Craig Stammen of the Washington Nationals is among the hundreds of players preparing for the opening of spring training later this month.
While the mechanics of baseball are a part of everyone’s preparation, Stammen has an added benefit coming into the season: his practice of trusting in God’s providence.
The 28-year-old North Star, Ohio, resident learned to entrust everything to God a little over seven years ago at the University of Dayton. After a summer of rookie league baseball in 2005, Stammen returned to campus for the fall semester. It was during this time that he first shared his Catholic faith publicly — a turning point that helped to solidify his core beliefs and aim in life.
In 2012, the right-handed relief pitcher had the best year of his four-year major-league career, going 6-1, with an earned-run average of 2.34 for the National League Eastern Division champions.
When Stammen pitches, he knows that once the ball is out of his hands, everything else is out of his hands as well. More importantly, though, he realizes everything is in the hands of a God in whom he lives and moves and has his being.
How has coming from a small town influenced you?
Coming from such a small place has definitely influenced me in different ways. North Star only has about 250 people in it, so, technically, it’s not even a town, but a village. When you live in a community of that size, there’s more silence, simplicity and accountability. Much of the noise and extraneous concerns prevalent today are reduced greatly, and you’re close to and dependent on your neighbors.
This is a value-based and also a humbling environment to be raised in. You’re taught to work hard, but it’s not for the sake of one-upping others. Everyone is on a level playing field, in that sense. You’re more concerned about carrying out a duty and getting a job well done for self-respect and contribution to the community.
When I bring in friends from out of the area, they say it’s like the 1950s, but with technology. We do have computers and all that, but they aren’t primary, just tools to be used when necessary. We’re more focused on family and friends than the latest gadgets. That perspective keeps you grounded in reality.
The entire village of North Star is Catholic, so even though I went to a public school, it was de facto a Catholic one. When people outside of North Star ask if I went to Catholic school, the answer is, “Well, no, but yes.”
What are some of your top baseball memories from growing up?
We would sometimes play baseball as a whole family. I have quite a large extended family, so, with all the open area around us, playing games was easy to do. I also remember playing catch almost every day with my best friend. We would throw the baseball around for hours and talk about playing one day in the major leagues. It seemed like such a faraway, unreal goal back then. It was something to dream about, but I’m blessed to be living that dream out today.
You went on the USO Holiday Tour in December. How did that come about?
I had visited some injured servicemen at Walter Reed Army Medical Center last summer. It was quite an experience: to talk with them at length, learning about the troubles they were going through. Their sacrifices make possible the blessings in civilian life we take for granted. Their service to our country made me want to do something more to thank them for what they’ve given us.
My teammate Ross Detwiler and I were among the people who visited five countries in five days on the tour. We went to Afghanistan, Bahrain, Kyrgystan, Germany and Ireland. It was quite an adventure to ride in military planes and vehicles to some remote places. I’m used to traveling throughout our own country, but to go so many miles overseas was a totally different experience.
More important than that, though, was being able to interact with the members of our military. We got to see some of what they go through up close, which increased the respect I had for them. Leaving the comforts of home for many months at a time, and going to strange places without many of the simplest things we consider to be necessities, is an experience most of us just can’t relate to.
My own daily life is so easy and simple in comparison with what I saw the soldiers go through. I actually get paid to play baseball. How can you ever complain about that?
What are your expectations for spring training this year?
I’m looking forward to spring training, first of all because of what we accomplished as a team last year. We had an improved record (98-64) from 2011 and made the playoffs. This is a great thing to build on for the 2013 season, and spring training is where we do the preparatory work for that. We hope to show this season that we’re not a one-year wonder, but a perennial contender.
Have the Catholic faith and baseball always been integrated in your life?
Growing up, Catholicism and baseball were two separate entities in my life. Even though both were important to me, it was made clear that being Catholic came first and playing baseball second. This was and remains true, but I’ve since learned that the two things can actually be incorporated together.
What I realized at the University of Dayton is that, while you should work very hard to play as well as you can, you need to put everything in God’s hands. You do your part, and then let God determine what’s best for you. This realization has helped my game a lot. It has made playing in the majors possible, which I had previously thought of as being unattainable.
I used to play for my teammates and school, which was a good thing, but now I play for God, which is an even better thing. It’s a much broader-minded way of seeing things, and it takes a lot of the pressure off you. It opens you up to the reality that, while baseball is fun, you can’t really enjoy it to the fullest or play it to the best of your abilities without recognizing the God who made it all possible in the first place.
How did you come to this realization?
I was drafted after my junior season at the University of Dayton in 2005. I played in the rookie league that summer and then returned to campus for the fall semester. It was during this time that I went on a retreat.
As one of the retreat leaders, I was supposed to give my own testimony. This was a huge step for me because I hadn’t shared my faith in such a public way. I had talked about it with family and friends, but this was the first time I was officially claiming it as my own amidst strangers.
Ever since that retreat, I knew I had to live out what I was stating as true; I had to make a real effort to walk the walk, knowing that certain things were expected of me. Because I belonged to Christ, I had to live no longer for myself, but for him who died for me. It was not just about hearing the truth and agreeing with it, but actually living it.
That sounds like St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans (2:13) and other places.
I’ve always been interested in St. Paul. He was put in some of the worst situations, but still maintained a positive outlook. From the time of his conversion, he trusted completely in Christ, and that was what drove his missionary work.
Whenever we would have Bible projects as kids, I would choose something regarding St. Paul. He is my favorite saint, someone I look up to and try to pattern my life after, to the limited degree I can. We live in very different times, but the goal of remaining faithful until we get to heaven is the same.
It’s funny, because, when people ask me if my faith has gotten me through tough times, I really can’t think of anything heavy or burdensome I’ve been through. Maybe that’s just a sign of how blessed I am to have always had faith. Maybe the tough times haven’t seemed tough because of my faith. What happens to you isn’t nearly as important as how you respond to it.
What do you treasure most about the Catholic Church?
I appreciate how systematically all aspects of the Church’s teaching and sacramental life are put together. You don’t just make it up as you go along; you receive what is passed down from the apostles. Our Church goes all the way back to them and, of course, to Christ himself.
One of the most obvious ways this is made manifest is in the Mass. I love the order and structure of the Mass — how the priest and people have specific roles, how the word of God is read and then how the Eternal Word himself is made present in the Eucharist. You can’t beat that combination. It’s something St. Paul wrote of in 1 Corinthians 11, and it’s something I’ve enjoyed since childhood.
Another aspect of my childhood in which St. Paul was involved was “putting on the armor God.” I would listen, along with my younger brother and sister, to my mother read from the Bible while we ate breakfast. She would emphasize Ephesians 6, which concerns things like the “shield of faith” and “the helmet of salvation.”
We got a kick out of putting on our imaginary gear in order to take on the challenges of the day.
Over the years, we would add more items to our collection of "armor," which increased the time for us to get ready for school. Our weaponry and protection increased, but the length of our football-field-long driveway did not decrease. This made it more likely that we’d be late for the bus, so we ended up throwing our armor on as we ran down the driveway.
I still prepare spiritually in the morning, but I make sure not to be late for any pitching appearances because of it.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.