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In difficult time, 'Chief' Bender an honor for Lukevics

Rays' Minor League director, set to receive award at Winter Meetings, copes with loss
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Mitch Lukevics is a father figure in the Rays' organization.

As the organization's farm director, he is the one who lays out the playbook to the Major Leagues for young men within the organization. In such a job, Lukevics has dealt with all kinds of problems, solved them and handled them with grace. He is, and has been, a guiding light for many.

That's why it's been a time of sorrow in the organization, because everyone knows Lukevics' situation. He recently lost his wife, Karen, to a rare form of ovarian cancer, and he's hurting. So as he prepares to receive the prestigious Sheldon "Chief" Bender Award on Thursday night on the final day of the Winter Meetings, it's not unusual to see Lukevics receive some hugs and shed a few tears during a trying period of his life.

"It's been a very difficult week, a lot of emotions," said Lukevics while standing in the lobby of the Gaylord Opryland Hotel. "Last time I was in this hotel, my wife was with me. We received, in 2007, the Topps Minor League Organization of the Year.

"Fast-forward to 2012 and I'm honored, I'm humbled by receiving the Chief Bender Award, and the most important person in my life can't be here to share this with me. So there are a lot of emotions. I'm completing my 38th season in professional baseball, and my wife has been with me 32 years. And without her love and commitment, to me and our family, none of this would be possible. So as you can see, it's really, really emotional."

Lukevics' voice cracked at times and tears formed in the corner of his eyes as he spoke Wednesday afternoon. He has always been the go-to guy to lean on for help. But at least for now, he is leaning heavily on those in the Rays' family and on his many friends from a lifetime in baseball.

"It really helps [being around baseball people at the Winter Meetings]," Lukevics said. "She would want it, you know, me to move on. It's hard to do when you spend 32 years of your life with someone. Somehow by being with my teammates, my really good teammates here makes things easier, it really does. This is what she would want. And this, by her wishes, she would want me to move on. It's hard to do right now. And every day gets a little better, and there are always reminders and there will always be reminders. And she'll tell me at 59 to grow up."

Most years, Lukevics would be the Rays' main representative during the Rule 5 Draft, which takes place Thursday. This year, he'll be there only in body. Fortunately, the Rays have others to help fill the gaps for their farm director.

"I have no idea [about what's going on in this year's Rule 5 Draft]," Lukevics said. "That's part of having great teammates in a time of grieving. My teammates really picked me up. They picked me up for 4 1/2 years and I work for an organization that told me to care more about my wife than my work, and I'm surrounded with a wonderful, young, competent staff that all helped me throughout the years in this difficult, difficult situation. I have no idea about the Rule 5 Draft."

The Sheldon "Chief" Bender Award is presented to someone with distinguished service who has been instrumental in player development. Bender spent 64 years in baseball as a player, manager and executive. He oversaw the Cincinnati Reds' farm system for 22 years and spent a total 39 years with the club.

Lukevics has spent 38 years in professional baseball as a pitcher, coach and Minor League administrator. He has been Tampa Bay's director of Minor League operations for the past seven seasons, overseeing one of the most productive Minor League systems in baseball. The Rays' farm system has continually provided high-caliber players who have played major roles in Tampa Bay's postseason runs in three of the past five years, including a trip to the 2008 World Series.

Lukevics said he is honored and humbled to win the award.

"I'm an old guy, so I knew Chief," Lukevics said. "I knew Chief. I've been in meetings with Chief. I knew what Chief stood for. And that makes it even more special on how he conducted himself as a gentleman, how he ran his clubs. They were always tough competition and they played the game fairly, and that makes it special for me to win the Chief Bender Award.

"You have to give a lot of thanks, because when you win an award, you get an individual award, so many people take part in this and there's always so much thanks, because you don't do anything alone. I don't make a decision on the Rays on my own. I have a lot of quality staff from all different experiences that help. ... And by having good teammates, I'm very fortunate to receive this award."

Even though he's hurting, Lukevics will speak at Thursday night's banquet when he receives the award, because he wants to offer the appropriate thank yous he spoke of, including the one closest to his heart.

"Will thank Karen as well," said Lukevics, managing a smile.

Bill Chastain is a reporter for

Tampa Bay Rays