Baseball Helps Engelmann Find PeaceFeatures
Michigan outfielder Jonathan Engelmann was roughly 14 years old when he decided a change was needed. He sat in his San Mateo, Calif., home and stared at a picture of himself gripping a baseball bat with a black hat covering his shaggy brown hair.
He wasn’t satisfied with himself. To put it simply, Jonathan was overweight. He doesn’t remember stepping on a scale or a specific a number, or even how exactly it came to be aside from a foot injury not helping the cause. But he knew he wanted to see a change.
“I was looking at that picture, and said, ‘I am going to lose weight. I am just going to do it,’” he said.
The photo also contains symbols of the things Jonathan had been battling for the last five years. Being overweight brings obvious challenges, but none more prevalent than in the social scene, especially at such a young age.
He dealt with harassment and bullying at school, so much that it prompted switching schools multiple times. He was even homeschooled for a short while.
“I was a little secluded,” Engelmann said. “I didn’t have the same social scene as a lot of kids did. It was difficult for me to interact with people and kind of be on the same level as them. I never really went out. I didn’t have play dates. It was difficult not really having friends.”
Those days were long, and they don’t generate fond memories. He wasn’t the only one that suffered from the harassment. His parents, Kim and Tim, witnessed it all. They watched their young boy come through the door every day discouraged, his confidence crushed, not knowing why it was happening to him.
They describe Jonathan as a giver, wanting to help those around him even if that isn’t reciprocated.
“He was always trying to help out the underdog, and it was hard when, in return, he was treated that way,” Tim said. “We gave him some strategies to deal with the bullying, to give him strength within himself and be independent of other people’s criticism.”
Kim remembers Jonathan bringing friends home from school, a welcome sight amidst the harassment he dealt with. It was not your typical play date, though.
A lot of them were children with special needs.
“I mean these are special needs kids, and he would bring them home and care for them. That is wonderful in and of itself,” Kim said. “But there again he was giving and not receiving for himself a lot of times. With that heart he had, he had to learn to receive himself too.”
Jonathan was a curious kid who often thought about things on a deeper level. He wonders why things work the way they do.
“He’s always been a big thinker, and when he had teachers that would obsess about the minutia, that is when he would really get upset in terms of them not answering his questions,” Kim said. “He was more a philosopher, questioning the meaning of things and why they do those things. When he had teachers that would engage with him, he did really well even if the peer support was not there.”
When he learned about cells in elementary science class, he preferred to learn why they worked the way they do as opposed to how.
He went to a fairly progressive pre-school at one point where learning was encouraged through experience.
“They wanted the kids to learn from play, then environment and the nuance of life,” Tim said. “So when he was forced to fit the mold of public school, homework and everyone doing things a certain way, it is like, ‘Why are you doing it like this? Instead of like this?’”
This trait made the harassment tougher to swallow. Jonathan may have been socially awkward, but he certainly was not unaware.
“Every attempt I made to be social would be put down, so it was an accumulation of a lot of small things that kind of led to it,” Jonathan said. “It became evident that I wasn’t welcome in many social settings.”
It continued on into a downward spiral. He preferred to be alone. Friday nights consisted of solitude and other things that substituted for social interaction.
But if there was one thing he was not lacking, it was support. Kim is a pastor and Tim is a psychologist. They prayed the bullying would end, and had a hunch their kid was strong enough to weather the storm. He spent a lot of time with his family. It was his fortress from some of the things he dealt with at school. He has two older siblings, Chris and Julie.
“Regardless of what I was doing or what people thought of me, I knew I could go home and receive love from them,” Jonathan said. “That is such a blessing. I thank God every day for my parents and for my siblings.”
So there he sat, staring at this photo and tired of the way things were. He began to exercise. He ate healthier. Tim was impressed and a bit surprised to see his teenage son turn down ice cream when they went out to eat.
Another thing he used was baseball, a game and a tool that’s never failed him. Jonathan’s parents were family friends with Stu Pederson, the father of Dodgers outfielder Joc Pederson. Jonathan began to take hitting lessons from him.
Tim drove Jonathan to the Pederson’s home in Palo Alto one day to hit in the batting cage. Stu had a message for him.
“He said, ‘You know, Jon, you are really good. I can see you getting a scholarship with a Division I team,’” Tim recalled. “We looked at each other and were like, ‘What? Are you kidding me?’ We were driving back and our feet did not touch the ground the whole way home. It was just goosebumps. He joined a travel team. That helped him create a network of friends as the weight continued to come off.”
Stu introduced Jonathan to a travel team, NorCal Baseball. That not only elevated his game, but constructed a strong network of friends for the once shy, pudgy kid that preferred to be alone.
“I feel like when you have people with a similar goal or mindset, it is a lot easier to relate and communicate because you have things in common. You can talk pitching. You can talk hitting,” Jonathan said. “You can talk what the pitcher has, what you are going to do after the game. Baseball is a nucleus for conversation that you can go in a hundred directions and avenues with. I really used that.”
Thriving In Ann Arbor
Kim and Tim beamed as they watched their son connect with kids around the country. Jonathan excelled at baseball, and his career took off as the weight began to shed.
When high school arrived, he’d reached a nexus point. Everything began to come together. Baseball was his path, his confidence socially soared and he was now a lean 6-foot-3, 200 pounds.
He was the Pacific Athletic League MVP his junior and senior seasons. He was honored as a Perfect Game Underclassmen All-American as a sophomore.
College interest came, and offers followed. Jonathan looked at some California schools before a rather obscure offer came. Wolverines head coach Eric Bakich spotted him at a tryout and flagged him down.
“I can envision Jonathan playing for a long time because he is the total package,” Bakich said. “He has everything from a tools standpoint, and the playability of those tools has gotten better each year.”
At an in-home visit, Jonathan showed Bakich a photo of him as a youth and his face immediately signaled disbelief.
“I had no idea it was the same kid. He looked totally different,” Bakich said.
Soon after, Jonathan committed and signed to go to Ann Arbor. His new home was just a bit colder than San Mateo, and a long way away.
It brought a little uneasiness to Kim and Tim, knowing the challenges he had to overcome. But they’ve watched their son spread his wings in two years, both on the field (where he’s started 92 games in two seasons, hitting a career .259) and off.
“The network of support around him now is absolutely phenomenal,” Kim said. “We are so grateful with him being so far away that he has that. It is like a second family for him.”
Perhaps unexpectedly, speed is a tool he is developing in his game.
“I expect as he gets older, he will be a true basestealing threat. He has always had the ability to hit the ball out of the park,” Bakich said.
He’s swiped eight bases this season, and wants to build on that.
Jonathan isn’t ashamed of his past. He still looks at that picture from time to time. It fuels his motivation and reminds him of where he has been.
“That photo is a testament to the work that I have put in. It is inspiring to me, inspiring to others,” he said. “I feel like if anyone is struggling with their weight, self-identity or how they feel about themself, regardless, you can always strive to be what you want to be. If you put the work in, you can do some really cool stuff.”
Baseball gives people a wide variety things. It can give someone joy, a path to a better life or a fresh start.
It gave Jonathan friends. It gave him confidence. It gave him a scholarship and much more.
“Baseball has played a critical role in my development. It is an amazing game. How can you not be in love with it?” he said. “It’s all about growth. Growth from when I was picked on all the way to competing for a Big Ten crown. You can’t beat it.”