By Kevin Kelly
The Cincinnati Enquirer
CLEARWATER, Fla. - The chance of a lifetime could wait. God's work was calling.
"I don't regret the decision I made by any means," Reds outfielder McKay Christensen said. "It's something I always grew up wanting to do."
McKay Christensen slams into the outfield wall in a vain attempt to get to a double by Henry Rodriguez.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
Many high school baseball players dream of playing professionally. Christensen wanted that, sure, but no more than he wanted to quench a long-held desire to work as a Mormon missionary in Japan for two years.
The decision, now a decade old, reaffirmed his faith and altered Christensen's baseball course.
"I feel like I can play at this level," he said. "I want to be in the big leagues. I don't want to be playing in the minors."
Christensen made his major-league debut with the White Sox in April 1999 and has played in 99 career major-league games in the four seasons since.
The Reds, who signed him as a minor-league free agent in December, are Christensen's sixth team.
"He's an individual that has been searching, so to speak, for the right opportunity," Cincinnati general manager Dan O'Brien said. "He's a gifted athlete."
Christensen, who went 1-for-2 with two RBI in a 4-3 loss against the Phillies on Saturday at Bright House Networks Field, was a highly regarded football and baseball player at Clovis West High in Fresno, Calif.
"But baseball, with the draft, I got a lot of attention," he said.
Baseball scouts were drawn to a quickness that propelled him to 62 stolen bases his senior year.
But in the months before the 1994 draft, Christensen knew what lay ahead and informed major-league teams of his future intentions.
"Everyone knew in advance he was committed to his religious obligation and that the Mormon mission was going to be a component of his career," O'Brien said. "Everyone in the industry knew that."
The advance notification did not deter the Angels.
California drafted Christensen with the sixth overall pick in the 1994 draft, only to trade him to the White Sox in July 1995.
By that time, Christensen was well into his missionary work out of the Tokyo South Mission, where he learned to speak Japanese.
"When you get over there, you're paired with a missionary that's been there for a while and will help you with the language," Christensen said. "For the first four to six months, you're learning."
Though Shinto and Buddhism are among those religions primarily practiced in Japan, Christensen said, he noticed a willingness from people to listen to his message.
"The younger generation was really interested in what Christianity was about," Christensen said, "and parts of the older generation, too."
His missionary work completed in 1996, Christensen returned to the United States and began his baseball career.
"Coming back off a two-year mission was so hard, because I never picked up a bat or ball (in Japan)," he said. "I think I threw a baseball two times and went to the batting cage once."
Christensen split his first three professional seasons (1996-98) between rookie and Single-A before the White Sox called him up for 28 games in 1999.
He has played 71 major-league and 395 minor-league games for the White Sox, Dodgers, Mets and Phillies organizations since 1999. Shoulder surgery ended his 2003 season after 47 games at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes Barre, where he hit .238 with 13 RBI and seven stolen bases.
"To me, (the debut in 1999) was pretty big," Christensen said. "I probably wasn't totally ready. But it was a great learning experience.
"I've gone up and had a taste and gone back down. I got there really quick, but no I am not satisfied."
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