Discovering Brotherly Love in Baseball
As preparations get under way for the 2014 season, Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Justin De Fratus is enthused about the Catholic MLB community.
Well over a month before their first preseason game on Feb. 26, most of the Philadelphia Phillies were in Clearwater, Fla., preparing for the upcoming season. The team seemed to know collectively, without being told in a meeting, that important preparation needed to be done to make this season different from the last, when they had a record of 73 wins and 89 losses, finishing fourth in the National League Eastern Division.
Pitcher Justin De Fratus is thankful to be a part of a team committed to extensive hard work. Having men around him who share the same dedication makes the 26-year-old’s days go smoothly. Over and above professional dedication, De Fratus also appreciates those in his line of work who are committed to their Catholic faith.
When De Fratus first entered professional baseball at the age of 19, he didn’t find the Catholic community he was looking for. It seemed to him that everyone was Protestant or not religious at all. By the time he was 23, however, the Oxnard, Calif., native was pleased to find that he had not only brothers in baseball, but brothers in the faith.
De Fratus shared his faith journey with Register correspondent Trent Beattie before spring training.
You got to Florida a month before spring training began. Did you come to prepare alone or with other teammates?
Basically, the whole team is here, but it’s funny how it happened. There wasn’t any official shout-out to everyone that we would be here early; everyone just seemed to be thinking the same way. Little by little, we learned about other guys who were venturing down here to Clearwater, Fla., in January.
It’s no secret that the past two seasons haven’t been fantastic for us, so we’re just putting in the effort in the hope of changing that. We want to do everything we can to be a better team this season, and the way to start that is by getting here early. Hopefully all the extra practice will make spring training better, and spring training will make the regular season better.
What are your expectations for this season?
As far as specific numbers, such as an ERA [earned run average] or strikeouts, I don’t really have any. Those numbers are outside of your control, so it doesn’t help to think about them. What I’m concentrating on is maintaining a consistent mindset that will help me to stay aggressive.
If I prepare well and pitch as well as I can, then the results don’t matter. All you can ask is that a pitcher throws the ball well; after that, it’s out of his hands, literally. The saying “Let go and let God” is important to anyone, but for baseball players, it might be especially so. God doesn’t look upon a player with more love if he throws a shutout. Regardless of the results, God’s love is the same.
What are some of the surprises you’ve encountered in Major League Baseball?
There are two main surprises that really stick with me: The first is understood by first saying that, previous to actually playing in one of the games, my only experience of MLB games was through TV. When you watch on TV, there can be an unreasonable, artificial outlook on the game. You can think of it as part of a movie rather than what real men are actually doing.
Once I got to my first major-league game, however, I was very pleasantly surprised to see that the dirt on the pitcher’s mound was the same as the dirt I had seen in baseball games since I was 9. The grass was the same grass, and so forth. That first outing really dispelled a lot of anxiety about just what it would be like to play in the majors.
The second surprise happened after making it to the majors, which had been my professional dream for years. By playing for the Philadelphia Phillies, I had accomplished what I had always wanted to, and that was cool. However, I found that the material success didn’t complete my soul. I was shocked, really, at how little I was fulfilled, despite my material success.
That’s when you started to take the faith more seriously, right?
I had been raised a Catholic, but the fire for the faith wasn’t really ignited until 2007, when I saw the Champions of Faith DVD. There were quite a few professional athletes and coaches on the DVD who were serious about being Catholic. That really impressed me, especially when the baseball players would share their testimonies.
What I found in the minor leagues, though, is there didn’t seem to be the same commitment to the faith by any teammates. When you’re far away from home and sometimes far away from a Catholic church because of the rural locations of stadiums, it’s terribly easy to slide away from maintaining a Catholic life.
After making my major-league debut in September of 2011, I had the epiphany of seeing that material success wasn’t all there was to life; but it wouldn’t be until early in the next season that I would become even more convinced of my need for God.
What happened in 2012?
I was injured and wasn’t able to play for most of 2012. That’s when everything worldly that could be taken away was taken away. It was like the world had abandoned me, and the only reality left was God. Then I saw more clearly than ever before that if I wanted to be truly fulfilled I needed to become more dedicated to Jesus through his Church.
Nobody likes to be injured, but I look at the 2012 injury as a real blessing from God. He was giving me time to step back and look at life honestly, not just through the lens of worldliness. When you get that quiet time to think and pray, it’s really easy to see what matters most in life: loving God and doing his will.
What are some of your favorite aspects of the Catholic Church?
One of the most important things for me is being part of a welcoming community of believers. Some people tend to think of religion as “me and God” but overlook everyone else. You have to remember that when God became man he started a Church for all of his followers to belong to.
I really like that brotherly aspect of being a Christian: that you’re on a team — God’s team. Not everyone has the same role, but together we can make great things happen. We can support each other and function as Jesus intended us to.
The most important thing, though, is that the Catholic Church was started directly by Jesus Christ. As Catholics, we can trace our spiritual lineage through the bishops over the centuries, all the way back to the first bishops — the apostles — and then, of course, to Jesus himself. This is recorded in Matthew 16:18.
Other Christian groups don’t go back to Jesus, but to King Henry VIII or Martin Luther or someone else who broke off from the Catholic Church or, as time went on, from another group that had already broken off from the Catholic Church. Without a central authority found in the papacy, individuals made up their own religions, and the denominations just kept multiplying.
Searching for the truth has been something big for you, hasn’t it?
Yes. That search for truth really started in high school. Up to that point, I was kind of on autopilot or cruise control, but in high school, I started looking into the important questions about life. I wondered about why we’re here, where we’re going, what we should be doing.
I remember a high-school classmate asking me, “If God is so good, then why is there so much suffering in the world?” It was a good question, and as I looked into it with faith and reason, I found an even better answer in the writings of C.S. Lewis.
Without free will, no action we did could really be described as good or bad. If we’re forced to do something, then we don’t deserve punishment or reward. What we’d do would simply be what we were programmed to do. We would be robots, not human beings.
God freely loved us into being and wants us to freely love him back. In order to do that, we need free will, a consequence of which is that we also have the awful possibility of freely choosing not to love God back. This is called sin, and sin is how suffering entered into the world. So the short answer to my classmate’s question is that God didn’t cause suffering; human beings caused suffering through original sin and continue to do so through personal sin.
As I looked into the important questions of life, I became more and more convinced that I was in the right place. If I had found the truth somewhere else, I’d be there, but Jesus promised in John 16:13 to send the Holy Spirit to bring us all truth, and that’s what I’ve been able to receive. Not that I have all the truth now, but I’ve gotten a good answer every time I’ve searched for one, and I have faith that any other question that will come up has a good answer.
Jesus prayed to the Father in John 17 that we may be one, sanctified in truth, and the Holy Spirit makes this unity in truth possible. The Holy Spirit is the soul of the Church, uniting us as believers. Being brothers in the Spirit is what life is all about.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.