'Player with presence': Cain renewed by faith

After electing not to play in 2020, Brewers OF embraces importance of this year's camp

February 24th, 2021

PHOENIX -- never felt better going into a season than he did in 2020. He cut sweets from his diet. He started distance running. He took swings at the University of Oklahoma, where years earlier he’d met a college gymnast named Jenny, fallen in love and started a family. He reported to Spring Training much earlier than usual and hit .350 in the Cactus League. Manager Craig Counsell was certain that Cain was in line for a huge season.

Then the coronavirus pandemic happened, and Cain decided to walk away.

He said he doesn’t regret it even 1 percent.

“Just seeing the smiles and being around the boys again, it’s definitely a great feeling,” Cain said Wednesday, back with the Brewers at American Family Fields of Phoenix. “Getting back on the field, swinging the bat a little bit, catching fly balls, it was great.”

And his legs?

Cain grinned.

“The legs are coming,” he said. “They’re not where I want them to be, but they will get there before it’s time to play.”

From a physical standpoint, Cain concedes he is in nowhere near as good a place as this time last year. His running consisted mostly of chasing his three boys, who have celebrated birthdays Nos. 3, 5 and 6 since the end of a Brewers season which Cain followed via television and FaceTime with teammates. Due to pandemic restrictions, the baseball facilities at OU were closed to outsiders -- even Major Leaguers in possession of a World Series ring -- so Cain didn’t see much in the way of live pitching before Wednesday, when he planned to stand in the batter’s box and track pitches during live batting practice.

He might take some more swings beginning Thursday, Cain said. The Brewers’ Cactus League opener is coming quick, scheduled for Sunday at the White Sox, and the plan calls for Cain to play relatively extensively to get back to game speed.

“This year was probably the toughest offseason that I've ever had as far as staying in shape, as far as hitting,” Cain said. “I did the best I could, so I'm trying to play catch-up as best I can since I've been here, but also understanding that I don't want to push too hard because that's also how you get hurt and injured by rushing it too fast.

“For me, I think I'll be ready. I feel like I can adjust very quickly, and when it's time to go out there, I'll be out on the field giving it my best.”

At his best, Cain is a difference-maker. A late-comer to baseball who was a 17th-round Draft pick of the Brewers in 2004, then packaged with prospects and traded to the Royals for Zack Greinke in 2010, and who played in back-to-back World Series in ’14 and ’15 with a triumph in the latter, Cain re-signed with the Brewers in January 2018 and paired with Christian Yelich to make Milwaukee a contender again.

Cain finished seventh in National League MVP balloting with a career-best .395 on-base percentage, then, to the relief of teammates who wondered what took so long, won his first career Rawlings Gold Glove Award in 2019.

But something didn’t feel right, Cain says. He told The Athletic’s Andy McCullough this week that the feeling intensified after Kobe Bryant’s tragic death in a helicopter crash in January 2020, and got worse over the summer as Cain watched coverage of racial justice demonstrations around the country.

Cain was wary as MLB got back to work because his oldest son, Cameron, has severe asthma, and Dad worried about bringing COVID-19 home. Nevertheless, Cain began the season with the Brewers and, just as Counsell predicted, was off to a strong start when Milwaukee’s home-opening series was postponed by a COVID-19 outbreak within the Cardinals traveling party.

It was then that Cain elected not to play the remainder of the season.

“I felt like I needed to not only opt out for COVID but to continue to renew my faith and continue to grow in my faith,” said Cain, who was raised a Baptist in Georgia. “I kind of put God on the backburner for the longest time. I felt like I needed to make Him my focal point, and that’s what I strived to do throughout my time at home. I feel like I’ll continue to strive to do that throughout the baseball season as well.

“I feel like I’ve definitely grown a lot in my faith over this time I had off. I’m still a work in progress. It’s something I’m going to strive to do not only now but for the rest of my life.”

The Brewers view Cain as a major offseason acquisition, even though he was already under contract through the end of next year. Their offseason revolved around improving their up-the-middle defense with the return of Cain and the addition of Gold Glove second baseman Kolten Wong, who inked a two-year deal. Counsell called that duo’s impact on the team defense “incredibly significant.”

And Cain and Wong, a right-handed hitter and a lefty, figure to be Counsell’s primary options to bat leadoff.

Put it all together, Counsell said, and “Lorenzo is a player with presence.”

“I wouldn’t say I worry a lot about Lorenzo because I know the type of player he is, but I would say, being reasonable, this Spring Training is pretty important, seeing live pitching as much as he can and just being aware this is not a normal Spring Training for him,” Counsell said. “It’s not. Normally he plays eight months, couple of months off and he ramps back up. This year it’s legitimate where the importance of the at-bats early and as much as he can get without taxing his body too much physically, I think is where my mind is with him.

“With Lorenzo, as soon as he gets enough at-bats under his belt, we’ll see LoCain again. We’re all super excited to have him back. I know that.”

When he was asked whether he missed baseball more or less than he expected, Cain paused a long time. He missed the teammates, he said eventually, more than he missed hitting baseballs. And it was those teammates he was most excited to rejoin, this time telling himself to talk more rather than just leading by example. It appears to be working. Already, Cain said, several teammates have approached him for long talks about faith, life and baseball.

Cain said he never considered sitting out 2021. He acknowledges that the country is in a better place in the pandemic, though he’d hoped it would be farther along in suppressing the virus. And he knows he will miss his family, even as they are with him in Phoenix. Cain said he was reminded of how long Spring Training days can be on Tuesday, when the Brewers held their first full-squad workout.

Cameron, Jayden and Landyn already miss their dad, and the feeling was mutual.

“Throughout that time I was home, I felt we built a special bond that I think was missing,” Cain said. “I feel like we’re closer now. Just spending that time together and watching them do certain things and grow. I just feel like we built a special bond that I definitely wouldn’t take back for the world. …

“We'll get it done. I definitely have a job to do. I'm just doing the best I can to, I guess, please both sides.”