A Big-Leaguer Who Learned to Lean on God
While it was a bleak 96-loss season for the Minnesota Twins, one bright spot was left-fielder Josh Willingham — who recently joined us for an interview at the Desiring God offices.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard of Harmon Killebrew.
It was 42 years ago, in 1970, that the Hall-of-Fame slugger — who played 22 years in the major leagues, from 1954 to 1975, and died in 2011 — was the last Twin to hit 35 homeruns in a season. Until Willingham in 2012.
Willingham not only clubbed more homeruns this year than any Twin in four decades, he also batted in 110 runs, the third highest total in the American League. Without doubt, the 33-year-old veteran, and evangelical Christian, from Florence, Alabama, proved himself to be a steal of an off-season deal in the first of his three-year contract with the team.
But even Willingham’s outstanding 2012 campaign ended with a frustrating shoulder injury that kept him out of the lineup for the final week. Par for the course, it seemed, for the 2012 Twins.
Acquainted with Suffering
Willingham is no stranger to frustration and bleak seasons. After playing his first full big-league season in 2006, he missed the last month of 2007 with a back injury, and then missed 50 games in 2008 when the injury returned. Added to the strain, 2008 was for him a contract year.
“I was one injury away from back surgery,” says Willingham. Which could have meant the end of his career. “It puts things in perspective. You have to lean on God.”
For Willingham, the 2007 and 2008 frustrations led to strengthened faith, but God wasn’t done redirecting him yet. All his previous pains paled in comparison to the tragedy that struck in 2009.
“It’s all minor compared to what I dealt with in 2009 with the loss of my brother. I’ll never forget the day I got the call at 3am in Tampa.”
The Darkest Days of His Life
It was June 13, 2009. While still mourning the recent death of his grandfather, Willingham opened the door to the feverish knocking of the team’s traveling coordinator and heard the most shattering news of his life: his best friend and brother Jon had been killed in a car accident.
He was devastated. He left the team for 10 days, in the middle of the season, to return home and mourn with family. These were the darkest days of his 33 years so far. But even in the bleakest season of his life, Willingham discovered a silver lining of divine purpose and grace. It would be his Christian faith that would get him through life’s deepest water.
“Dealing with that was very tough. But it’s part of life. Things like that happen for a reason. That’s why one of my favorite verses in the Bible is James 1:2–3” — which says,
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.
Indeed his faith was severely tested and, says Willingham, God used the death of his brother to get his attention and put his priorities back in order. When the Enemy meant evil against him, “God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20).
Putting Everything in Perspective
“It put everything in perspective. To be honest, baseball was number one in my life before that happened. It wasn’t number one after. It was right where it was supposed to be. That’s what happens when a tragedy like that happens. It gets you back to putting your priorities where they are supposed to be.”
Strangely, the best two months of his life followed. Not because he was any better physically, he says, but because his spiritual priorities had been adjusted. Freshly freed from the enslaving idol of baseball, he was now ready to enjoy the game in its proper place.
After that, baseball “didn’t mean as much to me,” says Willingham. “Baseball was where it was supposed to be on the priority list, number three or four.” And for Willingham, with the house of his faith newly in order, his two best seasons in the majors followed in 2011 and 2012.
If there’s any Twin who’s lived through bleak seasons, and ended up all the better for it, it’s Willingham. Perhaps he’ll have something to teach the 2013 team.
For more from our interview with Josh Willingham, including video footage, see Ordinary Life for an Extraordinary Athlete. More on sports and athletics from Desiring God —
- Sports in the Age to Come
- Josh Hamilton, Relapse, and the Means of Grace
- Jesus: Lord of Feast and Famine, Homeruns and Strikeouts
- March Madness, Athletic Achievement, and Christians in Competitive Sports
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