Friday, October 19, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Faith helps Rays' Steven Souza Jr. turn around life, career

PORT CHARLOTTE

Steven Souza Jr. is right. • He probably shouldn't be here. • Not after wasting his first few years in pro ball, living the hotshot prospect life he thought he was supposed to, drinking, staying out late, chasing women. Not after a foolish attempt at the quick fix of performance-enhancing drugs led to a 50-game suspension in 2010 that did nothing to change his me-first ways. Not after a heated confrontation with a minor-league manager ended his next season and prompted him to consider quitting baseball. • Yet here he is, positioned to be a key player in the Rays lineup after a December trade, transformed by a commitment to God, matured at 25, enlightened, even married to a woman his own sister had warned about him for years. • "It's been quite a journey," Souza said. "Sometimes I sit at the end of my bed and I wonder, 'Why do I deserve this?' I don't. That's the bottom line. I don't." • After all those missteps, the turns and the tumult, Souza's path led to reclamation, to salvation, to redemption.

Spiritually, as he walked nervously into a church and turned his life over to God with a baptism at age 22. Professionally, as he found the balance of not taking the game too seriously to enjoy it. And personally, as he made amends and friends, grasping previously foreign concepts of unselfishness and humility.

"The Bible says consider it a joy, brothers, when you go through suffering because suffering produces perseverance, perseverance character and character joy," Souza said.

"These trials I have gone through, I wouldn't be the man I am today without going through them. Obviously the damage I did to people around me and to my family, I wish I could take that back. But what I went through, I can appreciate. God took me through that and made me the man I am today."

His wife, his father, his friends all rave about how much he has changed.

So, too, do his former bosses at the Nationals, including the manager he went face-to-face with on the field.

"He's a different man," Matt LeCroy, now the Nationals' bullpen coach, said Friday. "He's a born-again Christian, and I think that changed part of his life. His attitude, the way he spoke to people, the way he treated people, it all changed. And the combination of that and being sent home, I think that has all helped him. I'm so proud he's been able to make that change and continue to stay the course."

Living that life

The Souza who started playing ball after being a 2007 third-round pick of the Nationals wasn't a very good guy to be around. And he's the first to admit it.

Cocky, selfish, focused as much on scoring after the game than during, the minor-leaguer with the $350,000 bonus check played four seasons without hitting even .240 or getting above Class A.

"I was living that life you see so much on TV," Souza said. "Everyone's got big cars, money, alcohol, women all around them. … Everyone is looking at this guy because he's got all this, and that's what I wanted to be."

The lifestyle caught up to Souza by June 2010 at Class A Hagerstown. Diagnosed as a child with ADHD and medicated into high school, he was familiar with the benefits those pills could provide, concerned more about the "here and now" than potential consequences.

Worn out by the heat and the late hours, confident he wouldn't get caught since he was drug-tested 10 days earlier, he said he reached into a teammate's locker and popped a Concerta, then another the next afternoon. The day after that, a collector showed up asking for a urine specimen.

Though embarrassed for his family, he didn't consider the suspension much of a penalty. There were only 50 games left, and he wasn't going to play due to a broken thumb. He went home to Seattle, then, after tiring of answering questions, went to his former agent's place in Georgia, and the good times rolled on.

"I still didn't do the right things," Souza said. "I was in a bad place, trying to fill the void because I didn't have baseball then — a lot of going out, a lot of drinking, a lot of working out," putting on 30 pounds of muscle.

An impressive instructional league showing made the ban seem no more than a slight inconvenience, an apology to the team the following spring a mere formality. "I don't think I really learned from it," he said.

At a crossroads

Apparently not.

Promoted unexpectedly to advanced Class A Potomac in 2011, he kept up the same hard-partying lifestyle and selfish attitude, fueled by a hot start.

"My manager and I didn't get along," Souza said. "I was a hothead, especially when I was doing well, leading the league in RBIs. It was a, 'This is my team, get out of my way' type of thing."

As his bat cooled and off-field troubles (including, Souza said, a former live-in girlfriend cheating on him with a teammate he had considered a trusted friend) knocked him into a depression, tension mounted. "It just seemed the whole world came crashing down at that point," he said.

Already benched for one game of the playoffs, he violated a team rule by driving to a road game without permission, which meant he would be sitting out again. He was pouting, swinging purposelessly during batting practice, when LeCroy told him to get out of the cage. Souza said no.

"We got face to face," Souza said. "He said, 'Get your stuff and go sit in the stands.' I said, 'I'll do you one better and I'll go home.' "

Souza called Nationals farm director Doug Harris and told him, " 'I'm done. I can't do it anymore.' "

Harris, confident he knew Souza's true character as a good kid who made bad decisions, told him to go ahead and not to bother with instructional league. But, also, to think about his future and that he would check back in a month or two.

"I thought in my mind, I don't need you to call me in a couple months, I'm done," Souza said. He filled the growing void and addressed the growing depression with even more partying and carousing, and went as far as emailing Pac-12 coaches to explore playing college football.

"I was at a crossroads," he said.

But deep down, Souza was lost without baseball. And he knew he wasn't done. His new agents nudged him, and when Harris called in October, Souza said if the Nats would have him, he'd "love to come back" in the spring.

Further, Harris' instincts were right. With time to reflect, Souza finally realized he had to make changes. "It was like, I need to make adjustments in my life right now," Souza said. "Nobody wants to be around me. People don't respect me."

Finding faith

A friend at a wedding suggested to Souza that he might find answers in faith. So did another. Good buddy Brent Lillibridge, a former big-leaguer, made a more direct pitch, inviting Souza to attend Sunday morning mass at his church, Mill Creek Foursquare outside Seattle.

Lillibridge said he didn't expect Souza to say yes, "and from there it sparked something inside of him that would never burn out."

Souza figured why not.

"It was one of those moments where you don't know what to expect," he said. "There was definitely a little anxiety. But as soon as I walked into the church, it was comfort. Everyone there was welcoming me. And as soon as the message started being preached, it was just a release. I could feel the Lord moving. … It was like, Lord, I'm coming after you. And what a blessing it was that he answered."

Souza dived right in, proclaiming his faith and fully embracing the new force, wanting "to find out what life was about." A month later, all 6 feet 4 and 225 pounds of him was immersed in a small pool set up inside the church to get baptized.

He cut down on the partying and other bad habits, became less self-centered and, perhaps most shocking of all, even a bit humbled. He started reading the Bible every day, reflecting on what he could do to be a better person.

"Once he decided to get baptized, that was the moment of complete change," said Mikaela, who married Souza three weeks ago after knowing him for eight years, though with warnings much of that time from her best friend, and Souza's sister, not to get too attached.

"He realized it wasn't all about him being out there and being famous or whatever he thought he needed to be at the time. He realized it wasn't all about him. He kind of got the bigger picture."

Just having fun

Now Souza had to get his career back.

He walked into the clubhouse with his new attitude, but that didn't go well at first. He didn't feel particularly welcomed even as he apologized yet again, coaches and teammates skeptical of the conversion. The combination of a position change, from the corner infield to the prospect-rich outfield, and a string of injuries had Souza worried he wouldn't survive the spring.

Assigned to Hagerstown for the fourth season, he was determined to dominate, but an 0-for-5 with two strikeouts opening night in Rome, Ga., shook that confidence.

And that's what set in motion the final change.

"That's when I sat in my locker and said I'm done trying to care about this game, done caring in the sense of where I'm going," he said. "I'm just going to be where I am, play the game and have fun like I did when I was a kid."

And he has ever since, prioritizing differently but still playing hard, posting three consecutive seasons more impressive than the last. He put up league MVP numbers at Triple-A Syracuse last year, a .350 average and 1.022 on-base plus slugging percentage with 18 homers and 75 RBIs in 96 games, making it to the majors and making the now-famous catch that saved Jordan Zimmermann's no-hitter.

"I think he was able to compartmentalize better," said Harris, the Nats farm director. "I think he was able to sort out different parts of his life, and what was important to him. I think he found himself as a man, and really catapulted his career forward."

As Souza talks — openly, almost confessionally — about his past transgressions, it seems such a complex tale, rife with conflict and turmoil. But then he found faith, and focus.

"It became," he said, "a simple thing."

Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

   
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