BRIDGEWATER, N.J. — On July 10, 2012, Bryan LaHair went from a five-star hotel to 38,000-seat Kaufman Stadium in Kansas City. He walked into a clubhouse filled with the most famous players in baseball. He found the locker with his name on it and pulled on his Chicago Cubs jersey. Later that night, LaHair entered the 83rd Major League All-Star Game. He came to bat in the ninth inning but grounded out to short against Tampa Bay’s Fernando Rodney in his only plate appearance. Not that it mattered. He was 29 years old, firmly established as a major league regular for the first time and he had been celebrated as one of the best in the world at his sport.
On July 13th, 2016, Bryan LaHair will say goodbye to his family in central New Jersey and make his way to Clipper Magazine Stadium in Lancaster, Pa., where there will be cows, alpacas and sheep beyond leftfield. He will walk into a clubhouse filled with players you’ve never heard of and pull on the jersey of the Somerset Patriots. He will be in the starting lineup of the 19th Atlantic League All-Star Game. He is 33 years old, has mostly been forgotten about by baseball fans and is hoping for one more shot of glory in his sport.
On Tuesday night in San Diego, the best players in baseball gathered for the 87th All-Star Game. The Cubs’ entire infield was in the starting lineup. LaHair, if he watched, would have been one of the few men in America who knows what it’s like to be there, and one of even fewer who still thinks he might one day make it back.
Last Saturday, LaHair sat in the dugout of TD Bank Ballpark, 780 miles from Wrigley Field in Chicago, 2,729 from Petco Park in San Diego and a world away from his dream. There are strewn wrappers of yellow and orange Starburst at his feet and a sky of gray clouds overhead, and when the 7:05 p.m. game begins, 5,867 fans will be in this 6,100-seat stadium for the game against the Lancaster Barnstormers. There will likely be more people that day who visit the shopping center next door, which features a Costco, a Home Depot and a Target.
Despite the atmosphere and the unexpected turn his career has taken, LaHair wants to make one thing clear: “I’m not mad at anybody.”
Indeed, LaHair should be thrilled he ever reached the heights he did. A lightly recruited high school player form Worcester, Mass., LaHair played junior college ball at St. Petersburg (Fla.) College and was a 39th-round draft pick of the Seattle Mariners in 2002. He spent six years in the minors with the Mariners' organization before making his major league debut on July 18, 2008, at age 25. He hit .250 with three home runs in 45 games for Seattle but was back in Triple A the next season. Despite hitting 26 home runs and posting an .883 OPS, LaHair was released that November; two months later, he signed with the Cubs.
LaHair is not upset at the Mariners’ decision to let him go. “They gave me an opportunity to wear a uniform,” he says. “Yeah, there were years that ended in Triple A and I drove home [and went] ‘What just happened?’ But that fueled my fire.”
There was more fuel in 2010, when, despite hitting .308 with 25 home runs for the Triple A Iowa Cubs, LaHair never got a promotion to the bigs. He kept on raking in the bushes the next season, producing the best year of his professional career: a .331 batting average, 38 home runs and 109 RBIs, numbers good enough to win the Pacific Coast League MVP award. The Cubs finally called him up that September, and his .288/.377/.508 line over 20 games earned him an invite to spring training the next year, where he won Chicago’s starting first base job.
Even then, however, the Cubs were making other plans. That January, they swung a trade with the Padres to land slugging prospect Anthony Rizzo, who would reach the majors to stay just two weeks before the 2012 All-Star Game.
Still, LaHair’s start to the season suggested that he wouldn't be giving up his spot without a fight. He hit a grand slam to ruin the Cardinals’ home opener on April 13, and through May 9, he was hitting .384 with a .476 on-base percentage and a .767 slugging percentage, numbers that would have been among the top three in the National League if he had enough at-bats to qualify. Through June 25, the day before Rizzo’s arrival, he was second on the team with 13 home runs and third with 28 RBIs. The local media was smitten, with the Chicago Tribune hailing his “LaHairoics” and the suburban Daily Herald calling him the “coolest” story of the season.
But soon it was LaHair who cooled off. From June 26 to Aug. 3, a 27-game stretch, he hit .225 with one home run and three RBIs. He had already shifted to rightfield upon Rizzo’s arrival, and when the Cubs called up prospect Brett Jackson, LaHair was no longer an everyday player. He made just 10 more starts the rest of the year. The last came in the season finale on Oct. 3, when he went 2 for 5 with a solo homer and two RBIs, to finish the year with a .259 average to go with 16 home runs and 40 RBIs. In his last at-bat, he lined a walk-off single to rightfield and was mobbed by his teammates in the infield.
He hasn’t played in the major leagues since.
Despite his fall that summer from All-Star to bench jockey, team president Theo Epstein told LaHair that there might still be a place for him in Chicago, but with a catch: a roster spot was not guaranteed. LaHair would have to fight for his job in spring training. Meanwhile, the SoftBank Hawks of the Japanese Pacific League were offering him a guaranteed contract—two years and $4.5 million—that would provide some security for him and his family, which included his wife, Nichole, and his daughter, Ava (he has since had a son, Lincoln, and is expecting a third child in December). On Nov. 21, the Cubs designated him for assignment so he could go to Japan.
“It was hard for me to pass on,” LaHair said of the Hawks’ offer. “I don’t play for the game for money. But there’s a certain point in your life where you have to make decisions for your loved ones.”
LaHair hit 16 home runs in Japan but was bothered by a left wrist injury. The Hawks released LaHair after the season, and he had surgery to fix the trapezoid, one of the small carpal bones in the wrist. In February 2014, LaHair signed a minor league deal with the Cleveland Indians.
With his wrist still not feeling 100%, LaHair played 111 games for the Indians’ Double and Triple A affiliates. The injury hindered him greatly: The 6'5", 245-pound LaHair had always been a power hitter, but his sore wrist helped limit him to just five home runs in 453 plate appearances that season.
“The problem was the inconsistency,” said David Wallace, LaHair’s manager with the Double A Akron RubberDucks. “One day it would feel good. Then he’d have a sore day.”
Despite the injury, LaHair made a positive impact in other ways, especially in tutoring young Akron players who have since become important parts of the first-place Indians’ 2016 season, including shortstop Francisco Lindor and centerfielder Tyler Naquin.
“There’s no doubt that Bryan played a role in those guys’ development,” says Wallace.
“I want to make sure I leave an impression, helping them and making them understand what it takes to get to the big leagues,” says LaHair.
Sometimes that meant pulling big-league-level pranks. One day, pitcher Cody Anderson, frustrated after a bad outing, broke an expensive table in the clubhouse. LaHair found some RubberDucks letterhead, created an invoice and placed it in Anderson’s locker. Anderson fretted for a few hours before learning it was a fake. (“The invoice looked real,” says Wallace. “It was professional.”)
Despite those contributions, LaHair was released again at season’s end. He signed a minor-league deal with the Red Sox for the 2015 season, but was let go in early April. He took the year off to heal his wrist, living in Arizona and working out with major leaguers who were also rehabbing.
In February 2016, after not getting any interest from a major league team, LaHair signed with Somerset. He had met the team’s director of player personnel, Jon Hunton, during a winter league stint in Venezuela after the 2011 season, and Hunton suggested LaHair consider playing for the Patriots. He ended the first half of this season batting .262 with six home runs and 45 RBIs in 65 games. Even more significantly, his wrist is 100% healthy.
This is where Bryan LaHair is trying to make his comeback.
It’s a place where the New Jersey Transit trains rumble beyond the outfield fence, where fans park at Target to avoid the $2 fee, and where 25 men chase their dream. Most of those players will never get there. Just four other Patriots have played in the majors, and none have had the success LaHair did: Outfielder Trayvon Robinson played 90 games with Seattle in 2011 and ’12; infielder Eric Farris played 14 games with Milwaukee in ’11 and ’12; and pitchers Mickey Storey (29 games with the Astros and Blue Jays in '12 and ’13) and Rudy Owens (one game for the 2014 Astros) had similarly brief stints.
At least one Patriot is already working on his post-playing career: Hunton, in addition to being the team’s player personnel director, is also Somerset's closer. He holds the league’s single-season saves record with 49 in 2014.
“You have to swallow your pride,” Hunton says of life in independent ball. “You have to accept that, for whatever reason, this might be where you need to go. Some guys take it and use it as an advantage. Or there’s guys who come in with the bad mentality, that ‘I’m going to be here real quick and get back.”
The Atlantic League can provide redemption. In addition to giving a showcase to former superstars like Jose Canseco and Rickey Henderson who just want to keep playing, more than 800 of its players have signed contracts with a big league organization since the league’s inception in 1998. Most recently, players like A’s lefthander Rich Hill (Long Island Ducks, 2015), and Royals righty Chien-Ming Wang (Southern Maryland Blue Crabs, ’15) have used the league as a springboard back to the majors. Last year, reliever Buddy Boshers spent time in Somerset. This year, he’s pitching for the Minnesota Twins.
Will LaHair make a similar comeback?
“It wouldn’t surprise me,” says Wallace, who stays in touch with his former pupil. “If he’s completely healthy, there’s a really good chance that happens.”
LaHair’s current manager, Brett Jodie, agrees. “He was an All-Star at one point. It’s not like [his talent] just disappeared,” Jodie says through a South Carolina twang while munching on a pre-game meal of sliced turkey and watermelon in his office in the back of the clubhouse. “I think he’s got more years left to contribute to this game.”
Back in the dugout, LaHair is asked a simple question: One year from now, will you be in the big leagues?
“I’m a visual person,” LaHair says. “I have dreams, you know? Those kind of things don’t come without opportunity. I see myself playing baseball. I hope it’s at the highest level.”
With that, LaHair walks out onto the field, goes down a ramp, takes a right past the indoor cages and disappears into the clubhouse. It’s a winding journey to get where he wants to go, but he doesn’t mind making it. Not as long as he still has a game to play.