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Proctor’s reach extends past the numbers

May 24, 2013

“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp. Or what’s a heaven for?” -Robert Browning

The way we measure the greatness of a man has changed since Browning wrote those words. Or, rather, our desperation to change it has grown. In baseball and in life, the allure to proclaim success or failure based on what is quantifiable has only become more seductive as the chaos around us increases. Scores, statistics, and neat little numbers that rise and fall inside parameters we set in place help us create order around what we can’t understand.

But in baseball, just like in life, there remains an ineffable quality that transcends the fathomable. Something about the heady rush of hearing the crack of ball on bat or the heart-pounding way a curveball seems to take years to find leather makes the numbers fall away. There’s a beauty in that release–in the idea that maybe success does lie beyond the boxes in a scorebook.  And in that way, we can acknowledge that greatness just may be in reaching beyond what we think we can hold–even if it requires a leap of faith.

Faith is something Scott Proctor understands, though it would be hard to fault him if he didn’t. The right-hander’s personal and professional struggles have been well-documented–a product of the baptism-by-fire Bronx where he started his major league career as well as his own willingness to share his story.  But for all the challenges that have been thrown his way, it’s clear Proctor feels an extraordinary amount of grace.

“I truly believe that things happen for a reason even though we don’t always know why,” he says, without a hint of uncertainty. “And at this point, now, I just try to have the biggest impact in people’s lives that I can and use whatever tools God gives me.”

Visiting patients at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. 2/13. Photo courtesy of the Proctor family

Visiting patients at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. 2/13. Photo courtesy of the Proctor family

The way Proctor seeks that impact extends past his wingspan–on and off the field–and is firmly grounded in his own humility.  From the meek, almost prayerful way his voice lowers when discussing the past alcohol abuse that very nearly derailed his career to the ease with which he credits others for all the best parts of his journey, Proctor shows an understanding that almost nothing can be accomplished alone–even when standing on a pitcher’s mound.

Of course, the path to the mound has hardly been smooth. Once a setup complement for Mariano Rivera, Proctor has seen his career take several circuitous routes. In 2009, he underwent Tommy John surgery–a moment in his professional life that Proctor says was a catalyst for making changes in his personal one.

“There’s always multiple points throughout your life where there’s a circumstance that happened or a decision to be made and you have to adapt or die. You know, you’re reaching rock bottom, and drinking and everything else has brought you to the end and your career’s almost over and you’re having surgery and it’s just like, ‘Enough is enough. I’ve got to make some changes.’”

And running still as an undercurrent to those changes is the faith that carries him through doubt. If choosing to be better is grace in itself, then it’s no surprise that Proctor acknowledges the hand of a higher power in the decision.

“I believe that God puts you where he wants you to be, and the hardest part is that blind faith–trusting that he knows what he’s doing. We might not agree with it, but you have to just take your hand off the steering wheel and let go.”

Proctor lives by his word. He let go on the road back from surgery–in times when trust was the only way to have the chance to pitch again.  He let go when he made the decision to pitch in Korea last year–a season that saw him break the foreign-born-player saves record. And he let go when he came back, opening camp this spring with the defending world champion Giants.

And on each step of his walk through the game, Proctor has seen God’s hand.

“I’ve been really lucky coming up in my career that in any instance I’ve  been going through a tough time, [someone has been there] to continue to push me,” he says,  offering up brand names like Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte, as well as pitching coaches, trainers, and teammates at every level. “It’s easier when you have good people around you…and it just feels like at every stop there’s been somebody.”

One of those people has been Kyle Farnsworth, the Tampa Bay reliever and former Yankee who was the other half of the Rivera setup tandem during Proctor’s time in the Bronx. Farnsworth’s reputation has been one of aloofness and combativeness, and he’s likely just as famous for the on-field brawls he’s incited as the 100-mph fastballs he used to throw. But Proctor, much in the way he reflects on the good that has come from his struggles, has always seen past that. He values their friendship, not just for the camaraderie they built in the bullpen, but for the way Farnsworth has challenged him never to pay mere lip service to his faith.

“The one thing I respected the most about him was that he would always tell me, ‘Stand true to your word. Whatever you’re telling people you are, if you say you’re a Christian, just back it up.’”

It’s that philosophy that remains a driving force in the way Proctor approaches each person he encounters–in baseball, but also in the broader community.  Though typically known as the kind of pitcher who drains himself on every outing (“I’ll go until someone tells me I’m done or I can’t go any more.”), Proctor is quick to acknowledge the opportunities that baseball’s given him in return. But with the same humility that’s been a hallmark in the impact he seeks, he draws inspiration from the ways the game’s allowed him to make his world a little bit bigger.

“I’ve had the opportunity to encounter so many people, whether it be a wounded veteran at Walter Reed Hospital [during his stints with the Yankees, as part of a program Johnny Damon organized through the USO] or a kid with Down Syndrome. And…you can be going through the most miserable time in your life on the field, and you look at theirs and you think ‘what am I complaining about?’”

He almost laughs at the idea.

“We always feel, no matter what we’re encountering, that it’s the end of the world to us. And sometimes you have to look outside the box and really put things into perspective.”

Proctor’s willing to look almost anywhere. He speaks of conversations with fans, ballpark security guards, and clubhouse custodians. He mentions a young barber he frequented in Columbus who floored him with the story of raising his siblings when their parents wouldn’t.  And in these moments, even as he re-tells the stories, it’s clear whom he feels benefited most.

“Those interactions with people have changed my life more than I think I could have ever done for them. And that’s what you take motivation from. That’s what keeps pushing you to continue and pushing you through the rough times…I think we can learn something from everybody, no matter what their profession or their status in life, and if we can’t learn from one another, we’re not doing what we should be.”

Sometimes, those rough times are blessings on their own.  For Proctor, the most terrifying experience of his life has borne the biggest chance he’s had to make a difference.  In 2006, his infant daughter, Mary Elizabeth (M.E.), underwent emergency open-heart surgery to correct a birth defect. Though she would go on to make a full recovery, the experience had a profound impact on Proctor and his wife, Carrie, who felt they had an opportunity to leverage the good fortune baseball had afforded them into a real way to help their community.  From that sense of responsibility grew M.E.’s Team.

Now in its eighth year, the influence of M.E.’s Team can be felt all over the Florida county that once gave Proctor so much support on his road to the bigs. The foundation, whose motto is “Changing Lives Through Teamwork,” offers assistance in many different ways. From the 10th Street Baseball program, which provides stability, guidance, and education to low-income children and their families; to the Challenger little league division, which strives to give mentally and physically disabled youth the same baseball experience as their peers; to the financial, medical, and emotional support given to all kinds of families in need, M.E.’s Team has left its footprint over the entire community. But even about what is arguably his largest off-field impact, Proctor is quick to deflect the glory to the hard-working volunteers on the ground.

“There have been so many people who were way more instrumental than I could have been. Every time I speak at one of our functions or whenever I go speak to the kids, [I tell them that] just like on a team, it takes nine people to win a game. If you took out any one of those people, we wouldn’t be where we are. I just try to give credit where it’s due.”

Still, the magnitude of what being part of M.E.’s Team means to Proctor is difficult to ignore. With each story that he tells about the way the organization has touched lives, it’s clear that he couldn’t be prouder.  But, in much the same way that he feels endless gratitude for those who have walked with him, it’s the foundation’s emphasis on community that means the most.

“We have [first-time] volunteers who give an hour of their time or go out and donate to one of our events.  And some will say they’ve never understood what teamwork was about until they got plugged in with [M.E.’s Team]. And now they see how it works and they understand it…That’s what’s so powerful about the foundation.”

That willingness to embrace the impact of others on his journey, even as he seeks to expand his own reach, remains a consistent theme in Proctor’s life.  And with each person who’s pushed or guided or inspired in unexpected ways, he continues to see God.

The Proctors at M.E.'s Team Foundation's sporting clay tournament fundraiser. 1/13. Photo courtesy of the Proctor family.

The Proctors at M.E.’s Team Foundation’s sporting clay tournament fundraiser. 1/13. Photo courtesy of the Proctor family.

Perhaps no story better demonstrates Proctor’s openness to that power of faith in everyday life than the one he tells of a time he very nearly quit baseball–and the symbiotic way he was brought back:

The fall of 2003 had brought with it several hurricanes that wreaked havoc on Proctor’s hometown, leaving its residents emotionally and financially exhausted. They were still reeling by the time he returned after the season to staff a baseball camp at his high school.

Once there, he says, he came across a young boy–one of the campers–who was clinging to his father while the rest of his friends were in groups, running drills.

This one little kid just would not leave his dad’s side, so I went over to him and I told him, ‘I need some help. I need you to show the kids what to do. I need you to be an example for me. Just stay with me the whole time.’”

He did. Proctor and his new assistant ran pitching drills together, and by the second group, the boy was laughing and talking and eventually relaxed enough to re-join his friends.

Later that day, the boy’s father confided in Proctor that laughter had been hard to come by since the hurricanes–replaced by nightmares and an inability to sleep alone–and that the fearlessness his son had shown by simply playing with his friends had been remarkable in itself.

The following season, Proctor was back in AAA Columbus–now six years removed from his draft–and struggling. “I was [awful],” he says, “I couldn’t get anybody out and I was walking the world and I said, ‘I think I’m done.’”

But Proctor wasn’t going to rely on his hunches.

“I prayed to God, and I said ‘give me a sign. If this is what you want me to do, show me. You know what you want.’  So I was looking for lightning to strike and knock all the power out or [to see] a big white billboard when I was driving to the ballpark. But nothing happened.”

So he went to the park the next day, fully intending to tell manager Bucky Dent that he was ready to hang it up.  He was in the process of packing when something caught his eye.

“I don’t usually read any mail during the season. I wait until the end of the season and send it all out. But I looked at my chair and there was one envelope and I said, ‘All right. I’m just going to read this. It’ll give me more time to think this through.’”

Inside, was a letter from the camper’s father.

“He was talking about the whole encounter that day, and he said, ‘Every day, I have to look you up on the Internet to show [my son] that you’re still playing.’”

Proctor never made it to Dent’s office.

“I think it was a week later that I got called up [to New York]. So you just never know.”

None of us ever know. Proctor couldn’t have known the way one interaction would make a difference to an entire family, just like a father couldn’t have known the way his letter would change a career. But it’s that reach–that faith that we can have an impact beyond what we can see and touch and hold–that hurtles our idea of greatness past what we can define.

Proctor keeps reaching. And each time he does, he becomes a reminder that true success will never be found on the back of a baseball card.  Even if it does require that leap of faith.

(Author’s note: These interviews were conducted at the end of April, and the story was completed in early May. Although Proctor announced his retirement on May 20th, I’ve decided to present the story in its original form. Though Proctor will no longer be toeing the rubber, he’ll no doubt take the same graciousness, humility, and willingness to give back into his next endeavors. His retirement truly is baseball’s loss.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. judith ventura permalink
    May 24, 2013 10:01 am

    Awesome article about an athlete of deep faith and conviction–it’s good that the public see this side of Proctor. The press is very quick to jump on the negative. Thank you for highlighting the “real” Scott Proctor. And thank you for an intelligently written article. Refreshing in the world of sports journalism.

    • JJMF permalink
      May 24, 2013 3:25 pm

      Extremely well-written profile that brings the “baseball card” image that we might have formed of a player to life. It’s interesting how baseball can become seamlessly part of something bigger than itself if a player has the will–and faith–to make it so.

  2. May 26, 2013 10:18 pm

    Great insight into the character and values that exist in professional sports…definitely a good reminder to stay mindful. In addition, this article shows how sports and values really do influence each other. Great read!

  3. June 13, 2013 2:43 am

    Great piece!

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