Exclusive: Worcester’s Bryan LaHair to Start for Cubs
Monday, February 20, 2012
At age 29, LaHair has been in professional baseball for nine years, but has amassed only 219 major league at-bats. He first saw major league action with the Seattle Mariners, the team that drafted him in 39th round of the 2002 amateur draft. His most recent big league appearance was as a September call-up for the Chicago Cubs where he made 16 starts in 20 games at first base and both left and right field.
LaHair has spent the majority of the last six seasons in the Mariners and Cubs Triple-A affiliates, where he batted a very respectable .297 and hit 123 home runs to go with 453 runs batted in.
In 2011, while playing for the Iowa Cubs, LaHair was voted the Pacific Coast League's MVP, hitting a club-record 38 home runs to go along with 109 RBI and an impressive .331 batting average.
“He put the numbers up and had a big year,” Iowa Cubs- the Chicago Cubs Triple-A affliate- manager Bill Dancy said. “He was very professional about. He never lost concentration.”
Dancy said that LaHair was remarkably consistent throughout the season, something not usually seen. “I've managed for 23 years, and for him to stay as consistent as he did...you don't usually see that. Usually you see peaks and valleys. If he went into a valley it wasn't for many at-bats,” Dancy said.
Holy Name Central Catholic Grad
LaHair is a Worcester native, growing up in the area and playing baseball for Holy Name Central Catholic High School.
“He's a tremendous competitor. He had so much potential, even at age 15,” said LaHair's high school coach, Dick Maynard. “His swing is one of the top three I've ever seen in high school player.”
His senior year, LaHair won the Gatorade Player of the Year Award for the state of Massachusetts. “That award is an accomplishment,” LaHair said. “But you don't work for an award; you work to get better.”
LaHair is the latest Worcester native to enter the Big Show, joining fellow rising-star Tim Collins, a lefty reliever with the Kansas City Royals who graduated from Worcester Tech in 2007. Following high school, LaHair was given a scholarship to play for Clemson University in South Carolina, but decided against it after he learned that they had planned to “red shirt” him because of his young age of 17.
“I live with every decision,” said LaHair, who ended going to St. Petersburg Community College instead. “It's all part of the experience of growing and learning a little bit.” Although LaHair has spent more time in the minors than the typical new Major League player, that is not to say that he did not show high promise, even at young age.
Steve Roadcap, who managed a 21-year-old LaHair for the Low-A Wisconsin Timber Rattlers in 2004 said, “He was a strong individual with a lot of raw power. Definitely a late bloomer, but, to his credit, he's never given up. He has persevered and kept surviving. Now he's got his chance and has taken full advantage of it.”
“I remember in the California League he had broken his hand, and came into the instructional league with a cast. He couldn't swing a bat but he came in and took ground balls and pitches to first,” Brown said. “I think that shows a lot about his work ethic and the kind of person he is.”
“He pushed me to push myself, he was a valuable asset in my development. He was a big help for me,” LaHair noted.
“Our infielders could throw it anywhere and Bryan would have it. That's the mentality I wanted to him to have,” Brown said. “We all wanted him to hit, but you have to play defense. He took pride in wanting to get better at it.”
First Big League Action in 2008
LaHair's first big league action was in 2008 with the Mariners, where he hit .250 with three home runs in 45 games. “When he went up, things didn't really go the way he wanted them to, but when he came back down, he went right back to work,” Brown said. “It was never something he got bitter about, he just kept at it.”
After the 2009 season LaHair was granted free agency and signed with the Chicago Cubs. He spent the entire 2010 season at Triple-A Iowa, where he hit .308 with 25 home runs and 81 RBI. These numbers could have deemed a promotion, but he was blocked by Derrek Lee, the Cubs' longtime first baseman.
In 2011, the Cubs starting first baseman was Carlos Pena, whose own power prevented LaHair from the majors, at least until September. But, with Carlos Pena returning to the Tampa Bay Rays on a free agent deal after the 2011 season, the first base position was LaHair's, after hitting a respectable .288 with two home runs and six RBI with an .885 OPS in 59 at-bats when he was called-up in September.
“I didn't play him that day [the day LaHair got called up]. I called him into my office after the game and said, “You're not going to play anymore; you're going to play in Chicago.” He's been pushing himself so hard for so long. [Last year] he worked hard and opened some eyes,” Dancy said of LaHair's MVP season. “It's his time to show he deserves to be there.”
LaHair, his wife, and two-year-old daughter make their off-season home in Arizona, but many of his family and friends still live in the Worcester area. He also spends part of the off-season working out at Cressey Performance in Hudson, Mass.
Even after General Manager Jed Hoyer's acquisition of highly-touted first base prospect Anthony Rizzo, LaHair is the Cubs' man. Hoyer felt that Rizzo had been rushed to majors last year, so the organizational plan is for him to begin the year at Triple-A Iowa. Should Rizzo prove ready early on, LaHair's versatility as a corner outfielder should allow for both Rizzo and LaHair to be in the lineup.
“I am very comfortable in the outfield, I've been playing there my whole life,” LaHair said.
Whatever position LaHair finds himself in come the end of the season, his former coaches all agree, it's his time to be in the majors. “It's amazing he didn't get the opportunity sooner,” Maynard said. “I'm really confident he will put up some big numbers.”
“Everything that he's been through will help him,” Brown said. “He's a little bit older and all the experience he's had will help him handle things and he'll go and show them what he can do.”
“He's done all he can in Triple-A,” Dancy said. “Sure, there's going to be pressure, but he'll be prepared for it. He's got a feel for it and he knows what it takes to stay in the big leagues.”
“It's incredible,” LaHair said. “I've been waiting a long time for this, and I am completely ready for it.”