It's under this unique pressure that Jeremiah Luster presents some confidence in his upcoming season. "Thing have been going really well," he says. "I've been seeing the ball really well, making solid contact. I've been working hard, trying to move up."
For a player who will turn 21 in August, it's been a surprisingly difficult trek for Luster. Hobbled by injuries and other issues, the young player has only played in 54 games over 3 seasons, collecting just 151 official at-bats in a time where some players have collected three times that in a single season.
This wasn't what was expected when Luster was drafted in 2004. Luster came out of the same area that produced 2004's top draft pick Matt Bush, and at least one National League Scout ranked him as the 2nd best player behind Bush coming out of the area. Luster's natural athleticism and love for the game drove him. And it's always been his athleticism that drove him.
"I started playing little league when I was six years old. I was playing, but I wasn't really good,"Luster says. "My mom wouldn't let me play Pop Warner because she always said that I was too small, it was too dangerous." When drafted, Luster was listed at a generous 5'11" and 175 pounds, but he hasn't let his height work against him.
In high school, Luster was a star both on the field and on the mound. He had always been an infielder, but in his junior year he was asked to pitch, and pitched 20 innings in relief. His senior year he started, and he had a 0.98 ERA with 9 walks against 82 strikeouts in 50 innings. He hit .494 with 8 home runs and 20 stolen bases. One day, he threw a no-hiter, struck out 14 (in a 7 inning game) and homered.
But even as success came in high school, he was still a very raw player.
"To tell you the truth, I didn't know anything about it [pitching],"Luster said of his days on the mound. "When I was pitching, I didn't even know how to cover first on a routine ground ball. I didn't even know, I would just stand there and just watch them. I had no clue, because I was just trying to strike everybody out and throw as hard as I could. It was fun, I liked being in control of the game 100%."
"I started taking baseball really serious when my cousin B.J. got drafted. When B.J. got drafted then I was like, okay well, at least I can go out and do the same thing he's doing," Luster says, talking about his cousin, Tampa Bay Devil Rays outfielder B.J. Upton.
Things went well, and Luster was recognized for his natural ability, being drafted in the 18th round of the 2004 draft. Despite being just 17 most of that season, he was noted by Baseball America as having the strongest infield arm in the system that year.
But that's when things changed.
Injuries robbed Luster of most of his debut season. And then in 2005, some off the field issues (non-drug related) resulted in a organization suspension, and he never got back on track after that.
"The first year I got hurt, sat out the whole second half. The second year I got suspended, so I was out the whole second half, came back and struggled bad. So last year was like my first full season,"he said of the 2006 season. "I didn't play too much… Going from extended into the season, I was like 9 for 13, really hot, and then the first game of the season I wasn't in the lineup, and I was like ‘What's going on?' The second day I was in the lineup, I got one at-bat and then taken out of the game. We had a lot of rehab guys down, so they had to get ready to play."
The result has been a 3 year career in which Luster has only had 151 at-bats, and played just 54 games. In 2005 in particular, he played just 12 games and batting .056. None of his power has shown through, and even his amazing speed has not had time to develop.
But that hasn't stopped Luster. Where many other players might have faltered under perceived failure, Luster looks at the past three years as growth.
"It was just a learning experience. I thank God, because it happened early in my career. I thank the Giants that they did what they did, because I feel like it made me a better person. It's developed me as a man. Let alone a baseball player, but I've become a better man because of it."
Having one of the baseball's biggest names helping him gain some perspective has helped Luster.
"The other day, first day out here, Felipe Alou was like ‘You wear the Giants uniform 24 hours a day. It's not just coming to the field, it's at the hotel, it's at the mall, it's at the restaurant, it's wherever. It's a 24 hour thing.' And I didn't know that my first couple of years," he says. "We're representing our family, like he said, our last name on our jersey and our number."
Luster's offseason has also been different for him, and working with another of baseball's all-time greats.
"I just worked on the basics of hitting. I got to work with Tony Gwynn in the offseason, hitting down at San Diego State. And Jacque Jones helped out a lot, Damien Jackson, Mark Kotsay was down there, Anthony Gwynn, so I was working out with them," Luster says of his offseason. "This past offseason was the first time that I actually learned how to work out and get actually prepared baseball-wise, and it's showing this year."
However, Luster may have been helped the most in an unlikely way, by helping to teach others. "I was working at a middle school, so I stopped just to try and spend time at the school, so I started hitting in the evening with some 12-year olds. And you know, when you're teaching 12-year olds to hit, you teach them the basics. You gotta get your front foot down and take your hands back." After working with the kids, he thought, "You know what, I'll just go back to the basics, start from just day 1 and work from there. It's working out really well though.
"I'm learning like a little kid, but it's cool."
So with 2007 around the corner, it's like a new career is opening up for Luster. With almost no expectations, the 20-year old isn't worried about whether he'll finally get to play outside of Arizona, be it in extended spring training or the Arizona Summer League he has called home the last three years."I'm going to go out there and give it all I got, every pitch. Not take a pitch off. I'm just going to leave it in God's hands, and give it 100%. Wherever I go, I go, and wherever I am, that's just where I'm supposed to be. Wherever I go, I'm going to try and help my team to win."
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