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CALL ME CATHOLIC: GUEST IS FR. ALAN BENANDER

Batter up, Catholics, it’s time for World Series talk on Call Me Catholic with our favorite sports commentator Fr. Alan Benander, O. Praem. Fr. Alan shares some insight on the World Series as a metaphor for our ongoing battle to win the heavenly crown. And, Peggy challenges him to a game of “Draft this Saint.” Play ball!

 

 

 

 

Originally broadcast on 10/28/17

A STAR IS BORN

The day before the Major League Draft was set to begin, the Minnesota Twins still had seven or eight names on the board as they tried to decide whom to select with their No. 1 overall pick.

JSerra shortstop Royce Lewis was the last name hanging.

Lewis won baseball’s version of the lottery when he was selected first overall on June 12, becoming the highest drafted high school player from any current Trinity League school.

“My body just went numb,” Lewis said on MLB Network a few minutes after he was drafted. “It was an unbelievable feeling.”

Once the numbness wore off, Lewis celebrated by taking a leap in the swimming pool, devouring some cake and bowling a few rounds with friends and family.

Lewis, who turned 18 on June 5, signed with UC Irvine last fall and could still opt to play for the Anteaters, but with the Twins likely laying several million dollars in signing bonus on the table this summer, joining the professional ranks seems inevitable.

“I would like to play baseball as soon as possible,” Lewis said via conference call.

Lewis feels like he’s just scratching the surface of his abilities.

“I feel like I haven’t even grown into any of my man strength yet,” Lewis said. “Being young like this, it’s pretty amazing knowing I still have a lot of potential I haven’t even tapped into yet.”

Becoming a No. 1 overall pick seemed unlikely when Lewis arrived at JSerra as an undersized freshman nearly four years ago. But his ability to crush a baseball, run like the wind and use his glove with ease couldn’t be overlooked. He won the first of three Trinity League player of the year honors as a sophomore.

“I think you use speed for everything: defensively, offensively, and it helps with range,” Lewis said. “For sure the speed’s been there since Day 1. That’s my favorite tool, I guess you would say, because it’s always there and it never leaves you.”

Even with opposing pitchers becoming more aware of his ability in the batter’s box, Lewis hit over .400 the past two seasons.

“This guy gets it,” Mike Radcliff, the Twins’ vice president for player personnel, told the Associated Press. “He’s got that ‘it’ factor that a No. 1 pick needs to survive and move forward and have success at the end of the journey. He checked all the boxes for us.”

Lewis is just the fifth player from one of the five Orange County-based Trinity League schools to be drafted in the first round out of high school.

Steve Buechele of Servite went No. 9 overall to the White Sox in 1979, then played 11 years in the majors as a third baseman with the Texas Rangers, Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs.

Dwayne Peltier of Servite was selected No. 23 overall by the Pirates in 1972, but the shortstop and third baseman never made it to the Major Leagues.

Sergio Santos of Mater Dei was taken No. 27 overall in 2002 by the Arizona Diamondbacks. He pitched in the majors from 2010-2015.

Gerrit Cole of Orange Lutheran was selected No. 28 by the New York Yankees out of Orange Lutheran in 2008, but the right-handed pitcher elected to attend UCLA, where he was taken No. 1 overall three years later by the Pirates. Cole is currently in his fifth season with Pittsburgh, making the NL All Star team in 2015.

TRINITY LEAGUE ATHLETE PROFILE: COLIN TOWNSEND

A visit to the local YMCA with his mom when he was three years old is when Colin Townsend first recalls enjoying the sport of baseball.

“I was playing first base. A ball got hit to third [base], and I ran over to third to go get the ball,” says Townsend. “So I kind of knew then when I was more interested in getting the ball than the out that I was going to be a baseball player.”

 

 

The JSerra Catholic High School senior plays a bit of everything for the Lions, slotting in at center field, catcher and the pitcher’s mound. Townsend hasn’t lost that joy for the game he first had as a toddler and is focused on making memories with his teammates in his final high school year.

“I just like having fun and competing with the people around me, all of my friends that I consider brothers,” says Townsend.

As one of the toughest high school leagues in the country, there is no shortage of competition in the Trinity League, where the baseball games are tight and the standings even tighter. Townsend hopes to help lead the Lions to a fourth consecutive Trinity League championship and uses his role as a senior leader on the team to help guide the younger players.

“I like to lead by example…show them what you have to do and how to be successful,” says the 18-year old.

At his core, Townsend is a baseball player, and that’s how JSerra varsity baseball head coach, Brett Kay, describes his reliable utility player.

“Colin has the perfect temperament for our team,” says Kay. “He knows the ins and outs of our system, and he’s ultra competitive. His versatility makes our team better. He’s a perfect fit for our program.”

Challenges for top-level athletes usually involve injuries, and Townsend had a scary one of his own when as a freshman, he took a cleat to the face near his eye. Sixty stitches later, he fought his way back to the baseball diamond.

“I came back that year and played, and it just kind of taught me [how] to overcome adversity,” says Townsend.

Townsend recently committed to play baseball for St. Louis University, where the San Juan Capistrano resident will also study business.

Grateful for the chance to bond with his teammates through their common faith, Townsend knows that both in baseball and in life, hard work is essential to success.

“Nothing is handed to you in life,” says Townsend, “so you’re going to have to work for what you want to achieve.”

SPARKLING DIAMONDS

Many eyes will be focused on Trinity League baseball diamonds this spring.

That’s because one of the hottest high school prospects in the nation is JSerra shortstop Royce Lewis, who many predict will be selected among the top five picks in the upcoming Major League Baseball Draft.

Lewis is the two-time Trinity League player of the year who batted .429 with 21 RBIs and 42 runs scored while playing third base last season. Lewis has committed to play for UC Irvine, but with the chance to become a millionaire not long after his 18th birthday, he’ll likely opt to sign a professional contract.

The top high school shortstop taken in last season’s draft, Gavin Lux of Indian Trail High School in Kenosha, Wis., was selected 20th overall by the Los Angeles Dodgers and inked a contract that included $2.317 million signing bonus.

“I want to play the position Derek Jeter played,” Lewis told the Orange County Register last month. “Except I want to be Royce Lewis.”

JSerra won’t be as deep in talent as they’ve been in recent years. Chase Strumpf, who started at shortstop the last four seasons, is now at UCLA, and three-year starters Brady Shockey (USC) and Davis Wendzel (Baylor) have also moved on to the college level.

The Lions still have Lewis and a pair of solid right-handed pitchers in Colin Townsend and Cole Samuels, which should put them in the thick of the league race once again.

The team to beat in the Trinity League appears to be Orange Lutheran, which returns another potential first-round draft pick in outfielder Garrett Mitchell, who signed with UCLA in November, but will likely need to weigh that opportunity with the advantages of turning pro.

The Lancers will feature three other seniors who have signed with four-year college commitments. Brenden Avventino, a utility player who also pitches, signed with UC Riverside, Zach Busalacchi a power-hitting first baseman and right-handed pitcher, signed with Oregon State, and middle infielder Tristan Hanoian signed with TCU.

Zach Lew, who started at catcher as a freshman before moving to second base last season, is also one of the key players for Orange Lutheran.

Mater Dei will have several key players back from last season, including their top two pitchers, seniors Michael Thomas and Jonathan Schiffer. Thomas went 6-4 last season with a 2.98 ERA in 65 2/3 innings. Schiffer was 5-1 with a 1.89 ERA in 40 2/3 innings.

The Monarchs will also have three players who hit better than .300 last season in their starting lineup, Emilio Rosas (.338), Michael Peabody (.337) and Chad Call (.357). Grant Burton hit .305 as a freshman two years ago before slipping back to .243 last season.

Santa Margarita will rely on a pair of Division I signees to try and improve on last season’s 20-10 record, which was the best in coach David Bacani’s six years at the helm.

Joey Myers, a three-year starter who batted .354 last season, signed with UC Davis, and Josh Nicoloff, another three-year starter on the infield who batted .313 last season, signed with Columbia University.

Servite hasn’t posted a winning record in Trinity League play since 2006, but the Friars will have one of the top juniors in the league in Tanner Smith, a pitcher and outfielder who has committed to Oregon.

STUDENTS BRING SMILES TO OTHERS

During the holiday season, students, faculty and staff at Santa Margarita Catholic High School took the time to support important initiatives that provided donations and support to those in need. The following programs provided holiday cheer to the local community.

TRINITY LEAGUE ATHLETE PROFILE: JSERRA’S ROYCE LEWIS

At his core, Royce Lewis is a baseball player. And his love for the game is as deep as the years he’s been on the diamond, which is nearly his entire life.

“I’ve loved it since day one,” says Lewis, who got his start at the age of two. “That’s my life, baseball. I’ll play it until the day I die.”

 

The versatile JSerra Catholic High School senior slots in at third base, shortstop or center field for the Lions, and is doing his best to leave an indelible mark on the program.

As a junior, the 17-year-old helped bring a third consecutive Trinity League Championship to JSerra, and he hopes to make it a fourth next spring. His efforts earned Lewis the 2016 Trinity League MVP for the second year in a row, in addition to being named the 2016 L.A. Times Southern California High School Baseball Player of the Year and the 2016 Cal-Hi Sports Junior Player of the Year.

But Lewis’ offseason has been even more impressive with an appearance in the 2016 Under Armour All-American Game held at Wrigley Field in Chicago in July where he had a home run and was named the American team MVP. Lewis also participated in the 2016 Perfect Game All-American Classic held at Petco Park in San Diego in August, where he again garnered MVP honors. Additionally, Lewis represented his country in a tournament held this fall on the 20-member USA Baseball 18U National Team.

Lewis is not only is committed to representing his school on the baseball field, but is also a member of Caritas Christi, an organization on campus that recognizes students who excel in the areas of leadership, service, academics and character. JSerra varsity head baseball coach, Brett Kay, knows that Lewis is the real deal.

“As good of a baseball player as he is, Royce is even a better kid,” says Kay. “He’s humble, and he’s the type of kid who’s going to do whatever is best for the team. He makes the game so much more fun, and he truly enjoys it every single day. When it’s all said and done, he’s going to be one of the best athletes we’ve ever seen on the JSerra campus.”

Lewis is committed to continuing his baseball career at UC Irvine, but it’s highly possible he could make his way into the 2017 MLB Draft next June, something “that would be a dream” for the Aliso Viejo resident.

Fueled by his faith and following in the footsteps of his biggest role models that include his parents and his favorite MLB player, Derek Jeter, Lewis and his love for America’s pastime have an exciting road ahead.

“Don’t stop; never quit,” says Lewis of his lessons learned from the game. “They’re going to push you down. You’ve just got to get back up and keep going.”

A ROARING GOOD TIME

As much as he’d love to relive the past, Chase Strumpf is well versed for the next chapter in his life.

Strumpf spent the last four years as the starting shortstop for the JSerra High School baseball team. During that time, the Lions rose from being a sub-.500 program to one of the best in the nation. Strumpf started approximately 130 spring season varsity games for JSerra over the years and sweated through five times as many practices, but says the experience whizzed by “in the blink of an eye.”

“I wish I could get it back,” he says. “Another four years, that’d be fun.”

UCLA has been waiting a long time for Strumpf to step on campus, however. He verbally committed to the Bruins as a 15-year-old–even before playing his first high school game–and officially honored that commitment last fall when he signed the school’s letter-of-intent.

Strumpf says he’ll miss all the camaraderie he built during his time at JSerra, particularly with coach Brett Kay, whom he first met at baseball camp as a seventh grader.

“I’ve always loved him as a coach, and playing at JSerra with all the guys I’ve built relationships with.” Strumpf says. “It just went by like that [snaps his fingers].”

Strumpf wasn’t just highly touted when he arrived at JSerra, he was ranked as the nation’s third-best player in the Class of 2016 by Perfect Game and Baseball America. He played for the 15-and-under U.S. national team at the Pan-American Games in Columbia the summer before his freshman year, and helped his team win gold by slugging five home runs in eight games. He was also named tournament MVP.

“It felt good, but then a month later, you’ve got to forget about it,” Strumpf says of the MVP honors. “You can’t hold your head high, you’ve got to stay humble. This game will get you if you’re not humble.”

Because of his early commitment to UCLA, Strumpf says he was able to feel more relaxed during his high school career. He didn’t have the added weight of impressing college coaches who might be watching from the stands.

He batted .309 as a freshman, but the team’s final record was just 10-16. The monumental turnaround happened during Strumpf’s sophomore season, when JSerra improved to 22-8 and won the program’s second Trinity League title in school history.

The Lions then repeated as league champions each of the last two seasons, an incredible feat when considering the depth of talent in the league. Strumpf earned first-team all-league the last three seasons.

“Over time, we definitely built up the program pretty well,” Strumpf says. “We rebuilt it ourselves.”

Winning a CIF-SS title was the one accomplishment that eluded Strumpf and the Lions. They were the top-seeded team in Division I each of the last three seasons, but couldn’t reach the finals. Each time they simply ran into a red-hot team or pitcher, most recently in a 2-0 loss to Harvard-Westlake in the semifinals May 31 in Long Beach.

The season may not have lasted that long if not for Strumpf’s three-run homer 11 days earlier in a 3-0 first-round win against Dana Hills.

“That was probably the most exciting at-bat I’ve ever had,” he says.

A moment he wished he could live over and over, but there’s still much to experience ahead.

 

CHILD MISSIONARY GROUP USES BASEBALL TO CONNECT CUBANS, AMERICANS

WASHINGTON (CNS) — It was the end of a long day of baseball under the late May sun in Santa Clara, Cuba, and Marilyn Santos found an unpainted, dented, wooden baseball bat among the shiny blue and black ones she had brought from the United States.

Baseball bats are hard to come by in Cuba; they cost six Cuban pesos, and most people earn about 19 pesos a month. So when she gathered the bats for the Sunday school children, she was surprised to find the addition.

The mismatched bat belonged to a boy named Andy, who decided he wanted to contribute, like the biblical widow, his mite to the donation.

Andy, about 11, volunteers with the Missionary Childhood Association in Cuba and had just attended a baseball camp hosted by a team of professional baseball coaches and Catholic leaders organized by the Pontifical Mission Societies in the United States, which oversees the association. The team’s mission trip took them to three Cuban cities.

When Andy and his friends are not playing baseball or going to school, they are going door to door talking with people about Jesus and evangelizing the two generations of Cubans that were raised without religion under the communist regime.

Santos, director of mission education for Pontifical Mission Societies, told Catholic News Service from New York after the trip that the children often come to the Catholic Church out of curiosity and are baptized after working with the missionary group for a year or two. Some have even inspired their parents to be baptized.

The American group learned that evangelization is not easy work in a country where anti-religion sentiment is firmly embedded.

“We were watched and being recorded every single step of the way,” Santos said.

She described how the police revoked the group’s permission to use the government-owned baseball field when they arrived. The officers told group leader Enrique “Fidelito” Cabreras, founder of the association in Cuba, not to tell the Americans what had happened.

Cabreras responded, “I will tell them, because you’re asking me to lie, and I’m a Christian,” to which the police responded, “Do what you need to do, and we’ll do what we need to do.”

Cabreras is accustomed to such threats, Santos said. He has been brought before the communist government’s Central Committee more than 20 times.

He has faced opposition within the church as well; he had asked the bishop of Camaguey three times to establish the association there, but the bishop denied the request because of a lack of funds.

When then-Bishop Adolfo Rodriguez Herrera of Camaguey finally agreed in 1991, Cabreras started with four young girls, one of whom was named Nataliz.

Nataliz, who came from a non-Christian family, was diagnosed with a brain tumor a few years later. Santos recounted several stories of the power of Nataliz’s prayers: how she prayed to have her hair grow back for her “quinceanera,” the coming-of-age celebration for girls turning 15 years old, and it did, and how the day before she died, Nataliz told Cabrera that she would offer her suffering for the association.

She promised that the organization would thrive there.

In the month after she died — 1998 — every Cuban bishop called Cabrera saying they wanted the association in their diocese. Within six months, the association was in every parish in Cuba, Santos said, and Nataliz’s family even became Catholic.

Cuba and the U.S. re-established diplomatic relations in July after the Vatican hosted unpublicized meetings between the two governments. The Vatican had been opposed to the American trade embargo since the Kennedy administration imposed it in the 1960s.

In September, Pope Francis visited the island before his three-city tour of the U.S. The visit inspired Oblate Father Andrew Small, national director of the Pontifical Mission Societies, to organize the baseball-focused mission trip.

Father Small said he wanted to follow Pope Francis’ example of “building bridges rather than walls” and continuing the Catholic tradition of using “any avenue possible to celebrate one another,” including fish fries, schools and bingo nights, he told CNS from Rome.

As the most popular sport in Cuba and America’s pastime, baseball is a natural connection among people, he said.

In response to the initiative, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, wrote, “It is good to know that the Holy Father’s visit is added to the numerous initiatives of recent years that bring the United States and Cuba closer to one another and hold great hope for the future.

“We pray that in all aspects of life, including America’s pastime of baseball that has been so enthusiastically embraced and is so skillfully played by the Cuban people, we can help each other to succeed and experience the goodness of the Lord.”

 

Editor’s Note: The Pontifical Mission Societies of the United States is raising money to buy sports equipment for the children who work with Missionary Childhood Association in Cuba. Donations can made through the society’s Missio app for smartphones.

 

 

BIG LEAGUE DREAMS

Since spring 2003, hundreds of baseball players have donned a varsity uniform for one of the five Orange County-based Trinity League teams.

Only five were wearing an MLB jersey on Opening Day of 2016.

The newest member of this mini-fraternity is Trayce Thompson of the Los Angeles Dodgers, a 2009 graduate of Santa Margarita High. Thompson survived one of the deepest competitions of spring training to earn one of the five outfield roster spots for the Dodgers, who will be aiming for their fourth consecutive NL West title.

Thompson, the younger brother of NBA All Star shooting guard Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors, seemed to be a longshot to make the major league club when spring training began, but then last season’s primary left-fielder, veteran Andre Ethier, suffered a fractured right tibia after fouling a pitch off his shin late last month and likely won’t return until June or July.

That opened the door for Thompson, who made his major league debut Aug. 3 for the Chicago White Sox, hit his first big league home run eight days later against the Los Angeles Angels and was sent to the Dodgers in December in a three-way trade with the Cincinnati Reds.

Thompson had a solid debut with the Dodgers on April 4 against the San Diego Padres, producing an RBI double in his first at-bat and drawing a walk in his second. He scored both times in the eventual 15-0 victory.

One of the two pitchers Thompson homered off of during his junior year at Santa Margarita was Orange Lutheran pitcher Gerrit Cole, who made his third straight Opening Day roster for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Cole, a 2008 graduate of Orange Lutheran, is currently the pride of the Trinity League, as the right-hander finished 19-8 last season with a 2.60 ERA, earning NL All Star honors and finishing fourth in the Cy Young voting.

Brandon Maurer was mostly overshadowed by Cole during their senior years at Orange Lutheran, but Maurer also made an Opening Day roster as a relief pitcher for the San Diego Padres.

The other two players from the Trinity League on MLB Opening Day rosters were veterans Marc Rzepczynski of the Oakland A’s and Danny Espinosa of the Washington Nationals.

Rzepczynski, a left-handed relief pitcher and 2003 graduate of Servite, is beginning his eighth MLB season with his fifth different team. Espinosa, a second baseman and 2005 graduate of Mater Dei, is beginning his seventh MLB season, all with the Nationals.

Jared Hughes, a 2003 graduate of Santa Margarita, just missed being part of that group. The right-handed reliever for the Pittsburgh Pirates opened the season on the 15-day disabled list with a left latissimus strain and will likely miss the first week.

Austin Hedges played 56 games as a rookie catcher for the Padres last season, but the 2011 graduate of JSerra was sent to the minors just before the start of the season, despite hitting .375 in 39 at-bats during spring training.

Andrew Thurman, who graduated from Orange Lutheran in 2010 and was later drafted in the second round out of UC Irvine in 2013, saw his development slowed after he was injured in a bus crash while traveling with his minor-league team last May. The right-handed pitcher was 4-2 with a 2.51 ERA before the accident, but struggled upon his return and opened the season with the Mississippi Braves, the Double-A affiliate of the Atlanta Braves.

 

WHAT’S AHEAD – AND WHAT’S IMPORTANT NOW

Brady Shockey’s in no hurry to experience college life.

The JSerra senior has a baseball scholarship to USC and loads of next-level talent, but he’s mainly focused on the Lions’ next opponent, his next at-bat and the next fastball that speeds his way.

You see, if anyone’s been taught a baseball career can change trajectory quicker than a Clayton Kershaw slider, it’s Shockey.

His father Greg has openly discussed the ups and downs of his own high school, college and minor league playing career, which blossomed at Mater Dei in the late 1980s and brought him so close to the major leagues he could smell the popcorn inside Angel Stadium.

In between those peaks were numerous valleys, often the result of injuries and executive decisions far from his control. That’s why he tells any young player who’ll listen: Focus on the moment and avoid looking too far ahead.

“My dad always says to me, ‘What does W-I-N stand for’? Brady says. “What’s Important Now.”

That motto applies not only to baseball but also Brady’s academics, relationships and other aspects of daily life.

Not only has he developed into one of the top baseball players on one of the best teams in Southern California, but the speedy center fielder carries a strong grade-point average and high SAT score, making USC’s decision to offer him a scholarship before his sophomore season a wise one.

Even then, Shockey refuses to get caught looking ahead.

After all, it was during his father’s senior year at Mater Dei that baseball began taking unexpected turns.

Greg Shockey was one of the best football players in Orange County during his senior season in fall 1987, but injured his throwing shoulder playing free safety, ending his plans of pitching for the Monarchs again that spring.

Shockey hadn’t batted since his freshman year, but was urged to give it another try and ended up hitting .452 for the season. He accepted a late scholarship offer to Cal State Northridge and delivered four strong seasons for the Matadors, but was never drafted by a major league club.

He ultimately signed with the Seattle Mariners and strung together two solid seasons in their minor league system. Shockey figured he was part of their long-term plans, but was unexpectedly traded to the Minnesota Twins for an aging major league pitcher.

Shockey initially believed the Twins were interested in him, but quickly learned they just wanted to dump the pitcher’s salary. He was released the following spring.

His next opportunity came during the major league player strike of 1994-95, when the Angels signed him out of the Independent League during the winter and assigned him to their major league roster as a replacement player.

On a Friday night in front of 22,400 fans at Angel Stadium, Shockey had an RBI single in a 4-1 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers in their annual Freeway Series the weekend before Opening Day. That would be as close as he’d come to the major leagues.

Two days later, the strike ended and Shockey was sent to the club’s Single-A team at Lake Elsinore. He hit .327, .317 and .339 over the next three seasons, raising his career average to .321, but Shockey never received another opportunity to play above Double-A and finally called it quits at age 27, the year Brady was born.

At that stage of his life, it was time to start looking ahead.