Perseverance Pays Off for New York Yankees’ Pitcher

Former Notre Dame star David Phelps’ determination brought him a wife and a greater understanding of the Catholic faith.

The Phelps family
The Phelps family (photo: Courtesy of David Phelps)

David Phelps knew he was meant to marry a woman in his international relations class at the University of Notre Dame. The only problem was, that special woman was completely unaware of it.

Phelps (no relation to former longtime Notre Dame basketball coach Richard “Digger” Phelps), started off on the wrong foot with the classmate who had caught his eye. However, through prayer and humble perseverance, he eventually gained her respect and her appreciation of the Catholic faith.

Now David and Maria Phelps are happily married, with Jesus as the center of their lives. This holy cohesion provides the foundation for stable living in an oftentimes stressful job.

Pressure is the norm when playing for the New York Yankees, and, this season, injuries have been added to the equation for Phelps, who has spent many days on the team’s disabled list.

Phelps spoke with the Register in time for his return to the Yankees’ active roster on Sept. 14. The Yankees are currently four games out of a playoff position, with 12 games left in the regular season.


What do you think of this season for the Yankees?

It’s been an up-and-down season for the team and for me personally. There have been injuries, including my own (an elbow flexor strain), and now we’re fighting to get a wild card berth into the playoffs. I’m so happy to be back with the team, because I’ve spent so much time rehabbing my injury and preparing to contribute in any way I can. I’m so grateful to be back in a position to help out.

I have loved playing for the Yankees, ever since my first action in early 2012. It was April 8 in the last game of a series against the Tampa Rays, in the bottom of the eighth inning. [Manager] Joe Girardi called me in, I threw warm-up pitches, picked up the rosin bag from behind the mound, and tossed it back down. As I came back up, I was surprised to see Derek Jeter in my face. He put his arm around me and said, “It’s the same game we’ve been playing, but with a few more people here.”

That greeting from someone who embodies the spirit of the Yankees as well as anyone has meant so much to me. Derek is an amazing baseball player, not just from the standpoint of personal statistics, but also from one of teamwork. A perennial All-Star could easily ignore the new guy, but Derek went out of his way to make me feel welcome.


Have you always wanted to play in the major leagues?

Ever since I can remember, that’s been my dream. When I was 6, my older brother and I would play Whiffle ball in the backyard. We would imitate various players from our hometown St. Louis Cardinals, such as 15-time All-Star Ozzie Smith.

That major-league dream was always there, but as more of an ideal, rather than a practical plan. It wasn’t until the last two years of high school that I realized it really could happen. I was recruited by a number of college teams and ended up choosing Notre Dame.

There were good things about the other schools, from an academic and athletic standpoint, but Notre Dame was in a class by itself. I visited the South Bend campus on the weekend the football team defeated rival Michigan in 2004. That was a big boost, but everything else about the campus that I would see on a daily basis stuck with me — the buildings, the history, the people. They all came together to form an atmosphere I couldn’t find anywhere else.


What are some of your top memories from Notre Dame?

There are so many good memories, and some of the best ones would have to involve my future wife, Maria. We had some great days at Notre Dame, and we have a great relationship now, but it didn’t start out that way in the spring of 2007, my sophomore year and her freshman year.

Because our last names were next to each other alphabetically, we were paired up in an international relations class. We were going to be called upon to discuss our reading assignment with the rest of the class. However, I had not done the required reading, so I told her that I hoped she had. She was very put off by that, and understandably so.

Even though things almost couldn’t have started off worse, I asked Maria out a few weeks after we first met. She immediately rejected the idea. I deserved the rejection, but didn’t give up. I just knew, somehow in my soul, that we were meant to be together.


How long did it take for Maria to see you in a different light?

I asked her out at least 10 more times in the next year, but she said No each time. There was no sugarcoating it either. She didn’t want to have anything to do with me. Some of our mutual acquaintances would tell her she should give me a chance, that I was a great baseball player, etc. That year (2007) I was throwing one of the best seasons any pitcher from Notre Dame had ever thrown, but Maria didn’t care. Her lack of interest was refreshingly humbling for me.

In 2008, I began to realize that God deserved far more attention than I had been giving him. Instead of going to Mass more regularly, though, I started going to an Assemblies of God church with my roommate. I thought all you needed was to accept Jesus as your Savior, and everything would be fine. Church attendance was seen as nice but not necessary.

Maria would help me grow in my understanding of everything Jesus has to offer us and what we’re called to give back to him. After she finally said Yes to me in the spring of 2008, she would ask me what I believed, I would reply, and she would ask more questions. Instead of a one-dimensional, oversimplified, linear way of thinking, Maria had a three-dimensional, vibrant and comprehensive way of thinking.

Maria’s influence and that of her family had such an effect on me that, by the fall of 2009, I came to realize what I was missing out on. There are so many great things in the Catholic Church, but the most desirable one is the Eucharist. It had been so long since I had received Jesus sacramentally, and I knew it was time to start doing so again.

I wanted to meet up with a priest in order to discuss my concerns and to be reconciled with the Church. Even though I was drafted in 2008, I would return for the fall semester at Notre Dame three consecutive years in order to finish my degree. This is how I was able to get in touch with Father Paul Doyle, a Holy Cross priest at Notre Dame, in the fall of 2009.

We discussed my concerns, and he heard my confession. All the obstacles that had kept me back from being totally united to Jesus were removed, and I was able to receive him in the Eucharist again. It was a great relief to be back in the Church.


Have Maria and her family continued to influence you?

They have, and I can’t tell you how grateful I am for their witness. It is because of them that I now fully participate in the Mass, go to Eucharistic adoration and pray the Rosary. The Rosary is something Maria suggested I start doing as part of my pre-game preparation. It helps to calm my nerves by drawing down grace and reminding me that there’s more to life than baseball.

Another thing I’ve gained from the Church is an understanding of the theology of the body, a topic I’ve found to be life-changing. To know not just the biological significance, but the theological significance of what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman is incredibly helpful. It puts individual actions in the greater context of an all-encompassing divine Providence.

Maria is one of nine children, and her mother is one of 13. Our own marriage has already been blessed with a beautiful child, our daughter Adeline, who was born on March 22, 2012. This was only days before I was first called up to the majors. That call is special for any player, but when it happens so quickly after the birth of your first child, you think of how work is done for the purpose of providing for that child and your wife. Work and family life are supposed to be integrated like that, under the umbrella of faith.


How has your faith affected your work?

I understand the importance of work in providing for my family, but I also know that I won’t be playing baseball forever. So whatever work I’m engaged in, it should have God as the primary focus. Our daily actions should be a communication with God, a living prayer.

I’m incredibly blessed to be a member of the Catholic Church, the body of Christ. The Church is amazing, and I love everything about it. When I’m on the road, I search for a parish near our hotel. When I walk inside, I can feel the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. Regardless of which city we’re in, Jesus remains the same, and his Church does as well. 

Since there’s so much joy to living a Catholic life here on earth, I sometimes think of how tremendous heaven will be. As long as we persevere in the practice of the faith, we will encounter the reality of the words from 1 Corinthians 2:9: “What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him.”

Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle, Washington.