As the rain clouds dispersed over Madison High before a recent Saturday afternoon game, a throng of pro scouts in a rainbow of Major League Baseball caps crowded along the backstop, eyes focused on two seniors who may not even be playing baseball in two years.
By committing to Brigham Young University last summer over the likes of defending NCAA champion Virginia and Liberty, Madison standout seniors Pete Nielsen and Matt Favero demonstrated the importance of their Mormon faith. Per custom, the cousins plan to step away from the sport following their freshman year at BYU to take a two-year mission, just as their older brothers did.
But following a strong showing against stout talent in March’s Sarasota Classic and as more scouts flock to their games during top-ranked Madison’s Virginia 6A state title defense, Nielsen and Favero’s shared dream of playing pro baseball is now dangling before them. With every diving play by Nielsen at shortstop and every glove-punching strike thrown by Favero, their draft potential elevates, leaving the teenagers to wrestle with a decision that has no easy answer.
“If it’s there, if it’s the right situation, I want to go and sign to play pro baseball because that’s been my dream,” said Nielsen, who is batting .344 with 14 RBI and 14 runs scored in 13 games this spring for the Vienna school. “It’s just kind of big opportunities on both sides. I’m excited for what I’m going to do. I just don’t really know what’s going to happen.”
In 2014, former Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Jeremy Guthrie became the first Mormon to have served as a missionary and later pitch in a World Series. And as reigning National League MVP Bryce Harper speaks openly about his Mormon faith, the religion’s profile seemingly has been raised in the game in recent years.
Though the mission is strongly encouraged for Mormon men between the ages of 18 and 25, it is not required of all members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Married couples can also serve a mission, and there is no age requirement if certain conditions are met.) The decision weighed heavily on Harper, a Sports Illustrated cover boy before he was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 MLB draft. But ultimately, he decided his mission rested on the diamond.
“Coming up to the draft and trying to make that decision, I always thought that my Heavenly Father upstairs always just wanted me to be a walking Book of Mormon, you could say,” Harper, 23, said in an interview last fall. “I knew that I could touch a lot of people’s lives playing and trying to be the best Mormon that I can be on and off the field.”
With each new pro team that makes contact with Nielsen, he finds himself considering a similar path. The number is around 15 by the switch-hitting senior’s last count, some of whom have compared Nielsen to Nationals infielder Ryan Zimmerman for his athleticism, maturity and swing. The 10 extra pounds he added during his first true foray into the weight room last offseason has also helped, even after he elected to forgo most of the summer showcase circuit.
“One scout said Pete is a rare kid in that he’s a true infielder with his hands, feet and arm strength,” said Jim McNamara, a former pro baseball player and current agent who is serving as an adviser for Nielsen and Favero. “There’s a lot of excitement to see a kid with the maturity and feel he has for the position at this age.”
While Nielsen’s courting intensifies, his cousin has yet to hear from those same teams. The scouts frequently fixing radar guns in Favero’s direction have clocked his fastball just under the magic number of 90 mph. But at 6 feet 4 and 225 pounds, the left-hander has demonstrated command on the mound (4-1 record with a 1.42 ERA, 35 strikeouts and just four walks) and at the plate, where he recorded a walk-off RBI in last year’s state championship.
“Whenever he pitches, we know something great is going to happen,” Warhawks Coach Mark “Pudge” Gjormand said.
With a scholarship in hand to BYU, which has produced 23 pro baseball players, according to baseball-almanac.com, Favero tries not to dwell on such things. He draws security from two sources: his brother Nate, a BYU third baseman who is hitting .347 as a sophomore after returning from his mission to Chile, and the improbable journey of Guthrie.
“On one hand, the chance to play with my brother and get my education is something I don’t want to throw away, because once you get drafted, it’s harder to get back into that,” Favero said. “And when I get back from my mission trip, I’d be draft eligible, so the opportunity will be there. It’s a lot to think about.”
As a 19-year-old from Oregon, Guthrie turned down a $650,000 signing bonus from the New York Mets in 1997 to enroll at BYU and take his mission. At the time, he was told he would never make it back into baseball. After serving two years in Spain and then transferring to Stanford, where he pitched in the College World Series, the 23-year-old Guthrie was chosen 22nd overall by Cleveland in 2002.
“Becoming a pro baseball player is extremely difficult, and money can make it difficult to keep your priorities in the right spot,” said Guthrie, now 37 and a veteran of four MLB franchises. “But if taking a mission trip is what a young person believes the Lord wants, I can promise you without a doubt that He won’t take baseball away if you make a huge sacrifice early on to share His gospel.”
Seeing that Guthrie and Harper could take different paths to the majors while remaining committed to their faith resonates with Favero and Nielsen. Just how much influence it will carry with pro teams will become clear during June’s 40-round amateur draft.
Gjormand said he fields more questions about Nielsen’s choice of BYU over defending CWS champ Virginia than the cousins’ mission plans. But both topics bring the Madison coach to the same conclusion.
“Maybe it’s a subject people don’t want to ask about, but their faith is important to them and their families, and that’s how I know they’ll make the right choice,” Gjormand said. “It’s a win-win situation.”
Chelsea Janes contributed to this report.