Lutherans in the Twin Cities

Star pitcher joins a new team of saints

The Rev. Charlie Ruud now will pitch from the pulpit

Ninth inning. One out, runners on first and third. You’re ahead by a run. Tough spot. On the mound? Pastor Charlie Ruud. What should he throw? A fastball inside? Or a breaking ball away? A bad choice may lose the game. The slim righthander, just five-foot-10 in a game of big men, says his best pitch is “a well-located fastball. What’s always kind of been a mainstay for me is good location.”

Out there on the mound, does the 27-year-old Lutheran pastor say a prayer in a tough spot? Or does he just pitch?

The big stuff

This is about baseball. But it’s also about prayer. When do you pray? Constantly, even about little things? Or only about the big stuff?

Pray without ceasing, says Paul in his first letter to the Thessalonians. Jesus in Matthew, however, says we should go into an inner chamber and pray in secret. Moreover, Jesus says we should pray for our enemies. In professional baseball, the mound isn’t exactly closeted. Worse, pitcher and batter are enemies. Losers get cut.

So it is complicated. From his new pulpit, the Rev. Ruud may have something to say about all this to his congregation, and to other churches inviting him to speak about baseball and faith.

He begins his ministry in September at Bethel Lutheran Church, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation in Northfield, Minnesota. The minor league American Association’s St. Paul Saints released him in July, but kept him on as a coach for the balance of the season.

Getting cut was bitter for the star righthander, who turns 28 in October. His 2009 season was so-so — a 4-3 won-lost record and a 4.72 earned run average in 13 appearances. The pitcher who lives by location lost some of his control, with 27 walks against 29 strikeouts. Yet Ruud was a fan favorite in his years with the Saints, the team’s all-time leader in wins, strikeouts, starts, innings pitched, and complete games.

The St. Olaf College standout, a four-year all-conference choice in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Association, tried out for the Saints in 2005 and pitched seven innings in a late-season win. In 2006 Ruud was a Saints mainstay, going five innings in 19 of 20 starts and lasting into the seventh in 10 of those games.

That season, he was fourth among American Association pitchers in strikeouts and helped the Saints win a division title. He added two playoff wins — but lost a 2-1 heartbreaker to Forth Worth, Texas, in the championship final game.

In 2007, Ruud won six straight games in July and August, striking out a career-high 11 on August 15 at Sioux City, Iowa, and leading the league in innings pitched and strikeouts.

Ruud became the Saints’ all-time win leader in 2008 and pitched two perfect innings in the league’s all-star game in St. Paul. This past season, he set the team’s all-time strikeout mark on June 25 against Sioux Falls.

Then, suddenly, in July, he “retired” — he was released. Even with those career numbers, at his age, a minor league team such as the Saints may want to open a spot for a younger player.

Disappointment notwithstanding, the Rev. Ruud’s mission lies ahead. In the off-season, he earned his divinity degree at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. In March, his wife Becky Ruud gave birth to their first child, Lucy. He was ordained this past summer, after being called to Bethel.

Playing ball, says the Rev. Ruud, is “a lot of fun and a great passion.” On the other hand, “there’s no grace in baseball. Especially at the professional level, you notice how much of a business it is. When you throw a hanging curveball, oftentimes it gets hit for a double or a home run and one day you might be injured or released.”

He may pitch again — perhaps with an amateur town team.

Pitch? Or pray?

So, out there on the mound — does Pastor Ruud pray? No. “My job at that point is to be a pitcher,” he says. “My attention at that moment is not necessarily on my prayer life but on making a good pitch.”

Where do you pray? Is it about location? Do you have a certain place? We can pray anytime, of course. We needn’t even voice our prayers. The Holy Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words, Paul assures us in Romans 8. Out on the mound, the Rev. Ruud says he may sort of pray, asking that “God will continue to be with us and will continue to be loving and supportive and provide for what we need.”

The Rev. Ruud’s unique professional experience makes him well-prepared to be a pastor. Paul calls spiritual life a competition. Being alive in the spirit might give the old fastball quite a hop — particularly now that he’s pitching for an entirely different team of saints.