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Rays minor-leaguer Blake Bivens shares details of family tragedy

At a Sunday church service, the pitcher spoke about his wife, 14-month-old son and mother-in-law being killed in August, how he found out and how he coped thanks to his faith.
Rays minor-leaguer Blake Bivens spoke about his family tragedy on Sunday, May 3, 2020, during a session at The River Church in Danville, Va., that was shown on Facebook.
Rays minor-leaguer Blake Bivens spoke about his family tragedy on Sunday, May 3, 2020, during a session at The River Church in Danville, Va., that was shown on Facebook. [ MARC TOPKIN | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published May 3, 2020|Updated May 4, 2020

Blake Bivens knew something was amiss as soon as he woke up that August day and didn’t have the usual text messages from his wife, Emily.

A pitcher with the Rays’ Double-A Montgomery team that was on the road in Chattanooga, Tenn., Bivens grew more concerned when he couldn’t reach Emily or anyone else in their extended family.

When he saw something on Facebook about Emily’s 18-year-old brother being sought by police near their Virginia hometown, he started to get a haunting sense of how horribly wrong things could be. Bivens reached out to his Rays bosses, who quickly arranged for him to fly home.

Sitting in the Chattanooga airport, still unable to reach anyone who knew what had happened to Emily or their toddler son, Bivens turned back to social media for information.

“First headline I see is two females and a small child were gone,” Bivens said. “I immediately knew that was them. I found out my family was gone over a Facebook headline. I just immediately began to scream in the middle of the airport.’’

Bivens, 24, shared those details and others Sunday, speaking publicly for the first time about the tragedy during a talk with interim senior pastor Travis Gore at The River Church in Danville, Va., that was aired live on Facebook.

Bivens’ wife, 14-month-old son Cullen and mother-in-law Joan Bernard, 62, were killed Aug. 28. His brother-in-law, Matthew Bernard, was arrested after being captured naked during a manhunt in Keeling, Va., and charged with the three murders. He is awaiting trial.

The eight-plus months have allowed Bivens some time for healing, and through his devout faith, understanding. But the painful memories remain close.

“I think the hardest moment for me was when I got home and I walked in my son’s bedroom for the first time and realized I was never going to see him on this Earth again,’’ he said.

Related: Blake Bivens' manager, teammates describe pitcher at center of tragedy

“That was the worst moment in my life. Nothing ever will come to being, to feeling the way I felt at that moment. Then again, I know I will see him again one day, and it won’t be long.’’

That faith has been a huge help in navigating the experience, as Bivens said he dealt with depression and frustration, and the understandable questioning of why this happened.

“I think the greatest comfort for me has been knowing, without a shadow of a doubt, where my family is,” Bivens said. “I know they’re in the arms of Jesus, and they’re waiting for me to be there with them. Knowing that in my heart has been the greatest comfort to us. It’s been amazing how the Lord has helped and gave us peace through everything.’’

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During the 30-plus minute conversation, Gore asked Bivens to explain his recent testimony about how he knew God was understanding and was with him, and how he was “finally able to laugh at the devil’s plan.’’

“We know Emily and Cullen are beyond his grasp now,’’ Bivens said. “I just feel this whole ordeal had just been a ploy from the enemy to destroy me, to destroy my family and just drag us down. One day I was on the way home from training and I had just recently read (the bible verse) John 16:33 that you shared last Sunday.

Related: Investigators still searching for answers in deaths of family of Rays minor-leaguer

“And when I read, ‘Take heart, for I have overcome the world,’ it changed, it completely flipped a switch in my heart. And from that moment on I knew that this was not going to beat me, this was not going to beat family. I was going to live in victory the rest of my life, and I was going to use this as a testimony to show what he has done for me he can also do for others.

“That moment for me was one of the biggest moments where I just knew God was with me, and the only thing I knew to do was just laugh in the enemy’s face, because he thought he had won. But all he’s done is awoken a sleeping giant and as long as I’m here on this earth, every day I wake up my goal is to pile-drive him right in the face every morning when I get up.’’

Bivens spent the rest of that season at home, making a trip with his father to Tropicana Field in September to see his Rays teammates and bosses. The team gave him the opportunity to get away during the winter and go to Australia to pitch there. He had reported to spring training in March with plans to pitch this season before the coronavirus shutdown.

The events of that day will always be with him.

“The only thing I really remember from the whole plane ride is I just went through periods, I just stared at the back of the seat the whole time, trying to get my mind to wrap around what I’m hearing,” Bivens said.

“It’s almost kind of like, ‘This isn’t really happening.' I was more in a state of shock. I would go through periods of shaking. Then I would start to lose it a little bit and break down and cry. It was kind of like a circle. The plane rides just seemed like they took forever.”

He thanked the Rays repeatedly for their support. Montgomery manager Morgan Ensberg raced to the Chattanooga airport to accompany Bivens on the flights home. Rays security chief Jim Previtera and Vince Lodato, from their employee assistance program, met them in Charlotte, N.C., for the connecting flight to Greensboro, then an hour drive to Keeling, Va., as they were able to get more information.

“It could have been a whole lot worse for me if I didn’t have anyone there,” he said.

By the time Bivens got to his house, there was a large group of family gathered.

“We hugged and we just cried for 30 minutes,” he said. “It was an experience, it’s unbelievable how much I can vividly remember from the day. And it’s kind of unbelievable to see how far things have come from that day also.”

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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