In his first regular-season game after deciding to devote his life to God, Syracuse Chiefs outfielder Steven Souza went 0-for-5 with three strikeouts for Single-A Hagerstown.
“That’s when I let it go,” Souza said. “I said, ‘OK, I’m done. Wherever you want me to go, I’m going.’ And that allowed me to just play for his glory and take off.”
That was in the spring of 2012. Two years later, Souza, 25, is the Triple-A Chiefs’ best hitter (a .362 batting average with 15 home runs and 63 RBIs through July 19).
New Times reporter Matt Michael recently sat down with Souza to talk about his appearance in the Triple-A All-Star Game earlier this month, the Chiefs’ magical season, and how he turned to God to turn around his life and baseball career.
MM: What was it like playing in the Triple-A All-Star Game (July 16 in Durham, N.C.)?
SS: It was great to have my family out there (his mother, sister and aunt from Seattle). Durham did a really good job accommodating them and they just did a terrific job of keeping things organized and the events just ran really smoothly. So it made the process really smooth and made it fun to be around.
MM: Had your family seen you play this year?
SS: My mother and my sister were just in Syracuse in June, and my aunt had never seen me play during the season. It’s funny, I was telling my mom before the game that in my two previous (minor-league) all-star games I was 0-for-4, so I needed to break that goose egg.
MM: You did, with a double that drove in one run. You also made a diving catch to save a run. Which one was more exciting for you?
SS: I would say the catch. Anytime you can make a good defensive play, whether it’s in the all-star game or in a regular-season game, it’s fun to help the pitcher out. And there was a runner on second base, so to save a run in that inning for us was big (Souza’s International League all-stars were leading 4-1 at the time and won 7-3).
MM: So what has been the key to your success this season?
SS: I think giving up my life to God and just playing for him. Enjoying the game and playing to bring glory to him has allowed the pressure of the game to escape me. And it’s allowed me to go out and use the abilities he gave me and not be too tense when I play.
MM: That was a problem for you before?
SS: In baseball one of the biggest things is if you can stay relaxed in big times. I want to always do well for my team and I want to help us win. But at the end of the day, what’s more important to me is how I’m remembered and if people remember me as a man of God or as a terrible teammate.
MM: So you’re born again? When?
SS: I was baptized on Jan. 29, 2012. It’s definitely been a journey. When I came back in the spring (of 2012) I had some news that I had damage in my knee so I missed all of spring and a lot of stuff happened – I changed positions and got sent back to low A (Hagerstown). So someone was really testing me to see if I was committed to walking with God or was I doing this to seek results.
MM: You spent six years without getting out of A ball, you’ve had several injuries and you were suspended for 50 games in 2010 for using a performance enhancing drug. How did all of that shape who you are today?
SS: It’s hard not to be thankful for those trials and suffering I went through during that time, only because if I didn’t go through that, I may never have been right here where I am where I have an appreciation for friends and family and coaches and stuff like that and just the opportunity God has given me this year and the possibility for the future ahead.
So those mistakes that I made and the suffering I went through, to me it’s all worth it because in the end it was kind of like putting glass under fire and molding it to where God wanted me to be.
MM: Some players who are having monster years don’t like to look at their statistics. How about you?
SS: For a while there I stayed away from looking at it, but then everybody would let me know. In the past, I didn’t even want to know. It’s not a superstition as much as I want to keep my focus on what is more important; the results aren’t what’s important to me, it’s the process and everything you go through.
I owe a lot to Joe (Chiefs batting coach Joe Dillon) and the coaching staff, Paul and Billy (pitching coach Paul Menhart and manager Billy Gardner Jr.), for just pushing me and not letting me settle at any point. Just constantly staying on me and helping me keep my focus on the stuff that matters. And it’s really truly been an honor to play for them and be around them.
MM: Have you thought about what it will be like to play in the major leagues?
SS: I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about it. I think about it often, and hopefully I’ll get that opportunity whether it’s with Washington (the Chiefs’ parent club) or another team. I’d love it to be with Washington, I’ve been here my whole career and I’d love to play here but it doesn’t always work out that way.
I’m just staying focused on where I am right now. And it has been really easy because we’ve had such a great (coaching) staff and such a great team, it’s easy to be where you are. You can’t have your head in the big leagues when you’re behind is in Syracuse. And so when I come to the field, I’m coming to win that game, take care of that day, and the future will take care of itself.
MM: What’s the biggest reason why the Chiefs have the best record in the International League?
SS: I think you really just owe it to Billy Gardner for letting guys be who they are and letting guys play the way they want, but also keeping us all in the disciplined line. That’s really hard to do as a manger when you’ve got all these different personalities. I haven’t seen anyone better than the way he’s done it and allowed everyone to play with freedom and have fun and that’s why you’re seeing the results you’re seeing.
MM: Not to put any pressure on you, but did you know the Chiefs haven’t made the playoffs since 1998 and haven’t won the International League championship since 1976?
SS: The ultimate goal is a championship, no matter where you are. And it’s such a great thing to do, especially with what was going on in the front office and what was going on with the team and to do what the front office has done in getting the fans back. Fans are coming and we’re winning more and it’s a great honor to put it all together and watch more fans come in and build some kind of fan base. We would love to bring this city a championship and rejuvenate the city and hopefully we can bring that home.