“If everybody’s focus was everybody else, how would that change the world?”
Doug Bochtler smiles as he poses this question. He is engaging and passionate and clearly talking about something he believes deeply.
We’re sitting in the upstairs conference room at Cherokee Athletic Facility; and through the large picture windows that I’m facing, I can see a busload of baseball players unload and make their way toward the center. Doug has opened up the Baseball Academy to Maryville College, which is hosting this year’s GSAC baseball tournament. “They don’t have batting cages, so we offered ours,” he tells me when I ask about all the uniforms converging on the facility. “That’s what we do; that’s who we are.”
The former major league pitcher has found a new passion after the end of his MLB career. “We exist to help others.” he says, “Everyone involved in the ownership of Cherokee is committed to this idea. A self-focussed mentality is a downward spiral; it leads to fleeting, surface level relationships.” And Doug has learned to long for more from life.
From the time he was five years old, Doug has known the answer to the perennial grownup question – what do you want to be when you grow up?
“I remember I was watching This Week in Baseball; Don Mattingly was teaching some kids how to put on a hat.” Doug demonstrates: pull your hair back in the front, slide the cap on and tug the back into place. “I still put my hat on like this every time,” he says. “Watching that show was the first time I said I wanted to be a major league baseball player.”
It might have seemed like a pipe dream or toddler chatter at the time; but Doug was already learning to love baseball.
By the time he was a freshman in high school, he had given up all other sporting interests to focus solely on baseball. “I knew it was a sport I could excel at; and I dedicated myself to it.” He quickly discovered his niche within the game, trying his hand at a few positions. He found he wasn’t a very good hitter, but had a strong throwing arm; he begin learning to pitch.
“Pitching really kind of found me,” he says.
But he wasn’t a star; nor did his talent shine through at first. Growing up, he often found himself languishing in the shadow of his older brother. “As a matter of fact, I didn’t make the freshman baseball team, my brother did. When I checked the roster after tryouts, it had my brother’s name listed. He was an incredible athlete; and he had made such an impression on everyone that the coaches put me on the team because of their memories of him. I don’t think they even saw me on the field. I was always fighting; I had to work hard because my brother was so great.”
On December 10, 1987, Doug’s good friend, Greg, was killed by a drunk driver.
Greg had been drafted by the Montreal Expos, but chose to stay in school rather than accept that initial offer. His mom and dad had planned a special Christmas present that year – a baseball glove embossed with Greg’s name. After the accident, Greg’s father approached Doug and presented him with the glove and this mandate: “Take this with you to the major leagues.”
“I don’t know why Greg’s dad gave me the glove.” Doug says. “There was no evidence of potential in me then; you could have asked any scout and he’d have told you I had no chance of getting into the majors.” But he accepted the glove and the responsibility. Playing in the major leagues “was a task I needed to accomplish to honor this request. Looking back, it’s awfully strange that he chose me.”
He carried the glove with him through every step of his journey to the major leagues. A few years after Greg’s death, Doug was himself drafted by the Montreal Expos. He signed with the team and began his climb to baseball’s top level.
Eight years later, May 5, 1995, Doug Bochtler made his major league debut with the San Diego Padres. He wore Greg’s glove as he relieved Fernando Venezuela in the fifth inning.
“It’s a weird place when you sit back and analyze your life; but it’s a good place to be.” Doug leans back in his chair. As I glance up from my notebook, I notice his eyes are far away. He’s reflecting on his words even as he tells his story. “You see that it’s not about money; it’s about the relationships you established. Our lives are intertwined.”
Doug learned this lesson on a lonely night during his last spring training as a major leaguer.
He and his family had just been put through the ringer. Doug had gone through a season-ending surgery; and the day after he returned home his wife went into labor twelve weeks early. They spent the next few months of sleepless nights listening to a breathing monitor and jumping out of bed in a panic at the slightest variation in their newborn’s rhythms.
When Doug returned to training camp, he was told he was being transferred to a AA team – two levels down from Major League Baseball.
That night he sat alone in his apartment and reflected on his life. “It was like in a movie, when the main character is questioning God. What is this about? What am I here for? I really thought about what baseball meant in my life; about how focussed I had become on my career. I realized that my ultimate goal had been myself. That was the moment that changed everything.”
Doug was able to find peace with the move down to AA ball. “I was put there for a reason,” he says. “There were people there that needed me.”
And he found a developing new passion during this time of transition. His role on the team had changed with his move back to the minor leagues; now he was a hybrid between a player and a coach. Doug discovered that he had been given the opportunity to help young, up and coming players reach their potential.
That included the chance to teach future Cy Young Award winners, like Johan Santana. Doug taught Johan to throw a change up and then sat back and watched him succeed with it. “I drew greater satisfaction watching him do well that if I’d done it myself.” Doug found that there was no greater satisfaction than watching those he’d mentored achieve their potential.
And with that, the future began to unfold.
When I ask Doug about his decision to move to Maryville and about starting the Cherokee Athletic Facility, he laughs out loud. “You wouldn’t believe me if I were to explain how this business happened.”
He begins to recount the most amazing part of his story.
It starts with his family’s decision to move to Maryville. He has no relatives here, had never been to Maryville before deciding to relocate here. Yet he uprooted his entire life to settle down in Blount County.
It was a Monday morning in February, 2004. Doug woke up and told his wife he’d had the strangest dream the night before. He’d dreamed that they moved to Tennessee to help start a church. They didn’t think much of it until forty five minutes later, when the phone rang. It was a friend, calling to tell Doug about a crazy dream he’d had. He dreamed he had moved to Tennessee to help start a church. “I held the phone away from my head and said, ‘Tell that to my wife,'” Doug recalls.
They chalked it up to bad pizza.
But then, on Thursday of the same week, Doug and his wife were having dinner with another couple. They were chatting, catching up, when Doug’s friend said, “Something strange happened Sunday night.”
Doug’s response was simply: “Holy cow.”
“We sold everything we owned, left our friends and family, and out of all that, came all this.” Doug gestures around him.
And I know he isn’t just talking about the physical building. Doug has a palpable love for what he is doing and for the people he is doing it with. You can sense his passion for creating relationships, his love of baseball and his drive to teach others the skills he’s learned.
The Cherokee Facility has become more than just a fitness center or sporting goods store. It’s a safe place for kids to come and hang out; kids that don’t have cable come in to watch games on the Cherokee TV. Often they’ll have questions for Doug. Which is fine with him.
“If a kid is that into the sport and he’s asking me questions, I’m not going to charge him for a lesson. I’ll sit down and pour my life into that kid,” Doug says.
Things have fallen into place since Doug and his family made the move to Maryville. He and his partners were able to get the historic Cherokee Lumber site at half its appraised value. “The owners really liked what we were planning to do here. That was the driving force behind the sale; they liked the concept and saw the need for this facility,” Doug says.
And that church Doug dreamed about? He’s found a group of Christians looking for a home and has purchased the land to create one. He’s not sure of his future role in the group, but knows it’s where he’s supposed to be.
“I allow God to arrange these circumstances and I just try to react to them in a Godly way. Faith was never faith to me until I recognized that God is bigger than I am and can arrange things better than I can.”
Doug is man that lives by faith, though he doesn’t wear it on his sleeve. He has never been what you could call “religious.” “From what I’ve read of the Bible, Jesus didn’t hang out with a lot of religious people,” he says, smiling.
His faith has been formative in his life, helping him be patient and allowing him to see beyond the moment into a greater plan that he believes God has for his life. He sees his current situation as a natural outgrowth of where he’s been throughout his life. As he looks back he sees that there are people woven into his life that have impacted him at times when he needed it the most. And he sees that he is woven into the lives of others.
“All the people I’ve come into contact with, my time in the major leagues, it has all brought me to this point. In the major leagues you’re almost untouchable, I needed to get to this place so I could impact more people. I’m not into taking shortcuts, though. I don’t really make a lot of these plans; I just try not to screw up what’s been planned for me.”