Playing professional sports is the dream of thousands of children throughout the world. These dreams and visions are no different for BYU centerfielder Stephen Wells.
Visions of hitting a walk-off homerun to win the World Series, catching the game-winning touchdown in the Super Bow, or draining a last-second, three-point shot to win the NBA finals plays through the minds of every aspiring athlete.
“As a kid I always wanted to play professional sports,” Wells said. “ I didn’t care which sport, I just wanted to play.”
Wells, a 5-foot-11, 186-pound senior from Kenmore, Wash., was self-motivated and played sports year-round in order to improve his skills. However, it was through the discipline of setting and accomplishing goals that he developed Division I talent. He has a current 10-game hitting streak and ended his freshman season with a 15-game hitting streak. Wells was among the NCAA outfield leaders with nine assists.
In high school, Wells was a standout in both football and baseball. He was voted all-league his sophomore and junior seasons as a defensive back and he lettered three times in baseball. However, because of his size, he felt baseball fit him better.
“I always wanted to go to BYU since I was younger,” Wells said. “I actually wanted to play football at BYU, but I was better at baseball.”
During his junior year of high school, Wells began to get serious about playing collegiate baseball. He played in a summer ball league where he excelled both at the plate and in the field. Due to his successes, a few schools began recruiting him. BYU was at the top of his interest list.
One break came for Wells through the University of Washington coaches who knew he was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Huskies did not want him breaking up playing seasons with a two-year mission, so the UW coaches called BYU and let the coaches there know about Wells and his talent.
Following calls from both the University of Washington and Wells’ high school coach, coaches from BYU flew to Portland to watch Wells play in a summer tournament. It was then Wells’ childhood dreams began to turn into reality.
“Coach (Ryan) Roberts came and respected my coach’s opinion, and they offered me a scholarship,” Wells said. “I don’t think I did that well, but I guess he liked how I played.”
Coming to BYU, Wells had several personal goals he set for himself. Hitting .400 and making it into the starting lineup were both goals he hoped to accomplish during his first season at BYU. However, when he first arrived, Wells was at the bottom of the depth chart for outfielders.
Through several twists of fate, Wells cracked the starting lineup early in the season and took flight. During his freshman campaign, he hit .371 with nine doubles and 11 stolen bases. He was named to the Mountain West Conference All-Tournament Team, Academic All-MWC and was Honorable Mention Freshman All-America. It was after his freshman year Wells began to think seriously about his childhood dreams of playing professional sports and serving an LDS Church mission.
“I always knew I wanted to go on a mission, but I had a really good freshman year,” Wells said. “Because of that, people told me to stick around a bit longer to see how I would do. ‘If you keep it up you’ll have a great chance of being drafted,’ they said."
Serving a mission is a difficult decision to make for many LDS college athletes. It becomes an even more difficult decision for collegiate baseball players who have aspirations of playing Major League Baseball. The makeup of professional baseball is different than any other sport. While players are drafted into the NFL and NBA when they reach the ages of 22 or 23, baseball players are often drafted much younger.
Not only is it difficult to compete with players from countries like the Dominican Republic, who start their pro careers so young, but the average age of American players drafted into the MLB is dropping as well. Players like the Los Angeles Angels’ Mike Trout and the Washington Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg are setting the trend of young players playing in the MLB. The drafting age makes going on a mission a difficult decision, because more is at stake. After a mission, great players often never are given the opportunity to play.
Sean McNaughton, Wells’ former outfield teammate, was an example of an outstanding player who went on a mission and never quite made it into the big leagues when he returned. McNaughton holds the all-time record for homeruns in the MWC but was not drafted after his senior year at BYU.
“Being a member of the LDS Church is what life is all about,” McNaughton said. “In your mind you're scared if you leave you're going to lose your skills as a baseball player or somehow lose out on a great opportunity to get drafted and play professional baseball. It’s a hard decision and you have to have faith you’re making the right decision.”
While the odds are against baseball players who serve missions, Wells knew a mission was what God wanted him to do.
“There was always a desire to play a pro sport,” Wells said. “When I went on a mission, I knew it would hamper it, especially in baseball. They’re always looking for young talent, so when you come back, you’re 21 and haven’t played for a few years. It’s tough, but after I prayed about it I knew it was the right thing.”
During his mission to Puerto Rico, Stephen was able to learn valuable lessons that helped him understand life and baseball. Going out every morning and working hard was nothing new, but it provided him with understanding of how to accomplish what he wanted to in life. Each day he would set goals and strive to accomplish them. When he did not fulfill them, he would try harder the following day.
The lessons learned on his mission have helped him set personal goals for the upcoming season. His BYU coach, Vance Law, has seen those lessons in practice and knows his goals can become realities.
“Through his example, he motivates people to get better,” Law said. “He’s putting a lot of hard work and effort in during this offseason. He’s working hard in the weight room. That’s a telling characteristic. He’s an outstanding player.”
Wells not only has the confidence of his coach, but of his teammates as well. They see him work and put forth effort and it motivates them to work harder.
“Stephen is one of those guys you want on your team,” McNaughton said. “You can trust him with everything. He is one of the hardest working teammates I’ve ever had and I’ve never doubted he would give his full effort and sacrifice for the team.”
Giving 100 percent effort and putting in countless hours of work will never guarantee goals will be fulfilled. When asked about his opportunity to play at the next level, Wells can only smile.
“It’s somewhat of a long shot now, but I’d love to play there,” Wells said. “I’ll work hard this year and see what happens. Right now I just want to make it to the College World Series, and see whatever comes after that. If I end up getting drafted that would be a huge plus.”
Nevertheless, Wells is not putting all his eggs into one basket. He is studying hard in school, majoring in exercise science. If the MLB does not come calling, he is well situated to provide for his family. He plans on attending pharmacy school once he finishes his degree at BYU. Last December he married Valeria Padgett from Tatumbia, Honduras, so the two often speak Spanish in their home.
“I was looking at different grad schools and careers and came across pharmacy,” Wells said. “I don’t want to be a doctor because I don’t like blood, but I like working with and helping people.”
Whatever opportunities open, Wells will be prepared. He knows his life has been guided. It’s not easy juggling school, a marriage, a job and baseball, but Wells knows what is most important. He does not regret his decision to serve a mission and plans to continue setting goals and working hard throughout the rest of his life.
“He always finds time for what’s most important in life,” said his wife, Valeria Wells. “He has his priorities set. He sets goals and then works hard to fulfill them.”
Steven McCall works in BYU Athletic Communications as a golf sports information director. He can be reached at [email protected] or on twitter @S_McCall7.