Grant Desme’s higher calling

In its nearly 50 years, St. Michael’s Abbey in south Orange County has welcomed scores of men who believe they were called to the priesthood. Most often they are young men who’ve prepared for this much of their academic lives. Occasionally, they are professionals who’ve chosen St. Michael’s path that leads away from the world -- what adherents call “the hidden life” -- over the pleasure and glamour of their own lives.

“There have been lawyers and academics,” said St. Michael’s Father Ambrose Criste. “We’ve had a licensed cheesemaker; from Wisconsin, of course.”

And yet, it’s certain St. Michael’s -- run by the Norbertine Order -- has never had what it will get this summer when Grant Desme arrives: a man whose life could have been very glamorous and pleasure-filled indeed and who threw all that away before the disbelieving eye of the 24-hour news cycle.

When Desme, 23, a top prospect in the Oakland Athletics’ organization, informed General Manager Billy Beane that he was retiring from baseball to pursue the priesthood, he figured the local media in his hometown of Bakersfield would show some interest. They did. So did countless newspapers, websites, news and sportscasts. A documentary film crew from the Netherlands requested to follow him. When the Huffington Post ran its story, it did so with an accompanying readers’ poll that offered the choices: “Yes, he is doing what he thinks is right,” or “No, he is abandoning his team and a lucrative career.”

(Desme will be heartened to know that 86.1% of people with too much time on their hands believe he made the right choice.)

Interview requests were taken and conference calls arranged. It was during the latter that the question of why -- how? -- a young man would give up all that came with being a professional athlete was immediately raised. Understand that Grant Desme was not just some guy holding down a spot, he’s an exceptional young player coming off an exceptional 2009 season in which he was the only minor leaguer to hit 30 home runs (31) and steal 40 bases. He’s also soft-spoken and modest, so when someone reminded him that he’d hit a home run in what stood to be his last professional game, he reminded them that he also struck out twice.

“Baseball is a good thing,” Desme said. “But that felt selfish of me, when I felt that God was calling me more. It took a while to trust that and open up to it. . . . I love the game, but I’m going to aspire to higher things.”

No lightning bolt

That someone from such a devoutly Catholic family as the Desme’s -- the family endeavors to perform the rosary daily -- would enter the priesthood, choosing the rigorous life of a Norbertine, which demands not only prayer and contemplation, but obedience and labor, may not have seemed surprising.

But Desme was also devoted to baseball and the fact that he usually played with a few prayer cards in his back pocket or a Bible verse on his wristband didn’t really distinguish him from a lot of other players. What did was a work ethic that his father, Greg, said made him the “kind of player who always got better.” A high school shortstop with little power, he remade himself into a power-hitting outfielder who, as a junior at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, was named All-American. Soon after, he was drafted in the second round by the A’s.

That’s when everything changed.

In the spring of 1115, Norbert of Xanten was knocked from his horse by a bolt of lightning. While recovering from his injuries, the young man, who had a prestigious job and enjoyed the pleasures of the world, had time to consider his easy life and renounced it in favor of starting the religious order that bears his name.

St. Norbert had his lightning bolt; Grant Desme had his wrist.

“I had a wrist injury that was supposed to last six weeks but it dragged out to over a year,” he said. “It showed me how things can change, how I viewed baseball as my life. Looking back, the injuries were some of the greatest blessings God ever gave me. It shook me up and forced me to do some soul searching.”

The search led him to consult priests and other spiritual advisors. He visited four seminaries and had a pilgrimage to Rome.

“It’s not like he fell out of a chair and said, ‘I think I want to be a priest,’ ” Greg said. “There was no lightning bolt.”

He found little things in life that kept leading him down the path; found himself repeatedly drawn to the story in Mark about the wealthy young man who asks Jesus what he must do to follow him only to be told he first must sell everything he owns.

“He can’t do it and it crushes him,” Desme said. “That’s how I felt. God was calling me to a deeper life, but I wasn’t able to follow. The thing about the story is that Jesus still loves the man, even if he keeps his money. But if he really believes and loves God, he should be able to do it.”

On the fast track

Desme’s search lasted almost two years. Virtually certain he wanted to pursue the priesthood, he also wanted to make sure he felt that way after a full season of injury-free baseball. So he had his exceptional 2009 season at Class-A Kane County and High-A Stockton. In the Arizona Fall League, featuring some of the top minor league talent from all levels, he was named most valuable player after leading the league in home runs (11) and total bases (72), a remarkable feat for, as league director Steve Cobb noted “a young man who has yet to face double-A and triple-A competition.”

The A’s thought so too; Desme was fast-tracked.

“He would have started at double A next season,” said Keith Lieppman, Oakland’s director of player development. “If he played as well as he did in Fall League there was a very good chance he’d be in triple A sometime next season. When you get there, all of a sudden, things can happen.”

But they already had.

As productive as the season was, nothing about it changed what Desme believed he was called to do. If he had any doubt, they were answered when yet another injury put him out of action for 10 games.

“I ended up sitting in the dugout during games talking to teammates about the purpose of life,” he said. “I was so excited to come to the park every day and talk about God that I was thinking ‘If I was a priest I could do this every day.’ It gave me such joy. You know, if I hit a home run the excitement would subside by the time I touched home plate. But the joy of talking with people about God never ended.”

Desme, who was nervous when he called Beane to tell him he was retiring, said everyone in the A’s organization has been supportive. Lieppman, who found out about Desme’s decision when assistant GM David Forst called him and said “Are you sitting down?” spoke to Desme later.

“I asked how difficult it was to make the decision at a time when he was possibly on the verge of fame and fortune,” Lieppman said. “He said it was a very easy decision and I could hear in his voice that he had experienced something profound.”

Finding his voice

When he checks into St. Michael’s on Aug. 27 -- “Feast day of St. Monica,” he adds cheerily -- Desme will be fitted with an all-white habit and begin daily classes in liturgical prayer, basic catechism as well as Gregorian chant.

The Norbertines sing everything. They sing when praying, they sing the entire liturgy of the mass. They sing so well with such control and grace that they have recorded two CDs. They sing because they believe it imbues the mass with solemnity and lifts all things into the realm of the sanctified. It was this idea of living the sacred that attracted Desme and that concerns him now since his voice borders on the profane.

“I’m terrible,” he said. “Extremely monotone. I’m going to have to work on that.”

This is what concerns him today. Not the money or the fame. As Lieppman discovered, after a few moments talking with Grant Desme it becomes apparent that though others may ponder and debate his decision, he does not. Nor does he see it as a sacrifice. As far as he’s concerned, he’s giving up nothing of what the world had to offer. What the world had to offer simply wasn’t enough.