A late bloomer, Royals outfielder Lorenzo Cain making up for lost time
05/23/2014 11:57 AM
06/03/2014 10:17 AM
He scanned the list once. Then he scanned it again, unwilling to accept reality.
On the day his life changed, in his first step toward an improbable career in baseball, Lorenzo Cain stood with a group of high school boys and stared at a list of names tacked on a gymnasium wall.
Tryouts for the basketball team at Madison County (Fla.) High had just ended. All around him was celebration, teenagers whooping about their good fortune. Cain could not join in. His name was absent.
He raged at the slight. He was a freshman in high school, tall but lanky, and apparently without a future in the only sport he knew. His path pivoted on that afternoon, though he would not realize it until years later.
“I sit back and think, ‘Damn,’ ” Cain said one quiet morning inside the Royals’ clubhouse. “One little thing, one change here, one change there, there’s no telling where I would have been. If I would have made the basketball team, there’s no chance I would have played baseball. I know that for sure. There’s no chance.”
The routes to the big leagues are endless. When Royals pitcher James Shields was a sophomore in high school, he played in the prestigious Area Code Games showcase. First baseman Eric Hosmer had already received recruiting letters from Tennessee and Miami.
At that point in his life, Cain’s baseball resume featured swatting at tennis balls in backyard games with his cousins, and little else.
“No Little League,” he said. “Nothing. None of that.”
Stung by the rejection, Cain swore off basketball. His mother forbade him from playing football. He felt lonely and rudderless, desperate to latch onto a team, “to be a part of something,” he said.
Only one option remained. One day, as a sophomore, Cain cornered a classmate he had known since elementary school.
“Hey, you play baseball, right?” Cain asked. “I want to play.”
From that beginning, the combination of kismet, latent instincts and athleticism and a dogged ambition carried him to the major leagues. Cain headed into this weekend series against the Angels in the midst of his finest offensive season to date and building a case for a seven-figure payday this winter.
Inside the clubhouse, he embodies joy. His laughter booms during debates about the iPad game “Clash of Clans.” He operates as a chorus for Jarrod Dyson, the team’s pint-sized provocateur. He can be heard rapping along to 50 Cent’s “Wanksta” or unleashing a horrific croon of Biz Markie’s “Just A Friend.”
“You’re talking about a guy who loves life,” Hosmer said. “Enjoys every minute of it.”
To the fan base, he is vexing talent, capable of daring defense in center field, but often sidelined because of nagging injuries. To the Royals he is a useful cog, an affordable, valuable performer with still-burgeoning offensive skills. To those who know him best, his residence in the major leagues represents something more.
“It’s a movie,” his best friend from high school said. “It’s a movie.”
“It’s a miracle,” his high school coach said. “I’m telling you. It’s a miraculous thing.”
“I think it’s a little of both, man,” Cain said. “It’s definitely a story.”
Barney Myers sat inside his classroom and pondered his impending embarrassment. He ran the baseball program at Madison County, a tiny school on the Florida Panhandle about an hour east of the state capital of Tallahassee.
Football was king at Madison, and baseball was an afterthought. As the 2002 season dawned, Myers’ junior varsity featured only eight kids. He begged his players for reinforcements. Otherwise, he lamented, he would have to call the other coaches in the area to cancel his upcoming games.
As Myers recounted the tale, he experienced an act of deus ex machina. Into the room walked Jeremy Haynes, one of his varsity players, and another student Myers described as “skinny, gangly and goofy.”
“Coach,” Haynes said, “this is Lorenzo Cain. He’d like to come out for baseball.”
Myers was ecstatic. The season might be saved, after all. Then he learned about Cain’s pedigree. He had never played. He owned no equipment. But the team needed live bodies, Myers figured. Cain fit the bill.
That afternoon, Cain took the field wearing jeans, tennis shoes and no glove. Myers eyed him for a few moments. He instructed Cain to help himself to the leftover gear inside the team’s fieldhouse.
Cain rummaged through the old equipment, emerged with a shop-worn glove and lined up with his new teammates to shag. Myers held his breath and popped a fly ball toward the novice.
“What’s remarkable,” he said all those years later, “is he actually caught it.”
What followed was just as memorable. Cain settled beneath the ball. He reached up with his right hand. The ball nestled in his glove. Then he pulled off the leather with his left hand and threw the baseball back to Myers with his right.
“Coach!” he said. “If I had one of those other gloves, I could get it in way faster!”
Myers sent him back to the fieldhouse, and Cain fetched a plastic number to cover his left hand. For Cain, the game’s most elemental actions were unknown. During his first few hacks in batting practice, he crossed his left hand above his right in his right-handed stance. When he threw, he stepped with the wrong foot. And even then, Myers said, “he threw kind of funny.”
The rules of the game were foreign, too. On a hard-hit grounder to the shortstop, he might stand in place at first base. On a pop to left, he might sprint all the way to third. He could not differentiate between the bases and home plate.
“I don’t even think he had seen a baseball game,” Myers said. “Much less played in one.”
That first season featured a variety of growing pains. Cain rarely looked the part. He couldn’t afford a bat of his own at first, so he borrowed from teammates. His pants sagged. When he finally ditched his tennis shoes for proper footwear, he bought football cleats complete with screw-on spikes. When the varsity team needed him as a pinch-hitter one game, “the kid didn’t even swing the bat, he was so scared,” Haynes said.
But on that first day, Myers noticed something else. As practice ended, his newest recruit lingered. When Myers walked toward the parking lot, the kid followed him. It was the start of a process that led to hours of extra work for Cain.
“I get in the car,” Myers said. “He gets in the car. I turn and say, ‘I guess you need a ride home?’ ”
When Lorenzo was 4, his father died. His mother, Patricia, worked two jobs to support her two sons. As a child, Lorenzo eschewed team sports because he did not want to add to his mother’s burden. He didn’t date much. He never bothered her about getting his driver’s license.
“He basically was slow with everything,” Patricia said.
The baseball team liberated Cain from his afternoon routine of video games, homework and washing the dishes. He rode the bench as a junior on the varsity team, and the lack of playing time gnawed at him.
“He just became like a fanatic,” Myers said.
Cain became closely acquainted with the Cowboys’ weathered Iron Mike pitching machine. During his lunch period, Cain often loaded 100 balls into the contraption and alternated between swings of the bat and bites of a sandwich.
After workouts, he begged Myers to help him practice his defense. When Myers watches highlight reels these days, he can trace the roots of Cain’s brilliance back to his own fatigue.
“When I got tired and I wanted to go home, I would hit the ball as far from him as I could,” Myers said, “so that he had to run. I tried to wear his butt out, so I’d get to go home. That’s why I see him make some of the most amazing catches. That’s from after practice, him wanting to shag fly balls.”
Cain married the ethic to certain innate gifts. He was far from a natural — even now, his gait involves an amount of flailing and lunging that unnerves the Royals’ training staff. Still, his ability to track balls was “uncanny,” Myers said.
“I would be pitching, and balls would go off the bat,” Haynes said. “And I would be like, ‘Uh oh.’ And you would look two seconds later and he’s running it down in the outfield. And you would just go, ‘Nobody else can make that play.’ ”
Cain also exhibited freakish muscle memory. Myers recalled one of Cain’s first afternoons on a golf course. Their group included a college-level golfer. Cain studied their companion’s swing for a few holes, “and pretty soon, he’s knocking the crud out of the ball,” Myers said.
The diligence and the talent overshadowed the rawness.
“He would hit a baseball, and you’d be like ‘That ball was smoked,’ ” Haynes said. “And you’d be like, ‘What pitch was that?’ ‘Oh, I think it was a fastball.’ He didn’t know.”
Yet, talent evaluators in the area took notice. One June afternoon during his senior year, the phone rang in Cain’s house. He was sitting on his couch, thumbs twiddling as he played Madden NFL. On the other line was Doug Reynolds, an area scout from Milwaukee. Reynolds told Cain the team had chosen him in the 17th round of the draft.
Cain didn’t know what to say.
“OK, thanks,” he replied, and hung up.
“Who was that?” Patricia asked.
“Some guy saying they drafted me in the 17th round?” Lorenzo said. He shrugged. He wasn’t sure what the selection meant.
“So I just went back to playing video games,” he said. “I didn’t think anything about it. The next thing I know, it was all in the paper. I was like, ‘Oh, this is a big deal.’ ”
He held back for as long as he could. He bid his mother farewell and left her tear-soaked outside the security checkpoint at Tallahassee Regional Airport. On that day in the summer of 2005, soon after he boarded a plane for the first time — bound for Milwaukee’s complex in Arizona — Lorenzo Cain wept.
“I bawled like a little baby when I got on that plane,” he said.
After the Brewers chose him, Cain delayed his professional debut. He felt he wasn’t ready, and told the team as much. He spent a year with Haynes at Tallahassee Community College, the lone school to offer him a scholarship. That summer, Milwaukee still controlled his rights through the now-abolished draft-and-follow rules, and Cain took his assignment.
He ached with homesickness that first season, and often beseeched his first manager, Mike Guerrero, for advice. But Cain still hit .356 despite his rudimentary skill set.
“You started from ground zero with him,” said Guerrero, who managed Cain from rookie ball all the way to Class AA. “Everything. Lorenzo was like a preschooler, when everybody else had years in baseball.”
To Guerrero, Cain’s biggest hurdle was dealing with failure. He lacked the experience to weather the game’s cruelties. He would call his mother and threaten to quit. She would talk him off the ledge, and he would return to the field invigorated, aware the threat was hollow.
“He was like a diamond,” Guerrero said. “And every year, he got more polished.”
When Cain played against Class AAA Omaha in 2010, Mike Jirschele prohibited his pitchers from throwing Cain fastballs. He flailed away at breaking balls and change-ups. When Jirschele saw Cain the next year, his eye was more refined.
Which was a plus for the organization: Kansas City acquired Cain on Dec. 19, 2010, as part of the four-player bundle that included shortstop Alcides Escobar in exchange for Zack Greinke. Despite his continuous battle to stay healthy, Cain has established himself as a critical piece of this team, their defensive fulcrum in the outfield.
Patricia still works at a printing company in Madison. This coming winter, Cain will be eligible for arbitration for the first time. He knows where the bulk of his raise will go.
“I’m actually going to get her a house this offseason,” he said.
Even now, the reminders of his past are everywhere. A garbage receptacle resides a few feet away from the lockers belonging to Cain and Hosmer. Sometimes Cain will grab an empty Gatorade bottle and take aim from his chair. He often misses.
“That’s why you got cut,” Hosmer will say. “Changed your life.”
To reach Andy McCullough, call 816-234-4370 or send email to email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @McCulloughStar.