FORT MYERS, Fla. -- From 144 Granite Street in Worcester, Massachusetts, where Bryan LaHair played baseball and basketball for Holy Name Central Catholic High School, it’s about a 43-mile ride east on the Mass. Turnpike to Fenway Park, less than an hour if you hit the traffic right.
Or, if you’re LaHair, you can opt for the long way, a trip of 12 years and roughly 20,000 miles. That only covers the stops he made in Seattle, Chicago, Fukuoka Prefecture, Japan and Akron, Ohio, and doesn’t account for all the many other destinations along the way, which include Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and minor league outposts scattered across the map.
Truth is, LaHair hasn’t arrived quite yet. He is in camp with the Red Sox as a non-roster invitee, with little chance of breaking camp with the major league team. But at age 32, the first baseman-outfielder who slugged his way through the minors and had a brief shining moment with the Chicago Cubs is here with his hometown team, looking for one more chance to draw his sticks from a big league bat rack.
“Obviously, being my hometown, for me it’s a great opportunity,’’ LaHair said. “I kind of feel energized again, you know what I mean? It’s something you dream of as a kid, being from that area. You'd like to seize that moment if you can.’’
Instead of David Ortiz, that was LaHair, originally a 39th-round draft choice of the Seattle Mariners, who served as Red Sox DH Thursday night in Hammond Stadium, where the Sox opened their Grapefruit League schedule against the Minnesota Twins. LaHair grounded out to second in the second inning, walked in the third, struck out in the fifth and popped to third in the seventh.
The most home runs Ortiz ever hit in one minor league season is 31, which he did across three levels in 1997. LaHair hit 38 while playing for Triple-A Iowa in 2011, a season that won him MVP honors in the Pacific Coast League and catapulted him back to the big leagues the following season, when he earned improbable election to the National League All-Star team.
But even before LaHair made it to Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium for a pinch-hit appearance in the ninth inning against Fernando Rodney -- he grounded to short -- Cubs GM Theo Epstein already had engineered a trade that suggested LaHair’s stay in Chicago would be a short one, acquiring former Sox prospect Anthony Rizzo from the San Diego Padres.
Making matters worse, LaHair’s top hand, the left one, the one required to generate so much torque in his swing, began to ache. The thousands of swings he had taken over the years were taking their toll. He had fractured the trapezoid, one of the eight small carpal bones in the wrist.
“Just an accumulation of a lot of pounding over the years, a lot of swings,’’ he said. “Basically the bone begins to separate and fluid seeps in. The trapezoid [fracture] is more common with boxers, from so many punches.’’
LaHair was unable to generate the power he had shown in the first half of the 2012 season, when he hit 14 home runs and batted .282. Shifted to the outfield to make room for Rizzo, he hit just .202 with 2 home runs in the second half, and after the season was designated for assignment.
He wasn’t out of a job for long, as the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks signed him to a two-year, $4.7 million deal. With former Red Sox strongman Wily Mo Pena also on board, the Hawks thought they had the makings of a powerful right-left combination, and LaHair reveled in his experience in Japan.
“I enjoyed it, but more important, my wife, Nichole enjoyed it,’’ he said. “It’s a calm, very respectful country, a very happy place to be. I felt very safe for my family there. The food was excellent, the people nice. My little girl, Ava Rose, went to an international preschool. They would walk there every morning. And we were about a mile from the beach.’’
But for the second straight season, LaHair hit a wall midway through the year, again because his wrist weakened. The Hawks released him after the 2013 season, which is when he elected to have surgery on the hand and signed a minor league contract with the Cleveland Indians. But he wasn’t able to pick up a bat before mid-February and the strength in his hand was never there. He spent most of the season in Double-A Akron, hitting just 5 home runs in 417 plate appearances.
“It took the whole year to get where it needed to be,’’ LaHair said of the wrist. "I put in a lot of work this offseason to get strong.’’
LaHair, who is listed at 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, has a younger slugger, Travis Shaw, projected ahead of him at first base in Triple-A Pawtucket, though there may be at-bats available as a DH. At this stage, he’s not concerned about that.
“I’m just here to show I’m healthy and strong again and that I’m capable,’’ he said, “Whatever happens, whatever decisions are made, that’s out of my hands. I’m just here to work hard and show I’m ready to go.’’