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Mission Accomplished

Pitchers put service first, find success in majors

Published: Wednesday, May 14 2008 11:55 p.m. MDT

Matt Lindstrom, 28, a reliever for the Florida Marlins, found that a mission didn't just help him as a person — it also helped his fastball.

Doug Benc, Getty Images

At an age when most major league prospects are either under contract or preparing for another year of college, one promising pitcher left Brigham Young University, entered the Missionary Training Center and shut out baseball.

He didn't take a glove. He didn't do one push-up. And for two years, he didn't throw a baseball.

     

In fact, Jeremy Guthrie never talked about the sport, or the fact

that his talent made a professional baseball career a real possibility.

The only people who knew were his mission president and a companion who

found out through other means.

     

Yet just two months after Guthrie returned home from Spain in

2000, the velocity on his pitches had returned to pre-mission levels.

     

\"I was being blessed,\" he said. \"It wasn't anything I could have planned for.\"

     

Once he accepted a mission call, the only definitive plans

Guthrie could make concerned how he would serve. The same was true for

Matt Lindstrom, a Ricks College pitcher who went on a mission to

Sweden. The decision to become a missionary for The Church of Jesus

Christ of Latter-day Saints left Guthrie and Lindstrom, like so many

other major league hopefuls, without any guarantees in a profession

where such service is often viewed with wariness. But both men are now

established major league players — Guthrie with the Baltimore Orioles

and Lindstrom with the Florida Marlins — and despite the inherent

challenges, both reflect on their decision and experiences with

grattitude and conviction.

When Guthrie left Ashland, Ore., in 1997 for Provo, Utah, he had been

on the radar of baseball scouts for some time. The New York Mets

selected him out of high school in the 15th round of the first-year

player draft.But the goal to serve a mission was already in place, and Guthrie

joined the BYU baseball program in part because it would allow him to

reach that objective.

According to his former coach at BYU, Gary Pullins, Guthrie's story is

typical of most players who serve missions. The decision usually comes

before the player steps on campus and has its roots in the home.

     

\"I think Jeremy knew even before he enrolled in college that he

was going to serve a mission,\" said Pullins, who led the BYU program

from 1977-99. \"Most of the players who go knew they were going to serve

a mission before they enrolled in school.\"

     

But Guthrie, a pitcher who Pullins said was \"oozing\" with talent,

started having opinions, at times unsolicited, thrown at him — some

advising him to consider baseball as his mission and some saying the

professional opportunity was too good to pass up. Guthrie held firm,

however, and said he received confirmation that a mission was the right

choice.

\"The goal was set prior to having to make the decision,\" Guthrie

said. \"I think what made it most difficult was a lot of feedback from

numerous people ... getting different opinions.

     

\"Ultimately, when I did make the decision ... I obviously felt very good about the decision and relieved.\"

     

Although Lindstrom wasn't drafted out of Madison High School in

Rexburg, Idaho, he did receive correspondence from major league clubs.

But like Guthrie, his resolve to serve had already been solidified, and

he informed those teams not to bother.

     

\"I told them, 'don't draft me because I'm not interested in playing until after my mission,\"' Lindstrom said.

     

Lindstrom did so knowing that the decision might adversely affect

his prospects in professional baseball. He was well aware of the fact

that the mission field was a long way from a major league career.

     

\"It didn't seem like it was going to happen because that route is odd and it doesn't happen very often,\" he said.

     

Lindstrom's conviction was the product of observance. When he was

12, his father began serving as a priest quorum adviser, and Lindstrom

watched those young men go on to serve missions and return as changed

individuals.

     

\"That kind of inspired me,\" he said. \"I wanted to be like those guys.\"

     

Even after a promising freshman season at Ricks College, where

the small-town product was able to bask in a little attention,

Lindstrom left for Stockholm, Sweden, to serve a full-time mission.

     

\"I knew I wanted to do that,\" he said. \"I'm grateful that I chose to do that.\"

LINDSTROM DESCRIBED HIS mission experience as \"irreplaceable.\" He

credits his service with helping him develop relationships and people

skills, and the fact that he was sent to the land of his ancestors was

a bonus.

     

\"That made it even more exciting to go over there and teach the people,\" he said. \"That's my heritage.\"

     

Guthrie said the work in Spain was difficult. He wasn't able to

teach as often as he would have liked, but the scarcity of listening

ears taught Guthrie humility and reliance upon gospel principles, which

in turn strengthened his own beliefs.

     

\"It made us realize that sometimes all you can do is pray and

have faith and work as hard as you can ... and hope for miracles,\" he

said. \"Obviously I grew in testimony and conviction of the gospel.\"

     

For Guthrie, his mission was an opportunity to take a two-year

hiatus from personal concerns. Being able to focus on others was a

respite.

     

\"That's something I don't think you can duplicate,\" he said. \"All

you're expected to do is go out and find people and teach them by the

spirit.\"

     

Upon their returns to the United States, both men found the shift

from outward to inward focus to be one of the most difficult

transitions.

     

\"Those two years, you're so unselfish,\" Lindstrom said.

     

But because Guthrie and Lindstrom both returned with promising

right arms intact, baseball was waiting for them, and it was time to

start focusing on the game they left behind.

     

The two men maintained similar perspectives on their future.

     

Guthrie returned 20 pounds lighter and with no expectations when

it came to his athletic career. But his ability quickly returned, which

he counts as a blessing. Guthrie resumed his career at Stanford

University in the fall of 2000, and the following year he married Jenny

Williams, whom he met at BYU and wrote to throughout his mission.

     

Lindstrom knew that most baseball organizations prefer to mold

young talent. Despite the personal growth he experienced on his

mission, in the eyes of scouts and general managers, he was behind.

     

\"I didn't really think it was going to happen,\" said Lindstrom,

who simply decided to resume his career at Ricks and see where it took

him. He said he came home \"throwing garbage\" — pitches that topped out

at a mere 85 miles per hour — but Lindstrom began lifting weights and,

like Guthrie, rediscovered his game.

     

At that point, both players faced the challenge of convincing

clubs that their service hadn't compromised their future, a difficult

task considering the long-standing baseball mind-set regarding returned

missionaries, according to Pullins.

     

\"The biggest challenge has absolutely nothing to do with their

playing skills,\" Pullins said. \"It's the plain and simple fact that so

many organizations make the assumption that if they're willing to give

up baseball for two years ... they perceive that baseball may not be

important to them.

     

\"Some of the professional people give up on them ... It's more

making it up in the view of the professional baseball people than it is

on the field between the white lines.\"

AFTER PLAYING ONE more season at Ricks College, Lindstrom was

drafted in June 2002 by the Mets in the 10th round. He's now in his

second full season with the Marlins, living a hectic major league

schedule that includes playing night games, rushing home to do a load

of laundry and packing a suitcase for a road trip the following day.

     

\"It's worth it,\" he said. \"It's what I love to do.\"

     

Lindstrom caught a break when he was traded to the Marlins prior

to the 2007 season, after which he earned a spot in the bullpen, thanks

in part to a fastball that at times reaches 100 mph.

     

Ironically, despite the existing trepidation in baseball about

returned missionaries, Lindstrom's time in Sweden may have helped his

baseball development. He describes himself as a late-bloomer and said

that while other pitchers were putting mileage on their arms, he was

benefiting from the time off.

     

\"I wasn't banging up my arm for two years,\" said the now

28-year-old right-hander who struck out 62 batters in 67 innings while

walking just 21 last year. \"I had time to rest.\"

     

Guthrie didn't exactly rest while at Stanford, where he set a

school record by throwing 157.2 innings as a junior. An all-American,

Guthrie was drafted in the third round by the Pirates in 2001, but he

elected to remain with the Cardinal for one more season. The following

year, he was a first-round draft pick by the Indians.

     

Guthrie's breakthrough didn't come until last season, when he was

waived by Cleveland and claimed by Baltimore. After cracking the major

league roster as a reliever, Guthrie eventually became a starter and

put together a stellar rookie season, throwing 175.1 innings with a

3.70 ERA and a strikeout rate of 6.31 per nine innings.

     

\"It was a blessing that I never would have expected,\" said the

now 29-year-old right-hander about last season. \"It went better than I

ever could have hoped for.\"

     

Like Lindstrom, Guthrie found that his mission experience served

to improve his baseball performance. It's all a matter of keeping his

life in the proper perspective.

     

\"It allows me to approach baseball in a way that is, for me, more

conducive to my success,\" he said. \"It keeps everything in focus, which

allows me to enjoy baseball.

     

\"The conviction that I have and my testimony is an anchor I will always have.\"

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