Chad Curtis told me I was going to hell if I didn’t believe that Jesus Christ was my lord and savior. And with that, I, along with the rest of the Texas Rangers, resumed stretching for that night’s game at the Ballpark in Arlington.
I first met Chad in spring training with the Detroit Tigers in 1996. I was a wide-eyed, wet-behind-the-ears minor leaguer who was graciously invited by then-manager Buddy Bell to the big-league contest at Joker Marchant Stadium for one game.
It was quite the privilege to soak up the energy of MLB players such as Travis Fryman, Cecil Fielder and Alan Trammel. I’ll never forget big Cecil driving around the Lakeland complex in his shiny, white, drop-top Mitsubishi 3000 GT. This was heaven for a 20-year-old, even though I wasn’t officially on the roster and would pop up in my only plate appearance — late in a meaningless game in March.
Chad went out of his way to make me feel comfortable during my six-hour stay that afternoon. He displayed true care and warmth. He never mentioned God that day, but he did generously present me with a box of the world’s freshest batting gloves. Orange and dark navy, they really made those Tigers uniforms pop.
More importantly, they were useful, as I didn’t have money or hand protection of my own at the time. That was the end of my initial encounter with Chad Curtis, and he left a lasting impression on me as a genuinely kind human being.
When we reunited four years later, this time as teammates, I gave him my ear and attention. He had earned my respect and gratitude with the way he treated me as a kid years before and continued to do so with his work ethic. He seemed admirable at the time.
Chad suggested it was essential to train for sport drug-free. He later would back his talk up through his willingness to take an on-the-spot steroid test with me for an HBO "Real Sports" special. He and I were the only two players to accept this challenge from the network, and we both proudly tested negative for performance-enhancing drugs.
He took batting and outfield practice seriously and seemed under control and unemotional. He was an observer, as was I, of the countenance and body language of our teammates.
Though Chad and I seemed to check many of the same boxes on the personal ethics list, as I got to know him I realized that was where our similarities ended.
I was a Southern California boy raised on rap music and cussed like a sailor. Culturally Jewish, I was — and am — proud of my heritage, but don’t practice religion.
Chad was an outspoken Evangelical Christian who loathed hip-hop and swearing. He even made national headlines by cutting off the music of teammates in the clubhouse because he had determined it to be unsavory for the environment.
I actually felt bad for him because his teammates despised his pushiness. I never read it as anything other than a man haunted by personal boundaries that were slightly too strict.
His constant preaching could be irritating, but I assumed unreasonably that his principled stance on the innocuous selection of tunes in the clubhouse was indicative of his morality. Did he hold himself to illogically high standards on the big picture issues as well?
I deduced, totally inaccurately, that while he might not have much fun, he was more likely a saint than a sinner.
Debating him on the topics he was most dogmatic about became a fascinating pastime. I discovered endless entertainment value in asking him boatloads of questions related to his stances.
“Why is it bad for me to cuss, Chad? What does it say about me that the word f–k is part of my vernacular?” I would ask.
I wasn’t trying to be inflammatory, but certainly desired a spirited back and forth.
Ultimately, these questions, as with most discussions with Chad, always drew us back to God. He’d tell me that I needed to accept Jesus into my soul if I was to avoid burning in hell, and I’d ask him if God has an ego. He’d say it’s not about our actions, but about what’s in our heart; I’d ask him why murderers and rapists should be let off the hook if, at the end of their days on earth, they repent and accept the lord. We went round and round, but inspired a depth of thought typically foreign to the ballpark.
As the weeks and months of that season and the next passed, my conversations with Chad became fewer and fewer. Our chats morphed into less interesting versions of the ones we had previously. You can only have the same dialogue so many times before it becomes mundane.
During my two seasons as Chad’s teammate, I believe I earned his respect. Though I felt that he pushed his religious stance on others, I never thought I’d read a story like the one written by Greg Hanlon of SportsonEarth.com on Chad’s conviction and subsequent jailing after being found guilty of sexual assault on teenage girls in Michigan.
I’ve been scratching my head since I read Hanlon’s piece trying to figure out how I missed the signs, or if there were signs for me to miss. The only one that tends to come up is the look in his eyes, which was perpetually haunting, even demonic. This was certainly not enough data to make a determination of Chad’s behavioral tendencies.
I’m floored that I misjudged the character of a man so horribly. Perhaps I was blinded with the mantle of righteous moral authority he always tried to wear and never looked deeper.
I’ve always made the case that a baseball locker room is simply an extension of society. Every type of person you have in your large office environment is also represented in an MLB clubhouse. It’s unfortunate, but not overly surprising that there are criminals scattered throughout the league.
Chad Curtis wasn’t the first major leaguer to commit a heinous crime. I’m confident in my assessment, however, that he’ll represent the last time that I allow the veil of religion and perceived moral high ground to impede my better judgment of another human being’s fiber.