Believers in Baseball – Stories of Faith from the Diamond – C.J. Nitkowski – New York Mets

Former first round draft pick C.J. Nitkowski

September is fast approaching. Baseball is unique among professional sports in that near the end of the regular season, major league rosters expand from 25 to 40 players.  That means that teams get a chance to look at players that have been playing well in the minors all year and see what they can do in the majors.  The call-ups usually consist of “bubble” players who have been called up to fill in for an injured player a couple times but when the injured player returns, they are demoted again.  There may also be a few that have never played in the Majors and finally get to see their Big League dream realized. And once in a while, another opportunity is given to a veteran player to see if they still have the skills to make it at the highest level.

That is the storyline for  C.J. Nitkowski.  He was a first round pick in the 1994 draft by the Cincinnati Reds.  He played for 10 seasons in the pros with 8 different teams and put together a record of 18 wins 32 losses and an era of 5.37.  He tossed his last pitch as a major leaguer in 2005, and then spent a few years playing in Japan and South Korea.

Nitkowski wants to appear on a mound wearing a Major League uniform – and he will.  He is set to play a part in “42”  the upcoming Harrison Ford movie about Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson.  But that may not be his last appearance on a Big League mound.   As you can read in this article from New York Daily News, Nitkowski, at the age of 39, is being considered for a September call up position. He has pitched well at the 2 levels of minor league ball he has played since signing a minor league deal with the Mets in mid-July.

Nitkowski - trying out his new delivery with the Mets

Nitkowski’s story is quite intriguing.  Even his Twitter account profile calls him a “bad starter, decent reliever”.  He was a high draft pick that didn’t turn into the star that the Reds hoped for.  He bounced around for a few years as a starter and then as a reliever – his most successful pro season was with Houston in 1998 where he went 3-3 with a 3.37 ERA in 43 appearances. Now, after time in Asia, Dominican Republic and the doctor’s office for Stem Cell treatment, he is hoping that September will give him a chance to return to the Major Leagues where he has not thrown a pitch in 7 years.

I, for one, hope that he gets that call.   Earlier this summer Manny Ramirez tried to return to the Big Leagues with the Oakland A’s, with a new commitment to playing hard, and a new faith in God to guide him. I hoped for his return to the majors but despite the cool story and it’s fit on this blog,  it didn’t work out for him.  Now Nitkowski is on the door step and I am again full of hope that he will complete his amazing comeback to the Pros.

But I am taking the chance now to share his story of faith, so that you can join me in cheering him on.

Nitkowski's story has taken him many places

Nitkowski’s story of faith  is well published.  He writes about the events that lead up to his deciding to follow Christ and other thoughts on faith on his blog, which he had maintained since the early days of his career maybe as early as 1997, leading blogger David Roth to declare him likely baseball’s first blogger.  Formatting changes and time have removed the archives from his page, save the story of his conversion to Christianity  written in 2002.  The story happens on March 25, 2002. Nitkowski, freshly cut from the Astros was a home instead of at a ball park somewhere, contemplating his career and dealing with the frustration and disappointment of being cut.  He heard a strange sound, which he passed off as his son playing in the sink.  He heard it again and went to investigate, only to find his 2 year-old son immersed in the swimming pool at the house he was renting.   His son, thankfully would be OK but the experience began a process of turning life around for C.J. Nitkowski.  Please, if you didn’t click the link to his testimony, go and do it.  It is a long article, but it is full of some great truth!

Here are some things I am taking away from Nitkowski’s story.

Almost –   Nitkowski writes in his story that he thought, at first, that God was punishing him for something, or reminding him that all of the things he had could be taken in a moment.  If we are not careful,  it is easy to think of God as a mean, punishing God who watches all of our activities like a strict grade school teacher, ready to swat our knuckles if we step out of line.  Don’t read this wrong – God does discipline us – and necessarily so, but I like how Nitkowski worded it.  In that stressful, scary moment, it was as if God came, put his arm around C.J. and said “Let’s take a walk”.  That seems much more like the God I want to serve.  One who loves me so much that He doesn’t want to scare me off.  He wants to correct my mistakes, He wants me to put Him ahead of all else, but He is not a bully trying to force us or guilt us into obedience.  It is more like he wants to show us that He is the only choice that makes sense.

Jesus’ sacrifice –  As a dad, I can’t imagine the panic of seeing my toddler child face down in a swimming pool.  I also cannot imagine the relief and joy of seeing the young child wind up OK, as is the case with Nitkowski’s son.  The very thought of losing either of my daughters is something that breaks my heart.  Yet God gave up his “One and only son”.  I’ve tried to comfort myself with the idea that we hear a lot that the Lord will not give us more than we can take – but then Philippians 4.13 comes back at me.  That verse says “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength”.  We often use that as motivation to reach seemingly beyond our limits and achieve great things for God – and that is a possibility with God in our lives – for sure!  But it recently dawned on me that “doing anything through Christ who strengthens me” also means dealing with any issues – no matter how impossible they seem.  With His strength, I can deal with anything that happens to me.  I think of the story of Job.  What he went through is more than anyone could handle – losing all that you have, and losing all your children in a matter of moments – more that I could take on my own – and I think Job would agree.  But with God as the center of our lives, and His strength and power available to us – then we can deal with the hardships – whatever they may be, and God can use them to draw us to Him and to impact lives of others around us.

So when September rolls around, keep watching – maybe this amazing adventure that Nitkowski has been on will bring him back to the majors again.  I hope so!


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