BASEBALL '06: Armed and Dangerous

Three years into his college career, Lance Salsgiver is primed for a breakout

THE GIVER
Jessica E. Zbikowski

Lance Salsgiver entered Harvard with impossible expectations in the fall of 2002. After an All-Star summer on the Cape, he may be ready to fulfill them.

Some high school trophies occupy a special place in the heart, a warm space cordoned off for sentimentality and success. Other prizes, an army of identical plastic men posing victoriously atop them, are predictably forgotten just days after their acquisition.

Then there are those awards that carry an almost onerous importance. Their weight engraves a permanent appositive for their winner, no matter what happens to him thereafter.

In the Ivy League, Lance Salsgiver—“Number one high school baseball player in the state of Michigan” (Detroit Free Press), “first-team high school All-American” (Baseball America)—might be the only one good enough to be familiar with all three types.

These days, Salsgiver is a Harvard senior with roughly three months of college left.

The appositives, needless to say, still remain.

***

Dressed in a tuxedo, the senior shifts in his chair, smiling at the question about how his right arm feels. He’s eventually headed to a dinner for the Delphic, an undergraduate final club.

The arm is part of the package that brought Salsgiver to Cambridge in the first place. In baseball jargon, it’s a hose, a rocket, a gun—clocked as high as 93 MPH, it’s one of five professional-grade “tools” that the right fielder employs in his impressive repertoire.

The other four (speed, fielding, hitting for average, and hitting for power) are nothing to sneeze at either. But when the Detroit Free Press named him the top high school player in the state, and when Baseball America twice named him a first-team All-American—he would be the only one to play in the Ivy League—his right arm was truly what distinguished him from the pack.

“I was kind of in awe to have these [national] honors bestowed on me, especially with all the kids from the big southern schools like in Texas and Florida,” Salsgiver says.

But at Michigan’s top-ranked Davison High School, he did everything. And Harvard head coach Joe Walsh noticed.

Besides captaining the hockey and football teams, Salsgiver—also a first-team “character,” according to Walsh—frequently pitched the first game of doubleheaders before suiting up at shortstop in the second, and often came out of the bullpen to close out the nightcap.

He set 15 different school records, both as a hurler and at the plate, where he set marks for home runs and hit almost .530 for his career.

The kid who lived on a farm all his life nearly stayed local at Michigan State. He was also considering offers from national powers like Stanford, Notre Dame, and Georgia Tech.

In the end, however, Salsgiver took his 4.0 GPA and chose Harvard for all it offered outside of baseball.

“When I figured I had the opportunity to come to a school like this, it wasn’t an opportunity I wanted to waste,” he says. “When I came down to visit, I didn’t really know what to expect, but I had a great weekend and it sealed the deal for me. It’s just where I wanted to be.”

Notably, though, Salsgiver has no illusions about his tenure in crimson thus far.

In his opinion, the supposed big fish in a small pond has simply struggled.

“My college seasons here at Harvard, to be honest, have been pretty mediocre in terms of what I wanted to accomplish,” he says. “For some reason, I haven’t been able to put together a good season. Every year, it seems as if there’s a slump or two hitting-wise, and the season’s so short that one bad day starts to snowball.”

***

Salsgiver hasn’t done poorly, mind you.

Last year, he hit .298 and was named second-team All-Ivy League, improving on a .287 junior campaign. As a frosh, he actually hit .331, third on the team.

But his high school career set the bar torturously, though arguably not impossibly, high. And thus far, all audiences have gotten are flickers of an extraordinary talent.

“He’s never had that explosive season for us,” Walsh says. “You know, he’s had a solid college career. But he hasn’t had that [explosive season] yet.”

The senior readily agrees.

“The biggest thing is keeping a positive attitude all the time,” Salsgiver says. “So much of it is mental. You have a bad at-bat, and then you try to not stand in the outfield for a half-hour thinking about it.”

But equally troubling, arguably, is the physical.

It’s been his health, not his wits, that has been the biggest obstacle in showcasing the talents that professional scouts largely believe will lead to a future in the major leagues.

Upon arrival in September of his freshman year, Salsgiver discovered a lingering weakness in his strong right arm, stemming from heroic overuse and those legendary doubleheaders at Davison. Since then, he’s periodically battled with tendinitis in his elbow and shoulder.

His collegiate career so far only provides a small sample size, but it is tantalizing.

Over three years at Harvard, he’s pitched just 17.2 innings, often in attempts to cultivate a niche as closer, but has struck out 25, giving up only 11 hits. On top of the fastball, he features a ruinous plunging curve that many believe is his best pitch.

“I hope he pitches,” captain shortstop Morgan Brown says. “The guy is lights out. He’s one of the guys that when he’s throwing a bullpen, everyone else stops and watches. Ever since freshman year, we’ve always heard that he’s got the professional-caliber arm.”

***

There is a difference, of course, between hearing and seeing. And Salsgiver is determined to substantiate that discrepancy in his favor, across all facets of his game.

Indeed, if this past summer’s performance in the prestigious Cape Cod League is any indication, then Walsh is not far away from the explosion he’s been hoping for.

After being invited back to the Wareham Gatemen as a temporary, non-roster invitee, Salsgiver earned a permanent spot on the squad, even making the midseason All-Star team as an outfielder. Batting .301 with a wood bat and leading the team with 43 hits, he was also the fifth outfielder for four slots on the final, 20-player All-Star squad, according to Gatemen general manager John Wylde.

“He was just sizzling all summer,” Walsh says. “I think things came together for him. He’s got a little more pop in his bat. He’s stronger. I think his arm’s healthier, which we just never figured.”

“Here’s a kid who can run, too,” he adds. “He’s had 20-plus stolen bases. But we’re always trying to push him...I’m saying, ‘Lance, let’s go! You can get this guy!’”

Salsgiver credits a counterintuitive, decidedly un-Harvard approach to his summertime success. He was aggressive rather than patient: “thinking less” and swinging with a former confidence.

Following the summer, he was tempted to join classmates Zak Farkes, Frank Herrmann, and John Wolff in signing professional contracts and ending his time in Cambridge prematurely. He engaged in brief negotiations with the Oakland A’s, San Diego Padres, and Cincinnati Reds before ultimately returning to O’Donnell Field for one last go-round.

“Honestly, my swing feels really good,” Salsgiver says. “And I have a heightened sense of purpose. It’s been three years of mediocre seasons—that’s why I came back. I wanted to have one more season with all of my friends and have it all come together.”

And the arm?

“Right now, it feels great,” he says, smiling. “That’s been the big question all year, every year. But right now it feels good...I feel one hundred percent ready to go.”

***

When asked what one receives, exactly, for being a first-team high school All-American or the best high school baseball player in the state of Michigan, Salsgiver shrugs.

There are no golden men atop trophies, apparently, and no fancy blue ribbons. It’s actually not much, materially speaking.

“It’s in the paper,” he says. “And they sent me a plaque.”

This spring, the preseason honors have already surfaced. Baseball America, for one, has him pegged to its preseason All-Conference team: not as a pitcher or an outfielder, but as a designated hitter.

Salsgiver, it appears, will have eyes watching and his work cut out for him during his final college tour.

“It’s going to be interesting to see what kind of a year he can have,” Walsh says. “For the first time, in all reality, there’s a lot of buzz going on with professional scouts.”

The senior, with his big summer and long-latent pro potential, is well aware.

Glancing at his right arm, in fact, grinning in his tuxedo, he seems to realize that he has three months left and an itch to engrave an appositive or two.

—Staff writer Pablo S. Torre can be reached at torre@fas.harvard.edu.

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