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Boston's Masterson strives to make positive impact
Friday, Jul 17, 2009
By Joshua Cooley

BOSTON (BP)--Justin Masterson doesn’t drink. “Never seen anything good from it,” he’ll tell you. But he has no problem going to the local watering hole with some buddies. And if he’s in the right mood, he might even get a little crazy.

“You might see me in the bar with my friends,” he said. “I won’t be drinking, but I might be dancing on the bar. I’ll be the sober one there. It’s that genuineness that’s lost.”

Ladies and gentlemen – and Christian traditionalists whose eyebrows are now arched – meet Justin Masterson, the Boston Red Sox’s 24-year-old rising star whose deliciously dichotomous nature is as intriguing as his slingshot right arm. He’s a freewheeling spirit with conservative values. He’s a preacher’s kid who is neither a goody-two-shoes nor an angry rebel. He’s young but bald. He’s rich and talented, but relatable and humble.

And that genuineness he mentioned? Good heavens, if Masterson isn’t genuine, the world is flat.

Masterson’s candor is equally disarming and refreshing. Ask him a question, and you might get a five-minute stream of consciousness. Take, for instance, the following sample, which came at the end of a 450-word answer to the simple query, “So, tell me about your successful 2008 season” – a response that also included recollections of playing Ken Griffey Jr. on Super Nintendo and a reference to Charles Barkley’s infamous “I’m not paid to be a role model” quote:

“It’s amazing how just a few smiles and conversations (with fans) and being genuine with people – they appreciate that so much,” Masterson said near the end of his mini-discourse. “And some will try to take advantage of you. I can see how some players put up a guard. It’s nice to see some of these guys with their guards down. We have the same struggles as the person working a regular 9-to-5 job and the guy driving the trash truck.”

OK, so maybe major league stars can’t quite relate to the struggles of the local sanitation department worker. But if anyone can convince you otherwise, it’s probably Masterson. His boyish charm, goofy wit and unshakable spiritual convictions are enough to make you wonder how a guy like him plays the same game as steroid cheats, narcissistic millionaires, et al.

“He’s well-liked,” said Mark Masterson, his father. “People know him and like him. But he’s got his quirky side.”

The Red Sox certainly like their promising youngster, whose talents are as striking as his clean-shaven dome (which he has sported since he first donned the razor in high school for a Mr. Clean Halloween outfit). A 2006 draft pick, he quickly impressed the Red Sox brass and made his major league debut on April 24, 2008 – an impressive spot start (six innings, two hits, one run) in place of starter Daisuke Matsuzaka, who was scratched due to illness.

After flip-flopping between the majors and minors a couple times over the next few months, he returned to Boston for good in late July. For the season, he went 4-3 with a 3.67 ERA in nine starts and 2-2 with a 2.36 ERA in 27 relief appearances over the final 2 ˝ months.

His most memorable moments came in the postseason, where Boston lost to upstart Tampa Bay in the American League Championship Series. Masterson, though, did his part, setting a franchise record with nine playoff appearances while going 1-0 with a 1.86 ERA in relief. His win in Game 5 of the ALCS (he pitched a scoreless ninth) made him the seventh-youngest Red Sox pitcher ever to win a postseason game. The last player to do so at a younger age? Oh, some guy in 1916 named Babe Ruth.

“I was pitching in almost every playoff game,” Masterson said. “It was almost too much to think about during the season. For lack of a better word, it was magical.”

Having started this season in the big leagues, Masterson has avoided a sophomore slump. In 27 games – including six as a fill-in starter when Matsuzaka went down with a shoulder injury in late April – he has gone 3-3 with a 4.98 ERA. Prior to his last appearance on July 11 (his worst of the season, in which he gave up five runs in only one-third of an inning), his ERA stood at 4.31.

At 6 feet, 6 inches and 250 pounds, he has the classic build of a dominating pitcher. His three-fifths arm angle produces a nasty bite on his pitches, which include a wicked, mid-90s sinker, a slider and a circle change.

It’s all heady stuff for a humble Midwestern kid who used to be known as the fat catcher who could hit in grade school. Masterson, the only Jamaican-born player in major league history, was born in Kingston, the island’s capital, where his father was an academic dean and professor at the Jamaican Theological Seminary. The following year, Mark moved the family back to Indiana, where they were originally from. Four years later, when Justin was 5, they settled down in Beavercreek, Ohio, where Mark has been the pastor of Creekside Community Church, a small congregation of about 70 people.

Justin and his two siblings enjoyed a supportive Christian home and all eventually placed their faith in Christ – Justin doing so early on at a church camp. The truth of the gospel, he said, really started to sink in during his early teenage years. His father’s godly example was a catalyst.

“I’ve watched my dad and through it all, whether it’s been struggles in the church or troubles in life, he has always gotten up for work,” Justin said. “He hasn’t shoved the Bible down my throat, but we were always in church and he rejoiced when we were old enough to make our own decisions.”

By high school, Masterson’s body was growing like a weed. He went from being the backup point guard during his freshman year to the starting center as a sophomore. But by his junior year, baseball became his sole focus and his skills started attracting major league scouts to Beavercreek, creating a buzz that the quaint eastern suburb of Dayton hadn’t seen before.

“It was an interesting experience,” Mark Masterson recalled. “It was fun. We just loved it. We kept pinching ourselves, like, ‘Wow, they’re coming to see our son?’”

Justin opted to play at Bethel College, a small NAIA school in Mishawaka, Ind., where he met his wife, Meryl. But after meeting a player from San Diego State in the Cape Cod League the summer before his junior year, he transferred to the Aztecs’ program, where he put up mediocre numbers (6-7, 4.81 ERA in 17 starts) in his only season there. Still, the Red Sox liked what they saw of him in Cape Cod and drafted him in the second round.

Now, Masterson is using his major league platform to spread the gospel. He faithfully attends the team’s Baseball Chapel services and is outspoken with his faith.

“He’s not an in-your-face person,” Mark Masterson said. “He’s low-key, available to talk. They know where he stands. I’m not sure who he’s been able to talk to, but he’s had some good conversations since he’s been with the team.”

Last February, Masterson shared his testimony as part of a year-long 200th anniversary celebration at Park Street Church in Boston, and in April, he gave a brief devotional prior to the Celtics’ first-round playoff game against the Bulls.

“My motto is to positively impact people’s lives,” he said. “I’ve gotten numerous random letters saying how I’ve been able to positively affect their lives. I’m the same person today that I was then. I thank the Lord for that.”

Are more October heroics in store this season for Masterson? It’s certainly possible. At the All-Star break, the Red Sox sat atop the American League East at 54-34. As with most topics you ask him about, he shoots straight here, too.

“Always with this team, our goal is to win a World Series,” Masterson said. “I think that’s what the guys do – we keep our differences aside and work hard to achieve that. For me, I want to build on last year, give quality innings and when I’m out there, give the team a chance to win. You can’t ask for much more than that.”

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