No one should be surprised that McKay Christensen gave up a professional baseball career in the prime of life so he could take a real job working alongside his father and become something more than a baseball player. After all, this is the same guy who once passed up a million-dollar signing bonus from a professional baseball team to serve a church mission in Japan.
You can find him now on the job in Lehi planning the Traverse Mountain development, where he works and lives with his wife and two children. He gave up money, fame, prestige and a game for all of this.
"It wasn't," he explains, "what I wanted to do with my life."
He began his baseball career with great fanfare; he left with barely any notice. Christensen, once a prize recruit of the BYU football and baseball teams and Major League Baseball, ended his eight-year professional baseball career in April of 2004 at the age of 28, almost exactly 10 years after he was made the sixth pick of the draft.
One day he was collecting three hits in five at-bats and driving in the winning run for the Cincinnati Reds' Triple A farm team, the Louisville Bats; the next day he was calling it quits and preparing to move to Utah. "It came as a complete surprise," Bats manager Rick Burleson told the Louisville Courier-Journal. "There was nothing I could say to change his mind."
Looking back, Christensen says, "Baseball has a way of swallowing up years of your life, and I didn't want it to swallow any more years. I didn't want to be a baseball player always. I didn't want it to be the only thing I did in my life. I know it's not typical for most people, but most people don't understand what baseball is really about. It's consuming. It requires a huge sacrifice. It's hard to ever become anything other than a baseball player. I knew a lot of guys who, when they were done with baseball, had nothing to go to."
As a kid, Christensen enjoyed riding in a truck with his father, Steve, while he oversaw his real estate development business. During baseball's off-season, Christensen continued to work with his father, who, along with his brothers, Jim and LaVar, were successful developers in their hometown of Fresno, Calif., before moving one by one to Utah.
"It's in my blood," says Christensen, who is working on the master plan for a development that will include up to 8,000 units and 4 million square feet of commercial real estate. "I've always loved building and developing. I've grown up with it."
In many ways, Christensen, who also plans to return to school to earn a degree, is starting where he left off when baseball interrupted. He had planned to go to college. He had aspired to be a doctor or join his father in the family business. He had planned to play football — his first love — and baseball for BYU. He had wanted to earn a degree. He hadn't seriously considered a baseball career until late in his senior year of high school. All that changed with the 1994 baseball draft.
He was widely recruited for baseball and football. During his senior year alone, he collected 2,600 all-purpose yards and a staggering 44 touchdowns, and was named Northern California football Player of the Year. In baseball he batted .500 and stole 62 bases in 62 attempts and was named to the all-American team. He was rated among the three or four best athletes in the baseball draft.
The baseball people told him he would be among the first players chosen for the draft and dangled a $1 million signing bonus in front of him if he skipped his LDS Church mission to come to work for them. When he announced that he would still serve a mission, the clubs balked, and Christensen was BYU-bound. The California Angels were so enamored with his athleticism and speed that they made him the sixth pick of the draft anyway. They offered Christensen a deal he couldn't refuse — riches and a two-year break to serve a mission.
"I was told there was no way I could serve a mission and still be drafted, and I was anyway," he says. "I felt it was an opportunity I shouldn't pass up. That option made the most sense. I had two brothers who played college football (for BYU), and they got beat to pieces."
The truth is Christensen was a great athlete but a raw baseball player. Baseball requires skills and years of development even for great athletes. "I didn't understand baseball," he says. "I didn't know the fundamentals. Football was more instinctive." On top of that, he spent two years away from the game on his mission, slowing his progress further.
The Angels traded Christensen while he was on his mission. A week after he returned from his mission, he began playing baseball. He wound up playing for the White Sox, Dodgers and Mets in four Major League seasons. He was most productive after being traded to the Dodgers in July of 2001, batting .327 in 49 at-bats. But mostly he had an uneven baseball career, largely because of injuries and impatient clubs. He finished with a career .250 batting average in 128 at-bats.
In 2003, he went to spring training with the Reds but was injured the last two weeks and didn't make the club. He was hitting over .300 in Triple A when he quit.
"I retired prematurely probably when I was just getting to know and understand the game," he says. "I got a lot of flak from my agent and the general manager. They said, 'You're going to be in the Major Leagues. You're going to have a long career.' I just felt it was time. There were other things I wanted to do. I had been having these feelings for a long time."
Looking back on his career, he regrets that he wasn't able to string together a couple of seasons without injuries (he played with an injured shoulder that eventually required surgery).
"Had I not left baseball, I'm sure I would have walked away more fulfilled," he says.
Pressed further, he will tell you his biggest regret has nothing to do with baseball. "If I have one regret it's that I didn't play college football and maybe beyond," he says. "Football was more of a passion for me than baseball, and it came more naturally. It was not my favorite sport."
During nostalgic moments, he remembers getting hits against the likes of Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson and playing in the ballparks of Boston and Chicago and more.
"I remember the clubhouse, being outside every day, the smell of grass, putting on my cleats and swinging a bat," he says. "I miss those things. But I know I made the right decision."