Twenty-eighteen will look a little different for former I-Cub Bryan LaHair. After logging his final season in the outfield in 2017, LaHair takes a new role on the diamond; taking over as the hitting coach for the Rookie League Billings Mustangs, affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds.
LaHair's baseball journey was tumulus, as too many of them are. The 2003 39th-round draft pick beat the odds early, fighting his way through Seattle's system to his major league debut in July of 2008 in his sixth season of professional baseball. The then 25-year-old showed promise, batting .333 (11-for-33) with two home runs through his first 12 games with the Mariners. LaHair appeared in 45 total big league games that season, batting .250 (34-for-136) with 15 runs, four doubles, three homers and 10 RBI. Despite his success, LaHair spent the entirety of 2009 with Triple-A Tacoma before he was designated for assignment in October.
LaHair ultimately elected free agency and signed on with the Cubs soon after. Beginning the 2010 season with Iowa, LaHair batted .308 (130-for-422) with 25 home runs and 81 RBI, but missed out on a trip to Chicago. The following season, LaHair padded his numbers, batting .331 (151-for-456) with 38 doubles, 38 home runs and 109 RBI. He boosted the effort with 60 walks, compiling a .405 on-base percentage.
The first baseman's success led to a collection of accolades, including PCL mid-season All-Star and All-Star MVP honors, PCL post-season MVP honors, a Triple-A All-Star selection and Joe Bauman Home Run Award compliments. LaHair's 2011 numbers still dot the Iowa record book with his 38 homers and 76 extra-base hits remaining as club records. A September call-up was, perhaps, the most important result of his success in Iowa.
LaHair appeared in 20 games for Chicago in 2011, batting .288 (17-for-59) with five doubles, one triple, two home runs and six RBI. In the month, LaHair's batting average was third to only Starlin Castro (.324) and Aramis Ramirez (.313), while his eight extra-base hits were tied for the second-most.
After proving himself in September, LaHair made his first Opening Day roster with Chicago in 2012. By the break, he was batting .286 (66-for-231) with 14 homers and 30 RBI - good enough to collect N.L. All-Star honors.
The Cubs kept LaHair throughout the season, but promising new talent on the horizon resulted in a move from his native first base to the outfield in Chicago, clearing the corner spot for a young prospect - a 21-year-old Anthony Rizzo. Rizzo joined the team at the end of June as the Cubs everyday first baseman. LaHair started just 12 games from August through the end of the season.
Game number 162 in 2012 is one LaHair will likely never forget. Getting the start at first base against Houston, LaHair played all nine innings for the first time in over a month. The Cubs had the lead until a three-run eighth inning from the Astros locked the game heading into the final frame. Anthony Recker drew a walk to open the bottom of the ninth and was replaced on the bases by Darwin Barney. Later in the inning, Tony Campana bunted for a single before Castro walked to load the bags. With two down, LaHair took the first pitch he saw down the right field line for a single to drive in Barney from third. The Cubs took the W and LaHair was the walk-off hero.
In what would appear to be the beginning of a solid major league career, game number 162 was the last LaHair would see in the bigs. With the promise of job security and $4.5 million waiting in the wings, LaHair was granted his release in November by the Cubs in order to sign a two-year contract with the SoftBank Hawks in the Japanese Pacific League. His JPPL career was fleeting as a nagging wrist injury hindered him throughout his stay. He was eventually released following the 2013 season.
LaHair returned stateside in 2014, inking a minor league deal with the Cleveland Indians. Shuttling between Double-A and Triple-A, LaHair's wrist kept him from returning to his original form. He hit .223 (89-for-399) with five home runs.
The 32-year-old signed with the Red Sox in the offseason, but was released out of spring training. He spent the year working out in Arizona, keeping the dream of returning to the bigs alive, but no one came knocking the next spring. Never the less, LaHair's faith in himself and his abilities remained steady. He signed on to play with Somerset in the independent American Association.
LaHair put together a solid campaign, batting .279 (59-for-476) with 34 extra-base hits, but an affiliated contract still evaded him. He logged 27 more games for Somerset in 2017 before hanging up his cleats.
LaHair's 15-year career was, no doubt, marred by disappointments, but in 2018, the ex-player gets the chance to make his mark on the game in a different way. In January, the Cincinnati Reds announced LaHair's addition to the farm's coaching staff. LaHair's past coaches have sighted him as a great mentor to the younger players - in particular David Wallace, LaHair's manager at Double-A Akron in 2014 (Sports Illustrated) and the management in Somerset. Continuing to teach appears to be a natural fit for him.
Though his playing career did not end in a fairytale, LaHair's baseball journey isn't over yet. He'll now get the chance to help mold baseball's future, beginning in Billings, Montana.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.