Bryan LaHair has hit home runs in Japan and Venezuela. Laced up his cleats in Des Moines, Tacoma, San Antonio and Chicago.
He’s been a Cub and a Cardenale, a Rattler, Rainier and a Rubber Duck.
He made his Major League debut in 2008 for the Seattle Mariners after 5-½ seasons in the minors and was a National League all-star in 2012, when he hit .390 through April and had 14 home runs by the break for the Chicago Cubs. By 2014, he was hitting .234 with 5 home runs for a double-A club in Akron, Ohio.
The former Holy Name star, 33, has indeed lived the full baseball life, and after spending last summer on the sidelines following his April release from Red Sox spring training camp, he seems to again be in full pursuit of the dream.
“My expectation is to get back into the big leagues,” said LaHair, who will start that journey manning his customary first base in north central New Jersey with the independent Atlantic League’s Somerset Patriots. “I was out last year, but I’ve been training extensively since August. I lost weight and I’m in great shape.
“I’m stronger than I’ve ever been. A lot of my injuries are behind me and I’m just looking forward to moving forward.”
LaHair knows better than most how difficult it is to come by, let alone hold onto, such momentum. And he’s not alone. Worcester boasts a long and proud history in professional baseball, with dozens of players, coaches, scouts and executives making their MLB mark through the years.
The one certain common link between the likes of Tim Collins, Ryan O’Rourke, Brian Abraham, Shaun McNamara and a host of other city sons toiling in the show is the uncertain and distinct path each has taken to find their place in the game.
Collins, the former Worcester Tech star with the lightning left arm, didn’t have an easy road to the show, exactly; he was made to hit every rung on his way up the bush-league ladder. But he did so efficiently and found himself in the big leagues at 21, pitching out of the Kansas City Royals bullpen to start the 2011 season.
Over the next three years, he pitched 206 games and set a club record in 2012 with 93 strikeouts, the most in a Royals single season by a left-handed reliever. In 2014, he struck out six batters pitching in the World Series against the eventual champion San Francisco Giants.
And then it wasn’t all roses.
He’d struggled some with injury and performance in 2014, then after two outs in his 2015 spring debut Collins threw a curveball — and baseball did him the same.
He needed Tommy John ligament replacement surgery and would miss all of last season. The Royals went on to win the World Series. And late last week it was announced that Collins would require another Tommy John surgery and won’t likely pitch competitively again until the end of 2017.
“I’m still young. I’m 26,” Collins told the Kansas City Star. “Obviously, you don’t want to miss two years of baseball. A lot can happen in those two years. A lot of younger guys are coming up.”
Collins signed a one-year, $1.475 million contract last fall. He is still eligible for salary arbitration and can become a free agent in 2018.
“It’s not something that I’m thinking about. I’ve got a full year ahead of me. It’s something I’ll approach this offseason and evaluate where I’m at,” he told the Star. “Obviously, the Royals know what I’m capable of doing and they’ll take that into consideration when that time comes in the offseason.”
The Minnesota Twins seem to believe there’s another left-handed relief pitcher from Worcester who’s capable of striking out big-league batters.
Like LaHair, Ryan O’Rourke, 27, was halfway through his sixth minor-league season when he got the call last July 7 — you know the one.
“It was surreal,” said the St. John’s product and 2010 13th round draft pick. “Getting that call from coach the night before I got called up was just the greatest thing. The best part about it was that I got to call my dad to tell him about it.”
He finished the season in Minnesota, striking out 24 in 22 innings and 28 appearances.
This spring, O’Rourke is well-positioned to start the season in the majors, but he knows nothing is guaranteed. He had 4 strikeouts in 5-⅔ innings and 7 games through Friday.
“It’s not a lock. They brought a lot of lefties into camp. I just need to be ready in case I get the call. I’m working hard to stay with the big-league club,” he said.
“First of all, I need to remain healthy. Second, I need to put myself in a position to do whatever it takes to help my teammates and our team win.”
Health, to be sure, is critical. LaHair blamed a previously injured wrist for casting doubt on his future and dissuading teams from giving him another shot last season.
“I just needed to take a step back and get a few things cleaned up. Now I’m on my way,” LaHair said. “My swing is the best it has ever been. I’m hoping an opportunity will come soon.”
For that opportunity, at any stage of one’s career, one must be discovered, or at the very least seen.
It was Worcester’s J.P. Ricciardi, then general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, who stumbled upon the diminutive Collins at an American Legion ballgame. Collins was not drafted, but signed with the Blue Jays and his career evolved from there.
Now an executive with the New York Mets, Ricciardi has under his employ Shaun McNamara, 31, a former eighth-grade English teacher in the Worcester Public Schools and Holy Name graduate, who is heading into his fifth year as a professional scout for the Mets.
During spring training, McNamara said he scouts the Pittsburgh Pirates, Atlanta Braves and Twins. During the winter, he scouts the Caribbean Winter Leagues in the Dominican Republic.
“My role is to continue to do a good job covering my organization, and help J.P. and [General Manager] Sandy [Alderson] in whatever moves they have to make and make sure they have all the information available to make those moves,” McNamara said.
Last season, the Mets made it to the World Series, but lost to the Royals in six games.
“With the success we had last year, the bar is definitely raised,” McNamara said. “The expectations are very high. Everyone’s got a lot of confidence. Getting a taste of success last year has really motivated everyone.”
McNamara was the Can-Am League’s Rookie Pitcher of the Year in 2006 with the North Shore Spirit. He joined former Assumption College star Chris Colabello and the Worcester Tornadoes in 2007 and pitched for them for two seasons.
McNamara, an advance scout for the Washington Nationals in 2011, and Colabello also played together in the North Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League in Lowell in 2003 and 2004.
Nobody needs to tell Colabello, 32, about the long road to the big leagues. He’s graded it, paved it, dug it up and paved it again.
He spent seven seasons building his resume at Fitton Field for the now-defunct Tornadoes before the Twins found him in 2012. From there, the lanky slugger proceeded to devour double-A and triple-A pitching before a couple of hot streaks — first for the Twins in 2014; then for the Blue Jays last season — seemingly cemented his status as a big-leaguer.
After his May call-up last season, Colabello hit .321 with 15 homers and 54 RBIs and smacked a home run in Game 5 of the ALCS that helped Toronto force a Game 6. Now he’s expected to be the primary first baseman and bat in the middle of a powerful Jays lineup.
Brian Abraham, 30, spent some time in Toronto, too — but he got there quicker.
The Red Sox assistant director of player development, Abraham joined Ricciardi in 2007 and started as a bullpen catcher and advance scout. Abraham remained until 2013, when he followed manager John Farrell to the Red Sox.
With the Sox the St. John’s and Holy Cross alum again worked as a bullpen catcher and advance scout and celebrated a World Series victory in his first year with the team. He was promoted to his current position following the 2014 season.
Abraham works with the players in the Red Sox farm system and watches the progress of development of minor-leaguers when they’re drafted or signed as free agents.
“Right now, I’m at minor-league camp. We’re in the process of putting together minor-league rosters and dealing with a lot of the draft picks from last year and where they should go, depending on injuries and progress,” Abraham said.
“The main thing we do down here is instill the Red Sox developmental philosophy and our values and goals in the season and try to implement that into our players here,” he said.
For players like LaHair, though, that development never stops
“There is no spring for me. For me, I’ve been training with a lot of big-leaguers in an extensive program. I’ve been grinding pretty hard for the last six to eight months,” he said. “As long as everything checks out when I get there [Somerset], then I should have a really good year.”
For players like Tyler Beede of Auburn, a glittering golden boy of a prospect since his tee-ball days, learning about that grind is a critical piece of the development puzzle.
Beede told Ken Powers [check out this week’s Score column here] that he learned from wearing down last season.
“Near the end of last season, I had already thrown more innings than I’ve ever thrown and my arm was just so tired and worn down. With my weight being down in addition to that, it just kind of put me in a spot where I couldn’t recover.”
To combat the fatigue that plagued him at the end of last year he spent the offseason working with Eric Cressey, owner-operator of Cressey Sports Performance in Hudson.
“I put on about 25 pounds of muscle. … I want to be prepared to pitch 180-200 innings this season,” Beede said.
The San Francisco Giants sure hope Beede, 22, can pull off something like that. The 14th-overall selection in the June 2014 draft, Beede ranks as the Giants’ top prospect. Though the big-league rotation is full, Beede could be in triple-A by midseason and have a shot at a late-season call-up.
LaHair, whose own first late-season call-up for the Mariners in 2008 led to another musty summer in triple-A in 2009 and a trip to the waiver wire, knows the play is the thing — but the work is nonstop.
“The biggest thing is to be a good teammate and be a good clubhouse guy,” he said. “Spring training is a time to show the coaches and organization who you are and what kind of player you are. It’s the time to go out and give your best effort, because you never know when it’s going to be your last.”