Pitcher's mission reaches beyond diamond

by | Aug. 13, 2007


It's a steamy summer night and Baltimore Orioles rookie pitcher Jeremy Guthrie is staring down the New York Yankees, whose potent hitters have hammered 70 runs in their previous seven games. The Yankees challenge the rookie in the first inning. After two quick outs, right fielder Bobby Abreu slices a double. Third baseman Alex Rodriguez walks. Staring intently at his target, the catcher's mitt, Guthrie rears back and throws a darting fastball to left fielder Hideki Matsui. Matsui grounds out weakly. Inning over. Throughout the game, which Guthrie wins 4-2, the pitcher's calm demeanor never cracks. He throws with composure he says he earned on another type of field, the mission field, while wearing a different kind of uniform: the dark suit and crisp white shirt of a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. During his mission work in Spain from 1998 to 2000, Guthrie didn't touch a baseball. He didn't know if he'd ever pitch again. "That was my personal commitment to the Lord," he said. "If baseball was in my future then I would trust in that. And if it wasn't, I was ready for whatever came my way. And so I just decided to leave those things behind and focus completely on my missionary work." Seven years later, the Oregon native is exceeding nearly all expectations. Through early August, only two pitchers in the American League have allowed fewer runs per game than Guthrie. Couple that with a record of 7-4, many people in baseball consider the Orioles pitcher a solid contender for Rookie of the Year. "He's been very impressive," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "He knows what he's doing, he keeps it together." Guthrie is hardly the only Mormon to play professional sports. In his locker at Oriole Park at Camden Yards hang the jerseys of former National Football League quarterback Steve Young, a descendant of early Mormon leader Brigham Young; and Dale Murphy, a star for baseball's Atlanta Braves during the 1980s. But the plainspoken pitcher in Baltimore is widely believed to be one of only two former missionaries now playing major league baseball. (The other is Florida Marlins relief pitcher Matt Lindstrom, also a rookie.) "The year Guthrie is having right now is blowing everyone away," said Jeff Call, who has kept tabs on Mormon athletes for 10 years as a sportswriter for the church-owned Deseret Morning News in Salt Lake City. "To think the guy for two years wasn't even focused on baseball, at a time when a typical baseball player's whole life is baseball." Married with two young children, the 28-year-old Guthrie is older than most rookies in the majors. His maturity is evident both on and off the field, said Orioles manager Dave Trembley. "On top of his shoulders is a head that I call 'the computer,' " Trembley said. "He has poise, work ethic, sense of preparation, quality of person, the grounding of faith. When you were growing up as a kid, he's what you thought a major league player should be." Guthrie didn't always think he had the makings of a big league player. His arm was strong enough to garner interest from the New York Mets when he was a senior in high school. But he spurned the Mets to attend Brigham Young University. Like many young male Mormons, he planned to apply for missionary work after his freshman year. Serving two years as a missionary has become a rite of passage for Mormon men, especially since the 1980s when LDS then-President Spencer W. Kimball called on every worthy young man to serve the church. Overall, the Church of Latter-day Saints counts some 50,000 missionaries, most under age 25, serving in 350 mission fields worldwide, according to church spokeswoman Kim Farah. That extensive network and the 12-hour, pavement-pounding days the missionaries put in has helped fuel the church's explosive growth from about 1 million members in 1950 to its current 12 million worldwide. Guthrie flew to Spain in July 1998 after a lackluster freshman season at BYU. He led the abstemious life of a full-time missionary. He loved it, though, and said he succeeded in baptizing two Spaniards into the church. "Having a strong foundation in your faith, obviously you know that baseball is not the most important thing," Guthrie said. "So when you're out there in a tough situation, maybe you'll sit back and realize it's just a game and enjoy it and have fun."
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