Masterson fulfilled by faith, then baseball
Indians righty showing leadership on an off the field
CLEVELAND -- In an era when athletes seem as likely to grab headlines for off-the-field indiscretions as they are for a good performance on the field, Justin Masterson stands out.His stature and quirky arm angle, alone, would be enough to separate him from most players. But talk to Masterson and you find out just how different he actually is. From saving himself for marriage to abstaining from drinking, Masterson isn't a typical 24-year-old athlete. "My goal is to positively impact lives," Masterson said. "Playing baseball right now is a part of my life, it's not my life." A different path to the Majors Even in his early years, Masterson was different. The 6-foot-6, 250-pound Masterson was born in Kingston, Jamaica, where his father, Mark, taught at the Jamaica Theological Seminary. Although his family would move to the Midwest when he was just more than one year old, it was long enough so that when Masterson made his Major League debut in 2008, he became the first Jamaican-born player to make it to the big leagues. "It's different, because my parents aren't Jamaican or anything like that," Masterson said. "I was just born there. It's a nice story starter. It's something that no one really believes." His path to the Majors may be just as hard to believe. In addition to playing baseball at Beavercreek High School in southwest Ohio, Masterson was also the homecoming and prom king, president of the student council and head of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He stood out even more after he shaved his head as part of a Mr. Clean Halloween costume his sophomore year, which is a look that he carries to this day. But despite excelling in the classroom and performing well on the mound, Masterson remained under the radar to college recruiters. Except for some Mid-American Conference schools, he wasn't heavily recruited. The right-handed Masterson did have a visit set up at Notre Dame, but he came down with food poisoning the night before and was unable to make the trip. When he tried to reschedule and didn't get a call back, he was forced to move on. "The coach just kind of wrote him off," said his father, Mark. "That was tough for Justin, because he would have liked to play there." Notre Dame's loss was Bethel University's gain, as Masterson went to the small Christian school instead. He played there for two seasons, but the school had no pitching coach. Masterson said there was one guy that worked hard to help him where he could, but he wasn't getting the baseball education that he needed. So when he got the chance to play for San Diego State after a good season in the Cape Cod League as a sophomore, Masterson jumped at the chance. He went 6-7 with a 4.81 ERA in one season as an Aztec and was drafted in the second round of the 2006 First-Year Player Draft by the Red Sox. "It was crazy," Masterson said. "The good Lord had to be watching over me, because it wasn't the path that was in my head. It was kind of a random path altogether." Spreading his message Masterson's father, who is a pastor at the Creekside Community Church of Beavercreek, was there when Masterson made his Major League debut and he has seen him pitch a few times since. But as proud as he is every time he sees his son take the mound, Mark said he's just as proud of what his son has been able to do off the field. "He's doing well in baseball, but he has had opportunities to do a lot of other stuff," his father said. "I'm pleased that he's stuck with his faith and that he's holding on tight to his faith." Masterson is frank about his religious beliefs, which led him to be a chapel leader during his stint with the Red Sox organization despite the fact that he was one of the team's youngest players. "It means everything to me," Masterson said of his faith. "It is why I do what I do and why I am what I am. My belief in Jesus Christ is what gives me the drive to be the best. It's the reason I'm here." His faith has led him to speak in front of as many as 4,000 people. He's spoken at everything from a prayer breakfast at the Pentagon to a fifth grade class at his old elementary school. But his main goal hasn't been to convert people to believe the way he does. He said he mainly just wants to give people hope of something better. "I'm not trying to shove anything in anyone's face," Masterson said. "It's just really a positive message about hope and life." And Masterson hasn't let anything get in the way of that message. He stayed true to himself even while making his quick ascent through the Red Sox organization. Masterson was taught to save sex for marriage and he remained a virgin until he married his wife, Meryl, whom he met at Bethel, in 2007. Even when he was playing baseball in high school, Masterson made decisions well beyond his years. When friends started to drink, Masterson didn't. "My buddies were going out and getting drunk, just making fools of themselves, just really losing respect in some people's eyes," Masterson said. "For me, the name that I have is all I was given, so I want to respect that the best that I can. I'm not going to take a chance in a place where I can't control myself. If you're spreading a positive word, it means nothing when you're nothing." But don't let the fact that he doesn't drink fool you. Masterson is as outgoing as anyone on the Indians and he likes to go out and have fun just like anyone else his age. After a playoff game in 2008, Masterson went out to a local bar with some of his Red Sox teammates and his wife. Although he didn't drink, some thought he had had a few too many when he started dancing on the tops of tables. "I love to dance, just feeling the beat of the music," Masterson said. "People are looking at my wife like, 'You're going to have a tough time taking him home tonight,' and she's like, 'He's sober.' I just like having a good time." He's certainly having a good time playing baseball for the time being. Masterson said he may follow in his father's footsteps and become a preacher when his career is over. But in the meantime, he's just concentrating on making a transition from the bullpen to a starter with the Indians, where he is 0-1 with a 6.10 ERA in three games, including two starts, and spreading his message when he can. "What's so great about baseball is that there have been numerous opportunities to positively impact lives," Masterson said. "Because so many people -- good or bad -- look up to professional athletes."
Matt O'Donnell is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.