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He’s a major-league pitcher — and a plumber — whose faith helps keep him focused

Detroit Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer discusses his faith and how it influences his life decisions, such as working as a plumber in the offseason, in an interview with Religion News Service at Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas, on Tuesday, May 8, 2018. RNS photo by Ron Hadfield

ARLINGTON, Texas (RNS) — It’s not hard to stay humble when you’re unclogging a toilet.

Or when you’re throwing gopher balls to Miracle League ballplayers swinging for the fences.

At least that’s how Detroit Tigers ace Michael Fulmer, who works part-time as a plumber in the offseason and serves as a mentor to adults with developmental disabilities, describes his approach to living out his Christian faith.

“It’s a way for me to stay levelheaded,” said the 25-year-old right-hander of his part-time gig with Cyrus Wright Plumbing in his home state of Oklahoma.

Fulmer has emerged as one of baseball’s top young pitchers, winning the American League Rookie of the Year award in 2016 and earning a spot on the AL All-Star team in 2017. He has a 3.46 ERA in 58 career starts, and his fastball regularly touches 97 mph.

If you’re not a baseball aficionado, simply consider this: Now in his third season, Fuller will earn $575,000 this year.

Detroit Tigers right-hander Michael Fulmer pitches against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Comerica Park in Detroit on April 1, 2018. Fulmer took the loss in the 1-0 game despite giving up only one earned run in eight innings pitched. Photo by Mark Cunningham, courtesy of Detroit Tigers

In a Religion News Service interview during the Tigers’ three-game series with the Texas Rangers earlier this week, Fulmer said his goal — win or lose — is “to preach the Lord’s name.”

As Fulmer stepped to the mound at Globe Life Park for his start Monday (May 7), he couldn’t help but notice a special group of fans in the right-field corner.

Wings, a Christian nonprofit, offers vocational, social and residential programs for adults with developmental disabilities. The organization, based in Edmond, Okla., chartered a bus for 43 members and parents to make the 450-mile round trip to see Fulmer — one of the ministry’s biggest supporters — pitch.

Tigers pitchers Michael Fulmer, left, and Daniel Norris are among a number of Detroit players who speak openly about their Christian faith. As a 16-year-old high school student, Norris was baptized in his baseball uniform. Photo by Mark Cunningham, courtesy of Detroit Tigers

Holding signs spangled with large letters and hearts, the group in the stands spelled out this message for Fulmer and his wife: “Wings loves Michael (and) Kelsey.”

“For them to make that three-hour trip — it was just a blessing to be able to see them every time I walked out to the mound,” Fulmer said.

The game itself did not turn out as Fulmer had hoped: Through a dominant first five innings, he allowed only one hit — a Nomar Mazara home run. But in the sixth, he lost his groove and gave up four more earned runs. Detroit lost the game, 7-6.

Fulmer still made time to greet the Wings group after the game, according to Randy Webb, a lay youth ministry leader at Crossings Community Church, an evangelical megachurch in Oklahoma City. Webb has known Fulmer since the pitcher, a native of Lafayette, La., moved to Oklahoma in the eighth grade.

“That wasn’t a very Michael-like performance. He was probably very upset and frustrated with himself and his game,” said Webb, who officiated at Fulmer’s wedding to his high school sweetheart, Kelsey, two years ago. “But he always comes out and talks to them.

“They just love him, and he knows every one of them by name, and Kelsey does, too,” Webb added about the annual trip the group has taken to a game featuring Fulmer.

“Michael and Kelsey epitomize the love of Christ and the giving and servant heart of Christ.”

Members of Wings, a Christian nonprofit that offers social, vocational and residential programs for adults with developmental disabilities, pose with Detroit Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer after a game at Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas, in August 2017. Photo provided by Randy Webb

Fulmer said he is just one of a number of Tigers players committed to Jesus. On a recent Sunday in Kansas City, Mo., 13 Detroit players showed up for the informal prayer service known as Baseball Chapel, he said.

On May 12, Fulmer will be among a half-dozen players — also including catcher James McCann, third baseman Jeimer Candelario and pitchers Matt Boyd, Buck Farmer and Daniel Norris — sharing their testimonies at an annual Christian outreach event called “Home Plate,” which is expected to draw thousands of fans to Comerica Park in Detroit.

Norris, who is on the disabled list, was baptized in his baseball uniform as a 16-year-old high school player — a fact that surprised Fulmer.

“I haven’t talked to him about that,” Fulmer said. “That’s awesome.”

Fulmer first connected with Wings about eight years ago, while still in high school.

Webb invited him to serve as a “buddy” for a Miracle League baseball game played by children and adults with mental and physical handicaps.

“They found out I was a pitcher, and so I’d actually go there and start pitching to them during the game,” Fulmer recalled. “They would hit home runs off of me and trash talk and this and that, and then once I made it to the big leagues, they were all watching me on TV and stuff.”

Fulmer is a quiet, private person, but he has a real passion for serving people with special needs, said Cheri Weaver, a former children’s pastor who serves as Wings’ executive director.

“I feel like the light of Jesus shines through him,” Weaver said. “He doesn’t see a difference in people. He wants people to live their life to their fullest potential. And I think he’s very, very humble.”

Members of Wings, a Christian nonprofit that offers social, vocational and residential programs for adults with developmental disabilities, show their appreciation for Detroit Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer and his wife, Kelsey. The group from Wings, based in Edmond, Okla., came to see Fulmer pitch at Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas, on May 7, 2018. Photo provided by Randy Webb

That attitude plays into Fulmer’s choice of offseason work. Plumbing, an art he’s still learning, keeps him from coasting in the months when he’s not getting on the mound every five days. “You can never be satisfied, with your talent on the field or how close you are to Christ,” he said.

“It just goes back to his faith,” Webb said. “He has a servant heart.

“He trusts that God has a plan for him and will direct him in his path. He doesn’t have the pride, and I think that’s one thing that would separate him from other major leaguers.”

At the same time, Webb stressed, “He’s a competitor, a bulldog, and he’s going to get it done. And God has gifted him with a great arm. When you throw it at 98, that helps.”

Despite his competitiveness, Fulmer’s wife has joked that learning how to install a sink by himself gave him a bigger thrill than winning Rookie of the Year.

The pitcher chuckled at that notion.

“I was very shocked that I could put in a whole new sink by myself,” he told RNS. “I would have never thought I would be handy enough to do it. But it was something really cool. My boss, Larry Wright, went to go do another job and left me there in charge.”

If his plumbing prowess is a surprise, neither did Fulmer expect the kind of success he has enjoyed on a baseball diamond.

“I exceeded my expectations just getting to the big leagues, honestly,” he said. “I’m just trying to stay humble and keep learning. I just try to never take a day for granted. It’s just a dream come true to be up here.”

About the author

Bobby Ross Jr.

24 Comments

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  • Somebody, help me, but what does this mean: “[One of the] Tigers pitchers … Daniel Norris … was baptized in his baseball uniform”?

    To which “Detroit Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer … [then] said … ‘That’s awesome.'” I don’t get it: why is that “awesome”?

  • People of all stripes use the term “awesome” very loosely these days. It goes back to an old Nissan commercial in the 1970’s. It usually means little or nothing, and I don’t use it.

  • Well OK, then. Going by one idiomatic expression voiced over what “Detroit Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer … said”, what “Daniel Norris … [being] baptized in his baseball uniform” would’ve meant in “the 1960s [was] anything from ‘good’ to ‘incredibly amazing’.” Since “the early 1980s”, however, it was “through … the Frank / Moon Unit Zappa song Valley Girl [in which] the characters [are] depicted using surfer / valley girl type slang [that] the current use of the word AWESOME took hold from there.”

    I had to look up the lyrics for how “AWESOME” is used. WOW what a Christian baptismal testimony that must’ve been, then! – for here it is by comparison or mirror-image, in terms of spiritual significance. ENJOY.

    “Hi, I have to go to the orthodontist. I’m getting my braces off, y’know. But I have to wear a retainer. That’s going to be really, like, a total bummer. I’m freaking out, I’m sure. Like, those things that, like, stick in your mouth. They’re so gross. You, like, get saliva all over them. But, like, I don’t know. It’s going to be cool, y’know. You guys might see my smile.
    It’ll be, like, really cool. Except my, like, my teeth are, like, too small. But no biggie. It’s so AWESOME. It’s like tubular, y’know”.

    So – finally – thanks to you, brother – I get it now as to why, upon hearing that “[one of the] Tigers pitchers … Daniel Norris … was baptized in his baseball uniform … Detroit Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer … [then] said … ‘That’s AWESOME.'”

    Because: “It’s like tubular, y’know”!

    Source: Tom Harrington, “Where Did the Word ‘Awesome’ Originate and When Did It Become a Popular Term in the U.S.?”, Quora, January 3, 2012.

  • I think my citation of 1970’s Nissan commercials (which I remember quite well) predates your citation, but the point is the same, it is the minimalization (sic) of a term that should be used sparingly and properly applied only to the things of God. 🙂

  • This is good; in that finally it’s to the point. Because, does that mean “”Daniel Norris … [being] baptized in his baseball uniform” isn’t of “the things of God”?

  • I appreciate the sarcasm.

    Note, however, there’s a missing letter n in “That’s a awesome explanation.”

    That’s not a note of sarcasm. But a born-again Christisn acceptance that you don’t feel like talking.

  • I don’t think it’s awesome, but then I’m not a young baseball player. I wouldn’t worry about it. People use ‘awesome’ the way my generation used ‘cool.’ It’s become kind of an all-purpose adjective.

  • Thanks for your thoughts. They made me wonder what it would have been like had I, an 18-year old newly born-again Christian, been dunked in my good old church baptismal – while in my soccer uniform. Perish the thought! OMG perish that un-awesome thought!

  • Jesus was baptized by a guy wearing camel skin. I doubt he cares too much about baptismal wardrobe choices.

  • In Jesus’s day, was there any baptismal wardrobe? I thought you were supposed to go in naked. At least that’s how it is in the Jewish ritual bath that baptism comes from.

  • Focus, please, focus. In terms of this article, what John the Baptist was wearing when he baptized Jesus, is as irrelevant as what the baptizer of Daniel Norris was wearing. If you wanna compare what Jesus was wearing to the “baseball uniform” that Norris was wearing during baptism, LET’S. But since you brought it up, what of it? What’s your angle on the Lord’s “baptismal wardrobe choices”?

  • Interesting.

    That Massada sect (I forgot the name – Essenes? with the Dead Sea Scrolls?) did it that way, too?

  • My focus, focus, focus is just fine, thanks. My point is simply that Jesus cares more about people being baptized than what they wear while doing it. So do I.

  • Yes I believe so. Josephus wrote that the Essenes immersed themselves at the beginning of each day. It has been suggested, although there’s no direct evidence, that John the Baptist was an Essene. However, archaeologists recently uncovered a ritual bath (mikveh) dating to the first century CE in Ein Kerem, a village (now part of the Jerusalem municipality) that Christians have traditionally ascribed as being John’s hometown.
    The group that committed mass suicide at Masada in the face of a siege from the Romans toward the end of the first Roman-Jewish war (70s CE) was not related to the Essenes, although Masada is only a few miles from the Dead Sea (it’s a small country). These were the Sicarii, a splinter group from the larger Zealot faction.

  • If “Jesus cares more about people being baptized than what they wear while doing it”, would He, like “Detroit Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer”, call it “awesome” if and only if they, like, “[one of the] Tigers pitchers … Daniel Norris … [were] baptized in [their] baseball uniform”?

    But now, if my fellow born-again Christian brother, Michael Fulmer, “cares more about [Daniel Norris] being baptized than what [he did] wear while doing it”, why, then, did he say, “That’s awesome”?

  • Thanks for this, which led me, just now, to this biblical archaeological journey via:

    (1) Nir Hasson, “Jerusalem Family Finds 2,000-year Old Mikveh Underneath Living Room: They hesitated about calling in the authorities for some years, during which they simply lived above the Second Temple-era ritual bath”, Haaretz, July 1, 2015.

    (2) Associated Press, “Ancient Jewish ritual bath discovered in Jerusalem”, The Telegraph, July 2, 2015.

  • Such baptism may well be trivial with respect to the uniform, clearly it had meaning for the baptisee’. The question was rather about the trivialization of the term “Awesome.” The baptism itself might be considered awesome apart from the uniform, but you could hardly expect a newly baptized believer to appreciate the fine distinctions of the faith, milk is for infants, meat for the mature.

  • ‘Nuff said. The following says it all.

    “The 16-year-old pitching PHENOM stepped into the baptistery wearing his high school baseball uniform. Fresh dirt stains splotched his white uniform pants as Daniel Norris crept barefoot into the water to confess his faith in Jesus Christ and be immersed for the forgiveness of sins. … ‘This is something that Daniel has been thinking about, and a lot of people have been praying about, for a long time,’ Tim Haywood told a small group of family and friends at the Central Church of Christ, Norris’ home congregation in the East Tennessee mountain community of Johnson City. … Norris, now 22 and a starting pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, made the decision to be BAPTIZED AFTER A REGIONAL TOURNAMENT WIN FOR HIS HOMETOWN SCIENCE HILL HIGH SCHOOL … ‘We had just won, and OBVIOUSLY, the glory always goes to God,’ Norris recalled in an interview with The Christian Chronicle. ‘FOR SOME REASON, IT JUST CLICKED. I said, “You know, right now is when I’m going to do it.”‘ … Norris wore his uniform into the water not to show how much baseball meant to him but to acknowledge ‘God blessed me in my ability to play. I saw it as kind of a way TO SHOW GOD, “Hey, I see what you’re doing with baseball. This is AN OPPORTUNITY to give you glory,”‘ said Norris”.

    Source: Bobby Ross Jr., “Why Detroit Tigers pitcher Daniel Norris was baptized in his baseball uniform: One of the major leagues’ top young prospects, Norris seeks to give all the glory to God”, Christian Chronicle, September 21, 2015.

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