From the ballfield to the seminary: Desme's higher calling

Grant Desme bows his head for the national anthem before playing in the Cal Poly baseball Alumni Game in 2010.
Grant Desme bows his head for the national anthem before playing in the Cal Poly baseball Alumni Game in 2010. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Grant Desme has always led by example.

It’s the reason those closest to him — friends, family, teammates and coaches — describe the former Oakland Athletics farmhand as soft-spoken and quiet, but not shy.

Even if he were talkative, some might not understand why he feels his January decision to give up a blossoming professional baseball career to become a Catholic priest was the right move.

At the top of his game and perhaps even on the precipice of making his Major League debut this summer, the former Cal Poly star will instead begin what is expected to be a 10-year journey toward ordination at an abbey in Orange County in August.

“I think most people, they either get it or they don’t,” Desme said. “I didn’t do it expecting everyone to understand, but it’s something where I felt like God was calling me.”

His last organized baseball game was Saturday at Baggett Field, where he started at right field for the Mustangs alumni in the school’s annual exhibition opener against its former players.

Desme had two hits and drove in two runs in a 19-13 loss for the alumni in his final swings.

Desme, who turns 24 in April, doesn’t expect it to be too difficult putting down the bat and glove for the last time — with only intra-abbey softball in his spare time.

“I was doing well at ball. But I really had to get down to the bottom of things,” Desme told the Associated Press last month. “I wasn’t at peace with where I was at.”

He began playing T-ball at 5 years old. Four years at Stockdale High School in Bakersfield put him on a single track toward a baseball career. He wasn’t interested enough in his business major at Cal Poly to even consider it a backup plan.

Baseball consumed everything.

Former Stockdale High baseball coach Dan Lemon, who has been with the team since the school opened in 1991 and puts Desme among the four best players he’s ever coached, recalled asking his shortstop what he would major in at San Diego State University, the college Desme committed to out of high school.

“He said, ‘Baseball,’ ” Lemon said, “and I thought, ‘Hey, this is what he wants to do.’ ”

Lemon said Desme was the only player asking to take ground balls before every practice and would work out on his own when practice ended.

“He was a decent player,” recalled his father, Greg Desme. “But it wasn’t like you looked at that guy saying, ‘He’s going to be a Major League player one day.’ Every day, he just worked on his skills and got better. He worked hard at his craft.”

When Grant Desme transferred to Cal Poly in his sophomore year, he was moved out of the infield because Mustangs coach Larry Lee decided — and Desme acknowledges — that he wasn’t good enough to play there.

So he put all of his energy into playing right field without complaint.

“Everything Grant did, he did 100 percent, and he didn’t talk about it,” Cal Poly hitting coach Jesse Zepeda said.

“I think a lot of younger players, they have to say things and build themselves up verbally rather than letting their game speak for themselves.”

Greg Desme said, “That’s part of his personality. He’s more likely to stand back, and he’s always been a hard worker, but he was never one to brag or try to bring notice to himself.”

During his junior season at Cal Poly in 2007, Grant Desme was hitting .405 with 15 home runs and 53 RBI, when he broke his wrist and missed the final two weeks. After the season, he was selected by Oakland in the second round of the amateur draft.

Shoulder problems sidelined him in 2008, and with the expanse of free time, he began thinking seriously about the seminary.

Those who knew Desme more closely, such as his former teammates at Cal Poly, say they better understand his decision, noting that he was clearly religious while attending Cal Poly.

In 2005, he wrote a letter to the editor of the Mustang Daily, the Cal Poly student newspaper, defending the Catholic Church to a college columnist who had attacked it. In the letter, the former altar boy from Bakersfield displayed a working knowledge of the path to priesthood.

In 2009, Desme was rated as one of Oakland’s top 10 prospects, and the former Big West Conference Player of the Year was the only minor leaguer to hit more than 30 home runs and steal more than 40 bases while he played for both of the A’s single-A teams.

Desme said his solid season ultimately made the decision easier in the end.

Even such excitable production in the minors couldn’t compare to the inspiration he felt at the thought of devoting himself to the church.

For example, Desme’s 10-homer streak in 10 days during his MVP campaign in the Arizona Fall League — a postseason convention of some of baseball’s top prospects — was not nearly as inspiring to him as his more recent trip to Rome.

“I treated it like a pilgrimage,” Desme said, “just seeing the history of the church and being able to pray at the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul.”

In August, Desme will join St. Michael’s Abbey in Silverado to embark on the near-decadelong process of becoming a priest, presumably taking the same work ethic that turned him from a high school shortstop into a rising Major League outfield prospect.

Greg Desme said he wasn’t surprised by his son’s decision to enter the priesthood, citing his selfless attitude and religious devotion.

“He’s just planning to walk away from all the money and everything else,” Greg Desme said. “Again, his actions speak louder than his words.”