SALT LAKE CITY — Blake Crosby wondered if the Lord was testing him. He knew it wasn't a coincidence.
While serving an LDS mission in Tampa, Florida, in 2004, the young elder with an immense passion for baseball found himself living next to a Major League Baseball spring training facility. Jeremy Guthrie, then a young pitcher for the Cleveland Indians, trained at the facility and attended their LDS ward.
At that time, mission rules allowed missionaries one opportunity to attend a spring training game or an orchestra concert on their weekly preparation day. When Guthrie offered the elders tickets, Crosby didn't have to think twice.
"I chose the ball game," Crosby said with a laugh.
Little did Crosby know how significant that decision would be. During the game, Crosby had a fateful meeting with a baseball executive who years later would become his boss with the Toronto Blue Jays.
"I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason," Crosby said. "At that point, I was where I was supposed to be. I don't believe it's any coincidence."
Crosby's Mormon mission to Florida is one of several pivotal events that helped him fulfill his dream of working in baseball, a career he says is difficult to crack. Today, the Latter-day Saint husband and father of two is the national supervisor for scouting in baseball operations for the Blue Jays.
With a new Major League Baseball season underway, Crosby, who lives in Chandler, Arizona, talked about his journey, his faith and the people who helped him along the way.
Crosby was born into a baseball family.
His father, Ed Crosby, played for the St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Indians from 1970-77, then spent more than 20 years as a baseball scout. In his first year as a scout in 1983, his team, the Baltimore Orioles, won the World Series and he received a championship ring. One player the elder Crosby signed during his scouting days was slugger Jason Giambi.
Blake's brother, Bobby Crosby, also played in the big leagues. He suited up for the Oakland A's, the Pittsburgh Pirates and Arizona Diamondbacks from 2003-2010, and was the 2004 American League Rookie of the Year.
Outside the family circle, Blake Crosby was also influenced by two Christian ball players at his high school — Ian Kennedy and Ian Stewart — who both went on to careers in the majors, he said.
Baseball was never pushed on him by his family, but Blake Crosby discovered a natural love for the game and his father was one of his heroes.
"All my dad ever instilled in me and my brothers was to find something you love, give everything you have, and make a career out of it," Crosby said. "It didn’t matter what I chose to do, just as long as I gave it 100 percent."
The Crosby family had a similar view with religion.
Blake's father is not a Mormon, but his mother has always been a devout Latter-day Saint, he said.
"She has always been a steady presence in my life," Crosby said.
An older brother, Brian, served a mission and is active in the LDS faith while Bobby is not, he said.
During his teenage years, Blake Crosby was heavily involved in sports while faith was less of a priority. That started to change when he began dating his future wife, Kelsey, in high school. Something about her family impressed him.
"Seeing how her family operates, how they were strong in the church, that made an impact on my life," Crosby said. "It made me want to clean up my life and change my priorities. I realized there is a lot more to life than just baseball. There was more I wanted to do."
Scott Hicken, Crosby's Young Men president, was another major influence during that period of his life. Crosby knew Hicken's goal was to get him on a mission. When inviting the boys to his house for Taco Tuesday or at other activities, Hicken watched for opportunities to connect with each boy and share experiences from his own mission in Mississippi.
Hicken supported Crosby in playing baseball, but also conveyed the message: "You will always be able to play baseball, but you'll never again have the opportunity to serve a mission at 19," Hicken said.
One night alone in his car, Crosby came to the realization that he wanted the gospel of Jesus Christ in his life. He said a prayer, promising to put his life in order and serve a mission.
"I decided from that point on, this is what I'm going to do," Crosby said. "I'm going to keep my promise to God."
"He has made me proud because he had the option to go both directions and he chose to serve the Lord," Hicken said. "I think the outcome, when he looks at his surroundings, he’s probably more grateful for that path than he ever has been because he realizes the benefits of a celestial marriage and the importance of family."
Meeting Mr. Shapiro
Before leaving on his mission, Crosby received a baseball scholarship to BYU, enabling him to play when he returned.
The idea of working in an MLB front office was also appealing. Before departing Crosby became acquainted with his brother Bobby's agent, Paul Cohen, who was a close friend of Mark Shapiro, then Cleveland's team president. Cohen arranged for Crosby to speak to Shapiro on the phone and get career advice.
Cohen, who has represented big baseball names like Troy Tulowitzki, Evan Longoria and Tim Hudson, also helped Crosby with connections and introductions after his mission. Cohen doesn't do that for just anybody, but he admired Crosby and his family for how they lived their lives and treated people. He also thought Crosby had a mind for baseball.
"If I’m going to recommend somebody to another organization, it would have to be somebody that I would hire, and that I would be comfortable with," Cohen said. "After really getting to know Blake, I thought he would be an incredible addition."
But Crosby never imagined he would get to personally meet Shapiro.
While attending his one spring training game as a missionary, Crosby recognized Shapiro in the bleachers and introduced himself. The baseball executive remembered their earlier phone call and handed Crosby a business card.
"I think it’s safe to say I was the only missionary who knew who Mark Shapiro was then," Crosby said.
Shapiro, now Toronto's president and CEO, remembers meeting the young missionary and coming away with a high impression of him that was later validated with Crosby's work for the Blue Jays' organization.
"I think even on that very first day, what was clear was his authentic and genuine passion and enthusiasm for the game of baseball. That, coupled with the persistence it takes to break into this game, because it’s not easy, I think are the foundation for the success he’s had," Shapiro said. "He’s a learner. He’s focused on improving and getting better. His character, combined with that work ethic, that passion for learning and improving, and how those things have manifested themselves in his career have made him a leader as well. ... I come back to the same core things about him. It's amazing that they resonate so clearly from the first time I met him so long ago."
Crosby is grateful for the many meaningful experiences and important life lessons he learned as a missionary, including service and hard work. But the meeting with Shapiro and the chance to work in baseball was like receiving a personally autographed blessing from the Lord, he said.
"It's pretty crazy how it all turned out," Crosby said.
Crosby only played one year at BYU, the 2006 season under coach Vance Law, before marrying Kelsey and transferring to Sacramento State.
At that time, his brother Bobby was playing for the Oakland Athletics and there was an opportunity to learn from baseball minds within the organization, namely then-general manager Billy Beane, future general manager David Forst, and Farhan Zaidi, now the general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
"I knew I wanted to work in baseball," Crosby said. "I looked at that as more of a feature opportunity for me to not only continue my playing career, but also to be in Oakland as much as I possibly could to learn the front office and scouting side of the game. As much as I loved BYU, I wouldn’t have had those opportunities."
After finishing at Sacramento State in 2009 and playing a summer in the minor leagues, Crosby briefly worked as an associate scout for the Los Angeles Angels.
Then he found out the Toronto Blue Jays were looking to hire a few new scouts. R.J. Harrison, a friend and then the scouting director for the Tampa Bay Rays, put in a good word and within two days Crosby had an interview with Andrew Tinnish, Toronto's scouting director.
Crosby can't suppress a laugh when he thinks about the interview now.
"I talked baseball for two minutes and the rest of the interview they peppered me with questions about the church and my time on a mission. They were fascinated by the experience and how I took two years off to do that," Crosby said. "I remember getting out of the interview and calling my wife. She asks, 'How did it go?' I said, 'Well, if I didn’t get the job, at least all those guys know a lot more about the church.' At least I felt like a missionary for an hour."
Crosby got the job. Within six months he signed his first player, pitcher Aaron Sanchez, a future all-star. In 2012, Crosby was named the Blue Jays' Scout of the Year. Last year, he was promoted to national supervisor of scouting.
"Things fell into place. ... Having my last name helped me get a foot in the door, but once you’re in you have to work harder than anyone else and make your own name," Crosby said. "I've been so lucky to have so many good people on my side."
Life as a scout
A scout is rewarded when all the talent gathered and developed in the organization translates into victories and championships.
Unfortunately, it involves long drives and flights, sleepless nights, and a lot of days spent away from family, Crosby said.
Steve Sanders, the Blue Jays' director of amateur scouting and Crosby's supervisor, said life as a baseball scout requires a lot of dedication and can be thankless at times. Crosby does an impressive job of balancing his work with taking care of his family and living his faith, Sanders said.
"The more I’ve gotten to know Blake as a person, the more I’ve been impressed by the person he is, a family man, a husband and father," Sanders said. "From what I can tell from afar, I know his family and his faith are very important to him."
With the June draft approaching, life will become more hectic for Crosby. When on the road, he does his best to attend LDS worship services and is grateful to ward members in Arizona who help watch out for his wife and two children, a daughter, Ava, and son, Carson.
But finding good baseball players has been rewarding in other ways. Sanchez is one example of that.
Since becoming a Blue Jay, Crosby and Sanchez have developed a close friendship, more than your typical scout-player relationship.
"Blake is more of a family member and a brother than he is a scout or work associate," Sanchez said. "Anytime there's a chance to connect, I feel like we both go out of our way to keep the friendship going."
Last year, Blake's family flew to Boston for a series between the Red Sox and the Blue Jays. Sanchez invited Crosby's two children into the dugout, where they interacted with players and learned their nicknames. Sanchez is one of their heroes, Crosby said.2 comments on this story
"It’s a mixed bag because when you sign a player, whatever the organization decides to do with a player, develop or trade, you have to support the organization 100 percent," Crosby said. "At the same time, you have a personal vested interest in that player because no matter where he goes, you are the scout that signed him, so you're really pulling for him. Aaron was the first in-home I had, the first player meeting I had, the first guy I signed. We’ve had a strong relationship."