August 4, 2009 in Sports

Calling wasn’t to big leagues

After career with Indians, Werhas turned to religion
By The Spokesman-Review
Photo courtesy of John Werhas photo

Now: John and Kay Werhas married in 1973.Photo courtesy of John Werhas
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

John Werhas spent 12 years, including five seasons in Spokane, playing minor league baseball.

Ten of those years were at the AAA level. But he never got the opportunity to prove he could play in the big leagues.

Some would be bitter to have come so close but yet so far from a major league career. But not Werhas, who found his true calling beyond baseball.

“I was caught behind some talent,” said Werhas, now 71, who was a third baseman for Spokane from 1962 to 1966 when the team was the Los Angeles Dodgers’ AAA affiliate. “I had some pretty productive years in AAA, but I wasn’t quite good enough to play in the big leagues. Maybe with the proper opportunity I could have played in the major leagues.”

It wasn’t in the grand plan. Or in Werhas’ case, it wasn’t God’s plan for his life.

Werhas became a born-again Christian in early 1973, shortly after retiring from baseball.

Soon thereafter, he became a chaplain with professional athletes in southern California. Two decades later he would become a pastor at a church in Yorba Linda, Calif.

He served as senior pastor there for 18 years before venturing out to launch a new work, Rock Community Church, where he has been the past six years.

He got married six months after becoming a Christian. He and his wife, Kay, will celebrate their 36th anniversary in September.

“I was too deeply in love with myself to be in love with anybody else,” Werhas said of his life prior to Christianity. “Kay was a believer before me. I saw something very real and very special in her.”

Born in Highland Park, Mich., Werhas spent the later years of his youth in San Pedro, Calif., where he was a standout basketball player. He didn’t make the varsity high school baseball team until his senior year.

He signed a letter of intent to the University of Southern California to play basketball, but ended up excelling in both sports there.

In basketball, he was a 6-foot-2 forward and led USC in scoring (14.3 points) his senior year while being named the team’s most valuable player. He was an all-Pacific Coast Conference first team pick that year.

In baseball, he helped lead the Trojans to their second College World Series championship in 1958. In 1959, he was named an All-American while hitting .419, which still ranks second all-time at USC.

He was drafted in the eighth round of the 1960 NBA draft by the Minneapolis Lakers, but instead pursued a baseball career.

Werhas ranks among the dozen or so most popular players to wear a Spokane uniform. He was a three-time Pacific Coast League All-Star, twice with Spokane. He was voted the Indians’ MVP in 1963, ’65 and ’66 and voted Spokane’s most popular player twice. He played in 691 games for the Indians and ranks fourth on the all-time list and is believed to rank with modern-era PCL players in most games played.

In the 1963 PCL All-Star Game in Spokane, he went 2 for 3 with a home run off Portland’s Luis Tiant, who would go on to a major league career with Boston.

He lived with the same family – the late Frank and Katie Saccomanno – all five years in Spokane.

“My memories of Spokane were fantastic,” Werhas said. “I thought the people of Spokane were as kind and gracious as you can have anywhere, especially the Saccomanno family. They were like another set of parents.”

John and Kay Werhas have two adult children. John Mark lives in the Orange County, Calif., area near them and is in the mortgage business. Their daughter, Cassandra, is married to former major league relief pitcher Dan Naulty, who is in the Oxford School of Theology in England studying to be a pastor.

Werhas took much of June off to recuperate from minor prostate surgery.

While many of his peers are slowing down or retired, Werhas doesn’t see an end in sight.

“The church wants to get 10 more years out of me,” he said, laughing. “We’re set up to make the transition when I think it’s time to step down. I’m not ready to retire. I’ll stop preaching when I’m starting to drool a little too much.

“Baseball was just a path that got me to where I’m at today. The whole purpose of my life was moving toward and driven toward being a believer and being used by God.”

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