American Association Daily provides insights and features on the American Association of Professional Baseball League, as well as player and coaching profiles and transactions going on with teams around the league. In today’s edition, we feature former American Association star Jake Luce, who has redefined himself following a tragic incident in 2015, who used the incident to become better prepared to play baseball – both mentally and physically – than he had ever been before.
Introducing Jake Luce
Hall of Fame third baseman George Brett was once asked what he would like his last at-bat to be before he retired. The three time batting champion wasn’t looking for an epic home run, or a hit that won his team the World Series. Instead, he wanted the kind of plate appearance that left a lasting impression on the youth of today.
“I want to hit a routine grounder to second and run all out to first base,” the Hall of Famer began, “Then get thrown out by a half step. I want to leave an example to the young guys that that’s how you play the game: ALL OUT.”
No single quote could have more accurately described the play of outfielder Jake Luce, who has battled hard in every pitch, every at-bat, and every game of his professional career, not allowing challenges and injuries to determine where he will ultimately play baseball one day. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that it is his own work ethic and commitment to his craft that has defined who is as an athlete, teammate, and person in general.
Baseball Was All He Ever Wanted to Do
Since he was three-years-old, baseball had become the passion for Jake Luce. Not only did it give him a chance to play a sport he truly loved, but it also offered the chance to spend time with the biggest influence in his life – his dad.
“Baseball was always my first love. It was the classic story of my dad always getting up before work ever since I was three-years-old, and we would go hit, we would go hit balls off the tee before he even went to work. We’re talking at like 6:30, 6 o’clock in the morning. It was always kind of predicated on my dad. Just trying to get out with him in the yard before he went to work was the coolest thing for me.”
While Jake starred in football for Allen High School (Texas), making the varsity team as a sophomore, baseball was what he wanted to play, and there was no doubt in his mind that when he graduated he was going to a college where he could follow his passion.
“I had the opportunity to play football in college but there was never a question of what I was going to do in college. That was baseball; it’s always been baseball. Baseball has taught me so much. It’s taught me how to be humble, it’s taught me how to be compassionate, and it’s taught me how to figure out who I am as a person. It’s taught me how to be disciplined. It’s always been about baseball.”
Giving It the Old College Try
Jake Luce wanted to play college baseball, but his father made it clear to him that if he was going to follow his dream, he was going to have to earn that chance. The McKinney, Texas native would have to earn himself scholarships through his own drive and determination. That proved to be one of the best lessons he ever received.
“My dad never handed me anything, and I think the lessons that he taught me growing up have really helped me push through the tough times in minor league baseball because, if I would have not worked as hard or if I would have let all of those moments define me, I would not be having this conversation.”
Jake attended junior college for a year before transferring to Jefferson College (Hillsboro, MO). There, he met coach Sam Carel who the outfielder describes as “one of the best coaches” he ever had.
He spent two years at Jefferson before catching the attention of the coaching staff at Elon University (N.C.). Luce spent two seasons playing ball for the Phoenix, hitting .277 in 2011 and .316 in 2012. In his 98 career at-bats, he hit 28 doubles, 7 triples, and 3 home runs. Of his 54 career hits, 38 were for extra-bases and he added 36 walks. He was having great success doing what he truly loved to do – hit.
“I love hitting. There is no better feeling than getting in the box and having a good day at the plate.”
While the offensive numbers were impressive, it was in the field where he was really standing out. In his junior season he made four errors in 51 games, but did not make a single error in his senior season. Jake had always made defense a key part of his game, something his dad made clear to him early on in life. “My dad always told me that defense is non-negotiable.”
Reaching for the Stars
While playing professional baseball had been the dream of Jake Luce since he was three, seeing that become a reality was a different story. Coming out of high school he recognized that he was not the best player, but he also knew that he was not going to be outplayed by anyone on his team or any other team for that matter. “I always believed that my work ethic and my discipline would get me a shot.”
After graduating, that shot came when the Amarillo Sox (American Association) signed Jake to a contract. He was told by Manager John Harris that he would likely not be seeing a lot of playing time but, within a week, he was the everyday centerfielder. Luce hit .211 in 27 games, playing outstanding defense, making just one error.
Luce was prepared to return to Amarillo the following season, but Harris was relieved of his managerial duties in December, and the outfielder became part of the purge. That led to him moving to Rockford (Frontier League) in 2013.
In 2014, his career took off. Jake began the season playing for Brownsville (United League), where he hit .294 in 45 games. After the United League season ended, former Wichita Wingnuts Manager Kevin Hooper signed Luce for the remainder of the season. That move proved to be another brilliant acquisition by Hooper.
In 34 games, the outfielder hit .341 with 25 runs scored and 16 RBI. He helped the Wingnuts to win the American Association title, as Wichita set a league record for wins in a season (73).
His two months in Wichita was a turning point in the outfielder’s career. Not only did he have his best professional season, but the mentoring he received from the stars on the team dramatically changed his approach to the sport.
“The confidence was there with the success I had in Wichita, being able to win a minor-league championship, and be a part of a winning team playing for Kevin. Just being around guys who played in the big leagues, they kind of instilled a lot of confidence in me. Being around guys like Brent Clevlen, Dennis Phipps, Victor Diaz, those are guys who were constantly telling me that I had a shot; that the ball sounded kind of different coming off my bat. Once I got around those guys that’s when the confidence started and I really believed, ‘Ok, I’ve got a real shot at this thing.’”
A Golden Opportunity
Along the way, many had doubted that Jake Luce would play professional baseball, but he proved to them he had what it took when the Baltimore Orioles signed him following the 2014 American Association season. His numbers were quite impressive, and the Orioles gave him that shot.
The outfielder went to Spring Training where he proved to himself and others that he had what it took to compete at the highest level. That included impressing then Baltimore Orioles closer Tommy Hunter.
“The last at-bat that I had in spring training was against Tommy Hunter. I got a base hit off of him and I talked with him afterwards and he asked me if I was that Indy ball guy and I said, ‘Ya, that’s me.’ He then asked me if I was looking for that fastball and I told him I was and he said, ‘That’s how you make the big leagues.’ That moment right there was pretty cool because that was an established big league closer that kind of gave me props. That’s still something that I hold onto.”
Despite the big moment, the Orioles released him the following day. Jake then racked up some frequent flyer miles, starting the season with the Florence Freedom (Frontier League) before being traded to Bridgeport and then Lancaster in the Atlantic League. After nine games in Lancaster, he was traded to the Sioux Falls Canaries (American Association).
A Tragedy Becomes a Blessing
It had been quite a whirlwind summer for Jake Luce by the time he reached Sioux Falls, but it was about to get a lot more dramatic. Just 14 games into his stay with the Canaries, the outfielder was hit in the face by a pitch. The incident was life transforming for Jake, but not in the way that many would think.
“It’s probably the best thing that ever happened to me. When you’re laying there and everything is in a fog, in a haze, you kind of experience every baseball players worst possible nightmare and that’s getting hit by a fastball in the head or in the face, because there have been guys who lost their lives doing that or who had some serious injuries or serious issues. I think it was the best thing that ever happened to me because what it forced me to do, God obviously had this happen for a reason, and I had two choices. Either I could let it define me or I could define the moment. So, what I decided to do was think this is what happened, and I have to make a decision upon whether I’m going let this make me better or if I’m going to let this let everybody write me off.”
That sounds like it would be a lot easier said than done, but one thing that Jake realized right away is that the biggest nightmare a baseball player faces did not break him.
“It was pretty incredible because I basically turned everything around from that moment. When you completely lose the ability to move your body – they had to bring the ambulance and I was out – I realized that I was going to be okay. When you have that experience and you live your life differently afterwards I think it honestly was the best thing that ever happened.”
Seizing on the Opportunity to Grow
This incident would have ended the career of most baseball players, but Jake Luce was not going to let this event define him. He returned home and spent time running his business, Luce Prospect Group, LLC, which helps high school athletes earn college scholarships.
For much of 2016, he focused on helping these young men to reach their dreams. It was not long before he realized that assisting them was actually helping himself.
“Being able to serve others is the biggest motivator that there is. Looking out for those kids, realizing that you can have an impact on these kids, that was huge. I probably wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the company. When you can take a kid and you can help them believe in himself and get him to a point where he was at this point but now, because he believes himself and he has that confidence that he had to learn and continue to learn, he is now a top prospect, that is the best motivation of all. You take a kid who has an average skill set but who believes in himself, then he can become one of the better players on his team. I’ve been doing this since 2014, and we’ve had a hundred percent success rate in helping athletes get college scholarships.”
Helping these young men inspired Luce to get back on the field, so he headed for the California Winter League in 2017. There, he hit .356 in 16 games with 9 runs and 12 RBI. His success earned him a return to the American Association, signing with the Texas AirHogs. Sadly, Jake got off to a slow start and, with the team struggling, he was released after 18 games.
This could easily have been the last straw. Jake had given it his best shot, and he had a successful business to return to. No one would have blamed him if he opted to go back to Texas and focus on that. No one but Luce himself. Instead, he decided that it was time to double his efforts and take another run. It was time to define a whole new way of doing things.
“I got released by the AirHogs on June 9 and I decided I was not going to let this define my career. I started training again. My trainer back home, John Kasa, basically I told him t0 do whatever you need me to do to become the best athlete I could be and he worked with me for a year and so here I am of the California Winter League and I feel better than I ever have. I’m running better than I ever have, and I’m in better shape than I’ve ever been. More importantly, mentally and confidence-wise I’m better than I ever have been and so I think that’s made the biggest difference. It’s not necessarily the physical tools, it’s more the mental side, the mental approach, the discipline, and understanding what I need to do as a player to be successful.”
A Player and a Leader
This winter, Jake Luce returned to the California Winter League where he hit .333 in 16 games. He scored 7 runs and drove in 8, helping his team to reach the playoffs. It was another successful campaign in the Golden State, but it was also an opportunity to be more of a leader. It was an opportunity to mentor the young players on his team as others had done for him.
“I try to bring a sense of calm, a sense of leadership where I try to do the things that a Brent Clevlen did for me, that a Victor Diaz to me, which is to just simplify everything. As baseball players, there is a lot of down time and there is a lot of opportunity to think about certain things that you probably shouldn’t be thinking about. But what I have noticed about this game is that it is about simplifying everything. It’s also about trusting what you’ve worked on. I have been hitting a baseball since I was three, four-years-old with a broken chair leg and my dad would toss me tennis balls when I could barely walk. I know how to do that and I think, as baseball players, we forget who we are. I think that for me, running the business, being around people that need my help, and being able to serve and give back to others, that has helped me to find out who I am as a person. It’s made me a much better player.”
A lot of people have helped to make Jake Luce into the player he is today, one who should be on an affiliate roster or back in independent ball by April or May. No matter where he winds up, you can be sure of one thing. Every time he steps to the plate, his teammates, opposing players, and fans are going to see how the game of baseball was meant to be played by anyone’s definition.
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA