TOLEDO, Ohio — Baseball is such a big part of A.J. DeMarco’s life that the University of Toledo catcher wants to stay in the game as long as he can.
But when the college junior from Downers Grove, Ill., played with the Lake Erie Monarchs last summer, he said the experience wasn’t so much about the sport he loves as it was about becoming a man and developing his relationship with God.
Founded in 1999, the Monarchs are a summer collegiate team and ministry of Catholic Baseball Players for Christ, an evangelization apostolate that is spreading the Gospel in and through baseball. The group also is seeking to build a network of Catholic baseball players, coaches, fans and supportive families across the United States.
With a roster of 29 freshmen and sophomores from schools like Notre Dame, the University of Michigan, Penn State and Texas Tech, the Monarchs are on the field from June until August doing what scores of other college baseball players do around the country every summer: playing wood-bat baseball to showcase themselves to Major League Baseball scouts.
Believed to be the only such team in the country with a Catholic identity, the Monarchs are part of the Great Lakes Summer Collegiate League, one of eight leagues sanctioned and supported by Major League Baseball, said Jim DeSana, president of Catholic Baseball Players for Christ and Monarchs general manager. To supplement MLB support, each team in the league raises additional funds, and each player pays a fee to be part of a team.
DeSana said the Monarchs, who this year hail from 19 universities, 12 states and nine different NCAA conferences, attract a wide spectrum of Catholics, including some who are unchurched, as well as several non-Catholic Christians. “We reconnect young men with their faith, with prayer. We advocate for the faith and that it can play a positive influence in the way you live your life.”
A former high-school baseball coach and member of the American Baseball Coaches Association, DeSana said the team wants players to know that drugs and other negative behaviors can cause them to be distracted and unfocused in life.
Conversely, he said, “Faith in God will put you on a path to be successful — not necessarily to riches — but the decisions you make every day if you live your faith will help you get through your whole life.”
Another goal of the team is to form young men as role models for Catholic youth. During the Monarchs’ season, parish and Catholic Youth Organization teams are invited to team games and pre-game batting practices. In addition, the Monarchs put on several clinics for young players throughout the summer.
During the season, Monarchs players stay with host families from area Catholic parishes and spend much of their day before getting to the ballpark at 3pm working out and taking part in service projects.
To play on the team, prospective players must be men of good character who have Major League draft potential.
“Our games are heavily scouted,” DeSana said. “Probably 15 to 20 MLB organizations come through each summer. A regional scout for Major League Baseball writes reports on five to six players a year.” Another 30 scouts attend the Great Lakes League’s all-star game, in which the best 30 to 35 players in the league are chosen to play.
In 2010, the Monarchs had five draft picks and two free agents, and in the past three seasons, 19 players have been drafted or signed as free agents. Among team alumni are Mitch Maier of the Kansas City Royals, Brad Snyder of the Chicago Cubs, Kolbrin Vitek, a first-round draft pick of the Boston Red Sox in 2010, and A.J. Achter, who was drafted by the Minnesota Twins last year.
Father Burke Masters, vocation director for the Diocese of Joliet, Ill., and a former college baseball player who serves as a spiritual adviser for the Monarchs, said that, in his experience, baseball can be an effective tool for learning discipline, a quality that carries over into the spiritual life. Protestant groups like Athletes in Action have capitalized on this, he added, showing young players how to use sports as a platform to witness to their faith. “It’s one thing in which Catholics have not done as good a job,” Father Masters said, but groups like Catholic Baseball Players for Christ are helping to remedy that by getting players to take their faith seriously and learn how to share it through baseball.
DeMarco said his stint with the Monarchs last summer helped shore up his faith foundation and taught him that winning isn’t everything: “The big thing is that when you develop a relationship with God, whether you have an unbelievable game and you win or don’t win, God still loves you the same. No matter what you do on the field, God’s never going to change the way he thinks about you.”
Father Masters said when he played baseball for Mississippi State University, where he is still remembered for hitting a grand-slam home run that sent the team to the 1990 College World Series in Omaha, Neb., he based his life almost totally on the sport. “My personal identity was how I did on the field — and it was exhausting,” he recalled. “When I made Jesus the center of my life, life was still a roller coaster, but I felt a peace nobody can take away.”
He said he often tells young people, “I hit a grand slam to help us get to the College World Series, but that fades. It’s a nice memory, but to help people go closer to Christ makes an eternal difference. That’s what gives me joy and lights a fire under me. It’s sure nice to hit a grand slam, but it’s nothing like what I like to do now.”
Thinking About Vocations
Father Masters was working for a minor-league team — the Kane County Cougars — and hoping to get married, raise a family and fulfill his dream of becoming general manager of the Chicago White Sox when he began to hear the call to the priesthood. He later attended the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill., and was ordained a priest for the Joliet Diocese in 2002.
When he speaks to young people, he sometimes is asked if someone can love God and sports at the same time. His response: “I say you can still love sports and serve God in an incredible way.”
DeMarco said that fits with the Monarchs’ prayers before and after each game, when they often ask that God work through them. “It’s not what you want to do, but what God wants for you, because God has a plan for everybody.”
After a pre-season road trip to Alaska, where they will play nine games, the Lake Erie Monarchs open their 2011 season June 17 at Ned Skeldon Stadium in Maumee, a suburb of Toledo, with a 36-game schedule that includes the Great Lakes League all-star game in Cincinnati July 13. The regular season concludes July 29 and is followed by league play-offs Aug. 2-5 and the All-American Amateur Baseball Association World Series Aug. 7-13 in Johnstown, Pa.
Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.