The bases were loaded with two outs, and Derek Jeter was coming to bat for the Yankees.
Jeter fouled off the first two fastballs he saw and found himself in a 0-2 hole. After taking a fastball and a slider for balls outside, he evened the count to 2-2. The Oakland A’s catcher called for a fastball.
But Justin James shook him off and struck out Mr. Yankee on a slider.
That pitch didn’t save the game for the A’s. In fact, they were losing on that September day in New York. However, that didn't matter; after a seven-year journey through the minor leagues, James had finally reached the pinnacle of baseball, the point that every young baseball player dreams of getting to. And he wasn't even nervous.
“Why would I be nervous when I had been waiting for that my whole life?” James said. “I felt like I should’ve been there a long time ago, and I felt like I had nothing to lose when I was out there.”
That’s the attitude that made the hard-nosed pitcher from Yukon, Okla., successful in reaching his first dream. It’s also what helped him fulfill another dream here in Columbia: opening a nutrition store.
Neither one was easy.
James attended MU from 2002 to 2003. In his sophomore season, he led the Tigers to their first post-season appearance since 1996. That year, the Toronto Blue Jays drafted him in the fifth round, and he worked his way up to Triple-A in 2007. Then, he was traded to the Reds organization.
Things took a turn for the worst. During his first season with his new team, James injured his pitching elbow. He spent a year battling a throbbing arm before being released in 2009.
He didn’t want to give up on the game he loved. James went to play for the Kansas City T-Bones. As part of the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball, the team had no affiliation with Major League Baseball.
Even though he was facing lesser competition, James struggled in Kansas City. His fastball was down to 85 mph – it used to top out at 93. During one stretch, he gave up 11 runs in only an inning and a third.
To try and find some sort of happiness and to take his mind off his struggles, James turned to alcohol. That only made matters worse.
“I was lost,” James said. “I had so many questions, and no one could give me the answers. I felt like I hit rock bottom.”
The season ended, and James went home. He also went to church.
Going to church wasn’t new to James, – he was raised Baptist – but that first post-season service did something for him. The pastor seemed to be talking about everything he was going through, and James felt like God was reaching out to him.
James changed his priorities. He gave up drinking, women and everything else that might have been holding him back. He read daily devotions, attended church weekly and trained everyday for five months straight.
“Living the life of God is one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do in my life, but, at the same time, it’s what’s keeping me alive and motivated,” he said.
When the first game of the next season hit, James felt like he had a new arm. The radar gun reflected that with a 95-mph reading.
Along with the added velocity came a new mindset.
“That season every time I took the mound, I took it like it was the last outing I was ever going to have,” James said. “I felt like my back was against the wall, and I was doing everything in my power to be the best I could be.”
The A’s took notice of the rejuvenated pitcher and signed him to a minor league deal. After dominating in Double-A, James was quickly promoted to Triple-A Sacramento.
On September 1, 2010, he got the call up to the major leagues. James, accompanied by his mom, dad and three best friends, flew from Sacramento to New York City the next day to join the A’s for their game against the Yankees.
James made his debut in the eighth inning of that game. He started the inning by striking out Robinson Cano and then ended it by fooling Derek Jeter on a slider.
James made three more appearances for the A’s that season. But an injury that had built up throughout his career kept him from progressing. In 2011, he was sent back down to Triple-A, where he was forced to pitch at 75 percent because of degenerative disks in his back.
Believing that everything happens for a reason, James decided to retire. But that meant he could pursue his second dream.
On May 2, he opened the Nutrishop at The Shoppes at Stadium. James said starting a business was tough, but he attributed his “go-getter” mentality from his playing days to the store’s early success.
Employee Brandon Mason has noticed that mentality.
“He’s motivated and very passionate about his job,” Mason said.
“I really like to reach out and help people reach their goals,” James said. “I think that’s what drives me in this business. I just like to see people be successful.”
(Tyler McSparran is a junior at MU, where he is majoring in journalism. He is from San Diego, Calif.)