Image: Darryl Strawberry at New York Mets’ Faith Day in 2019. The event was sponsored by LEAD.NYC, The Hope Day Network, Christian Cultural Center, and KLOVE.
Editor’s note: The following article was reprinted with permission from ReligionUnplugged.com.
By Clemente Lisi
NEW YORK — Pro sports can be a demanding career path for many young men and women. Baseball, for example, has produced a number of talented stars, but many of them couldn’t handle the success and money that came with being a bigtime ball player.
Many have fallen to the demons of addiction, including drugs and alcohol. Many of them saw a career path after baseball as a pastor, using the mistakes they learned and trading that in for a higher calling. Not everyone had a problem with addiction. For some ballplayers, becoming a minister was simply a second career.
Here is a look at five former baseball players who traded their gloves and caps for a life as a pastor:
Dan Naulty had a relatively brief major league career, but his legacy has left a lasting impact on his life. Naulty’s baseball career began to take shape during his college years at Cal State Fullerton, where he played for the Titans. In 1992, he was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the 14th round of the MLB draft. After a few years in the minors, Naulty made his major league debut with the Twins on July 4, 1996. Primarily used as a relief pitcher, Naulty became known for his strong arm and ability to pitch in high-pressure situations.
Naulty’s most notable season came in 1999, when he played a key role in the New York Yankees’ championship run. He appeared in 58 games that season and was a member of the team that won the World Series. Despite his contributions, Naulty’s success on the field was overshadowed by personal struggles off the field.
During his time on the diamond, Naulty battled alcohol and drug addiction, which ultimately led to his early retirement in 2001. However, it was during this challenging period that he found a renewed sense of purpose and faith. After leaving baseball, Naulty turned to his Christian faith and began a journey of personal transformation. He found solace and strength in his relationship with God, which helped him overcome his addictions. Naulty went on to share his story of redemption and faith, becoming a motivational speaker and minister.
Naulty has openly discussed his struggles and the profound impact faith had on his recovery. He has since dedicated his life to helping others, sharing his story and how the power of faith can change lives.
An iconic figure in the world of baseball throughout the 1980s, Strawberry had a career that was as impressive as it was tumultuous. Beyond the highs and lows of his pro career, Strawberry’s journey was also shaped by his deep faith and the profound impact it had on his personal growth.
From the moment he burst onto the scene as a rookie in 1983, Strawberry’s raw talent and powerful swing captivated fans and terrified pitchers. His prowess on the field earned him numerous accolades, including multiple All-Star selections and World Series championships with the New York Mets in 1986 and Yankees in 1996 and ‘99.
Amid the adulation and success, Strawberry grappled with personal demons and addiction following a series of arrests. Strawberry recalls that it was during his darkest moments that his faith emerged as a beacon of hope and redemption. As a result, Strawberry’s Christian faith increasingly became a cornerstone of his journey toward recovery. He has openly shared his struggles and used his platform to raise awareness about addiction and the importance of seeking help.
In his post-baseball years, the former outfielder has dedicated himself to helping others find their own path to recovery. He became a minister and founded outreach programs that aim to provide support and healing for those battling addiction and other personal challenges.
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A former shortstop and an inaugural member of the Seattle Mariners, Reynolds also played for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Houston Astros. He became a household name in those markets throughout the 1970s and ‘80s.
After Garry Templeton declined his invitation to the 1979 All-Star Game, Tommy Lasorda, then the National League manager, added Reynolds to the roster. As a result, Reynolds became the only shortstop in MLB history to be selected to the American League and National League squads in consecutive years.
In retirement, the two-time All-Star entered the world of wealth management in Houston, partnering with former Astros teammate Terry Puhl. Unlike other ballplayers who turned to God because of an addiction, Reynolds used his post-career years to help others after his second career. He’s currently a minister at Second Baptist Church in Kingwood, Texas, near Houston.
“I’ve been out here preaching now on this campus for, I guess now, almost 12 years,” Reynolds said in a 2019 interview. “Did I ever think that was going to happen? No. I really did not. I think God has put me here in Kingwood for a purpose for this time. Every day, I get up and try to be obedient to Him and walk with Him. I’ll do this here as long as God has me here.”
A former pitcher, Tom Johnson only played five seasons in the majors, from 1974 until 1978, for the Minnesota Twins. He pitched in 129 games throughout his career. Johnson was signed as an undrafted free agent in 1970. After four years in the Twins’ minor league system, he made his major league debut on Sept. 10, 1974. Johnson racked up 23 wins as a starter, then later became a closer, over five years with the Twins.
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Following the 1978 season, Johnson was released and signed a year later by the Chicago White Sox. He became a starter for the White Sox AAA affiliate in Glens Falls but was largely unsuccessful. After the 1980 season, Johnson retired at age 29.
Johnson became a minister and in a 2022 interview said he worried about the decline of churches and other forms of organized religion. He is currently the missions pastor at Church of the Open Door in Maple Grove, Minnesota.
“The church has shot itself in the foot by not adhering to the values that have attracted it to people down through the centuries — that is, caring about the poor and those who are on the margins,” he said.
Perhaps one of the most famous former ballplayers to trade his bat for a Bible was Billy Sunday. The year was 1890, and baseball was growing in popularity as America’s pastime. It would also usher a period of significant change within the game. By the end of the decade, baseball looked a lot more like it does today. For Billy Sunday, the year also marked the end of his playing career.
Sunday was unique in that he embarked on a career as a preacher, capitalizing on his time as a ballplayer to generate interest in his revivals. He would go on to become the most celebrated American evangelist during the early part of the 20th century. He didn’t just limit his preaching to rural towns but also opened his mind to preaching in large urban centers like New York.
From his playing career with the National League teams in Chicago, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia to the initial hurdles he’d encounter preaching in New York, the aptly named Sunday used his fame, exuberance and gift for public speaking to save souls, bringing muscular Christianity and conservative theology to the masses. A supporter of Prohibition, Sunday regularly spoke to schools and began going to the Pacific Garden Mission, an evangelical Christian mission in Chicago, before deciding to hit what came to be known as the “Sawdust Trail.”
Sunday eventually abandoned baseball and started to preach the gospel to large crowds by 1896, particularly in the Midwest. These revivals made famous by Sunday took place decades before radio and TV would make Billy Graham among the most prominent preachers in the world.
Clemente Lisi is a senior editor at Religion Unplugged and teaches journalism at The King’s College in New York City. He is the author of “The FIFA World Cup: A History of the Planet’s Biggest Sporting Event.” Follow him on Twitter @ClementeLisi.