I recently finished reading "Ball Four" by Jim Bouton (I know, I'm 40 years late) and I remember a passage from it that basically read like this: If baseball fans knew what players were really like, they wouldn't deify them as much. And that, in general, may be true. Fans of any sport are in awe of the physical abilities of the athletes they watch. Throwing a baseball in excess of 90 mph is just a dream for most people. Hitting that fastball is an even greater impossibility. So fans see these men and women do incredible feats with ease and tend to project other features onto them. Professional athletes are held to a higher standard. In one sense, this may be necessary as they - like it or not - are viewed as role models. They can have quite an effect on the lives of those around them simply by their stature as an athlete. But sometimes, fans tend to forget that the players are still people, just like everyone else.
When "Ball Four" was written in 1969, the access to players' personal lives was extremely limited. Even the reporters who followed the team were shut out, as players were told to rarely speak to them. As I read the book, I was amazed that the outcry was so large. There didn't seem to be anything shocking to me in it. Baseball players chase girls and drink alcohol? No way! It shows how much has changed in the privacy of professional athletes' lives. Of course, the best view that the fans now get into a player's personal life is Twitter. Twitter is awesome. I've smacktalked with Derek Holland on how the Anaheim Ducks are better than the Phoenix Coyotes. I've personally asked J.P. Arencibia and Manny Machado how to pronounce their names. I've asked Heath Bell why he has the number 21 ("That's the number they gave me. I like it."). I've won a personalized signed baseball from Will Rhymes. I've shared my anchovy-eating story with Thomas Neal. And I've shared Bible verses with LaTroy Hawkins.
Which brings me to Michael Schlact. Michael Schlact is a 6'8 right-handed pitcher who spent the last 6 years in the Texas Rangers organization. He was drafted in the 3rd round in 2004 and has bounced around the minors, reaching as high as AA Frisco. In 2009, he had shoulder surgery and missed time in 2009 and 2010. His contract with the Rangers ended after 6 years and they declined to re-sign him. Just recently, he signed with the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs in the Atlantic League, an independent baseball league, not affiliated with Major League Baseball. Schlact is also a blogger. His blog is here. And he tweets. A lot. As of this moment, he has 14,381 tweets.
But none of that is seemingly worthy of a dedicated post, is it? A pitcher gets drafted, tries to make it to the major leagues, gets injured and tries to prove that he's healthy. He blogs about his life and tweets. A lot. Besides the fact that without Twitter, I would have never even heard of Michael Schlact, none of this is ground-breaking stuff.
So this is where the story begins to differentiate itself, Schlact's Twitter bio: "Professional baseball player. Husband. Glorifying God while chasing my dream. Follow me on my journey..." Innocent enough. The only reason I followed him in the first place was that first sentence, "Professional baseball player." I follow over 500 people on Twitter and a majority of them are either baseball players or baseball writers. So, I figured, "this guy's a baseball player, I'll follow him." I read "Husband" and probably thought nothing. Or at least, "Well, good for him." Then I read "Glorifying God while chasing my dream" and I thought, "Well, I'm a Christian and this guy is at least Christian enough to put God in his Twitter bio. That's nice." Finally, I read "Follow me on my journey..." and figured, "Well, okay!"
The part I really want to focus on is stuck right in the middle there: "Glorifying God while chasing my dream." Athletes, singers and actors talk about God sometimes, mostly when winning awards or giving interviews. They thank God for the talent He has given them, which I appreciate. But in their normal day-to-day activities, they completely forget about Him. But Michael Schlact is not like that. He has Phillipians 4:13 on his glove. (I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.) He has basically been without a job from last October until this March. That's 5 months without knowing where he would end up and what he would be doing this baseball season. But instead of lashing out and being publicly depressed (I can't speak as to how he was in private), he tweets things like this: "Never think that God’s delays are God’s denials. Hold on; hold fast; hold out. Patience is genius."(George-Louis Leclerc de Buffon) And this: "Trust God with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to Him and He will make your paths straight." (Proverbs 3:5)
I greatly appreciate the fact that he references God and trusts in Him, but I'm sure that there are some out there who are turned off by it. I appreciate the courage and the boldness that it takes to be so open about his faith, but I believe that the overall lesson is not just that he has faith. It's that he is able to put it in action and that he is able to keep a positive attitude throughout a difficult time. This is an area in which anyone can grow, regardless of religious or non-religious preference.
This is his response to the Ranger organization, who declined to re-sign him after 6 years (a string of tweets): "Rangers fans, as of now, I'm not returning back to the Texas org. I am forever thankful for all the opportunities they gave me. The Rangers drafted me and gave me lots of opportunities. I am forever grateful for that. I wish them the best of luck in the future. As you've seen, careers come full circle though. (Colby Lewis) So, there are DEFINITELY no hard feelings. Thoroughly enjoyed my time there." He's obviously a classy guy.
But what really drove me to write about him is that I have been where he has been. No, I was never a professional baseball player. The farthest I got was casual softball leagues (let me know if you need the best defensive centerfielder you have ever seen play). But I've been in the place where I had no clue where I was going to end up. I went through my senior year in college with a higher cumulative GPA than Schlact's Rookie ball ERA. I interviewed with company after company, only to get that wonderful e-mail that always begins with "Dear Candidate: While we are impressed with your skills and qualifications, we have chosen another candidate for this position...." And it hurt. And I can't say I handled every missed opportunity with as much class as Schlact did. I was not on Twitter at the time, but if I had been, my feed would be as depressing as a teenage girl whose parents just grounded her before a Justin Bieber concert. I ended up graduating college with a degree in Chemical Engineering...and moving back into my parents' house. Eventually, I was able to get a job and I'm thankful for that opportunity. But I severely dislike the feeling of the unknown. I don't like to be in limbo. And when I am, I freak out. But just by following Michael Schlact on Twitter, I have seen a glimpse into the life of someone who did not let his surroundings define him.
Maybe Jim Bouton was partially right in "Ball Four." Maybe there are some players who are great athletes but not very nice people. Maybe they have extremely skewed views. Maybe they kick puppies. But I refuse to believe that all athletes are this way, and I believe that I have found at least one of the exceptions to the rule in Michael Schlact, the insanely tall former AA pitcher who just really likes to tweet.
I've never met Michael Schlact and I may never meet him in my life. If I'm ever in Waldorf, Maryland and he's still pitching for the Blue Crabs, I'll go to a game. But even though I may never physically be in the same place as Michael Schlact, that won't stop me from looking up to him.