The summer after Porter Clayton’s junior year of high school, a Baltimore Orioles scout posed a hypothetical question. If given the choice between a $3 million signing bonus and serving a mission for your church, which are you picking?
“Without hesitation he says, ‘A mission,’” recalls his father, Troy Clayton.
Since he was a young boy, Clayton has told everyone that his two dreams are to play professional baseball and serve a mission for his church. His passion for baseball is exceeded only by his devotion to his faith. That was exhibited after his freshman season at the University of Oregon when he chose to spend two years in Houston, Texas serving his mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“The conversation that we had was, ‘You need to understand that by making this decision to serve a mission, you may never throw another pitch competitively,’” Troy said. “Because guys come off missions and sometimes they change physically, sometimes they change emotionally and sometimes their goals change. So he made the decision knowing he may never play baseball again, but I think that was reflective of his commitment to serve a mission.”
During the next two years, Clayton was allotted just 30 minutes per day to work out. He typically woke up at 6:30 a.m. to go for a run and eventually incorporated plyometrics into his routine during the final six months. He had just one opportunity each week to play catch and even that depended on whether or not he was traveling with another missionary who played baseball.
When Clayton left for his mission, he stood at 6-foot-4 and weighed 215 pounds, but during his time in Houston, he dropped down to as low as 185 pounds and came back in July of 2013 just short of 190 pounds. As a result, Clayton spent most of the fall trying to catch up to his teammates in the weight room.
“First week of weights, I showed up and guys were squatting and lifting weights that I could do two years ago,” Clayton said. “But I definitely couldn’t get on and do them right then, otherwise, I’d tear a hamstring.”
Despite lacking the physical strength that he had prior to serving his mission, Clayton was determined to accomplish his second lifelong dream. His passion for baseball burned stronger than ever and after a few months he made it back to his previous weight (and is now up to 220 pounds).
“I can remember fielding the call in July when he got back from his mission,” head coach George Horton said. “He was breaking down with me what he needed to do and from that moment forward, he’s just invested as much as any man can invest.”
Horton was not the only person to notice Clayton’s diligence in the weight room, as pitching coach Dean Stiles and several teammates echoed the head coach’s praise.
“He came back with the right attitude and he’s worked his tail off to get back into this program,” catcher Shaun Chase said. “It was pretty awesome to watch him all fall. He was always the first one here and last one to leave.”
The road back has been a challenge, as Clayton struggled to move up the depth chart during the fall. Being away from baseball for two years meant that it would take time to get back to previous levels of performance, but Clayton rebounded upon his return from Christmas break and impressed the coaches enough to earn a Sunday start two weekends ago against Cal State Fullerton.
Ultimately, the deck was stacked against Clayton that day. There was a rain delay of just over an hour after the first inning and he lasted just 3.2 innings against Fullerton, the No. 5 team in the country at that time. Clayton lacked command of the strike zone and allowed three runs on four hits and five walks as the Ducks lost to the Titans by a final of 5-4. As a result, Jeff Gold got the nod to start Sunday’s game over Clayton.
“You’d love a storybook (ending) where he would have come out against Cal State Fullerton and been successful,” Troy said. “But the reality is that’s not typically life.”
Aside from Porter’s superior resolve, Troy stressed that the biggest difference he’s seen in his son since he served his mission has been his ability to face hardships and work through them. Troy is confident that his son has the determination to overcome this latest bump in the road.
“When you’re a missionary, you face a lot of adversity and a lot of rejection and you learn to deal with that,” Troy said.
Despite the obstacles Clayton has had to overcome, it’s moments such as when he took the mound for the Ducks for the first time in nearly three years that preserve his dream of making it as a professional baseball player.
“Walking off the mound, it was awesome knowing that not only was our team successful, but knowing that it’s been a long journey and that there are many more moments to come,” Clayton said. “You get those bitter feelings but definitely those sweet moments are what keep you going. Having the background of my mission and understanding the eternal perspective of things definitely gives me chills when things like that happen.”
Follow Chris Mosch on Twitter @chris_mosch