MESA, Ariz. -- Nearly two decades have gone by since the Cubs picked Luke Hagerty in the first round of the 2002 MLB Draft. Thirteen years have passed since he last threw a pitch in affiliated baseball. The game moved on without Hagerty, while flecks of gray hair began to move in amidst the brown.
In early February, as Hagerty turned onto Rio Salado Parkway and drove closer to the Cubs' Spring Training complex, reality began to set in. Young pitchers under his tutelage encouraged him to give it one more shot. His wife, Rachel, supported the journey that would impact his entire family. Evaluators said the velocity and data defied the number defined by his birth certificate.
Hagerty's mind raced.
"When I was driving here the first day, I was like, 'Holy crap. This is actually happening,'" he said on Tuesday. "It's one thing to think about it and to make those things up in your head a little bit. But to actually be driving to the facility, getting a uniform, things like that. That was a pretty wild moment for me."
Seventeen years after taking Hagerty out of Ball State University with the 32nd overall pick in the 2002 Draft, the Cubs offered him a Minor League contract. He is not in the big league clubhouse alongside veterans like Jon Lester and Cole Hamels -- also members of that '02 class -- but down the hall with the Minor Leaguers. The farmhands would be forgiven for confusing him for a coach, especially since he is in fact a few months older than Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy.
During his physical, the doctor actually did think Hagerty was a coach.
"I don't blame him," Hagerty said with a laugh. "I wasn't mad about it."
The path to the Majors is improbable for Hagerty, especially given that he is currently shut down from throwing due to a flexor tendon issue. But the fact that a path once again exists at all for him is incredible.
On Jan. 13, Hagerty took a mound at Driveline Baseball's facility in Kent, Wash., and worked through a bullpen session in front of scouts from a variety of teams. He hit 98.5 mph with his fastball and showed off a breaking ball, which he designed to mimic the movement of Corey Kluber's curve. A couple teams came calling, but Hagerty felt compelled to sign with Chicago.
"They kept giving me a lot of chances," Hagerty said. "They didn't have to do that."
Back in 2002, when a 21-year-old Hagerty joined Class A Boise, he lived up to the first-round billing. The lefty made 10 starts, spun a 1.13 ERA and amassed 50 strikeouts against 15 walks in 48 innings. It looked like the beginning of what would be a swift ride to stardom. Instead, it was a tease for both the Cubs and Hagerty, who lost all of the '03 campaign and part of '04 due to Tommy John surgery on his left elbow.
During Spring Training 2005 with the Marlins -- who acquired Hagerty in a Rule 5 Draft trade with the Orioles -- Hagerty's arm issues became compounded by a mental block. Within baseball, players often call it "the thing." The problem is more commonly referred to as the yips. When it strikes, it can take down the best of players. For Hagerty, the sudden inability to throw a baseball over the plate was debilitating.
From '04-08, Hagerty had 77 walks in 47 innings from Class A to rookie ball to independent ball. He threw his last pitch in the Cubs' system in '06 and fired his final pitch in pro ball with the Schaumburg Flyers in the Northern League in '08. That could have been the end of this story.
"I wanted to try to right a wrong, almost," Hagerty said. "It didn't end up at all how I wanted, or anybody planned."
Between then and now, Hagerty attended Arizona State, became a certified strength and conditioning specialist and founded X2 Athletic Performance in Scottsdale. At home, Hagerty is a husband and father of two. At work, he helps coach and train aspiring pitchers, using the kind of technology that Driveline has become famous for.
As Hagerty regained arm strength from throwing with his students, he also gained more expertise in the data. He measured his own pitches and was able to see that his numbers -- pitch speed, spin rates, spin axis, etc. -- were in the same range as some current big leaguers. That, along with conversations with his family and other professionals in the field, convinced him to attempt this comeback.
Hagerty admits that he was not sure it would work until the workout in front of scouts in January.
"I didn't know," he said. "I honestly didn't know what was going to happen when I went out there, if it was going to turn out the way we thought or not."
And Hagerty is not sure how things will turn out. He hopes to resume playing catch by the end of this week and slowly build up from there. If things go according to his plan, he would find a way to the Major League stage at some point this season.
"That's the plan," he said.
One thing Hagerty does not want is for this merely to be a feel-good spring story line.
"I'm not here to waste anybody's time," he said. "I don't want to come in and just be kind of thrown in there like, 'Oh, that's a great story. Let's have him come in and play around a little bit.' I don't want that. I don't need that. I came back because I feel like I could help the team in some way. That's what I want to do and why I'm here."