JUPITER, Fla. — Matt Lindstrom might be the hardest-throwing Swedish-speaking returned Mormon missionary in baseball.
It's a large leap from Stockholm to the big leagues, but Lindstrom has a shot at becoming the Florida Marlins' closer this season.
A fastball clocked last fall at 102 mph makes the rookie right-hander a strong candidate, and his missionary background may help, too. Idaho native Lindstrom spent two years in Sweden, where he went door to door trying to spread the Mormon faith — in Swedish — with decidedly mixed results. He was once chastised by a 350-pound bus driver who said Mormons try to steal money.
In comparison, nursing a lead in the ninth inning might seem stress-free.
"There were some humbling times, that's for sure," Lindstrom said. "Swedish people aren't really adept at listening to people who want them to listen to a message about religion. They're blockheaded. I know, because I am one."
His great-grandfather immigrated from Sweden, and the blond-haired Lindstrom grew up in Rexburg, Idaho, where he became a three-sport star best at baseball in high school, thanks to a 92-mph fastball.
The missionary work in 1999-2001 and a stress fracture in Lindstrom's upper arm in 2005 slowed his progress, and at 27 he's still trying to break into the big leagues. He pitched last season for Single-A St. Lucie and Double-A Binghamton, two New York Mets affiliates, and was traded to Florida in November.
Lindstrom is a candidate to replace closer Joe Borowski, who had 36 saves in 2006 before signing as a free agent with Cleveland. Other possibilities as spring training begins include Henry Owens, who came to Florida with Lindstrom in the Mets trade, Taylor Tankersley, Kevin Gregg and Ricky Nolasco, a starter much of last season.
"There are a lot of options," manager Fredi Gonzalez said.
Lindstrom comes with considerable buzz — one Florida official said the rookie could throw a marshmallow through a battleship. His teammates in Binghamton in 2005 included Marlins first baseman Mike Jacobs, who predicts Lindstrom will consistently hit the high 90s if he wins the closer's job.
"The biggest thing for him is if he can get his mind right as far as being that bulldog kind of guy you need to be as a closer," Jacobs said. "If he can get that mentality, he has a real good shot."
Lindstrom's fastball was clocked at 100 mph for the first time in 2004, when he was with St. Lucie. He reached 99 at the All-Star Futures Game last July in Pittsburgh, and hit 102 last fall in the winter league in Puerto Rico.
What's it like to throw 100 mph?
"It's crazy, especially when you're out there competing and the adrenaline is going," he said. "It's cool."
At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, Lindstrom has a closer's physique, but he's not staking a claim to the job.
"I'm concerned about making the team first," he said. "I think slowly, but surely I could develop into a closer."
Lindstrom complements his fastball with a slider he throws in the 80s. Command wasn't a problem last year, when he walked 21 and struck out 70 in 58 2-3 innings with an ERA of 3.37, but he has been told his best pitch is too straight.
"They say I need to get more movement on my fastball," he said. "But it doesn't have much time to move when I throw a good one."
New teammate Dan Uggla faced Lindstrom when both played in the Arizona Fall League.
"His fastball explodes," Uggla said. "It's one of those things you can't teach. If you aren't cheating or ready for it, you aren't going to hit it."
During his two years in Sweden, Lindstrom picked up a ball only once — for a game of catch. But he believes the trip helped his fastball in the long run, because all the bread and cheese he ate added 15 pounds to his frame.
"They have unbelievable bread," he said. "I came home and turned that extra fat into muscle."
Lindstrom began his missionary work after one year of college, even though he was touted as a top prospect certain to be drafted. One scout told him he could be in line for a $700,000 signing bonus.
Instead, Lindstrom took a two-month course to learn Swedish, then spent two years spreading the message of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He went to seven cities in Sweden and has no regrets about putting baseball on hold.
"The people I met and the experiences, you can't learn that anywhere else," he said.
Lindstrom wasn't always warmly received. Knocking on doors at an apartment building, he encountered a Swede he estimated at 6-foot-6 and 350 pounds. When the man learned Lindstrom and a companion were Mormon, he sent them on their way by shoving them into the elevator.
Three months later, Lindstrom was about to board a bus when he recognized the driver — his 350-pound acquaintance.
"He shut my foot in the door, and stomped on the gas," Lindstrom said. "He gets on the microphone and says, 'You crazy Mormons, trying to steal people's money.' He didn't like us very much."
Lindstrom said it was hard not to take such rejection personally. Still, he's looking forward to a return trip to Sweden late this year.
"I'm going to go after we make the playoffs," he said, "and the World Series."