By most reasonable expectations, David Lebron should have never made it to professional baseball, let alone Tuesday’s Carolina League All-Star Classic at Nymeo Field.
When he first started playing the game as a young child, Lebron was so bad that he thought he might get cut from his Little League team in South Florida. Lebron’s first catch was more or less an accident, as the ball just fell into his glove in left field. He reached up and secured the grab with his eyes closed.
“I didn’t know how to catch a ball,” Lebron, now a right-handed starting pitcher for the Frederick Keys, admitted. “You are at that age where, if a butterfly flies by in the outfield, you go chase it.”
In his first season of junior college ball at Miami Day, Lebron was cut from the team in the fall of 2012. Then, as he tried to hook on elsewhere, he tore his ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) pitching in the South Florida Collegiate League and required Tommy John surgery. He was out of action for roughly two years.
Lebron is a spiritual person who believes things happen for a reason. The thought crossed his mind that maybe these were signs from above. Maybe it was time to do something else, to chase another dream.
But something inside of Lebron wouldn’t allow him to quit. The son of a handyman and a school cafeteria worker, Lebron was taught to push through adversity, not give into it.
He diligently rehabbed his throwing arm following the surgery. He rebuilt his strength and his confidence in a two-year still at the College of Central Florida and then shined in two more seasons at the University of Tampa, where he was named the ABCA/Rawlings Division II National Pitcher of the Year in 2018.
Lebron capped his final season at Tampa with a 10-0 record and a 2.24 ERA. In 96.1 innings, he struck out 139.
The Texas Rangers liked him enough to take him in the 26th round of the 2018 draft. He was then traded in February to the Orioles for international bonus slots.
“It allows you to come out here and never take a day for granted because you just never know,” Lebron said.
Now Lebron is taking his talents to the Carolina League Classic at Nymeo Field, a career and personal milestone for him. He will be one of nine players for the host Frederick Keys to take part in the game, the team’s most number of All-Stars in a decade.
“It’s a blessing and an honor for me to represent the [Orioles] organization and this team as well,” Lebron said.
This season, Lebron is 2-1 record with a 3.35 ERA in 11 appearances (eight starts). Over the course of 45 2-3 innings, he’s struck out 59.
While those numbers helped him to earn his All-Star spot, the number that may attract more attention is his age.
Lebron is 25 years old. He will turn 26 on September 7. In an All-Star game featuring more than 40 players, Lebron is by far the oldest. The next closest to him in age, Winston-Salem Dash outfielder Jameson Fisher, is a little more than two months younger. All but six players in the game are younger than 25.
“I am sure people talk about it,” Lebron said when asked about it age. “But it doesn’t bother me.”
Most of the top prospects in baseball have already broken into the majors leagues by their 25th birthday. More than 60 pitchers, alone, under the age of 25 have made their big-league debuts in the last pwo years, according to baseball-reference.com.
So, the clock ticks loudly for older player like Lebron. He’s still in Advanced-A and two levels removed from achieving his major league dream. With each passing day, the odds get longer that he will one day make it. Yet he remains undeterred.
“I know my capabilities,” he said. “At the end of the day, 95 is still 95 [on a radar gun]. All that matters is that you can go out and pitch. You can’t make the game bigger than what it is.”
Lebron’s ability to command four pitches (fastball, curveball, slider, changeup) and his poise under duress might help him move up the ladder faster.
“He got a late start. This is his first full season [as a professional],” Keys manager Ryan Minor said. “I think people will take that into consideration when they evaluate him as a player.”
For now, Lebron is among the top starting pitchers in the Carolina League.
On Tuesday night, he’ll stand shoulder to shoulder with the other All-Stars.
It’s not a title that was preordained for him. For most of his life, he was told he was too short or too small or not good enough. His parents weren’t athletes, and his sister, Marilyn, never showed much interest in sports. So, there was no help from the gene pool.
Then, the injury happened, creating a long and difficult road of rehab. There were no guarantees the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Lebron would ever play again at a high level.
“It’s a sign of maturity, perseverance,” Minor said. “That’s what you want to see. Some guys would throw in the towel right away.”
Lebron was never one of those guys, and that’s why he’s made it as far as he has in a game that hasn’t always been easy or loved him back.
“Every chance to put on jersey and play baseball, especially at this age, you have got to embrace it,” he said.