In early 2014, Bobby Keppel was on the verge of becoming a starting pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds. The first-round MLB Draft pick in 2000 had spent four years honing his skills in Japan and was more than ready to use them on American soil. It seemed like just a matter of weeks before his starting status would materialize.
Then his father called.
Curt Keppel was battling cancer and asked his son to come home to help run the family’s landscaping business. What would be an agonizing decision for most players, Bobby Keppel found quite easy. The then-31-year-old St. Louis, Missouri, native left his starting pitcher hopes behind and started running Mid-America Lawn Maintenance.
Keppel has barely looked back, as his days are filled with opportunities to live an abundantly Catholic life, even outside of his many business responsibilities. He is currently the father of seven — five walking, one in heaven and one in utero — and he still finds time for the men’s apostolate that he helped to start at his local parish, not to mention volunteering for the Archdiocese of St. Louis with his wife, Suzanne. In this interview he shares some of his abundant blessings outside the game of baseball.
What do you think of the 2018 MLB season?
Well, this might not be the expected answer, but I paid almost no attention to baseball this year. I did catch one St. Louis Cardinals game in person, but other than that, I have so many other things to do that baseball just hasn’t come across my radar.
I really enjoyed my years in the sport, but now that they’re over, there’s so much else to do. My main concern is living the Catholic faith and passing it along to my children — not to mention inspiring other Catholic men to do the same. Then there’s the family business that I now run with my father nearing a well-deserved retirement.
What kind of business is it?
It’s a landscaping business that my father started in 1982. He had been managing it primarily by himself until he was diagnosed with cancer in early 2014. Before I left for spring training that year, he said he was fine and would find a way to get through the year. Well, a little later on, he reconsidered as treatment became more aggressive. He said he really did need my help, so my last pitch in pro ball ended up being a 93-mph fastball for a swinging strikeout. The next morning my six-months-pregnant wife, three other children and I packed up and drove home.
I had just spent four seasons in Japan refining, not just my pitching skills, but the art of being a starter specifically. I was more than ready to go into spring training to earn a spot in the starting rotation for the Reds. I had been through years of practice and gaining wisdom from so many different guys — a process that started with my father. Then it was kind of poetic that my pro career would end with my father involved.
Was it tough to drop the dream you had spent so much time chasing?
At the time, it wasn’t. Even though I would have loved to be a big-league starter, my family came first. It was actually a very simple decision, believe it or not. Yet as the years went by, I did sometimes think of how I could still be playing professionally. Despite those wandering thoughts, I still know family is more important than personal ambition.
I always knew leaving baseball was going to happen, but for most athletes the end is hard to define. Looking back, I was blessed to have a compelling reason to “shut it down” and kick-start a new chapter in life — a chapter that has been filled with great community that I would otherwise not have and that I can’t imagine living without.
Do you think being Catholic has helped you to see that?
Without question. I was a cradle Catholic who “checked all the boxes” throughout grade school, high school and into young adulthood. I was doing the right things, which is a good start, but I didn’t see too far beyond the surface.
I did appreciate Life Teen and Steve Allgeyer specifically. He was a local youth leader who is now a vice president of Life Teen. He shared the faith in way that wasn’t pushy, was at many of my baseball games and was just an all-around supportive guy.
During marriage prep in 2006 my eyes were opened to more of what the Catholic faith is about. My wife and I didn’t want to get married just because that’s what you do, but out of an intentional, faith-based decision.
It’s a really beautiful thing that marriage is one of the seven sacraments of the Church. That means it’s a powerful vehicle for grace and the building up of the Body of Christ. From that realization, I branched out into more and more areas of Catholicism.
Promoting fathers and families is still your specialty though?
It is. Probably the biggest thing for Catholic men is that oftentimes they are not connected to, and sometimes even unaware of, any people or organizations that help them live their faith outside the routine of going to Sunday Mass. Even at St. Joseph in Cottleville, Missouri, which has 5,000 households, I’ve still heard the comment from men that they feel like they’re operating on an island.
As a baseball player I had teammates, a manager, a bench coach, a pitching coach, a bullpen catcher, a trainer, Hall of Famers who mentored current players, books on the mental aspect of the game, and much more. I could have called up 10 guys outside of my teammates and coaches who would have been happy to help with any question I had. They were right there for me at any time.
I want to take that baseball support team paradigm and make it applicable to parish life. I want Catholic men not only to know of Mass and confession schedules, but spiritual directors, accountability partners, religious houses that take prayer requests, conferences on everything from bringing your faith into your workplace to learning about parenting, in addition to media and other outlets like our local St. Joseph Radio, EWTN Radio and TV, the National Fellowship of Catholic Men, Priests for Life, Scepter Publishers, Ignatius Press, and on and on.
You went to De Smet Jesuit High School in Missouri. Have you read The Life of Father De Smet?
I haven’t read that book, and I actually know very little about the man the school was named after. It makes me want to look into his life though. I know he came as a missionary to North America, where we have so many cities named after saints. Right where I am, there’s St. Louis and St. Charles, named after a king of France and Charles Borromeo. Maybe Father De Smet will be canonized one day, but nevertheless, he already has a school named after him.
You started a Catholic men’s magazine in 2014 but it’s no longer in print. Magazines and restaurants don’t seem to last too long.
The magazine, called The 9s, was a good idea in principle, but it was tough to sustain in practice. We had good content from writers such as Dr. Meg Meeker — who wrote the books Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters and Hero: Being the Strong Father Your Children Need — and we did well with subscriptions, but couldn’t get enough advertising revenue to continue.
However, the underlying theme of The 9s continues today in so many other ways, like in the list of Catholic resources just given and specifically in the retreat in St. Louis we just had recently. Around 90 men spend two nights with each other learning more about being Catholic and adoring Our Lord in silence.
There were so many good things that happened, but the two words that stand out in my mind are “authenticity” and “brotherhood.” We spoke of the need for men to be real with each other about their spiritual challenges and goals. We can’t go it alone; we have to help each other to heaven.
One of the things I gave a talk about was the need for men to realize that it is an injustice for us to pay more attention to people we don’t know than to our own family. Our wives should be first, then our kids, and then our neighbors, business associates, and so forth. Sometimes we invert that order, which is a violation of the proper structure of relationships, which should be anchored in family and extend in an organic way from the family.
As men we would all find it easy to take a bullet to save our families, but for some reason we find it much more difficult to die to self in small ways. We should be “dying” on a daily basis for the good of our families by doing things we don’t necessarily feel like doing but which are for the good of others nearest to us. We need to step up and lead rather than wait and see what might occur.
You have a particular concern for education of children.
Parents are the primary teachers of the faith. We can’t rely on priests, nuns, lay catechists, professional teachers or anyone else to do the job we should be doing. They can supplement what we as parents do, but if being Catholic really means something to us, we should have enough knowledge about the faith to pass it along to our children on a daily basis.
Two stellar examples of passing along the traditions of our faith are the recently canonized parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Louis and Zélie Martin. They raised a saint (or two or more) by being saints themselves. One of their other daughters wrote about her parents and sister in books that TAN publishes.
Even though you decided to go directly into pro baseball after high school, you attended Notre Dame in the offseasons. What did you study there?
I studied business in three different offseasons, and even though I didn’t play for the Fighting Irish, I have met some of them, such as David Phelps. Not only do we have the Notre Dame connection, but we’re both pitchers from Missouri, and, of course, we’re both Catholic. We actually spoke at a Catholic Athletes for Christ event, so even though we were never on the same team for baseball, we are on the same team spiritually.
I know David prays the Rosary in connection with baseball, and our family prays the Rosary every day. It’s been said before, but there’s no better way to bring grace down on your family than through the daily recitation of the Rosary. The rosary beads themselves are sacramentals, and blessings are, too, so I like to bless my children every night. Fathers are not only supposed to protect and provide for their families on a physical level, but on a spiritual one, as well. That’s what matters most.
contains numerous Catholic sports interviews, most of which have appeared in the Register.
This Q & A was updated Nov. 26 for clarity.