By Libby Johnson
Libby Johnson graduated from Edmonds Community College, where she studied communications and was a staff writer for the Triton Review. The Everett resident will attend Central Washington University-Edmonds in the fall and plans to continue her degree in English and communications.
It was already 95 degrees when the 12-hour bus ride mercifully ended. A weary Steven Souza Jr. stepped off the bus into the sweltering heat of a June morning in Hagerstown, Md.
It wasn’t just an overnight bus ride that left the Washington Nationals prospect fatigued. Or the fact that the 21-year-old third baseman led the South Atlantic League (SAL) in games played.
What Souza was doing after games left him drained. Drinking, chasing women, little sleep, poor eating habits. Then he’d wake up to play another game and do it all over again.
So that morning in June 2010, Souza did what many baseball players do. He decided to seek a “quick fix.” Now he stood there in the sweltering heat, knowing he had to face another pitcher on little sleep in a few hours, facing a big decision.
Souza looked down at a little orange pill. Was he really going to do this? He popped the pill into his mouth and swallowed.
He rationalized that he was doing nothing wrong. “Guys pop this stuff all of the time to get locked in,” he told himself.
The story of Souza, who went to high school in Everett, is a cautionary baseball tale repeated again and again in many sports. Seeking an advantage, he used a performance-enhancing drug and was caught. He fell out of the game he loved and jeopardized his career. Yet Souza rediscovered his faith and his game to rebound and is back in baseball, playing well.
“I don’t put my faith in baseball anymore,” Souza said. “It has no weight on me. I mean, I love baseball to death, and it doesn’t mean I don’t work hard, but if I don’t make it to the big leagues, it’s going to be OK. God is going to do a lot of different things in my life.”
The long hard fall
Back in 2010, as game time approached, Souza could feel the burst of energy pulsing through him. The pill he took, Concerta, is a prescription stimulant used to treat ADHD. Banned by Major League Baseball and other sports, it is commonly used by athletes looking for an edge.
Souza’s head was in fast-forward mode. The results weren’t as good as the feeling. He ended up going 0 for 4 with two strikeouts that day, along with some broken bats and a few thrown helmets.
“I face another tough pitcher tomorrow,” he told himself the next day. “I will take it again.”
So he popped another little orange pill and waited. His mind buzzed from the drugs and the heat. The results weren’t much better. Souza went 1 for 4.
Souza thought he was in the clear. But the next day the person in charge of drug testing came to Hagerstown and called out a few names to be tested. Steven Souza Jr. was on that list.
He didn’t hear anything for almost six weeks. Just when he thought he was OK, he got the bad news: Souza and teammate J.R. Higley were each given 50-game suspensions. His season was over.
Souza retreated, vowing to work hard in the gym. The 2007 third-round draft pick returned for 2011 spring training weighing 230 pounds, bigger and stronger than he’d ever been. He was invited to the instructional league, where he dominated.
It was easy, maybe too easy, to think his problems were behind him because of how well he was playing. But erasing the memory of popping a couple of pills didn’t change that Souza was still a kid who lacked maturity and coping skills.
A few months later, in June 2011, it all came crashing down. Before a game for Potomac, the Nationals’ AA affiliate, Souza got into an argument with his manager.
“Get out of the cage,” his manager Matthew LeCroy ordered.
Souza refused. The two exchanged words, and Souza walked off the field, quitting the team.
“I told him to pack his things and drive home,” Nationals farm director Doug Harris said.
Souza was at a “significant crossroad in his life,” Harris said. Somehow he said he knew Souza wasn’t walking away for good.
Still, Souza had quit on himself and on the game he loved.
“I had a terrible year again, had nobody, and I was all alone in this dark place that I couldn’t get out of,” he said.
He returned home to Everett, where he had played baseball at Cascade High School, and wondered what was next. A former high-school sports star, Souza started contacting Pac-12 schools to ask about playing football.
Only after working out with friends Travis Snider of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Brent Lillibridge of Chicago Cubs did he realize he had to go back to baseball. If the Nationals would have him.
The Nationals agreed to take him back, sending him back to Class A Hagerstown to start 2012. After apologizing to the organization, coaches, and teammates, he began the slow process of redemption.
This time he took care of his health. He also says he recommitted himself to his faith.
People were slow to warm up to Souza. Some teammates criticized him for reading his Bible in the locker room. Souza didn’t let that discourage him, continuing to work hard.
Mark Harris, his hitting coach, noticed a transformation. “He was ready to listen to what people had to say,” he said. “He made believers out of people that year.”
Snider says his longtime friend made the “transition from young player to man.”
The return was far from easy. After struggling at the plate on the road, Souza said he used his faith to keep him going.
At one point, he remembered looking upward. “If this is what you want me to do,” he said, “show me right now.”
Souza believes he got a resounding answer. In one week, he hit .333 with five home runs, 12 runs batted in and four doubles and was named SAL Player of the Week.
“Souza became a hitter, not just a swinger,” Harris said.
He moved up to Class A advanced Potomac, where he continued to show his athleticism and power.
“He stopped fighting himself and let his natural ability take over,” Harris explained.
Winning others over
The outfielder finished the year strong. He seems to have won over his teammates and the organization.
“I am very proud of how he has changed his attitude,” said LeCroy, the manager he argued with before quitting. “He has tremendous athletic ability, and he’s a smart kid.”
Doug Harris, the Nationals’ farm director, said of Souza, “He’s a gifted young man. He’s grown leaps and bounds. I just think the world of him.”
Said Lillibridge, “He has accepted responsibility for everything in his life in the past and present. I’ve seen him grow up so much.”
This spring, Souza has hit .413 with four home runs, 10 runs batted in, one triple and three doubles at the Nationals’ AA camp through Monday. He was 0 for 3 with a walk in the big-league camp.
Souza likely will start in right field and bat fifth for the AA Harrisburg Senators when the regular-season opens.
“We call it grown-up baseball, and Souza should be there,” LeCroy said. “I think he will benefit from the mature players.”
Three years after a bad decision at the end of a long road trip, Souza hopes to continue his evolution from problem child to professional baseball player.
“I am not ashamed of my journey,” he said. “I don’t focus on the past. I just give everything to God and remain humble.”
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