Bishop Barber was able to do what Billy Beane could not: Call Grant Desme to Oakland.
Four years ago, the Oakland A's and the baseball community were stunned when Desme responded to an invitation to spring training by retiring from baseball at age 23 to pursue a vocation as a Roman Catholic priest.
Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ, remembered reading Desme's story in Sports Illustrated.
"I thought, 'You're kidding me.' To be a professional ballplayer, whether its baseball, football, basketball, is the dream of many young men. Perhaps it's the dream of some of you guys," Bishop Barber told the young men of De La Salle High School and the new De La Salle Academy, as he began his homily at the Mass of the Holy Spirit at the school on Aug. 27.
De La Salle's high school football season opener would be televised nationally in two days; a movie inspired by the football program, "When the Game Stands Tall," had opened in theaters nationwide five days before.
In his work with seminarians, Bishop Barber told them, he met men who told him they gave up promising careers in business, real estate and computers. His response: "You didn't give up as much as this guy. He could have been famous. He could have been a great baseball player."
"I always wanted to meet this guy," the bishop said. When Bishop Barber got to Oakland, he found Desme at St. Michael's Abbey in Southern California. The bishop called the abbott, asking to borrow Desme for the visit to De La Salle.
Bishop Barber turned to one of the three seminarians seated on the platform that served as the altar and said, "I want to ask you in front of all these guys: How could you do that? How could you give up a career in baseball in order to become a priest?"
The tall young man in the white habit strode to the microphone. Entering the abbey of the Norbertine order, he had taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. He had also been given a new name: Frater Matthew.
"I was one of those boys," he said. "I grew up, ever since I can remember, dreaming, living, breathing baseball."
He began playing the game at the age of 4. "I had the dream of becoming a big leaguer."
Motivated by his goals, his hard work and translated into success on the field. He played college baseball at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
"By the end of my junior year, I was a first team All American, won the triple crown award for Big West conference, was player of the year and ended up being drafted in the second round of the 2007 draft by the Oakland Athletics," he said. "That was one of my great dreams, and a big stepping stone along the way on where I wanted to be.
"But at that point in my life, I was not where God wanted me to be," he said. "Because about that time, God really started rocking my world. I had everything figured out. I was on top of the world: successful at baseball, not having to go to school, having a big contract."
But then he was hit by a pitch that broke his right wrist. "It was supposed to be six-week injury," he said, but it stretched into a year and a half, requiring surgery.
"I couldn't play baseball," he said, while practically living in a physical therapy center, and "having to face myself with a lot of silence."
"During that time I was confronted with myself, without my dream, and I didn't like it," he said. "At first I got angry but after that I decided to start praying and trying to figure out what the meaning of all this was."
He found that the source of his anger and frustration was that he thought he had it all figured out, that he had worked hard, met his goals and done everything he could do to be successful.
"To have something that was completely out of my control, like an injury, strip that away left me wondering: What's the purpose? What am I actually going after? Because if I can put all my effort into something and not have it be fulfilled, why do it?
"It ended up making me think a lot about death, a lot about my entire existence on this earth. It made me confront the big questions about life, and it led me to God."
After this year and a half of deep reflection, he regained his health.
"I was healthy in mind and soul, I felt I was in a really good place with God," he said. "My dream of baseball had been purified."
But he didn't head for the abbey.
"I was thinking of becoming priest but I needed to play another year of baseball to make sure I wasn't running from it," he said. "I never faced adversity quite like that. I wanted to make sure I wasn't running from it."
What a year he had: "God blessed me," he said. "I was the only minor leaguer who had a 30-30 season. I was invited to play in the Arizona fall league," where top prospects showcase their skills.
He had another calling to consider: "I also had a very strong desire to be married. I also wanted to be a father," he said.
"It wasn't so much about baseball for me, at the point because I had seen the fleeting nature of it. Even I had become a Hall of Famer, it was still going to end in this lifetime. It wasn't going to fulfill me."
"I ended up having an even more amazing fall league that I ever could have imagined," he said. "It was a gift from God."
He described a stretch of 10 days where he felt he was "playing a video game."
"I'd go up to the plate. Everything was about the size of a watermelon, even though they were the best pitches I'd ever seen and they were going all over the ballpark," he said.
"What is going on? I'm not this good. But I'll take it."
After winning MVP of the league, he received the invitation to spring training with the Oakland A's.
"But after all that, it still left me with this yearning in my heart that there was something more," he said.
That yearning led him to St. Michael's Abbey of the Norbertine fathers. He spent a week there, living their life, and "got the sense this is where God wanted me to be."
The reaction to his decision to leave baseball, he said, surprised him. "It was God's grace working through all that to help people to see that God is what matters."
Frater Matthew has completed the first four of his 10-year journey to the priesthood. "It's been a great, wonderful, challenging, terrible journey, because God wants the absolute best of us."
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