Brad Bergesen crumpled to the dirt, face down and motionless. It wasn’t the pain, per se. It just happened so quickly, he needed a few moments to collect himself.
The ball had smashed into Bergesen’s left shin and careened into the infield grass, where the catcher scooped it up and threw to first base for the third out of the inning. Bergesen, a young right-hander for the Orioles, popped up and trotted to the dugout – propelled by adrenaline more than the assurance that everything was fine.
Everything was not fine.”In the clubhouse, the pain hit me and I collapsed,” Bergesen recalled of the July 30, 2009, game in Baltimore. “I thought [my shin bone] had cracked in half. I was in agony.”
These types of injuries never happen at a good time, but Bergesen’s was particularly inconvenient. It interrupted a dominant start – one run allowed and six strikeouts through seven innings – but more importantly, it cut short the promising rookie season of one of the American League’s biggest surprises.
An X-ray in the clubhouse did not reveal a major break in the bone. Neither did several others over the course of the next few months. But Bergesen never returned to the mound in 2009 – his first season terminated after posting an impressive 7-5 record and 3.43 ERA in 19 starts. Because it took him three months to walk normally without pain, he believes he suffered a hairline fracture that went undetected by the various exams.
“I was really crushed,” said Bergesen, who is still searching for the success he experienced last year. “I didn’t go into depression, but I was upset sitting on the couch the next couple days watching the team play and not being able to be there. I was wondering, ‘Am I going to come back next year? Is this going to impact my career?’ I had all these questions. But as a follower of Christ, it’s so easy to get rid of the questions. God is in control. There’s a reason for it. Ultimately, whether it’s what you want, it’s in his hands.”
God’s sovereignty is a theme Bergesen, 24, can trace throughout his life. He grew up in a churchgoing family in California’s Bay Area, but in fourth grade, his parents’ divorce shattered his world. His church attendance slipped to only the major religious holidays, and his dad drifted away spiritually.
Once at Foothill High School in Pleasanton, Calif., Bergesen dominated on the baseball diamond but struggled to come to grips with the breakup of his family and questions about Christianity. His mom, Sue, was a constant voice of spiritual reason in his life, but “I wasn’t quite there yet,” Bergesen said.
In 2004, he signed with the Orioles straight out of high school after the team drafted him in the fourth round. The following year, on his very first night in Aberdeen, Md., he quickly struck up a friendship with Reid Hamblet, another prospect. The two went out to eat at a Cracker Barrel, where Hamblet asked him challenging spiritual questions about good works and the merits of salvation.
“We talked about a lot of things,” Hamblet recalled. “Jesus was the No. 1 topic of conversation.”
Hamblet and another Christian on the team, Blake Owen, reached out to Bergesen and encouraged him to come to team Bible studies. Before long, he traded in his superficial beliefs for a true faith in Christ.
“Despite believing it and talking it, I was off with my faith,” Bergesen said. “I was believing and saying one thing, and totally contradicting myself and not even believing what I was doing was wrong. Something that season changed in me. It took the blinders off my eyes.”
By the time the season ended, Hamblet saw a completely different person in Bergesen.
“It was a huge growth process for him,” said Hamblet, who is now an assistant baseball coach at Judson University (Ill.) and still good friends with Bergesen. “The way he lived his life, God started to convict him. It’s not that he was a horrible person by any means. But he was something like: ‘I believe in Jesus, but I’m not living like I’m supposed to.’ He really started to make changes in his life because of things the Bible said.”
By 2008, when Orioles’ Baseball Chapel leader Chris Adomanis met him, Bergesen’s faith was thriving at Double-A Bowie (Md.), where he was the lead chapel representative.
“He just had a presence about him that he had his act together,” Adomanis said.
These days, Bergesen is excited about using his career to point others to Christ. He has helped with a church baseball camp during the offseason, and he donates personal funds to Children of the Nations, which provides care for orphaned and destitute children in third-world countries. Last season, he and teammate Luke Scott shared their faith before a crowd of several hundred at a Hagerstown (Md.) Area Church Softball League event.
Bergesen’s spiritual awakening has even “trickled down through my family,” he said. “My dad is going to church again. It had a major impact on him.”
He is also a faithful attendee of Adomanis’ weekly team chapels and twice-a-month Bible studies. Although he typically defers to veterans in the clubhouse, he makes himself available to any spiritually curious teammates, just like Hamblet and Owen did with him in the minor leagues.
“Usually when guys see that you’re the so-called Christian on the team, they’ll come up and ask questions about the Bible,” Bergesen said. “That’s obviously an opening right there to see where they are in their faith.”
Much of Bergesen’s witness, according to Adomanis, comes from an honorable lifestyle in a sometimes-crass environment.
“He unabashedly has a Bible in his locker,” Adomanis said. “And the way he carries himself when stuff is going on that’s not right – coarse joking and stuff – he just doesn’t partake. He doesn’t point the finger; he just gets away from it.”
Like his faith, Bergesen’s career proliferated unexpectedly in the minors. Initially not considered among the Orioles’ top prospects, he won the Eastern League pitcher of the year award at Bowie in 2008.
Last season, after only two starts at Triple-A Norfolk, he was promoted to Baltimore to make a spot start for the injured Alfredo Simon but never returned to the minors, instead earning American League Rookie of the Year consideration before his season-ending injury. It was quite a rapid rise for a soft-throwing sinkerballer whose greatest weapons are location and off-speed subterfuge.
This year has already presented quite a few challenges. Bergesen, the Orioles’ No. 4 starter to begin the season, missed the first week of spring training games while recovering from a minor shoulder injury sustained while filming a team promotional ad in December. After getting shelled in his first three starts of the regular season, he was demoted to Triple-A with a 0-2 record and an unsightly 12.19 ERA.
He returned to Baltimore on May 1 after one minor league start and promptly picked up his first win with a gritty five-inning performance in which he allowed seven hits, four earned runs and no walks in a 12-9 win over Boston.
Through it all, his spiritual progression and last year’s season-ending injury are helping Bergesen keep a humble perspective on his career.
“I’m going to work as hard as I can because God has blessed me with this talent and I want to do everything I can in return to glorify him in this business,” he said. “The comforting thing is, if it’s a short career, I’m OK with that. I’ll be where He wants me.”