ST. LOUIS — Here’s a few stats about St. Louis Cardinals' left-fielder Matt Holliday since his Major League Baseball career began in 2004: He’s been at bat more than 6,500 times; scored about 1,090 runs, batted in more than 1,140 runners, and has hit nearly 300 home runs.
And here’s a more startling statistic about Holliday — one where he’s truly beating the odds in the world of professional sports: he’s been married to his first and only wife for 16 years.
Various media reports suggest the divorce rate among professional athletes is roughly 60-80 percent, significantly higher than the divorce rate of all Americans, which stands at about 40-50 percent, and is gradually improving.
Matt’s wife, Leslee Holliday, has incorporated into her Christian ministry helping more couples in the world of professional sports make it through the home runs and the strike outs — metaphorically speaking — that are part of this intense life in the limelight.
“For the last couple of years, I’ve been leading Bible studies for professional athletes’ wives in St. Louis,” she said. “I have a real passion for the word of God.”
Holliday said the statistic that’s always stuck with her is that, reportedly, some 80 percent of professional athletes end up divorced, addicted or bankrupt — sometimes all three — once they reach their 40s. She’d like to see that change — one couple, one friend at a time. Because it’s not just the athletes in those situations who suffer. So too, she noted, do their spouses, children and extended family and friends.
Holliday spoke with The Southern Illinosian this week about her faith journey to highlight her upcoming scheduled appearance in Carbondale.
She is scheduled to speak about her ministry, and how she balances her life as an MLB player’s wife, in Carbondale at the Southern Illinois Women’s Fair hosted by U.S. Rep. Mike Bost and his wife, Tracy, on Saturday, Aug. 6, at the Carbondale Civic Center, 200 S. Illinois Ave. The event is free. Anyone is welcome at the second-annual event hosted by Bost, R-Murphysboro. This past year’s event, held in Belleville, featured retired track champion Jackie Joyner Kersee as the keynote speaker.
Holliday said she doesn’t know yet exactly what she plans to say to attendees in Carbondale. She’s still putting her thoughts together, and reflecting in prayer.
But she said that the primary topic of the Bible study groups she’s held has been ongoing through life “with a bit more intention.” Studying the word of God helps one do that, she said.
Spouses of professional athletes share common bonds over some of the hallmarks of the pro-sports lifestyle: the long days on the road, the intensity, the scrutiny, fast wealth and fame, just to name a few. And Holliday said these things are discussed in the Bible studies attended by some wives of St. Louis Cardinals’ players, and the wives of St. Louis Rams’ players before the football organization left town.
But their conversations more generally would apply to any woman in a marriage, she said.
“There’s a way to care for your husband that’s scriptural,” she said. “It’s in the Bible.” In her leadership role, Holliday said she’s “helping women learn how to encourage their spouse as far as how God designed it.”
It’s obviously not just the burden of wives, she said, but the women talk about things they can do to make the marriage strong. In her case, she said both she and Matt, who are raising four children, work to make sure that life is about more than baseball, even if that’s a big, important part of it.
She also said it’s important that spouses of professional athletes not lose their own identity in that of their famous husband’s, because someone feeling as though they are without purpose almost always leads to discontentment in a marriage.
Of her husband Matt Holliday, she said, “We’re both passionate about marriage.” She said he shows that in many ways, such as by choosing to primarily socialize with teammates who share their commitments to faith, marriage and family. On the road, she said, Matt and starting pitcher Adam Wainright always ask for adjoining hotel rooms. “They’re like brothers,” she said. “They’re Christian men who love their family and this is what they do for a living. They have Bible studies. They care about their families. (Catcher) Yadier Molina is the same way.”
Holliday said people may find it “refreshing and shocking to know there’s a brotherhood in the locker room.”
As for the Hollidays' love story, their first chapter is simple and cute. They met in Stillwater, Oklahoma, in 1999, when Matt was 18 and Leslee was 19. It was a blind date.
Leslee, now 37, was an undergraduate at Oklahoma State University-Stillwater. Matt, now 36, had been drafted into the Colorado Rockies’ farm system, and was home on break during a minor league off-season. His father coaches baseball at the university.
Matt’s best friend was dating a friend of Leslee’s, and that couple wanted to double date, she said. Her friend asked if she’d go with Matt.
“So anyway, that worked out well,” Leslee said. They were married on Dec. 30, 2000. Leslee said she never gave much of any thought to what it would be like if Matt would be called up to the Major Leagues. Everyone hopes to make it, but only a narrow few do, and the first years of their marriage were far from glamorous, she said. Matt was making about $1,000 a month playing minor league ball. They traveled to various cities, living in small apartments and at one point, the basement of strangers who agreed to be a host family.
The past 16 years have been a whirlwind journey, she said.
Their first child was born in December 2004. That year, Matt spent six days on a Triple A minor league team, the highest minor league level, before he was called up to play for the Rockies.
Of that day he got the call, she said, “I’ll never, ever, ever forget.”
That’s primarily because of how excited she was for her husband, but also because of what was distracting her when he tried to call her with the news, a story she tells these days with equal parts humor and horror. Holliday said she was at a house party that evening with other baseball wives. They had gathered for "The Bachelorette" Season 1 finale. The women were glued to the television that night and awaited the big reveal: Which suitor would "The Bachelor" Season 1 runner-up Tristan Rehn choose? But just as Tristan was about to give that final rose to Ryan Stutter, Leslee said her phone began ringing.
“Matt keeps calling and calling,” she said. She recalled thinking, “What is he doing? Because we’re about to find out who she picks. I don’t even answer it.” But because he’d called more than once, Leslee said she decided she had better pick up, in case it was an emergency. “I’m like, ‘What is going on? You know my show’s on?’” she said. “And he says, ‘I’ve only been called up to the big leagues.’”
“This is not how I thought this would happen,” she said of how the big reveal played out in her own life. But they celebrated together over the phone, and she picked him up at the airport after a road game and drove him to his new job at Coors Field. “I’ll never forget how exciting that was, to drive him to where he was going to play. Whether it would be one day in the major leagues or 14 years later, I didn’t know. It was a blessing looking back on it.”
Today, Matt reportedly makes an annual salary of $17 million. The couple and their children split their time between homes in St. Louis and Jupiter, Florida, where the Cardinals’ spring training facility is located. Their four children are Jackson, 12; Ethan, 9; Gracyn, 6 and Reed, 3. Holliday said she’s excited about meeting people in Carbondale, and speaking about her experiences. She said she’s spoken to church groups, but this will be her first-ever event of this kind. Holliday said she hopes women and men take something way from her speech, whatever it is that might make sense for their lives.
Baseball has been good to the family, she said. But what makes their marriage work is a commitment, she said, for herself and Matt not to make baseball the center of everything. God, she said, has to remain at the center, followed closely by family. Everything else is fleeting, she said, from the losses to the big wins: even the high of a World Series win fades. But baseball is a great teaching tool about how to go through life, she said.
“As far as faith goes, baseball has a way of helping you understand that life goes day to day. One day you’re successful on the baseball field, and one day you’re terrible… That requires you to be grateful for the good days, and persevere in bad days.”