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

Bryan LaHair, the Cubs’ opening day first baseman, has been one of Chicago’s bright spots with a team-high 11 home runs.

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Bryan LaHair, the Cubs’ opening day first baseman, has been one of Chicago’s bright spots with a team-high 11 home runs.

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 joesmith@tampabay.com.

Former St. Petersburg College star Bryan LaHair making the most of his time with Chicago Cubs 06/05/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 5, 2012 11:36pm]
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