Like many other thousands of missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, serving has made a lasting impact on the life of Utah relief pitcher Blake Whiting.

His two-year missionary service in the Dominican Republic also had a major impact on his baseball career. 

It was during his time in the Dominican Republic that he received an improbable scholarship to play the sport — from Salt Lake Community College — and he was also surrounded by people obsessed with baseball.

Though he had to learn a new language and adapt to a new culture, in a way, Whiting felt right at home in the Caribbean country. 

While he was a student at Oakdale High in central California, Whiting wasn’t sure that a mission was right for him. 

“I was really skeptical about going on a mission,” he said. “I didn’t want to go foreign and learn a new language. I was a picky eater. I never left California.”

But after he decided to serve, Whiting started researching the places where major league players have served. He found that several had served in Spanish-speaking countries. 

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For example, Jeremy Guthrie, a former Kansas City Royals starter who pitched for five MLB teams in 13 seasons, served in Spain. Scott Nielsen, who pitched at BYU, served a mission in Argentina. He was drafted in the fourth round by the Seattle Mariners in 1983 and played for the New York Yankees, Chicago White Sox and the New York Mets. 

When Whiting received his call to the Dominican Republic Santo Domingo East Mission, speaking Spanish, any concerns he may have had subsided. 

“I was like, ‘Yep, that’s exactly where I’m supposed to be.’ It was awesome,” he recalled. “My older brother played professional baseball for the Cardinals in their minor league system. So I knew about Dominicans and I knew where it was at and I knew how important baseball is there. Once I read ‘Dominican Republic,’ there was a strong feeling that, ‘This is where Heavenly Father wants me to be. It’s the perfect place for me.’” 

Baseball love in the Dominican Republic

The Dominican Republic, a Caribbean island nation with a population of about 11 million people, is known for its beaches, resorts, golfing — and baseball.

“Baseball in the D.R. is nothing like I had ever seen before,” Whiting said. 

Elder Blake Whiting gets in some batting practice with the locals on a P-day while serving his Latter-day Saint mission in the Dominican Republic. Whiting is now a pitcher on the University of Utah baseball team. | Courtesy Blake Whiting

And the country produces an inordinate amount of major leaguers. In 2021, 561 players on major league rosters hailed from the United States. The Dominican Republic was No. 2 with 80 players, while Venezuela ranked No. 3 with 54. 

Among the players the Dominican Republic has produced over the years are superstars like Albert Pujols, David Ortiz, Pedro Guerrero, Adrian Beltre, Rafael Furcal, Sammy Sosa, Pedro Martinez, Robinson Cano, Rafael Devers, Vladimir Guerrero, Manny Ramirez, Miguel Tejada and Bartolo Colon, to name a few. 

Baseball games are constantly being played all over in the Dominican Republic and, for Whiting, they were ubiquitous.

“I remember pretty vividly,” he said. “It was 10 a.m. on a Tuesday. I looked to my right and there was a school full of kids. I looked to my left and there was a baseball field full of kids. I think there were more kids at the baseball field than there were at school. Any baseball field you’d walk by, it was full of kids or adults playing.”

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Whiting remembers a house filled with kids about 15 years old that was dedicated to developing young baseball talent.

“The Yankees and Angels have facilities down there for the kids to play baseball, go to school, learn English,” Whiting said. “That’s their ticket out of the D.R. and out of poverty, to visit the U.S., get drafted, make money.”

While Whiting was serving his mission, Ortiz, known as “Big Papi,” was shot. A drug trafficker, reportedly jealous of Ortiz, arranged for Ortiz to be murdered. “Big Papi,” who has been elected to the Hall of Fame, survived.

“I didn’t know it at the time, he was about two streets away from me when he got shot,” Whiting said. “People there love Big Papi. Robinson Cano drives his green Lamborghini around San Pedro. People love him down there. I met a relative of Adrian Beltre’s. She got baptized. I met Rafael Furcal. His nephew got baptized. I interviewed him for baptism. An awesome kid. The people there are so friendly to us. They’re celebrities. They treat them like gods.”

The baseball fields in the Dominican Republic weren’t always in the best condition, but that didn’t stop people from playing on them. There would be a mound and a backstop, with a dirt field with rocks. 

“I think that’s partly why they are so good at baseball — they’re always getting these nasty hops,” Whiting said. 

Some played a game like baseball. They used a broom stick and bottle caps to play. 

A different path

“Because the baseball fields were always so full, you’d see these kids in the streets playing with a broom stick and bottle caps,” Whiting said. “They’d play baseball with that. It was cool to see. They’d play with their bare hands. No helmets. They’d use wood bats, whether it was too big or too small. They were just out there to play.”

Opening doors to gospel conversations

Whiting packed his baseball glove and took it to the Dominican Republic. It came in handy when talking to the baseball-crazy population. 

“There were times on P-days where we went to the baseball field and played baseball with people that were investigating the church and members of the church,” he said. “It was an activity we could do to get people more knowledgeable about the church. Any way that we could get people in contact with the church was a big win. Bringing new converts and getting people excited about going to church. We’d definitely break out the ball and the glove as much as possible.

There were a lot of kids that loved to talk baseball with me. They would love to play catch and learn little things like how to hold a pitch; how to throw harder. It was a great introduction to the gospel for them,” Whiting added. “It was a way for me to open my mouth. We would start with a little game of catch for five minutes and that would open us to teach them the gospel.

Elder Blake Whiting, left, poses for a picture with his companion while serving a Latter-day Saint mission in the Dominican Republic. Whiting is now a pitcher on the University of Utah baseball team. | Courtesy Blake Whiting

“That’s how Heavenly Father helped me to be able to spread the word about his son, Jesus Christ. They would bring their friends and groups of teenagers and it brought more excitement to the gospel and to know how Heavenly Father could help them with baseball as well and how it all correlated with them.”

As part of all missions, missionaries are required to exercise every day for 30 to 60 minutes. Whiting’s first companion, as it turned out, had committed to play baseball at BYU, though an injury prevented him from doing so. 

“My trainer got me into lifting. We made our own weights out of cement and paint cans and water jugs,” Whiting said. “We had an outside patio. We’d wake up before 6:30 to lift and run.”

Whiting did a lot of walking in the Dominican Republic, as well. 

“We couldn’t ride bikes in the D.R.,” he said. “In a couple of areas we could — but bikes were getting stolen.”

An unlikely scholarship offer

Since he didn’t have any scholarship offers out of high school Whiting figured his baseball career was over. 

In high school, Whiting, who also played football and basketball, earned All-League, All-State honors and an All-Star Game MVP Award in baseball and he led his team to a conference championship. He led the conference with 102 strikeouts and a 0.78 ERA in 63 innings.

Eight months into his mission, Whiting’s dad sent his son’s video of him pitching to Salt Lake City Community College. 

Whiting said he had never heard of SLCC. 

“I didn’t know anything about them,” he said. “They offered me a scholarship while I was on my mission.” 

And he was grateful. 

“California junior colleges can’t offer scholarships so when I found out that SLCC could, and they did, it was an easy decision to say yes,” Whiting said.

In order to play at SLCC, Whiting had to ask permission of his mission president to go home three weeks early. 

“That brought me out to Utah, where I kind of wanted to be for the atmosphere and the environment,” he said. 

‘I started to throw harder than I had ever thrown before

In terms of playing baseball, Whiting said the blessings of serving a mission manifested themselves almost immediately, despite a two-year layoff from playing competitively. 

About three weeks after returning from his mission, he was throwing off the mound and noticed something that stunned and humbled him. 

“That’s actually one of the cooler parts that I experienced, the blessings I know Heavenly Father has blessed me with — I started to throw harder than I had ever thrown before. The first time off the mound, I was throwing 93 instead of 89-90, which is what I was throwing in high school. I definitely got pretty sore after.”

It took a couple of months for Whiting to get back into baseball shape but as far as “the skills and ability, Heavenly Father was blessing me with that the day I got home from my mission. I’d say after a month or two of working out with the team and throwing and running, I was good to go.”

Before arriving at SLCC, Whiting had been a starting pitcher. But with the Bruins, he was turned into a reliever. 

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“I had never really came out of the bullpen. I was having good outings and they wanted someone to be able to close the game out,” Whiting said. “When we have a bases-loaded situation, we want someone to get us out of it. A lot of pressure situations. I had success with it at SLCC.”

In 2021, Whiting was named the NJCAA Region 18 Relief Pitcher of the Year and All-Region 18 First Team. He posted a 4-0 record with three saves and a 1.53 ERA in 14 appearances, including one start in 2021. 

Whiting pitched 35.1 innings with 48 strikeouts and 10 walks while limiting opposing batters to a .179 batting average. In 2020, he made seven relief appearances and compiled a 2-0 record with three saves and a 3.38 ERA, including 17 strikeouts and two walks in eight innings pitched. 

Landing with the Utes

After playing two seasons at SLCC, Whiting caught the attention of Utah coach Gary Henderson.

Whiting was impressed with Henderson and loved the idea of being able to compete in the Pac-12. 

“I researched Gary Henderson and his resume. I don’t think there’s a better resume in college baseball than his. I got to talk to him and I loved everything, including his philosophy on pitching,” Whiting said. “The season ended and I was still not committed anywhere. … I had offers from Utah, BYU, UVU and others. I felt like the Pac-12 was where I needed to be with coach Henderson to give me the best opportunity to succeed and get to the next level.”

The 6-foot-2, 200-pound righthander was recruited to the Utes as a closer, a role he relishes. 

“It’s definitely been a learning experience about being prepared to go in in those pressure situations, and having the confidence and experience to know that it’s your job to get out of sticky situations,” he said. “Basically, you have to be mentally prepared and have the mental confidence that you’re going to get it done. You can’t hope that you’re going to get out of it. You can’t wonder if you’re going to get out of it. You’ve got to have the demeanor that you’re the best and you’ll get the job done.”

In 2022, his first season at Utah, Whiting has pitched 25.1 innings, yielding 23 hits while striking out 30. He owns a 2-1 record with five saves and an ERA of 4.97. 

Having served a mission has helped him block out distractions, and deal with challenges that closers see on a regular basis, including trying to protect a lead. 

“Overcoming the adversity to learn Spanish, being away from home and being homesick, definitely correlates to overcoming adversity on the baseball field,” he said. “When the bases are loaded and you have less than two outs and you’re facing adversity, I feel like I’m more mature as an individual now whereas if I was just coming out of high school, I’d probably be a little nervous out there on the mound, kind of hoping the ball goes over the plate. Now, I have the confidence to face adversity to get out of those situations and the maturity to do it.”

‘Greatest experience of my life’

During his time in Utah, Whiting has fielded plenty of questions about his missionary experience. 

“It happens all the time,” he said. “That’s one of the biggest blessings about coming to Utah. A lot of the people, whether they are members or aren’t members, they ask for help or ask questions about the Dominican Republic or the gospel. It’s another great missionary tool that I have to talk about the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Dominican Republic.

“I’m able to use the D.R. to talk about the gospel. People tend to love the stories, whether it’s about eating chicken feet or whether it’s about kids playing on a Tuesday morning when they’re supposed to be in school. It’s been an awesome opportunity to talk about it with my teammates and my friends at SLCC and the U. of U. At times, my coaches will ask me questions in an airport.”

Whiting is hoping to play professional baseball someday. 

“I want to see how far I can go. I want to play against the best. That’s why I came here to Utah as well,” he said. “I wanted to play against the best in the Pac-12. I want to go as far as my skills allow me to go. I believe that’s pro ball. We’ll see how it all works out.”

Being the youngest of four brothers, Whiting has plenty of support. He’s the tallest of them. One of his brothers served in the Army and another in the Air Force. Another brother was drafted by the Cardinals and played before retiring in 2017. Now, he’s attending pharmacy school. 

“I was always getting picked on growing up,” Whiting said, laughing. “That helps me on the mound as well. Watching my brother play professional baseball has helped my career as I saw how he dealt with everything.”

Last summer, Whiting went to Iowa and worked on his pitching. His brother helped him get his speed from 90 to 96 mph. 

“He’s been a huge help in the process of pitching, mechanics, how to attack hitters,” Whiting said. “I definitely wouldn’t be this far without him.”

Of course, no matter how his baseball career turns out, he’ll always be grateful for the two years he spent in the Dominican Republic. 

“The mission was the greatest experience of my life. It changed my life drastically, from where I was headed to where I am now.” — Utah pitcher Blake Whiting

“The mission was the greatest experience of my life. It changed my life drastically, from where I was headed to where I am now,” he said. “Just the overall joy in life and the blessings that I can see of how Heavenly Father’s hand works in my life, with school, baseball.”

Having a command of the Spanish language could help him at the next level of baseball. 

“It could be an opportunity for me in pro ball to speak Spanish with a catcher. They are such fun people to talk to, whether they are Dominicans or people from Mexico or Honduras or Peru,” Whiting said. “They’re awesome people. They are such fun people to talk to and be around. Being able to communicate with them through Spanish is awesome and meeting new people. Being in pro ball and having that opportunity would be awesome.”

Regardless of his future, as he looks at his life and his experiences to this point, Whiting attributes his ability to play baseball, and his opportunity to continue playing, to God — and his mission to the Dominican Republic. 

“I don’t know what Heavenly Father’s plan is with that, but I definitely feel like there was a plan to keep me in baseball,” he said. “Heavenly Father had me go to the D.R., a baseball country. It kept me around baseball. Obviously, the gospel was my focus down there, teaching about Jesus Christ. But baseball was always there to remind me. The offer from SLCC was huge. I felt like he has a plan for me here in baseball.”

Utah Utes pitcher Blake Whiting poses for a portrait in the dugout of Ute Baseball Field in Salt Lake City, on Tuesday, May 10, 2022. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News