This is a love story … a baseball love story … the tale of a little boy who grew up swinging the bat and throwing the ball and loving the game.
More than three decades later, the love affair is still fierce, the flame still alive, the little boy now grown into a man still in love with all the simple and incredibly difficult aspects of the summer game.
Jason Lane — that little boy now grown into a man — is that most rare of creatures in a baseball uniform. He is a pitcher who can hit … or a hitter who can pitch.
The 38-year-old Lane has been with the El Paso Chihuahuas since their inception, with a couple of brief exceptions in 2014 when he made a pair of appearances for the San Diego Padres. He has been a steadying influence for the club as they swoop into these Pacific Coast League playoffs.
And why not?
Lane has been in baseball playoffs at the highest of levels — a star and record-setter for USC in the College World Series, hitting a home run for the Houston Astros in the World Series. That’s right. the World Series.
Lane grew up in Santa Rosa, Calif., loving the game and playing baseball locally at Santa Rosa Junior College. Then, presto, he found himself on a national stage.
“I went to USC and, my first year there, I found myself in the College World Series,” Lane said. “At the time, it was the biggest moment in my baseball life. I got a win and a save (on the mound) and I broke some hitting records. It was incredible.”
Lane, who pitches left, hits right, slugged a ninth-inning grand slam, got a then-College World Series record 11 hits and his average of .417 led the entire tournament.
Lane came back in 1999 for his senior season and, though the Trojans did not match their 1998 NCAA Championship, Lane had another strong year, being named All-American. Throughout his career, he had been both a pitcher and a slugger. But the Houston Astros liked him more as a hitter.
Lane did not care. He simply loved the game.
The Astros drafted Lane in the sixth round in 1999, turned him into a first baseman. But they had a guy named Jeff Bagwell, so they moved Lane to the outfield.
He did not spend long in the minor leagues.
“Two full seasons and early in my third I got called up,” he said. “It was a whirlwind. I was playing in Fresno, flew to Philadelphia, didn’t play, went with the team to Pittsburgh. I pinch hit the first night in Pittsburgh and I started the next day.”
Lane was a regular with the Astros from 2002 to 2007, playing center field much of the time. He hit 26 home runs in what turned out to be a magical 2005 season … a season where he found himself living every baseball player’s dream … a season that culminated in that grandest of baseball stages, the World Series.
“It’s the pinnacle of everything you play for,” Lane said. “I try to explain to these guys (the Chihuahuas) what it’s like — the intensity of every pitch. Every pitch. From the first inning on, every pitch is intense, every pitch can make a difference.
“Once you get there, the only thing you want is to go back,” the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Lane said.
Neither Lane nor the Astros have gone back. Yet.
Lane struggled at the plate — always offering power, but struggling with his average. Houston traded him to San Diego in 2007. He then took a journey through the minor leagues — making stops with the New York Yankees, Boston, Toronto and Florida minor league outposts through 2010. That last stop proved a difference-maker.
“Ken Towers, the GM for the Diamondbacks, saw me pitch an inning just to help out a Triple-A team,” Lane said. “He liked what he saw and told me if I wanted to try it as a pitcher, I had a spot. It was my best offer at the time. I was still planning on hitting, but I was up to the challenge.”
It was a rare move; almost unheard of. But this is a baseball love story. And Lane was still in love.
“It took a lot of reps, a lot of experience, a lot of work,” he said. “It had been 13 years since I was a pitcher in college.”
He loved the game and so he was ready to go back to square one — even to minus square one. Lane found himself pitching for the Independent League Sugar Land Skeeters in 2012. No one doubted his love for the game and, just as certainly, no one doubted his work ethic. He was signed again by San Diego in 2013 … this time as a pitcher.
And, through hard work, through a good arm and a sharp mind and sheer will and a love of the game, Lane has stepped onto one of those euphoric major league mounds. He was called up to the Padres twice last year, acquitting himself very well each time. On June 3 of last year, he entered the game in the fourth inning against Pittsburgh and retired all 10 batters he faced.
He then returned to El Paso. But on July 28, he made his first major league start, being called up to work against the Atlanta Braves, becoming the oldest starting pitcher ever to make his debut for the Padres. He pitched six innings, gave up just a single run.
“That was a huge thrill to make it back,” Lane said.
Since that time, he has labored in El Paso, pitching, working, doing what he loves to do — play baseball.
“You learn to take care of your body,” he said. “The four days after you pitch you work on recovering, work on maintaining your strength and flexibility. Sometimes it’s biking, sometimes it’s running, sometimes it’s lifting. You just have to keep working.”
And he works at it year-round. He has pitched in Venezuela in winter ball the last two years.
“Great opportunity, great time to have competition, to work at the game,” he said.
Lane has been solid all season in El Paso, having a rocky moment here and there, but always figuring it out, working through it … continuing the journey, the love affair. Now, like his teammates, he is excited about the PCL playoffs.
“Anytime you play, you play to win,” Lane said. “No matter where you are. It’s fun. It’s exciting.”
And it is baseball. And this is a baseball love story.
Lane turns 39 in December. But he still firmly believes he can help a major league team.
He still is, after all, deeply in love with this simple, crazy game … the game he fell in love with as a little boy, the game he fell in love with more than three decades ago.
Now, that is a baseball love story.