- Jim Caple, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- When Jason Lane arrived at the Diamondbacks' training camp this spring, some former opponents and teammates wondered why the ex-Astros outfielder was walking out to the field to work with the pitchers.
It was a good question, considering Lane had played his entire major leaguer career in the outfield and hit 26 home runs in Houston's 2005 World Series season. The answer was simple. After spending the past four seasons in the minors, the 35-year-old Lane is attempting to return to the majors as a left-handed reliever.
"I wasn't getting at-bats the last few seasons as an outfielder and I was a little frustrated," Lane said. "I felt like the last couple years I spent in Triple-A and haven't gotten too many opportunities to play, so [Arizona general manager] Kevin Towers called me in the offseason and said he had seen me throw one inning last year and thought I could do it and if I wanted to give it a shot, he would give me an opportunity."
Lane throws a low-90s fastball, a curve, a changeup and is working on a cutter and slider. After several weeks in the major league camp, the Diamondbacks sent Lane to minor league camp Thursday. The move wasn't unexpected -- it was highly unlikely a 35-year-old with just 20 professional innings would crack a major league staff -- but getting sent to the minors is never pleasant.
"Today I had to deal with the hardest part of the game," Lane wrote on his Facebook page. "I was called into the manager's office and told I was being sent down to the minor leagues. It's a feeling you never get used to and it is very hard to walk out of a major clubhouse with your head high and confident that you can play at that level and to know in your heart that you will be back. It is the only option though! FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME."
So he will continue to work hard on his pitching, hoping to one day return to the majors as a player who can offer virtually unheard of versatility. "You often hear that teams are looking for left-handed pitching and right-handed hitting," Lane said. " And I'm one of the few who offer both of those."
Very few. Lane's conversion is extremely rare. Few ever switch between pitching and a position. Fewer still go from position player to the mound -- especially after having had success in the majors.
It helps that Lane is left-handed. And it's not as if Lane doesn't have any experience on the mound. He was a pitcher at USC, where he showed his considerable all-around skills in the 1998 College World Series championship when he was the winning pitcher AND hit a ninth-inning grand slam.
At the time, Lane considered a career as a pitcher but he broke his left thumb his senior year at USC and spent much of the season as a DH. When the draft rolled around, the Astros picked him as an outfielder and that's where he played for the next dozen years. He said he didn't miss pitching but "Every once in a while, as a competitor, I thought it would be nice to get out there again. I loved hitting, but as a competitor I believed I could pitch."
He almost got a chance in the famous 18-inning 2005 NLCS game between the Astros and Atlanta. Lane says he was the next guy up behind emergency reliever Roger Clemens. He was readying himself for the mound when the Astros won in the 18th.
That was also the year Lane had his best season, hitting 26 home runs with 78 RBIs. He dropped to 15 home runs and 45 RBIs in 2006 and was traded to San Diego the last week of the 2007 season. His career has been a constant shuffle since then, signing with seven teams, ranging from the Yankees and Red Sox to Southern Maryland of the independent Atlantic League. "It was a really humbling time, being a couple years out of the World Series and then I'm in an independent league," he said. "It feels like you're about 15 calls from the majors."
Lane pitched one inning in 2009 at Triple-A Las Vegas, 5 2/3 innings in 2010 and 13 innings last year. Towers signed him and gave him an invite to major league camp this spring. Lane says he always liked talking pitching with teammates such as Roy Oswalt, whom he consulted for advice prior to this spring.
"The hardest part is I've always considered myself a baseball player," Lane said of the transition. "I can still hit. I still believe I can help out a team offensively. I haven't given up on that confidence, it's just the opportunity here is a little better than what I was getting elsewhere as a hitter. I still feel like I can help this team from both sides."
Plus, all those years he didn't pitch means his arm is still relatively fresh despite his 35 years.
"He loves the game enough to try to make it," said Arizona's Geoff Blum, who played with Lane in Houston. "So God bless him."
"I don't feel like I failed out and couldn't get it down as a hitter," Lane said. "I'm still confident that I'm as good a hitter as I was in 2005, if not better. I'm a Christian and I believe in God and I believe this happened for a reason. Because it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to be 35 and convert over, other than I believe in my heart I can compete."
At 35 years old and nearly five years removed from the major leagues, Jason Lane is trying to make the transition from outfielder to relief pitcher with the Diamondbacks.