Eleven returned missionaries play on the BYU baseball team, four of which have returned to the team following the 2018 season. Two of those four have already made immediate impacts this season.
The two sophomores, Jackson Cluff and Danny Gelalich, played their freshman year in 2016 and left the following summer.
Both Cougars have started off the season as if they never left. Through the first two weekends, Cluff is batting .333 and Gelalich is batting .227. Both have two stolen bases on the year. Cluff has already knocked in 10 RBIs, while Gelalich boasts a .952 fielding percentage.
In addition to their on-field contributions, both players have a strong locker room presence. BYU baseball head coach Mike Littlewood said Cluff and Gelalich bring both maturity and leadership to the team.
Gelalich was called to serve in McAllen, Texas, in 2016. He returned in August 2018, about two weeks before school started.
Gelalich did not practice baseball while on his mission. He left his bat and glove behind as he went into the mission field. Soccer is popular where he served, so he kicked the ball around quite a bit.
His mission president knew he would be playing baseball when he returned from his mission, so Gelalich was given permission to wake up at 5:30 a.m. every day to workout with his companion.
Gelalich’s workout regimen included push-ups and sit-ups, and pull-ups if he was lucky enough to have a pull-up bar. He would also do sprints outside for conditioning.
Getting back into the swing of things, Gelalich specifically remembers his first day back in the outfield.
“I was like, ‘Man, these balls are moving a lot faster than I remember,’” Gelalich said, “My reads weren’t good.”
Gelalich explained the challenge coming back was more about getting back into baseball shape than physical shape. Since he didn’t touch a baseball for a long time, getting good reads on balls and seeing balls at the plate was the most important.
During his mission he served in Corpus Christi and often passed Whataburger Field, home to the Corpus Christi Hooks, the Houston Astros’ Double-A affiliate. Members invited him to Hooks games, but mission rules did not allow him to go. During their second weekend of games this season, the team traveled to Corpus Christi and played at Whataburger Field. Gelalich said it was a cool experience to play there and to see some people from the ward he served in.
Gelalich said he was constantly taught was how to deal with failure on his mission. Baseball is known to be a game of failure. He explained learning to deal with failure on his mission has helped him the most because it translates perfectly to baseball.
“To move on with a positive attitude is the biggest thing I’ve gained from my mission — for baseball and for all aspects of life,” Gelalich said.
Gelalich’s teammate, Cluff, served in Atlanta, Georgia, and returned home in June 2018.
“I was lucky there were some batting cages around, and I’d get my companions to go to them once in a while and hit,” Cluff said. “I brought my glove too, and we’d play catch.”
There were also gyms in some of his apartment complexes that he and his companions could attend. Cluff explained he was fortunate to have some great apartments.
For a few months, Cluff was in a four-man apartment with Connor Harding, a freshman guard on the basketball team.
“His coaches sent him a big long list of workouts and exercises to do, so we’d go out to the parking lot in the morning and do the basketball workout sheet together,” Cluff said. “He was also one of the guys who would play catch with me.”
The hardest thing for Cluff about coming back was getting his baseball instincts intact. He said all the things that came naturally in baseball took time to get back since he had been gone for so long.
While on his mission, Cluff received permission from his mission president to go watch BYU play in Georgia. He was also transferred to Kennesaw State’s campus and got to know some of the baseball players on the Owls’ roster.
BYU Baseball's Jackson Cluff talks about what it is like to comeback to the team and make an immediate impact on the team.#BYUSN pic.twitter.com/2MXPsT2GGF
— BYU Sports Nation (@BYUSportsNation) March 6, 2019
Cluff explained baseball was his whole life before he went on his mission, but now he understands there’s more to life than baseball.
“I still want to be as good as I can be, and when I’m at practice I’m focused on getting better, but it isn’t everything,” Cluff said.
Littlewood has coached many returned missionaries in the past and expects them to be rusty when they come back, but the protocol for pitchers and hitters is different. For pitchers, the main concern is arm care and getting command of the strike zone, then consistency and velocity. Hitters need live looks and repetitions.
“Pitchers and hitters are just two different animals when you’re facing that, but we do expect them to be rusty,” Littlewood said.
Due to schedule changes, the Cougars’ will be playing in the Provo-Orem area for the entire month of March. Tickets to watch Gelalich, Cluff and the Cougars’ team can be found on the BYU athletics site.