Opening Day, Catholicism, and Looking Up to the Saints

April 7, 2022

It’s Opening Day! I’m looking forward to summer evenings spent in ballparks with the scents of peanuts, hot dogs, and beer rising up like incense. I’m ready to watch the Great American Pastime while the warm breezes sent by Brother Wind tickle my face. It took several months of negotiations for the Players Union and franchise owners to finally settle upon an agreement during the lockout. The kickoff of the Major League Baseball season has been pushed back this year by a week and happens to land on the Feast of St. Jean-Baptiste de La Salle, the patron for teachers of youth.

All of us were kids once. So many of us grew up admiring those lucky men who got to play baseball all summer for a living. We wanted to be just like them, for they were like living gods to us. This type of veneration speaks volumes about our level of consciousness. We may admire famous criminals or philanderers (always alarming), celebrity personalities (typically annoying), political or military figures (good or bad, depending on the character), great artists and authors (fine, in most cases), or great scientists and explorers. Any father can rest assured that his children are on the right track when they admire the saints.

Athletes are teachers of youth by default, simply because so many kids look up to them. There are professional athletes who understand this very well, and others who don’t. The Great American Pastime has been marred, within our own lifetime, by players who’d recklessly disregarded their own long-term health by using performance-enhancing drugs to inflate their statistics. They set a terrible example for the kids who look up to them. There’s no shortage of professional athletes who take advantage of the sexual opportunities that their wealth and status afford them, who have children outside of wedlock, and/or are unfaithful to their wives. The list of scandalous deeds done by many famous athletes could go on and on.

“I don’t ever want you doing that.” How many fathers must resort to telling their sons this? Which professional athletes would you want your own child to admire? Football has Tim Tebow. Basketball has A.C. Green (I was born in the Boston area, so acknowledging a longtime Laker does come with some hesitance). But what about the greatest game?

January 22, 2010, fell on a Friday. The only firm plan which I had that day was going to Brooklyn for Sabbath dinner with friends of mine who were active in Jews for Jesus (a largely Evangelical ministry). These friends of mine were inclusive: My being a Gentile was never a barrier for fellowship with them.

During the long trek from my apartment in Upper Manhattan to Victorian Flatbush, I’d swung by a nearby branch of the New York Public Library that afternoon to browse news events on one of the public computers. As I stood before the computer, my eyes suddenly caught a peculiar story: A top prospect for the Oakland A’s was retiring from baseball to join the priesthood.

Grant Desme was 23 years old when he’d informed Billy Beane (yes, the one of Moneyball fame) of his decision. He was a second-round pick of the 2007 draft, the reigning MVP of the Arizona Fall League, and highly appraised by scouts for his combination of power, speed, and intelligence.

He could have spent a decade, or more, chasing money and women. He could have tried matching the hard-partying feats of Yankees greats such as Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, and the Amazin’ Mets of the 1980s, if he wanted to. Instead, he’d realized, even as a young man, that no such pleasures could ever leave him truly fulfilled. He’d found greater pleasure simply in talking to a teammate about God than he did in hitting a home run. “I love the game, but I aspire to higher things,” he told reporters. “I wasn’t at peace where I was at. I have no regrets.”

A good number of our Evangelical brothers and sisters share deep reservations over the Catholic Church, with some who go so far as to claim that Catholics aren’t even Christians. I’d made my way that evening to the Jews for Jesus house in Brooklyn. It was shortly before all of us sat down for Sabbath dinner when I shared this news story which I’d come across with a friend, who’d herself grown up attending a church. To this day, I still vividly remember that her mouth had suddenly dropped open. “That’s so beautiful,” she’d said, after taking a moment to catch her breath.

I myself had only begun seriously considering whether or not I should become a Catholic (spoiler alert: I did). The news of such a conviction did affect me and brought me another small step closer to the resolution I would make by the end of that year.

Desme entered St. Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California. He traded in his baseball uniform, which countless boys dream of one day wearing, for a white habit. He lived at St. Michael’s, a mere 25 miles from Angel Stadium, praying day and night as a seminarian and a monk of the Norbertine Order. He took the name Frater Matthew Desme and vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

Desme didn’t become a priest: “The desire to get married increased more and more the longer I was at the monastery,” he later explained, “while that didn’t necessarily happen with the desire to become a priest. I came to the conclusion that God was calling me to married life.”

There are two Sacraments of Service: Holy Orders and Matrimony. Seven years of prayer and formation had brought Desme to ultimately realize that marriage was his calling. Not every man is called to the priesthood (though God would be delighted if more single men were to ask Him whether they are). In each of these decisions, leaving baseball for monastic life and leaving the monastery for his hope to get married, he’d embraced God’s calling. I do pray that he crosses paths with that special woman (if he hasn’t yet), that he embraces life as a loving husband and father, and passes on to his own sons and daughters that very conviction which had brought wonder to millions on January 22, 2010.

Desme did eventually return to baseball, as a coach at Ave Maria University and as a player for the Lancaster Barnstormers for one season. But the years of his playing prime had already passed by. “I get asked that quite a bit,” he’d told reporters when asked about what could have been. “Sure, it would have been nice to see where my career had gone if I didn’t enter the monastery, but the amount of gifts and formation I received during the seven years living at St. Michael’s are priceless – and those are things that are going to be with me for my entire life.”

I myself hope to be a husband and father one day. I dream of the day when I’ll be able to take my own children to a ballpark. And on that day I’ll show them that by simply sinking back into our seats, with a hot dog in hand, and serenely watching the good game, we get to experience a glimpse of Heaven on this side of life. “Dad?” one of those kids may ask, “Where were you when the Cubs finally won the World Series in 2016?”

I was actually at a bar in New York, and Game 7 dragged on until 2 a.m., so I’ll probably need to explain that one a little bit carefully. Children get to learn that all men have pasts, even their own fathers, once they’re old enough to comprehend it. “I was in New York, watching it with my pal Danny, who’s a Cubs fan,” I’ll say. “Oh boy, by the end of that game, both of us were pretty…tired.”

But as much as they may admire the men on the field, and as much as I’d naturally be concerned over who my own children are looking up to, I’ll be able to say, “Do you think what those guys do is amazing? Let me tell you about one of those guys who did something truly amazing.”

The greatest heroes will always be those who can leave it all behind, for the sake of God.

Zubair Simonson, O.F.S., is a convert who was raised Muslim. He grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, and has also lived in New York. He received his B.A. at the University of Michigan, majoring in Political Science. He is a professed member of the Secular Franciscan Order. The story of his conversion was included in the book My Name is Lazarus, published by the American Chesterton Society. He has several books available on Kindle, including The Rose: A Meditation, a narrative guide through the mysteries of the Rosary, and Stars and Stooges: A Christmas Tale, a humorous take on the three wise men. His website is Follow on Twitter at @ZubairSimonson.

Zubair Simonson


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