SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – It stunk to be out of work, even temporarily. Instead of preparing in Tampa or Surprise or, as it turned out, Maryvale, Kyle Lohse was trying to draw spring training energy from a junior college ball field while becoming the face of the new rules governing free agency.
He knew there was a job out there for him. And then another day would go by. And then he'd throw a duffel bag over his shoulder, drive over to Scottsdale Community College or Grand Canyon University, and pitch there for another couple hours.
Some organization was going to pay, as it turned out, $33 million over three years and relinquish a first-round draft pick for Lohse, who won 16 games for the St. Louis Cardinals last season but turned 34 a few weeks later. He's not known as a stuff guy, but as a poise and command and competitor guy – Dave Duncan gets some of the credit for that – so details like age and draft-pick compensation are not insignificant.
Convinced the collective bargaining agreement became a heavy drag on his free agency, Lohse signed with the Milwaukee Brewers with less than a week left in camp, threw a bullpen Tuesday, treated the pitching staff to steak dinners Tuesday night, and on Thursday threw 54 pitches against the Colorado Rockies. Assuming Lohse comes out of his first and only spring innings healthy, and there was no indication otherwise, he likely would pitch against the Arizona Diamondbacks next weekend in Milwaukee.
In a rotation with Yovani Gallardo and Marco Estrada, in front of an offense that was best in the National League last season and backed by an improved bullpen, Lohse could be a game-changer in the NL Central. It took only a few months for everyone to reach that conclusion together, which, granted, was harder on Lohse than anyone else.
"It was crazy," Lohse said. "Odd. Weird? I don't know. … As we go on, I've got a lot more to say. There were some things that were frustrating, the way things were set up in the CBA.
"Coming off the year I had, you'd think there'd be more interest. It was frustrating."
[Baseball 2013 from Yahoo! Fantasy Sports: Join a league today!]
Lohse had worked a long time to come upon free agency with value. He'd pitched through poor results, endured, got to St. Louis, found Dave Duncan, and over the past two seasons was 30-11. He threw 211 innings last season and walked only 38 batters. His WHIP ranked fourth in the league. Forget the money for a moment – the money was always going to be good – but he'd earned free agency; the dance of it, the options in it. And then there just wasn't much to it until the end. Beyond the end, really, when he was as desperate to pitch, perhaps, as the Brewers were to have him.
That's what put Lohse on those fields, where the opposing batters might not have been a year out of high school, and the catcher wasn't much older, but that was the only game in town that would have him. Waiting on the New York Yankees or Texas Rangers or Baltimore Orioles or Milwaukee Brewers, Lohse got 10 Scottsdale Community College Artichokes lined up to get their hacks in against the big leaguer.
And you know what? For a guy waiting around for his $11 million per, who'd logged more than 2,000 major-league innings and won a World Series and made more than $50 million, you know what? It was great. Standing out there against Artichokes and Antelopes, out where the new CBA might as well have been the Magna Carta for all anyone cared, thumbing curveballs and deadening changeups, watching kids miss by a foot and come up smiling, well, it's funny where life can put a guy for a spell.
"I'll tell you what," Lohse said, "those kids I faced, they did a really good job. I'm sure they all wanted to say they got a hit off a big-leaguer."
Some did, too. And maybe that's the story they'll tell forever, about the spring Kyle Lohse – Played 15 years in the bigs, you remember, right? Twins, Reds, Phillies, Cardinals, finished up with the Brewers? Pretty good pitcher. Hit a ball inna gap off 'im once. Yes I did. – came through, and smiled and thanked them and taught them a killer slider grip.
For Lohse, perhaps, it would be the spring that the business of baseball made him a footnote. The spring he reminded himself that it wasn't such a cold game after all.
"It was pretty cool," Lohse said. "Sometimes it's good to remember where you're at, where you need to be. … It was a good time."
Lohse grinned at the memory of those kids. So eager. So happy to be so close, even for a few pitches.
"They're dreaming to be in the situation I was," he said.
And it occurred to him, "Things coulda been a lot worse. I really didn't need to be reminded of reality, but every once in a while it's not a bad thing."
One young man approached him. A pitcher, like him. His dream – the big leagues – seemingly forever away. He didn't want to know how to throw harder. He didn't seek a tighter curveball. He sought no secrets.
He introduced himself to Kyle Lohse, the big leaguer, and asked, "Man, what's it like?"
And Lohse laughed.
"It's really cool, dude."
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