At 34, infielder Chase Lambin is the oldest current minor-leaguer who hasn't yet played in the Majors. Drafted in the 34th round in 2002 as a college senior, he faced an uphill climb even to make it to the upper levels of the minor leagues, but more than a decade later, he's played at the Triple-A level for the Mets, Marlins, Nationals, Twins and Royals organizations. He has also played for the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan, and in independent baseball. He is currently a free agent. MLBTR recently spoke to him about his career as a minor-leaguer, and about trying to break into the big leagues. This interview has been edited for length.
When did you feel like you got the closest to the big leagues?
Probably '05. I was still with the original team that drafted me [the Mets]. I was having my best year, and I got called up halfway through the year to Triple-A. I was 25 years old, I was playing as well as I ever had, and I thought it might happen then. But then the next spring training — actually I wasn't in big-league camp. I got called over a couple times from minor-league camp and ended up getting like 30 at-bats because the World Baseball Classic was going on, and I did really well. [Then-Mets manager] Willie Randolph was like, "We really like you, but we don't have a spot for you right now. Go do your thing in [Triple-A] Norfolk, and we'll see you soon." And I went to Norfolk and batted like .180 the first two months (laughs). So I kind of blew it.
What is it like to go through the minors as a 34th-round pick, as compared to if you were, say, a second-round pick?
I'd say the incline is a lot more steep. There's less room for error. The window of opportunity is much smaller. I didn't get much [of a] chance when I first got to Brooklyn in short-season, but once I did get some at-bats I did well, which bought me some time. And then the next spring training, I actually caught a couple breaks, and they had an opening at shortstop in high-A, so I skipped low-A completely. So I was playing every day for HoJo [Howard Johnson]. HoJo was my manager in Brooklyn, and I think he stuck his neck out for me and gave me an opportunity, and I ended up being an All-Star. I had that first year and a half to really impress, and I did, which let me hang around. But if I [hadn't], I would have been out a long time ago.
What's it like waiting to be picked?
For me, it was tough, just because I was eligible every year. It wasn't just my junior year and senior year in college. I was eligible my senior year in high school, and then I went to junior college, so I was eligible after both of those years. So for four or five years in a row, I was able to be drafted. And I was told I had a chance, so I kind of frustrated because I thought I would be, and then I wasn't. It ended up working out for the best. I had four awesome years in college that I really needed, because it took me a while to come into my own as a player.
What do you see yourself doing when you're done playing?
I see myself coaching. I feel like I have a gift to get on the same level with hitters. I feel like I can help guys with their plan and their mentality.
As an older player in the minors, do you feel like you're helping your teammates now?
Yeah. The last few years, I've really embraced it, mainly because I wasn't playing every day, so I had to take the focus off that, and just make the most of it. It was surprising to me how rewarding it was to really help a guy and see him do well. I felt like I was in the box getting the hit.
Is it frustrating to see younger players get promoted?
Of course, when I was younger, it was probably more frustrating, just because of my ego. You just always feel like it should be you. But over the years, you shift your perspective, and I got to the point where I was just trying to support a family, and I was grateful that I had a job, that I got to be playing baseball at age 32, 33, 34. You can really get bitter if just sit and think about how you're not getting what you think you deserve. I'm happy for my teammates who get called up. I always pray that it will be me next, but I just decided to focus on the positive.
If the opportunity to play in the Majors didn't exist — if you were just doing what you do without the possibility of playing in the Majors, with all the travel you do and the salary you make — is that a lifestyle that's sustainable on its own?
Yeah, yeah. I'd play as long as my body would let me if I could support my family. Of course, that carrot you're chasing is always good motivation, but if you told me there was a zero percent chance of going to the big leagues [but] that I could still play baseball and support my family, I'm pretty sure I'd still do it. That's pretty much what I've been doing the past few years. I really enjoy playing baseball and traveling. It's gotten tougher now that we have children, but my wife loves the game, and loves to travel and support me.
How did you end up in Japan in 2009?
I had multiple options from different teams. I got an international agent in the middle of the 2008 season [who] called me out of nowhere and said he had some connection to Japan if I was interested. That offseason, it was like, "I can get you a workout in front of Bobby Valentine in Japan if you want to go." I was like, "Sure, why not?" I just decided at my age, and [with] my financial situation, it would be dumb to pass up guaranteed, good money and a chance to have a great life experience. We went and had an amazing time. We were married right before we left, [so] we were newlyweds in Japan. It didn't work out the way I envisioned — I only got 100 at-bats. [But] I would've gone back, and I'd still go back, in a heartbeat.
Now that you're back here, what is the process of looking for minor-league opportunities like? Is that something you leave to your agent, or is that something you pursue on your own?
When I was younger, I just would lean on my agent, but as I've gotten older I've gotten a little more proactive. I've developed a network of connections that I email and call, and try to just get in people's ears. My agent is still working for me, but I do my own work. I don't know how much it helps or not, but I feel better about doing everything I can. With my age and no big-league experience, it's a tough sell, but I think there's value in guys like me who can provide production at multiple positions, switch-hit, and also be a good mentor. It takes a lot of things to shake out, because on the totem pole, I'm the low man, so everybody else usually has to get signed, and then if there's any extra spots, that's where I fit in. So I've got to be patient.
You feel like something might develop for you when spring training starts, or something like that?
It's hard to say. I think so. I'm an eternal optimist. All I can do is be ready to play when I get that call.