- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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MESA, Ariz. -- Lots of major league players have time-honored traditions and checklists to dispense with as they prepare for spring training each year. Maybe they take the wife out for Valentine's Day dinner, or make sure to pack their lucky socks or bring the lawn mower in for servicing in anticipation of picking it up in April. It always pays to think ahead.
Before Bryan LaHair leaves for camp, he makes sure to speak by phone with his good friend Mike Morse. The two ballplayers came up together through the Seattle Mariners' farm system and shared long, arduous roads coming up through the professional ranks. Amid the setbacks, hardships and doubts, they had ample reason to wonder where it all would lead. So they bolstered each other's spirits and made it an annual spring ritual to dream big in unison.
"The day before camp, we give each other a little bit of motivation and a push before the season starts," LaHair said. "We do that every year."
Morse, 29, has seen the last of Triple-A ball. He hit .303 with 31 home runs, 95 RBIs and a .910 OPS for the Washington Nationals last year and was one of five players to appear on MLB's Final Man All-Star ballot in July. Not bad for a guy who was traded straight up for outfielder Ryan Langerhans in 2009.
Now it's LaHair who is about to get off the treadmill and see where his 55 home runs in Triple-A, the big leagues and winter ball in 2011 might take him.
It's a strange feeling, coping with the burden of expectations. For much of his career, LaHair has rolled into spring training knowing he would either be the caddy for an established first baseman or wind up with a seat on the wrong bus out of camp. Through nine seasons and 4,051 minor league plate appearances, the players in front of him on the depth chart kept changing -- from Richie Sexson and Russell Branyan in Seattle to Derrek Lee and Carlos Pena in Chicago. But he was always an afterthought.
This year the plot twist comes at the very beginning. Cubs manager Dale Sveum has anointed LaHair, 29, as the team's starting first baseman. With enough faith and productive at-bats, LaHair will try to make a feel-good story bloom in the Arizona desert.
After hitting 38 home runs for the Iowa Cubs to win the Pacific Coast League MVP award, playing well in a September call-up to Chicago and tearing up the Venezuelan winter league, LaHair is an improbable focus of attention at Cubs camp. The former 39th-round draft pick, six-year minor league free agent and career survivor will get a chance to hold down the position that Ernie Banks, Mark Grace and Bill Buckner once filled at Wrigley. It's a mind-blowing turn of events for a humble New England kid who can't take no for an answer.
"There's no sentiment involved," said Theo Epstein, the Cubs' president of baseball operations. "It's not a matter of whether someone deserves a chance or not. It's a matter of whether someone can help the Cubs.
"There are a lot of good players who perform all the way through the minor leagues who fail in limited opportunities in the big leagues and never get a longer look. When those players eventually do get a longer look, they have success. I think it benefits us to see what he can do. We think he'll hit big league pitching, so we're going to find out."
Epstein and Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer passed on several options to clear the way for LaHair. When the Cubs committed to a long-range building project, they were out of the running for Prince Fielder. They passed on retaining free-agent Pena, who signed a one-year deal with Tampa Bay, and stood idly by as Lyle Overbay, Casey Kotchman and other low-priced options dropped off the board.
In January the Cubs acquired Anthony Rizzo, their first baseman of the future, in a trade with San Diego. But he's expected to begin the season in Iowa, and the Cubs plan to stick with LaHair even if he's puttering along on the interstate in May.
It's LaHair's mandate to shake those old negative labels. He looks like an athlete at 6-foot-5, 240 pounds, but for much of his career he's been tagged as a "Four-A" guy -- a player capable of beating up on minor league pitching but too bat speed-impaired to flourish in the majors. The scouting book on LaHair is that he's challenged to handle pitchers with really good velocity.
In his quest to rewrite the book, LaHair has worked diligently in the cage with Cubs hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo to shorten his stroke and become less vulnerable to hard stuff in on his hands. A single at-bat makes for an awfully small sample size, but LaHair made a big impression in September when he pulled a 96 mph fastball from Cincinnati's Aroldis Chapman to right field for a double.
In nine minor league seasons, LaHair has topped 100 strikeouts five times. But he also has a fluid swing and a .362 career on-base percentage.
"Just looking at the way handles his at-bats, it's not an accident," Epstein said. "He spits on good pitches just off the plate. He knows what he's looking for and how to control the count and how to drive a ball when he gets into favorable counts. It's not like he's just running into these numbers."
Listen to LaHair talk for several minutes in that New England accent, and his passion for sports is readily apparent. He played basketball at Holy Name Central Catholic High School in Worcester, Mass., in the late 1990s for J.P. Ricciardi, who coached hoops in the offseason as a diversion from his day job as director of player personnel for the Oakland A's. Most of Holy Name's game plan revolved around 7-7 center Neil Fingleton, who played briefly in the NBA Development League before returning home to his native England to pursue an acting career. He's been confirmed by the Guinness Book of Records as the tallest man in the United Kingdom.
LaHair was recruited by Clemson before finding his niche at St. Petersburg (Fla.) Junior College, and the Mariners selected him in the 39th round as a "draft and follow" player. During his time with Seattle, which included annual stops with Triple-A Tacoma from 2006 through 2009, LaHair built up an extensive list of character witnesses.
John McLaren, former Mariners coach and interim manager, recalls Edgar Martinez coming in to speak to the minor league hitters one spring. Most of the young players were too sheepish to ask questions, but LaHair broke the silence with several insightful, probing questions about hitting.
"He's a solid guy and he really has his feet on the ground," McLaren said of LaHair. "I've been in this game 42 years, and he's one of those guys who just hits you. He's persevered and grinded it out to get where he is right now. It's a really nice story."
Early in Cubs camp, LaHair received a high-profile endorsement from Hall of Famer Billy Williams, who is in Arizona in his capacity as a senior adviser and has taken a liking to the player.
"He can drive the outside pitch to left-center field, which is perfect for Wrigley Field, and he can get to the ball inside," Williams said. "I don't see him having that many holes. He could be a late bloomer. I think he can hit 25-30 home runs."
So who can LaHair ultimately become? In a perfect world, maybe Matt Stairs, who was 29 years old and had fewer than 300 big league at-bats to his credit when he broke through with 27 home runs for Oakland in 1997. Stairs finally retired last year with 265 career homers and the moniker of "Matt Stairs, professional hitter."
If LaHair fails to capitalize on his opportunity, a la Brandon Wood in Anaheim, or struggles to fix the holes in his swing, like Chris Davis, he can live with that, because the Cubs are determined to give him a chance to find out. At the very least, he's a role model for all those Northeast kids who grow up taking batting practice with snow flurries around the cage in March and April.
At one point last summer, when the homers kept coming and the months kept passing without a call-up to Chicago, LaHair briefly considered quitting. But he didn't have it in him to quit.
"It got to the point where I wasn't sure if it was going to happen for me," he said. "I really just wanted to push the issue and put my best effort forward each day, so somebody would look at me and say, 'Wow, this kid belongs in the big leagues.'"
Mission accomplished -- at last. LaHair made his statement, and the Cubs responded with a commitment. Now it's up to him to determine how long he stays.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter @jcrasnick.
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