WASHINGTON (CBSDC) — Three years ago, Steven Souza, Jr. nearly quit the game of baseball for good.
On Monday, the Washington Nationals announced Souza had been recalled to make his second appearance this season with the big club, filling the roster spot left by injured Nate McLouth, who hit the 15-day Disabled Listed with right shoulder inflammation.
In 2010, three years after being selected in the third round of the 2007 MLB June Amateur Draft by the Nationals, Souza, then playing for Single-A Hagerstown – with a .231 batting average, .306 on-base percentage and .432 slugging percentage, along with 11 home runs and 56 RBI through 81 games – was suspended 50 games after testing positive for Methylphenidate and Ritalinic Acid, drugs classified by Major League Baseball as performance-enhancers.
“I remember getting off the bus in the morning, and we were playing that day, and I was like, ‘I’m exhausted, I won’t be able to keep this going,’” Souza recalled, in an emotional YouTube video published in late July. “So I just took the quick road out. I knew a couple guys that were taking – had some TUE’s (Therapeutic Use Exemptions) – that legally could take it, and I went outside the rules and took it myself to try to get some quick energy.”
With his suspension, Souza’s season 2010 season was over. Upon returning the following season, as he explains in the video, Souza found himself overcome with personal obstacles.
“I just had such a big ego,” Souza said. “Everything that I did was so focused on making my name known, and being better than everyone else, and being better than my teammates, and just being the best. And so much pressure that just kept building up, building up.”
Souza began feuding with then-Single-A Potomac manager (now Washington Nationals bullpen coach) Matt LeCroy, who made the decision to bench Souza prior to the team’s final playoff game in 2011.
“I went through a tough time with a lot of stuff off the field, and just ended up being really alone,” Souza said. “So I came to the end of the year, and the manager had made the decision to bench me twice. We got face to face, and he told me to get off the field, and I told him I’d do him one better and I’d go home.”
Souza, 22 at the time, made the decision to walk away from the game and pursue college football, and began emailing college coaches about turning to the next chapter of his life.
“Once the reality of that set in, that this was it, like, ‘I’m really committing to something else,’ it kind of weighed on me,” Souza said. “Because I’d done baseball my whole life.”
He credits that confusion with where he was in life as his inspiration for finding God, and making that change in his approach to life he could never seem to accomplish on his own.
“I got baptized January 29, 2012, and really just wanted to live for God,” Souza recalled his transformation. “Everything I wanted to do, I just wanted to give glory to Him. The gift that I had in this game, really just submitted in my life, and it just submits to my heart, and I really didn’t understand that before.”
After finally recommitting to the game in time for the 2012 season, Souza, who’d played shortstop and corner infield the majority of his minor league career up to that point, suddenly found himself blocked at those positions.
“I didn’t play at all in spring training. I didn’t play one bit,” Souza said. “They said, ‘Well how bout we throw you into the outfield.’ And what’s crazy, is at the time, we had unreal amount of prospects in the outfield. So for me to get thrown into the outfield was kind of like, ‘If you don’t perform, it’s probably gonna be the end real fast.’”
“It was sink or swim,” he’d add.
Over the next two seasons — between low-Class A Hagerstown, high-Class A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg – Souza swam, racking up 38 home runs, 131 RBI, and 36 stolen bases, with a .297/.381/.560 slash line, enough to earn a promotion to Triple-A Syracuse to start the 2014 season.
This season, he’s flourished beyond belief, leading the International League in four offensive categories: batting average (.354), on-base percentage (.435), slugging percentage (.601) and OPS (1.036). He’s also hit 18 homers and driven in 70 RBI through 91 games.
That’s really only half the story. The rest you’ll find in the full nine-minute video, which is really worthy of your time. And after watching, perhaps by September call-ups, it’ll have you cheering on the next young Nationals fan favorite: Steven Souza, Jr.