A baseball journey: Dillsburg's Lerew back in York, but return to majors is ultimate goal
Nestled deep inside the bowels of Santander Stadium, within a locker room cluttered with shoes, dirty practice uniforms and furniture, every member of the York Revolution baseball team is preparing for an early-season meeting against in-state rival Lancaster.
All, but one.
"You're looking for Anthony?" starting pitcher Logan Williamson asked. "He's the hardest guy to find."
When Anthony Lerew finally emerges from a hallway that leads outside, it's hard to imagine how. He stands at 6-foot-4, with a discernible dark beard that has a hint of gray in it — a telling sign of his rising age. He enters the room with a giant smile, one that never leaves his face, even as he begins to tell the story of his baseball journey, one that's taken him to four different countries on three separate continents.
His pro career just entered its 15th season, spanning virtually every league imaginable. At 32 years old, he's nearing the final chapter of his career, but he feels he owes it to himself to give the major leagues one final shot. Except, even after a decade-and-a-half, he feels like major league clubs don't even know he exists.
"It just feels like it's really hard to get back in right now," he says hesitantly, grappling with how he wants the words to come out of his mouth. "I know that I can still pitch and compete at those levels."
Journey to the big leagues: Lerew's high school graduation from Northern York was overshadowed.
For the rest of his graduating class, it signaled the moment in their lives when they could put their childhood behind them and look forward to life on their own as college students. That day for Lerew signaled the beginning of the real world, because rather than looking ahead toward college, he became someone else's property, drafted in the 11th round of the MLB draft by the Atlanta Braves.
From that point forward, life took on a new meaning, with every hour of every day dedicated to making it to the stage that every little boy dreams of when they first pick up a bat or glove — the big leagues.
Originally drafted as an outfielder, he transitioned to the mound. The switch was smooth, and he quickly became one of the more dominant pitchers in rookie and Class A ball. But, his rise through the ranks of the Braves' organization was a slow, methodical process. He got stuck at the A and high-A level for the first three years of his career until he finally cracked the AA roster in Mississippi to start the 2005 season.
That year turned out to be the pivotal point in his career, when he finally received the call-up he'd always dreamed of, making his big league debut on Sept. 4 against Cincinnati as a reliever in the 12th inning. He reached the pinnacle of the sport, but quickly realized that staying in the big leagues was even harder than getting there.
"It was just a roller coaster," Lerew said. "Up and down, big leagues to AAA."
While the call-ups and send-downs were taking a toll on him mentally, his laboring elbow wasn't doing him any favors, physically.
He made three starts at the beginning of the 2007 season, two of which came at the major league level. Ultimately, ulnar neuritis ended his season. He underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.
"My ligament was just worn out and stretched," he said. "It wasn't torn, but it was to the point where it was causing me to get bone spurs and stuff."
At the time, the success rate was only about 85 percent for players who had the procedure. But, with his whole life dedicated to getting to the majors, it was a risk Lerew was willing to take.
" It was a must," he said. "Otherwise I wouldn't have been able to keep throwing."
Lerew began rehabbing as soon as he could, determined to get back as soon as possible, but he wouldn't throw another pitch in the big leagues as a member of Atlanta. He was traded in 2009 to the Kansas City Royals, where he experienced more of the "roller coaster," enduring up-and-down trips between the big club in Kansas City and the AAA team in Omaha.
By the time the 2010 season ended, Lerew was ready for a different challenge. So, during the offseason, he ventured down to South America, taking part in the Venezuelan Winter League, where he played for Navegantes del Magallanes.
It was there, thousands of miles from the quiet streets of Dillsburg, where the highlight of Lerew's career occurred.
Pitching in what he described as the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry of the Venezuelan Winter League, Lerew's Magallanes club took on Caracas on Nov. 21. Lerew threw the only no-hitter of his career that night, and to this day, he refuses to believe that there wasn't more to it than just outstanding pitching.
"On those things, you have to be super lucky," he said. "I don't know how people do it. I have one and I pitched for 18 years now."
But, even after spending parts of five seasons in the major leagues and throwing a no-hitter, there was little consistency in his playing career. Each day started as a mystery. He didn't know when he would have to hop back on a plane to join a different team at a different level.
Going overseas: It's widely considered a move that can derail any player's shot at making it back to the major leagues. But, it's one that many will make, for financial purposes and job security.
So, when Lerew made the decision to uproot his family and move overseas to play in Japan and then South Korea, he knew full well that he was jeopardizing a future in the big leagues, but it was worth it for the financial security.
"I got the opportunity to make the money and have a stable job for a year," he said. "That was actually really nice to have those three years where it was, like, guaranteed this is what I'm going to do."
His first year was spent in Japan playing for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in the Nippon Professional Baseball league, where he signed for 50 million yen, or $560,000. It was a serious change for both him and his family. His oddly manicured beard and sideburns drew much attraction from the locals. And his children didn't go unnoticed, either.
"They were like rock stars over there in Japan and Korea," he said of his children. "Because blonde-haired, blue-eyed kids, they don't see that very often."
On top of the new baseball experience and learning a completely foreign culture, Lerew went through the grim reality that so many in Japan deal with on an annual basis.
Thousands were killed when a 9.0 magnitude earthquake rocked the country on March 11, 2011, triggering a tsunami that wiped out entire parts of the island. Despite being more than 600 miles away from the devastated areas, the impact loomed large over everyone in the nation. It was baseball, however, that brought everyone back to earth. Between the lines, he said, managers stressed the importance of focusing only on baseball — one of the many differences between baseball overseas and baseball in America.
After one year in Japan, he signed with the Kia Tigers of the Korean Baseball Organization for 280 million won ($250,000) and a $50,000 signing bonus in 2012. As a starter there, he put up an 11-13 record in his first season, giving him the chance to re-sign with the club for the 2013 season.
Spending his third year surrounded by the Asian culture, Lerew was starting to adapt. His children even started attending school during his time in Korea. Things were going well and he'd found some stability.
Then the business side of the sport reared its ugly head. He was released from the Tigers in July of 2013.
Not sure of his next move, Lerew and his family moved back to Dillsburg, anxiously anticipating the next call for his services.
One final shot: There's something about the quiet calmness of York County that makes Lerew want to come back. Sure, it's where he grew up and his family and friends still live, but there's more to it than familiarity.
He likes that he can live in an area that's away from everything, but still within driving distance to the ballpark or to more developed areas of the midstate. He likes that he can go to the grocery store, leave his car unlocked, get what he needs, and when he comes back out, his car is still where he left it.
"Everybody is just nice," he said, with that contagious smile even more prominent on his face.
He's made Dillsburg his home, the place where he's raising his family, and he's at ease with that decision. So much so, that when no major league organizations came calling after his return from Korea in 2013, he had no hesitations about catching on with the Revolution, an independent team in the Atlantic League.
From the day he arrived last season, he's instantly become one of the more experienced players in the clubhouse, both in age and in big league experience. He quickly turned into a fan favorite, with his cheering section, "Lerew's Crew," coming out to support him and the team every night he starts. Perhaps his biggest impact on the team has been his personality. His joyful nature is contagious on other members of the team.
"Oh he's fun," Revs pitching coach Paul Fletcher said. "He's a fun guy. He makes it easy."
His first year with York didn't last long — a mere five games, during which he amassed a 1-1 record with a 2.25 earned-run average. That was enough to get him noticed by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. He spent the remainder of the 2014 season with the Angels' AAA team, the Salt Lake Bees. There, his numbers became inflated. He accumulated a 4-6 record and a 6.75 ERA in 22 appearances, 14 of them starts. It wasn't anything noteworthy. It certainly didn't get him noticed by a major league organization that was willing to take a chance by signing him.
So, it was back home and to a familiar team — York. He'd give it another shot — possibly his last — at making it back to where he once was.
Despite age not being on his side, he still possesses the tools that could allow a club to take a shot on him, even though his last MLB appearance came five years ago.
"He's a right-hander with good stuff and he has good velocity," Revs manager Mark Mason said. "So, as long as you're right-handed and you keep your velocity up, you have a good chance of getting picked back up."
Along with his still above-average fastball, Lerew possesses a slider and changeup, with the changeup being his secondary pitch that he uses off of his fastball. Then there's his extensive experience that can make him an attractive player for some organizations.
"Teams are always looking for guys that have experience," Fletcher said. "Especially at higher levels, they're more trustworthy with a guy with some experience and having a safety net."
So far, Lerew has made one start on the year, pitching five innings of one-run baseball last Saturday against Long Island, overpowering hitters as he struck out six while earning the win.
York and the Atlantic League are a long way away from where he once was, both metaphorically and geographically.
It remains to be seen how long Lerew will stick around with the Revs this season before a major league organization comes calling — if ever. But, he's found solace in winding up in the place where it all began.
He feels he owes it to himself to give it one final crack and prove to himself — and the 30 MLB organizations — that he can still pitch at the game's highest level.
"My goal, signing back here, was just to do what I did last year," Lerew said. "Hopefully throw a couple games, show people that I'm healthy and get out of here and try to get back to the big leagues. It's about getting into an organization that wants to put its trust in you."
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at firstname.lastname@example.org
Major league: 20 games, 11 games started, 1-7 record, 7.48 ERA, 61 1/3 innings pitched, 40 strikeouts.
Affiliated minor league: 225 games, 206 games started, 67-55 record, 3.62 ERA, 1,145 innings pitched, 890 strikeouts.
Atlantic League: Six games, six games started, 2-1 record, 2.17 ERA, 29 innings pitched, 30 strikeouts.