The temperature was back in the triple digits early on another sweltering Arizona afternoon as it neared time to head to the ballpark. But having traded in his hightops for cleats, Stephen Lumpkins – the former American University basketball standout who last month passed up his final season of eligibility to pursue a pro baseball career as a 6-foot-8 left-handed pitcher — did not mind.
“It’s real hot out here, but I like it better than the D.C. humidity,” Lumpkins said from the hotel room he shares with a teammate. “So I don’t think it’s too bad.”
A month ago, as the Major League Baseball first-year player draft neared, Lumpkins figured he was heading down a much different path.
But after his last workout, near his home in California, Lumpkins was invited to Kansas City for the Royals’ pre-draft workout.
He impressed enough that the Royals drafted him in the 13th round. Instead of suiting up for a college summer league in New Hampshire and trying to prove himself to a team that might have taken him later in the draft, Lumpkins quickly accepted the Royals’ offer of a $150,000 signing bonus and money to pay for his senior year of schooling.
He said he worried that if he did not pursue baseball now he might not get a similar chance.
He flew to Phoenix and joined the rookie-league Arizona Royals, where Lumpkins is acclimating himself to the life of a pro athlete, living at a hotel near the Royals’ spring training complex and getting ready to pitch every fifth day.
“The first couple days were just like paperwork and a physical [exam] and stuff like that and since then I’ve been at the ballpark every day,” Lumpkins said. “You get there at 2, have workouts and then a game every night. You’re pretty much there til 11 every night.”
At the same time, American basketball Coach Jeff Jones is trying to compensate for losing his leading returning scorer and rebounder at a time when it is nearly impossible to find a replacement for next season.
In addition to losing Lumpkins’s 13.5 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, Jones also smarted because he had turned away potential transfers who wanted to come to American but were unable because the Eagles did not have any scholarships available.
“It hasn’t been ideal,” said Jones, who had assumed Lumpkins would play in New Hampshire this summer and then return to American. “But I talked to Lump and he’s good with his decision and it’s something he really wanted to do. We don’t have a whole lot of say in it.”
Out in Arizona, while Lumpkins is learning the routine of being a pitcher — which includes plenty of down time and card games — the Royals are being careful to bring him along slowly.
Lumpkins’s inexperience made most scouts hesitant to select him early in the draft or offer him a significant signing bonus until they saw him pitch in a real game against real batters. The Royals, though, took a different approach. They saw his size and ability to throw a fastball near 90 mph with limited time on the mound and felt they had something.
Unlike the rest of the team’s pitching staff, Lumpkins has not had his throwing arm worked hard in recent years and the organization wants to build his strength while avoiding injury. His teammates who have thrown continuously for several years are set in their ways, so the Royals see an opportunity to mold Lumpkins into a starting pitcher.
“There is a lot of mileage on some of these arms, so with a fresh arm there is a lot of upside, especially when you’re 6-8,” said Carlos Reyes, the Arizona Royals’ pitching coach. “It’s nice, because he is raw, with a lot of ability. He’s a good kid and he listens. There’s a lot driving him, which is positive.”
For the time being, Lumpkins is getting a chance to learn the craft in relative anonymity. The Arizona League is considered instructional baseball; tickets are not sold to games and few fans attend. Lumpkins said that for his pro debut last week, only a handful of people were seated in a stadium with a capacity of 10,000.
The Royals had Lumpkins on a strict 45-pitch limit for the game, but he did not get that far. In one inning, Lumpkins threw 24 pitches and gave up two runs on four hits with one walk while also being charged with an error on a pickoff attempt. His next start, this past Saturday, went better: Lumpkins allowed two runs (one earned) on two hits and walked one in 22 / 3 innings.
Reyes said that Lumpkins’s pitch count should increase slowly as the season goes on, but that he has few expectations for Lumpkins other than “for him to get his feet wet and go from there.”
“I think I’m doing well,” Lumpkins said. “Obviously, it’s a completely different sport. Certain things you have to get used to. But for the most part, I think I’m adjusting.”