College : : Story
Monday, May 17, 2010

UNI’s O’Rear making pitch for baseball career

Jim Ecker        
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – Lucas O’Rear hopped a low railing at Perfect Game Field on Monday and stepped into the first-base dugout, ready to participate in the National Pre-Draft Showcase along with 50 other guys.
His  purple-and-gold UNI sweatshirt gave him away. The other players at the showcase looked, and wondered, and figured it out.
Hey, aren’t you that hell-bent-for-leather guy with the mutton-chop sideburns who helped the University of Northern Iowa shock top-ranked Kansas in the NCAA basketball tournament this year?
“I’ve got my UNI sweatshirt on and they’re like, ‘Do you play basketball for them?’” O’Rear related with a smile. “And I say, ‘Yeah, I play basketball for them.’ And they go, ‘Man, you ruined my bracket!’ And I go, ‘Well, sorry about that.’”
He’s not, actually. Sorry, that is.
Shocking top-ranked Kansas on national TV and reaching the Sweet 16 was a shining moment for O’Rear and the Panthers, something to be cherished for a lifetime. But O’Rear wasn’t in Cedar Rapids Monday to sign autographs. He was here to pitch, and he did it well before scouts from all 30 Major League teams.
O’Rear reached 91 on the radar gun, fanned two batters, did not allow a hit and generally impressed everyone with his performance. It was especially impressive because UNI dropped its varsity baseball program after the 2009 season, leaving O’Rear without a team or a place to play this season.
He threw 91 Monday with very little practice. He played some long-toss to get ready, but that’s about it. “I hate to say it, but I haven’t done a whole lot of bullpen work,” he confessed.
He did a bullpen session for a half-dozen scouts a month ago, and they thought he’d hit 95 on the radar gun with a little work and a few adjustments. He was told the same thing on Monday after pitching two scoreless innings at the showcase.
“Some of the scouts that are here, they saw me pitch in high school when I was throwing 90 or 92 and hitting 94,” he said. “And they’re like, ‘It just takes time to get your arm in shape. We can work with you on your technique and stuff, and you’ll probably be throwing 95 to 96.’”
Perfect Game president Jerry Ford agreed with that assessment.
“Oh, yeah, I believe he’s got that in him,” Ford said Monday after watching O’Rear pitch. “No spring training, no spring baseball. Whatever he did today, you have to take it for granted that he’s capable of doing a lot more.”
O’Rear appreciates comments like that.
“It’s encouraging to hear that,” he said. “I’m just going to keep going out there and try to compete and see what I can do.”
O’Rear, 6-foot-6, 255 pounds, has another year of eligibility with the UNI basketball team and fully intends to play basketball for the Panthers next season. But he’d love to get drafted by a major league team this June, sign a pro baseball contract, play ball this summer and then return to Cedar Falls for his senior year with the Panthers.
A college athlete can be a professional in one sport and an amateur in another, and several scouts have said they’d have no problem with him taking that path. There’s not much demand for a 6-foot-5 center in the NBA, so O’Rear figures his best shot at a major league career would be in baseball, not basketball.
He might change his mind about playing basketball next season if he’s an early-round draft pick and offered a ton of money to sign a pro baseball contract, in which case he might stick entirely with baseball, but he doesn’t expect that to happen. He thinks he’ll be drafted, but doubts it will be real high.
O’Rear has talent, but he’s raw.
He hasn’t played baseball on a regular basis since he was senior in high school in 2007. He didn’t play baseball at UNI in 2008 as a freshman, then got into only 10 games and threw 17 1/3 innings as a sophomore in 2009. That’s the extent of his college experience, because UNI did not have a team this year.
He’s raw, but he’s got talent.
“We know he’s real athletic, and he scores real high on the ‘makeup’ department,” said Ford. “It’s too bad that he wasn’t actually able to play this spring. Obviously he’s not as far along as everybody else who’s been playing all year.”
O’Rear was not at full speed on Monday, but he kept his fastball at the knees and showed a nasty slider.
“I thought I did all right, considering I haven’t thrown for like a year against live batters,” he said. “It might take me a little while to get back there (to full speed), but I think I can.”
 O’Rear, from Nashville in southern Illinois, is a big St. Louis Cardinals fan and would love to be drafted by his favorite club. It’s about a 75-minute drive from his home to Busch Stadium, and he loves the park.
“It’s a nice play to play. I’m a Cards fan, that’s for sure,” he said. “Whatever team picks me, I’d be more than happy to go play for them. And if it happens to be the Cardinals, I’d be pretty happy.”
The Cardinals sent a scout to his bullpen session last month.
“The Cubs were there and a couple of other people. And then all of a sudden here comes a Cardinals scout,” he related. “And I’m like, ‘Oh, geez, here we go.’ I was a little nervous for that.”
Nervous, but happy.
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