PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. – He has a degree from Dartmouth, student loans to pay down and some friends in high places, but Ed Lucas is still plugging away on a minor-league baseball salary, chasing a dream.
He’ll turn 29 in May, and might be back in Triple-A for his birthday, given how his performance this spring has tailed off as roster decisions loom. Still, Lucas isn’t thinking about shucking this life for a desk and a big salary.
“Oh, no,” he said. “This is what it’s all about. I’ve got the rest of my life to try to find a job somewhere else. It’s a limited window to play professional sports.”
The Braves signed the long-time Royals farmhand as a six-year minor league free agent during the winter. He has no big-league experience, but the versatile infielder/outfielder posted career-best numbers last season at Triple-A Omaha, batting .307 with 13 homers, a .398 OBP and an .878 OPS in 99 games.
He came to camp as a frontrunner for one of the last spots on the Braves’ bench – he can play all infield positions including shortstop, which was key — and for the first three or four weeks of camp it looked like he was in position to nail down a job.
But lately he’s gotten serious competition from Brandon Hicks, a superb defensive shortstop and a fine third baseman. If Hicks had hit in the past like he’s hitting now, the Braves wouldn’t have had to trade for a shortstop when they got rid of Yunel Escobar.
(Bobby Cox said last year that Hicks, if he were on the team, would’ve been one of the top defensive shortstops in baseball, if not the best.)
It’s still only spring training, but Hicks is finally hitting, batting .355 with four extra-base hits and six RBIs entering today’s game against the Mets here in Port St. Lousy, and he’s 4-for-6 with a double and homer in his past three games.
He’s at shortstop today; Lucas is on the trip but on bench to start the game.
Brooks Conrad seems like a lock for one utility infield job, his many late-innings clutch hits last season outweighing his underwhelming spring performance and much-chronicled defensive gaffes at the end of last season and in the division series.
There are probably only two bench jobs undecided, and Lucas and Hicks might be battling for one. The Braves haven’t said, exactly.
Joe Mather, despite his poor spring, could still have an upper hand for the other job, because the Braves need a backup CF and his competition is Matt Young, a lefty hitter on a team that needs right-handed hitters, and Wilkin Ramirez, who hit just .234 in the minors last season (albeit with 23 homers). Mather is out of minor-league options and Ramirez is not, but the Braves might be able to get Mather through waivers given his injury-plagued past and his performance this spring. (Ramirez just made two errors in three-run first inning of today’s game against the Mets, right after I posted this.)
Getting back to what is probably the last available job, the one Lucas seemed ready to win a few weeks back. He’s 1-for-18 in his past nine games before today’s game here in Port St. Lousy. Lucas is here but not in the lineup (Hicks is at shortstop).
The Braves have been waiting and hoping that Hicks would hit. This spring he has, especially lately at the time of spring when job competitions really come into focus and team officials watch to see which players will step up and seize an opportunity.
Since Lucas isn’t a certainty to make the team, I thought it’d be a good time to share an interview I did with him a few weeks ago about his unusual background. I mean, you don’t get a lot of Ivy Leaguers on the ballfield, even if there are plenty in baseball front offices these days. And you really don’t see many Ivy Leaguers who are nearing the age of 30 and still scrappiing and trying to get their first cup of coffee in the majors.
So here’s what Lucas, a Central Florida native, had to say…
On finally getting his business degree from Dartmouth: “I was in Triple A with Kansas City last year, in Omaha. I’d been trying to finish my degree; I only had one class left. My senior year I withdrew from a class because I had a big assignment due, and I also had a workout with the Red Sox. So I chose to go to Fenway. Dropped the class.
“And I spent six years trying to find a place that offered it, because it was a high-level econ course. So I’ve been trying to find a place. [Dartmouth] is real stringent with their transfer requirements, so I hadn’t been able to find it anywhere, at least anything that would fit into my schedule.”
(It finally worked out last year, when he found the course offered at Creighton in Omaha, and a professor who was willing to work with Lucas around his schedule. He finished the course and got his degree – seven years after leaving Dartmouth.)
On playing ball at Dartmouth: “I played football [quarterback] my freshman year and spent all fall playing football. By the time I got to baseball season, officially I walked on the baseball team. I was a recruited football player and walked on the baseball team. My freshman year of baseball I got like 20 at-bats.
“Then I quit football after my freshman year [and focused on baseball].”
On playing quarterback in high school: “Right up the road actually in Port Orange, right outside of Daytona. Spruce Creek. I was All-State in 5A. It was weird though. First-team All-Star in Florida, big school, didn’t get recruited by anybody, really. I mean, not big-time. So my criteria coming out of high school was just to go to the best school I could get into, where I could play both sports.”
(He had a 4.4 GPA in high school and scored a 1380 on the SAT.)
On pursuing a career as a baseball player: “Coming out of high school I never thought I was going to play pro ball. I mean, in the back of my mind it was something I always wanted to do. But that wasn’t why I was going to school. I was going to school to get my degree. It kind of just worked out that way.
“I just wanted to get a good degree, try to play both sports in college.”
Did you get a scholarship? “No athletic scholarships [at Ivy League schools], so I got some academic money and some grants. But I’ve still got a healthy amount of student loans to my name.”
(His mom is a nurse, and dad owns a small business.)
On Jason Heyward’s parents being Dartmouth grads: “I just mentioned to him [three weeks ago]. I’d known his parents went to Dartmouth, but I didn’t mention it to him until last night, that I’d gone there. I told him to tell his parents that I said hi. Hopefully I’ll run into them at some point.
Any former Dartmouth teammates have impressive jobs? “Actually it’s really cool, from the four years I was there, there’s probably five or six guys in front offices right now, in major league baseball.”
“There’s guys all over the place. I’ve thought about that, vaguely. Kind of just worried about my playing career right now, but it’s something I’ve thought about pursuing in the future, whenever this comes to an end.”
On being compared to Mark DeRosa, infielder and former Ivy League quarterback at Penn: “To be honest with you, I was never very good at football. For some reason … I felt like I was smart and I made good decisions. But I never could throw properly. I never threw a tight spiral. So I’d try to throw a deep out [pattern] or a long ball, and I’d flutter a little bit. It used to frustrate me to no end.”
On versatility (he’s played all positions in minors except pitcher and catcher): “That’s something I enjoy, take pride in. I pride myself on being a versatile guy. I’ve never been extremely good at any one thing, but I take pride in just kind of being decent to good at everything, whether it be play at all positions, hit for contact, hit for power, running a little bit, whatever it takes.
“I looked forward to coming to the National League. I feel like my skill set plays a little bit better there.”
On signing with Braves after so many years with Royals: “I was ecstatic. Everything I’ve heard over the last seven years – and the Royals had a lot of guys come over from the Braves – usually there’s a little discontent from guys coming over to a new team, but everybody always had nothing but unbelievable things to say about this organization. So when they called in the offseason I was extremely interested from Day 1.”
♣ OK, let’s stop there and post this thing, since game’s about to start. We’ll close with a tune from the great Lou Reed, which you can hear and see him sing by clicking the link for this video.
“ROMEO HAD JULIETTE” by Lou Reed
Caught between the twisted stars
the plotted lines the faulty map
that brought Columbus to New York
Betwixt between the East and West
he calls on her wearing a leather vest
the earth squeals and shudders to a halt
A diamond crucifix in his ear
is used to help ward off the fear
that he has left his soul in someone’s rented car
Inside his pants he hides a mop
to clean the mess that he has dropped
into the life of lithesome Juliette Bell
And Romeo wanted Juliette
and Juliette wanted Romeo
And Romeo wanted Juliette
and Juliette wanted Romeo
Romeo Rodriguez squares
his shoulders and curses Jesus
runs a comb through his black pony-tail
He’s thinking of his lonely room
the sink that by his bed gives off a stink
then smells her perfume in his eyes
And her voice was like a bell
Outside the street were steaming the crack
dealers were dreaming
of an Uzi someone had just scored
I betcha I could hit that light
with my one good arm behind my back
says little Joey Diaz
Brother give me another tote
those downtown hoods are no damn good
those Italians need a lesson to be taught
This cop who died in Harlem
you think they’d get the warnin’
I was dancing when his brains run out on the street
And Romeo had Juliette
and Juliette had her Romeo
And Romeo had Juliette
and Juliette had her Romeo
I’ll take Manhattan in a garbage bag
with Latin written on it that says
“it’s hard to give a shit these days”
Manhattan’s sinking like a rock
into the filthy Hudson what a shock
they wrote a book about it
they said it was like ancient Rome
The perfume burned his eyes
holding tightly to her thighs
And something flickered for a minute
and then it vanished and was gone