When he graduated from Dartmouth College in 2004, Ed Lucas announced to his baseball coach that he didn't want to be one of those 30 year olds still hanging on in the minors, "just playing to play."
This year marked Lucas' 10th in professional baseball, and in those previous nine seasons he had never played a single major-league game.
"I kinda chucked that plan," he said.
While his Ivy League teammates headed to Wall Street, boutique law firms and even major-league front offices, Lucas went on commercial flights in the morning and long bus trips at night. He was good enough to keep a uniform – a .399 career slugging percentage and a great arm, necessary for all left-side infielders – but not quite good enough to get "the call." He'd become his own worst nightmare: 31 years old and still playing minor-league ball.
He had logged time in Idaho Falls; Burlington, Iowa; High Desert, Calif; Wichita; Springdale, Ark.; Omaha; Lawrenceville, Ga.; Jackson, Miss.; Salt Lake City and New Orleans.
"I've been everywhere," Lucas says.
Last year, Lucas' fiancée, Holly, received a job opportunity in Europe, and, as Ed puts it bluntly, "I didn't have much of a career to speak of." Had he wasted his Ivy League degree?
Ed had a choice to make: Move to Europe with the love of his life or stick it out for yet another season in the bushes.
"Baseball has a way of telling you when you're done, not the other way around," says his old Dartmouth coach, Bob Whalen, "so play as long as you can."
Baseball hadn't quite told him emphatically that he was done. After spending time with the Royals, Angels and Braves organizations, the Marlins signed Lucas last December. Holly told him to go for it.
Then, at the end of another May in another remote corner of nowhere, Ed was warming up for his 925th minor-league game and his 3,732nd at-bat when his New Orleans manager walked to the outfield and told the team to gather around.
"It's my pleasure to announce Ed Lucas has been called up," he told them.
The team flew together in high-fives and hugs, and Lucas felt "hot" – the physical feeling when all your emotions rush together and gather at the fringes of your skin.
"It was an odd emotion – very tough to explain," he says. "I was excited. I was happy. There was a lot of relief involved. It's the validation of the past decade of my life.
"Every day you wake up and make decisions about how you're going to live your life that day. I've been doing it the same way for 10 years. A very big relief to see it come together."
Suddenly Lucas was the first Dartmouth grad since 1991 (Brad Ausmus) to appear on a major-league roster. Suddenly he was putting on a Miami Marlins uniform and trotting out under the lights of arguably the most modern baseball stadium ever built. Suddenly Lucas was standing in the batter's box, facing Fernando Rodney and taking his first big-league pitch.
It had to be the most special Strike 1 of the 2013 season.
Lucas grounded out. In doing so, he joined a truly special fraternity of major-leaguers. Few have made it to the very top of the sport, and far fewer would have kept going through all the long nights of crappy hotels, fast-food meals and middle seats in turbulence.
But after that ground out, Lucas made sure he was no Moonlight Graham – tapping one nubber to the mound and then vanishing from the game forever. He logged six hits in his first 10 at-bats as a Marlin, four of those hits coming in Sunday's win over the Mets. The guy is not looking like a career minor-leaguer.
On Monday night, in a phone call from Philadelphia, where the Marlins are playing, Holly asked the question she's asked hundreds of times before, "How's everything?"
The question hit Lucas with unexpected force.
"I realized something for the first time," he says. "Minor-league baseball players are the best complainers you'll ever meet. We can find the worst-case scenario in every situation. There was absolutely nothing I could possibly complain about. Everything was harmonious."
Lucas made sure to say a special thank you to Holly and his agent, for encouraging him. But there was also something else at play – something unique to the sport.
"The great thing about baseball and baseball players is the hopefulness," he says. "You have to have it in this game of failure such as ours. If you somehow hit .330 this season, the majors are always there. One step away."
Ed Lucas took 10 years to make that one step, from sad tale to inspiration. After all those departures from musty terminals and bus stations, a major-leaguer has arrived.
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