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Baseball calls; life beckons

By JOHN ROMANO

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 13, 2001


On his 22nd birthday, Isaac Iorg's childhood dream came true. Nearly a week passed before anyone showed up to let him know. It could be another week before we discover whether he cares any longer.

Iorg is a baseball player on a mission. The kind of mission that has more in common with faith than success. Iorg is nearing the end of a two-year Mormon mission that took him to an economic wasteland known as East L.A. and separated him from all that he thought he knew.

A week ago Tuesday, Iorg was drafted in the 19th round by the Toronto Blue Jays. Normally, the Jays would have called to let him know. But he has no telephone. Normally, his parents would have been there to share his joy. But the mission limits parental contact to two calls a year, on Christmas and Mother's Day.

No television, no radio, no magazines, no newspapers. Instead of a Toronto scouting director calling to congratulate Iorg, the mission president broke the news to him days later, after printing a draft report off the Internet.

Half a lifetime ago, Iorg was a second baseman for Dunedin National in 1991, the first Pinellas County team in nearly 50 years to reach the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. Like the other dozen or so boys on the team, Iorg's dreams seemed to begin and end with game-winning hits.

Now, his parents are not so sure.

Garth and Patty Iorg will see their son for the first time in two years when his mission ends next week. Like the Blue Jays, they can only wonder whether he will return as a baseball player.

"It's like when you have a baby and you're wondering who that baby will be," Patty Iorg said. "Not the sex, or the color of the hair or eyes. You want to know: Who is that little person?

"That's what I feel like now."

Mission work is suggested but not required by the Mormon church. Garth Iorg, who played nine years in the majors and is Toronto's first-base coach, signed with the Yankees at age 18 instead of going on a mission.

Like his father, Isaac was drafted as a teenager out of high school in Knoxville, where the family moved from Palm Harbor after Garth became Toronto's Double-A manager.

The Blue Jays picked Isaac in the later rounds in 1998, but he instead went to Brigham Young, where he hit over .400 as a freshman shortstop. His stock had risen considerably, but Iorg had decided on a mission before the end of that first season.

He was sent to the economically stunted streets of East L.A. and took up residence in the converted garage of a church member. The door to his new home was marked with bullet holes.

His mission work was simple: spread the word of his Lord.

You've seen his kind before. Clean-cut young men wearing white shirts and ties and riding their bicycles as they go door to door.

Easy to ridicule, easier still to ignore. This is the life Iorg temporarily chose instead of chasing the riches of professional baseball.

Friends, even some members of the extended family, suggested it was a mistake to postpone a baseball career that was just getting started.

And for what? Preaching to people who could care less? Trying to talk scriptures with gang members? Why should he make that sacrifice?

Go to church regularly. Tithe, if you must.

But ignore your baseball talents?

"Everybody thinks it's some great sacrifice he's made. Believe me, he's gotten far more out of it than what he even anticipated," his father said. "He's seen another part of life. He's learned Spanish. He's had incredible experiences you can only have if you're out doing that kind of work.

"It's been mostly pleasant, but a lot of unpleasant things have happened to him. But that's part of doing what you've committed to do. It's not easy doing the right things sometimes. But he's done the right thing."

In his letters home, Isaac recently has mentioned the possibility of law school. A scholarship remains open for him at BYU, and he would have three more years of eligibility in baseball. Or if Toronto offers enough money to cover school expenses, he could play pro baseball before it's too late.

His parents expect to know more of his plans June 20 when he returns home. His sister, Jessica, and her husband intend to fly to Knoxville from their home in Tampa. His younger brothers, Eli and Cale, will be there. And Garth, in the middle of a baseball season, will fly home to surprise Isaac.

"I told Garth, 'You missed graduation for Eli. There are a few other things you've missed. You will be there when he gets off that plane. You either talk to (manager) Buck (Martinez) or I will,' " Patty said. "So Isaac has no idea Garth will be there.

"My family will be together for the first time in two years. Garth has the field, but my job is my family. When we are all together; that's my reward."

When he left two years ago, Isaac took a bat, a baseball and two gloves to California. The idea was he could swing the bat on his own and offer a glove to a companion so they could play catch.

Some of his early letters gave his family an indication of the poverty that surrounded him. Another letter, sometime later, gave an indication of how the poverty had affected him.

He had given his baseball equipment away.

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