Skip to main content

Notebook Sports

Crushing expectations

Jon Peters at Fireman’s Park in Brenham (Leah Hickman)

Sports

Crushing expectations

A former high-school pitcher who couldn’t seem to lose finally finds lasting victory 

Jon Peters, who in 1989 set the record for the most consecutive wins of any high-school baseball pitcher—51—gave pesky reporters a lot of God talk: “Anytime I felt that the media were getting too close … all I had to do was mention God, and you could see them step back.” Peters regularly thanked God during interviews, because he didn’t want the world to know that he was full of fears and had even attempted suicide.

Thirty years later we spoke with Peters at Fireman’s Park in Brenham, Texas, where he set the record. He talked about his years of alcoholism and his divorce—but also explained how eight years ago he started believing in Jesus for real. Here’s his story of high-school pitching with national news outlets filming, a life crumbling, and hope returning.

IT WAS APRIL 28, 1989. Five thousand people packed the stands inside Fireman’s Park, home of the Brenham Cubs. Outside the right field fence, high schoolers sat in lawn chairs atop a plywood platform rigged up on a forklift. Networks ABC, NBC, CBS, and ESPN waited on top of the first base dugout, ready to watch Jon Peters make baseball history.

The 6-foot-2-inch right-handed pitcher needed one more victory to trump the record of 50 consecutive wins. Peters walked to the mound with his green cap pulled low over his eyes. He wore No. 21 on his dark green baseball jersey—the number of the seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens. 

“Is this going to be the game I lose?” Peters thought as he readied to throw the first pitch. He threw a fastball. Strike. After that, he was in the zone. Baseball was his “happy place.”

By the fifth inning Brenham led 9-0, one run short of the 10-run mercy rule. Peters had done his job from the mound, garnering 12 strikeouts and allowing no hits. With two outs, the talented pitcher stepped into the batter’s box. Peters drove in the winning run, and his team went crazy. Journalists rushed the field with cameras clicking and lights flashing. 

“I didn’t want all this hoopla,” Peters remembers. He had the record, but he was most excited for the nosy reporters to leave. The day before he’d been in a big fight with his girlfriend and tried to commit suicide by swallowing three-fourths of a bottle of Tylenol. He was terrified reporters would find out who he really was. So he mentioned God, and they backed off. 

Peters craved affirmation but knew from his childhood baseball years that sometimes attention brought shame. He remembers when his pants unsnapped as he struck out trying to hit a ball on a tee and fell into the dusty dirt. Try as he might, the chubby Peters couldn’t refasten them. Dejected, he walked back to the dugout amid his teammates’ laughter. 

In high school he sought affirmation from his girlfriend. He was insecure and often told her they should break up and date other people. He hoped she’d say no and tell him how much she loved him. One time she took his suggestion and went on a date with one of his friends. The day before his record-breaking game, Peters found out and attempted suicide. His big win brought them back together but only for a week. That summer Peters turned to alcohol to fuel his waning confidence. 

Even after high school the Brenham community gave Peters some of the affirmation he wanted, but not always for the best. Peters was 19 when a police officer pulled him over for drinking and driving. He was a freshman at Texas A&M, back in Brenham with his roommate, driving 86 miles per hour. The officer checked his driver’s license and asked, “Are you the baseball pitcher?” When Peters said yes, the officer wished him a safe trip and let him go. “I should have been in jail,” says Peters.

Despite the high expectations of people in his hometown, Peters never made it through another full baseball season. At A&M he fought a cycle of arm injuries and recoveries that ended prospects of a professional baseball career. He saw his injured arm as a relief and an excuse to leave baseball. He would never again have to face the possibility of losing a game: “I was relieved because I didn’t have to prove anything.” He hoped this quiet departure from the field would cement his status as the high-school phenom rather than the college failure. But his high-school reputation faded, and his drinking habit escalated.

AT 2:30 A.M. ON MARCH 27, 2010, Peters woke up alone and alive. Newly divorced and living away from his wife and two children, he had tried for 16 hours to drink himself to death. He knew he needed to ask for help, so he started making phone calls. Most went unanswered, but Wes Weatherred, his boss from the insurance agency, picked up. Peters broke down in tears and said he wanted to die. Weatherred sped to his house; listened as Peters spoke of his insecurity, pride, and alcoholism; and promised to help him find a rehab center. Two rehab centers and one relapse later, Peters was free from his addiction.  

In January 2011 a friend from Alcoholics Anonymous invited Peters to a Christian men’s retreat. Although hesitant to accept, Peters remembered his counselor’s advice to “be open, be honest, and be willing.” He went but almost left during a small-group session when he felt judged for his alcoholism and divorce. He stayed because of his counselor’s advice. 

At an evening chapel he heard about human brokenness and the need for a Savior. Peters says that during a visual exercise he closed his eyes and imagined Jesus with open arms telling him to jump. In that moment, he felt he finally understood God’s unconditional love, despite his brokenness: “It was like hope turned on.” 

His ex-wife noticed a change in him. After their daughter’s soccer game, she was frustrated with the coach and asked Peters if she should email him. He told her to think about it and suggested talking to the coach in person. His ex was surprised: “What in the world has come over you?” He was the one who had filed for divorce in 2010 and been too prideful to reconcile. Suddenly, he was recommending humility and restraint. 

Leah Hickman

(Leah Hickman)

Jon Peters is now remarried and lives in Houston, where he works as a business development manager. He coached baseball for a few years after college but hasn’t coached recently: He prefers to watch. 

Neither of his children has taken up their dad’s sport, but both are athletic: His 16-year-old daughter Kylie swims competitively, and his 12-year-old son Jake has played basketball and soccer. Jake played baseball for one year but told his dad it was “just too slow.” Peters says this doesn’t bother him: His main concern is for his kids’ salvation. He wants to support them in whatever sports they choose and love them regardless of their athletic success. 

Peters attends four or five AA meetings each week and speaks at churches and schools not about his former glory but about God rescuing him from alcoholism and despair.

Occasionally, Peters makes the 75-mile trip back to Brenham to watch his old high-school team take the field. On some days, he spends a whole game catching up with Brenham friends. When he’s not in a talkative mood, he sits alone in the upper deck so he can focus on the game. He says he likes to watch the pitchers’ mechanics and sequencing.

On this day, Peters stands in the shade of the first base dugout at Fireman’s Park. The number 21, once printed on his green Cubs jersey, is now retired on the green outfield wall. The teenager who mentioned God to scare away the media now cries as he talks about God’s unconditional love. He’s the same guy who used to think, “Men are tough. Men don’t cry.”

Peters walks through the hot Texas morning to the pitcher’s mound, his head glowing red through thinning hair. Sweating slightly in his long gray pants and royal blue polo, he winds up and throws the baseball toward home.

—Leah Hickman and Hannah Harris are completing WORLD internships

Comments

  • HP
    Posted: Sat, 08/31/2019 05:08 pm

    I gather that when he remarried it wasn't his ex but I can't be certain. Can you make that more clear?

  • HM
    Posted: Fri, 09/06/2019 04:53 pm

    Jon spoke at our church in Brenham last night.  He is a great guy and a fantastic speaker.  His book is well written.