Seattle Mariners’ Pitcher Looks to St. Joseph for Relief
24-year-old Joey Gerber returns after season-ending back surgery.
After a junior season at the University of Illinois that included a school-record 14 saves, Joey Gerber was chosen by the Seattle Mariners in the eighth round of the 2018 MLB Draft. His excellent 2019 minor-league season that featured a 95-mph fastball was followed by his major league debut the next year.
Although Gerber was looking forward to playing his first full major-league season in 2021, team doctors were looking backward. The 6-foot, 4-inch right-handed relief pitcher had a herniated disc that was trimmed in order to relieve the pressure it was exerting on a nerve.
That happened last July and was followed by months of rehabilitation. Now that Gerber’s back is back where it should be, so is his mind. Although a perfectionist, Gerber has learned not to attempt to get great results, but to make a smart, smooth effort one pitch at a time and let the results happen as they will.
Good results, however, seem more likely for the Seattle Mariners this season, as they have added 2021 Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray to their pitching lineup. Gerber is encouraged by this signing and the possibility of backing up Ray from the Mariners’ bullpen.
Gerber, a Maple Grove, Minnesota, native, is not related to the processed baby food pioneer Daniel Frank Gerber, but is becoming better acquainted with someone who shares his first name. St. Joseph, whose feast day is March 19, is the subject of reading materials for Joey Gerber this year. His “personal Year of St. Joseph” and other Catholic topics were discussed before spring training started.
How did a kid from snowy Minnesota end up in the major leagues at age 23?
Because Minnesota is so cold, it’s better known for hockey than baseball. Yet baseball just turned out to be my thing. Arizona probably produces an NHL player now and then, so I guess Minnesota can produce an MLB player, too.
The relative scarcity of baseball players in Minnesota is one of the many reasons I looked up to [former Minnesota Twins’ catcher] Joe Mauer so much. He was born and raised in St. Paul and became a three-time AL batting champion and a three-time Gold Glove Award winner. He could have easily gone to a larger market that would have been more than happy to have him, but he stayed with the Twins.
Are you ready for 2022 after season-ending back surgery last year?
No athlete likes to get injured, but I learned from my experience last season that my motion needed to be smoother. I need to focus more on how I am moving for each of my throws rather than just on their intended outcome. Put another way, it is a good thing to throw 95 miles an hour, but that can be done without putting too much stress on any given part of the body.
I only throw two pitches — a fastball and a slider — so it’s important for both of these pitches be as good as I can make them. Although I’m currently at 93 or 94 miles an hour, I’d like to get back to consistently 95-plus, while maintaining body balance. For the casual fan, a one- or two-mile-an-hour difference is meaningless, but since baseball can be not only a game of centimeters and seconds, but of millimeters and thousandths of seconds, small margins can mean the difference between a home run and a strikeout.
Overall, I feel refreshed and renewed — and would love to be a regular part of the Mariners’ bullpen in 2022. I’m not straining after that, though. I’ve just been focusing on doing what I can do — what I actually have control over — instead of things beyond my reach.
Sounds like Jeff Suppan’s concept of controlling the “controllables.”
I almost met Jeff in November at the Catholic Athletes for Christ annual retreat, which took place in Oceanside, California, this year, which I was invited to because of my teammate Nick Margevicius. Jeff usually attends but was not able to this year. The same was true with Craig Stammen. However, I did get to meet Joe Wieland, who played well overseas and is now back in the States.
I was also blessed to see Mike Sweeney. He is something else — probably the most positive person I’ve ever met. It’s inspiring that he was able to integrate top-flight baseball and a genuine Catholic faith. He showed that it doesn’t have to be an either-or thing.
That applies to another man at the retreat: Father Burke Masters. He played college baseball and did very well in it, but then discerned a vocation to the priesthood, and, even as a priest, he still combines baseball and faith. He’s like former MLS player Father Chase Hilgenbrinck, who was the chaplain at the University of Illinois’ Newman Center when I was there. His pro-soccer past made his already-helpful ministry even more so to me.
Have you thought of becoming a priest?
The priesthood is indispensable for the Church to continue the mission of Christ. As a Catholic, you can’t help but have an appreciation for that. However, even though I’m all for the objective reality of the priesthood, which is an even higher calling than marriage, I have no subjective attraction to the priesthood as a vocation for myself.
Here’s a little analogy: Even though I recognize that it’s better to be a shortstop than a relief pitcher, I am, nonetheless, a relief pitcher. I could end up being a really great relief pitcher, even better at my position than the shortstop on my team, but it still remains true that the shortstop position itself is — apart from the individuals who occupy it — greater.
Sts. Louis and Zélie Martin are the parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. They’re canonized, but are the 19th-century French priests who gave them Holy Communion or heard their confessions canonized? I don’t know, but you can excel in your position, even if it’s not the highest position in the objective order of things.
Sounds like when Venerable Louis of Granada wrote that the point of the Christian life is not always to choose what is best in itself, but what is best for oneself.
Right. Each vocation has specific requirements for exercising virtue. An action for one vocation might even be harmful for another — not that the thing itself is wrong, but that it is wrong for that specific person at that specific time.
An easy example is going to daily Mass. Participating in the Eucharistic sacrifice more often than required is a very good thing to do. In fact, it is, objectively speaking, the highest form of worship there is — much greater than private prayers.
Yet if someone has lots of small children or has to be at work when daily Mass is going on, then it becomes, for them, a bad idea. Maybe there are ways around it, such as attending Mass at noon if that’s a possibility, or restructuring a work schedule. Otherwise, something that is the best in itself (the Mass) is not the best for oneself (some fathers and mothers).
Like Father Masters, you are a convert. Was it a book or radio program or friend who helped to bring about your conversion?
I’m a naturally inquisitive person, so when I read about the Christian Church in the New Testament, it was clear that it had certain visible characteristics — hierarchy, teaching authority and sacraments, for examples — that were supposed to endure through time.
The Church is referred to as “the pillar and foundation of truth” in 1 Timothy 3:15, and in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 we’re told to pass along apostolic traditions — and that would include the Mass itself, which the apostles were told, in Luke 22, to do in memory of Christ.
When Jesus is instructing his disciples in Matthew 18 on how to deal with a Christian who sins, at one point he says to “tell the Church” (ecclesia) about the issue. The Church certainly is a spiritual reality, but it is also very concrete. Earlier in Matthew 16, when Jesus calls Simon “Peter” (rock) and gives him the keys to the Kingdom, he says that his Church (ecclesia) will always prevail over the “gates of hell” and after his resurrection promises that he is with his apostles “until the end of time.”
The fact that the Church has a concrete institutional structure which continues until Christ comes again meant that Lutheranism could not be the Christian church Jesus intended. That title would have to go to the Catholics or the Orthodox. Then, if you look at history, you see the importance that the early Christians ascribe to the bishop of Rome, who is Peter’s successor. Again, Scripture itself makes it clear that the Church is centered around Peter and the faith he professes in Christ.
Bottom line: It was clear to me from reading the Bible that the Catholic Church was the original Christian Church founded directly by Christ himself. That meant I had to join, because the Catholic Church is not only where Christ was, but where he continues to be.
I became Catholic when I was 15, and my older sister converted, as well. My parents weren’t too keen about that at first, but since then they have become more open to the Catholic Church.
Do you think that not only data, but beauty, would help people to see the value of the Church?
I do. Beauty ultimately draws one to Jesus, and he calls us to join his community, the Catholic Church. But, while ultimately deriving from Jesus through his Church, there are many elements of sanctification and truth that can be found outside of the Church’s official structure. The beauty one finds in the Orthodox churches is a great testimony to Christ, and there is also some great art in Protestantism. [Johann Sebastian] Bach, despite not being Catholic, made huge contributions to the world of music.
It could be pointed out that the musical underpinnings for Bach’s genius were set by the Catholic Church — especially considering Bach composed a well-known Mass setting in B minor — but, it’s not, strictly speaking, necessary to be a fully practicing Catholic in order to produce great Christian art. In some ways I think art can be a great unifying factor for Christians.
For the apologetic value of beauty, you can look at how Catholicism is a sacramental religion even beyond the seven official sacraments of the Church. Catholics see matter as created by God and capable of expressing or conveying spiritual truths. There are countless examples of this in altars, paintings, medals, windows, water, statues, holy cards, rosaries, crucifixes, candles, incense, etc.
Maybe the most and, curiously enough, least obvious sacramental reality I would have thought about as a Protestant is the Bible itself. After all, it is using paper and ink to express the Incarnation and redemption of the world. One can take that sacramental aspect of the Bible, given to us by the Church, and see how it points us in the direction of the many ways given to us in the life of the Church to encounter the “Word made flesh.”
Rich Gannon is an art-and-architecture-appreciating Catholic athlete with ties to Minneapolis. Have you met him?
I have not, but it sounds like we should meet one day. We could exchange church images. I love great-looking churches, and there seems to be a preponderance of them in the Upper Midwest.
One of my favorites is the Basilica of St. Josephat in Milwaukee. It has ornate yet organized decoration, so you’re amazed by the artistry, but never lose the sense of being in the house of God. It’s not art for art’s sake, but for the sake of teaching the Catholic faith and having a worthy place to offer sacrifice to God.
Similarly, the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul, Minnesota, is a majestic building that towers over the city. Some churches you have to enter to see any beauty, but this one is both tall and situated on a hill, so its height catches your attention — even from far away. As you get closer and move inside, its impressiveness becomes clearer and clearer.
I also very much like Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago. Chicago is a great city, so it is only fitting that they have an awesome cathedral. The acoustics are really good in there, too — probably due in part to all the woodwork.
Daprato Rigali Studios did the 2009 restoration work for Holy Name Cathedral, and Duncan Stroik designed the new pipe organ case in the choir loft for St. Paul Cathedral in 2013. Maybe you could work for one of them one day.
Well, they both did great work. Who knows, after my baseball career is over, maybe I could work for one of them — not as an artist, but as some kind of hybrid position that includes accounting.
While at the University of Illinois, I thought that, since they had the second-best accounting school in the country, I should take advantage of that. Then, a few classes before the major was completed, I realized that public accounting was not something I’d want to do as a career. I do like analyzing data — my dad is a financial analyst who went to Stanford, so I probably got some of that from him — but physical activity, enjoying art and nature, and interacting with people are also important in order to be well-rounded.
To go back and finish the beginning of the answer: While I’m not an artist myself, I enjoy taking pictures of great art. Combine that with what I’m told are great communications skills (which is fun to hear about, since I was fairly introverted growing up), and it could be a real kick to help pitch ideas to prospective clients about constructing churches from scratch or improving on the churches already in existence.
All of this would only be possible, after all, if I’m not the general manager of a baseball team! In any case, I’m currently focused on my baseball career and doing that to the best of my abilities. When the time for that is over, I’m open to whatever God has in store for me.
You certainly have an appreciation for visual art, but do you also have an appreciation for musical arts?
Musical art is kind of the same as visual art for me. While I’m not a great musician or singer myself, I do enjoy hearing great music. That probably has a lot to do with my mother, who was accepted to Julliard. Even though she didn’t attend that renowned art school, I still remember her playing the piano and singing well as I grew up. That probably set my standard for music. I always thought, whatever you’re playing, make sure to play it well.
For me, it’s not enough to simply have the right music; you have to do the right music well. Gregorian chant, for example, is favored by the Church, but you can’t just toss it onto the Mass, as if its mere presence were enough. The setting and sensibilities of the congregation matter, and it has to be practiced and done well.
Music itself, done properly, can help us do other things properly. When I was in college, I enjoyed listening to Bach when doing accounting work and Mozart when doing writing projects. Bach has a precision and gentleness that helps when working in something so exact as accounting, whereas Mozart has more robust and flowing sounds that match the greater freedom found in writing. I’m still working on the exact music that helps me pitch best.
Just like a game or really anything in life, there are rules to any art. You can’t just throw together a bunch of random sounds and call that music. Only after you fully accept those rules can you become creative. Creativity outside of rules is simply messiness. There are no standards, and you make it all up. Real creativity has standards from which you can build and make your mark.
Do you have a favorite devotion, such as the Rosary or Divine Mercy Chaplet?
If I don’t actually go to Mass during the week, I still read the daily Mass Bible readings every morning. That brings to mind the liturgical season or a specific feast day or a particular virtue. Then, at night, I pray the Ignatian examen, which brings to mind how I actually lived out the Gospel and ways I can be a better Christian going forward.
I also pray the Rosary, but have not gotten it down to being every single day. I also really enjoy Eucharistic adoration outside of Mass; that gives me time to think about things in a calm way that recognizes a God who is so providential that he literally gives us himself in the Eucharist.
Whatever the favorite devotion of a Christian is, the important thing to remember is that the core of Christianity is charity, or the love of God and love of neighbor. Any devotion that detracts from the supreme honor due to God or the relative honor due to neighbor, is not a genuine devotion.
Do you have a devotion to St. Joseph?
I do, but not as good as it should be — especially considering my name. You could say that I’m making this my “Year of St. Joseph” even though the official one is over. One way I’m doing this is by reading books about St. Joseph.
A little book I already completed is called The Divine Favors Granted to St. Joseph. One of its fascinating points is that the Son of God, whom all creation obeys, reversed that dynamic in reference to St. Joseph, who was granted paternal authority over the Child Jesus. Even though St. Joseph was not the Father of the Son of God, he was obeyed almost as if he were.
In order to make practical use of the greatness of St. Joseph, another book I’ll read is called Custos, which means “guardian” in Latin. It’s a book of consecration to St. Joseph for husbands and fathers. I’m not a husband or father yet, but will be one day, God willing, so, like baseball, you have to prepare before the event, rather than wait until it happens.
Anything else to add in this final inning of the interview?
There’s an almost-unlimited number of good things we can do in life, so that can be strangely daunting. Most people could do so many different things well, but in order to really make an impact, we need to get as specific as we can.
I’m only 24, but have been blessed to have a great family, the fullness of Christianity, solid schooling and athletic accomplishments. Add to those the natural beauty of Washington’s forests, mountains, rivers, islands and other places, and the only thing left seems to be finding the right woman.
I’m not going to overthrow that pitch, though. I’ve learned from my back injury that it’s important to make sure your own delivery is natural and integrated, rather than thinking about getting a specific result. In other words, I’m looking to get married, but have no need to do so next week. Things will happen as God wants them to happen.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.
His book Fit for Heaven (Dynamic Catholic, 2015)
contains numerous Catholic sports interviews,
most of which have appeared in the Register.
His latest book is Apostolic Athletes.