Fall 2021 SS Magazine

New York Yankees' draft pick Gerrit van Zijll on journey from Lyme disease to pro baseball: 'God is full of miracles'

Gerrit van Zijll first knew something was wrong less than a month into his college career at Cameron University in Oklahoma, in 2015. Van Zijll was taking a quiz in one of his classes, and even though he had always been a good student, and had studied for this quiz, couldn’t remember any of the answers. He got a zero, left the class, and immediately called his mom and told her “something is wrong.”

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Van Zijll had received a scholarship to play baseball for the NCAA Division II school, but as his symptoms worsened, van Zijll had problems remembering recent events, severe headaches and chronic fatigue. When multiple doctors told him he needed brain surgery, van Zijll began to wonder if he’d ever play any sport again.

“I was 18 or 19 at the time,” van Zijll recently told the “MLB Roundtrip w/ PG” podcast. “And I go from ‘I’m a college student’ to ‘I need brain surgery.’ At that point I believed in Jesus … but I wasn’t following Him. … We had no idea what was happening. [Looking back] you really see God showing up throughout my life even though I wasn’t following Him.”

Gerrit’s mother asked the doctors if it made more sense for the surgery to happen in his hometown of Houston, and they agreed. However, the doctors in Houston told van Zijll he didn’t need brain surgery at all, but they weren’t sure what was wrong with him. Gerrit saw 26 doctors over the span of eight months, but none of them brought him closer to a cause. It wasn’t until a friend who specialized in natural medicines mentioned a possible cause that van Zijll found the answer: He had Lyme disease.

Gerrit took antibiotics for a year, but to no effect. The natural medicines he tried were similarly ineffective. He was so fatigued, each day consisted of waking up, playing video games and then going back to bed — a lifestyle van Zijll says might sound ideal to some people, but is torture for someone whose body is craving physical activity.

“That took me to 2017,” van Zijll recalls, “when God really kicked down my door. [God said,] ‘Garrett I’ve been trying to get you to see you can have a relationship with My Son Jesus, would you come? Would you follow Me?’ I started attending a new church called Antioch Community Church in Houston, and it absolutely transformed my life. I couldn’t stop reading the Bible after the first service [I attended]. I had this itch. I wanted to know more. When I read the book of John, and saw how Jesus treats people who are trying to kill him … I said, ‘That’s the kind of love I want to follow. Why would I waste another day of my life living for anything other than His glory?’”

For the next year, van Zijll grew spiritually, even while his dream of playing baseball seemed impossibly far away. Then, in a moment he describes as the Holy Spirit speaking to him, van Zijll felt God told him to step back into baseball. This didn’t make any sense to him. He knew his body couldn’t handle the strain, and that no colleges would be interested in a player with Lyme disease. A friend told van Zijll she thought baseball had become an idol God was calling him to give up. He eventually agreed and told God to do whatever he wanted with Gerrit’s career.

“[It was] the hardest prayer,” van Zijll said. “[I told] Jesus, ‘I just want to do what You want me to do. If that means no baseball so be it.’ I have literally given the Guy who spoke the world into existence my life. I might never play! Two weeks later I had a brand-new pitching coach and was back with the weight trainer who was with me since [I contracted] Lyme disease.”

Gerrit eventually landed a spot with Alvin Community College. He nearly quit after one of his first practices, when his body couldn’t handle the summer heat, but the team’s coach told him to stay, that they believed in his potential. Three years had passed since van Zijll last played, and his fastball had never been dominant, even when at full strength. In his first intrasquad game, van Zijll remembers asking God for a fastball that hit 90mph, as a sign that God was with him in the decision to keep playing.

“I throw to a couple hitters and the coach calls me over,” van Zijll remembers. “’Gerrit, how hard do you throw?’ [the coach asked,] and I said, ‘Well coach, I have been throwing 88 but I felt pretty good today and was hoping to hit 90.’ And coach said, ‘You threw 93 and never dropped below 90.’”

The next month, Gerrit received a call from his doctor telling him his blood test came back free of all signs of Lyme disease. After a stellar year at Alvin Community College, van Zijll entered the MLB draft, and was prepared to transfer to Texas Tech if he went undrafted. Instead, last week, the New York Yankees picked van Zijll in the 22nd round, the 675th overall pick.

It’s another journey in the remarkable, miraculous journey van Zijll says he’s been on. And in interviews, he’s quick to mention whom he credits for that journey.

“God is full of miracles and love and grace,” van Zijll said. “That’s what my life is about.”

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