TAMPA — For University of Tampa junior pitcher David Lebron, baseball reminds him of family. He uses it to help honor the memory of his father, who taught him the game. One day, he hopes his career can help support his mother and allow her to rest.
When Lebron was a teenager in Homestead, he remembers his father, Narciso, helping him with a science project on a random evening. The next day, his father died of a heart attack. He was 58.
Lebron often thinks of his father, drawing inspiration from his words and the work ethic he taught. His mother, Luz, has provided her own example. She works in food distribution for the Miami-Dade County School District, always keeping the family together, following his baseball from afar.
"I have a lot of pride in what I do," said Lebron, a 5-foot-11, 190-pound right-hander. "I've always wanted to make my parents proud."
Consider that done.
Lebron, a transfer from the College of Central Florida, made everyone proud with a breakout season that helped the Spartans (39-14) win the Sunshine State Conference championship and reach the NCAA South Region Tournament, where they were eliminated Sunday by West Alabama 7-6.
Lebron finished 7-1 with a 2.66 ERA, including 103 strikeouts and just 27 walks in 91 1/3 innings pitched. He was named Sunshine State Conference Pitcher of the Year and first-team All-South Region.
His final performance May 19, his only defeat of the season, still made a lingering impression.
Lebron had a career-high 15 strikeouts — the most by a Spartan pitcher since 2006 — and allowed just four hits in eight innings. But three of those four hits were solo home runs. The Spartans couldn't muster enough run support and fell 3-1 against Nova Southeastern, the defending national champion.
"David has been outstanding all season," UT coach Joe Urso said. "He made quite a name for himself. I think he has a great future in this game."
That has always been Lebron's goal.
When Lebron was about 5 years old, he remembers riding in the back seat of the family car, taking a trip to his grandmother's house. It drove past a baseball park. The lights were on. The action was under way.
"I looked out there and it seemed so amazing to me," Lebron said. "I told my parents right then and there, 'That's where I want to be.' "
Lebron worked his way through Little League, going from "pretty bad" to very good. He was an athletic and academic standout at South Dade High School, where he injured his arm late in his senior season.
After undergoing Tommy John surgery then rehabilitating for a year, Lebron re-emerged at the College of Central Florida, where he went 13-4 in two seasons while earning Most Valuable Player honors and the school's Male Athlete of the Year award.
His season with the Spartans only affirmed his skills. But he said the key to it all was the work he put in after his injury.
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"I was worried at the beginning, even though Tommy John surgery has become pretty common," Lebron said. "It fools people. They think it's just automatic that you have the surgery, you recover and everything is fine.
"There's a little more to it than that."
Lebron, who throws in the low 90s, said he became a different pitcher. His velocity remains impressive, but he learned more about changing speeds and working the inner half of the plate.
"I have more command now and more of an idea of how to pitch," said Lebron, who throws a fastball, curveball, changeup and slider. "You've got to grind and work your butt off in therapy. For a year, there are minimal improvements, then you start jumping back.
"… It's not always about blowing guys away. When you get to the professional level, anybody can hit a 95 mph fastball. It's about consistently hitting your spots, knowing your location, keeping hitters off balance. That's what I have learned."
Lebron said he also learned plenty from Urso and the UT coaching staff, who he said "runs the program almost like a minor-league team and really builds a culture of success."
Lebron said he feels the presence of his parents at all times. Their example, he said, keeps him going.
"I know my father is in a better place and I know he'd be really happy to see me play," Lebron said. "My mom, with the effort she has always put in for the family, she inspires me. That's why I do this. That's why I grind. I love the game, but I want my family to be proud."