Lucas O'Rear, Northern Iowa March Hero, Thrown a Curveball at MLB Draft
"I never thought the 13th round was in the equation, no way," O'Rear told FanHouse Tuesday night.
"I would like to think the Reds took a chance on me. I don't think it's really sunk in yet, kind of like after we beat Kansas. It's probably going to take a few days, but It's also going to be fun to see how far I can take this."
Let's backtrack just for a moment before discussing professional baseball, a dream of O'Rear's but not one he figured to seriously chase before the Reds selected him as a pitcher in the 13th round. The telephone call came, not only 24 hours earlier than O'Rear expected, but as he lifted weights as part of Northern Iowa's offseason strength and conditioning program.
College fans certainly remember O'Rear, UNI's 6-foot-7, 256-pound power forward and enforcer who helped the Panthers upset NCAA tournament favorite Kansas on the way to a Cinderella Sweet 16 run last March.
O'Rear, 21, was a fan favorite, a March Madness icon known for his colorful personality, high energy and toughness. Chants of "Luuuuke" often filled the arena when O'Rear, the team's valuable sixth man, dunked, played defense and banged bodies.
He embraced the dirty work with an infectious grin, and the Nashville, Ill., native has won back-to-back Missouri Valley Conference Sixth Man of the Year awards.
Many people outside of Cedar Falls, Iowa, however, probably didn't realize that O'Rear was also an accomplished right-handed pitcher who threw in the low-90s. Or maybe that O'Rear's father, Michael, briefly played in the St. Louis Cardinals organization years ago.
As a sophomore at UNI in 2009, O'Rear made 10 appearances and fanned 15 batters in 17.1 innings with a 4.67 ERA. Thanks for the memories.
UNI made the decision to drop its baseball program at the end of the 2009 season, projecting a large cut in its athletic department funding due to poor economic conditions and cutbacks in state government funding.
Talk about a kick in the rear.
"It was tough, and that's the last time you could probably say I really threw to live hitters in [game pressure] situations," O'Rear said.
"And I couldn't really tell you what pitches make me the most effective, especially now. I am still raw and there's not a lot of what you would call polish to my pitches."
O'Rear, however, never lost his itch to pitch. Or his touch. He played briefly last summer for the Rochester (Minn.) Honkers of the Northwoods League, making four appearances and not allowing a run.
Yet, he still displayed enough promise to get invited to participate in Perfect Game USA's 2010 Pre-Draft Showcase in May, throwing off a side mound. O'Rear admitted that his velocity was down due to a lack of preparation.
Keep in mind the Panthers' basketball season went a tad longer than most expected, a fact not lost on fellow players at the Showcase. As O'Rear strolled in the dugout at Veterans Memorial Stadium with an UNI sweatshirt on, there double-takes and stares before somebody finally asked O'Rear if he was, well, O'Rear.
The same guy who helped UNI beat Kansas?
"That's when the guys started to tell me that we ruined their bracket," O'Rear said, laughing.
O'Rear also worked out with the Reds in Cincinnati on June 2 with nearly 40 other players, throwing in front of the organization's brass and scouts.
Again, O'Rear didn't think he made a great impression since his control was inconsistent and velocity was down. He honestly figured to be drafted during Wednesday's rounds, perhaps even as late as the 50th and final round.
"I don't want to say it's crazy but I was pretty surprised and excited," O'Rear said.
O'Rear said he talked briefly with a Cincinnati representative late Tuesday afternoon, and O'Rear is hopeful he can play professional baseball this summer and return to UNI to pursue his senior year in basketball.
This is not a surprise.
The Panthers' magical season won't soon be forgotten, if ever.
"You know, we had such a great season fun-wise and such a great season record-wise," O'Rear said. "We just went out and played our style of ball, and we really weren't worried about winning or losing, just working and playing hard and having fun.
"I think that approach was important and a key to our success."