UPDATED: Thursday, July 22 at 11:03 p.m.
By Jon Mettus
Jim Lazor sat outside his godson’s apartment, waiting to take him to work. Cal Becker was 20 and living on his own in an apartment he had finally scrounged up enough money to afford.
Every day, the greeting was the same.
“‘What the f—- happened to you,’” Cal recalls Jim saying. “‘God, you’re a loser. What the f—-? You had so much promise.’”
The pair was on its way to a job site to do work for Lazor’s company, Lazor Construction. For Cal, that meant days of jack hammering concrete, ripping up dry wall and whatever else the job called for.
Not the typical life for a person that just turned 20 that colleges were begging to come to their school a year earlier.
• • •
Cal was the athletically gifted kid that blew it all away.
He was once named one of the Top 100 high school players by Baseball America. He played on the prestigious Area Code team and earned a scholarship to play baseball at the University of California Berkeley — just 20 minutes away from his hometown of Marin County, California.
But a failed semester of summer school at Berkeley started a downward spiral. The next three years were dotted with semesters at three different schools (two junior colleges) in Florida and California. He was kicked out of his own house and forced to sleep on couches.
Cal had come to terms with getting his contractors license and working in that field for the rest of his life.
“I’ll just be the f—— kid in my town that f—– up with baseball, but I’d have a successful construction company and, you know, that’s not the end of the world,” he thought.
But with a little persistence and a little luck, Cal got a chance to play baseball again, starting in Cotuit last year. Back in front of the scouts that had given him such high praise three years earlier.
A promise from Kettleers head coach Mike Roberts earned Cal a second year in Cotuit in 2016. The second year, earned him a contract.
Cal agreed to a free agent deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks last week over the phone on the bus ride home from his last start. He signed it on Thursday to finally start his professional career.
“I’ve failed. I’ve succeeded. I’ve done things the right way, the wrong way,” Cal said. “… In the grand scheme of things, I took the weirdest route possible and I’m so grateful for it.”
• • •
College never really seemed to work out for Cal.
The failed summer session at Berkeley was a screw-up, but he called the coaches at Miami — another school that had been heavily recruiting him — to tell them he made a mistake. He should have gone to Miami all along. He wanted another chance.
But when Cal arrived in Florida in the spring, he found out he wasn’t eligible to play because Berkeley paid for his summer school. So he stayed in Miami and went to a nearby junior college with plans to become a Hurricane in the fall.
The scholarship Miami offered Cal for the 2013-2014 school year was less than the one offered a year prior, he said, so he couldn’t afford to go. He returned home to California to attend Riverside Community College.
Cal was heading out for his third appearance of the season when he stepped awkwardly off the bullpen mound and suffered a high ankle sprain, ending his season.
He went to the Lazor’s, the closest thing he had to a home. Back to Marin County, where posting on social media stressed him out and going to the local bar was his biggest nightmare because of what had become of his life.
“I really had no idea what I was going to do next,” Cal said.
• • •
Cal and his best friend Jordan —Jim’s son — were building a three-story, “at least 4,000 square feet” deck that was positioned on a hill while working for Jim’s construction company.
It was up to the two of them to move the 800-pound frame that was still frozen because it had just gotten off the shipping train, down 80 steps. They tried carrying, they started sliding it, and eventually both “probably” threw out their backs in the process.
It was tough, but it was work.
After Cal dropped out of Berkeley, he became fully independent from his parents. He slept on friends’ couches before landing on one at the Lazor’s house.
“It was a big sorry loser time for me,” Cal said, describing himself as a “bum loser.” But he became a de facto part of the Lazor family in the process.
He dove headfirst into the construction industry, preparing for it to be the rest of his life. Cal’s turned himself from a baseball player into a “mass brawler” with big legs, big arms and big belly.
There were plenty of fights at the construction yards. Cal needed to get respect, but most of all, he needed to be able to defend himself and “beat a–” if he needed to.
Spurred by the conversations with his godfather, Cal started working out in the mornings before work and he became the pitching coach at his high school, Redwood High School, where he pitched for the first time as a junior.
He was out the door by 6 a.m., even if it took three alarms to make that happen. From the gym to the construction yard. From the construction yard to field. Practice didn’t end until 6 p.m., but at least he was able to get his throwing in.
If Cal were lucky, he’d treat himself to a dip in the hot tub at the end of the day. But that was when he felt the burn of the gashes he sustained working on “projects from hell” and the soreness caused by the workouts.
“It’s always been grind, grind, grind, grind, grind. That’s just in his blood,” Jordan said. “… He calls it hardnosed and that’s it in a nutshell.”
• • •
It was in Cotuit on June 10, 2015 that Cal made his first start in three years. He was still big, like a construction worker, and sported a Golden State Lumber T-shirt as he warmed up.
Roberts, the Cotuit manager, had never seen Cal play. He didn’t even know who he was. But weeks of incessant phone calls and text messages by Cal, earned him a shot to play with the best college players in the country.
“I don’t know,” Roberts laughed, explaining why he let Becker on the team. “I wanted to give him a shot. I trusted my gut.”
Cal came to the Cape Cod boasting about his six or seven pitches and with a workout regimen that Roberts referred to as “California garbage.” He played in four games, pitched 5 1/3 innings, giving up nine hits and five runs, and was released two weeks after his only start.
But Roberts left Cal with a laundry list of changes to make that included stretching, cardio and starting Pilates. Do them all and there’d be a spot on the 2016 Cotuit roster waiting for him.
Though he was nervous to do it, Cal came back to the Kettleers almost 30 pounds lighter than the year prior, looking less like a football player and more appropriate for his chosen sport.
He pitched in seven games — four starts — and struck out 15 batters in 16 1/3 innings. His earned run average was 3.85 instead of a team-worst 8.43 a year earlier.
“Cal has grown up a lot,” Roberts said after a game on June 24 — the same day Becker was cut in 2015. “He really ought to be a pro player, he deserves it. He really has outworked a lot of people.”
• • •
Cal sprints from left to right, from one foul pole to the other at Lowell Park, curving his path with the outfield fence.
It’s a hot day in early July and he’s the only player at the park, aside from three others playing a version of golf with fungo bats — used for practice — and baseballs that Becker has to dodge.
He jogs backward, lightly, to start his run again.
At 23 years and 1 month old, Cal was the second-oldest player in the Cape League. A fourth MLB draft passed him by in June. But in the 11th hour of the free agency period, he got his shot.
During those car rides with his godfather, Cal assured him it was going to work out. Construction. Baseball. Whatever came his way, Cal was going to be successful — even if he was the only one who thought so.
For now, it’s baseball. And the next leg of his career is finally underway.
“It’s a marathon and it’s still early,” Cal said. “I still am really, really in that race.”