MESA, Ariz. — He’d been preparing for this since November.
But the magnitude of what Luke Hagerty was trying to do didn’t sink in until he was in his truck for the short drive from Scottsdale to the Cubs’ spring training complex in Mesa, Ariz., early last month.
“I was like, ‘Holy crap, this is actually happening,’ “ the Cubs’ newest – and oldest – minor-league left-hander said. “It’s one thing to think about it and make those things up in your head, but to actually be driving to the facility, getting a uniform, things like that, that was a pretty wild moment for me.”
Imagine if he actually winds up in a game for the Cubs this season – 17 years after the Cubs drafted him 32nd overall.
That’s the plan. It’s also the last thing anyone could have remotely envisioned even five months ago.
Start with this: He’ll turn 38 five days into the season.
And then this: He hasn’t thrown a pitch in a professional game since 2008 – for a team affiliated with a major-league organization since 2006.
And this: He never got past Class A ball because – after 2003 Tommy John surgery – he lost the ability to throw a strike.
But the 6-foot-7 Hagerty – who has earned an advanced degree in health sciences and started a high-tech performance center for athletes since his last competitive pitch – rediscovered the power in his left arm during work in that new business.
After months of working in his new pitch lab, his fastball was in the upper 90s. And he seemed to know where it was going.
And with the support of his family and the encouragement of colleagues, he competed in a “pro day” workout with 20 other pitchers for about 40 scouts on Jan. 13.
After an eye-popping 97-mph average on his fastball – the best velocity at the showcase – and major-league-quality metrics on three other pitches, Hagerty was back in the Cubs organization, looking for lightning in a bottle after finding lightning in his arm.
“I’m not here to waste anybody’s time,” he said. “I respect everybody’s time too much to do something like that. When I talked to [teams], I said I don’t want to be just kind of thrown in there and, `Oh, that’s a great story, let’s have him come in and play a little bit.’
“I don’t want that. I don’t need that. I came back because I feel like I can help the team in some way. That’s what I want to do and why I’m here. That’s my only goal.”
It’s a low-risk signing for the Cubs, with a shot at big reward during what they expect to be another playoff season.
“He genuinely has an opportunity to impact a major-league roster,” said Kyle Evans, Cubs player personnel senior director. “That’s truly unique.”
Talk about a storybook scenario.
“Somebody sent me video of him,” said Oneri Fleita, the Cubs’ farm director when Hagerty first joined the Cubs as a $1 million draft pick. “I saw a hard-throwing left-hander and thought, ‘Wow, maybe he has it back.’
“Kind of ‘The Natural’ kind of thing.”
Not even Hagerty can be sure his “yips” issue is completely gone.
“I did throw to some hitters before I reported here, and it was good. I didn’t really feel those things,” he said. “But you never know before you’re in a game.
“I feel if I’m aggressive that’s not going to be an issue.”
Evans said the appeal of Hagerty goes well beyond the pitches, including the work ethic in developing those pitches, the fluency with the tech side, and his potential to influence younger minor-leaguers.
Nobody has a firm grasp on what his timeline might be, given the vast numbers of variables with such a unique situation.
“Part of the real challenge is it’s such an unknown,” Evans said. “What’s the right innings total for a 38-year-old who hasn’t pitched competitively in 10 years? There isn’t a number. So a lot of what we’re going to have to do is read and react.”
Fleita said he wants to be in the movie if Hagerty pulls this off.
“He’s a guy you thought could be a top-of-the-rotation type of guy when he signed,” Fleita said. “Then he got `the thing.’ Anytime somebody goes through something like that, God, it breaks your heart. It certainly wasn’t for lack of work ethic or character.”
Hagerty was drafted just 15 spots behind Cole Hamels – and 25 spots ahead of Jon Lester. He was drafted 523 ahead of Chris Denorfia, the former big-league outfielder who’s now a coach on the Cubs’ staff – 737 ahead of newly hired front office director Craig Breslow.
Hagerty said he thought seeking a complete fresh start with a different team.
He also thought about unfinished business.
“When I was going through all my struggles with the yips and everything else, they kept giving me a lot of chances,” Hagerty said. “They didn’t have to do that.
“And then for them to have interest in me, I felt like I kind of owed it to the organization. I wanted to try to right a wrong almost,” he said. “This was a chance to have a little bit of redemption. I don’t know how I could pass that up.”
Hagerty, who is on a slow-and-deliberate program this spring because of the long competitive layoff, has slowed his program even more because of soreness near his elbow. But he hopes to start playing catch again by the end of the week.
“You always remember the good guys,” Fleita said. “I’m rooting like hell for him.”