White Sox

LaHair took the hard road to the All-Star Game

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LaHair took the hard road to the All-Star Game

KANSAS CITY Bryan LaHair contacted his old high school basketball coach and asked if he wanted to meet up in the lobby.

At the winter meetings, everyone has an angle: Agents and reporters using each other, executives running interference, college kids looking for internships.

But LaHair had known J.P. Ricciardi since he was a kid growing up in Worcester, Mass., and received some tough love at Holy Name.

Ricciardi had worked in the Oakland As front office and became a figure in the bestselling book Moneyball. He went on to become the Toronto Blue Jays general manager before joining the New York Mets as a special assistant to Sandy Alderson.

As the rumors about Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder spread throughout the Hilton Anatole in Dallas, two things became clear.

They value your type of player, Ricciardi told LaHair.

The Pacific Coast League MVP had traveled there last December to pick up an award after a monster 2011 season at Triple-A Iowa (.405 on-base percentage, 38 homers and 109 RBI) and meet with Theo Epstein and the new Cubs front office.

But Ricciardi also sensed the anxiety in LaHair he was down in the dumps knowing that he was only playing winter ball in Venezuela because he needed to support his young family after six seasons on the Triple-A level. LaHair would have much rather been training in Arizona to prepare for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

I had no choice, LaHair said. I had to go make some money. I had to take care of my family. I knew that this year was an important year for me and I wanted to be as ready as I could possibly be.

At the age of 29, and after almost 1,000 games in the minors, the timing is finally right for LaHair, who will be shoulder-to-shoulder with the best players in the world on Tuesday night at Kauffman Stadium.

How LaHair wound up on the National League All-Star is far more complicated than a Cinderella story.

Ricciardi remembers sticking LaHair on the JV as a sophomore, even though it was clear he was good enough to make the varsity, because his grades werent nearly good enough.

For lack of a better term, we just busted his -----, Ricciardi said. We tried to teach him a lesson, (that) youre not going to be able to skate through life like this.

LaHair was a bright kid who didnt seem to be applying himself.

Yeah, that was a big turning point in my life, LaHair said. That was really disappointing for me and my mom and dad. It was a tough little road. I had a lot of growing up to do. I had to pick better friends. I just had to go in a different direction.

Nothing was handed to LaHair in Worcester, an old, gritty city about an hour west of Boston. His father works for Budweiser, his mother works at a nursing home facility and they had already used up their vacation time visiting Wrigley Field last month, and couldnt get to Kansas City on such short notice.

Not that long ago, LaHair being voted into the All-Star Game by his fellow players wasnt on anyones radar. He never really had the pedigree.

Out of high school, LaHair signed with Clemson University, where he was squeezed for playing time and didnt find a great fit with the staff. He probably needed a harder edge and didnt last his freshman year.

From there, Ricciardi helped LaHair land at St. Petersburg College. In 2002, the Seattle Mariners took him in the 39th round as more of a draft-and-follow pick, but he jumped at the chance to sign and focus on his career.

The path that I took to get here, LaHair said, somehow I ended up being an All-Star. I dreamt it this way, but obviously wasnt 100 percent sure if it was ever going to work out this way.

LaHair spent seven seasons in the Seattle system, but played only 45 games for the Mariners in 2008, and was released the next year. Epsteins takeover at Clark and Addison meant everything to LaHair. The Cubs had nothing to lose.

Five years from now, he might not be that guy, Ricciardi said. The Cubs in five years are going to be a whole different animal. His timing couldn't have been better. Maybe with a different regime, they cut him loose."

LaHair was hungry and cost-effective. He saw a lot of pitches and could grind out at-bats. He had hit everywhere else. He had earned it.

Cubs utility man Jeff Baker was a sophomore at Clemson when LaHair came in at the wrong time.

Its kind of the perfect storm, Baker said. You got an opportunity in an organization that said, Hey, were going to give you 500 at-bats. Were going to let you go out there and do it. You dont see that too much, where a guy gets an opportunity this late.

Because once you start to get labeled and pegged, its hard to kind of shed that and create your own new mold. Hes done a heck of a job with that. He very easily could have probably went over to Japan and made some good money playing over there and done that route.

But he stuck it out, grinded it out, dealt with a lot of adversity and now hes an All-Star.

Thats the only label that matters now. But the goal is to play 10 years in the big leagues.

LaHairs month-to-month splits could be a warning sign, and he still has to prove he can hit left-handers. But the Cubs definitely would have taken this as they sat in their hotel suite at the winter meetings: LaHair hitting .286 with 14 homers and 30 RBI in the first half.

LaHair is spending time here with his wife, his brother and his agents. Inside Arrowhead Stadium during Mondays media availability, he sat at a table and looked at the BRYAN LaHAIR ALL-STAR GAME sign above his head and asked: Hey, can I take this? The plan was to cover it with autographs.

Its been a cool ride, it really has, LaHair said, and hopefully it continues.

White Sox catching prospect mentioned in some elite company

White Sox catching prospect mentioned in some elite company

White Sox catching prospect Zack Collins is being talked about in some elite company after a recent accomplishment.

Collins participated in the Southern League Home Run Derby in Double-A earlier this evening for the Birmingham Barons, and he secured his first career home run derby win.

Now, this is cool, thanks to NBC Sports Chicago’s stats guru Chris Kamka: Dating way back to 1895, Babe Ruth was born on Feb. 6, 1895. Collins was born on the same day as Ruth, but 100 years later.

It’s still way too early to make any sort of comparisons, but it’s a fun way to connect the two.

Collins so far this season is hitting .267 with 9 HR, 33 RBI’s and 59 BB in 62 games. Those walks lead the Southern League. The next highest is 39.

Collins is hitting much better than he did when he was with Single-A Winston-Salem last season. Collins hit a mere .233 in 101 games.

Think about this too. Rick Hahn mentioned several White Sox prospects will get promotions in the coming days. Could this mean Collins will get his opportunity? We’ll just have to wait and see.

 

Glanville: Ready or not, play ball

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USA TODAY

Glanville: Ready or not, play ball

As my career wound down in Major League Baseball, I found myself caddying a lot. Caddying is just what it sounds like, coming in as needed, helping the talent of the future as a mentor or advisor. It also meant that when you do get the chance to start, you may be facing tough assignments that are spaced out inconveniently for you.

As I did in 2004, I faced some tough pitchers often to protect the next generation centerfielder in Marlon Byrd in Philly. I faced a Rolodex of Cy Young award winners that year (Randy Johnson, Tom Glavine, and others) or All-Stars (Brad Radke and so on), and the other starters were reserved for the young buck.

That was then, but how to be ready with so many unknowns is still an important lesson about being prepared for anything that can come at you. And in baseball, anything will come at you.

Like many players who arrive to the big leagues, they have had a lifetime of being every day players. High school, college stars, or even minor league stars, who were always in the lineup. Then, as the air gets thinner, so does the opportunity to be a starter and the more you may learn about life coming off of the bench.

Addison Russell had a surprise entry into the Cubs-Cardinals game the other day after teammate Javier Baez took a pitch off of the elbow. In theory, it was supposed to be Russell’s “day off” so when he made an error in the field, speculation arose from announcer Alex Rodriguez that he may not have been fully prepared. The implication was that he had shut off his mind to enjoy his day off, and was caught off guard.

Only Russell knows how he felt, but after I spent a career in the National League as perennial starter and bench player, there is no such thing as a day off, especially in a lineup under Joe Maddon, which has emphasis on versatility, flexibility and open-mindedness.

If you are on the bench to start a game, there is an understanding that you may get in the game. At least there should be unless, and this has happened to me, the manager tells you that under no circumstance will you be called in the game. Even then, in the back of my mind, should the game go 15 innings, I could hardly be surprised if a promise may have to be broken.

One time, Phillies manager Terry Francona gave me a day off during a season where I ended up playing in 158 games and leading the NL in at bats. He said to me “it looks like the bat is swinging you.” We were out of it in September, so he could sit me and keep me on the bench. The Cubs do not have the luxury of handing out day spa packages, they are in the race, in fact, many days, they are getting chased.

I only played one partial season in the American League and this was with Texas as Alex’s teammate. After years of National League life, the AL was another planet. Players came off the bench only in matchup situations, the rare pinch run or pinch hit, and maybe for defense (other than road interleague play.). The AL does not have the built in bench call because in the NL, the pitcher hits, a circumstance which opens up many ways you can get in the game.

Like Alex, I was spoiled on years of being a starter, so it did take a little time to know how to get ready for the chance you may come in the game. He was a DH later in his career, so he knew when he was hitting, so he could get loose with a plan. If you don’t have that advantage, usually around the fourth inning or some inning before the pitcher is batting, I would start warming up. Some parks are easier than others to do that. Stretch, hit off of the tee, jog somewhere. And you will have to repeat this each inning you are not used, just in case.

What really bites into your preparation is when something happens very early in the game. This is when you could not get into a stretching routine to be ready because of the timing (Baez injury happened in the 3rd) or you could have skipped your typical pre-game warm up to bask in your day off. Sure, being a pro means being ready but being thrust in a game is still pretty jarring.

Then when you age in the game, you don’t have the bandwidth to be stiff on the bench or you may not ever get loose, so you are (or should be) constantly warming up. I learned a lot as a young player watching veterans like Shawon Dunston, Lenny Harris, and others who came off the bench ready to go. We were all a quick turn away from a pulled muscle.

Baseball is a stop and go sport, outside of the elements of surprise of in game injuries or wild substations, you may get hit by weather like the Cubs experienced last night. When is the tarp coming off? Warm up, sit down, warm up, sit down. It is not the best way to be loose, especially when you are 34, but it is always part of any sport that plays outdoors. You have to put the built-in excuses out of your head because there is a role player performing well despite the obstacles.

As an every day player, you often get out of touch with the reality of coming off of the bench and having to perform. It is challenging for any player to come off the bench no matter what the circumstance, which is what makes pinch hitter extraordinaire, Tommy La Stella, an incredible asset. It is one thing to be loose, it is another to hit a guy throwing a 96 mph sinker.

Baseball is a tough game because it depends so much on rhythm while everything is trying to disrupt it. Errors happen, no matter what, even when you are prepared and at your best. And it is ok to recognize that you may not really be loose, which is a natural occurrence over 162 games. You can’t be totally limber every day after long flights and split doubleheader’s while the body is just being the body. Sometimes you are productive playing through it, some times, you are not.

Yet there are a whole host of players who make a career out of their instant utility. Productive players who are not afforded advanced notice all of the time. Every year, these players help win championships (see David Ross.) Coming cold off the bench, going into games when the starter’s hamstring tightens up. Facing closers who throw 100 mph. Pinch running with a tight hamstring. It happens every single day on every single team. They are as important to winning as having an MVP in Kris Bryant, or a brilliant veteran, like Jon Lester.

So let’s take this opportunity to appreciate these players more instead of only noticing them when a starter has to do what these bench players have always done. Being ready on call.