GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Swisher isn't ready to be called 'old' just yet. That honor belongs to his locker…
After spending the vast majority of his first seven seasons of professional baseball in the minor leagues, a year and a half of success at the Major League level finally earned Bryan LaHair a big contract. There was just one catch: It wasn't in the Major Leagues. It wasn't even in the Western Hemisphere.
Following a strong 20-game stint with the Chicago Cubs in 2011 that saw him hit .288 with two home runs, five doubles and six RBIs, LaHair spent his first full season in the bigs in 2012, slugging 16 home runs, driving in 40 and hitting 17 doubles in 130 games, while hitting .259 and slugging .450. Following the season, he got an offer he just couldn't refuse from the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks of Japan's Pacific League.
"At the end of the day, it kind of put me in a situation where I had no choice," says LaHair, who returned to the United States this offseason to a minor league contract with the Cleveland Indians, and is now in big league camp with the Tribe. "It was a substantial contract for me and my family. That's just the way it boiled down."
"It was a situation where I had to consider my family, being 30 years old, and I just had to make a family decision."
Less than a month after the conclusion of the 2012 season, the Hawks inked LaHair to a $4.5 million, two-year deal, paying the Cubs $950,000 to acquire the 6-foot-5, 240-pound left-handed swinger. Before LaHair picked up his family – including wife Nichole and daughter Ava Rose (born just after LaHair's Pacific Coast League Pacific North Division title run with the Tacoma Rainiers in 2009) – and moved across the Pacific, though, he had some light reading to do, thanks to agent Alan Nero.
"I have a great agent, when it comes to international baseball," LaHair says. "He's done probably over 200 contracts. He sat down with me and my wife probably three times before I went over there, and gave me a book that had over 1,500 pages in it about the culture of Japan, things you'll see, things you'll do, so pretty much, I buzzed through everything he gave me. I had such a great idea of what I was getting into that I felt like my agent did a great job of making me feel comfortable before I even got there."
When he got to Japan, LaHair and his family settled in quickly, getting adjusted to their new surroundings and the culture.
"They lived over there with me," LaHair says. "My daughter was in a little international school, a pre-school English class, and she met some little Japanese friends and my wife met some. It was […] it felt like home."
The one jarring difference was the pitching.
"I saw a lot of off-speed pitching," LaHair says. "Over here, there's a lot of fastballs in fastball counts, over there, it's a lot of off-speed in fastball counts, and basically, I had to learn a new timing mechanism a little bit. Basically, a lot of the game over there, whatever you knew about hitting, you kind of throw it out the window, because they do a lot of things differently, but I got a new perspective of a different style of baseball."
But, still, LaHair started the season off well enough, but soon, a nagging hand injury began to slow him down. While he hit 16 home runs in 111 games, he batted just .230 and slugged just .306 – the lowest mark of his professional career, at any level.
"I did alright. I started off really well, had a great spring, had a good first couple months, and then I got into some hand issues that I tried to battle through. I went through an adjustment phase, and then, the team just decided to not play me as much and it went down from there. It was a weird experience," says LaHair.
Those hand issues stemmed from a metacarpal boss – a small, immovable mass of bone on the back of the wrist, which occurs in one of the joints between the carpus and metacarpus of the hand, called the carpometacarpal joints – in his left hand.
A small, immovable protuberance emerges when that joint becomes swollen, and results in sensitivity, pain, aching and lack of mobility in the wrist joint. This was a new sensation for LaHair, who has never been on the disabled list in his entire career.
"We ran into a part of the season where they had a couple guys that were really on fire, and I struggled a bit towards the middle, there, but that was kind of expected when you're making a transition to a new style, a new game," LaHair says. "They do things differently over there, and that's just the way it boils down."
LaHair had hand surgery in September, and began eyeing the opt-out portion of his contract with the Hawks. On Jan. 23, 2014, LaHair executed that provision, making him a free agent, but eh didn't do it without a lot of thought and research.
"I talked to some scouts out in Japan, and I was reassured a few times, throughout the year, that, ‘Everybody knows you're here, and there's still a lot of interest in a power left-handed bat, a corner guy,' so it didn't take long for interest to pop up, as soon as I became a free agent," LaHair says. "I had hand surgery in September, so the team was a little nervous about me being ready for Feb. 1, versus being ready for April 1. The way it went down, I just felt like they had some signings and I just didn't know if I was going to be in the greatest place, moving forward. I think it was kind of a mutual agreement. I'm happy for them and I'm happy for me, because I'm still in my prime, and hopefully, I can get an opportunity here."
That opportunity came in the Indians, who signed LaHair as a free agent on Feb. 5, with an invite to Major League camp, and he's brought more back from Japan than just a few souvenirs.
"I think it helped a lot that they do pitch backwards out there, quite a bit, and when you get hot here, it's similar in that they start pitching you backwards, so hopefully, if I can get in a situation where I'm getting hot, I can revert back to what I faced there, and hopefully that'll help," LaHair says. "I think it was a good life experience for me. Obviously, the dream is always going to be here, and I'm happy to be a part of it again. I show up to the park every day, try to handle and control what I can control. Basically, I'm just trying to focus on each day, and I think when I get that opportunity, my talent will show, and I'll open up some eyes."
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