— In an indoor batting cage at Nationals Park, Washington catcher Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez smashed line drive after line drive.
The sweet crack of wood (bat) striking cowhide (ball) reverberated through the Nationals’ clubhouse before a Friday night game with the Florida Marlins.
A few feet away, left fielder Josh Willingham — who bats fifth in the Washington lineup, just ahead of Rodriguez, a future Hall of Famer — awaited his turn at the plate.
Before stepping into the cage, though, Willingham, 31, took time to discuss his faith with The Christian Chronicle.
“It’s huge,” he said of his faith’s importance in his life.
Willingham grew up in Florence, Ala., at the Cross Point Church of Christ — formerly known as the Darby Drive congregation.
“One of the main things I remember, growing up in Florence at Darby Drive, is the church had a really good youth group,” said Willingham, who was baptized at age 12 after returning home from a youth rally. “That played a big hand in the faith I have now.”
He, his wife, Ginger, and their young sons, Rhett and Ryder, still attend the Cross Point church in the offseason.
Years ago, Cross Point member Randall Fox played on a baseball team coached by Willingham’s father, David, a deacon at the church.
Fox recalls that a young Josh would hang around the field and watch them play.
“Now, he’s grown up, and we pay a lot of money to go watch him play,” Fox said. “Funny how that worked out!”
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound slugger has hit 20 or more home runs in a season three times and is on pace to do so again — and perhaps reach 30 — in 2010. He is batting .278 with 15 home runs and 46 RBIs.
Willingham played high school baseball at Mars Hills Bible School in Florence, where his mother, Denise, has taught elementary students for 25 years and his father serves as vice president.
“I guess what I would say about Josh and his career is that he set his goals high, and he worked hard to attain them,” Denise Willingham said.
“He wrote a note on a card in the fifth grade as to what he would be doing in the year 2000,” she said. “He said that he would be playing college baseball and would sign a contract to play major-league baseball. The capsule was buried and then dug up in the year 2000.”
That same year, after starring at the University of Northern Alabama, Willingham signed with the Florida Marlins. He made his major-league debut with the Marlins in 2004. Florida traded him to the Nationals after the 2008 season.
“He’s the real deal,” said retired Northern Alabama coach Mike Lane, who won 908 games in 24 seasons. “He’s one of those guys that I would always take our players to and say, ‘This is the way that you behave.’
“You can’t make great players out of junk people, and Josh Willingham is the epitome of a great person. Therefore, he became a great player,” added Lane, standing by the Nationals’ dugout while in Washington to watch Willingham play. “He’s a family guy. He’s well grounded. He’s got great parents.”
Willingham endured tragedy during the 2009 season when his younger brother, Jon, 27, was killed in a June car wreck. He returned home to be with his family and missed two weeks of the season.
“That was a real coming-of-age experience for Josh. I still have no idea how he put together the strength to speak at Jon’s funeral,” Fox said. “He has a strong, solid faith.”
Asked about dealing with his brother’s death, Willingham said, “It was definitely a tough situation. It’s hard to find good in something like that.
But you can definitely see how the Lord worked in that situation, which was very encouraging to me and my family.”
Within the confines of a major-league clubhouse, Willingham said he’s not “real loud” about proclaiming his faith.
Nonetheless, he said, teammates know what his beliefs are.
“You can’t be too pushy,” said Willingham, who participates in the Nationals’ Sunday chapel program.
“There are a lot of different people here who have belief systems. But again, you have to let everybody know where you stand, so it’s kind of what I try and do.”