BOWIE, Md.”One describes himself as a “student of the Bible.” Another says he tries to live out his faith the way his late father did. A third says his job on earth is to spread truth.
No, these aren’t seminary students. They are Vasili Spanos, Justin Olson, and Blake Whealy, OPRF High School graduates from 1999, ’98, and ’98, respectively, who happen to be the most successful baseball players to come out of Oak Park in recent years.
The minor league life
The stereotypical minor leaguer, at least as depicted in the Kevin Costner film “Bull Durham” is a selfish, arrogant, skirt-chasing drunk. And though Spanos, Olson, and Whealy mostly play down the differences between them and their teammates, they acknowledge that they sometimes stand apart.
“It’s tough being a Christian in the minor leagues,” Olson said recently when his team, the Double A New Britain Rock Cats, stopped here to play the Bowie Baysox. “It’s not hard to make friends, but the hard part is the temptations you run into from hanging around with guys that come from different backgrounds than you. The temptation is to go out drinking and chasing tail every night. Now, I don’t feel the need to do that stuff because I’m married, but those are the temptations guys face.”
Although Olson said he was comfortable “going out occasionally and having a beer with guys, having a good time,” Spanos’ stance on alcohol places him at odds with many of his teammates. He says he stopped drinking about a year and a half ago. That was after his first full season of pro ball at Class A Kane County, where his manager would hand out beers as awards to the game’s star players after wins.
“I was still kind of into that stuff then,” Spanos said in a phone interview from Dallas, where he was waiting for a flight to the Texas League All-Star Game. “I’ve been to college and I used to be a guy who went out a lot. It’s been probably a year and a half since I stopped doing that stuff.”
Now, he said, “alcohol is something I don’t want to do at all. I understand the appeal of it, to go relax and chill out and not think about anything, not think about your problems, but as a Christian you can’t do that. My belief is we shouldn’t be going to a bottle of alcohol with our anxiety, we should be going to God.”
A city on a hill
The players daily walk the fine line between being in the world but, as Christians, not of the world.
“If you’re a nice guy and treat guys with respect, they’re not going to dislike you,” Olson said. “I try to lead by example and understand that everybody’s got their flaws.”
Spanos said most of his teammates have an idea of where he is spiritually. “I don’t really go out of my way to talk to people about the Bible, but last night me and a couple guys actually talked about this stuff and they’re interested in it. We’ve had a couple Bible studies,” he said. “I don’t go up to guys, but I’d say they’re aware of my faith, and there are actually a lot of guys on the team interested [in religion].”
Whealy, who has played in the Mets and White Sox farm systems, drew a bigger contrast between him and his teammates, both in terms of lifestyles and his outreach to them. He said in an email that though some of his teammates attended Sunday baseball chapel services, “the majority of them went for their ‘fix’ … but lived the life of a non-believer. The amount of fruit they beared was minimal, if it existed at all.”
Whealy’s response to his teammate’s lack of faith: “Our job here on earth as Christians is to spread truth”above baseball, above being a good teammate. As for how aggressively I went about doing this, every situation is different, so you can’t approach every situation the same. Sometimes it’s better to take it slow, other times you come at them with both barrels.”
Although the three players share much in common, they have their differences, too. Whealy’s comment about speaking truth to his teammates suggests he puts a strong emphasis on evangelism, but Olson said that’s not the case. He said Whealy and Spanos hold a Calvinist view that God pre-determines who will believe or who will not. In fact, Whealy said, “It’s not our job to convert anyone. We cannot do this,” Whealy said. “We didn’t convert ourselves, so how can we convert anyone else?”
It’s a theory Olson rejects.
“They believe that everything is going to happen for a reason, that God’s either going to keep his hand on you or let go of you,” Olson said. “My question then is, ‘Why share your information with anyone? Why share the good news of Jesus?'”
Olson recalled a discussion he and Whealy and another friend had with Ray Pritchard, the former pastor at Calvary Memorial on Lake Street in Oak Park, where Olson attended when he was in high school. “It turned into Blake and [the other friend] just bashing my pastor and the church and what we were about,” Olson said. “They don’t listen to what you say; they just think they’re 100 percent right.”
One way of looking at it, though, is that it defies logic that the three OPRF minor leaguers would all be Christians. For them to be in lockstep theologically would be truly miraculous.
“Blake is a good friend of mine. So is Spanos,” Olson said. “What we believe is not going to get in the way of our friendship.”
Nor is it going to get in the way of baseball. As of last week, Olson was 4-2 with a 5.08 ERA in 39 innings pitched. Spanos was batting .316 with 22 doubles, eight homers and 46 RBIs. Whealy batted .211 in just 24 games with the Kannapolis Intimidators, a single A affiliate of the White Sox.