EDITORS’ NOTE: BP Sports columnist Tim Ellsworth recently visited Florida to do a series of stories on spring training as baseball players get ready to begin a new season.
VERO BEACH, Fla. (BP)–Bill Mueller doesn’t look like a baseball superstar, mainly because he isn’t one. He doesn’t mash home runs regularly. He doesn’t steal bases. He doesn’t possess loads of athletic ability.
He is, however, a true professional, according to those who have watched him closely. The Los Angeles Dodgers’ third baseman works hard and keeps quiet. He doesn’t crave the spotlight or the attention.
“Mueller is your ultimate no-worries player,” Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan wrote. “You write his name in the lineup, then you can start fretting about whatever it is you’ve got to fret about. You know very well you don’t have to worry about Mueller, who will give you quality at-bats from both sides of the plate … field his position, and make intelligent decisions. There are bigger, faster, stronger, more overall gifted athletes on the team, but there are no purer professionals.”
Mueller will say his under-the-radar approach comes simply from doing what God made him to do.
“It’s a God-given gift and I’m very thankful for that,” Mueller said. “I let people know that it’s not me. I’m just fulfilling what He’s given me. I don’t get wrapped up into the game. I’ve never really been an ego guy about the game.”
Baseball fans –- especially those in Boston -– might forgive Mueller if he were more self-centered about his accomplishments. He won an American League batting title in 2004 while playing for the Red Sox. But more importantly, it was a game-tying single in the 2004 American League Championship Series for which Mueller will forever hold a place in Red Sox lore.
It was the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 4. The New York Yankees led the game 4-3 and the series 3-0 and were only three outs away from eliminating the Red Sox from the playoffs. But Kevin Millar led off the inning with a walk. Dave Roberts pinch ran and stole second base. He scored when Mueller singled up the middle, tying the game that Boston eventually won.
The Red Sox, of course, went on to beat the Yankees in that series, becoming the first team ever to rally from a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series. Then they swept the St. Louis Cardinals to win Boston’s first World Series since 1918.
For Boston fans, it was practically a religious experience. For Mueller, it was a blessing -– but not as important as his own conversion experience just a few years earlier.
Mueller was working out at Fischer Sports, a physical therapy facility in Arizona. He was playing for the Chicago Cubs and had recently injured his knee.
He turned to Brett Fischer, an athletic trainer and physical therapist, to help him recover.
“In that time I had a chance to get to know him and where he was at in his life,” Fischer said. “He was kind of at a crossroads. For a professional athlete who can’t run, it’s kind of scary.”
There was more going on in Mueller’s life than just the physical, however.
“I was just searching inside myself to be a better father and a better person,” Mueller said.
As Mueller and Fischer developed a relationship, their conversations often turned toward the spiritual -– about the purpose of life, about faith, about Jesus.
Fischer gave Mueller six tapes by Chip Ingram, now president of Walk Thru the Bible.
“I heard the six tapes, and it changed my life,” Mueller said. “I gave my life to Christ and have been living for Him ever since.”
From that moment, Mueller’s life was different in recognizable ways.
“I don’t cuss anymore,” Mueller said. “I didn’t think that was a big deal before, but now I feel like it’s an issue. When I made the switch and then heard other people that I hung out with cussing, it just didn’t seem right. It just felt off. So once I kind of stopped, it seemed like the people I was around kind of stopped.”
He also began thinking more about how a Christian man should act -– being responsible, showing love and patience, being more affectionate with his family.
On the field, Mueller said his conversion didn’t really change the way he played the game. But it did change his outlook about such things as money and the temptations that often accompany material pursuits.
“I don’t get too hung up about it,” Mueller said. “I’m not very flashy. Maybe it’s just my demeanor that God gave me. I try to provide for the family and set them up, and that’s my main goal.”
After three years with the Red Sox, Mueller signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers this winter. The emergence of young third baseman Kevin Youkilis made Mueller expendable in Boston. He left the city without much fanfare, which is exactly the way he plays the game every day.
“In his three years in Boston, he was the consummate professional, a manager’s dream, but he did not make a single statement that was remotely provocative or memorable,” Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy wrote upon Mueller’s departure. “He was polite and respectful with everyone, but had little to say about his Boston baseball experience. Fans still wax poetic about onetime Sox characters such as Ken Harrelson, Rogelio Moret, and Spike Owen. Mueller did more for the Red Sox than any of them, but who will remember? He never really said hello or goodbye. He just did his job every day.”