|Harper made the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 16 year old.|
Saturday, April 28, 2012
Mormon on Mission...But this one is on the Ball Field
Bryce Harper makes his Major League debut tonight for all the country to see as the MLB network has decided to make the game it’s featured national telecast. Harper, a 19 year old that is of the age that many young mormon kids leave for two years to go on a mission has opted to pursue his baseball career.
When asked by Baseball America’s Nathan Rode in 2010 if he planned on taking that two-year sabbatical from the game to go volunteer two years of his life for his church in some foreign country, Harper hinted that he could accomplish just as much for his church through his example as a baseball player saying, “As of right now, no I don’t (have plans for a mission). I think I can do what I can on the field to get people to look at me and say, ‘He’s LDS’ (Latter-day Saint)...”
The jury is out on how taking a break from the game for two years affects a young developing player. Most would agree it can’t help. Case in point was a young Dodger outfielder from 2001-02 named McKay Christensen.
Christensen, a highly touted prep athlete out of Clovis West High School near Fresno, CA, was one of the most sought after prep stars in 1994. Had he dedicated himself soley to baseball, there are those that say he would have been the first pick in that draft.
As a running back at Clovis West, he ran for 2,600 all purpose yards and scored 44 touchdowns, named the Northern California Prep Player of the year. In baseball he hit .500 and was 62 for 62 in stolen base attempts. Christensen was told by scouts he’d be the first over-all pick that year. But there was a problem. He let major league teams know that he was planning on serving a mormon mission right out of high school when he turned 19 years old.
That fact made nearly all major league organizations shy away from the top athlete. All except for the California Angels, who selected him anyway and signed him for over a million dollars. “I was told there was no way I could serve a mission and still be drafted, and I was anyway,” he told Doug Robinson of the Deseret News. “I felt it was an opportunity I shouldn’t pass up. That option made the most sense, I had two brothers play college football for BYU and they got beat to pieces.” Link to article on Christensen from 2005
So Christensen was off to Japan on his LDS mission before ever stepping onto a baseball diamond for the Angels organization. The 6th pick of the draft off to disappear from the baseball landscape for two years. There he engaged in virtually no baseball activity and would only exercise early each morning to try to keep in shape. Before he had completed his two year stint as a missionary, the Angels had traded him off the the Chicago White Sox.
Christensen admits that baseball instincts didn’t come naturally to him. As great an athlete that he was, the two years off paid a toll on him. “I didn’t understand baseball. I didn’t know the fundamentals. Football was more instinctive,” he said. He meandered around in the minors with the Chisox organization, but had a few major league call ups in ’99, ’00 and ’01.
In 2001, Christensen was dealt to the Dodgers in July. He made his Dodger debut against Colorado and started off with a bang. Two singles, a double a walk, a HBP, 4 RBI, two runs scored. It looked like the Dodgers had found a center fielder, but Jim Tracy did what he so often did back then. He sat the youngster after a couple of Ofer games, and eventually Christensen was back on the bench. He only had 49 ABs as a Dodger, in which he hit .327 with a .400 OBP.
He dedicated himself to the winter leagues in the off-season and came in with the promise that he’d have a legitimate shot at the starting Center field position. Though he had a respectable Spring Training in 2002 hitting well over .350, Tracy was enamored with a speedy Dave Roberts and Christensen, without options remaining, was dealt off to the Mets at the start of the 2002 season, where he only had a handful of at bats in the major leagues again.
In 2004, at the age of 28, Christensen, playing Triple A ball in Louisville for the the Cincinnati organization, walked into Manager Rick Burlseon’s office and told him his passion for the game was over and that he was leaving. “Baseball has a way of swallowing up years of your life and I didn’t want it to swallow any more years,” he said. And then he added something more poignant,”...most people don’t understand what baseball is all about. It’s consuming. It requires a huge sacrifice. It’s hard to become anything other than a baseball player. I knew a lot of guys who, after they were done with baseball, had nothing to go to.”
Christensen went back to school and entered the family business back in Utah. It makes me wonder what he would have become as a baseball player had he dedicated himself to baseball immediately out of high school. There are a few success stories of mormon kids that have gone on missions, making it in the majors. But they are primarily pitchers: Jeremy Guthrie and Matt Lindstrom are two that come to mind have succeeded. Two time N.L. MVP Dale Murphy, probably the most well known mormon player did not take two years off to go on a mission until after his baseball career was over.
So Harper now starts his Washington Nationals career, and has taken a route to his major league rise that was much different that a similar prospect from 18 years ago. Groomed to make it to the majors as early as his mid-teens, It’ll be interesting to see this kid develop. All signs are that he'll be a very successful major leaguer.