview. “Really, what is a missionary? It’s sharing what you know. It’s sharing your testimony of the Restoration. It’s sharing with everyone that Christ is your Savior.”

Leonardo added that the moment we share our faith with a friend, family member, or stranger, we immediately become a missionary. “No name tag is needed because those are two different things. We can be a missionary and we can serve a mission. They’re not the same.”

As he wavered on whether or not he’d serve a formal mission, he began daily habits of earnest prayer and diligent scripture study. He didn’t realize it at the time, but the decision was making itself.Image title

In July of 2016, with the help of Utah native Brett Freeman, Leonardo moved to Provo. He brought with him a dream of playing for Brigham Young University, his feelings of missionary work, and everything he owned.

With pennies in his pocket, he threw himself into an English program to learn the language and, in time, to pass the infamous Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). He would need to meet the university’s benchmark to enroll, secure a scholarship, and play baseball.

When he wasn’t studying, he was working out, making friends, and stretching every dollar like an artisan taffy maker. He shared his faith and stayed true to the gospel.

One day a dear friend and baseball guru in Salt Lake City, Ernso Pierre, asked Leonardo to hop on the train and to meet him downtown. Pierre knew a scout who wanted to become acquainted with the young star.

After the typical small talk and schmoozing, the scout slid a thick stack of papers across the table and was offered an opportunity to collect $700,000 payday.

The easiest answer would have been, “Yes! You got a pen?”

Instead, another answer stirred inside him. His decision hadn’t come in a flash or singular, spiritual event. It came over time, line upon line, precept upon precept.

Moments later, Pierre turned to him and asked the question that changed Leonardo’s story forever. “Marcelino, do you want to play baseball or do you want to go on a mission?”

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Faster than the speedy middle infielder can turn a double play, Leonardo gave the answer years in the making: “Mission first. Then college. Then baseball.”

As fast as he’d answered, the scout slid the contract back to his side of the table and with it, more money than Leonardo had ever imagined.

But neither the scout nor his friend were disappointed. Both men expressed support and praised his desire to serve the Lord and get an education. “I knew I needed to go,” Leonardo told me. “The Lord keeps His promises when we put Him number one. And I knew He was calling me! I wondered, how many of His children might be blessed if I went on a mission? Mostly me!”

Just a few months later, Leonardo accepted a call to serve in Baltimore.

“Just like my favorite scripture, it fills my heart with joy and energy and excitement about what I need to do out here,” he said.

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And if a professional baseball career isn’t what the Lord has in mind upon his return, Leonardo will have no regrets.

As our interview ended, his companion, Justin Barlow of San Jose, California, offered this personal witness: “Elder Leonardo is a fantastic missionary. He is exactly obedient and so charitable and he loves the work more than anything. It’s missionary work and baseball, always in that order.”

To anyone choosing between being a missionary and serving a formal mission, Leonardo suggests they read and trust 1 Nephi 3:7—that well-known verse that continues to guide his life.

“My choice was right for me, but every story is different,” he said. “And it’s not really about money or baseball—it’s about each of us serving the Lord. I could have kept being a missionary and sharing my faith without the name tag, but I knew what the Lord wanted for me and I knew God would make the way possible.”

Going, doing, and trusting the Lord to prepare the way for success.

It worked for Nephi.

It worked for Marcelino Leonardo.

Maybe it would work for each of us, too.

Baseball images courtesy of Marcelino Leonardo, missionary photos by Justin Barlow
Courage to be you

Jason F. Wright

Jason F. Wright is a New York Times bestselling author, columnist, and speaker. His newest book, Courage to Be You: Inspiring Lessons from an Unexpected Journey, details the life of LDS billionaire, philanthropist, and businesswoman Gail Miller and is available at Deseret BookSubscribe to his weekly columns, join him on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter.

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