Monday, June 25, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Former St. Petersburg College star Bryan LaHair making the most of his time with Chicago Cubs

Throughout Bryan LaHair's hot start with the Cubs, he has received his share of messages from family and friends.

After all, LaHair, 29, a former St. Petersburg College star, labored 10 years in the minors before his first shot and now has more homers than fellow first basemen Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder.

But some of LaHair's most inspirational text messages come from one of his biggest fans: Rays first baseman Carlos Peña:

"Proud of you," Peña will write. "Keep ripping the baseball."

LaHair credits Peña, his teammate last year in Chicago, for mentoring and encouraging him. Peña says he can relate to LaHair, both in their Massachusetts roots and in overcoming struggles of an up-and-down journey.

"It was a turning point in my life when I got a chance to meet 'Los," LaHair said. "As soon as I got called up, he took me under his wing, his locker was right next to mine. I'd pick his brain about being a player on and off the field, some of the keys that he uses to allow himself to stay humble and show gratitude."

LaHair has hit .314 with 11 homers as the Cubs' everyday first baseman, knowing touted prospect Anthony Rizzo is waiting in the wings in Triple A. LaHair, the Mariners' 39th-round pick in 2002, is embracing every moment, playing in Wrigley Field, finding himself on ESPN highlights and ranking fourth in All-Star voting among NL first basemen.

"I kept saying, 'You have to dream, you have to be able to dream and believe it in your heart and it will happen to you,' " Peña said. "And he's doing it.'"

• • •

LaHair took an interesting road to St. Petersburg College.

He grew up in Worcester, Mass., in a baseball family with his younger brother, Jeff, 27, playing four years of independent ball, including with Peña's brother, Omar.

Eckerd College baseball coach Bill Mathews, who recruited LaHair, knew he was something special — the long arms, mental approach and physical tools, even in a 170-pound frame.

"He could run, he could throw, he could hit. He played short, played the outfield," Mathews said. "He was one of those guys where I really knew I had no chance."

LaHair went to Clemson, but quickly decided, "it wasn't the place for me." Former Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi, who coached LaHair's basketball team at Holy Names High (Mass.), suggested he try St. Petersburg College, coached by fellow Worcester area native Dave Pano.

LaHair played with current Angels catcher Bobby Wilson on the Titans' 2002 team that Pano said was "probably the best team I had overall."

And now he has joined several other former Titans who have recently played in the majors, including right-handers Pedro Beato (Mets) and Nick Masset (Reds), outfielder Alfredo Amezaga (Marlins) and infielder Steve Lombardozzi (Nationals).

"There was never any doubt he was going to be able to play," said Pano, now a minor-league coach with the Jays. "It was just a question of getting the opportunity to play every day, and he's finally got it."

LaHair didn't get his first big-league chance until 2008, playing in 45 games for the Mariners. He'd then spend six consecutive seasons in Triple A, between Seattle and Chicago, hitting 25-plus homers and above .300 in three of them.

LaHair said his wife, Nichole, helped him stick with it.

"I had a hunger inside of me to get where I wanted to be," LaHair said. "I just wasn't giving up until someone recognized what I was doing and give me an opportunity, and I'm thankful."

Rays outfielder Sam Fuld, who played with LaHair in 2010 with Chicago's Triple-A squad, said he was surprised the 6-5, left-handed hitting slugger didn't get a shot earlier, saying he is underrated as an all-around player. LaHair had a minor-league best 38 homers and 109 RBIs last year in Triple A before a September callup.

"Sometimes, people in the game have overemphasized the nature of the idea of a 4A player, a guy who can hit in Triple A and not in the big leagues," Fuld said. "He had that label to a certain extent, but it's a good thing he's shedding it."

• • •

LaHair said it was a huge "weight off my back" to have manager Dale Sveum say before camp he'd start opening day.

He admits his life has changed, though he says he has had to use Peña's advice on humility and strength in his first two months. There was his sizzling start, five homers and a .390 average in April, and his 2-for-25 slump near the end of May, when his average dipped below .300.

So what has been the best part?

"I think it's just the satisfaction and the rewards of all the hard work and seeing my family and friends enjoy it the way they're enjoying it," LaHair said. "Those things kind of magnify for me."

LaHair doesn't know how long it will last, with Rizzo hitting .363 in Triple A, but he would love to stay with the Cubs and will carry this confidence-building experience wherever he goes.

And Peña believes LaHair will stick.

"Are you kidding me? That guy rakes, his whole life," Peña said. "I'm glad he's getting his chance, and it goes to show you, if you give people opportunities, look what he's doing."

Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]

Comments
Rays season turning into good one

Rays season turning into good one

ST. PETERSBURG — The Tampa Bay Rays are not the best team in baseball. They are not going to win the World Series this year. Heck, they probably won't even make the playoffs.But I tell you what. This team is a heck of a lot of fun to watch.And ...
Published: 06/24/18
Rodney Page’s takeaways from Sunday’s Rays-Yankees game

Rodney Page’s takeaways from Sunday’s Rays-Yankees game

The catwalks at Tropicana Field are arguably the worst feature, but they  came in handy for the Rays on Sunday. Yankees pinch-hitter Clint Frazier hit what looked to be a ninth-inning home run that would've given them a one-run lead. Instea...
Published: 06/24/18
Rays beat Yankees in 12 innings on Jake Bauers homer

Rays beat Yankees in 12 innings on Jake Bauers homer

ST. PETERSBURG — Rays first baseman Jake Bauers sat at his locker after Sunday afternoon's 7-6, 12-inning win over the Yankees and thumbed through his text messages. There was no way he could get through them all. That's what happens when ...
Published: 06/24/18
Rays journal: Yarbrough comes through, Venters to DL, support for Ramos

Rays journal: Yarbrough comes through, Venters to DL, support for Ramos

ST. PETERSBURG — Ryan Yarbrough was only supposed to throw on Sunday if it was an emergency. In the 12th inning with the score tied 6-6 and a runner on first, there was an emergency.Jonny Venters tweaked his right hamstring trying to cover firs...
Published: 06/24/18
Rays team up to beat Yankees again 4-0

Rays team up to beat Yankees again 4-0

ST. PETERSBURG — With all that's been said, tweeted, ranted and written on these pages and elsewhere about the Rays' odd, unorthodox, weird and some days downright wacky pitching plan, this might be the craziest thing yet:It's working.Like, rea...
Published: 06/23/18
Rays Tales: Why ‘trades’ and ‘prospects’ are always in same conversation

Rays Tales: Why ‘trades’ and ‘prospects’ are always in same conversation

Besides the continual evolution of their intriguing pitching plan, the primary topics of conversation for the Rays over the next several weeks will be trades and prospects. And not mutually exclusively.Some sooner than others, the Rays are going to c...
Published: 06/23/18
Rays journal: New confidence carries over for Willy Adames

Rays journal: New confidence carries over for Willy Adames

ST. PETERSBURG — The key to SS Willy Adames rapping two of the biggest hits in the Rays' 4-0 win Saturday actually took place the night before.An RBI single that snapped an 0-for-12 and a second hit two winnings later in Friday's game restored ...
Published: 06/23/18
Marc Topkin’s takeaways from Saturday’s Rays-Yankees game

Marc Topkin’s takeaways from Saturday’s Rays-Yankees game

INF Daniel Robertson has only played two games after a short DL stint, but it seems like he has already made a half dozen great plays. Willy Adames and Jake Bauers get the attention, but Robertson has the skills to steal the show any night.It is obvi...
Published: 06/23/18
For starters: Rays vs. Yankees, looking for two straight

For starters: Rays vs. Yankees, looking for two straight

UPDATE, 2:38: Clarifying what was a communication error with the team PR staff, Rays manager Kevin Cash said LHP Blake Snell was slated for an extra day's rest all along and will face the Nationals on Monday not the Yankees on Sunday. The Rays will u...
Published: 06/23/18
Marc Anthony pays a visit to the Trop

Marc Anthony pays a visit to the Trop

By Allana BarefieldTimes Staff WriterST. PETERSBURG — Latin pop star Marc Anthony visited Tropicana Field on Friday to see his beloved Yankees play the Rays.Anthony spent nearly an hour on the field before the game as fans and players surrounde...
Updated: 2 hours ago