Jan Vesely’s magic moment came when he kissed his girlfriend on ESPN and shook hands with NBA commissioner David Stern. Bobby Lucas‘ magic moment came when he attended a pre-game reception at Nationals Park and shook hands with team owner Mark Lerner.
Consider that yet another difference - about No. 53 - between NBA draftees and their MLB counterparts.
Granted, Vesely (introduced Monday at a news conference) was selected by the Washington Wizards with the sixth pick overall, while Lucas was tabbed by the Nats with the 817th pick. Doesn’t matter. Baseball’s top picks also experience a sliver of the attention and high life that’s heaped upon newly minted NBAers. Even the Bryce Harpers and Stephen Strasburgs head toward relative anonymity after the draft, sent to toil in outposts such as Hagerstown and Harrisburg.
Lucas, a left-handed pitcher out of George Washington University, enjoyed a special night with the Nats’ brass a week after the draft. The 27th-round pick met fellow alum Lerner and was recognized during an alumni event. Lucas had signed his contract that day and carried it with him. Lerner joked that he would personally deliver it to general manager Mike Rizzo.
“That was pretty cool,” said Lucas, who led the Atlantic 10 with 95 strikeouts this year. “Mr. Lerner came up to me and said hello and we talked and got to know each other. That was one of the coolest things about being drafted.”
It surely can’t compare to being feted in New York for a couple of days and strolling across a stage like Vesely did. But that figures, since “cool” and “MLB” are rarely in the same sentence unless you’re discussing weather.
Take Lucas‘ experience. The day after GWU’s reception, he flew to Florida and reported to the Nats’ Gulf Coast League team in Viera, Fla. He’s been working long, hot days ever since, from 6:30 a.m. until 4 in the afternoon. He’s sharing a hotel room with a teammate. When he doesn’t pitch, he still has to practice and train.
“There are not many off days,” he said. “It’s like a regular job, showing up to play and getting paid. But I’m enjoying it. It’s what I wanted.”
He’s an anomaly in that regard, an African-American from the inner city who plays pro baseball. Only 8.5 percent of major leaguers on opening day this year were African-Americans, compared to more than 80 percent in the NBA.
“It was me, all by myself once I started playing on better teams in the suburbs,” said Lucas, who began at 10 on a Baltimore recreation team. “I was the only black guy on my high school team until my junior year. And all through college I was the only African-American on GW’s team.”
But he isn’t alone in dealing with facts faced by every high school and college baseball player: Their sport offers no glamour and little glory compared to the hardwood and gridiron. The biggest stars there are renowned before draft day and often make an impact within months - whereas it usually takes years for a baseball draftee.
“I have a long way to go before I can even consider myself close to being a major leaguer,” said Lucas, who has seven strikeouts and four walks in three innings as a pro. “At the end of the day, being drafted put me at the next step to weed myself out from the rest.”
He’ll have to untangle himself from a thick field. There were 1,530 players drafted this month, and statistics suggest a mere 153 will ever spend one day in the majors. Conversely, Vesely was among 60 players drafted last week, and half of them virtually are guaranteed at least a couple of years in the league.
With his 24th birthday approaching in August, Lucas is older than most in his class. He said his fastball is 88-92 mph and his “out” pitch is the slider. He’s working on consistent command and a changeup and likes his chances to pitch for the Nats.
“I’m not competing with everybody in the organization,” he said. “Just the other left-handers.”