Click photo to enlarge
A's prospect Grant Desme, talks about the decision he made earlier this year which surprised the baseball world, when he announced that he was giving up the sport to enter Catholic seminary and become a priest, at the Holiday Inn in San Jose April 8, 2010. (Maria J. Avila Lopez/Mercury News)

For as long as Grant Desme can remember, his life revolved around baseball. As one of the Oakland A's top young prospects, he seemed to have a future waiting for him as a major league outfielder.

And yet this week he had to be reminded that the season was starting.

"I didn't even realize it was Opening Day," Desme said.

That's because in January, the Bakersfield native accepted a different calling.

Desme, 24, stunned the sports world by retiring from baseball to pursue the Catholic priesthood. In August, he will enter St. Michael's Abbey in Orange County, taking the Norbertine monastic order's vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and leaving behind the life of fame and fortune that baseball might have provided.

How could he just walk away?

Simply put: After 18 months of contemplation, Desme decided he would rather play for the angels than for the A's.

"I know it's hard for some people to understand, and I don't think there's any perfect way to explain it because it's such a personal choice," he said. "All I can say is that when God speaks to you, it gets your attention."

As he became emotional while speaking to a San Jose Catholic professional group Thursday about his decision, one thing was clear: He doesn't miss baseball.

The A's, though, know exactly what they're missing.

"With his speed and power, he was a throwback to the days of Jose Canseco — but without the steroids," said A's director of player development Keith Lieppman, referring to the former Oakland star. "This kid was legit with all the tools. That's how good he could have been."

Desme was raised in a devout Catholic home where the rosary was said every night and Mass was attended every Sunday. But he also found time for baseball.

"We had weekend tournaments and some Sundays I would miss games or show up in the fourth inning because of Mass, which I wasn't very fond of," Desme said. "Baseball was always how I defined myself."

Desme blossomed into a star at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, playing so well that even his mother asked: "What's going on? Because you're not this good."

The A's thought he was, making him a second-round draft pick in 2007 and giving him a $432,000 signing bonus. But when he was sidelined most of his first two seasons with wrist and shoulder injuries, Desme rediscovered his faith. He visited the Vatican and began seriously thinking about the priesthood.

He decided to give baseball one more year. And what a year it was. The 6-foot-2-inch, 205-pound Desme developed into the complete package of speed, power-hitting ability and defensive skills.

Playing for Class A Kane County and Stockton, he was the only minor-leaguer to hit more than 30 home runs (31) and steal 40 bases. He followed that by being named most valuable player in the Arizona Fall League — which is stockpiled with top young talent — as he hit .315 with a league-leading 11 home runs and 27 RBI in 27 games.

"I can honestly say I don't know what I was doing because I'm really not that good," Desme said. "But I just felt like I was playing a video game."

The A's were thrilled. The plan was to invite him to spring training camp, and Lieppman envisioned Desme opening the season at Triple-A Sacramento.

Then came the curveball.

In January, Desme called A's general manager Billy Beane to tell him he was retiring. He was exchanging his baseball uniform for a white habit.

"He was a bit shocked, to say the least," Desme said.

So was everyone else as the news became an Internet sensation. But Beane, who declined to be interviewed for this story, and A's management made no attempt to talk Desme out of his decision.

As Lieppman said with a chuckle: "When he tells you that it was revealed by God that this is what he wanted him to do, it's hard to say, 'Why don't you try to play one more year?' "

Desme said he considered doing that. And his parents voiced concerns to Desme's religious mentor, Monsignor Craig Harrison, that he might be rushing into the decision.

"They said, 'You need to talk to Grant because he still needs a couple of years to really think about it,' " Harrison recalled. "But when God calls, he calls."

Desme says he was conflicted when he accepted the St. Michael's invitation. "I saw everything that I might do in baseball pass before my eyes," he said. But he came to view his baseball success as a final test — this is what you will be giving up.

It wasn't the only test.

"Once you start considering the priesthood, the most beautiful Catholic women start showing up," Desme said. "That made my decision interesting."

St. Michael's is a community of 70 members who live like monks. The process of becoming an ordained priest in the order takes about 10 years.

When he arrives, Desme will give up all the trappings of modern life. He won't be allowed to use a cell phone or the Internet, watch television, listen to the radio, read a newspaper or go home during the first two years.

He will join the other abbey members as they spend about three hours a day singing their prayers in Gregorian chant.

"I'm just trying to learn how to read music now," said Desme, conceding he doesn't have much of a singing voice.

And after a Christmas Eve ceremony, where he will be given his religious garments, he won't be called Grant anymore. He will receive a new first name of a saint as well as the title of "frater," or brother.

"It's a very countercultural life, but it's also a beautiful life," said Father Ambrose Criste, the novice master at St. Michael's. "Once the young men live that separation from the world, they don't see it as a sacrifice at all. Really, you're not giving up anything when you stop watching television."

Many discover the quiet, cloistered life is not for them. Only about half ultimately become priests.

Criste said St. Michael's has welcomed the media attention that has accompanied Desme's decision because it's a positive story of faith at a time when the Catholic Church has been battered by charges of sexual abuse by clergy.

"He's just a good example that our lives are much more important than simply this world," Criste said. "He's devoting his life to a much bigger reality than something as small as baseball — as important as that can be to fans."

Desme said most people have been supportive of his decision. But he also knows many still wonder why he's doing this.

"Our culture idolizes athletes," he said. "It's very hard not to fall into that trap, and I think I did a little bit. I can only imagine what it's like for the guys in the big leagues. But I chose a different path."

Contact Mark Emmons at 408-920-5745.