PEORIA, Ariz. – When Josh Lueke left Covington, Ky., for junior college, he was a 19-year-old – reluctant to leave the nest but fairly certain he knew about the world.
On Sunday, when the Seattle Mariners opened their spring camp to pitchers and catchers, Lueke, now 26, was among those on hand.
Among the things he’s discovered is that he didn’t know nearly as much as he once thought.
“I’m not a party guy, I never got into that. I tend to hang with good guys, guys like Matt Mangini and Blake Beavan,” Lueke said. “Players, people who know me, take me for what I am. I’m quiet. I’m a good guy.
“If you only read the newspaper to make up your mind, maybe you have another opinion of me. I can’t worry about what people think. My dad said, ‘You were born with a thick skin. Keep it.’ ”
Lueke’s life after leaving Kentucky for professional baseball in 2007 led to him making headlines. First, for his pitching – the ability to throw 98 mph with breaking pitches that had the Texas Rangers monitoring his progress.
And then there were the other headlines, the ones that began in May 2008, when a Bakersfield, Calif., woman accused him of rape and sodomy.
One year and two weeks later, he was arrested.
Details of the case were unflattering at best: The victim acknowledged partying with players, accompanying them to at least three bars and eventually passing out in an apartment Lueke shared with a teammate.
Lueke’s DNA forever linked him to the woman’s accusation, but the case never went to trial. Lueke pleaded no contest to a lesser but ugly charge – false imprisonment with violence.
On the first day of the first big-league camp of his career, Lueke was asked about his pitching, his chances of making the Mariners bullpen and about the events that have followed him for almost three years.
“My mom has had it the hardest,” Lueke said. “She likes to brag about me, and for a while she felt she couldn’t. My dad is a rock. The worst thing in the world would be disappointing my family. They raised a good son.
“People can look at one incident and decide that’s who you are. I had a lot of support throughout this, from my parents, from teammates – with the Texas Rangers and here – from my host family in Bakersfield. I don’t know what I’d have done without them.
“My probation ends Tuesday. My lawyer has filed the papers, I’m told that will be the end of it.”
Except, he knows, there may never be an end to it.
There will be fans who scream things from the stands, including those who view him only as a felon with a detestable past. When he began using Twitter last spring, he was prepared for hate mail.
“I haven’t gotten any,” he said.
Lueke doesn’t tweet about the weather or his fastball. He posts Bible verses, inspirational quotes – sometimes four and five times a day.
It is, he says, who he was before that night in 2008. And who he’s trying to be today.
“Everybody has an opinion about Josh,” said Jamie Navarro, the pitching coach with Tacoma last year, now Seattle’s bullpen coach. “I got to know him last year, not just on the field but away from it, too.
“He made mistakes. He learned from it. He’s tried to be accountable.”
Looking back on his life from age 26, Lueke sees a young man who grew up too slowly – figuratively and literally. He was 5-foot-9 when he graduated from high school, stands 6-foot-5 today.
He loved baseball, then and now.
“According to my dad, I know it all. I never could hit. In my entire life, I’ve got two home runs, and that goes back to T-ball,” he said. “I never thought of leaving the game.”
Not even during his time in jail awaiting a trial that never came?
“I’d never have been able to give up baseball,” he said. “If baseball had given up on me, I’d be pitching in Japan or Mexico or the independent leagues.
“This is my first big-league camp, it’s huge for me. The chance to be here with Felix Hernandez, Erik Bedard, just to be in their presence and watch the way they carry themselves.”
Last year he started his season at the bottom of the Texas Rangers system, with a former Mariner as his pitching coach.
“I started as the closer in Class A, and Brad Holman found two little things in my delivery there. I started the season throwing 92-93 mph and when I left for Class AA I was hitting 97-98. I’ll never be able to thank Brad enough.
“Once I got out of the ‘I know more than anyone else stage,’ I learned quite a bit.”
Lueke appeared in 18 Single-A games last season, won two, saved seven and had a 0.46 earned run average. Traded to the Mariners in July, when Seattle sent Cliff Lee and Mark Lowe to Texas for Justin Smoak, Beavan, Matt Lawson and Lueke, he was sent to Class Double A West Tenn.
Before Lueke threw a pitch, he was caught in another controversy.
When Mariners president Chuck Armstrong learned of Lueke’s no-contest plea, he was outraged – and general manager Jack Zduriencik said he’d been misled by the Rangers on the seriousness of the situation.
Eventually, Zduriencik’s right-hand man, scouting director Carmen Fusco, was fired over the handling of the deal.
Lueke worked six games in Double A, pitched 7 innings, and didn’t allow a run. The Mariners brought him to Tacoma to work with Navarro.
“His fastball was in the mid-90s, and it wasn’t his best pitch,” Navarro said. “His breaking ball is his best pitch. He’s got the stuff to pitch in the big leagues right now. He has the command. He has all the tools – he just needs to be consistent.”
Lueke knows he has a chance to show that in camp.
“Every year my goal is the same – to walk fewer than 10 batters. Last year was about as close as I’m going to get,” he said, having walked 15 batters in 63 innings while striking out 94 batters.
“I try to take a fearless approach to the game – the worst that can happen is you have a bad day. Well, everyone has them. It’s how you come back from those.”
It’s one of the many lessons Lueke has learned.
Navarro believes Lueke can help the Mariners this year, working the seventh and eighth innings of games when they’re ahead. And he hopes Mariners fans are open to getting to know him.
“He’s not a troublemaker, he’s not a bad person,” Navarro said. “People need to forgive. People make mistakes, they can change. One thing shouldn’t define someone’s life.”