Dear Astros Fans

Baseball, Faith

Dear Astros Fans,

Ever since the trade from the Astros to the Phillies, one thing I know is certain: I miss y’all. I’m not saying that Phillies fans have been anything but gracious and welcoming, because they have been. In fact, I have loved meeting people here in PA and being welcomed to the Phillies family. I look forward to hopefully many years with some of the most passionate fans in the game! I’m simply saying that you, Astros fans, always treated me well and remained hopeful for my success with the Astros even through the bad times. You made my time in the Astros organization exciting and fun. You gave me an added hunger to play better to get to Minute Maid. And I want to thank you for that. I know that being drafted first overall in 2013 added to the already growing hope you had in the future of the organization. And rightfully so! Just look at how far your team has come from having the worst record in baseball from 2011-2013 and three straight #1 picks to where they finished last year, taking the Kansas City Royals to Game 5 in the ALDS.

Speaking of that series, I know it hurt being up 2-1 in the series and not being able to close it out. I was in Minute Maid Park for Game 4. I get it. I was sitting with the players’ family during the game. During my time in the minors and spring training, I played with many of the 25 men in that dugout. Even though I never reached my goal of playing with them at MMP, those men were and still are like family to me. So as much as it hurt you, it hurt me equally, if not more. And as much as it hurt me, it hurt them much, much more. But I know that those of you who stuck with your ‘Stros through the thick and thin only have optimism for the future because, according to all the experts, the playoffs weren’t supposed to happen last year. But they did. The future looks extremely bright for the Astros.

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Transitioning from one chapter of life to another, you can always look back and learn a few things. For me, those lessons came in bunches. There’s so much I regret, what I wish I did better, what I should’ve done, and what I should not have done. But regret only has value if you allow it to spur change inside of you. So, I am learning and growing constantly. I’m not a finished product on the field and definitely not a finished product off the field. I don’t think I ever will be. But that is part of the beauty of life. We always have an opportunity to experience new things, to learn from good and bad, to improve, and to grow. Let me share some of my lessons.

Lesson number one is how little you can control life. There are many things you can control, such as your attitude and your work ethic, but other things you simply have no control over. Being traded was a confirmation of that. Did I want to leave my hometown team? Of course not! (By the way, I still live 20 minutes from MMP in the offseason). Did I want to say goodbye to my teammates who became my brothers over the last two and a half years? No! But that is one of the mysteries of life: sometimes we get what we want and sometimes we don’t. I believe how you react defines your character.

Lesson number two has to do with expectation. I know many of you deal with having high expectations placed on you from work, your family, yourself, etc. The only difference between mine and yours is the public nature of my expectation. Baseball fans know where I was drafted. My signing bonus is a Google search away. And every Astros fan anticipated I would be a cornerstone of the Astros’ future. That is how being picked 1-1 works: you’re supposed to pan out quickly. This all translates to expectation, not just from myself, or the Astros front office and staff, but from thousands of Houston Astros baseball fans, and millions of baseball fans across the country. Every game I pitch, my performance is graded through statistics. Even the pitches in my arsenal are analyzed, graded and compared. So how do you deal with expectation, separating it from your life circumstances altogether? If I had a definitive answer, I would tell you. But I don’t. Life doesn’t always go as expected, and that is okay. However, I think I have learned a little bit dealing with expectation over my time being a professional ballplayer. Keeping things in perspective is a huge first step. Whatever you are going through may feel like a huge boulder resting on your shoulders, constantly weighing you down, but it is only temporary. That is a fact. The second step is simply to have fun. Don’t take yourself seriously. Take your craft seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously. There is a difference in attitude, not work ethic.

Two guys both work extremely hard at their jobs. The first guy never jokes around, never has fun, is all work and no play. He finds his worth only in how successful he is, the results from his job. Failure is not an option. The second guy relishes the journey. He wants to learn, grow and ultimately succeed, but understands failure is just another step along his path. He is a great friend and knows there is a time to be serious and a time to have fun, to be light-hearted. Nobody wants to be around one of those guys; everyone wants to be around the other. One guy drains energy from his surroundings and the other gives energy others. I was the first guy for part of my time with the Astros. I want to be the second guy. Life is too short to not enjoy what you have been blessed to do. Each moment has an opportunity to be wasted or be incredibly special. I squandered too many moments with the Astros because I took things way too seriously. I couldn’t laugh at myself when I made mistakes. I had to be perfect to have fun. And humans aren’t perfect… especially playing baseball, a game where all stars give up 3 runs a game and fail at the plate 7 out of 10 times! Baseball is a game of failure. Life brings about failure too. Friends, not being able to have joy is no way to live.

Lesson number three is to be thankful. Appreciate what God has given you and the people He has placed in your life to make your experience uniquely yours. In all your reflections, seek to understand and share the things that make life, in its essence, good. That’s what this blog is about. It’s not here to draw attention to my draft status and other successes I’ve had, or to dwell on my failures, to have a pity party. It is here to point out why God is always good and that in any and every circumstance, we have great reason to be thankful. So this letter is not just to you, Astros fans, but to everybody that has made my story uniquely mine.

Thank you Mom, Dad and Bro for supporting me always and loving me well.

Thank you Houston for being my birthplace and for being close to my heart.

Thank you Coach Piona, Coach Powers, and all my fellow Mustangs for making my high school years some of the best of my life.

Thank you Coach Marquess, Filter, Stotz and Brock for teaching me the game and supporting me on the field and in the classroom at Stanford.

Thank you Jim Crain, Jeff Luhnow, Mike Elias, David Stearns, Quentin McCracken and others in the Astros front office for making me a professional ballplayer and more importantly, an Astro.

Thank you Matt Klentak, Joe Jordan and the rest of the Phillies organization (fans included!) for trading for me and welcoming me to Philly with open arms. I look forward to pitching at the Bank, wearing “Phillies” proudly across my chest.

Lastly, thank you Astros fans. As a boy, I was one of you. I remembered wearing my Astros cap proudly, cheering on Bagwell, Biggio, Berkman, Oswalt, Clemens, and Pettitte. As a young man, I got the dream of every boy playing Little League in Houston: to be a part of this great organization. And though that chapter is over now, I am and always will be grateful for your support and encouragement.

Going forward, I am optimistic. I remain hopeful because my hope lies in something, rather someone, that gives me unshakable faith and undeniable joy. But I also remain hopeful because I know however bleak things may look at the time, they get better. They always get better! I want to let you, the fans, know that if I ever get the chance to play in Houston, whether in the blue and orange or in the third base dugout, I will be an improved man on and off the field. I will work hard, give my all day in and day out, but most importantly I will always enjoy it! Like I said, life is too short for anything else.

Thankful,

Mark Appel

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July 16, 2014

Baseball, Faith, General Posts

I am posting this today for a very specific reason. Today is my parents anniversary, which I am so proud to congratulate them on the example of what a beautiful and Godly marriage looks like. If my marriage looks anything like theirs, I will have so much joy! The way my dad lays down his life for my mom is something that you don’t see much in society, but it is a beautiful picture of Christ laying his life down for the church, those that love Him and have given theirs lives to Him. I am confident that this is the reason God created marriage, as a picture of His love for us.

But this is not the reason I am writing today. Today marks the one year anniversary of a very important event in my life. One that I have not shared with many people. But I think it needs to be shared to show a number of things: God’s grace in my life, how much things can change in just one year, and to encourage people that are feeling in the middle of their “desert” that God has not forsaken you and loves you despite your circumstances.

I have recently been called up to AAA and just on Sunday, played in the Futures Game in Cincinnati, OH. Things have been fun recently, but they have not always been. This story demonstrates how much can change in a year.

We will start before spring training, understanding what happened that led to July 16, 2014, the day my life truly changed.

Appendicitis

A few weeks before spring training, I went to a new restaurant with a friend in Houston. The food was delicious, but I felt something not sitting right in my stomach. Little did I know, my appendix was on the verge of exploding in my body, something that can get very serious very quickly.

As I was watching TV with my family, I decided to head to bed early. I could tell I was getting a stomach bug, possibly from food poisoning from trying something new for dinner. It is a sensation that I had felt before, and I knew I could probably sleep it off and feel better in the morning.

After about an hour of laying down and not getting any sleep, I knew I was going to throw up. I hate that feeling. But when it comes, you have to do what you have to do. And usually when it happens, you almost feel immediately better afterwards. Unfortunately, this only made things worse. Trying to fall asleep again, I began to feel a strong pain starting to center on my lower right abdomen area, where I knew my appendix was.

One of my teammates in college had an appendicitis during the season which caused him to miss 3-4 weeks. He described the sensation he felt to us when it started and when he knew something was wrong. So when I felt the exact same thing, I knew that I should get to the ER as soon as possible. I woke up my dad and he drove me to the Urgent Care center a couple miles away. Within 3 hours, they had confirmed that I had appendicitis, scheduled a surgery and transferred me via ambulance (my first ride in one) to the hospital downtown. It was a long, difficult night.

After surgery, the recovery was a slow process. I spent one night at the hospital before being released the following day. The pain is hard to describe. It is almost as if someone has completely cut your ab muscles and trying to use them is out of the question. Trying to sit up after laying down was a work out in itself. You know, it’s amazing how you never realize how much you use your abs until you can’t use them at all.

Spring Training

Spring training started about two weeks after the surgery. I was walking fine, but had not tried to jog or run, much less lift any weights or throw a baseball. Getting in shape to live a normal life was not far away, but getting in pitching shape was a whole new story. I remember the first time I threw a baseball after the surgery. Because of the rotational motion of throwing, it felt like someone was ripping my core away from my body. The scar tissue had built up to repair the damaged muscles, and breaking it down was possibly the most painful part of the process.

The first time I tried something new was always the worst. It got progressively better each time, which was encouraging, but I still knew I was a far ways from throwing off of a mound, much less against hitters.

Day after day, I worked, I watched my teammates, I learned the game, I soaked in as much as I could, but the competitor in me wanted to get on the field and play. As tough as getting back in shape was, it was almost tougher having to watch and not being able to compete alongside my teammates.

But there were still many benefits of being there at spring training in 2014. I was able to develop relationships with teammates, guys that I hope to be playing alongside for many years to come. I was able to observe how veteran big leaguers go about their business. I was able to learn the pro game, learn the Astros system and plays. These are all things that are valuable and will still be valuable to me for the rest of my career. But I think the most important things are the relationships that were built.

The one event that topped off my spring training experience and made all the difficulties and sitting on the sideline worth it was being able to pitch in a spring training game against the Mets. I only threw one inning, but it was so much fun to be able to compete again. And even better, the next week I was able to pitch three innings in Houston at Minute Maid Park during an exhibition game against Veracruz from the Mexican League in front of all of my family. It was a great experience, but looking at it now, it gave me false hope for my first time playing in Lancaster.

Lancaster Part 1

Lancaster is known as a hitters paradise. It is in the high desert, about an hour and a half north of Los Angeles. It is high elevation, hot, dry and windy… Incredibly windy. The wind blows out to right field at an average of 25-30 mph constantly. Pop flies go over the fence. I think I broke someone’s bat one time and he still hit a bomb. I had never seen anything so crazy in my entire career!

Just a week after pitching in Minute Maid Park in Houston, TX, I was pitching in Lancaster, CA. The success I had in the 4 innings during spring training and the exhibition gave me much optimism about the condition of my body and my ability to recover after pitching as if everything were normal. The thing is, everything was not ok, and even though my pitches were good, I struggled with the location and consistency of them. Combine that with pitching on a 4 day rotation (which gives me less time to recover) and you start to struggle physically and mentally.

Now I think I could have pitched on a 4 day rotation had I not had surgery about a month or two prior, but given the circumstances it was something that I was having a very difficult time doing. There came a game sometime in late April or early May that I just had nothing on anything of my pitches. My arm was completely fatigued and coach pulled me early. I was never concerned about being injured, but I knew that for me, given the circumstances, I needed just a little bit more time to rest. After talking with the Astros coordinators, we all decided it was best to go back to Kissimmee, FL to get back in good pitching shape. Not exactly how I planned the season to go so far, but I knew it was the best thing for me at this point.

Extended Spring Training

Extended spring training is a place not many people that follow baseball know about. Most teams have their 4 full season minor league teams, and then many will have rookie ball (short season) teams. Those seasons start usually around the first of June. But each organization needs to have players to fill those rosters. They have to come from somewhere. Extended spring training (as well as some from the June draft) is where they come from.

My time there was frustrating. There I was, the first overall pick in the draft the year before, spending over a month in extended spring training during my first full season. Definitely not how you write it up. Despite the not ideal circumstances, I think my time there was extremely productive. It was a place where I could get to know some of the younger guys in our organization and share some of my experiences with them. But more importantly, it gave me time to spend in solitude with the Lord.

I had so many frustrations in what I expected to happen in my career and what had actually happened up until that point. Nothing had gone according to plan. It sucked. I never pictured myself at spring training in the middle of May. Through prayer and reading the Bible, I knew God was teaching me about His sovereignty. God is sovereign, there is no doubt about it. Many times we refuse to believe it, but it is true.

Romans 8:28 is a verse that rings loudly when I think about God’s sovereignty. It says, “For we know God causes all things work together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.” If we take this verse exactly for what it says, then we see that God caused everything that was happening up to that point to work together for my good because I loved God and was called according to his purpose.

But it didn’t feel true. It wasn’t until later, until I saw what God brought me through, that I was able to see how the first half of my 2014 season, as crappy as it was in the moment, was used for my good. This is a reminder that we cannot rely on our emotions to know what is real. Even if we don’t feel something doesn’t mean it is not there.

After a long 4-5 weeks of throwing programs, work outs, bullpens, and simulated games, I was ready to rejoin the team in Lancaster, finally ready to pitch well and get called up to Corpus Christi. Or so I thought.

Lancaster Part 2

My first game back in Lancaster was against the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes (great name to say), the Dodgers affiliate in the Cal League. It was easily the worst game of my career and I doubt I will ever one as bad as that one. I gave up 10 runs in 1 1/3 innings. Absolutely terrible. Again, not the way I scripted it, but God was moving in my life during that time in an extraordinary way.

I was still bitter with how everything was going with the season so far and my heart was really becoming hardened. Even though I knew in my head what God promises in the Bible (like Romans 8:28), I didn’t believe any of it. I was having a crisis of faith. How could a God who loves me unconditionally allow me to go through this? Doesn’t this seem like a bit of injustice for someone who works hard and stays faithful to struggle while other guys across baseball are getting drunk every night and playing great? None of it made sense. Yet, God was sovereign through every step. Not for a second did He forsake me.

Here are the game logs for my first seven starts after returning from extended spring training. The first one on the list is the game against Rancho Cucamonga and the last one was exactly one year ago today.

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Game Logs, Lancaster 2014

As you can tell, it was a terrible stretch. Day after day, start after start, I would show up expecting to lose, expecting to have a terrible day. It was starting to become the norm. I would try to work harder in the weight room, have a better bullpen, try harder to prepare, but every time I stepped on the mound, all the work was worth nothing. I just was not having success.

My faith was slipping and I didn’t know what to do or where to turn.

July 16, 2014

Let me actually start with July 15, 2014. It was my 23rd birthday. Birthdays are funny because they allow you to reconsider a lot of things that have happened over the past year and make commitments for the next year. Almost like a New Years resolution. You ask yourself, “How was my 22nd year being on this Earth?” And while there were so many good things that happened while I was 22, there were a lot more bad, especially recently.

I found myself in the middle of Lancaster with a couple of teammates, sitting on folding chairs at a folding table in the middle of our empty apartment eating some cupcakes that Lance’s fiance had bought for my birthday. We played some card games and went to bed. It was honestly just like any other night (except for the cupcakes). I joked how I was a washed up 23 year old in the California League, and even though I said it in a joking tone, my heart kinda believed it. I was at my wits end, frustrated and so, so exhausted.

That night, as I was praying, I cried out to the Lord to give me a good start, just one good game. I didn’t care about anything else, I just wanted one good game. After being put through the ringer for a month and half, I figured it was about time for my luck to change. But God had different plans.

When I showed up to the park, I knew that night was going to be a special one. I had this strange feeling that something great was going to happen, that I was finally going to be able to break out of this funk and move on with my career. After all, all I needed was one good game. I even prayed for it the night before! I was not going to let my 23rd year of life be as bad as my 22nd!

So how did it go? I’m sure you already peeked at the game log. If you didn’t, all I can say is it wasn’t as bad as that first game against Rancho Cucamonga! I went less than 2 innings again and gave up 7 runs. I couldn’t get anyone out when I needed to. Just par for the course.

When I was taken out of the game, I didn’t feel anything. No hatred, no frustration, no sadness, nothing. I didn’t throw my glove. I was praying. I was thinking. Thinking about my life. Thinking about quitting. Thinking about the point of all this. Thinking about my family and how much I miss them. Thinking about how lonely I felt. Thinking about how God has forgotten about me.

I walked up to the locker room after the inning was over and by the time I got to the door, tears were already streaming down my face. I wanted to yell. I wanted to punch something. I wanted to throw something. I had stored up so much stress and frustration over the past year and past month that I was reaching a boiling point. And it wasn’t pretty.

When I got into the locker room, I closed the doors behind, made sure I was alone and started to cry. (Well, I thought I was alone. Little did I know that Josh Hader was stuck in the bathroom, too scared to come out because of everything that was going on. You’ll understand why he was scared in a minute.) I needed to get this all out and crying was starting not to cut it. I knew I wasn’t going to yell, and I knew better than to punch something and break my hand, so I decided to throw something.

I found a baseball laying on the ground, found a clearing in the locker room, got a running start and threw this baseball as hard as I could at a piece of wood put up in between two lockers where a support beam for the building was. The ball went straight through the wall. I went and found another baseball, went back to the clearing and threw it at the same wall. Same result. Again. And again. And again. After about 5 throws, I couldn’t find any more baseballs to throw, then I remembered that some of the guys store up baseballs in a big cardboard box to use in the offseason. I went and grabbed the box and set it on a chair in the clearing in the locker room. There were about 50 baseballs there. I threw every single one of them through that wall in between the lockers. I threw until I couldn’t throw any more, and then I threw some more. The wall was absolutely destroyed. I was crying and heaving and all I wanted to do was destroy this wall because this was the only thing that made me feel good, even if it was the smallest ounce.

After there were no more balls, I sat down, looked at the wall, put my face in my hands and cried like I have never cried before. I don’t know how long I had been up there. Maybe 45 minutes. Who knows. And when I was done crying, I looked around the room and everything was the same, just as I left it.

Except for one thing. I felt an overwhelming sense of peace in that moment. I realized that life hadn’t ended. I’m still alive. The game is still going on outside. Nobody knows what had just happened in that locker room in Lancaster, CA. And in that moment, I felt the Holy Spirt speaking to my heart.

He was asking me, “What do you need, Mark? You obviously aren’t happy. What do you need to be happy?” I did my best to answer. “I just want to get out of Lancaster. I need a change of scenery. I need a fresh start. I need to get to the next level.” The more I thought about it, the more I realized that if I get to AA, then I would just want to get to AAA. And if I get to AAA, I would want to get to the big leagues. Then be the #1 starter, All Star, Cy Young award winner, World Series champion, MVP, Hall of Famer. And then what? There has to be something next!

And that is when I heard Him speak again. He said, “You already have everything you need to be happy. You already have Everything you need to have joy. You have me.”

In that moment, Philippians 4 came into my mind and it made sense like it had never made sense before. Here is what it says:

“Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:11-13

Paul is in chains, locked up in prison as he is writing this. Most people know Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” And most people think that means that they can strike everyone out, hit 500 ft. homers, throw touchdowns, do all these amazing things because Christ has given them strength. But that is not even close to what it means.

What Paul is saying is that he has learned the secret to contentment. Not complacency, but contentment, having peace in all circumstances. And the secret is Jesus Christ. He makes the assertion that he has experienced much and little, any and every circumstance, and yet he is content because he has Christ. In any and every circumstance we can have peace because we have Christ. We already have everything we need. In that moment in Lancaster, I thought I needed so much, but in reality, I already had everything I needed.

I didn’t need to be out of Lancaster or to know what my future holds. I didn’t need to worry about my past or be afraid of letting that define me, because in each and every moment, I have everything that I need. I have Christ. I have peace because of that. If I was in Lancaster for the rest of the season, it was for a reason, for a purpose. To either teach me about myself and about God or to share the good news of Jesus, or both. But I knew in that moment God was sovereign and He had given me everything I needed.

God used everything starting with the appendectomy to the struggles in spring training, Lancaster, extended spring training and the previous 6 weeks to teach me this one lesson. And it was all worth it. That is what God’s sovereignty is all about.

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The Wall

The Aftermath

After the game, guys came up into the locker room and would look at the wall, the look at me. I thought it was kinda funny at that point (I mean, just look at that wall!!), especially after the lessons that I learned and everything that had just happened between me and God.

Rodney (our manager) called me into his office to discuss what happened. He was cool about it. He joked that he was surprised it took me this long to do something like that. All he was concerned about was that the wall would be taken care of and fixed soon. I told him I would coordinate with our clubhouse manager to get it fixed up and see how much it costs. The next thing he told me was to make sure that I know that the sun will rise tomorrow and to show up ready to work. I assured him I would be.

The next day, our baseball operations manager told me that it would cost about $500 to fix. I thought the price was a bit steep, so I asked him if I could fix it myself as long as he was pleased with the quality of the work. He said that would be fine.

The following day, I got to the field early, took a look at the wall and figured out everything I would need from Home Depot. With about $100 of materials and tools, I was able to replace the wall and make it look nice and new.

The Wall and My Heart

I believe God uses different things, different pictures to give us a good representation of what He is doing in our lives. And this wall is a perfect example. God used this wall to show me the condition of my heart. After I cut the wood and brought everything back to the field from Home Depot, I went outside to stain the wood. And as I was staining the wood, I could see exactly what God was doing and why I had to go through these past 4 months of “hell”.

The new wall. Oak plywood. Able to withstand baseballs!

The Replacement Oak Plywood wall (before installation)

The wall was a metaphor for my heart. Just like the wall could not withstand the baseballs I threw at it, my heart could not withstand everything that life was throwing at it. It was beat up and needed a replacement. The wall gave the appearance that it was sturdy wood, but it was in fact just particle board, recycled material made cheaply and efficiently to save time and money. It was not quality material. My heart also gave the appearance of being strong and sturdy, when it was in fact weak and broken.

And as I was replacing this particle board with 3/4 inch oak plywood, something that would withstand baseballs (and much more) being thrown at it, God was telling me, “This is exactly what I am doing with your heart. Your heart could not withstand what life was throwing at you, but now it can. Your heart will be like my heart.”

The beauty of this story is that God is not just sovereign in my life, but He is sovereign in your life as well. He loves you and really desires the best possible life for you, even if He takes you through your own personal Lancaster. If I did not experience what I needed to in Lancaster, I would not be the person I am today, someone who finds joy in each and every day! My character was built and my life was changed in in an ordinary locker room playing an ordinary sport on an ordinary day by an extraordinary God! No matter where you are in life, God is in the business of giving people His heart through faith in Jesus, who is everything we truly need. Your heart is never too hard, too weak or too broken for God to give it an upgrade.

These are the reflections of a first rounder.

Cut Day

Baseball, Faith

One of my greatest beliefs after playing this game at many different levels is that baseball has many parallels to life. You learn about dealing with unfamiliar circumstances, meeting new friends/coworkers, working together while being responsible for your individual performance, how to deal with failure, and many more lessons. Because of that, I am grateful for baseball and feel blessed to be able to play this game.

I was sent down to minor league camp last week. As sad as I was to leave big league camp and all the things that it offers, I was excited to get to the minor league side. I was excited to see all my friends that I have played with the past two years, and I was ready to get my work in to be in the best shape to start the season (I needed more innings as a starter than I could’ve gotten on the major league side). Just having the talent and opportunity to play this game is a blessing in itself. But as much as I love baseball, I still see so much heartbreak, sadness, difficult times, and frustration.

My first day on the minor league side was a Monday, which all of us are becoming more and more familiar with as “cut day”. Every week, men that have sacrificed so much time and energy to play this game are being told that there is no room for them in the organization. All of a sudden, their lives are turned upside down. They are unemployed most likely for the first time in their lives, usually wondering what happened to their dream, what went wrong. Their dream isn’t always necessarily over, though. Some players will get back on their feet right away, find a team, any team that will let them play and try to earn a spot on their teams. After all, organizations don’t have to expend a lot of resources to keep an extra minor league player.

So as I show up on Monday and get ready for the day, I see many of my teammates who I have gotten to know over the last two years. Most there are doing what I’m doing, just getting ready for practice, but some are not. Some are packing their things, saying their goodbyes, and just like that, they are gone. I don’t know if I will ever see them again. For what reason players get released, I can only speculate. Too old, not good enough, too many younger players coming up who are given more opportunity, no position to play, etc… You get the idea. Saying goodbye to a grown 24 year old man with tears in his eyes as the realization that the sport he has given almost all of his life to has left him behind is excruciating. All the grinding through the tough conditions in the minor leagues, barely making $7000 in a season (if that much), training all off-season to be best prepared for the next season, and sacrificing everything to fight for the dream of one day playing in the big leagues has been halted and for many, it’s all over. Never again will they pick up a baseball competitively.

There I am, saying my goodbyes with all these thoughts running through my mind and immediately my heart breaks for these guys I’ve shared a locker room, countless practices, heartbreaking losses and championship rings with. What do I say? What could I possibly say? Is there anything that could ease their pain? I have nothing.

This is the reality of baseball and the reality of life. Dreams come to an end, reality kicks in and you all of a sudden realize that everything you knew was true gets turned on its head. You’re lost and have no clue what to do next. I’m sure some of my teammates are stuck once baseball ends because it is literally all they knew and all they wanted to do. Their entire identity is found in the game. They are known first and foremost as a baseball player. Without baseball, they are nothing. You see, players that are done playing can have a tough time learning how to live without the game. Some develop a drug or alcohol problem. Others get divorced from their wives. And still others end up with no ambition, no drive, no passion without baseball. It can be a lonely feeling. My heart breaks for these men whose identity is found entirely in something that is ultimately temporary.

I’ve gone through many, many different circumstances in this game and I know that my attitude and passion have not always been where they should be. I do not always enjoy playing this game, and I have not always felt at peace with my circumstances, but I will not allow my identity to be found in a game. I’ve learned the hard way, and many times will be reminded the hard way when I find too much of my self-worth in this game.

My freshman year at Stanford was a tough one for me. Leading up to college, I knew that I had some raw God-given talent and tools that might one day develop into something special, and as a competitor, I wanted to make that happen as quickly as possible. Being a weekend starting pitcher (one of the top-three pitchers) was a huge priority my freshman year. Before school started, I knew opportunities would be there and all I had to do was seize them, but I never considered what would happen when I failed. Failure is always inevitable. Nobody does everything perfectly. I don’t even think Jesus did everything perfectly. Did he just pick up a hammer and was immediately the best carpenter the world had seen? I doubt it. He tried, he failed, and he learned. But Jesus never sinned. And there is a big difference between failure and sin. Failure is sometimes necessary and perfection is not needed to be blameless (without sin).

So as it happened, my freshman year was filled with failure, and a lot of it. I was given chances to succeed at my goal of being a starter, but I failed every time. What I know now and didn’t know back then is that failure is a great opportunity to learn. I also know now that failure is a lot more difficult when your identity is found in baseball. Think about it. Failure in the game says that you are obviously not a very good baseball player, so your identity is shaken, it is breaking, holding on by a thread, and nothing can get you back on track except a good game. Life is a constant roller coaster, with your attitude and perspective totally dependent on your most recent performance. The highs are so high and the lows are so low. It’s a terrible way to live letting the game dictate your life. But this is how it was for most of my freshman year.

It wasn’t until that summer that things started to change. I realized that God was asking me a serious question. “If baseball were to end today, would you be alright with that?” My answer was a resounding “no”. I would not have been alright. My life would have been rocked. My identity would have been shaken. I would not have known who I was or what my purpose was in life.

Baseball was everything to me. There was nothing I wanted to do more. And while that still rings true today, baseball is no longer everything to me. My identity is no longer found in this game. If baseball were to end today for whatever reason, I know I would have the peace of Christ that surpasses all my understanding (see Philippians 4:6-7). And I definitely do not understand this peace, but I’ve learned that understanding is really not that important. I don’t need to know why things happen all the time. After all, the word of God says: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” (Proverbs 3:5)

Living in a way the glorifies God, knowing your identity is found in Christ because your entire worth is found in what He alone says about who you are and how much He loves you is where freedom starts. True freedom.

So this is my prayer for my teammates who are released. This is my prayer for those of you who are reading this and realize that your identity is found in your job, your marriage, your family, your wealth or your happiness. Don’t get me wrong, those are all great things and blessings from God, but when they are THE god of your life, the thing you pursue above all else, there is a problem. If this is you, I will ask you the same thing God asked me 5 years ago: “If you were to lose that, whatever it is, would you be alright with it?” If your answer is no, then I urge you to find a new identity in Jesus Christ, the only solid rock worth building your life on, someone who is never changing, will never fail you and will always, always love you, no matter what. Jobs may be lost, but identities are found. The circumstances may change for the worse, but peace is constant. Dreams may die, but passions and ambitions live on.

Baseball has never been more fun for me than it is today. I’ve never had more peace in my circumstances and more passion in my work than right now because my identity is no longer found in baseball. It is found in something that never, ever changes.

These are the reflections of a first rounder.