Vol. LXI, No. 33
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
(Photo courtesy of Princeton's Office of Athletic Communications)
TRADING PLACES: Tim Lahey follows through on a swing during his time with the Princeton University baseball team. Lahey, 2004 PU grad and a second-team All-Ivy League catcher, was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the 20th round of the 2004 Major League Baseball Draft. After struggling at the plate, Lahey was switched to pitcher and has emerged as one of the top closers in the Twins organization. Lahey, who is currently with the Double-A New Britain Rockcats, was recently named to the Eastern League All-Star team.
Not many professional athletes get a second chance in the sports industry. This is especially true in professional baseball, where teams pick from a global talent pool and competition for spots on major league rosters is as cut throat as the most elite brokers on Wall Street.
Yet former Princeton University second-team All-Ivy catcher Tim Lahey is living proof that some players do, and he is making the most of his opportunity.
After being picked by the Twins in the 20th round of the 2004 Major league Baseball draft, Lahey, who struggled somewhat during his rookie season with the organization, was asked to convert from the position he had played all of his life catcher to one that he had never played before pitcher.
Since that time, Lahey has used his Ivy League work ethic to transform himself from an organizational catcher playing rookie ball to an Eastern League (AA) All-Star closer, with a newfound status as a prized prospect for the Twins.
Lahey's move from behind the plate to the pitcher's rubber was the product of some bumps in the road and soul-searching.
"I thought I caught and threw well but didn't hit as well as I would have liked," said Lahey, reflecting on his rookie season in Elizabethton, Tennessee in 2004 during which he batted .202 with three home runs and two doubles in 82 at bats.
"It was also challenging to go from graduation at Princeton to playing in the Appalachian League, where I'm playing with a whole new group of guys and staying in some pretty bad hotels; it was a very different lifestyle and a culture shock."
When Lahey reported to spring training the next year, the organization chose two catchers over the Princeton star to play on the rookie squad and asked him to stay behind in extended spring training to work on some of his skills.
"They told me that I needed to improve defensively and to make more consistent contact," Lahey recalled.
"But for a 23-year-old catcher to be left in spring training was obviously not a good sign. So I talked to my parents, my agent and coach [Scott] Bradley to get some advice. Coach told me from day one at Princeton that before any team released me, I should ask them to give me a shot on the mound first. And sure enough the farm director called me agent and asked if I would be willing to switch to pitcher. So I turned in my gear and gave it a shot."
The 6'5, 250-pound Lahey drew on the lessons he learned at Princeton from Bradley, a former major league catcher himself, as he tackled his new challenge.
"I learned an enormous amount from coach Bradley, he imparted so much knowledge on me," said Lahey, a native of Shrewsbury, Mass who first dreamed of being a major leaguer by watching Roger Clemens pitch for the Boston Red Sox.
"I think he took me with the idea that he wanted to coach me; he just loves coaching the game. I needed to improve and there is just no one better person to learn from about this game than Coach Bradley; he taught us how to be professionals out there."
During his Princeton years, Lahey certainly appeared to be on track to make an impact at catcher on the professional level.
After hitting .220 in his freshman season, Lahey raised his average to .263 to go along with three home runs, 24 RBI, nine doubles. He also displayed a knack for throwing out attempted base stealers.
The next season Lahey earned All-Ivy honorable mention recognition by launching 11 homers and picking up 25 RBIs.
In preparation for his senior season, Lahey headed to the Cape Cod League, one of the premier amateur baseball leagues in the nation, to hone his skills and get some more exposure to professional scouts.
His experience that summer paid big dividends, as Lahey earned second team All-Ivy honors in his final campaign with a .263 average, .393 on-base percentage, 31 RBIs, 31 runs, 36 hits, 25 walks, and 11 doubles.
The ultimate prize, however, was being selected in the 20th round of the 2004 MLB draft (601st overall) by the Minnesota Twins, taking him one step closer to his ultimate dream of playing in the big leagues.
"The scout who was responsible for picking me, John Wilson, said I owed [Princeton outfielder and 2004 2nd round draft pick] B.J. Szymanski a dinner, because he was the one that they came to see and he was the only reason I was noticed by them.," remembered Lahey.
"I was very excited just to get drafted but the Twins taking me made it even better. I know that if you're a good player in the Twins organization you will get a shot at some point."
Once he agreed to the shift to pitcher in 2005, Lahey did the best to make the most out his second shot at professional success.
After two weeks of working on his mechanics on the mound every other day, the Twins put Lahey into some extended spring training games to see how he would react to real game situations.
He did not surrender a run in four straight appearances and before he knew it, Lahey's career as a professional pitcher was off and running.
Lahey was immediately installed as the closer for the same team that did not have enough room for him as a catcher, the Elizabethton Twins and he never looked back. In 25.1 innings for the rookie ball squad, Tim converted 15 saves including one in the Appalachian League championship game to go along with a sparkling 3.55 ERA, 30 strikeouts while surrendering 21 hits and eight walks.
"To go from being an organizational catcher to experiencing success as a pitcher was incredibly exciting," he said.
"I was having fun again on the field because I was doing something new, and doing it well The hardest part of the transition for me was just the little stuff: holding runners on, pitching out of the stretch, pickoff moves, I mean stuff you take for granted. But over the course of the summer I learned from my own body and became much more comfortable out there."
In 2006, Lahey was promoted to the High-A Fort Myers Twins and experienced another successful season. Featuring a 90-94 m.p.h. 2-seam fastball which tails through the strike zone and two off speed offerings (a 83-86 m.p.h. split finger and a 82-85 m.p.h. slider), he earned a 7-1 record over 71.2 innings pitched. He also notched nine saves, sported a 4.40 ERA and struck out 56 batters.
That performance was good enough to get him promoted once again to the New Britain Rockcats, the Twins' AA affiliate, for the 2007 season. This summer, Lahey asserted himself as one of the best relief pitchers in the Twins organization and was selected to the Eastern League All-Star team last month.
The former catcher has an 8-3 record, a 3.31 ERA, 50 strikeouts and nine saves in 65.1 innings pitched for the Rockcats, proving himself as the most consistent reliever on the team.
Despite his recent success, however, Lahey remains focused on the present and consciously chooses not to worry about what the future holds.
"This is a big off-season for me because the Twins either have to put me on the 40 man roster or I will be eligible for the Rule 5 draft, where other teams can take me," he said.
"But I can't worry about when I will get to the big leagues. If I let my mind wander during games thinking about that stuff I won't be focused and won't perform. It's simple, if you focus you will have good numbers, if you have good numbers you will be a prospect and if you're a prospect, you will get to the Major Leagues. In one year hopefully I'll be a step closer to the big leagues but not necessarily there; in three, I think I'll be pitching for a Major League team."
Even though Lahey acknowledges that his time spent as a catcher might have made his path to achieve his ultimate dream rather circuitous, he does not regret trying to make it as a catcher in the least.
"Catching shaped who I am and made me a better ball player," he said. "It taught me to be a tough minded baseball player and to pitch with aggressiveness and tenacity. There is no doubt that I'm a better pitcher now because I was a catcher."
When asked about his goals and aspirations, Lahey displayed the even-keeled, professional approach he learned at Princeton.
"I want to be the best pitcher I can be," asserted Lahey. "I just don't want to look back and say I could have been better. If I'm an MLB all-star, that's great, if I'm not, that's OK too. I know I have lots of potential but I am also working against time. So my goal is just to be the best I can be."
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