It’s every pitcher’s worst nightmare. For the Detroit Tigers’ Darin Downs, the nightmare became a reality, and almost meant the end of his life.
On August 17, 2009, he took a 103-mile-per-hour line drive off the left side of his head. In an instant, his skull was fractured, blood began pooling, his head was swelling, and he couldn’t speak. Soon he lay terrified in an ambulance en route to the hospital. But in that moment, he had a strange peace and hope. God was at work.
His fellow Tiger Donnie Kelly tells a similar story — though not as dramatic. For Kelly, it was a mysterious injury in 2004 that sidelined him from the game he loved and threatened to end his career almost before it began. But it was God’s severe mercy that not only preserved his body, and provided spiritual comfort, but exposed the idol of baseball for what it was, and put Jesus securely back at the center. (Minnesota Twin Josh Willingham tells a similar story.)
It’s a common narrative among professing Christians in professional athletics — indeed, Christians in every profession — and no less significant because it’s common. All too often it is the good things in life — work, athletics, family, success — that can so subtly displace what is most important. But God frequently shows himself kind in startling us wide awake with suffering and pain, and wooing us back to himself in his surprising timing.
So clear was God’s hand in Downs’s traumatic on-the-field head injury that he can say, “I’m truly glad it happened.”
The Tigers were in Minneapolis for the opening of the 2013 season, and a number joined us in worship at Bethlehem on Easter Sunday. We had the privilege to talk with Downs and Kelly on Tuesday, the morning after Opening Day. This time on Desiring God’s Behind the Blog podcast, we go into the dugout, and back into the clubhouse, to talk the Christian life and gospel advance outside the lines in Major League Baseball.
Here are the timestamps (counting backwards) for the topics we covered in our half hour together:
-32:45 What daily difference does faith in Jesus make in your profession?
-31:30 A common narrative: God saving Christian athletes from their sport
-30:35 Donnie’s story of God shattering his idol
-29:25 Darin’s story
-27:18 How Darin deals with the fear of getting hit again
-25:45 Christian camaraderie in baseball and life
-24:35 Corporate Bible study with fellow Christians on the team
-23:22 Gospel-advance behind the scenes in pro baseball
-21:50 Personal spiritual disciplines with major-league distractions
-19:50 The blessing Darin is receiving from John Piper’s ministry
-18:57 Getting to the Majors without making baseball god
-17:45 Advice for not letting athletics consume you
-15:00 Advice to young players about spiritual priorities and keeping God central
-12:45 How Darin deals with the pressure and difficulty of his utility role
-10:40 How faith makes a practical difference on the field
-9:25 Go-to verses and thoughts about God for pressured moments
-6:45 Navigating by the unseen in a game consumed with numbers
-4:25 Donnie’s journey in 2012
-2:00 Embracing God’s will in homeruns and strikeouts
-1:20 Closing prayer
Donnie Kelly, left; Darin Downs, right