McCullers brings family together with Christmas tree business

November 22nd, 2023

This story was excerpted from Brian McTaggart’s Astros Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

HOUSTON -- This is about the time each year that Plant High School in Tampa, Fla., becomes bustling with holiday cheer, especially once Thanksgiving is over. The parking lot is turned into a Christmas tree lot, where families have converged for years to find the perfect tree for their homes.

And if you swung by L and M Christmas Trees in years past, you may have had a future All-Star pitcher helping you put your tree on your car. Astros pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. grew up working and playing on the Christmas tree lots in his hometown of Tampa, where his family at one point had more than 20 lots in the area. These days, one lot remains and it’s already open for business for 2023. It’s in the parking lot of Plant High School, where Lance McCullers Sr. -- Lance Jr.’s dad and a former big league pitcher -- carries on the family tradition.

Lance Jr.’s days of sweeping up pine needles and branches and delivering trees ended shortly after his rookie season with the Astros in 2015, but the memories of working on the lots with his cousins and brothers still fills his heart. In fact, if you visit L and M Christmas Trees, you still might find Lance Jr. behind the counter on occasion helping loyal customers check out.

“Probably my entire life, from the time I could rake or pick up string, I was working on a lot,” Lance Jr. said. “We had pumpkin lots and firework lots and all kinds of stuff, but the Christmas tree lot was the main thing. It just really gives me an awesome perspective on Christmas and the holidays and being able to help people. As I got older in high school, my brother and I started running one of the lots and we started delivering trees to people's homes, setting them up, tearing them down. It's hard work, but it's pretty cool to be involved in peoples’ holiday like that.”

Lance Sr., who pitched in the big leagues from 1985-92, worked on the Christmas tree lots growing up, too. His father, Lanny, played football at the University of Florida and bought the tree lot from an uncle in 1958. Lance Sr. took it over with his oldest sister in ‘83, and at its peak, L and M Christmas Trees had more than 20 lots around Tampa.

“She wanted out because she lives in Tallahassee, so I took it over and kept two or three lots for a couple of years and it went to one,” Lance Sr. said. “It’s been in the same location at Plant High School.”

Each year, Lance Sr. buys Fraser firs from North Carolina and Noble firs from Washington and gets them delivered to Florida. His customers would rather buy their trees from a local business than from a big box store.

“I sell more of a premium tree,” Lance Sr. said. “We have very loyal customers that come back every year, and we kind of pretty much know what we’re going to sell. Some years are up a little bit and some years are down.”

All three of the McCullers boys -- Lance and twin brothers Ryan and Austin -- grew up working on the lots. They would help clean up and eventually graduated to loading and delivering trees.

“It’s been a big family event my whole life,” Lance Jr. said. “It just brought all of us really close for the holidays, whether my cousins live in Miami, some cousins live in Tallahassee, they all come back and they still work at the lot.”

Some of Lance Jr.’s fondest memories are jumping on the piles of trees on stacks behind the lot when he was a child with his cousins and brothers, bouncing from tree to tree.

“We’d use the tree piles as like our little trampolines and we’d play hide-and-seek and all that kind of stuff,” Lance Jr. said. “I think those are probably like my greatest memories growing up, playing on top of the tree stacks and sometimes there would be 20, 30, 40 trees piled up and you're jumping from tree stack to tree stack. As long as you didn't break any of the tips of the trees, my dad didn't care too much.”

Whenever Lance Jr. goes home for Christmas, he visits the lot to see people who have worked there for years, some since the 1980s. Guys who started working on the lot when they were teenagers now work there with their sons. Lance Jr. has known them his whole life.

“You're selling trees, but you're also just spending time with your family,” Lance Jr. said. “I think as you get older and people get more spread out and life gets crazy, I think even though you know it's hard work and it's a lot of stress sometimes, I think it brings the family together.”