BRAVE IN THE BIG LEAGUES: Adjusting to the big leagues, rookie finds spiritual support
Chipper Jones. John Smoltz. Andruw Jones. Marcus Giles. Mike Hampton.
As a rookie pitcher for the Atlanta Braves, Boyer also catches his share of abuse from the team’s corps of veterans.
“Why him?” Atlanta catcher Eddie Perez -– with a smirk on his face and a nod toward Boyer -- asked a reporter who was interviewing the young rookie. “He’s not part of the team.”
In a recent session of “kangaroo court” –- a faux courtroom experience in which Chief Justice Smoltz dispenses fines for various infractions -- Boyer was fined for being late to batting practice, and for just being a rookie. It cost him $100.
“I got hosed,” Boyer said.
Boyer, 24, absorbs the jabs gracefully. Since being promoted to the Braves in June, he’s been doing his best to absorb it all. His major league debut on a Sunday afternoon will always be a memory he will treasure.
“I couldn’t feel anything,” Boyer said about that day. “I had tons of people in the stands. I remember running out there thinking, ‘Holy nuts. This is crazy.’ I couldn’t believe I could even throw a strike. I will never forget that.”
But his transition from the small towns, bus rides and relative obscurity of minor league baseball to the glitz and glamour of the big leagues hasn’t been entirely smooth. Boyer has sometimes wondered whether he was spiritually ready for such a challenge.
And, ironically enough, though it’s the Braves’ veterans who sometimes give Boyer a hard time, it’s also the veterans –- especially Smoltz and Chris Reitsma -- who have helped him through his struggles.
“He’s a man of God at 27,” Boyer said about Reitsma. “He’s a guy you can lean on. Smoltzie’s the president, but Reitsma’s the shepherd here.”
In high school, Boyer never imagined being a big league pitcher –- mainly because he played center field. But prior to the region championship game during Boyer’s senior year, an injury sidelined the scheduled pitcher, and nobody on the team was left to take the mound. Boyer volunteered.
He pitched six innings, hitting the mid-90s on the radar gun.
“I pitched lights out,” Boyer said. “I was completely blown away, and so were the scouts.”
The Braves had seen enough. They drafted Boyer out of high school in 2002 as a pitcher, so he entered the Atlanta farm system to learn how to become one.
He ascended through the system, and this year began the season in Mississippi with Atlanta’s Double-A affiliate. Boyer soon decided he wanted more. He was confident he was good enough to pitch in Atlanta and desperately wanted the call.
“I pleaded with God. I pleaded with Him,” Boyer said. “I said, ‘Call me up. I am ready to do this.’”
Boyer’s prayer was answered one day in June, when Kent Willis, his pitching coach in Mississippi, broke the news to Boyer. He was going to Atlanta.
“I went nuts,” Boyer said. “We had a bull rush in the bullpen when I found out about it. I grabbed my pitching coach and was just throwing him. The whole team stopped BP [batting practice] and ran over to the bullpen and we just started going nuts. It was a great feeling.”
It was what Boyer had been dreaming about. But then reality hit, and the rookie found himself in situations he didn’t like. On the field it was no problem. He has confidence in his pitching abilities and knows he’s good enough to compete. Off the field is another story.
He had to fight temptation like never before. The reality of life in the major leagues was a shock to him. He began to wonder, “Am I ready for this?”
“When you’re at the big league level, there are no parameters whatsoever,” Boyer said. “There are no boundaries. You’re by yourself a lot. There’s obviously a lot of money, a lot of people pulling at you, a lot of people want you to do things.”
Two people specifically came to Boyer’s aid at just the right time. Reitsma was one of them. The Braves’ closer, Reitsma has been in the major leagues for a few years now. When he broke in with the Reds, Scott Sullivan and Sean Casey were spiritual mentors to him. Now he wanted to return the favor.
“Anyone who comes to the big leagues for the first time, their eyes are going to be opened,” Reitsma said. “I think it’s important to set boundaries for yourself in every walk of life. I just encouraged him to have accountability with me or John [Smoltz] or someone where he’s not left out by himself.”
The two became accountability partners. Reitsma gave Boyer his cell phone number and told him to call anytime he needed something.
Another friend who helped Boyer was Brian Hommel, the Baseball Chapel leader for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Hommel told Boyer about the importance of walls in people’s lives, to set boundaries and to provide protection from things of the world.
“You’re on your own for the most part,” Hommel said about life in the big leagues. “Everything’s first-class. There are a lot of things there that can easily lead you astray from the things of God.”
Hommel encouraged Boyer to stay zealously devoted to the basic Christian disciplines of Scripture reading and prayer. Boyer also saw the importance of surrounding himself with solid believers.
The words of John 21, and the story about Peter’s restoration, have been especially encouraging to Boyer over the past couple of weeks.
“Even after you do kind of go down this route that you shouldn’t be possibly taking, Jesus is still right there, arms wide open and asking for your love,” Boyer said. “That was big for me.”
Now Boyer is settling into life as a big league pitcher. He’s getting used to the increased exposure, to people following him around asking for his autograph. He’s getting accustomed to pitching in front of thousands of people. And he’s becoming more settled in his walk with God.
“I’ve always had the confidence, but my confidence hasn’t really been about myself,” Boyer said. “It’s a confidence in the Lord’s plan. I feel like if this is His will and His plan, then this is what I’m going to do. If it’s to be at the major league level, then it’s going to be at the major league level.”