Bears

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.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Who deserves the blame in the Bears loss to Miami?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Who deserves the blame in the Bears loss to Miami?

David Haugh, Adam Jahns and Patrick Finley join Kap on the panel. The Bears lose a rough one in Miami as Matt Nagy goes conservative at the end zone. Does the rookie coach deserve all of the blame? Dave Wannstedt joins the guys to discuss.

Plus the guys discuss the Cubs’ newest hitting coach/scapegoat, Brandon Saad’s upcoming healthy scratch and Bobby Portis betting on himself this season. 

Listen here or in the embedded player below!

Cubs executive Jason McLeod reportedly linked to Giants' GM opening

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USA TODAY

Cubs executive Jason McLeod reportedly linked to Giants' GM opening

Is this the offseason that Cubs executive Jason McLeod finally becomes an MLB general manager?

According to Bruce Levine, the Giants are reportedly interested in McLeod, the Cubs senior vice president of scouting and player development, for their vacant general manager position.

McLeod joined the Cubs' front office in 2011 alongside Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. Before the Cubs, he spent six years in the Red Sox front office and two in the Padres' (with Hoyer, who was San Diego's general manager from 2010-2011). 

Of course, the Giants' reported interest in McLeod doesn't necessarily mean that he will interview for the job. However, it's worth noting that McLeod interviewed for the Twins' general manager job in 2016; he also withdrew his name from consideration for the Padres' general manager job in 2014. 

In addition to the Giants, McLeod's name has been linked to the Mets' general manager vacancy. This is more speculation, but the point is that it seems to be only a matter of time before McLeod is hired as general manager elsewhere.

For what it's worth, though, McLeod is under contract through 2021 and has previously said that he is grateful to be with the Cubs. 

“I’m exceptionally grateful,” McLeod said. “All of us are. Look at where we are at this moment in time with this team," McLeod said in 2016. "I can’t imagine a better environment, a better culture to work at in baseball.

"We’ve been together a long time. We’re friends. We’re good. We embrace the fact that we are good. And we challenge ourselves to be even better.”