After spending 17 seasons pitching for seven Major League Baseball teams, Jeff Suppan knows well the inner workings of a big league clubhouse. As a Catholic, he also knows the struggles players face in trying to juggle hectic game and travel schedules with going to Mass and receiving the sacraments.
The 41-year-old husband and father of three, who retired in 2012, recently spoke to Our Sunday Visitor about his journey as a Catholic in the major leagues.
Our Sunday Visitor: What has your faith journey been like since you were a kid growing up in California?
Jeff Suppan: I grew up a cradle Catholic, the youngest of five children. When I signed to play professional baseball, I could no longer say I believe what the Church teaches because my mom taught it to me. I had to have the answers. I was 20 years old, and it was my first time being around Protestants, and some were aggressive, really challenging me.
OSV: Were you able to find the answers?
Suppan: It was amazing. God put a player in my path one year in spring training. We got to talking in the outfield, and it turns out he was Catholic. After practice, we went to get a Catholic Bible, and throughout that whole spring training, he taught me basic apologetics. So, I learned about where we find the papacy in the Bible, and the Eucharist.
He never made it out of spring training, nor did I hear from him again. He put me on the path to want to know more and more about what I believed in already.
OSV: How did you get involved with Catholic Athletes for Christ (CAC)?
Suppan: When I first got to the big leagues, it was so hard to get to Mass. On Sundays, we played day games. That really bothered me, to the point where I said, “I don’t care if I’m pitching or not, I am waking up and going to Mass.” I checked every bulletin in all the cities where we played.
I got to know all the cathedrals well and would try to go to daily Mass at noon sometimes. These were the days before Parishes Online.
Somewhere along the line, I met Ray McKenna, founder of Catholic Athletes for Christ, and stressed to him the need for Mass and ministry.
OSV: Why is an organization like Catholic Athletes for Christ important?
Suppan: When I started with the Red Sox [in 1995], there were only two ballparks that had Catholic Mass, and those were geared toward that staff and those who had to work on Sundays.
Today, there are 26 thanks to CAC. They organize a Mass on Saturday and Sunday as well as making confession available.
When a player leaves home, he really doesn’t have a parish, but these weekend Masses and the local priest really become his Catholic community.
OSV: The average length of a Major League Baseball career is just less than six year; your career almost tripled that length. What kept you going?
Suppan: I could have called it quits at any time. I felt that I wanted to play as long as I could play. I felt like my talent was a gift, and it was important to me to give everything.
OSV: As we know, Pope St. John Paul II was a strong advocate of sports as a noble activity and a training ground for virtue. Would you agree?
Suppan: Absolutely. In baseball, you are always being challenged. It’s easy to be the hero when you are pitching well. On the other hand, when things are going bad, it is hard to keep your head up. So how you act and handle those challenges is really important. Who I am as person in my call to be a good follower of Jesus Christ doesn’t change whether I am pitching well or not.
I had a wise baseball coach tell me that there are two types of players in baseball: those who are humble and those who are about to be humble. That’s been a great life lesson for me.
OSV: How involved are you these day with Catholic Athletes for Christ?
Suppan: Not as much as I was in years past, but you never know what God has in store for you. CAC is part of the New Evangelization, and I’ve loved being a part of that. It has put my Catholic faith in the spotlight, and thanks to CAC, I have a podium to share the Faith and to allow my own faith to grow. I’ll never forget what my mom told me, “Keep Jesus number one.” I’m still working on that one.
Eddie O’Neill writes from Missouri.