Cale Iorg was where every high school baseball player wants to be.
In the spring of 2004, Iorg had scholarship offers from some of the top college baseball programs in the country. Pro scouts wanted to discuss signing bonuses. The future looked very bright for the star shortstop.
A prolonged career in the majors appealed to Iorg, but he wanted to wear another uniform first. He wanted to serve a Mormon mission.
They tried to talk him out of it.
The University of Texas said play for three years, then serve the Lord.
Members of the Minnesota Twins organization said if Iorg would forget the mission, the Twins would take him with one of their three first-round picks.
Tampa Bay presented the best deal of all after the Rays selected Iorg in the 16th round of the MLB draft, offering a $400,000 signing bonus and saying he could serve his mission.
Iorg turned them all down. He played for a year at the University of Alabama before eventually boarding a flight for Lisbon, Portugal.
Now four years after completing his mission, Iorg is living his dream. He is a happily married husband and father. He also plays shortstop for the Toledo Mud Hens, the Triple-A affiliate of the Detroit Tigers.
And he has a message for other young baseball players who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Guys seem to think that if they serve a mission they are going to lose their opportunity (to play baseball)," Iorg said from his hotel in Rochester, N.Y., hours before a game. "They say, ‘I can do a mission later in life.’ It’s difficult for me to hear that because the mission was so awesome for me.
“Sometimes you have to let go and trust the Lord will look out for you. Answer the call, and your life will be better for it. I have had baseball in my life, but I am not even talking about that. Because of the person I have become after my mission, life is truly a whole lot better than I ever could have imagined.”
Baseball runs in Cale's blood.
He is the son of Garth Iorg, who played 10 years with the Toronto Blue Jays and is currently the infield coach for the Milwaukee Brewers. Cale’s uncle Dane was the first-round pick of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1971, and his ability to swing the bat helped the St. Louis Cardinals win the 1982 World Series.
Raised in Knoxville, Tenn., Cale and his older brothers, Isaac and Eli, grew up in minor and major league clubhouses where their father played or coached.
The Iorg boys were also taught to keep the commandments and love the Lord.
Garth’s parents were less active in the LDS Church growing up, but the family was reactivated when Garth’s older brothers Dane and Lee played baseball at BYU. Another blessing came when Garth began dating his future wife, Patty, who was Catholic. Patty investigated the church and was baptized.
“Mom is as strong in her testimony as they come," Cale said. "Mom told dad if he wasn’t 100 percent committed to the church she wasn’t going to marry him. With dad coaching and gone a lot, credit goes to mom for never taking a Sunday off while raising us.”
Serving a mission was not mandatory for the Iorg brothers: “It was something they had to choose for themselves,” Patty said. But when possible, the full-time missionaries were invited to the Iorg home for dinner, and Patty said young Cale first warmed to the idea of serving a mission when the elders informed him the church’s missionary training center provided all-you-can-eat cereal.
It also helped Cale to see his older brothers put baseball on hold to serve in the mission field. Isaac was assigned to a Spanish-speaking mission in Los Angeles. Eli went to Argentina. Isaac returned to play minor league baseball for the Atlanta Braves. Eli came back and played for the Triple-A affiliate of the Houston Astros.
Baseball and mission service haven’t been all roses for the Iorg boys, but they have no regrets, Patty said.
“My (older) boys might not have made it (to the majors), but the one constant in their lives is the impact of their missions," she said. "They will never have the regret of not having served a mission. Had Cale not gone, his life might be different in a lot of ways, but he would have a hard time sitting around the table with everyone talking about their missions.”
Garth is grateful his sons put their faith ahead of baseball.
“Keeping the gospel first may not mean you will be a major league superstar, but it does mean you will have a good life, and you are going to be happy with what you eventually accomplish,” Garth said. “Playing in the majors is nice, but it isn’t the end all. What matters is living the standards … and being a good person. If my sons can do that throughout their lives, that’s what gives me the most pride of all.”
Taking the mission field
Iorg hit .280 with 38 RBIs as a true freshman at the University of Alabama.
But he was still awaiting his mission call when the season ended. As he drove with his parents to Omaha, Neb., to see Eli and the Tennessee Volunteers play in the college world series, Garth phoned church headquarters in Salt Lake City.
A confused woman in the church missionary department accidentally revealed his destination.
“My dad looks into the backseat, puts his hand over the receiver says, ‘I know where you are going.' A minute later he got off the phone and said, ‘You are going to Portugal. I bet you don’t even know where that is,’” said Iorg, who didn't know. “So I didn’t get to open my call the traditional way.”
While there are many Mormons in professional baseball, few are returned missionaries because it’s easy to lose a step and difficult to recover. Many worried that Cale was giving up his baseball career. But it was statements like this one from LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley that affirmed his resolve.
“Of course your time is precious, and you may feel you cannot afford two years,” President Hinckley said in the October 1995 general conference. “But I promise you that the time you spend in the mission field, if those years are spent in dedicated service, will yield a greater return on investment than any other two years of your lives.”
Elder Craig B. Terry, Iorg’s mission president, loves all his missionaries, but became emotional as he described Elder Iorg, using words like “outstanding," "dedicated," "hard-working" and "completely obedient.”
“He was a great leader, very much loved and respected by the other missionaries, members and people he taught,” said Elder Terry, recently called to be an Area Seventy. “He definitely has a special place in my heart.”
Iorg was about a month short of coming home when he and another missionary were proselytizing on the evening of June 8, 2007. The mission cell phone buzzed and a long number from the United States popped up. (Full-time missionaries primarily communicate by a weekly email or letters. They are only permitted to talk by phone with family on Christmas and Mother’s Day).
It was Garth Iorg, and he had some good news.
With permission from President Terry, Garth called to inform his son the Detroit Tigers had picked him in the sixth round of the MLB draft. The details would be handled at home. This information brought Elder Iorg peace of mind and fueled him to finish his mission on a high note.
Originally, Iorg had planned to return to Alabama following his mission. But when he arrived home in mid-July, the Tigers offered him a $1.5 million signing bonus. Sixth-round picks usually receive something in the $105,000 to $120,000 range.
“It was a huge blessing that should have never happened. I shouldn’t have been drafted that high after having not played for two years. There is no chance I should be offered that much money for doing nothing,” Iorg said. “If that’s not a blessing, I don’t know what is. It’s incredible that it happened.”
True love for the work
Some departing missionaries ask their girlfriend to wait for them. Iorg dumped his girlfriend.
Iorg met Kristin, a pretty girl from a very small Alabama town and member of the Crimson Tide dance team, at a baseball team party during his freshman year in 2005. She immediately noticed something different about him. He was drinking water and didn’t use profanity.
“It was a breath of fresh air. What a rarity at Alabama, a party school,” Kristin said.
“He’s a Mormon,” her friends whispered. “What’s that?” Kristin wondered.
She gradually found out.
After becoming friends, one day she was at his apartment and noticed a large, framed picture of an old man.
“That is so sweet, you have your grandfather’s picture on the wall,” she said.
“Oh no, that’s Gordon B. Hinckley. He’s the president of my church,” Iorg replied.
Then she noticed his scriptures, all four of the standard works, on the table.
“Wow, my bible is nowhere near this big,” Kristin said.
Thus began their conversations about the church. Iorg was the first Mormon that Kristin, who grew up in a Southern Baptist town, had ever met.
They dated during the year, but broke up when he left on his mission. They stayed in touch through letters, and she started to investigate the church independently. Cale offered support from afar.
Her family was wary of the church at first, having heard all the myths about the Mormons, but they supported her decision to learn more. Kristin found nothing about the gospel to be strange or unappealing. The idea of a modern-day prophet and other teachings made sense to her. The example of the Iorg family also made a big difference.
“Everyone was so happy. There were never any bad words spoken. Everyone was so loving toward one another. I want a family like yours,” Kristin told Cale.
With time and more meetings with the missionaries, Kristin developed a testimony of her own.
Most of Iorg’s first year back was spent playing minor league baseball in Florida. Kristin eventually went to see him and they started dating again, this time with much more in common. After a few months Kristin asked her returned missionary if he would baptize her. He happily consented.
Iorg also had a question for her: “Will you marry me” She happily consented.
She was baptized on Oct. 25, 2008. They were married Feb. 6, 2009, and sealed in the Orlando LDS Temple on their one-year anniversary.
“The day we were sealed was one of the best and most beautiful days of my life,” Iorg said.
Kristin had just found out she was pregnant with the couple’s first child. Knowing that made the event more significant. She described her experience as emotional and life-changing.
“To know we, all three, were sealed together forever that day was a feeling I will never forget,” she said. “God knows what he is doing when you meet people. He knows our needs and desires. He led me to Cale, and there was a feeling of completeness from day one.”
Kristin delivered a daughter, Vayda, last August. As Iorg has climbed the minor league ladder, the couple has sought to be an example and plant gospel seeds with those they meet. During the off season, they accept callings and serve like any other couple. During the season, Iorg attends sacrament meeting before going to the ballpark. Kristin still goes to church and takes notes from the lessons and talks, then shares what she learned with him later on. She admits they aren’t great at holding family home evening, but they make an effort to read the scriptures together each night and individually when he is on the road.
Kristin has planted many seeds with other players’ wives and girlfriends, who admire her relationship with Cale.
“As a family we can say that every day is a teaching opportunity for us because of the baseball lifestyle. There are new people coming in and out of our lives constantly, so we plant many seeds,” Kristin said. “I am very blessed to be in the position I am. I am grateful for that day (at Alabama) when I met Cale. It forever changed my life.”
A major league example
Phil Nevin, the manager of the Toledo Mud Hens, says Iorg is close to making the majors. He is listed on the Tigers’ 40-man roster.
“Defensively, he is a major league shortstop, without a doubt. Offensively, he shows signs,” Nevin said. “At times he makes errors he shouldn’t. … I stay on him a lot … but he is still, to me, on track with his progress to be a major league shortstop one day.”
Detroit manager Jim Leyland made a similar comment last March.
“He quietly has made as good of an impression as anybody in camp,” Leyland told the Detroit News during spring training. “He’s maturing, he’s getting more confident. He’s a good kid, very athletic, and he’s got power and juice in his bat. He staying with the ball better. If that bat comes around, he’ll play for a long time in the big leagues.”
Hitting has been the biggest challenge for the 6-foot-2, 185-pound shortstop since returning from his mission. As of Friday, June 25, Iorg has a .215 batting average in Toledo.
“I am in my fourth full year of being back from my mission, and I am still not the player that I was before I left," Iorg said. "Baseball is such a skill sport and requires work every single day. So many are playing, and you can really get passed by pretty quickly."
But to make the majors would mean more to Cale for another reason.
“I hope I can join the men in the majors who have served missions," he said. "If in any way I can be seen as an example in the church, that would mean more to me than any baseball accomplishment."
Being an example in professional baseball is a challenge and means making a conscious decision to be righteous every day, he said. There is a lot in the locker room he doesn’t want to see or hear, from the language and music to the pornography and bad movies on the team bus.
“I don’t ever want to feel numb to it,” Iorg said. “I have a lot of good friends and teammates, but you got to be who you are and not part of the crowd.”
His efforts to do the right thing have not gone unnoticed by others, he said, and that has led to many one-on-one discussions about the church and his days as a missionary.
“Being a professional athlete is a stressful game, and if you think this is all there is to life, it can swallow you up,” Cale said.
“I hope that young men would choose to serve a mission because it’s the right thing to do, and worry about the other stuff when you get home. I truly believe that everything works out for the better once the decision is made to serve faithfully.”
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company