By Patrick Carney
Justin De Fratus wears a permanent reminder to resist temptation.
The major league pitcher looks at the tattoo on the back of his left hand. At the base of his thumb and index finger are two letters and two Greek symbols. They remind him of his commitment to God and his Catholic faith.
“It means Jesus Christ,” he says with a smile as he looks at it. “The P and the X were the first two letters of His name in Greek. We got the Alpha and the Omega there, because, you know, ‘I am the beginning and I am the end.’”
The Chi Rho symbol, which he remembers seeing so often on the priests’ vestments and the Tabernacle when he served as an altar boy, is now a permanent reminder of his faith and commitment to doing the right thing every day.
“It does help me on those times where, if I’m thinking about doing something, then you look down, you remember why you got that and it was almost — in a sense it was a promise to yourself and to God that you know, you’re gonna do everything you can to do the right thing,” he said. “What would be more of a hypocrite thing than to brand yourself with something and then be going out doing the wrong thing all the time? This is always here, you know. It’s on my hand, that’s a spot you can’t hide.”
Major League Mass
With his schedule as a major league pitcher on the Philadelphia Phillies, Justin is happy to have this ever-present reminder with him at all times even when he can’t get to Mass on some Sundays.
In January, just four months after appearing in his first big league game, Justin strained his pitching arm, leaving him with a lot of free time. He took his time off to read, study and explore his faith knowing that when the season began and he was healthy that he wouldn’t be able to dedicate nearly as much time to learning about Catholicism.
He returned to the minor leagues in July and the majors in September. He was back to the grind. He no longer had the time to study, but he wanted to put the lessons he learned during his rehab into action during the season no matter how hectic his schedule was.
Although Justin has only been in the big leagues for a short while, he knows that there are some sacrifices he has to make to be a professional baseball player and devout Catholic. Major leaguers play 162 games in as few as 182 days. They get to the ballpark in the afternoon and don’t leave some days until after midnight in whatever time zone they are in that day.
During July and August, he played for the Triple A Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs. Having had a taste of the big leagues the year before, Justin saw how much easier it was to practice his faith in the minors.
“During the minor league season, it’s easier to go to Mass because you’re hardly on a plane,” Justin said. “So I was able to get to Mass every Sunday in the minor leagues. It didn’t matter what city I was in, you know, there was always a church within a taxicab range, so I’d be able to go.”
Catholic in the Clubhouse
In early September, for the second straight year, Justin got called up to the Phillies, and he had to balance his life to practice his faith.
When he’s on the road with the team, he likes to visit Catholic Cathedrals in new cities. On Sundays in Philadelphia, he settles for Mass in whatever conference room isn’t being used at Citizens Bank Park. This year, the Phillies instituted a Sunday Mass during weekends the team is in town for Catholic players and employees.
It’s not ideal to celebrate the Eucharist in a ballpark meeting room, but Justin is thrilled that he doesn’t have to miss going to Mass because of Sunday afternoon games.
He’s very conscious of not being the in-your-face guy, but when Justin studied his faith during the time he was on the disabled list, he promised himself that he would be more open about his faith, even with his teammates. He wanted to be someone who would discuss the tough issues and have the knowledge to stand up for his beliefs. This year, his teammates in Lehigh Valley and Philadelphia have come to know Justin as one of the guys on the team they can talk to about faith, spirituality and God regardless of their beliefs.
“Whether they want to debate about it, they’ll say, ‘let’s go talk to De Fratus, he’ll give me a good debate’, or ‘I want to find out more about it.’ I’ve put myself open to where like now everybody knows, and now it’s almost like a welcome, come, let’s talk about it if you want to talk about it.”
Growing in his faith has also made living the life of a practicing Catholic, Major League Baseball player a lot easier.
“I love baseball, I love, love baseball, but when it comes to being at the Gates of Heaven”, how not important is it?” he said. “Here it’s important. It’s important because that’s how I make my living, and I love playing the game. What good is it if I don’t use that stage to my advantage? I don’t know, once I realized that baseball wasn’t the most important thing in the world, it sure made it a lot easier, I’ll tell you that much.”
Read Part 1 of our Faith and Baseball Series: Mercy vs. Evil and the Major Leagues