Former Toronto Blue Jays’ Pitcher Recounts Career and Catholicism
Justin Speier realizes and shares the centrality of Christ.
The American League East champion Toronto Blue Jays will face the American League West champion Texas Rangers in the first round of the Major League Baseball playoffs on Thursday. Former Blue Jays’ pitcher Justin Speier thinks the team can go far this postseason, possibly even winning the World Series.
At one time in his playing career, Speier would have loved nothing more than winning a World Series title. While the 41-year-old Walnut Creek, Calif., native still sees the fun in that possibility for his friends with the team, he has gained a more mature view of baseball in relation to his duties to God.
Today, Speier takes his baseball experience — and his tenure in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves — as means of explaining the importance of remaining close to Christ. He often does this through speaking engagements, largely to elementary and high-school students.
The son of three-time All-Star Chris Speier, Justin Speier spoke of how God should permeate everything, including Major League Baseball, with Register correspondent Trent Beattie.
The Blue Jays (93-69) are set to play the Texas Rangers (88-74) on Thursday. What do you think of the Blue Jays’ season, and what do you expect from them in the playoffs?
The Blue Jays were the second-to-last team I played for, so I still have friends with the club, such as manger John Gibbons. He runs a relaxed clubhouse, but he expects big things from the players when they step onto the field. The players want to play for him, and they’ve really come through on that desire this season.
Mark Buehrle is a great pitcher who has been selected to the All-Star Game five times. The Blue Jays brought in two additional five-time All-Stars, David Price and Troy Tulowitzki, around midseason, so they’re loaded with talent and experience. I expect them to do well in the playoffs and wouldn’t be surprised to see a Toronto-St. Louis or Toronto-Chicago World Series. The Cubs (the first major-league team I played for) had even more wins than Toronto this season (97), and that’s 24 more than they had last year. It’s been a quick turnaround for them.
What did you enjoy most about Major League Baseball?
I really got into how we were in a united group of men from all kinds of backgrounds. Some players grew up wealthy, some grew up poor, and we came from all over the country and even outside of the country. That camaraderie was great, and so was the competition. I got a thrill out of going out and competing every week.
When I left the game in 2009, I really missed it for a while. There was a real grieving period, because I was giving up something that had become an integral part of me. I knew that the emotional highs of playing professional baseball would never be matched, so there was a letdown. I had to accept that God would heal me and adjust my thinking to embrace a life without those intense highs.
What did you like least about playing in the majors?
The nature of the game is that you’re committed to playing 30 games in spring training, 162 in the regular season, and then however many you might have in the playoffs. You can end up playing over 200 games in a little over 200 days, so that takes its toll. Add to that the fact that you might spend your “off day” flying in a large metal tube from Los Angeles to New York, and it can get wear you down.
The season is tough, not only the players, but on their families. Birthdays, anniversaries, weddings and funerals are routinely missed because of the commitment to the game. That’s something most fans don’t think about, because they only see the fun on the field. When you witness a great hit, catch or throw, the fact that players are real people with real struggles kind of gets lost on you.
What were some of the struggles you went through?
I was raised Catholic and identified myself as a follower of Christ, but I didn’t actually live that out from age 22 to 33. I was still a believer, but baseball and worldly things caught my attention, and they were my primary interest. I wasn’t smart or humble enough to learn from the mistakes of others; I had to go through sinful things myself to see up close how they were not worth it.
Similar to St. Augustine, I had a conversion at age 33. I realized that God was No. 3 on my list of priorities and that he should be not only my No. 1 priority, but my all: If you say God is No. 1, that leaves open everything else to be compartmentalized, as if something could be important on its own. God has to permeate everything I do because any created good only has meaning in relation to God. I came to see that baseball, relationships, finances and everything else had to have God at their center.
Like St. Peter at the Last Supper, I wanted Jesus to wash me from head to toe. I wanted to be made new and start living a Christian life from the inside out. It was time to put selfish things behind me and be drawn closer to God the Father.
Do you think the fatherhood of God has been lost on a lot of people?
I do. Many of us see God not as father, but as a kindly grandfather or something conveniently vague, and that affects how we see Jesus. We think of him as our friend, which he is, but more important than that, he’s our Lord and Savior. We should be as close to Jesus as possible and know that he loves us as no one else can, but we shouldn’t be casual with him as if we were on equal terms.
He’s the Master, and we’re the followers, so our prayers should be said with that humbling thought in mind. We should remember that Jesus is not there as a guarantee of our worldly pleasure, but as our model of humble submission to the will of the Father. When we get that right, everything else in life is fine.
The Catholic Church helps us to get this right in so many ways. I love how we still kneel at Mass, how we confess our sins to a priest (who is a representative of Christ), how we value obedience to the will of God. These things prevent us from flattering ourselves and letting our pride get in the way of being followers of Christ. Our relationship to him is encapsulated in the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, where we petition God the Father, for the sake of his Son, Jesus, to have mercy on us.
The most extensive living out of the Gospel I’ve seen is at St. Michael’s Abbey is Silverado, Calif. I visit the Norbertines there three or four time a year and always come away inspired by their virtue. They live a communal life without private ownership of goods, and they obey their superiors. They give up their own wills for the will of God, which empowers them to live in profound peace.
One reason I’ve found it easy to relate to the Norbertines is their connection to baseball. Grant Desme is the best-known example of this, but there are others who have used the abundant “downtime” in baseball to ponder what life is all about and who have discerned a call to serve the Lord in ministry.
The Norbertines have also taught me the importance of singing, which is a true accomplishment, considering that I’m tone-deaf. Singing the praises of God with the other men is a beautiful thing, because it shows our high aspirations, and it’s a foretaste of what heaven will be like.
You were recently married. What is the best thing about married life?
Brittany and I were married last December, and we had an early delivery of our baby, Chace, on Aug. 15, the Solemnity of the Assumption. The doctor was praying a Hail Mary so that our boy would come out okay. Everything turned out fine, and now we’re experiencing the next step of bringing a new life into the world and nurturing it. The process is a mysterious, joyful and humbling thing.
As I look at and hold my boy and think about the future, I just want him to become a faithful, happy, Christian man. I don’t care if he plays baseball or not; I just want him to have his priorities right from the start and see that even if he becomes an All-Star, God is not No. 2, No. 3 or even No. 1 — he’s everything.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.