By Tim Ellsworth
JUPITER, Fla. (BP) – One … two … three …
As the pastor stepped to the pulpit, a young Adam Wainwright began counting.
74 … 75 … 76 …
The preaching continued, and so did the counting inside Wainwright’s head.
328 … 329 … 330 …
“As long as he kept talking, I would keep counting,” Wainwright said. “There were times when I got up almost to 1,000, which is really embarrassing. I’m so competitive, and I was so lost at the time, that going to church was a game. That was the only way that I could make myself sit through it without complaining and whining and fussing, was to make a game of it. So I made it a counting game.”
That competitive fire may not have been appropriate for the setting, as Wainwright now ashamedly admits, but it has served him well atop the mound. Over the past few years, the St. Louis Cardinals’ Wainwright has become one of the game’s most dominant pitchers. He won 19 games in 2009 and finished third in Cy Young balloting in the National League.
So far in 2010, he’s second in the league with 13 wins and a sparkling 2.11 ERA, good enough to earn a spot on his first All-Star Game roster.
He still competes fiercely on the diamond, but now Wainwright has a different attitude when it comes to attending church and hearing the Bible preached.
Wainwright grew up in a single-parent home in Brunswick, Ga., where his mom made sure he went to church every Sunday. He heard the word of God preached year after year, but it didn’t sink in.
“I hated going to church,” he said. “I didn’t let anybody know that, but it was the most boring thing in the world to me.”
His counting games during the sermon continued until middle school. He then started attending regular Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings, primarily because of his friends and the pretty girls who went.
“High school came, and I started to get farther and farther removed from the Christian way,” Wainwright said. “I grew up going to Vacation Bible School. I could tell you about the Bible and all the parables and the stories and all that. But to me, at the time, it was really a history book and not something that was talking about a messiah.”
The Atlanta Braves drafted Wainwright in the first round of the 2000 amateur draft, and in rookie ball his first roommate was Blaine Boyer, now a relief pitcher for the Arizona Diamondbacks. In Boyer, Wainwright found someone who was a committed Christian and who lived a godly lifestyle. Wainwright took notice, and began talking to Boyer about why his life was different.
Boyer told Wainwright about the change that Jesus Christ had made in him, and though Wainwright admits that he was interested to hear Boyer’s story, he wasn’t willing to make that commitment to Christ himself.
About that time agents began calling Wainwright, offering their services. Wainwright was drawn to Steve Hammond, an agent from a smaller firm, but someone that Wainwright thought was a good fit for him. Hammond, also a Christian, signed Boyer as a client as well, and the two of them began tag-teaming Wainwright in their witnessing to him.
“They knew I had questions,” Wainwright said. “I was coming to them all the time with questions about eternity and how do you know you’re right, how do you know Christianity is the way and not Buddhism or Islam or any of these other ones.”
The two convinced Wainwright to attend a conference sponsored by Pro Athletes Outreach (PAO) in 2002. They told him he could leave anytime if he didn’t like it.
“OK, fine, I’ll do it,” Wainwright thought. “I might leave, but I’m going.”
The headline speaker for the conference was Joe Stowell, former president of Moody Bible Institute and now president of Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Mich. Wainwright remembers hearing Stowell talk about the relationship side of Christianity. That was something he never remembered hearing about before.
“The message had probably been given to me a lot of times before, but my ears weren’t ready to hear it,” Wainwright said. “At this particular time at PAO, my ears were finally ready to listen.”
On the second day of the conference, Wainwright repented of his sins and trusted in Jesus Christ for his salvation.
A year later, the Braves traded him to the Cardinals. He debuted with the team in 2005, and in 2006 took over as the team’s closer late in the season and during the playoffs. He struck out Brandon Inge of the Detroit Tigers for the final out in the 2006 World Series.
Wainwright moved into the St. Louis rotation the following year, and has been an anchor for the Cardinals ever since. His success has allowed him to earn a healthy living, which he acknowledges can be a potential pitfall for a Christian.
“Doing what we do, the reality of the money that we’re able to make and the obstacles we’re faced with – temptation-wise – are tremendous,” Wainwright said. “We’re given a platform that’s unlike many others. We’re also given more temptation that probably most others. The money side of it, Jesus said that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to get into heaven.”
That’s why Wainwright said it’s important for him to stay focused on Christ as his ultimate meaning and purpose in life.
“Without God, without Jesus in our life, it’s always going to be empty,” he said. “We’re always going to be striving to get to that next plateau, and then when we get to the top plateau, there’s nothing there.
“With Jesus in our life, he says no matter what we do, whether we fail or have the most success, he’s going to love us the same. That message, to me, is so huge for this lifestyle we’re in.”