Daily Grind Suits Lucas Erceg Just Fine
Lucas Erceg has always been self-motivated. He had to be.
The product of an alcoholic mother and stern father, Erceg saw baseball as an escape, with a ballfield the only place he felt successful.
With no real role models, Erceg sometimes fell into trouble. He didn’t study much, he partied a little too much, and then, after a coach pulled plenty of strings to get him into Cal, he flunked out.
He thought he had squandered his talent, figured his baseball life was over. It was actually a new beginning. He transferred to NAIA Menlo (Calif.), became one of the top sluggers in the college draft class and worked his way into the second round of the draft and a million-dollar contract with the Brewers. He quickly became one of the top prospects in the low Class A Midwest League.
Given a second chance, Erceg vows not to fail again.
BASEBALL AS AN ESCAPE
Erceg has loved baseball as long as he can remember. He played some other sports as a kid, but nothing organized.
“I think my mom mentioned to me, when I was 2 or 3 years old, I was really swinging (hard) at a piñata,” Erceg said. “She remembered how hard I swung.”
Erceg’s parents saw a flier about youth baseball near their Campbell, Calif., home, and as young as four years old, Erceg had found his passion.
But for Erceg, baseball was more than fun; it represented a way out—a way out of a troubled family situation.
“I didn’t have a good relationship with my parents,” he said. “My mom was an alcoholic, my dad was (very tough). (Baseball was) an outlet for success.
“I loved the feeling when I stepped on the ballfield.”
So he played whenever he could and for whoever he could, because he loved it, but also because he knew he might be able to use his skills to get away—through high school and into college and maybe, just maybe, pro ball.
He just needed people to notice, and luckily some did, such as Mike Neu.
Neu, the former big league pitcher and the closer on Miami’s 1999 national championship team, was coaching at Diablo Valley (Calif.) JC when he first saw Erceg.
“I actually saw him before high school,” said Neu, now the head coach at Pacific. Neu also coached some travel ball teams.
“He played for me when he was 12-13 years old and he was always the best player on the field,” Neu said. “He was always the best pitcher and best hitter on the field, and you could tell he loved the game.”
Neu said Erceg would play as many games as he could, sometimes playing in two different tournaments in a weekend if possible. He was not eager to go home. “I knew his family situation,” Neu said. “He was not always in a great situation, (and) financially, he needed some help as far as getting to games.
“I knew how special a player he was.”
A CAREER IN THE GAME?
As special a player as Erceg was--and he was a two-way star at Westmont High in Campbell, Calif.--he was not drafted out of high school. Because the field was a refuge, Erceg needed a way to stay in the game, but with a 2.6 grade-point average and admittedly not the most studious person, Erceg wasn't sure college was an option.
Luckily, Neu--by now the pitching coach and recruiting coordinator at Cal--had stayed in touch. He talked to Erceg about joining him at Berkeley, but Erceg wasn't sure.
"He asked me, 'What do you think about coming here?"' Erceg said of Neu. "A lot of schools talk to you, but they're really not that serious. But just a couple of months later, halfway through the semester, he said, 'We want to offer you a scholarship. I had a 2.6 (grade-point average), my grades weren't very good. (Neu) had to pull a lot of strings."
Neu acknowledged it wasn't easy, saying, "We helped him a lot. He was right on the borderline academically. He had to take his SATs a couple of times. We got him in as a special admit."
And he proved to be a special talent. Erceg was a first-team All-Pac-12 player as a sophomore, slashing .303/.357/.502 as the Bears pushed Texas A&M in a competitive regional before losing in the finals. He displayed a strong arm on the mound in limited appearances and by the end of his sophomore year, there was plenty of buzz about his future as a first-round pick.
But his lack of parental guidance, and his unwillingness--or fear--to ask for help began to catch up. Erceg's a bright guy--the 1520 he scored on his SAT to get into Cal makes that clear--but he had trouble staying focused.
He was falling behind on the rigorous Cal coursework and knew he was in trouble.
"I think it was time management," Erceg said about his struggles at Cal. "I was not focused on what I was trying to do. I wanted to have a little fun with my teammates. I was going to Taco Tuesday instead of writing my papers."
Neu saw what was happening and felt powerless.
"He was on the borderline each term and didn't always make great choices," Neu said. "He made some bad choices, and with his situation, and not having family support, he wasn't always in a great position to succeed.
"We tried to help him. He was getting into the right classes, he was getting help off the field. He definitely needed a lot of support, and we tried to help."
Erceg acknowledged that, but says it wasn't easy to reach out.
"They all asked me that," he said of Cal coaches and teammates. "'If you need anything, ask.' I had problem early on, asking for anything because I was in a silo of silence. I didn't want to ask my mom because she would just yell and same with my dad. When (teammates and coaches) said, 'Hey do you need help?' I'd say, 'I'm good.'
"But I had two Ds, a couple of Cs, and I said, 'What have I gotten myself into?'"
Ultimately, Erceg couldn't handle the load--school, sports, maybe some partying. He was not an alcoholic, but the lure of fun was too strong.
"I really never had a problem (with alcohol)," he said. "It was not focusing on the things I needed to do. I didn't want to go out and drink, but I didn't want to study, either, so I did the more fun of the two things."
He was going to flunk out of out Cal, and he was scrambling.
"I thought, 'There goes everything I worked for,"' Erceg said. "It was a dark time."
Erceg did have support from his advisers (now his agents) as Sosnick Cobbe Karon. Given his background and family history, they were concerned about his future. They on decided Menlo, an NAIA school 25 miles from Erceg's boyhood home.
Not only did Erceg have a history with Menlo, having played there as a kid, he wouldn't have to sit out as a transfer (as he would going to another Division I school). And the school's 750-student population made it easier to for Erceg to focus, and for his nearby advisers to make sure he was going to class.
Erceg's mother--by that time clean and sober--had moved from Campbell, so that meant Erceg had to live on campus. It was a blessing in disguise.
"Once I got to Menlo, it was so easy to walk to class, get breakfast, walk back to class, play baseball," he said. "The baseball field was right across the street. It was the perfect little facility to focus on better."
But even getting into Menlo came with challenges. Erceg had to finish 24 credits--the equivalent of a full year load--in the fall semester in order to play ball in the spring.
"I never really thought it would be a reality," he said. "I said, 'Let's put baseball aside.' I really wanted to sit down and focus on being a better student, a better person.
"I always looked forward to playing ball. I never looked forward to passing 24 units."
But Erceg pulled it off, calling it one of his biggest accomplishments. Before he even played a game, he impressed his new coach.
"It is remarkable . . . it was an unbelievable effort," said Menlo coach Jacob McKinley, who was made aware of Erceg's off-field issues.
"He opened up to me, he shared with me personal details, but not in a way like it was, 'woe is me,"' McKinley said. "We developed a different kind of relationship, and I did the best I could to help him navigate through some baggage. But I never saw a red flag, and once I got to know him, he's a wonderful person. He was always willing to do field work. He was never too big for the program."
Erceg did well at Menlo, tying for fifth in the NAIA with 20 homers. He may have been a first-round pick if he stayed at Cal and had success, but now he was looking at the second or third round.
"There was a lot of speculation, but I couldn't care if it was first overall--that would have been great--or the 40th round. I just wanted the opportunity to play."
Teams in the first round were interested--the Twins in particular considered him at No. 15 overall--but Erceg wound up going to the Brewers with the 46th pick and signing for $1.15 million. He's had a great start to his pro career, slashing .327/.376/.518 with nine homers in 272 at-bats and showing a plus arm at third base.
A pro scout who saw him recently said he expects Erceg to fill out his thin frame, but that he generates above-average power with a loose, whippy lefthanded swing, and that he ambushes first-pitch fastballs.
His manager at low Class A Wisconsin, Matt Erickson--whose one major league hit came for the Brewers against Greg Maddux in 2004--said he quickly discovered Erceg's love for the game and great work ethic.
"We do try to keep him active and keep him motivated," Erickson said. "He definitely responds to that."
As much as he's enjoying pro ball, Erceg said he has plenty of room for growth.
"Transferring from Cal, that definitely humbled me," he said. "But that whole transfer led me into this, and being able to ask for help and open up. That's one of the things I'm working on.
"(Cal coach) Dave Esquer put my name on his back. Coach Neu put my name on his back. I failed those guys because I didn't pass enough units. (Brewers area scout) Joe Graham put my name on his back. I don't want to let him down."
Judging by his start--and his commitment to improve--Erceg will work hard to make sure that won't happen.