This story was published in the Spring 2015 Digital issue of Sports Spectrum.
Houston Astros pitcher Collin McHugh and his wife’s three-bedroom, three-bathroom house in the East Atlanta Village is more than a home. It’s a symbol.
Their five-year journey together through marriage has been anything but tranquil, but their new home seems to represent how far they’ve come and also how they’ve survived as a couple. In a sense, their house is a metaphor for the normalcy they’ve always craved—especially in the helter-skelter realm of professional athletics.
Other marriages might have fallen apart at the cost of following a dream; other dreams might have fallen apart in an effort to save the relationship. For the McHughs, however, somehow both have stayed in tact.
But it wasn’t easy.
Spring in Binghamton
Sitting on his front porch in Binghamton, New York in 2011, Collin McHugh remembers picking up his phone to call the director of his farm team, the Binghamton Mets. It was a beautiful, spring day in the northeast, but the peaceful weather did not match the turmoil brewing in his soul.
“I was just tired and lonely, and over it,” McHugh says. “I was just sitting there on my front porch and was thinking to myself, ‘This is it, I’ve got my bags packed and I’m ready to go.’”
After being drafted by the New York Mets in 2008, McHugh had gone up and down within the Mets farm system for three straight years. This particular instance, he had just gotten called up to Class AA after starting the season in Class A. He had decided that if he were sent back down to Class A, he would walk away from the game he loved.
“You just have so little control over anything in baseball,” McHugh says. “You control how you release the ball—and that’s it. You don’t control who wins, who loses, when you’re released, when you’re traded; nothing else is in your hands, so it kind of feels like a crapshoot a lot of times.”
If McHugh were still single, that’d be one thing—he’d have no problem continuing to pursue his dream of pitching consistently for an organization in Major League Baseball. But he wasn’t single; he was married. Upon getting drafted in 2008, he had married Ashley in 2009. But the first two years of their marriage, with McHugh hopping from team to team within the Mets development system, had been the exact opposite of newlywed bliss. This particular instance, when he was sitting on his porch in Binghamton, he hadn’t seen his wife for six weeks.
“She didn’t know whether to come see me, or if I was going to get sent back down, so we were kind of in this minor league limbo, which happens a lot more often than people would think,” McHugh says. “I remember saying, ‘I can’t do this anymore; it’s not worth it; I’m not a dumb person; I can go back to school, get a job, and provide for my family in another way.’”
What do you do when your passion is tearing you away from the person you love? Maybe it was time to go home, time for a change.
McHugh’s wife, family, and friends encouraged him otherwise.
“Stick it out through the rest of this year,” they told him. “Re-evaluate once the season is over.”
McHugh listened, and the second half of his season resulted in the most promise he’d seen in three long years. And on August 22, 2012, McHugh made his major league debut against the Colorado Rockies at Citi Field, where he pitched seven scoreless innings and totaled nine strikeouts. He only surrendered two hits and a walk, but still couldn’t get the win, as the Mets lost to the Rockies 1-0.
Despite McHugh’s solid start, his debut would end up being one of his best performances over the next three years.
He only started in three more big league games in 2012—posting a 7.59 ERA and 0-4 record on the mound—before he was demoted, once again, to the minor leagues.
The 2013 season was much of the same old story for McHugh. Hopping from team to team. Back and forth between the minors and majors. Even playing for two different organizations, the Mets and the Rockies. He only started in five MLB games in 2013, one with the Mets and four with the Rockies, posting a not-so-glamorous 10.29 ERA with the Mets and 9.95 ERA with the Rockies—still unable to win his first MLB game.
Once again, McHugh wondered what the impact was of the lifestyle he had chosen. In all, since being drafted in 2008, he had lived in 19 different places. Nineteen. Often, because McHugh’s lifestyle was so unpredictable, Ashley would remain home with her immediate family in Atlanta while McHugh was relocated from place to place.
“Most of all, it’s guilt—guilt for leaving your wife or your family or your friends,” McHugh says. “When you leave for spring training, you don’t come back for eight months, and it’s like, that’s it—it’s a whole season of that hanging over your head, of me saying to myself, ‘I know what I’m missing, birthdays and weddings, and the birth of my niece and all these things.’ It just starts to wear on you after a while; and when things are going poorly on the field, that’s when everything starts to culminate.”
McHugh’s struggles on the baseball field had thrown his marriage into an exhausting cycle. Why did they get married to begin with if they didn’t get to enjoy the perks of being married? They hardly saw one another, and it was as if they were living two separate lives.
“It was like living a single life under the restrictions of marriage,” McHugh says. “Our single friends around us were enjoying it, enjoying everything about it, dating and doing all of that stuff, and you are like, you start to question, ‘Why did we get married? What’s the point in this?’ I never questioned it to the point that I wished I wasn’t married. I always questioned, ‘Why am I playing baseball?’ I knew I wanted to be married—she was great and wonderful—but why am I torturing myself playing baseball and not being able to be with her and see her?
“For us, it was that internal struggle of, I know I want to be with this person because they are the person God made for me—I know that—but it just doesn’t seem logical. It doesn’t seem like it’s going to work. I want to be married to you, but did we make a mistake? Should we have waited? I would always come back to, ‘Well, I’ll just quit baseball; I’ll stop playing; it’ll be fine.’ She would say, ‘No, that’s your gift. It’s what you love doing, you’re really good at it, you’ve worked at it your entire life. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I told you to stop playing baseball if you want to be with me.’
“Was I taking things away from her? Or do I give up my dream so we can have the normal 9 to 5 [work day]—the more simple life with a simple job?”
Faith in the process
At the crux of all the big decisions McHugh and Ashley had to make during this time was their faith in Christ. Though the inconsistencies of the world they were living in might have tested their marriage and the survival of their dreams, they clung to the One who understood what they couldn’t understand.
A passage McHugh clung to in his lowest moments was Jeremiah 29:12-15: “’Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the LORD, ‘and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,’ declares the LORD, ‘and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.’”
Those verses, of course, follow the frequently quoted Jeremiah 29:11: “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”
The solution McHugh found in Scripture, however, had less to do with getting an answer to his prayers—rather, it had to do with resting in the presence of the One who could strengthen him in the process that him and his wife were enduring.
“For me, it always came back to the promise in Jeremiah, and a promise in my life that He has proved over and over again in every big decision I’ve had to make,” says McHugh. “When God says, ‘Seek me with all of your heart,’ literally every big decision I’ve had to make—where I’m asking God for wisdom for just a clear head about things—it always comes back to, ‘Seek me and you will find me when you seek me with all of your heart, and I will be found by you.’ Just the idea that God is never far off—His answer is never far off, even if things look super weird, like nothing is ever going to work out, the reality is that we will always have that line of communication with Him. It’s never cloaked, and it’s not conditional; it’s just the best, and it’s better than anything you can ask for. For me, that’s something I’ve always been able to go back to.”
You could say that it was their seeking of God and His presence in their lives that carried them through the havoc and confusion.
Then, following the disappointing 2013 season with the Rockies, McHugh received news that would change the direction of his career.
When the Houston Astros decided to pick up McHugh off waivers in December 2013, McHugh had to be wondering: Would this be any different than the other organizations, the Mets and the Rockies? Or would his sojourn to Texas result in the same inconsistencies and headaches professional baseball had caused him and his wife for nearly a half decade?
The Astros manager at the time, Bo Porter, told McHugh, “You belong here,” and the coaching staff mentioned to McHugh that the spin rate on his curveball was one of the highest in Major League Baseball.
“They said, ‘We believe in you, we have confidence in you, go do your thing,” McHugh told ESPN.
When McHugh got his first big league start for the Astros against Seattle on April 22, he took the mound with an 0-8 MLB record and had an 8.94 ERA—a summation of his rocky journey and struggles through professional baseball.
“Not many people cared about my story, and with good reason, because I hadn’t really done anything noteworthy,” McHugh says. “But I had a fresh start.”
In his debut, however, McHugh struck out 12 batters in 6 2/3 scoreless innings to earn his first MLB victory. His next start, McHugh took a one-hitter into the ninth inning.
“The coaching staff was really encouraging and great with sticking behind me,” McHugh says. “They were enjoying my story as much as we were, so it was a good marriage between the two.”
Overall, McHugh finished the season with an 11-9 record. He was especially hot the final two months of the season, when he made 10 starts and was 7-0 with a 1.77 ERA and 55 strikeouts.
Heading into 2015, ESPN writer David Schoenfield labeled McHugh as a sleeper 2015 Cy Young candidate in the upcoming season—quite the climb since everything he felt that spring day on his porch in Binghamton, four years prior.
“I kind of learned what it felt like when Jesus said, ‘Ye of little faith,’” McHugh reflects. “I didn’t lose my faith in Jesus being my savior (during those years in the minor leagues). I didn’t lose my faith in believing that God existed. I just kind of lost the faith that this was going anywhere, that this was going to be worth it. When this is all said and done, those are five years I’ll never get back—and will it end up being worth it?
“Now, you are able to look back, and I wouldn’t give back those five years for anything. In our five years of marriage, we feel like we’ve lived about 15. Most people who got a house and did the normal 9 to 5 might not deal with some things until 10 or 15 years down the road when there are kids in the picture—it’s harder. But the struggles really kind of give you a perspective. For me, it cemented my faith. I know it’s real. I know these things are real in my life. I’ve seen God’s provision amidst the struggle.”
In October 2014, following his stellar season with the Astros, McHugh and Ashley celebrated their five-year anniversary and also bought a house—their first time really having a place of their own after living in 19 different locations in a five-year span.
Still, as thankful as he is for the season he had and the sense of consistency he and Ashley have been given through their home, McHugh admits that if there’s one thing he’s learned, it’s this: baseball will always be baseball.
“It still feels the same in the sense that there is still such little control in the things that are going to happen,” McHugh says. “We are thinking about trying to have kids, and it’s been good to realize that it really is a gift from God if He decides He is going to give us one. Just to be able to rely on Him, the fact that that He fulfills His promises to you and that He is satisfying to the core when you have a relationship with Him. If I had a terrible year this year or got hurt this year or won the Cy Young or won the World Series, if any of these things happen, all the variables that could happen in baseball, it’s not going to change the way He feels about me, it’s not going to change anything. He cares about our desires—He wants to give us the desires of our heart—but the desires of our heart and how we work that out is not conditional about how He loves us. He loves us the whole way through.
“For me, this year, I’m just trying to enjoy the time God has given me to play this game that I really do love. Everything is kind of icing on the cake at this point. Obviously, I’m going to go out there and work my hardest, and give it everything that I have and try to do some great things in this game, but He has already given me so much that I want to tell people about it. I want to talk to my teammates and, you know, hear their stories, and see how God works in different ways for different people, see a bigger picture—hopefully that’s what I’ll be able to do with people when they hear this.”
By Stephen Copeland