WASHINGTON — It's rare to find anything completely new in baseball. When the Baltimore Orioles' new free agent outfielder, Lee Lacy, says, "My career has been very strange," even he doesn't know the half of it.
There's never been a completely backwards career quite like his.
Usually, a player peaks before age 30 and, by 35, is a utility man or role player. That is, if he's still in the majors at all.
In all baseball history, back to the 1860s, no one has ever played 10 full seasons in the majors, been used exclusively as a part-timer until he was past his 35th birthday, then became a full-time player. Let alone become a star.
That is until Lacy did it last year.
Entering '84, he was 35, had 11 years of big league service and had "never been given a starting job."
Sure, he'd played a bit in four World Series and batted .300 four times. But he'd never come within 110 plate appearances of qualifying as a batting leader. Only twice had he ever had more than 330 at bats.
Perhaps nobody in baseball ever waited so long for his ship to come in.
Last spring, "the Pirates brought in everybody--kids from A ball and junior college--to play the outfield. But I said, 'Man, these guys can't play with me.' Then I showed what I could do," says Lacy. "I've always thought more of myself than other people did."
In his 16th year as a professional, he finally got a full chance.
And he made himself a millionaire.
In '84, he batted .321--second in the National League. He led the league in fielding percentage (.996) and was second in baseball in outfield assists (15). He stole bases (21), showed some power (26 doubles and 12 homers) and even drove in runs (70) for a team with the game's worst offense.
In December, the Orioles signed him to a four-year contract for about $2.5 million. Talk about perseverance paying off.
"When you can scal', you can scal'," laughed Lacy Tuesday at a Memorial Stadium press conference. "That's spelled S-C-A-L. I'm the Scal Man.
"I've always been able to hit all kinds of pitchers," said Lacy, who in the last five years with the Pirates has scalded his way to a .311 average. "Basically, I'm a bad-ball hitter, so it doesn't matter where they throw it . . . I don't pay a lot of attention to the fundamentals of hitting. I just try to attack the ball. . . .
"I'll do all sorts of things. Change my stances every time up . . . I don't have a strike zone . . . I hit the ball all over, have occasional power down both lines. But I'll chink it over the infield or beat out chops. I love to bunt. If I see crumbs in the third baseman's eyes like he's been up too late the night before, I'll lay one down for a hit."
In his odyssey, he has had to learn to do a bit of everything. "I have this big bag. I got about nine gloves in there. I started as an infielder and I can play anywhere in the outfield. I'll go wherever I'm needed.
"I'm a team man . . . I have to earn my respectability over here."
As long ago as 1975 he hit .314 for the Dodgers, but he got shelved in a talent-rich system, tagged as a bad outfielder and platoon righty hitter.
By his account, he was brought to the majors too quickly by the Dodgers, then left to rust on the bench. By age 30, he'd bounced from L.A. to Atlanta, back to L.A. and then on to Pittsburgh, where he didn't fit the team's power-hitting prototype. "Everything seemed to slow down my development."
He'd made a living hitting left-handed pitchers whom he says, "You should be able to hit with one eye closed." His career average against Steve Carlton in 62 at bats is .403 and his mark against Fernando Valenzuela is .389.
"I never caught a fly ball until I was in the major leagues," he says. "I've had to learn all the little things. Tag on a short fly. Steal third base. I take a lot of pride in what I do. . . . People think because you're a free agent that you went for the bucks, that you think you're Mr. Big. Well, above everything, I wanted to be on a contending ball club and show what I could do every day. . . . Money doesn't mean anything when it's (compared) to pride."
Wounded pride, at any rate.
Curiously, the closest player to Lacy's career progression is Mike (Hit Man) Easler, who platooned with Lacy for four years in Pittsburgh. Easler, after nearly 10 years in the majors, finally got his full chance at 33 with the Red Sox last year and tore up the American League.
"We saw what Easler did and thought Lacy might do the same," said General Manager Hank Peters of the Orioles.
Lacy has another odd distinction. Not long ago, while getting documents for a passport, Easler discovered that he was born in 1949, not 1948. "How can I explain this?" he wondered after getting conclusive birth- certificate proof that he had just become a year younger.
Lacy shouldn't worry about explaining. In more ways than one, he's the only player who's ever gotten younger as he got older.