Chase Lambin turned 34 years old a week ago Sunday, and to celebrate, he sat on the bench during a minor league game in Round Rock, Texas.
Lambin plays third base for the Omaha Storm Chasers, the Class AAA affiliate of the Kansas City Royals, and he's the oldest active minor leaguer never to reach the major leagues. Eleven years as a professional, and the view hasn't changed much.
This night was different, though, and a sort of birthday treat was that Manny Ramirez, the 41-year-old former big league star, was resuming his career with the Round Rock Express, the Texas Rangers' Class AAA affiliate. Lambin spoke to Ramirez before taking batting practice, and he watched later as Ramirez looped a single into right field.
Ramirez is pursuing one last taste of the big leagues. Lambin is waiting for his first. Neither is ready to step away just yet.
"This game," Lambin would say by telephone two days later, "it gets in your blood."
Lambin, who spent the 2010 season in the Washington Nationals organization, was drafted in the 34th round by the New York Mets in 2002, and add up all the hope and dreams and more than 1,200 games, and, anyway, he's still here.
"I'd love to be 28," he said with a chuckle.
More than a decade ago, he figured his baseball career was finished. He had played four seasons at Louisiana-Lafayette, watching the pro draft each time he was eligible, waiting for a call that never came. Baseball is cruel to most players, dangling opportunities and memories that can never be redone. But even on his most frustrating days, Lambin's father, Bruce, a baseball coach, told him to respect the game — and someday it'll respect you back.
But on the draft's second day in 2002, the selections and rounds flying by, Lambin's patience was gone. His respect was spent. Why hadn't baseball returned the love? To clear his mind, he ran errands, putting the draft and baseball past him.
Then his phone rang, and when he answered he heard his father's voice.
"What's up, Met?" Lambin recalled his dad saying.
The New York Mets had selected him with the 1,017th overall pick.
Then the days started passing, the weeks turning to months and then seasons. Lambin was 24 before knew it, reaching Class AA, surprising even himself with his rapid climb. Each night was an adventure, game or not.
One night in 2004, the Class AA Binghamton (N.Y.) Mets were rained out, and group of players went to dinner. The feisty waitress's name was Sara, and not only did she refuse to put the Mets game on television, saying this was New York Yankees country, she wouldn't give Lambin her phone number. He found it anyway, calling and talking her into dating a baseball player, even if he was a Met.
Five years they dated, living the ups and downs of minor league baseball. In 2005, Lambin batted .309 with 24 home runs at two levels, including at Class AAA, the fringe of the majors. At the time he thought the call would come any day, but all he kept hearing was how his friends and teammates were getting a chance, and . . .
Lambin remembered being told by Willie Randolph, the Mets' manager at the time, "Go do your thing at Norfolk, and we'll see you soon."
That was spring training 2006, and sometimes all you need is an injury or a hot streak or to just stay out of your own way. Lambin had his chance, life on the fringe, but all he did was hit .222, get demoted back to Binghamton and, after spring training the next year, released.
"The more I pressed and the more I tried, the worse I played," he said. ". . . I was in a good position, and I just — I don't know. I stumbled. Maybe it happened for a reason."
He signed with the Marlins in 2007. Two years later, with no teams calling, his only option was playing in Japan.
"We just go where the game takes us," Lambin said.
So he and Sara packed, Lambin believing this could be his last chance and Sara saying she was "retired" from selling jewelry. Two days before their plane left, they were married. They made a life in Japan, and a year later, the Nationals called with a minor league contract.
Around then, Lambin said, reality began to sink in. He wasn't the up-and-comer he once was; in every clubhouse he entered, he was among the oldest players. Friends from back home in Houston were salesmen or successful in some other field that earned them a nice car or a big house. Lambin kept signing contracts for between $40,000 and $60,000, he said, enough to live on but barely enough to do much else.
"We do our best with what we make," he said.
Those same friends with the big salaries told Lambin they envied him; his office was a stadium, and his boss wore a ballcap and jersey. Teammates respected Lambin because of his longevity, and now he was showing youngsters how to swing and deal with the daily grind. They would get promoted sometimes, and while Lambin used to watch the highlights and wonder why it wasn't him, now he was happy that maybe he'd had a hand in someone else's success.
"These young guys need to be motivated and helped," he said, "and I really enjoy that side."
Nearly three years ago, Sara told Lambin she was pregnant. A son was on the way, but they kept moving together anyway. From Syracuse to Rochester to New Orleans.
"I wouldn't say she loves it," Lambin said of his wife's thoughts on moving so often. "But she doesn't complain about it."
Their son was born 21 months ago. They named him Chase, like his dad, but they call him Champ. The couple bought a house in Houston last year, trying to settle down as best they could. But after the independent league team offered no more than $3,000 per month, bringing Lambin to think more about transitioning to coaching, there was another call from an affiliated team — and another contract. The Royals were interested, and so it was time to move again. The house in Houston now sits vacant.
Lambin has played in 20 games this season, batting .265, but no matter how well he plays, he admitted he doesn't expect a call from the big leagues. The minors are where it started more than a decade ago, and this is probably where it'll end.
Not that his mind doesn't wander.
"I feel like telling them sometimes: 'Just give me 20 at-bats, and if I don't do well, send me down and you'll never see me again,' " he said. "I just want to know how I would do up there. I kind of just want to know that for myself."
He said he'll keep playing until there are no more contracts, whether it's in the United States or overseas. Baseball has given him a career, a family and more than a decade of experiences. He might not reach the majors, but in unexpected ways, the game had returned the love.
"I might as well enjoy it and play it as well as I can," he said.
So on Sunday evening, another birthday having come and gone, he sat and watched Ramirez, understanding why he's still here. Ramirez compiled statistics worthy of the Hall of Fame and made millions, and even he can't give up the game.
Lambin said he goes to the stadium each day, wherever it is, and plays the best he can, still trying to respect the game after all these years. Maybe it has one more surprise left for him.
"I'm realistic. I know the chances are pretty slim," he said of reaching the majors. "But I know there is a chance."