The stadiums, the fans — it’s a lot more crazy. Even crazier than the big leagues. I was with the Braves when they won the pennant, and the stadium wasn’t as loud as it is in Japan or Korea just during a normal game. They’re always loud no matter what. —Anthony Lerew
SALT LAKE CITY — Anthony Lerew was pitching for an independent ball club in a small town in Pennsylvania three weeks ago when he got the phone call from his agent.
Soon after he was on his way to Salt Lake City as the newest member in the Los Angeles Angels organization — assigned to the Salt Lake Bees.
For the 31-year-old righty, it’s possibly one last crack at the dream every young baseball fan has: playing in the majors.
“I just want to get back the big leagues while I still can,” he said, flashing a grin. “This was the way to do it. Go (to independent ball), pitch well and get somebody to notice me since nobody has seen me the last three years.”
Lerew isn’t a stranger to the minor leagues, nor is he a stranger to Major League Baseball. The former 11th round pick broke into the big leagues in 2005 with the Atlanta Braves.
After undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2007, Lerew returned to the majors with Kansas City. However, he hadn’t pitched in any level of MLB since the end of the 2010 season.
His journey from then to now hasn’t always been a clear path, either.
The pitcher known for his biker-like sideburns has traveled the world, pitching everywhere from a small town in Pennsylvania to the flashy lights of Korea, Japan to Venezuela, hoping each stop will land him closer to reliving the dream he once achieved.
Now he’s in Triple-A ball with the Bees, hoping this is the last stop before returning to the glorious big leagues.
“If I were to write a book, I feel like it would be pretty interesting,” he says with a slight chuckle. “Just where I’ve been, the stuff I’ve done, the people I’ve played with, the stuff I’ve seen, the different cultures it’s kind of cool to see all of that and be a part of all that. Now coming back, it gives you a newfound respect of being here.”
Lerew wasn’t a high-profile pitcher in his major league tenure. In five total major league seasons with Atlanta and Kansas City, he appeared in just 20 games, starting in 11, winning just one game and compiling a 7.48 career ERA. But Lerew showed potential.
After the 2010 season, his time in the Kansas City organization had run out. Lerew decided to follow in the same footsteps as many other baseball players looking to prove he still had what it takes to compete at the major-league level. So he opted to fly out to Venezuela and pitch in the winter league out there.
He quickly found success there, too.
In the final months of the calendar year, Lerew tossed a no-hitter for Navegantes del Magallanes. He even got carried off the field a la “Rudy.”
However, when the 2011 season came around, the best offer on his table came from the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in Japan. Lerew agreed and his career continued across the world in Japan.
“The opportunity doesn’t come very often to have the chance to go over there,” he said. “I got the opportunity and I chose to do that.”
2011 was an unkind year for Japan. When Lerew arrived for spring training that year, a volcano erupted near Fukuoka, spewing ash all over the field where his team trained.
“Basically it was snowing (ash) and we would wear nurses masks and the ash would be all over us,” he said. “It was pretty interesting.”
Not too long after that, a gigantic earthquake ravished the country. Even worse, it sparked a tsunami and created one of the worst natural disasters in recent history.
Thousands were killed and many more were missing.
Fortunately for Lerew, he was playing in a completely different part of the country that wasn’t affected. In fact, the only major difference he noticed was a shortage in bottled water.
He decided to continue playing in Japan while other Americans playing there, spooked by the disaster, decided to return back to the U.S.
“I was on the other side (of the country), so I was OK,” Lerew said. “A lot of guys went home.”
He finished the season, soaking in opportunities to try new foods and visit historical sites around the country, like Hiroshima.
“I’m glad I hung out over there. It was a good experience,” he said. “You get to learn different cultures and be around different people and see how stuff works in other places.”
Lerew returned overseas again in 2012, signing with the Kia Tigers in the Korea Baseball Organization.
The game remained the same in many aspects wherever he went, but Lerew said one lesson he learned in Japan and in Korea is that the baseball fans over there are more ravenous and passionate than in America.
Lerew had seen a lot even early in his major league career, but never saw anything that rivaled the atmosphere there.
“The stadiums, the fans — it’s a lot more crazy,” he said, recalling his experience overseas. “Even crazier than the big leagues. I was with the Braves when they won the pennant, and the stadium wasn’t as loud as it is in Japan or Korea just during a normal game. They’re always loud no matter what.”
Standing in the shade a few feet away from the batting cage, Lerew pauses for a brief second to admire the mountain ridges that paint the background of Smith’s Ballpark.
“We have mountains in Pennsylvania, but these mountains are beautiful,” he says. “The snow on top of them and stuff.”
Perhaps Utah was the last place he expected to play next, especially after spending the last three seasons of baseball in Asia.
When the 2013 season ended in Korea, Lerew returned home to his wife and children in Pennsylvania. He also had offers on the table to return to minor league baseball.
However, the pitcher wasn’t sure what his game plan was. He had just turned 31 — still in his baseball prime. He was still healthy and still full of potential.
It boiled down to two options: return overseas or return to the minor league baseball grind.
“I had a couple of teams interested in me before the independent season started,” he said. “I just wasn’t in shape. I wasn’t ready because I wasn’t prepared. I was going to go back overseas, and then I actually changed my mind probably in the middle of spring training, so by then it was too late to sign with somebody.”
Wanting to show teams he could still pitch, Lerew found an independent team that played within a 20-minute drive of his home in Pennsylvania, and signed with the York Revolution in April.
“That’s actually why I chose to play in York,” he said. “I was glad they had me there. It was a good league. There are guys there that spent eight to 10 years in the big leagues trying to get one more shot.”
While there, he went 1-1 with a 2.25 ERA in five starts.
It was enough to garner the attention of an injury-ravished Angels organization. He made his Bees debut at Smith’s Ballpark on May 24, allowing eight hits and four runs in four innings in a no-decision against Fresno.
“Obviously I didn’t start too hot, but I think it’s just because being off for so long and playing in independent ball — it’s just a jump to get into it,” he said. “I feel like I’m coming around.”
Not only does the game change from independent ball to Triple-A, much has changed in baseball since 2010, when Lerew last pitched in the majors. Every team now uses spray charts and advanced sabermetrics religiously. Teams adjust pitching and defense to accommodate the numbers more than ever before.
Baseball is no longer just a game, it’s a science.
Salt Lake pitching coach Erik Bennett said that part can be the most difficult for players adjusting from independent baseball to Triple-A.
“They have to get back in the routines of the charts, the radar chart, the game chart, the spray chart — all the stuff they don’t keep in the independent leagues,” Bennett said. “It’s just getting back in the routine of all that kind of stuff, but (Lerew) has done it before, so he should jump back in without a problem.”
Opposing batters are tougher to get out in Triple-A, too.
“Hitters make more adjustments here,” Lerew said. “If he looks bad inside, you can probably stay inside and he won’t make an adjustment (in independent ball). Where here, you’re going to have to mix it up.”
Bennett said Lerew has worked best with his fastball and changeup. He said he plans on working with Lerew on improving his breaking ball in the next few outings Lerew makes.
Despite a rough start with the Bees, the righty is showing positive signs. Though he allowed five runs in 5-1/3 innings in a loss at Albuquerque on Tuesday, he retired 13 straight batters at one point.
Lerew credits Bennett for helping expand his game, especially because there’s more learning in the American game than overseas.
“It’s actually refreshing to be around people I can understand,” Lerew said. “(Bennett) has been helping me. I’m an older guy, but I’m still receptive to what I can improve on because I can always get better. There’s some stuff from being overseas for three years that I’ve been pretty much coaching myself. There’s stuff I need refined and he’s helping me be refined.”
Utah’s dry air and high altitude has also been a difficult adjustment.
But one adjustment Lerew has enjoyed has been playing baseball away from his home state, which has allowed him to focus on his game. His family joined him out in Utah as well.
“There’s a lot less distractions now,” he said. “When I was at home, 20 minutes away, a friend calls you up and you have to do this, this or that. Now I’m away and it’s just my family and me and I can concentrate on what I have to do.”
Wherever Lerew goes next from Salt Lake is a mystery. If he gets the call to the big leagues ever again, it would just be another tale in the pitcher’s tome.
“Just to get back would be a feat in itself,” he said. “I made it up with the Braves. Then I had Tommy John surgery. Then I made it back with Kansas City and then I had the opportunity to go overseas and went there, so I’ve been around the world.”
Regardless of what happens, Lerew is just happy to have the chance to crack the majors one last time.
“It’s definitely good to be back here and try to work my way back up,” he said. “I’m just glad I have the opportunity to come and try and do it.”