Desme takes leap of faith
Oakland Athletics prospect decides to trade jersey for vestments
Grant Desme had finally reached a garden spot in his baseball career, but to him it only hinted at forbidden fruit further ahead.
The Oakland A's prospect was MVP of the 2009 Arizona Fall League, a gathering place for baseball's best young players. People were beginning to wonder when, not if, the outfielder would be a major league ballplayer.
He had a rare combination of power and speed. If he seemed oddly quiet and reflective to some of his teammates, he wasn't the first player who spent his free time alone with a Bible.
But all Desme kept thinking about was whether he really wanted it.
For many baseball players, plush travel, easy access to attractive women and fame are accoutrements to the major league experience. To Desme, 23, they loomed like scary tests of his faith, a serpent coiled on a branch.
"It takes a lot to be under those circumstances and to live a virtuous life or stay faithful, so I don't know if I could have done it," Desme said. "I never really was in it, but it was one of the things I thought a lot about over this past year."
That brought Desme to this most sudden of detours. It was not an ease-over-the-speed-bump kind of turn, but a middle-of-the-night, deer-in-the-highway jerk of the wheel. On the cusp of possible stardom, Desme handed in his jersey for vestments.
He informed A's general manager Billy Beane last week that he was retiring from baseball to enroll at St. Michael's Abbey in Orange County. He was starting the process of becoming a priest.
Word reached A's assistant general manager David Forst, who phoned farm director Keith Lieppman. The first thing Forst asked was, "Are you sitting down?"
Lieppman is in his 40th year in baseball. He has seen players retire because they knew they no longer had it or because they were getting married or because they had found a six-figure job. He hadn't heard this one before.
"I don't think I've had anything quite that abrupt," Lieppman said.
Just like that, the A's watched their second-round pick of 2007 walk out the door. They had invested $432,000 in him and yet no one in the organization tried to talk him out of it. What, after all, were they going to say?
"That's when you wish someone well and hope everything works out the way he wants it to," Lieppman said.
If it felt sudden to his employers, it didn't to his family. Greg Desme, who owns a mortgage brokerage in Bakersfield, had talked to his son about the possibility for the past year and a half. He had raised him in the Catholic faith, watched him cling to it more closely than his two younger siblings and, finally, saw him succumb to what he considers his calling.
"What dad wouldn't want to see his son make the big leagues?" Greg Desme said. "But when you talk to Grant, you see what he's willing to sacrifice, what he's willing to give up. He just has the ultimate goal of helping other people."
His parents warned him that he couldn't reverse this decision. But the more he fought it, the stronger his desire grew.
"Deep down, I think I knew it was the right decision," Grant Desme said. "I can't explain the peace and joy I've experienced from making it."
The story has spread since Desme reluctantly agreed to a conference call with a few reporters last week. The A's have fielded calls from the network TV stations, from reporters at newspapers around the country and even from a film documentary company in the Netherlands.
Desme said he wasn't looking for attention when he made his announcement, but he has welcomed the spotlight on his faith.
"That in itself is almost miraculous," Desme said.
Desme was rehabbing from a series of injuries last winter in Anaheim when some friends told him about St. Michael's. It's a 52-year-old monastic community founded by Hungarian refugees on the western slopes of the Santa Ana Mountains.
After the fall league wrapped up in December, Desme visited St. Michael's for a week. He was drawn to the monastic experience, a life of quiet prayer and reflection.
"I could see that being home," he said.
He enters the abbey in August, just about the time he might have been pushing for his first taste of the major leagues in Oakland.
What kind of player would Desme have become? The A's scouts compare him to Ryan Ludwick or Jayson Werth, skilled players, but late bloomers. His ability was obvious. He was the only player in the minor leagues to hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases last year. So were his deficiencies. He struck out 81 times in 69 games at Class-A Kane County last year.
Numbers -- statistics, salaries, a player's position on the depth chart -- are the measure of a baseball player's worth. In Desme's future endeavors, he'll be judged by an entirely new set of standards.
Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.