Changed man: Faith helps Souza resurrect baseball career
Will Bentzel / Harrisburg Senators
Cascade High School alum Steven Souza, now playing for Class AA Harrisburg, used his faith to straighten up and turn his career around.
Will Bentzel / Harrisburg Senators
Cascade High School alum Steven Souza is batting .273 with 14 home runs and 31 runs batted in at Class AA Harrisburg.
After an up-and-down minor-league career that saw him suspended for taking performance-enhancing drugs, quit his team and then return only to face a series of injuries, Souza asked if he was doing what he was supposed to be doing.
The answer was a resounding "yes."
A week after posing his question to God in 2012, the Cascade High School graduate batted .333 with five home runs and 12 runs batted in and the Washington Nationals promoted him from their Class A affiliate in Hagerstown to high Class A Potomac. This season, Souza moved up to Class AA Harrisburg, where he's hitting .273, with 14 home runs and 31 RBI in 66 games.
"I prayed about it and I said, 'OK, if this is what you want me to do, show me,'" Souza said. "I said, 'Right now, if this is what you want me to do, let me know.'"
The Nationals' third-round pick in the 2007 major-league draft has spent the past few years righting his swing -- and his life. When he entered the professional ranks, Souza said, he didn't have his priorities in order. He spent his nights drinking and chasing women, didn't worry about his teammates and figured he soon would be in the big leagues.
"It hit me like a curveball," he said. "That's not how life really goes, I guess. My idea was I'm a high third-round pick, I'm going to be in the big leagues in a couple years. It was striking to me that I wasn't reaching the goal."
In an effort to speed up the process, Souza took Concerta, which is used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), in 2010. The drug is banned by Major League Baseball. Souza was caught and slapped with a 50-game suspension.
"(It was after) a long bus ride, and I hadn't been taking care of myself," he said. "Instead of taking the mature decision, I made the immature, quick decision and tried the quick fix."
Souza used his suspension to hit the weight room, getting stronger for the 2011 season, and the work paid off. He returned to Potomac, where he helped the team reach the postseason.
But soon after, Souza hit rock bottom.
Before a playoff game, manager Matt LeCroy told Souza he was being benched for violating team rules. Souza responded by quitting the team and returning home to the Pacific Northwest.
"He had benched me in the playoffs for reasons that were legit," Souza said. "I had broken team rules. I thought, 'How dare he do this?' We got in a confrontation on the field and I left. I quit. I called the farm director and said I was done."
LeCroy said Souza wasn't being a good teammate. He asked Souza to leave the batting cage and watched as the young outfielder proceeded to leave the team.
"(There was) stuff that happened a couple games before that," LeCroy said. "It was one of those things where he would admit that he was being selfish and we just couldn't let that go along anymore. Unfortunately for him, it was at a big time when we were in the playoffs."
Souza had a hard time adjusting to life without baseball. Out of desperation, he even contacted a few Pacific-12 Conference schools about the possibility of playing football.
"Baseball was everything I had," Souza said. "Since I was 6 years old. Always playing, always traveling. When it was taken away from me, I had no more identity. I didn't know what to say with my friends. I didn't know how to respond to them. I was the big dog in the room because I played pro baseball and when it was taken away, I didn't know who I was anymore."
It was then that Souza turned to God. He said that once he was baptized and started making better decisions, it helped him have more fun -- and success -- on the diamond.
"Honestly, it all kind of started last year," Souza said. "I got baptized. Jesus made things really clear for me and it transpired to the field where I could enjoy the game. Now I'm just having fun. Just getting in there and competing."
Others, such as LeCroy and Souza's longtime friend, Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Travis Snider, saw a noticeable change.
"We got drafted out of high school and you go through your college years in the minor leagues," said Snider, a former Jackson High School star. "What he's been able to overcome and the transformation in the human being and the maturity level and as a player, he's got unbelievable talent."
The 24-year old Souza is in the midst of a successful 2013 campaign at Harrisburg. He was named the Eastern League Player of the Week for July 15-21 when he batted .370 with four doubles, two home runs, eight runs scored, six RBI and an .815 slugging percentage.
"I think he's grown up and matured as a player," said LeCroy, now Souza's manager at Harrisburg. "The way he used to handle failure is not what he's doing now. He's a changed man. He's got a vision of becoming a big leaguer and it's really fun to watch him go out and work every day."
LeCroy said Souza has the necessary talent, but needs to be a more consistent hitter, a common theme for players at the Double-A level. Souza's also been battling various ailments, including knee and shoulder injuries that have kept him out for stretches of the Senators' season.
However, when Souza is on the field, he's leaving an impression on those around him, LeCroy included.
"This is the best that I've ever seen him," LeCroy said. "He's a determined man now. He's determined to make it and I think he will."
Souza, who says 2011 is "totally water under the bridge" with LeCroy and that the two even joke about it, still dreams of making it to the big leagues. But not for the same reasons as before.
"I wanted to be there so I could have this huge house and go out with the guys and have everyone know me," he said. "Now I want to get there because I want everyone to know God's real. What I can do with a platform in the big leagues is unimaginable. People listen more."
Snider said he believes that one day his friend will join him in the majors.
"Nobody ever has this game figured out," Snider said. "It's one of those things, I think he's got the ability to play in the major leagues and be a successful player. There are a number of steps that he has to take before he gets there, but he's on the right track."
For now, Souza is content playing for Harrisburg.
"Whenever (the Nationals) think that I'm ready to get out of here, I'll go," he said. "If they want me to stay here, I'm good. If they want me to go to the big leagues tomorrow, I'll go. Wherever they want me I have faith that God's got my back."
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