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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) 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
Jeremy Guthrie (Craig Holyoak, Deseret News) Jeremy Guthrie (Craig Holyoak, Deseret News)
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
Baltimore's Jeremy Guthrie, 29, came home from his mission with no expectations. Seven years later, he was a major league starter. (Chris Carlson, Associated Press) Baltimore's Jeremy Guthrie, 29, came home from his mission with no expectations. Seven years later, he was a major league starter. (Chris Carlson, Associated Press)
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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