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Christ First

Published on September 05, 2017

by Dave Pond

Managers send their ace to the hill on Opening Day.

Of the roughly 800 major leaguers on Opening Day rosters every spring, just 32 claim the title of starter. The spotlight shines extra bright on these select few as the season begins with expectations sky high.

Kendall Graveman excitedly and humbly accepted that role on April 3, as he took the mound for the Oakland A’s against Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and the Los Angeles Angels.

“As a kid, you always dream of Opening Night,” said Graveman, a right-handed pitcher in his fourth major-league season. “Everything’s brand new—from your cleats to the balls and bats—and it’s a new start for everyone. You tell yourself going in that it’s just another game, but you have so many emotions going on at the same time.”

Graveman was rock-solid against Los Angeles. He threw six innings, struck out seven, and came away with his first victory of the year. But for him, it was about so much more than the final scorecard—it was an opportunity to give thanks and put the spotlight on Christ alone.

“To be able to pitch in that type of game was truly humbling,” Graveman said. “It was an honor, for sure, but everything’s that been given to us is from the Lord.

“Not many guys can say they’ve done that, and I was blessed and fortunate to have my name called that night.”

•••

Since he was young, Graveman found himself surrounded by family and friends who were both humble and grounded in their faith—people who took the extra effort to pour into him and present Christ in a way that truly meant something.

Growing up in Alexander City, Alabama, Graveman’s parents, Sharon and Gary, made quality time with Christ a regular part of their family’s daily schedule. Whether it was time spent reading Scripture to their two sons, Kendall and Kyle, attending Christian events as a family, or pursuing meaningful conversations about God, Sharon’s and Gary’s efforts went well beyond Sunday or Wednesday church attendance.

At the age of eight, Graveman gave his life to Christ during a revival held at their home church, and he was baptized shortly after.

“I can still remember those encounters we had and the amount of time they spent with us just trying to teach us godly ways and the way Jesus wants us to live,” Kendall said. “That was one of the biggest things. It wasn’t just about going to church on Sundays; God was presented to me in my house, by the people I looked up to most, on a daily basis. That’s so important for a young kid.”

Graveman soon found a second love in athletics. Starring as both ace pitcher and starting quarterback at Benjamin Russell High School, he began to receive lots of attention for not only his physical talent, but also his leadership ability.

“I took [Mississippi State head coach] John Cohen to Alexander City for a home visit with Kendall and his parents,” former MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson said. “We got a strong sense of family on that visit. The Gravemans came across as so grounded, with great discipline and love.

“My first thought was how disciplined Kendall was to grow as a student-athlete, and the other trait that stood out to me was his ability and desire to develop strong relationships.”

Graveman graduated as Benjamin Russell’s “Mr. BRHS” in 2009. He was a member of both FCA and the National Honor Society (with a 4.0 GPA), and headed to MSU to study electrical engineering and pitch for the Bulldogs.

Over four seasons at MSU, Graveman put together an amazing student-athlete career, earning three-time SEC Academic Honor Roll recognition, while earning weekend-starter status for the Bulldogs. He was drafted twice during his Bulldogs career (first by the Florida Marlins in 2012, and then the Toronto Blue Jays in 2013), and was MSU’s Game 1 starter during the 2013 College World Series.

“Kendall is one of the best competitors I’ve ever met,” said Thompson, now the head baseball coach at Auburn University. “He learned and practiced harder than anyone, everyday. Being the best sinkerball pitcher in America and mechanical engineer were so very important to him.”

But even more important, Graveman said, was his faith, which continued to grow at MSU. College athletic schedules—especially the typical baseball schedule—leaves little time for student-athletes to get involved in church. FCA, he said, was the answer.

“At that time, I just wanted to be around a group of godly people, and FCA was a place where I could do that,” Graveman said. “It’s awesome how FCA made time for us. To have the opportunity to get together with a group and worship, to go over God’s Word, and to have our church on campus was pretty special.”

Mississippi State FCA Campus Director Jimmy Gilford first crossed paths with Graveman in the weight room. When Graveman joined the Bulldogs, Gilford was an MSU graduate student and the baseball team’s strength and conditioning coach. Although they’d meet regularly for baseball reasons (and run into each other at FCA), their spiritual relationship didn’t deepen until Gilford became an FCA area representative a year later.

Gilford quickly became a role model for Graveman, who watched as his coach put in work—hard work—while loving everyone he was around.

“That’s what drew me closer to Jimmy, just the amount of love he showed to everyone,” Graveman said. “The love of Christ is shown when you actually have Christ in your life, and I saw that in Jimmy.

Once Gilford began working for FCA, he helped grow Graveman’s leadership skills and passion in a way that would allow him to use the athletic platform he’d been given to serve the Lord. They’d spend offseason weekends at FCA events, join other MSU athletes for Sunday night Bible studies, and serve side-by-side at nearby Starkville High School.

“A lot of athletes, especially at the high school and college level, place their identity in their sport and what they’re able to accomplish,” Gilford said. “That happens a lot at a place like Mississippi State, where our athletes are worshipped all over the state.

“For these kids to be able to get to know a guy like Kendall—one of the best pitchers in the game and whose identity is rooted in Jesus rather than baseball itself—it really helps give kids the idea that the sport they play can’t be their everything. There’s got to be something more important than that, and that’s what Kendall represents.”

Graveman began his pro career in the Blue Jays organization in 2013, and quickly moved up the ranks. Less than 15 months after being drafted, Graveman made his Toronto debut on Sept. 5, 2014, before being traded to Oakland in a deal for All-Star slugger Josh Donaldson.

Since his move to Oakland, Graveman has been a consistent, top-of-the-rotation starter for the A’s. He’s helped manager Bob Melvin fill the void left by former starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Scott Kazmir, both of whom left Oakland after the 2014 season.

It’s a role Graveman’s come to enjoy.

“I think there’s something in all of us to be able to lead,” he said. “God didn’t create anyone who doesn’t have some type of leadership ability. In my case, Jimmy was the one to really help me change my perspective from sitting back and letting things happen to finding a way to be proactive and invest in the lives of others.”

In May, just seven starts after his Opening Day win, Graveman gave up just two earned runs during a six-inning, no-decision start against the Boston Red Sox. Although his stat line looked good, and the A’s won 3-2 in extra innings, Graveman knew something was wrong.

“I’d never had any arm injuries, or never missed time, ever,” Graveman said. “But I was honest with my trainers after the game, and then that whole ride home, I didn’t say a word. I was just talking to the Lord and praying for a peace about everything, a peace that only He could provide.”

Graveman is now back to good health, having returned to the A’s after more than two months on the disabled list. Despite the setback, Graveman took the injury in stride (especially when thinking back to Opening Day).

“With me being hurt, I was able to sit back and realize how fortunate and blessed I was to have been able to pitch that night,” Graveman said. “I’m thankful for the ability He’s given me and to have been placed in that situation in the first place, and I don’t ever want to take things like that for granted.”

He’s also thankful for another opportunity his shoulder injury gave him—a chance to plug in at church. (Although the A’s players have regular chapel services and Bible studies, the business of a 162-game MLB schedule makes it nearly impossible for players to attend church on a regular basis.)

“From a faith standpoint, since I wasn't traveling with the team, Tori and I went to church together, which you can’t really do when you’re in season,” he said. “It was a godsend and something I think was really meant to be—for me to slow down, take it easy and get back in the Word a little bit more.”

As his parents were with him, Graveman continues to be intentional about sharing Christ with those around him. He’s formed friendships with a number of MSU golfers, and during the offseason he regularly speaks to local high school and college students, while helping out at his cousin’s church in Oak Grove, Alabama.

It’s a place where he’s still just “Kendall,” rather than “major league pitcher.” And even if he never throws another pitch, that’s what’s important, Graveman said.

“I really tend to lean on Proverbs 22:11,” he said. “A good name is worth more than silver and gold. When I’m done with my career, people aren’t going to remember my stats or the games I pitched. They’ll remember what type of person I was. That’s what sticks out the most.

“Silver and gold may feel good, but if they make you lose a good name and reputation, they’re just not worth it. When everything’s said and done, I want people to be able to say Kendall Graveman loved Christ and he was a good baseball player, in that order.” 

-FCA-

Photo: © Jordan Johnson-USA TODAY Sports