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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.