Blake Treinen stood on the mound at Nationals Park in Washington D.C. in the sixth inning of the 2018 All-Star Game. It was exactly two years ago — July 17, 2018 — and he tugged on his green and gold Oakland A’s hat as he intensely stared in for the sign. Pitching from the stretch, Treinen lifted his left leg to his waist, twisted his front knee slightly back and calmly unfurled his 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame toward home plate, unleashing a 99 mph four-seam fastball past Cincinnati Reds slugger Joey Votto.
The pitch took less than four-tenths of a second to reach home plate. Yet in reality, the pitch was 30 years in the making — a journey that began in a small town in Kansas and faced many twists and turns along the way to this All-Star moment.
“I didn’t think I was going to have a chance to be an All-Star, I was just trying to stay in the big leagues as long as I could,” Blake reflected later. “And it is just funny how God spun it back around for my first All-Star game to be back in D.C. (where he played for three seasons before a trade to Oakland in 2017).”
Dr. Pepper, Diabetes and Dodgeball
A baseball is made up of cork, wrapped in yarn and covered in cowhide. Of the 7 billion people on the planet, not many humans can throw a baseball faster than Blake Treinen. Blessed by God with this gift to throw a fastball, you would assume that Blake’s journey to the major leagues was filled with rooms of trophies, a mailbox full of scholarship offers and first-round draft pick bonus money. Yet none of these things were part of Blake’s experience. He faced more difficulties than successes for most of his young baseball career.
Blake’s trials began at an early age one day while just a toddler. He fell while carrying a clay pot and cut his thumb on his right throwing hand so severely that it had to be re-attached. A few years later, Blake’s dad, Tim, grew concerned that his young son wasn’t athletically inclined. Blake struggled with learning how to catch a baseball. A few weeks later, though, Blake received his first pair of glasses, and much to Tim Treinen’s surprise, Blake was suddenly able to catch everything thrown to him.
From there, Blake’s baseball skills began to grow as he starred as a hard-throwing pitcher for his youth league teams. His dad often coached him and resisted pushing Blake too hard in baseball, often limiting him to 30 pitches per outing and saying no to the travel-ball opportunities that came Blake’s way.
In Blake’s freshmen year of high school, he threw a no-hitter in his first game. But Blake’s love for baseball began to wane. Most of his friends in the small town of Osage City, Kansas (population: 2,943), played basketball. In fact, in his freshmen year, he was the only ninth grader to try out for the school baseball team. So after one year of high school baseball, Blake decided to hang up his cleats.
With more down time on his hands, Blake spent the cold Midwest winters indoors and developed a taste for two-liter bottles of Dr. Pepper. At one point as a teen, Blake struggled with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and was diagnosed with borderline Type 2 Diabetes. He developed the nickname “Stake” because he was short and squat. Again, Blake’s parents grew concerned. His mom, Grete, intervened, telling him, “You got to get this in check, Blake. You’re getting close to where you’re going to be a diabetic. You got to make changes in yourself.”
Blake listened and began eating better and taking long runs around the neighborhood. His diet and exercise change led him to lose weight, and he grew six inches during his junior year of high school. One day in P.E. class while playing dodgeball, he noticed the ball jumping out of his hand with increased velocity. This gave Blake the idea that maybe he should give baseball another chance.
He rejoined the Osage City Indians baseball team and quickly regained his pitching form. Unfortunately, Blake didn’t have any college scholarship offers, but through a friend of a friend he landed at Baker University, a NAIA school in Baldwin City, about 100 miles north of his hometown. Blake didn’t get much of an opportunity at Baker, appearing in just three games for the junior varsity team his freshmen year. Imagine a future MLB All-Star struggling to find playing time on the JV roster of his college team? This is where Blake found himself as an 18-year-old.
Not wanting his parents to pay for the expense of a private school, Blake decided to enroll at the University of Arkansas for his sophomore year with the goal of studying landscape architecture, and with the dream of making the Razorbacks’ baseball squad. Blake heard about an open tryout for the team, but when he showed up on the day of the tryout, he was told by the Arkansas baseball office, “We don’t hold open tryouts.”
Discouraged and away from home, Blake went back to Kansas over the Christmas break for a much-needed time of refreshment. It was during this winter break that he participated in a pitching camp. He was older than all other participants, but his dream of playing baseball was still something he couldn’t shake.
The camp director was Don Czyz, a former University of Kansas pitcher who went on to play in the minor leagues. Czyz was impressed with the raw skills Treinen possessed and called in a favor to a buddy, who pointed Treinen to South Dakota State. Czyz’s connections led to an opportunity for Blake to walk on at SDSU.
How did Treinen survive three colleges in three years? “I think being raised in a Christian household helped prepare me for the adversity along the way,” Treinen said.
After his junior year, Blake decided to play baseball with Athletes in Action (AIA). AIA baseball takes college players and forms teams that not only play summer-league baseball games, but also share their personal testimonies of faith in Jesus with the teams they compete against.
“We were learning how to write and share our testimonies of following Jesus, and honestly before that point, I had heard the word ‘testimony,’ but I didn’t really know what it meant. I believe I was saved, I just didn’t really have that character-defining moment with my faith,” Treinen explained.
Blake didn’t realize it at the time, but God was preparing him for an important chapter in his story.
Canceled Contracts, Chaplains and Chevys
Blake thought he would play with an Athletes in Action team the entire summer, but then he received a welcome phone call in June. It was the Florida Marlins, telling Blake they had drafted him in the 23rd round of the 2010 MLB Amateur Draft. Blake’s summer plans suddenly changed. He was about to become a professional baseball player.
But the dream quickly turned into a nightmare when Blake’s physical with the Marlins showed he had inflammation in his pitching shoulder. The Marlins rescinded their contract offer to Blake and gave him a one-way ticket home from Miami to Kansas.
Blake sat in disbelief waiting in a parking lot for a taxi to the airport. He made three phone calls as he waited in Miami for his flight home. The first was to his parents to break the news. The second was to his college baseball coach to see if he could return to SDSU for his senior year, despite signing a pro contract. The third phone call was to the chaplain of the AIA team, where his summer began. When the chaplain picked up the phone, Blake said, “Look, man, I don’t know what to do, I’m kind of struggling right now.”
The Athletes in Action chaplain comforted Blake with a passage from the book of Proverbs. He told Blake, “Hey I am really sorry, I don’t know what to say. The only thing that comes to mind is this verse, Proverbs 3:5-6, which tells us, ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to Him, and He will make your paths straight.'” Blake thanked the chaplain and headed to the airport to make the long trip home.
Blake’s parents made the trek from their home to the Kansas airport to pick up their dejected son. On the way home, Blake began telling them about his experiences in Florida and also how the AIA chaplain had shared Proverbs 3:5-6 with him. As Blake and his parents drove through Kansas in the middle of the night, a red Chevrolet drove past them with a personalized license plate. The license plate had the words “PROV356,” referencing the very Bible passage the AIA chaplain had shared with Blake a few hours earlier.
“It was a sign to me that God was trying to reach out to me,” Blake said. “I think it is funny, the timing of God with my career at that moment to pull me through that fire and show me, ‘Here is what it means to have a testimony, and you will have some adversity along the way,’ and He will show His faithfulness.”
“God has opened doors and He wants me to compete and ultimately, in every way, shape and form possible, how can I honor and glorify God in this moment, with this talent? Because ultimately as a Christian athlete, I am called to understand where my talent comes from. As Jesus says, ‘The humbled will be exalted, the exalted will be humbled.’”
— Blake Treinen
Marriage, Major Leagues and Maturity
After a being reinstated at SDSU and having a successful senior season, Major League Baseball came calling again, this time with the Oakland Athletics selecting Blake in the seventh round of 2011 draft. Blake worked his way up the ranks of the A’s minor-league system until a trade in 2013 sent him to the Washington Nationals. It was with the Nationals where Blake received his first call-up to the majors in 2014.
In his second season, he was sent down to the minors. It was a frustrating time, but Blake had picked up a valuable teammate for life since his college days — his wife, Kati. She had also grown up in a small town and was a star athlete in high school, being named Idaho High School Basketball Player of the Year in both her junior and senior seasons. Her successful high school career led to stints at Walla Walla Junior College and Boise State, where she broke several scoring records. Kati’s successful athletic career and strong faith in Christ spurred on Blake during his low points in the majors.
“As an athlete, she understands our schedule. She always encourages me through the Word, to trust the process, to trust the Lord,” Blake said. “She always texts me Scripture before games and lets me know she loves me and that she is praying for me.”
Kati and Blake were touched by a sermon on Psalm 23 from one of their pastors during the offseason of 2015.
“He talked about the verse, ‘He makes me lie down in green pastures.’ He explained it doesn’t mean the grass is always greener on the other side, it means that God has you somewhere for a purpose, so enjoy where He has you, be thankful for where you are,” Blake said. “So our approach in 2016 was to just be thankful for where God has us and I don’t think that it was a coincidence that was when my major league career began taking off.”
Blake’s attitude of thankfulness and gratitude led to successful seasons in 2016 and 2017 with the Nationals before he was traded back to the Oakland A’s in July 2017. He said he experienced a peace upon hearing he had been traded back to the team that had drafted him in 2011.
It was with the Athletics that Blake’s spiritual and athletic maturity all came together in perfect harmony in 2018. His stats at the end of the season read like numbers from a video game. He had a win-loss record of 9-2 with a career-high 38 saves and a career-low 0.78 ERA. He set a career-high with 100 strikeouts to become the first pitcher in major league history to save 30 games, compile an ERA under 1.00 and strike out 100 batters.
His earned run average was the lowest in major league history among pitchers with 80 or more innings since the earned run became an official statistic. By the numbers, it was the best season a relief pitcher has ever had in MLB history.
Blake had learned to trust God in the midst of trials, but what did it look like to trust God in the midst of one of the best seasons in history?
“Just trying to enjoy the season we are in and just be grateful,” he explains. “The best thing to do is to recognize that it is not by our own merit that we are having success. God has opened doors and He wants me to compete and ultimately, in every way, shape and form possible, how can I honor and glorify God in this moment, with this talent? Because ultimately as a Christian athlete, I am called to understand where my talent comes from. As Jesus says, ‘The humbled will be exalted, the exalted will be humbled.’”
After a down year in 2019 battling injuries and totaling only 59.2 innings pitched, Blake is now with the Los Angeles Dodgers, signing a one-year contract in December. The hectic day-to-day life of a professional baseball player doesn’t leave much room for time to look back, but Blake is grateful for what God has done so far in his life.
The Los Angeles Dodgers today signed right-handed pitcher Blake Treinen to a one-year contract. pic.twitter.com/6chFFO6dHY
— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) December 15, 2019
“All my experiences before, and even now, are continuing to shape my character,” he says. “It will be cool to tell these stories to my kids.”
Blake Treinen’s baseball journey of trials and triumphs certainly has more chapters to add, but one thing won’t change for the tall fire-balling right-hander: his trust in Jesus Christ.
“I know where my identity is found,” Treinen says.
Matt Doan is a Missions Pastor at Calvary Church in Santa Ana, California.
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