David Lebron couldn’t help but laugh when he pictured his mother, Luz, sitting in front of a laptop Tuesday night, a mental image that brought him back to the day he started a professional journey that once seemed impossible.
Lebron is one of nine members of the Frederick Keys, the Orioles’ High-A affiliate, representing the host team in Tuesday night’s Carolina League All-Star Classic. Three months shy of his 26th birthday, the right-handed pitcher was the oldest of any player on the North Division’s 23-player roster, yet he stood on Nymeo Field at Harry Grove Stadium halfway through what is only his first full professional season. With Luz watching from home in South Florida, Lebron pitched a scoreless fifth inning in the North’s 8-7 victory.
He began his career June 6, 2018, when the Texas Rangers selected the then-24-year-old in the 26th round of the Major League Baseball draft.
“My mom’s just there stuck to the laptop,” Lebron recalled Tuesday, “just waiting to hear my name called.”
The wait was much longer than the list of names that were called before him. Lebron graduated from South Dale High School in Homestead, Fla., in 2012, then tried out at Miami-Dade College, a renowned baseball factory that had nine players drafted in the previous two years. But he missed out on the final roster cuts, staying at the school through the spring to work ahead on his academic credits intent on continuing his career elsewhere.
A month into pitching in the South Florida Collegiate Baseball League that summer, he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow and underwent Tommy John surgery. The rehabilitation cost him the following season.
He tried out at Miami-Dade weighing about 150 pounds and has regularly been listed with a height under 6 feet. He’s often been told he’s too small to succeed, and the injury added another attribute to hold against him.
“You need someone to spark a fire in you, a little bit more, something to kind of piss you off, just take a step away from the game itself and have a look outside at scouts saying, ‘You can’t do this. You’re too small. You’ll never make it. You got hurt,’ ” Lebron said. “That stuff will fire you up quick.”
Unattached to a team, he spent his mornings working at his uncle’s hydrographics shop, using water and filters that add color and images to boat panels, car interiors and airplane parts. For his own interest and curiosity, he occasionally dipped baseball bats, adding camouflage coating.
“Anything that can be dipped in water without being damaged, we could do,” Lebron said. “It was something that if you didn’t enjoy it, it’s gonna be tough, just like any job in the workforce. If you’re not enjoying it, it’s gonna be a tough day any day you wake up and go to work.”
That added further motivation to get back to baseball. He already carried plenty.
His father, Narciso, introduced him to the game. He died from an unexpected heart attack when Lebron was 13, leaving Luz as a single mother to Lebron and his sister, Marilyn.
“A lot of this motivation comes from her, just knowing that she’s back home, struggling to keep food on the table,” Lebron said. “This is a big part of her life and our life.
“It’s hurt you, but you know that he’s up there high watching from above. I’m just trying to make him proud.”
Through his high school coach, Lebron reached out to the staff at the College of Central Florida as his rehab neared completion. In late July, about two weeks before school started, he drove five hours from Homestead to Ocala to throw a bullpen session in a last-ditch effort to cling to his dream.
“Look, I’m not 100% yet,” Lebron told coach Marty Smith, “but I’m going to give you everything I’ve got right now.”
Smith liked what he saw, offering Lebron a full two-year scholarship. Finally getting the chance to pitch in college, Lebron had a 2.40 ERA in two seasons with Central Florida, striking out 168 in 157 2/3 innings.
That earned him an opportunity at the University of Tampa, a Division II program. Lebron drew interest from a handful of smaller Division I programs, but thanks to his one year at Miami-Dade, he would’ve had only a season of eligibility at any of them because of the NCAA’s five-year clock rule.
In his first year with Tampa, Lebron went 7-1 with a 2.66 ERA, striking out 103 in 91 1/3 innings to earn Sunshine State Conference Pitcher of the Year honors. He managed to improve on those numbers in the senior season he wouldn’t have gotten at a Division I program, going 10-0 with a 2.24 ERA and 139 strikeouts across 96 1/3 innings to become the American Baseball Coaches Association/Rawlings Division II Pitcher of the Year.
He pitched effectively in relief in the Rangers’ system after signing last season, then got traded to the Orioles for international bonus slots in late February.
“Phone started ringing one day and your name gets brought up,” Lebron said. “Before you know it, you’re on the next flight to Sarasota.”
In 11 outings, including eight starts, Lebron has struck out 59 in 45 2/3 innings for Frederick with a 3.35 ERA. That was enough, in his first full professional season, to earn all-star recognition.
Given his age, Lebron is low on time to establish himself as a legitimate prospect. But for now, his friends and teammates are happy to celebrate what he’s already achieved after all he’s been through.
“That he’s been able to overcome those adversities and be an all-star now, it’s a really great story,” Keys infielder and fellow All-Star Willy Yahn said. “And no one deserves it more than he does.”
Other Key performances:
- Right-hander Cody Sedlock was a member of the team but did not play. Sedlock, the Orioles’ 2016 first-rounder, hasn’t pitched since May 25, but he said he’ll return Thursday to pitch behind 2017 first-round pick DL Hall in a piggyback role.
- Right-hander Mike Baumann, the Orioles’ third-round pick in 2017, started for the North on his home mound. He was tied for the Carolina League lead in strikeouts in the first half, but he needed none in using nine pitches for a scoreless first. “It was awesome being able to pitch in front of the home crowd,” Baumann said. “It was pretty humbling. Just being part of this game was an incredible experience.”
- Yahn was the North’s starting third baseman. Hitting eighth, he drove in a pair of runs with a double in the sixth and hit in a single ahead of Potomac’s Nick Banks’ game-winning three-run home run in the eighth. Yahn will join Double-A Bowie in the coming days. “It’s gonna be a blast,” Yahn said. “It’ll be fun to move up and just be able to show that I belong.”
- Right-handed reliever Luis Perez pitched 1 1/3 scoreless innings.
- Zach Jarrett, son of NASCAR legend Dale Jarrett, started in center field and went 0-for-2 batting fifth.
- Shortstop Sean Miller entered as a defensive replacement in the seventh and went 0-for-2.
- Cole Billingsley replaced Jarrett in center and hit a game-tying single in the seventh.
- Right-hander Steven Klimek pitched a scoreless seventh.