MILWAUKEE It was May 21, 2010 a little over two years ago now that Jonathan Lucroy crouched behind the plate at Target Field in Minneapolis, completely and utterly overwhelmed.
The young Brewers catcher wasn't supposed to be in the major leagues already. He had played just 21 games at the Triple-A level, but injuries and departures had blazed the path for his extraordinarily early arrival.
For Lucroy, then just 23, this had all happened a bit too fast. He didn't know how to do scouting reports. He didn't know how to do many of the things expected of a big league catcher.
"When I first got called up to the big leagues, it was really hard the most difficult time I've ever had in my life with this game," Lucroy said. "I don't think I was quite ready for it. I was force-fed, a trial-by-fire thing. but those type of trials, those helped me out. You have to learn from those. It was definitely a life lesson in how to handle failure."
Lucroy had never experienced much failure when it came to baseball. In college ball at Louisiana-Lafayette, he became one of the most successful players in school history. His No. 6 jersey at Umatilla (Fla.) High School was retired in 2011. And after he was selected in the third round of the MLB draft, Lucroy had been impressive at every level of the minor leagues.
But as difficult as the failures and the trials were in that first major league season Lucroy was woefully unaware of the intricacies of major league catching -- he had been prepared for this type of experience all his life. His father, Steve Lucroy, hadn't just primed him since a young age to play the game they both loved. He had done his best to prepare his son to deal with every aspect of the journey the setbacks and the successes. And during that first year in the clubhouse, Lucroy could see more than ever how important his father's advice had been.
"Just hang in there and battle and fight and prepare yourself the best you can," he told Lucroy. "Do whatever you have to get better. If you can just do those things, you're going to be OK. The talent is always there, it's the intangibles that make you stay there."
Steve Lucroy is, as his son describes him, a blue-collar man and a baseball guy who has taught his kids above all else to work hard and stay humble two of the reasons for Jonathan Lucroy's meteoric rise this season.
In the last month, Lucroy is batting an extraordinary .388 with a 1.026 OPS that puts him among the league's top sluggers. By comparison, Lucroy has a higher batting average and RBI total this month than Brewers star outfielder Ryan Braun. His .339 season batting average is good for 10th in major league baseball, second-highest among catchers.
And perhaps most impressive, Lucroy is hitting a major league-high .560 with runners in scoring position.
Through all of that success, Lucroy repeats over and over again, often unprompted, that he's not satisfied. That's just how he was raised.
"As well as he's doing, he's still hard on himself," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "It pushes him. As long as it doesn't interfere in the negative way, it's good."
Sitting next to his locker in the Brewers clubhouse on Monday, the day after his grand slam and seven RBI carried the team to a 16-4 victory, Lucroy admitted that he doesn't often give himself credit. After his debut 2010 season, Lucroy told reporters that he "stunk" and that his performance was "inexcusable" despite the fact that his adjustment to the major leagues was, by all accounts, much quicker than expected. But since he was a kid, he had always tried to emulate his father in his quest for continued improvement.
"He's always taught me that this game is such a roller-coaster game," Lucroy said. "It's so up and down. He told me to always be level-headed. If you can be level on your low days and level on your high days, you're going to be successful at this game. That's the one thing I really try to do. You can't be too high or too low. The higher you are, the farther you can fall."
He had already talked to his father twice on this particular day. Proud of his son's career game the night before, Steve Lucroy still made sure to remind him to remain humble. Remember that someone out there is working harder than you, he told Jonathan.
Now, with the valuable experience of more than a season and a half behind the plate, Lucroy is trying his best to make sure no one works harder than he does. Roenicke has batted his catcher in all but three spots in the lineup this season and trusted him at key moments in games. And through all the challenges, Lucroy's teammates have watched the backstop become the team's most consistent hitter.
"He's been showcasing his talent pretty much all year," right fielder Corey Hart said. "He's been one of our bright spots."
To Lucroy, that just means he has more to prove. Even with a recently signed contract extension keeping him in Milwaukee until at least 2016, it's hard not to believe him when he insists he still has to earn his spot.
"A lot of guys get to the big leagues, but not many stay here," he said.
The truth is, Jonathan Lucroy is already one of the major league's top up-and-coming catchers even if he won't admit it.
"The way I grew up, it was ingrained in me to always be working hard, never be content with what you do," Lucroy said. "That's what my dad always made me believe, and that's how I've always played. Nothing is ever good enough. The moment you get content is the moment you start failing. ... And that means you're going to fail your team."
It's safe to say that moment hasn't arrived yet.
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