From "cant-miss" to campus: Chris Lubanski embraces life at Penn
After walking away from baseball, the former Royals top prospect has moved on to a potential career in academia
April 22, 2014, 6:14 pm · Updated April 23, 2014, 11:29 am·
There’s an old turn of phrase about baseball, first penned by former MLB commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti, that goes something like: It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.
It’s true. One click on baseball-reference.com, and you can find yourself lost for hours in lists of thousands of has-beens, never-weres, cups of coffee and AAAA players that washed out of the Majors.
But the game didn’t break Chris Lubanski’s heart.
“The great cartel that baseball has on its players is that people are willing to chase the dream,” he laughs.
The $2 million signing bonus negotiated by superagent Scott Boras? Long stashed away. The Gatorade National Player of the Year Award? A happy memory. The AAA All-Star Game selection? A jersey in a picture frame on a wall.
And nowadays, he couldn’t be happier chasing a new dream at Penn.
A new passion
Do baseball and politics mix? Depends on whom you talk to.
If you’re a politician, the national pastime is best viewed as a quick photo op or a chance to boost national morale — remember the roar of Yankee Stadium as George Bush threw out the first pitch of the post-9/11 World Series in New York?
But it’s not normally a two-way street.
Unless you’re Jim Bunning, the former Kentucky senator better known for pitching a perfect game against the Mets than any particular legislative accomplishment, baseball players typically find disaster after wading into the world of politics.
Just ask former Oriole Luke Scott — now playing in Korea — how those Obama birther comments worked out.
Today, though, Lubanski feels more at home than ever in the realm of politics and the field of study that surrounds it. He’s a political science major in the School of Liberal and Professional Studies, interning through Penn’s Think Tanks and Civil Societies program and working with Dr. Dan Vining at the Population Studies Center.
“You know, I’ve found a new passion in research,” he said. “I love research, I love constantly learning.”
When drafted by the Kansas City Royals with the 5th overall pick in the 2003 draft, Lubanski had a clause inserted into his contract that obligated the franchise to pay for any post-playing career college education he might receive. After all, he had passed up scholarship offers from Florida State, LSU, Georgia Tech and Duke.
Now he’s putting that apparent throwaway clause to good use.
But in the meantime, before Lubanski’s ultimate goal of a Ph.D. can become a reality, he writes — a lot.
Aidan McConnell didn’t know Chris’ claim to fame.
OK, he says he’d have figured it out in a week or so, but how was the College sophomore supposed to know that the 28-year-old applying to write for him was a professional baseball player — despite looking not a pound over his playing weight?
Still, the editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian’s resident political blog, The Red & The Blue, knew he had found someone valuable.
“I had no idea who this guy was,” McConnell recalls. “I just knew he was outspoken on certain beliefs ... and he had a lot of good things to say.”
After a brief life talk at Starbucks, Lubanski was on board and immediately got to work opining.
His first post — an analysis of the botched Obamacare rollout — displayed turns of phrase faster than the bat that got him named to the Baseball America Top 100 Prospects list.
“Mr. President, with all due respect, a glitch playing Candy Crush can not be compared to the glitches that can affect someone’s potential health,” read the post.
And he’s just as apt citing healthcare.gov data as he is at recalling his own statistics — name a year, and he can give you his batting average and home run totals.
“He’s been one of the better contributors to the blog,” McConnell lauds. “He’s not afraid to be a little controversial.”
There’s a hidden benefit to going into college at 27 — you get a head start on life.
“If I went to college out of high school, I would have been a totally different student — not that I didn’t care about education, but education was definitely to the back seat of baseball,” Lubanski says.
“And now, going through baseball, I know how important education is, and I just have a newfound love for it.”
Along for the ride
Despite taking a back seat, education still came along for the ride during Lubanski’s playing career, whether it was in the form of a book’s pages glistening under the dim reading lights of a team bus or a magazine article stashed away in a locker during batting practice.
“You do get to a point where you plateau intellectually if you’re not keeping up with it, and I felt that,” he recalled. “So I did start early in my career, 20, 21, just getting back into [learning], so I really think that helped in my transition from baseball to school, [in that] for five, six years, I was intellectually stimulated.
“So I wasn’t just going from doing nothing for 10 years to ‘Oh, shit!’”
And that quiet intellectualism didn’t go unnoticed in the clubhouse, a locale better known for hot-foots and fart jokes than scholarly debates.
“His areas of interests were kind of varied,” laughs Ed Lucas, a former teammate of Lubanski’s at four separate stops in the minor leagues. “But he was very dedicated to that cause of making sure that he was doing something to enhance his mind every day.
“Chris is a very intelligent guy, and I think there was a chip on his shoulder that he hadn’t gone to school, so he really wanted to prove to people that [education] was something in his future.”
A Dartmouth grad, Lucas was the perfect intellectual bedfellow for Lubanski when the two met during Single A ball in the bustling metropolis of Burlington, Iowa.
Yet their once-parallel careers have diverged sharply.
While Chris walked away from baseball, Lucas pushed forward, making his MLB debut with the Marlins last year and earning a spot on the club’s Opening Day roster this season.
Lucas still finds time to keep his mind sharp while rehabbing his way back from a hand injury — he does a crossword a day, sometimes more — yet he can’t help but invoke the “what if?” question when reflecting on his friend’s career.
“You hear stories all the time about guys who [say] — maybe their careers were in pro ball, or they got ‘screwed’ in college or ‘screwed’ in high school — ‘I tore my knee and it put me off course,’ and you kind of just grin and chuckle and agree with them,” he says.
“But in Chris’ case, that’s really 100 percent the case. He was well on his way to getting called up.”
Adding injury...to injury
It was a mere 90 feet, run hundreds of times in a season, thousands of times in a career.
But it was the distance between home and first base that derailed Lubanski’s Major League dreams in 2009.
After being sent to AAA by the Royals in the last round of spring training cuts, Lubanski responded by hitting the cover off the ball, posting a .309 average after April with seven stolen bases. A call up to “the show” seemed inevitable.
But an attempt to beat out a routine ground ball in the hole spelled disaster.
“It just felt like someone took a shotgun and shot the back of my knee, popped my hamstring fully off the bone,” Lubanski winces.
“That was the end of my season,” he adds with a chuckle.
The healing process was delayed by another pop in the knee he felt while rehabbing at the Royals’ spring training complex — “I remember trying to take batting practice after that and I couldn’t even stand up.”
Unable to even bend down enough to pick up a tube of toothpaste at Target, Lubanski’s 2009 came to an end — and so too did his time with the Royals, who declined to re-sign him after his contract expired following the season.
After latching on with the Blue Jays in the offseason, Lubanski was assigned to Toronto’s AAA affiliate in Las Vegas and once again placed himself in position to make the big leagues, becoming the leading vote-getter in the fan ballot for the AAA All-Star Game.
“I knew the only thing that was going to stop this from happening was an injury,” he recollects.
Sure enough it happened again, this time a full tear of his oblique in his last at-bat before the All-Star break.
After getting off the DL, the call to the Bigs didn’t come, and it was all downhill from there.
A spring training tryout with the Marlins in 2011 was followed up by a disastrous stay in independent league ball (“The worst experience of my life”) and an overall feeling of burnout.
“You become a slave to the game, really,” he says. “You get drafted out of high school, you get drafted out of college and you play for so long that this is all you have.
“I didn’t want that. I wanted options. I didn’t want the game to own me.”
So after signing with the Phillies’ AA affiliate in Reading and smacking his final home run with his father in the stands, Lubanski walked away.
‘Half the teachers I had in high school are dead’
Though leaving baseball behind was easy for Lubanski — “I’ve never really looked back” — finding his way back into college was a different story.
“You know, no one’s accepting 25-27 year olds with 10-year-old SAT scores, and half the teachers I had in high school are dead,” he laughs.
Unable to fill out the Common App due to its high-school-centric questions, Lubanski sent out emails to every school in a two-hour radius, eventually ending up at Villanova after the Dean of Students recognized Lubanski’s name from his old exploits just outside Philadelphia at Kennedy-Kenrick High School.
But even in his first day of summer school, Lubanski couldn’t quite escape baseball.
Sitting down in his theology class, a familiar face sitting down in the seat in front of him turned out to be Kevin Mulvey, a pitcher who had briefly played for the Twins and Diamondbacks after years as a top prospect for the Mets.
Suffice it to say, the “get-to-know-you” game had unexpected results.
“[Mulvey says] ‘I played professional baseball,’ and I’m the next guy, and I’m like, ‘No one’s gonna believe that I played professional baseball,’” Lubanski says. “I was like, ‘Well, my name’s Chris Lubanski, and wouldn’t you know, I also played professional baseball.’’
As the class’ laughter subsided, a friendship formed.
“We talked about everything. We both were kind of in the same boat on everything,” Mulvey reflects. “We both were in the same part of our life, close to the same age. He actually got married while we were in the class, and then I got married later that year, in January.”
Despite hanging up his spikes, Mulvey and the game are still tied together — he’s Villanova’s pitching coach.
“I love the game of baseball, and hopefully I can be around it forever in some capacity,” he says. “I wouldn’t say the game of baseball defines me and my person, but I love the game and I love to be involved with it.”
An opportunity once came along for Lubanski to join the coaching staff alongside Mulvey back in that 2012 summer.
But as Lubanski was accepted into Penn, it fell by the wayside.
Back in the bright lights
The lights are bright, but they’re not shining on Lubanski anymore. He’s happy to blend into the background at the first-ever North American Think Tank Summit in Washington.
With representatives from 59 think tanks in attendance, Lubanski allows the spotlight to shine on the speaker’s podium while his crisp black suit blends in with the crowd alongside his fellow interns.
“We were there simply to note-take and stay out of the way,” he jokes.
And on the dark drive back to campus, Lubanski isn’t afraid to get philosophical with the undergrads along for the ride.
“If you told me at 18 that your future’s in research, in writing, in academia, I would have been like: ‘You’re crazy, my future’s in baseball, that’s all I care about,’” he says. “I mean, I was a good student in high school, I got good grades, but it wasn’t my priority.”
Now, a career in academia or at a think tank seems more real than ever.
“I always joke with my wife that if I could get paid to learn, that would be what I want to do,” Lubanski says.
But the life of the 29-year-old student does come with its share of difficulties. At a school where self-segregation is pre-eminent, there aren’t too many niches for married LPS students.
And though Lubanski has been involved with undergrad groups like The Red & The Blue, there are realities of his life that most of Penn’s student population simply can’t comprehend.
“My wife does like to see me once in a while,” he jokes.
But Lubanski is a part of the University, and the University is a part of him.
“I just don’t want to go here and be like: ‘Oh, I went to Penn,’” he says. “I want to be part of the university, be part of the fabric, any way I could — even as an old undergraduate.”
There’s still plenty of baseball left in the Lubanski bloodlines.
Chris’ younger brother, Mike, played for Wake Forest as a catcher before calling it a career to take a job at Pepsi, and his youngest brother, Joe, is a junior outfielder at Yale.
And though Joe doesn’t have any pro aspirations, the memories of Chris waking up at 6 a.m. before school to take hundreds of practice swings against a mattress in the basement are still fresh in his mind.
“[Chris] influenced my other brother and myself a lot,” Joe reflects. “We grew up with someone like Chris, who has a work ethic that not many people in this world probably have. And we learned that from my own parents, who both work two jobs, even today.
“For a while, I really wanted to use my baseball [ability] to get into a really good academic situation, and watching my brother, [I learned] it was going to take a lot of hard work, not just on the field, but in the classroom as well.”
And when talking about his little brothers’ aspirations, Chris’ face lights up like a kid on Opening Day.
“When I started going through my professional career and realized the ups and downs, I really started pushing to them: ‘Baseball could be your outlet, but let that get you into the best school you can get into,’” he says. “And I think they’ve both done that beautifully.”
After passing up the position at Villanova and a brief, unsuccessful sojourn as the head coach at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy —“I will never coach high school again” — Chris’ relationship with the game has been mostly relegated to that of spectator.
If the status quo holds, Yale will come to campus to play Penn for the Ivy League baseball title, and Chris will be in the stands, cheering Joe on.
The game doesn’t ever go away.
“20 years of my life was dedicated to it, I kind of have no choice,” Chris says. “It is always part of me.”