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THE INSIDE TRACK | SUNDAY SCENE

He Had to Shed His Flannels to Become Man of the Cloth

November 29, 1998|DIANE PUCIN

At first John Werhas didn't want to talk about himself. He is not in this for the publicity, and he does not want to come off as a self-promoting ex-athlete who is, somehow, using his religion.

Yes, ex-athlete. If the name sounds a little familiar, if you are struggling to place where it is you've heard of John Werhas, then that means you are a dedicated fan of the Dodgers or Angels. Werhas was a third baseman in the Dodger organization for seven years and the Angel organization for one in the 1960s. He spent parts of three seasons in the major leagues, but also had a nice career in the Pacific Coast League, mainly in Hawaii, where Werhas was something of a hero, "a big name on the island," he says.

Werhas, 60, is not a big name now, though he might be a hero. He is the pastor of the Yorba Linda Friends on the Hill church, where he has increased membership from about 150 people to more than 4,000. Part of his success has come with the help of lessons learned from two of his favorite coaches, Rod Dedeaux at USC and Tom Lasorda of the Dodgers. Delegate authority. Rely on teamwork.

If you are thinking the bachelor's life of an itinerant baseball player is not the routine path to finding a faith so deep that you enthusiastically preach the truths of the Bible, Werhas will not disagree with you.

He will not force himself or his beliefs on you. He will not condemn athletes today who call themselves Christians one day and are arrested for drunk driving or assault the next, for Werhas is not about judging. He will gently disagree with coaches, managers or fans who say it is contradictory for an athlete to be up front in his Christianity because it makes the athlete too passive or non-competitive.

"If you're stealing second base," Werhas says, "it's OK to go in with your spikes up and try to drive him into the left-field wall if you can. What God means is that Christians should be the hardest-working and most fearless players on the team."

Raised as a Roman Catholic, first in Highland Park, Mich., and then in San Pedro, Werhas was so talented an athlete that he was an All-American baseball player and a member of the USC basketball team. He was drafted by the Dodgers and was a competent player who, while in Honolulu in the PCL, also had begun to work for NBC and was beginning what he thought would be a post-baseball broadcasting career. What he wasn't, Werhas said, was religious.

"I saw that my lifestyle and my relative success were envied by many of my friends," Werhas says. "And yet, I was not happy deep inside. I found myself envying the life of these same friends, a life with family and religion."

During this time, Werhas became friends with a Waikiki preacher named Bob Turnbull. Turnbull turned Werhas on to the Bible. And soon, Werhas said, "I dedicated my life to Jesus Christ."

Werhas played one more year of baseball in Hawaii, a year in which he married his girlfriend, Kay, and changed his mind about broadcasting. Kay and John went back to Kay's home state of Oregon. John became a teacher and Kay worked for a church. There was not yet in Werhas' head, the idea of becoming a pastor. His whole religious career has, indeed, seemed a series of accidents.

In 1973 Werhas was asked to speak about his faith at a conference of athletes in Chicago. Werhas did, and the suggestion was made to him that he should consider becoming a preacher and pastor. "I looked at my wife, she looked at me and the revelation was in both our eyes," he said.

Werhas ended up at a church in Los Angeles, and he eventually put together his own athletic ministry. Using his contacts with the Dodgers and Angels, Werhas got permission to enter the clubhouses of both teams where, Werhas said, "I was welcomed warmly."

By now Werhas was making his home in Yorba Linda and attending the Yorba Linda Friends church. In 1986, the church was searching for a new pastor. Familiar with Werhas' athletic ministry, church elders approached him about becoming pastor. Werhas' first answer was firm. No.

"I had no formal training. I had not attended seminary school. I had no experience in running a church." Werhas says. "But the elders approached me again and again. They would not take no for an answer."

And, yes, Werhas says, he has found in his life as a minister of the Bible the peace that he had searched so hard for back in Hawaii. As a husband, as a father of two, as a man of God, Werhas says he is now "a happy man and a successful man. I do not envy anyone any more."

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Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address: diane.pucin@latimes.com

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