Nationals relief pitcher Craig Stammen greets students at Little Flower School in Bethesda during a Sept. 19 visit where he reminded the students that each had been “blessed with a gift from God.” (Cs photo by Michael Hoyt)
Nationals relief pitcher Craig Stammen greets students at Little Flower School in Bethesda during a Sept. 19 visit where he reminded the students that each had been “blessed with a gift from God.” (Cs photo by Michael Hoyt)
When Nationals relief pitcher Craig Stammen takes the mound dozens of times in a season to face a major league hitter, it's usually at a crucial point in a baseball game. The manager calls him in to retain the lead or keep it close. In those moments, there are some jitters, but by putting it all in the Lord's hands, he said those nerves quickly disappear.

"There's a little bit of anxiety. I know a lot of people are watching, but I always say some prayers and everything will be okay," said Stammen, speaking Sept. 19 to the students at Little Flower School, Bethesda, on baseball, his strong Catholic faith and how God has a plan for every person's life.

"For a time, I kept baseball separate from my faith, but once I started to put the two together, everything began to turn around. God takes that anxiety puts it in the back of my mind," he said. "What I do on the ball field isn't what really matters, it's living for eternity that really matters."

A native of North Star, Ohio, Stammen recalled growing up in a very religious family, in which the Catholic faith was "ingrained into my life right from the beginning." He said he would read the Bible with his mother and received solid formation in the faith from religious education classes that he attended through high school. "It was very much like what you guys are getting here at Little Flower," he told the students.

His early life, he said, in a small rural farming community, where everyone he knew was Catholic set a firm faith foundation for his later years. "When you leave high school, you are on your own, you realize you have to get yourself to church and you have to be responsible," he said. "Sometimes in college, you may think it doesn't matter, but it does matter."

Throughout baseball season, Stammen said he attends Mass every Sunday during home stands at Nationals Park, celebrated by Nats chaplains Msgr. Stephen Rossetti or Father Andrew Fisher. Several players, Nationals' front office employees, ushers and other stadium workers make up the ballpark's Catholic community, said Stammen, adding his gratitude for Catholic Athletes for Christ, a national organization based in the Diocese of Arlington which organizes Sunday Masses at most of the major league ballparks for Catholic players, both the home team and visitors.

Stammen went on to attend the University of Dayton, an Ohio Catholic college, where he played baseball and was eventually spotted by scouts for the Washington Nationals. He told the students about a Catholic college retreat he attended before he set out for the minor leagues and how that experience changed the course of his life.

He said it was the first time he openly discussed his Catholic faith with his peers, ultimately changing his outlook on life. From that moment on, he wanted to share his faith with others. "I really saw all the blessings in my life," Stammen said.

Stammen then encouraged the kids to find their God-given talents. "You've all been blessed with a gift from God. Your job is to use that gift to the best of your ability. For me, I kept dreaming of major league baseball. With the help of the Lord, He's gotten me to where I am today. There was someone with a greater plan for me," he said. "Whether you're an artist, an athlete or a caregiver, use that gift to help others and make their lives better."

After four years in the minor league, Stammen, a right-hander with his fastest pitch clocked at 94 miles per hour, joined the Washington Nationals as a relief pitcher in 2009. His 2013 ERA is 2.79.

For several minutes, Stammen took a wide range of inquiries from the excited students, many wearing red, white or blue Nationals gear.

He good-naturedly answered questions from: "Who is your best friend on the team?" (pitcher Tyler Clippard) to "What's your least favorite team?" ("It's always fun to beat the Phillies," he said) to "What was your favorite game?" (The playoff game last October when Jayson Werth hit a ninth-inning walk-off homerun for a win.) One youngster seemed very anxious to understand the team's logic behind the Kurt Suzuki trade in August. Another asked Stammen about his golf game (his second favorite sport). "It could be better," he joked.

Following the school presentation, Stammen addressed about 20 archdiocesan priests during a Montgomery County deanery meeting at Little Flower Parish rectory. Msgr. Peter Vaghi, pastor of Little Flower, introduced the baseball player as a "man of faith."

Many times in his career, he told the priests, he was on the verge of being released, but would suddenly have a good stretch of pitching, learning to overcome any failures with faith. "When I put God first, it took me out of the driver's seat and put me in the passenger seat," he said.

Stammen told the Catholic Standard he thought about the priesthood many years ago, but now feels God is calling him to the vocation of being a husband and father. Stammen, who is 29 years old, is engaged to be married.

While some professional sports teams and athletes can be hostile to Christianity, he said many of his Nationals teammates are God-fearing men, who take their faith seriously "more than any other team I've been involved with...It's a good reason to root for the Nats."

In the end, the major league ballplayer humbly asked for the priests' prayers and thanked them for the gift of their vocations. "A friend told me recently and it's true, 'Priests have the hardest jobs in the world,'" he said. "Thank you so much and we respect all you do for the community."