LaHair's wait for an opportunity was too long
After nine years, Cubs first baseman showing he could always hit
Bryan LaHair doesn't know whatever happened to Neil Fingleton, only that his 7-foot-6 former teammate was rumored to be home in England, acting, with a part in a James Bond movie. The two played together at Holy Name High School in Worcester, Mass., for J.P. Ricciardi, then Billy Beane's assistant with the A's and a prep hoops coach in winter.
They beat St. Patrick's of Elizabeth, N.J., in a game that drew mild national attention. They almost won a state championship. And 12 years, two Minor League free agencies, four tours of winter ball in three different countries later, Bryan LaHair is the toast of Chicago.
"I have to admit that there were times when I thought about giving it all up," says the 29-year-old first baseman. "I'd sit there in Triple-A and see other players called up and wonder, 'Am I ever going to get an opportunity? Is this worth it?'
"But," LaHair says, "I always believed I could hit. I am also really lucky to always have the support of my wife [Nicole] and my family. It's not easy going back to the Minor Leagues every year. Or, while I enjoyed winter ball, asking them to go along with it."
And here in the second week of May, in came Neil Fingleton looking for Bryan LaHair, the first baseman of the Chicago Cubs who is hitting .373 with the third-best on-base percentage in the National League (.470), the second-highest slugging percentage (.771) and the second-best OPS (1.241). He has eight homers. Through Tuesday night, he'd reached base in 25 consecutive games.
"Every once in a while I pinch myself and ask, 'Is this really happening?'" says LaHair. "Then I get back to reality. This game can come back and get you in a hurry."
In other words, he's crawled uphill through the underbrush so long, he knows that the same people you meet on your way up you might meet on your way down.
"What's great about Bryan's story is that it's an inspiration to a lot of guys who can play and never got an opportunity," says Ricciardi, now one of the Mets' chief baseball directors.
Wade Boggs survived the Rule 5 Draft thrice, Don Mattingly twice. Nelson Cruz was bounced around like a squash ball. So was Jose Bautista. Carlos Pena must have thought he needed an EZ-Pass to get from team to team. Ironically, after LaHair hit .308 with 25 homers and a .942 OPS for Iowa in 2010 -- after signing with Chicago as a Minor League free agent -- the Cubs signed Pena, declining to reward LaHair with an opportunity.
"The thing about Bryan is that he could always hit," says Ricciardi. "He could hit in high school. He got a scholarship to Clemson, didn't like it, went to St. Petersburg Junior College and hit again. He needed a chance."
The original chance was being selected in the 39th round of the 2002 Draft by the Seattle Mariners. How low that was? No one selected after LaHair in that Draft who signed with his drafting club made the big leagues with that club.
In 2005, at 22, LaHair hit .310 with 22 homers and an .876 OPS. He batted .309 with an .855 OPS the next season between Double-A and Triple-A. In 2008, the Mariners gave him a 45-game, 136-at-bat shot. He batted .250. End of Mariners story. Like David Ortiz, Shin-Soo Choo, Asdrubal Cabrera and others, he was given up on by a franchise that soon was so desperate for first-base help that it traded Cliff Lee to get Justin Smoak.
After a 2009 season in which LaHair hit 26 homers and batted .289 in Tacoma, the Mariners decided to let him walk. He signed with the Cubs, went to Iowa, batted .308 and hit 25 more home runs. That earned him another ticket for a winter in Venezuela while the Cubs signed Pena. During that winter, when he was a free agent again, the only team other than the Cubs that contacted him was the Los Angeles Angels.
"I wasn't about to give up," says LaHair. "I'd worked too hard too long. I still believed." In 2011, he merely batted .331 with 38 home runs, good for a 20-game September look.
After the season, Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, Jason McLeod and Dale Sveum took over the baseball operations. They traded with the Padres for Anthony Rizzo, one of the favorite players ever drafted by McLeod and Epstein or traded for by Hoyer. But the decision was made to give LaHair his opportunity and allow Rizzo to spend time furthering his development in Iowa.
And at the age of 29, in his 10th full pro season, Bryan LaHair is putting up numbers that could earn him an All-Star write-in campaign.
LaHair never made anyone's Top 100 prospect list. The year he signed, Hank Blalock, Sean Burroughs, Juan Cruz, Wilson Betemit and Drew Henson were in Baseball America's top nine, a year after Albert Pujols was No. 39, right after Twins pitcher Adam Johnson.
It happens, like Nelson Cruz and Bautista. Like Bryan LaHair and Neil Fingleton. The 7-foot-6 guy went to North Carolina and is somewhere acting in England, and Fingleton's wing man is in the top four in all of baseball in OPS.
LaHair is there with Josh Hamilton, Matt Kemp and David Ortiz. Oh, yes, Hamilton was a Rule 5 guy, taken from the Rays and ending up with the Reds in 2007, and the Mariners dumped Ortiz, who was later non-tendered by the Twins.
"It's a game with a lot of adversity," says LaHair. "I'm just glad I never gave up and am thankful for an opportunity."
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.