TAMPA — Sam Marsonek sat in an airport in late 2005, trying to shake off the tail end of a three-day bender. Headed to the Dominican Republic for what he thought was a golfing trip with buddies, the former 1996 first-round stud was a shell of the kid who had dazzled scouts while at Jesuit.
A vicious combination of alcohol, drugs and injuries had gutted Marsonek's once promising future.
"I thought that's what a ball player embodied," Marsonek said. "You play hard, then you go out and drink hard."
Part of the trip included some baseball clinics throughout the impoverished country. Some of the kids had gloves, some did not. Some had shoes, others did not. Standing in front of the young hopefuls, Marsonek saw his life at a crossroads.
"In a lot of ways they were just like me and had a dream of playing pro ball," he said. "But in reality it was never going to happen."
Something else came about on that trip, something that blindsided Marsonek. It wasn't his once electric fastball and it wasn't a rebirth of his now spiraling career.
He found God.
"Come to find out it was a mission trip and I was the last person, considering my lifestyle, who would do something like that," Marsonek said. "And there I was with a bunch of Bible thumpers."
Marsonek was out of baseball by the spring of 2008, his entire major league career consisting of a brief 11/3-inning appearance for the Yankees in 2004. But that trip to the Dominican paved the groundwork for what became Marsonek's second career.
"God really started to work on my heart," Marsonek said. "Since then, my motives and desires have been more about impacting others than what I need or what I want."
Marsonek founded a baseball ministry in Tampa under the Sharing Christ Our Redeemer Enterprises (SCORE) International umbrella in 2012. Marsonek had a platform to not only teach the game he loved, but do it in a way that enriched other lives through God.
"Up until that point, life had been more about me than anyone else," Marsonek said.
Twenty-seven SCORE alumni have now signed pro contracts while 85 more inked college scholarships. Marsonek has also enlisted some experienced help, including former major-leaguers Ramiro Mendoza and Clete Thomas.
"The coaching knowledge can't be beaten," Steinbrenner junior C.J. Van Eyk said. "There's ex-big leaguers, guys who have played pro ball. And they teach more than baseball, the man side of it. (SCORE) is special."
Marsonek's candid conversations about his past transgressions and current relationship with God are the program's calling cards. He said opening up about his past is key to building a future with his players.
"They have to know my heart," Marsonek said. "Once I go share with new players and their families, there becomes a trust and walls go down on their side as well."
Van Eyk, who has committed to play in college at Florida State, said the off-field activities — which include community work and Bible study — separate SCORE from other baseball programs.
"It gives me solid groundwork in my faith," he said. "He's helped me grow as a person."
Marsonek had sought a permanent home for SCORE locally for a few years. Unable to find something suitable, he almost gave up hope.
Then he took another leap of faith.
Marsonek will move SCORE to the rural town of Jena in west Alabama this summer. The facility has a baseball field, room for lodging and office space. Marsonek has plans to build out another field and add housing. It's a big change for a program that has had so much success in the bay area, but Marsonek believes it's what he needs to continue a career path he never saw coming.
"It's way out there in the middle of nowhere surrounded by corn fields like a Field of Dreams," he said. "It's scary moving my whole family away from everything here but I know my calling is much higher. This whole thing is about God."