TAVARES, Fla. – Avoiding the spotlight has become a habit for three-time all-star outfielder Chet Lemon since retiring from baseball two decades ago with a World Series ring.
He turned down throwing out the first pitch in Detroit during the 2011 American League Championship Series. He balked at baseball fantasy camps with Kirk Gibson, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker and others from his Tigers squad that won it all back in 1984.
All to remain here in the Orlando area and coach his “Juice’’ teams of AAU baseball players. For Lemon, 58, commitment and loyalty are traits he instills in teenagers who often drive hours each way, twice a week, for practices with Chet Lemon’s Juice, a summer travel team that’s gained cult status among anyone who knows about amateur baseball in this state.
And among the “Juice” alumni including Prince Fielder, Rickie and Jemile Weeks, Casey Kotchman and Matt LaPorta, there’s one player Lemon says he has all day to talk about: Mariners shortstop Brad Miller.
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“That guy,’’ Lemon said, “is one day going to be the guy all those other players in that (Mariners) clubhouse look up to.’’
Lemon doesn’t give those words away. He grew up with little in South Central Los Angeles, works hard for his teams and demands the same. His players don’t pay registration or equipment fees, but know to turn in their uniform if they miss a practice.
Lemon’s life changed after being diagnosed with polycythemia, an incurable blood disease that forced his retirement from the majors after 15 seasons in 1991, then nearly killed him several times since. Medication allows him to live in relatively stable fashion between the more serious bouts.
The near-death experiences helped Lemon realize his calling: coaching and grooming young players on what it takes to make the majors. He began doing it soon after retirement, with a message setting him apart.
“They learn how to play hard, the right way,” Lemon said. “They play the game the right way, because being a professional athlete my whole life, that’s all I know. So, for me, it’s a good fit, and I really like working with youngsters because of the way they respond.”
And few responded like Miller.
“I joined his team as a sophomore in high school and it was life-changing for me,’’ Miller said. “He taught me everything. He was incredible. I’m ‘Juice’ through and through.”
The team’s name comes from a nickname Lemon had been given.
“You know, it’s a play on words – lemon juice,” he said, rolling his eyes.
In Florida, “Juice” is the equivalent of the New York Yankees, the team every opponent guns for. Pick a state or national tournament worth something and the “Juice” team will be in the final rounds or winning it.
Pressure comes with that, as well as the bond of having the character to meet expectations.
“There was always one way to do it,” Miller said. “When you’re on the ‘Juice’ it’s not necessarily the best players. It’s the right players. You didn’t have to tell us to hustle. You didn’t have to tell us to play aggressive and play with energy. We just did. That was his style and that’s something he passed on to us.”
And while the “Juice” might not have the most recruits or draft picks, “they always win.”
Lemon’s penchant for doing things right was evident as he walked around The Big House, his partially-completed $6 million sports complex in this town of 14,000, about 36 miles northwest of Orlando. It’s a yearslong labor of love that Lemon and his wife Gigi poured their savings into, hoping to produce a state-of-the-art facility for AAU tournaments in multiple sports, and a community center for local athletes.
Lemon sweats as he walks up and down the stairs; his health is an ongoing issue. But he’s upbeat describing how he took the “best of the best” from facilities around the country to build his complex.
He’s just as selective about players hand-picked for his baseball program.
Miller was noticed as a 15-year-old for an opposing team, cranking a home run off Lemon’s ace pitcher in a 16-and-under game.
Soon after, Lemon invited Miller to play for his 18-and-under “Juice” team with players two years older.
“It’s not one of those travel teams where you just pay a bunch of money or show up for tournaments,’’ Miller said. “We practiced. I’d drive up an hour from my house twice a week and we’d practice for five hours.’’
The “Juice’’ teams play more than 100 games per year. Lemon expects players to employ a professional mindset.
He doesn’t want them panicking and telling themselves “I need to get a hit’’ in crucial situations. Instead, they’re trained to block out “faces’’ in the crowd — the fans pleading with their eyes for a hit — and concentrate on getting a fastball they can drive.
It’s the process and having a plan that Lemon cares about, not whether a hit is achieved. A hitter will get an earful if he is overwhelmed and strikes out swinging at balls in the dirt.
Miller was the perfect pupil. The one other players gravitated toward.
“He was a coach’s dream because he wants to get better,’’ Lemon said. “He was a student of the game and took corrective criticism very well.’’
Lemon’s infielders do a daily “first and third’’ drill. A runner on first base will try to steal second and draw a throw so a runner on third can race home.
Most young players in that situation, Lemon said, won’t even throw to second, conceding the base to keep the lead runner at third.
But Lemon has his catcher try to throw out the runner at second. If the third baseman senses the lead runner about to head home, he yells to the infielder covering second so he can cut the catcher’s throw off early and fire the ball to the plate.
Such plays involve split-second reads. Lemon said Miller picked them up as well as anybody, and others followed his lead.
“Brad listened,’’ he said. “He wanted to get better. Brad wanted to play at the next level.’’
Miller, the younger of two children, grew up a few blocks from Ken Griffey Jr.’s house in Orlando. His Little League team was the Mariners and coached by his father, Steve, a former college first baseman.
“I have always encouraged him to be a leader,’’ said Miller’s father, who also coached his son’s summer travel teams. “And leadership isn’t necessarily rah-rah. I tell Brad there are many ways of being a leader and you don’t have to be the best on the team. I was never the best player of any team I was on. But I was typically one of the leaders. And part of that is just respect for how you go about your business.’’
When Miller was 14, his father figured there was little more he could teach him about baseball. The next level would involve Miller doing what it took to better himself.
Miller threw himself into baseball, making the team at nearby Olympia High School. One year later, Lemon invited him into his summer fold.
Lemon soon had Miller batting third against older players and excelling. At a tournament in Memphis, Miller notched his team’s only hit against Drew Pomeranz, a future top-five draft pick of the Cleveland Indians.
“I think that really gave him the confidence that he could do this,’’ his father said.
Miller’s “old school’’ traits — he still shuns batting gloves — and respect for the game meshed with Lemon’s style. They kept close contact as Miller starred at Clemson University, where he was named ACC player of the year in 2011.
That year, the team that had been on his Little League jersey, the Mariners, drafted him in the second round.
Miller has hit a respectable .257 with a .327 on-base percentage this season as a rookie. But on a recent trip to Fenway Park in Boston, he began bobbling grounders on the transition to his throwing hand. That irked Miller mainly because he’d rushed himself, something Lemon taught him not to do.
Miller’s dad had spoken with his son before the series and offered an explanation.
“That’s tension. He’s scared to death,’’ his father said. “He’s still 23 and he’s playing at Fenway. They’re loud and they’re cheering and he’s a fan of the game.
“I mean, he grew up watching (Boston’s) David Ortiz. He goes to me, ‘What do I say to him if he makes it to second base? I can’t call him Big Papi, or Sir, or Mr. Ortiz, right?’ He was tense.
“So, when he gets through that, he’ll be all right. And he will get through it. He’s a smart kid.’’
Lemon agreed that Miller is still learning. But he figures his baseball smarts and maturity will help him through initial issues and stick with the Mariners a long time.
Miller remains close friends with Lemon’s son, Marcus, a minor-leaguer in the Tigers’ system. Chet Lemon and Miller also text regularly and Lemon is quick to share his pride at each new accomplishment.
“The whole ‘Juice’ is a family,’’ Lemon said. “We play the game right. And when he does the things he’s done, he makes us all look good.’’
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or email@example.com. On Twitter @gbakermariners.