A baseball latecomer, Cain's determination led way
ALCS MVP didn't play until high school, but work ethic aided development
Of all the players who have cradled an MVP award in their hands following the final out of a League Championship Series, Lorenzo Cain of the Royals probably lays claim to the most unusual backstory.
The 28-year-old breakout star has shined on both sides of the ball this postseason, stroking hits with regularity and chasing down drives in the outfield gaps. Those feats would be impressive even without the knowledge that he didn't play baseball at any level until his sophomore year of high school.
"I had to work on everything, because I was starting from ground zero with everything," Cain said. "The one thing I had, I could always run. I was always fast. But I had to learn to hit and throw correctly, and field. It was definitely tough. I never thought I would get drafted."
Perhaps it is Cain's spotty jump shot and unimpressive dribbling that are most responsible for his presence on the national stage this October, preparing to lead his Royals to face off against the Giants in the World Series. (Game 1 is Tuesday: 7:30 p.m. ET airtime/8:07 ET first pitch, FOX.)
Cain's first love was basketball, a lanky freshman with a crestfallen face, unable to find his name on the roster after tryouts at Madison County (Fla.) High School. His mother, Patricia, steered Cain away from the dangers of football, and so Cain abandoned sports in favor of filling his afternoons with household chores and video games.
"My mom was working two jobs at the time, so I didn't want to put any extra pressure on her about getting me to practice, picking me up and all that stuff," Cain said. "I just didn't worry about it."
Jeremy Haynes, a friend who later pitched in the Braves' system, told Cain during his sophomore year that he might be able to make the baseball team -- by default, as Madison's junior varsity squad had just eight players as the 2002 season neared, putting coach Barney Myers in danger of forfeiting the season.
Myers described Cain as "skinny, gangly and goofy," to the Kansas City Star, but no matter -- the season would be saved. Cain picked out leftover equipment from the fieldhouse, catching the first fly ball hit to him, then revealing that the plastic glove he'd chosen was on his throwing hand.
"I don't even think he had seen a baseball game," Myers told the paper. "Much less played in one."
The rules were foggy and Cain was extremely raw -- a right-handed hitter, he even had to be instructed how to hold the bat correctly, with his right hand over the left -- but there were indications of promise, as well as a devoted work ethic. He'd often trade his books for a bat during lunch period, taking 100 hacks at the school pitching machine.
"I was determined to never sit on the bench," Cain said. "That was the thing about me, I just couldn't settle with sitting on the bench."
Cracking the starting lineup as a senior, Cain earned the attention of area scouts, including Doug Reynolds, who scored a signature on a contract after the Brewers selected Cain in the 17th round of the 2004 Draft.
"I'd like to know if there's anybody that's played at his level and didn't play baseball until that late," Reynolds told the New York Post. "You had guys where you'd say he was a football guy and maybe he crossed over. But we're talking about a non-athlete at any level."
Cain opted to attend Tallahassee Community College, giving him more time to develop, but the Brewers retained his rights as a part of the now defunct draft-and-follow process. In 2005, Cain went pro and was quickly dropped into a world of long bus rides and improved competition.
"I just had never seen that type of pitching before," Cain said. "For me to stick around, I definitely had to fight and learn as quickly as possible."
Royals manager Ned Yost recalls watching Cain, then in Class A ball, as their time overlapped in the Milwaukee organization. Cain's speed, baserunning instincts and outfield jumps would all improve over time, but the building blocks were present then.
"You could envision this kid with this skill set, even though it was raw early, that he would turn into one heck of a baseball player," Yost said. "It's been fun watching him develop."
Going into the 2010-11 offseason, Cain owned a .306 average in his first 43 games of big league duty -- enough, he thought, to provide a crack at the Brewers' starting center-field job. The Brewers and Royals had other plans, triggering a five-player December deal involving ace Zack Greinke that pinned Cain to Kansas City's Triple-A Omaha squad.
"They sent me back to the Minor Leagues, which was tough for me, but I felt I had to go out and prove what I could do," Cain said.
Accumulating 3,169 plate appearances over 728 Minor League games, Cain endured a long wait, but one that offered needed repetitions. Slowed by injuries the past two seasons, Cain has been able to put it all together this year as an everyday contributor -- and as in all things with his story, it's better to happen later than never.
"It's something I still have to continue to work at and continue to perfect my craft, but it's been worthwhile," Cain said.