Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Importance of Catholicism Hits Home for former Mariner Willie Bloomquist

 Reprinted from National Catholic Register - 04/24/2012
 By Trent Beattie
 Courtesey of Arizona Diamondbacks
 The way Willie Bloomquist sees it, he’s living an impossible dream. Of all the players who try to make it to the major leagues, only a relative few actually get there. Bloomquist is one of those few, but he doesn’t attribute this to his own skills.

The 34-year-old Port Orchard, Wash., native says he’s not as talented as some other players who never made it to the majors. Why, then, is he there? In part because of the intercession of St. Rita of Cascia, he says.

After hitting a low point in the minor leagues, he began to ask for her prayers, and he made it through the often slow grind. After playing nine full seasons in the majors, Bloomquist has a renewed appreciation for his Catholicism, family and opportunities to help others. He spoke with Register correspondent Trent Beattie prior to the beginning of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ regular season opener in early April.

What are some of your top baseball memories? 

There are many memories from college and before that, but, as far as professionally, a handful come to mind. The day I was called up to the big leagues in 2002, my first big-league hit and first big-league home run — those are all very memorable. Then, last year, I was able to make it to the postseason for the first time with the Diamondbacks. On more of a day-to-day basis, what is most fun is when you can come through for the team in a clutch situation. Getting a big hit to cap off a rally or coming through in another way is the ultimate emotional high in baseball.  
What are your expectations going into this season?

I’m blessed to be with a great group of guys, so as long as we play like we’re capable of playing, we’ll do just fine. You always want to do the best you can and play at a high level, so you’re trying to put every effort forth in order to play an imperfect game perfectly. Your own expectations can far exceed anyone else’s for you.

However, you have to moderate those aspirations, in the sense of simply playing in the present moment and playing for an audience of One.

Everyone wants to be appreciated, but after so many years playing the game, you realize that what other people think — even your friends — doesn’t matter. What matters is being pleasing to God. You have to know that your talents come from God, and you have to direct them back to him. It’s an act of thanksgiving to carry out your work well.

Have you found that other major leaguers share that mindset?

The more you play the game, the more your eyes are opened to that. When I started out playing professionally, I didn’t really notice it, but, in recent years, it has become more obvious to me. Mike Sweeney, Mark Teahen and Mark Loretta are some of the Catholics I’ve encountered in Major League Baseball. With the Diamondbacks, I’m blessed to be around guys like Stephen Drew, Ian Kennedy, Joe Patterson and Micah Owings, who are believers as well.

There’s a funny story with J.J. Putz, who is with the Diamondbacks now, from our days together in Seattle. I’ve always been known as Willie, but J.J. started calling me Bill when we played with the Mariners. He even got the public-address announcer at Safeco Field to call me “Bill Bloomquist,” and it kind of stuck with a lot of the guys. Now that J.J. is playing with me in Arizona, he still calls me Bill, but, recently, someone suggested that because I’m known as a utility player I should be called “Utility Bill.” Maybe that one will stick as well.

But, more seriously, having your life centered on Jesus Christ is something very important for anyone, but in a particular way with a sport like baseball. When you consider the fact that the elite hitters in the game are the ones who fail 70% of the time, that tells you how much failure everyone has to deal with every day.

Most people think that playing baseball professionally is all fun, and, of course, there are fun times, but there’s a lot of work to do as well. It’s not something that shows up when you see a game, but just like any other job, there are things you have to do that you don’t necessarily feel like doing. Then there’s the added aspect of having everything you do analyzed. If you have a bad day, you can’t erase it; it’s on TV and in the papers for everyone to see. Traveling constantly is also one of the things that’s not too much fun.

That can be tough on the family, too.

No question about it. I admire, respect and appreciate my wife, Lisa, more and more as the years go by. Being married to a professional athlete has many challenges, and she meets those on a daily basis. I love my wife so much. She’s the rock of our marriage. Of course, Jesus Christ is the rock of our marriage, but, in a way somewhat akin to how Peter was the rock on which Jesus built his Church in Matthew 16, my wife is the human foundation of the marriage. She’s the heart of the home, and I’m very fortunate to be married to such a special woman. Not surprisingly, then, with a wife like her, I have two great daughters as well. They are very special to me, and I appreciate their simplicity and love. It doesn’t matter to them whether I go 0-for-4 or 4-for-4; they love me just the same. We tend to complicate things and get overly sophisticated, but kids make things so simple. I’m grateful for that in my daughters, and I think I’m the proudest dad ever.  

Your own father got to witness your Major League debut in 2002. Why was that so special for you? 

After struggling in the minor leagues, I was called up from the Seattle Mariners’ AAA team in September of 2002. I grew up in the state of Washington, so my parents were close by and went to all the home games that month, which actually has been the best month of my career so far. It was great for my dad to witness that, especially in light of what would happen shortly afterward. He was in a car accident that caused massive brain damage, and the recovery didn’t go well.  However, he did recover enough to get to one game in the 2003 season. It was the last game before the All-Star [Game] break, and it turned out to be the best single game of my professional career. I got a grand slam off of Rob Bell and drove in six runs. Today, my dad doesn’t remember enough to know that his son plays baseball for a living, but he was the one who started me out in the sport. He taught my brother and me how to play the game, and that was really something he got a kick out of: being with his sons on the field.  

You’re continuing that father-son relationship in somewhat of an indirect way with the work you do for a Phoenix hospital. How did that come about?

Last year, my wife and I decided we were going to start giving back to the community here in Phoenix. We focused on Phoenix Children’s Hospital, where there are many kids going through very difficult illnesses. We decided to bring at least one kid to every home stand — on us. We give them a signed jersey, and then they get to watch batting practice and meet the guys on the team. This can be very uplifting for the kids because it gives them a chance to get away from their problems for a while.

Last June, we invited a kid named Abe Speck to a game. When Abe was just a little kid, he had some complications growing, so he spent time at the hospital and continues to do so on occasion. Last year, as an 11-year-old, we brought him to a game against the San Francisco Giants. One of the questions Abe asked before the game was if I had any rituals after hitting a home run and if I pointed to anyone in particular. I told him I’m not really a home-run hitter, and, even beyond that, I don’t usually make a show about it when I do hit one. He pressed me and asked if I got a home run that night if I would point to him. I said I didn’t really think I would hit one, but if I did, then I’d point to him. Then he was like, “No, you’re going to hit one out tonight, so, when you do, will you point to me?” Well, in my second at bat I made contact with the ball, but it really wasn’t that good of a hit. However, it sailed into the stands. It was a home run. I don’t know how to explain it, except to say that some higher powers were at work. As I rounded second base, it kind of hit me, and I started to tear up. Then, as I got to third and was going home, I saw Abe in the crowd with his mom and his friend Max. Of course I pointed to him, and they were all crying as well.

Later in the season, we started the Abe and Max Fund, named after Abe and another kid named Max (not the one who was at the game). One of the things that can be very trying for kids in the hospital is being isolated for long stretches at a time. Depending on the treatment they’re going through, they can be kind of quarantined and are prevented from being in touch with their friends. We raise money that goes toward things like Nintendo DS, Kindle Fires and iPads so they can be entertained or communicate with the outside world.

You’ve had communication with the outside world, so to speak, in regard to St. Rita of Cascia. What is something you’ve learned from that?

After a great college career, I was in the minors and was really struggling. I just thought maybe I was washed up and finished. It was a very low period in my life, and playing in the majors just didn’t seem possible. However, someone told me about St. Rita being the saint of the impossible, so I looked into it and learned more about her. I prayed to her for help, and shortly thereafter I started playing better. Then, not long after that, I was called up to the majors and have been blessed to play there for many years. When you look at it from a mathematical point of view, I really am living out an impossible dream. The chances of making it to the majors are very slim, especially when you consider the fact that there are players who are more talented than I am. So I am thankful for St. Rita’s intercession, and I keep a medal of her in my wallet all the time.  

What are some other things you appreciate most about the Catholic Church? 

I like the tradition of the Church. For an entity to be around for 2,000 years, it has to have something special to it, and the Church is very special to me. Through all the years of criticisms leveled against it, the Church still stands strong. It is the Church Jesus refers to in Matthew 16: The gates of hell will not prevail against it. I also like the fact that anywhere you go in the world the Mass is the same. It may be in English or in Latin or in another language, but the very core of it remains unchanged. The essential Mass is the same for all Catholic believers throughout the world. I’ve always believed in God, but, in recent years, I’ve become more appreciative of the importance of Catholicism. There have been some life-changing events that really pointed me to what really matters. It’s been an awakening to understand better what God has to offer through his Church. As competitive as I am, Catholicism gives me the opportunity to play as well as I can on the field and then leave the game behind when I go home. Without that, you can get really frustrated and self-destructive. We weren’t meant to go it alone and get caught up in our own problems, but to live as the body of Christ and have a heavenward trajectory.


Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.