LaHair's path from non-prospect to Cubs All-Star

December 26th, 2019

CHICAGO -- A lot of things had to fall into place for this moment to arrive for Bryan LaHair. That was fitting, considering his entire career consisted of doing everything within his power to defy the odds and to kick open the doors that others helped crack open along his journey.

It took a leadoff walk, a bunt single and then another two-out free pass to load the bases. The Wrigley Field crowd was on its feet, hoping for something to cheer about on the final day of a long season. LaHair not only had his ailing grandmother on his mind, but the first baseman recognized that the next swing he took could be his last on this stage.

"It was emotional," LaHair says now. "It was almost like, 'This could be my last Major League at-bat ever.' You never know what's next, you know? It was just kind of a special moment. It's something I'll always be able to look back on."

With two out in the bottom of the ninth, LaHair received a fastball from Houston's Hector Ambriz for the final pitch of the Cubs' 2012 season. The lefty yanked it into the right-field corner, where the baseball bounced to the old ballpark's famous ivy-covered brick wall as the crowd roared. After launching a home run earlier in the game, LaHair ended things with a walk-off single.

LaHair was swiftly swarmed on the infield grass after rounding first and attempting to escape the mob. He ran right into the stream of teammates who poured out of the third-base dugout and sprinted past the mound. As LaHair absorbed punches to the side and back, rookie Anthony Rizzo reached over and emptied the contents of a water bottle from above.

Rizzo then lowered his head and plowed into the dogpile like a fullback with two yards to go on the goal line. He grabbed the front of LaHair's jersey, turned in the opposite direction and pulled his teammate out of the flurry of fists. LaHair emerged with his jersey untucked and a smile across his face, slowing down behind the mound as the scene began to calm.

"To have that moment," Rizzo said, "those are memories you never forget. For that to be his last hit as a Cub, that's something special."

It was not only LaHair's last hit as a Cub, but his premonition proved correct. That was his final swing in the big leagues. Bryan LaHair -- one of baseball's most improbable one-time All-Stars -- had reached the sunset of his boyhood dreams.

The non-prospect

The kid out of Holy Name High School in Worcester, Mass., calls Arizona home these days. LaHair and his family no longer have to brave the harsh New England winters, save for when they head back East with their three young children for holiday visits.

In the springtime, LaHair will head to the Reds' facility in Goodyear, where he will report to the Rookie-level Billings Mustangs. It will mark his third season in Montana -- the first as a hitting coach -- and he sees now how his circuitous path in professional baseball prepared him for working with young players.

"There's probably not too much that they'll go through that I won't have a really good understanding for," LaHair said.

LaHair knows what it's like to have "that title" of being a 39th-round pick. When the Mariners grabbed him near the end of the 2002 MLB Draft, he knew that it would be his own personal expectations that would have to power him up the Minor League ladder. One bad year or one ill-timed injury could spell the end of a career that was barely underway.

So LaHair went to work on shedding the non-prospect label and trying to put himself on Seattle's map. He broke through with Class A Advanced Inland Empire in 2005 by launching 22 homers with 113 RBIs in 126 games. That helped push LaHair up through Double-A and Triple-A over the next two seasons, making the '08 campaign an important one for his Major League aspirations.

"I had to constantly prove to the front office that I should be the one going up," LaHair said, "or that I should be the one playing every day or whatever it was. I always had that mentality that I had to continue keep on doing it. I couldn't let up."

LaHair's rise through the Mariners' system culminated in reaching the big leagues by July. And on July 22 -- four days after his MLB debut -- the first baseman roped a single off Red Sox righty Daisuke Matsuzaka. The first career hit for the Worcester product coming against Boston? It had to be a sign that good things for coming.

After 45 uninspiring games in the Majors and another year spent at Triple-A, LaHair was released by the Mariners following the 2009 campaign.

"It was always that I was fighting for my life in the sport," LaHair said. "That's what it boiled down to."

The All-Star

On one side of the National League clubhouse at Kauffman Stadium was Chipper Jones, playing in the final All-Star Game of his Hall of Fame career. Over in the American League's locker room, Derek Jeter was getting ready to bat leadoff and a young Mike Trout was soaking up the experience of his first Midsummer Classic.

LaHair slipped on his jersey, looked around the room and was not only in awe of the great players around him, but of the fact that his peers voted him onto the NL's roster.

"That, for me," LaHair said, "is probably one of the biggest honors I could ever imagine having."

The Cubs signed LaHair prior to the 2010 season and he spent that summer swatting pitches over the fence in Iowa. He kept slugging at a prolific rate in '11, earning a 20-game stay as a September callup that fall. In January '12, the new Cubs regime -- headed by president of baseball operations Theo Epstein -- swung a blockbuster deal with the Padres to land Rizzo.

Rizzo was one of the first major puzzle pieces for Chicago's rebuild. Even LaHair, who made the Cubs' Opening Day roster in 2012, understood the landscape.

"Anthony was going to be the first baseman at some point," LaHair said. "I mean, he was there for that. I always look back and think maybe I delayed the process a little bit. But at the same time, I think it gave him an opportunity to continue to grow, which was great. For me, I've always tried to be a great teammate."

LaHair rattled off the names of Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Pena, Marlon Byrd and David DeJesus as teammates who took him under their wing with the Cubs. He said it was his goal -- both before and after Rizzo's arrival -- to make sure that there was no animosity between them, even if the young first baseman's inevitable promotion threatened the chance LaHair worked so hard to obtain.

"He treated me really well, especially in the spring," Rizzo said. "That was his first time getting an Opening Day nod. I was very happy for him. And when I came up, he welcomed me with open arms. I get called up for first base and then he gets announced as an All-Star."

LaHair believes that Rizzo's presence sharpened the competitive edge that he had to maintain to keep surviving as a Minor Leaguer. In April 2012, LaHair got off to a torrid start, hitting .390 with five homers and a 1.251 OPS in his first 20 games. The first baseman had a .307/.387/.577 slash line in his first 50 contests, fueling his drive to Kansas City for the All-Star Game.

Once Rizzo arrived to the Cubs in late June, LaHair's fate was essentially sealed. He played some outfield and was used as a pinch-hitter, but the sporadic playing time contributed to a .215 average and .617 OPS over his final 80 games. In September, LaHair only received three starts and he only played one full game -- the last game of the season.

The Cubs released LaHair that November. Even so, no one could remove the title of "All-Star" from LaHair's resume.

"The memories are incredible. The bright lights, being around all the great players, Hall of Fame players," LaHair said. "I just couldn't be more thankful and appreciative of everybody throughout my whole life that helped me take the necessary steps to get to a point like that. I'll forever be grateful."

The manager

LaHair can see now how the frustrations in the moment in the past can be utilized as lessons for the first-year prospects and non-prospects under his watch.

Located northeast of Yellowstone National Park, Billings is a big city in Montana terms, with a population of around 110,000. Wrigley Field can pack that many in during a three-game series against the Cardinals, so Billings can also feel a lifetime away from the big leagues for a farmhand. That is where LaHair comes in.

"Being that 39th-rounder, I feel like I always had to motivate myself," LaHair said. "Because I knew at the end of the day that if I didn't get it done or if I didn't perform on a daily basis, there'd be a chance I'd lose the opportunity. I understand that aspect. With the kids I'm dealing with now, this is their first experience.

"So my role is to kind of prepare them for that journey and try to get the most out of them to prepare them for moving forward."

LaHair did his best to move forward after the Cubs cut ties with him and continued on their path to the 2016 World Series.

In July of that historic summer on the North Side, LaHair was suiting up for the Somerset Patriots in the independent Atlantic League All-Star Game in Lancaster, Pa. He was introduced at Clipper Magazine Stadium for an announced crowd of 8,466. One day earlier on July 12, Rizzo and the entire Cubs infield started for the NL in the MLB All-Star Game in San Diego.

LaHair spent a year overseas playing for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in Japan, but a hand injury sapped his power and led him to opt out of a two-year contract ahead of the 2014 season. He attempted a comeback with Cleveland that year and then tried to latch on with Boston in '15.

LaHair's first hit came against the Red Sox. His last hit in affiliated ball came on March 7 for the Red Sox in a Spring Training game. If only for the spring, wearing Boston's signature "B" meant a lot for the Worcester kid, who savored each minute of his abbreviated stint as a teammate of David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia and other Red Sox stars.

"It was unbelievable being able to put on that cap," LaHair said.

After more than a decade of fighting for every at-bat, LaHair said his final two seasons with Somerset allowed him to just relax and focus on having fun playing the game he loves. After the 2017 season, LaHair was at peace with moving into the next phase of an improbable journey -- from non-prospect to All-Star to cult hero among Cubs fans.

"When the time came," LaHair said, "I knew, my wife knew and my family knew. It was time to make that move. And I'm looking to give back to a game that gave me so much. I enjoy motivating players on the field and mentally. I'm looking forward to growing in player development. We'll see where it takes me."