With only four teams left in the playoffs, Major League Baseball is heading into the climax of its season, and Jeff Suppan knows exactly what the players are going through.
Suppan initially looked upon the playoffs with awe and trepidation, but, eventually, he gained a more accurate view of the dynamics at play. This helped to bring about a 2006 World Series Championship for him and the rest of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Now that Suppan has been away from professional baseball for over a year, he spends most of his time in southern California with his wife, Dana, and their two small children, ages 2 and 4. He makes the Sign of the Cross on their foreheads before putting them in bed, and he even gets a blessing back from his 4-year-old daughter.
Jeff Suppan, the 2006 National League Championship Series MVP, recently recounted this winsome story and many others to Register correspondent Trent Beattie.
You’ve played for three of the teams that made the playoffs this year, and two of them — the St. Louis Cardinals and the Boston Red Sox — are still in contention. Did you have a favorite team going into the postseason?
I’ve played for quite a few major-league teams — seven to be exact — and I like all of them for various reasons. They each had good things going for them, and I was able to make friends from each team I was a part of. Now I look on the playoffs, not from the standpoint of rooting for one team over another, but from an overall standpoint of the game of baseball and then, secondarily, on keeping up-to-date on friends who are still playing.
I can remember playing for the Cardinals in 2006, which was a long, tough season. We had two eight-game losing streaks and a seven-game losing streak as well. Not exactly what you’d expect from a team that went on to win the World Series, but that’s what happened. We didn’t let the setbacks get to us; instead, we kept competing each day, and it eventually paid off.
The Cardinals had a much better regular season this year than in 2006, and it is an interesting matchup now, with them and the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series. The Dodgers, as you can imagine, are popular here in southern California, and lots of Dodgers fans come into our restaurant, Soup’s Sports Grill. Some people wrote the Dodgers off after the slow start this year, but now they’re right back among the best.
What advice would you give to the players left in the postseason?
Growing up as a baseball player, I imagined what it would be like to play in the MLB postseason. I thought of it as being magical — just a dreamy, fantastic experience. When I finally got there with the Boston Red Sox in 1995, however, there was nothing dreamy about it.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the game of baseball, and it was fun to be in the playoffs, but I had played hundreds of games before that, and the games in the playoffs are just like those games. The rules don’t change. The ball doesn’t morph into a different shape. The strike zone doesn’t get smaller. It’s all the same game. The only thing that’s different is the increased noise around the game, which makes people think the game itself is different.
It’s funny, because, sometimes, you’ll hear announcers say things like, “[The pitcher] must have hopes of victory racing through his head in this all-important at-bat. This is what he’s prepared for all these years: this big moment. You can see it in his eyes.” The reality is, that is (or at least it should be) the last thing on the pitcher’s mind. If he’s doing his job, he’s just thinking about that one pitch. That’s the only pitch there is in the whole world, and you’re not thinking about all the results — you know, the pluses and minuses — of what might happen.
So players would do well to remember it’s the same game; take one pitch at a time and — as I would try to do — maximize those things you have control over. I would call it “controlling the controllables.” You really only have control over your own preparation and performance. Outside of that, you have to learn to let go and let God.
How do you spend most of your time today?
It’s funny, because when I was still playing baseball, I would think of how, when I retired, I would be able to attend daily Mass, go on lots of retreats and do all kinds of great spiritual things with all the free time I’d have.
Once I got out of baseball in 2012, I actually got up early and went to daily Mass at 6:30am. That lasted for about six months; but then I got caught up in some of the activities around Christmas — those that aren’t directly church-related, like assembling toys — and I haven’t gotten back into a regular routine yet of making Mass a daily thing. It’s more sporadic than it could be.
Now I see that, as a baseball player, I really had more alone time than I do now as a full-time father of two small children. What’s even more amazing is that I’m more tired after a day with the kids than I was after a day of baseball.
At the end of the day, my wife and I pray with our kids, and we bless them before putting them to bed. After we make the Sign of the Cross on their foreheads, it’s funny to see my 4-year-old bless us back.
What do you appreciate most about marriage and family life?
The thing I appreciate most about married life is that it completes me. Some people are called to celibacy, but others are called to be married. I’m definitely in the second group, because I sense a necessary completion of my personality through my wife. She balances me and makes me more in tune with aspects of life that are just not my specialty.
Probably the most noticeable instance of this is with our kids. I loved my wife before we had kids, of course, but after we started having kids, I was able to love her even more profoundly. She has an amazing motherly ability to interact with babies and kids in a very compassionate and tireless way. It’s an aspect of her personality that I wasn’t able to witness for years, because we took a long time to get pregnant.
Before kids, we both thought I was the one in the marriage with patience. Not much would ruffle me, and I was able to wait for things well. Once we had kids, however, that was completely reversed. I realized that my patience did not include things related to kids and that my wife had patience specifically for those things involving kids.
It’s such a joy to see my wife relating so well to the kids and providing the needed patience that I can’t. Her aptitude for this is saintly. At the same time, it’s a joy to be a protector for my family — a quality that was brought out after the birth of our first child four years ago.
Now that you have kids, do you also have a better take on what your parents did for you and your four siblings?
No question about it. As you’re growing up, you can’t really understand all that goes into parenting. It’s just not possible. Even when you’re older, you can get it better, but there’s no replacing actually having kids of your own.
My parents were married for almost 50 years before my mom died from pancreatic cancer in January of 2008. They showed us how a marriage should work — that it’s about the long haul and that little things shouldn’t prevent you from moving forward. They took their sacramental vows seriously, which is an irreplaceable thing.
My dad enjoys being a part of my kids’ lives today, and I know my mom is still a part of their lives, too — just not in the same way. She was a prayer warrior on earth, so I don’t expect that has changed much after her death. She was always quick to say that we should pray about something, and she was part of Magnificat, the Catholic women’s group, which emphasizes prayer.
You mentioned in our last interview that you were going to look further into the life of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. How has that come along?
It hasn’t. I still have a respect for her and know about her role in the 2003 World Series, but as I look at my Catholic library, I’m reminded of how many books I still need to read. You can get pieces read here and there, but I need to just bear down and get through one whole book at a time. I see The Story of a Soul on the shelf and plan on reading it. By our next interview, I should be able to tell you about that.
One book I have read through is The Lamb’s Supper by Scott Hahn. Reading this book was a wonderful way to deepen my understanding of the most important part of our faith: the sacrifice of the Mass, where we receive the very body and blood of Jesus Christ.
There’s also a book called Building Catholic Family Traditions by Paul and Leisa Thigpen that we’ve used. We have other printed resources, some of which come from Ignatius Press. The lives of the saints, Church doctrine, family life — all those things are presented well by certain publishers, so you just have to make the effort to get them.
We also enjoy watching EWTN and listening to Catholic radio — especially programs like EWTN Live and Catholic Answers Live. What a blessing it is to have these resources, where you can learn more about the most important things in life. I would watch and listen to Catholic TV radio as a player, and I continue to do that in retirement. This helps to bring me the truths of Jesus Christ and his Church, along with that peace which surpasses all understanding.
What advice would you give baseball players — or any adult — about the spiritual life?
Prayer is the No. 1 thing for everyone. No matter where you are or what you’re doing, you need to pray every day. Communication with God is an essential aspect of Christian life. There’s no replacement for it. Saints have said things like “A soul out of prayer is like a fish out of water” or “To stop praying and to lose the life of the soul are one and the same thing.”
For those who travel a lot, like baseball players do, the universal necessity of prayer becomes even more obvious, because you often have fewer faithful people and places to rely upon. You’re away from your family and oftentimes away from a nearby church, so the importance of prayer takes on a new meaning.
I’d also recommend getting an orthodox spiritual director. That’s huge. I’ve benefitted from having a director for years. It’s so much easier to see things clearly when someone else is there with you. Without the influence of that other person, it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll have inaccurate perceptions about yourself and others, so then you’ll make bad decisions. Having a knowledgeable director prevents a lot of bad moves and gives you opportunities to do great things that you otherwise would not have.
I started seeing a director shortly after high school, but I think it would have been even better to have started seeing him in high school. That’s something I plan on telling the kids about at my high school, Crespi Carmelite in Encino (or any other high school I speak at). I’ve spoken at Crespi after my graduation at different times, and now I help out with the school’s baseball program.
So, spiritual directors and constant prayer are two huge things, especially the prayer. You don’t always have access to a director, but you do always have access to God. You have to take advantage of that continual, freely given, grace-filled audience and stay in touch with the source of Divine life.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.