FORT MYERS, Fla. - The waitress sets down the salad in front of the pastor's son. He thanks her. He takes a moment. And then he looks up, nonchalant, and asks, "Mind if I pray?"
He bows his head.
Heads bow with his, two others at a table on a restaurant patio on a mild Florida afternoon. He has a convincing knack, an affable demeanor that translates bemused observers into followers in an instant. His wife was one of them once, watching him, watching his way with people, watching the big guffaws that emanated from that 6-foot-6-inch bald guy, the ones that drew her to him. She knew when she saw him that, if not him, he was the type of person she would like to marry.
She saw him then, when he was befriending the maintenance staff and stealing couches (as a prank) at college. She sees him now, his stock soaring, his flock spreading, his name splashed across the Internet and the papers, and a future within sight.
His wife, Meryl, tells a story. They stood recently in a Sunday school class, this pastor's son and his pretty wife. The leader spoke about him, echoing what Justin Masterson has always known about himself, or at least since those seventh-grade girls chided and mocked him into running off his huskiness. Good job, the leader said. Good looks. Good family. Good wife.
You should hate him. You don't, though. You can't help it.
And then you ask, just because everything is there for him, just because he is talented and intelligent and a month away from turning 23. You ask if all this - his promotions through the Red Sox' minor league system, his invitation to his first big-league camp, his locker spot down the row from Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka - is overwhelming.
You wait for him to say yes. You wait for him to say what all the prospects have said all the times they've been asked the question.
"I'd love to say that it is, just because it sounds cool when you say it's a little overwhelming," Masterson says. "I mean, I can't really go with that. Just because this is where I feel like I'm supposed to be.
"It's like when you're doing something and everything's just clicking right. I'm not saying everything's going right or I'm doing everything perfect. But it's just - I feel comfortable."
A few drawbacksThere is no perfection, not when the slider still needs work, not when you're between Double A and Triple A status and it's not certain where you'll start the season. Not when the whispers among the crowds gathered to seek autographs reflect a desire to know exactly who the tall, bald kid is who has just signed their baseballs. Because he hears the whispers, he knows that the only reason they all know his name is that he was almost gone.
But Johan Santana is in New York now, not traded for a package of Red Sox prospects that might have included Masterson. And Masterson is in Boston. Or, rather, Portland or Pawtucket.
Boston, though, might not be all that far away. By the time August rolls around, the Derek Lowe-style sinkerballer could find himself in the bullpen in Fenway Park.
"The one thing we'll always have internal discussion [about] until the decision is ultimately made is his eventual role," pitching coach John Farrell says. "If you want to profile him out, he looks like a reliever just with the pitch mix that he has, a different arm angle that he pitches with. But until he's fully developed the ability to use three pitches - the slider is going to be a big pitch for him - our plan is going to [be to] continue to start him, but knowing that we wouldn't hesitate to move him to the bullpen if he shows us he can contribute this year."
There are trouble spots, of course. Michael Bowden, another rising star in the Red Sox system, knows them well. And, with a smile, he shares: "Sometimes [Masterson] just opens up. He's weak with the glove side a little bit, cuts his slider off, stuff like that. Cuts off his two-seamer so it doesn't have as good movement."
Scouting report over, Bowden reflects on a connection that was made swiftly and easily. He's smiling, perhaps at the memory of Masterson's antics days before, when Masterson placed Bowden's baseball card between a Bible and his wedding ring. They're close friends, and Bowden was one of three Red Sox minor leaguers to attend Masterson's Nov. 4 wedding in Indiana.
He watches Masterson, and tries to learn.
"It's just I'm very, very hard on myself after outings," Bowden says. "Him, this is one thing we're different at, he just throws it over his shoulder and it's just God's will. Whatever happens happens. That's His plan for him. Just the way he goes about that, I try to take as much as I can from that, hard as it is."
Mr. CoolMeryl knew, early on. The pastor's son made it all very clear.
"He laid it out for me at the beginning," she says, recalling their basketball court courtship, boys and girls being prohibited from each other's dorms at certain hours at their conservative college. "It's God, baseball, and then family. And you fall into the family."
He never wanted a girlfriend, she says. He was too busy with everything else, back when they met at Bethel College, an evangelical Christian school in Indiana where her parents work. Too busy with baseball, with the pack of friends that followed him everywhere, that caused her to take notice. That caused her to form a crush big enough that, when Masterson ran into her father on a school assignment, he greeted his future son-in-law with the words, "You're the one my daughter's been looking up online."
His pull was there, even then. The balance, too. The notion that he would fulfill the plan he had set out. He believed it, from his time at tiny, 2,000-student Bethel, from which he transferred his sophomore year because there was no pitching coach, to his days at San Diego State under coach Tony Gwynn, to becoming a second-round draft choice, to his struggles near the end of his stint at Portland last season, after near perfection marked his introduction to Double A.
"He's never thrown," Meryl says. "If he wins a great award, 'Oh cool. Great.' If he has a horrible game, 'You know, I wish I could have done that, but tomorrow's another day.' It's like he doesn't ever get thrown, and at times, it can get frustrating. I'm like, 'Aren't you excited?'
"Oh my word. Just the other day, I was almost bawling, 'cause I was like, 'You're here doing your dream. You really feel that this is your calling and everything is working out.' "
That much he can acknowledge.
"This is kind of right along the plan that I had in my head," Masterson says. "That when I started, before I even got drafted, before anything, I set out kind of where I wanted to be or where I felt like I might be able to get before the end of certain seasons. The crazy thing is, so far, it's worked exactly to plan. It's really neat."
You glance up, at the dropped head, searching for a hint of guile. It isn't there, much as you watch and question and wonder. You stare, just as he has said all those strangers do, every time he goes anywhere, wondering who he is and what he does and where he comes from. He's nearing the end. You look down.
"In your name we pray, Lord, amen," he finishes. His head comes back up, his eyes open. "Thank you."