Former Atlanta Braves’ relief pitcher Will Startup grew up on the baseball field, with his sights set on one day pitching in the big leagues. When he was drafted by the Braves in 2005, Startup’s childhood dream was realized. After a solid career, Startup hung up his cleats in 2014.
“My wife and I prayed about what God had next for our family,” says Startup. “We decided to step away from baseball.”
It was a tough decision for Startup and his family. While baseball is always going to be a passion for him, he has learned to avoid allowing it to become his identity.
“God was shaping me to find my identity not in how I played but who I am in Him,” says Startup. “I didn’t feel lost when I gave up runs; God has given me another mission and a purpose. I am so thankful for the career that God has given me.”
During his 2008 season, Startup had to undergo surgery on his arm, lessening his chances to pitch in the Major Leagues.
“After the surgery,” Startup says, “it was clear to me that God was leading me into ministry. And being led into ministry doesn’t necessarily mean just preaching in church or leading Bible studies; I want to tell people about God and love them well. For me, it means being a difference-maker in the locker room.”
Though Startup never did get to start in a major league game, he doesn’t count that as a failure. Startup recounts one particular spring training with the Orioles to be one of the most meaningful moments in his career. While conditioning for a season of baseball, he was on mission to challenge and train other players in their eternal goals.
“I met another guy who was at spring training in 2010: Mike Hinckley,” Startup recalls. “He was such a tremendous force for the Lord. He was bold. I learned so much from hanging around him. We started pouring into a group of about 10 players who I then went on to play rookie ball with.”
Startup has been coaching high school baseball for the past 4 years. For the 2015 season, he was able to finish the whole season as their coach since he didn’t return to pitching mound himself. “That was really special,” he says. “Coaching these guys allows me to channel my passion for baseball and pour into others.”
Instead of feeling a loss as he steps away from his baseball career, Startup looks back with great gratitude for that season in his life; he’s excited for his next chapter.
“God gave me a total peace to step away from the game,” says Startup. “I wondered if it would be hard for me to enjoy even watching baseball after having to give up my professional career. I hoped that I wouldn’t grow to be resentful of it. But one day when I turned it on, I watched as Mike Trout hit a home run and I realized I was happy to see it. And pitchers don’t usually like to see that! It was then that I knew in my heart that I was OK. I could still love baseball.”
Startup, with the encouragement of his wife, is currently enrolled in the Savannah College of Art and Design where he is studying graphic design to pursue another passion of his: Designing sports footwear.
“There’s things that my family and I miss about baseball,” admits Startup, “but we see God making such a huge impact where He has placed us now.”
This past January, Startup signed on as the youth pastor for Parkway Presbyterian Church in Cumming, Georgia. Though he’s off the field, Startup can see how God continues to use his pro baseball career to reach others. Just last week, Startup received a thank-you card from one of the ten players whom he mentored five years ago while in Spring training with the Orioles.
“He wrote,” Startup says with obvious joy, “to tell me that he and his fiancé just asked Jesus into their hearts. Receiving that encouragement five years later was so amazing. You never know if you are planting a seed, watering a seed, or reaping a harvest. I know God gave me a purpose.”
Startup’s platform for sharing the Gospel might have changed, but his passion to impact others is stronger than ever. He and his family are excited about their new role at Parkway and their ministry to the youth.
“God is doing really big things,” says Startup. “I see students start to understand what a relationship with Christ is and I love that. I really want to make an eternal impact wherever I am, whether on or off the field.”