The pregame music in the Fresno Grizzlies’ clubhouse is turned up to the max as the ceremonial first pitch draws closer.
Rap lyrics blare, and most of the players start to get fired up, dressed and refocused for the game.
Off to the side of the clubhouse, Grizzlies prospect pitcher Mark Appel quietly tries to tune it all out and get in the zone a different way.
Wearing noise-cancellation headphones, Appel drowns out the clubhouse-preferred rap music in favor of Christian music and sifts through Bible passages on his cellphone.
“The locker room can be a very toxic place for a Christian,” Appel said. “Whether it’s the music that’s being played that enters your mind or other behaviors, you want to protect what enters your mind.
“One of my favorite verses is Romans 12:2: ‘Do not conform to the ways of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’”
Appel isn’t one to preach, cast judgment on others or even advertise his Christian faith. But when surrounded in a boys-will-be-boys, fraternity-like environment that exists in many baseball clubhouses, Appel’s deeply religious beliefs and strict values tend to stand out.
In some ways, it’s a contrast of cultures and ways of life, Appel admits.
The locker room can be a very toxic place for a Christian.
Fresno Grizzlies pitcher Mark Appel
Be like one of the guys? Or be like God as much as possible? It’s a spiritual battle Appel deals with quite regularly, with money, women, partying opportunities and other temptations all heightened as a pro baseball player.
“Spiritual battles are when you know spiritually what you should be doing,” Grizzlies chaplain Ed Crain said. “But the flesh, natural man, wants to do ungodly things.”
Appel, 24, tries not to cuss, though he admits he’s not exactly proud of things he’s yelled into his glove. He laughs when asked to repeat what he’s said on those rare occasions.
Appel also prefers not to party or drink, though he’ll have a beer on special occasions, like when the Grizzlies celebrated a Pacific Coast League Pacific Northern division title last month.
That leaves two main pursuits for Appel: the Bible and baseball, both of which require constant practice and great discipline.
Appel believes his faith gives him the strength to handle the highs and lows of a career that’s full of high expectations and pressures.
The former Stanford star was selected by the Grizzlies’ parent, the Houston Astros, as the No.1 overall pick in the 2013 amateur draft and signed a $6.35 million bonus.
The season prior, Appel was projected as the top pick, slid to No.8 and declined $3.8 million from the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Mark Appel was the No. 1 overall pick from the 2013 draft. But the two picks taken immediately after him – Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant and Colorado Rockies pitcher Jon Gray – already have reached the majors while Appel remains in Triple A.
Nearing the end of his second full season in the minors, Appel has yet to enjoy big-league success like Kris Bryant, the No.2 overall pick in 2013 and the starting third baseman for the Chicago Cubs.
Appel hasn’t even reached the majors like 2013 No.3 overall pick Jon Gray, who joined the Colorado Rockies’ rotation last month.
“Everyone wants Mark to succeed and get up to Houston,” Grizzlies pitching coach Ace Adams said. “He’s got a lot of pressure on him. He feels it at times.
“He had a lot of success in college, had a lot of money thrown his way. He’s dealing with some high expectations.”
Appel’s professional career has been a collection of ups and downs, dominant starts followed by disastrous ones.
He’s heard the criticism and premature claims of him being a bust.
Appel tries to clear his mind and pray. He says it helps him keep his priorities straight.
“I think what a lot of people see in faith and sports is like it’s almost a superstition for performance, like I’m going to pray before my games so I can get a hit or so I can get the win,” he said. “For me, it’s all about your relationship with the Lord. Having everything centered around your faith and your relationship with the Lord as opposed to it being centered around baseball.”
Few doubt Appel’s talent. At 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, he already looks the part.
His best pitch, a wipe-out slider, is major league. He runs his fastballs up in the mid- to high-90 mph range. He has a changeup, and he’s working on finding a consistent curveball.
“When he’s on, he’s nasty dominant,” says Grizzlies catcher Tyler Heineman, who is also Appel’s roommate while the two live in Fresno. “And I don’t just say that as a friend or teammate. He can be unhittable sometimes.”
Appel is 5-2 with a 4.48 ERA and 61 strikeouts in 681/3 innings with Triple-A Fresno. Before getting promoted to the Grizzlies in late June, Appel was 5-1 with a 4.26 ERA and 49 strikeouts in 631/3 innings with Double-A Corpus Christi.
10-3, 4.37 ERA Mark Appel’s 2015 combined statistics for time split between Double A and Triple A
Appel applies a straight face but can’t help but unleash subtle facial expressions of annoyance when asked about his chances of being called up to the Astros.
He doesn’t know.
The Astros have called up seven pitchers from the Grizzlies this season, but only one has stuck with the big club: Lance McCullers, who had only a bullpen session with the Grizzlies.
Appel knows he must be patient.
“The Bible teaches us to be patient,” Appel says. “That’s what I try to do and just keep learning.”
Though Appel doesn’t hide his strong religious personality, he’s careful not to hold others, his teammates especially, to his behavioral standards.
Only when asked does he share his Christian views.
Appel is quick to admit he “slips up all the time, so who am I to judge? Condemnation frustrates everyone.
“It’s not that I’m better than you as a Christian,” he says. “A Christian is a sinner who understands he’s a sinner and needs a savior.”
Some find Appel’s no-drinking, no-cursing, no-partying approach odd. It becomes evident he’s not one of the guys.
And while it might be easier to be a clubhouse favorite to help unite and lead a team, Appel chooses to lead by example in a different way.
Want to discuss life and religion in or outside the context of baseball? Appel will gladly talk and listen.
“I think it’s admirable how Mark conducts himself,” Heineman says. “It’s not easy to do what he does when it seems like everyone is just having a good time.
“He’s a great example of what someone should want to be.”
Appel says he doesn’t mind being different. He just wants to do what he thinks is right.
“My faith comes in my desire to glorify God. And all that I do or strive to do is to glorify the Lord,” he says. “Everything else will work out how it’s supposed to.”