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'A higher calling'

As a freshman at UK in 2011, Dallen Reber showed a lot of promise despite injuries limiting his at-bats. But a higher calling is putting his sophomore season on hold.

Dallen Reber rounds the bases after his first career hit, a two-run home run against Niagara on March 11, 2011. | Photo courtesy of UK Athletics

He leaves Wednesday for a two-year church mission to Santiago, Chile.

Reber, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said the decision to go on the mission was not easy. He lost sleep over it, and lost even more sleep after initially deciding not to go.

“It’s going to be tough — it’s already tough — but I wouldn’t be doing this if it weren’t the best thing for me,” he said.

The decision idled in the back of Reber’s mind as long as he can remember, he said. Growing up in a Mormon family in St. George, Utah, most of the men around him served similar missions though none is ever required of church members. His father, Keith, and both of his brothers served two-year missions: Keith served in Brazil, his brother Leon in San Diego, Calif., and his brother Stephen in Hiroshima, Japan.

But Dallen Reber always knew he wanted to play college athletics, either baseball or football, and neither his family nor the church community wanted to force anything on him.

Instead of filing his mission papers when he turned 19, the age at which church members are eligible, he came to Kentucky to play baseball.

At that point, he still hadn’t decided if or when he would ever go on a mission.

“They knew while recruiting me that it was a possibility,” Reber said of UK baseball coach Gary Henderson and his staff. “They told me that if I chose to go — we told them I wasn’t sure yet but I didn’t know yet so I couldn’t give them an answer — they handled it really well. They always asked if there was anything they could do to help me and my family. It wasn’t a complete shocker to them, I guess.”

Photo courtesy of UK Athletics

‘I couldn’t keep denying it’
Reber played through his freshman season while he struggled internally with the decision. He had nine hits in 29 at-bats, hitting two home runs and a double with four runs batted in and 12 strikeouts; he’s prone to a high strikeout ratio, he said, like a lot of power hitters are.

But a few foot and ankle injuries during the fall and into the spring kept him from a number of at-bats potentially higher, Henderson said. He appeared in 15 games throughout the season and started five. He projects as a corner infielder and Henderson said his performance on defense will dictate where his career leads. Of his five starts as a freshman, three were as the designated hitter, one was at third base and the other was at first base.

For an ever-lucrative power hitter both as a college player and a pro prospect, losing two years of baseball activity during such a developmental time could be tough; a hitter’s swing or a pitcher’s delivery relies so heavily on muscle memory that has been trained continually for years.

But Reber isn’t doing this without precedent. Baltimore Orioles pitcher Jeremy Guthrie went to his freshman year of college at Brigham Young in 1998 before taking a similar mission to Spain from 1999-2000. He didn’t even touch a baseball while he was gone, according to the Deseret News. When he returned, he transferred to Stanford and was named a Sporting News second-team All-American as a sophomore and a first-teamer as a junior.

Most notable among recent position players to do the same — a better comparison for Reber’s sake — is former Alabama shortstop Cale Iorg. He took a Mormon mission to Lisbon, Portugal after his freshman season of college. One month before he returned from Portugal, the Detroit Tigers selected him in the sixth round of the 2007 MLB draft.

He signed the deal and is currently in his second year as the shortstop for the Toledo Mud Hens, the Tigers’ Triple-A affiliate.

Several prominent Mormons in baseball chose to forgo a mission. Among active examples are two-time Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay, Boston Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, Florida Marlins catcher John Buck and Washington Nationals super-prospect Bryce Harper.

Reber said he had heard of examples of players taking a break from baseball and returning strong, but he still couldn’t figure it out for himself well into his first college season. At one point in the spring, he called his family from Lexington to tell them he had decided not go to on a mission.

UK coach Gary Henderson | File photo

“Once I told my dad I wasn’t going to go, I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” he said. “I just couldn’t keep denying it; I felt like I had to go but I didn’t want to accept it so I just kept denying it. It got to a point where I couldn’t keep denying the feeling.”

Two weeks later, Reber called his dad back and told him he had changed his mind.

As difficult as Reber said the decision was, he said his coaches and teammates supported him throughout it all. Henderson said he has coached several Mormon players before at different points in his career, so he’s familiar with and supportive of the process.

“Certainly I didn’t attempt to talk him out of it or anything like that. It’s a higher calling,” Henderson said. “That’s just something that he had to do, and you respect it and hope it goes well for him. That’s all you really can do.”

Said Reber: “I think they all understand how hard of a decision this was and how this isn’t an easy thing to do. They’re all good people and they have a lot of respect for it. They know it was difficult and they know I wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t the best thing for me to do.”

He submitted his mission papers to the church about seven or eight weeks ago, he said; the papers consisted of mostly medical questions and once the mission papers are sent in, so is your consent to take a two-year mission.

Two weeks after he sent in his papers, an envelope came back from the church that told him where he’d spend the next two years. He waited to open the letter so he could share the moment with his friends and family.

With everyone gathered, he opened it, scanned through and quickly found: “Chile Santiago East Mission.”

Reber will serve a two-year mission in Santiago, Chile, marked by the pin. Santiago, Chile's capital, is 5,024 miles from Lexington and 5,610 miles from Reber's hometown of St. George, Utah. | Map courtesy of Google Maps

He knew nothing about Chile and had already forgotten everything from his high school Spanish classes, he said.

“Oh well. I’ll figure it out,” he said.

Life without baseball
To learn the language and to study both the Book of Mormon and the Bible before his mission, Reber will spend his first eight weeks away from home at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah. He’ll then be sent straight from Provo to Santiago.

Since he grew up around friends and family that have done a similar mission before him, he said he has a pretty good idea of what to expect — unfamiliar setting notwithstanding. Culture shock will hit hard, he’s been told. You’ll miss home more than ever, he’s been told. Your faith will be tested, he’s been told.

Stick through the trials and you’ll learn more about yourself than ever, he’s been told.

“I’ll learn so much about myself and about life while I’m gone that I can apply to everything,” Reber said. “Not just my faith. I’ll learn how to handle myself in every aspect of life. A lot of times, the trials are the best learning experiences.”

One of the things he’ll have to adjust to is life without baseball. He’s played regularly every year since he was a young kid, he said. He’ll have regular time to exercise and he’ll take a glove with him, he said, but with no promise he’ll ever use it for even a backyard game of catch.

Chile is not a deft baseball nation; according to Baseball-Reference.com, no Chilean has ever played in a Major League Baseball game. His opportunities to have fun with the locals may be kicking around a soccer ball instead of playing catch, he said.

How quickly he’ll be able to come back and swing the bat as well as he is now would be impossible to predict, Henderson said.

“It’s going to be a big turnaround from what he’s used to in terms of baseball so it’s so hard to tell where he’ll be in two years,” Henderson said. “It’s just all the things that come with life, and you have to wait until you get to that point in time. There’s nothing really you can do until then. I’m certainly glad for him and I know he’ll be happy. That’s what matters.”

Reber was offered one more opportunity to get in some baseball before his mission. He had signed to play summer ball with the Asheboro (N.C.) Copperheads in the Coastal Plain League before he submitted his mission papers and even once he told the team he would be leaving, they offered him a spot on the roster to play for a few weeks before he left.

He declined the offer, instead going home after the school year to spend time with his family.

His last plate appearance for at least two years was on May 13 against Georgia. Pinch-hitting for designated hitter Braden Kapteyn, Reber grounded out to third.

“It’s hard right now to be away from baseball but it was important to me to be able to spend time with my family before I left for two years and also to be able to prepare and be ready to go on the mission,” he said. “That was important to me. Even now, I haven’t regretted the decision but there are a lot of times that I obviously miss being around the game.”

‘I feel like I’m ready’
It was hard on Reber to transition from high school to college, and from high school baseball to college ball.

Now he’s faced with the biggest transition in his life so far: spending almost 100 weeks in a country he knew nothing about five weeks ago, speaking a language he hasn’t yet learned and a culture that he won’t fully understand until it’s forced on him upon arrival — all without any of his family or friends.

He’ll have weekly communication with his family via email, and the Chile Santiago East Mission runs a blog, santiagomissioneast.blogspot.com, that regularly updates the whereabouts and goings-on of the missionaries. But he’ll only have two phone calls home each year: one on Mother’s Day and the other on Christmas.

But he knows his faith, he said, and he is confident in it. That fact alone, he said, is more promising to him than any at-bat he’ll ever have.

“I’m ready. To be honest, I think I was more nervous about school than I am about the mission,” Reber said. “I feel like I’m ready. I’ve had some good times with my family this summer. I’ve really enjoyed being able to be with them. It’s going to be hard to leave but as of right now, I’m not nervous. I think that’s a good sign.”

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