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Carrying His Friend's Memory, Gavin Lux Reaches New Heights

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A photo of Gavin Lux's tattoo commemorating a close friend who died when they were 16. (Kyle Glaser)

There is more to life than bats and balls and tool grades and throwing mechanics.

Gavin Lux knows this. Whenever he needs a reminder, he looks down to his left arm.

Lux, the Dodgers No. 14 prospect, has a tattoo that runs from his shoulder down to near his elbow, and encompasses the circumference of his bicep. It’s an image of a man staring off into the horizon, a No. 44 jersey on his back, and the rays of the sun reaching out to greet him.

The tattoo is a memorial to Lux’s childhood friend and teammate, Clay Davison. When they were both high school sophomores, just 16 years old, Davison committed suicide.

It’s been four years this month since it happened. For Lux, as time passed, keeping the memory of his friend close took precedence over moving on.

“It was very emotional for me,” Lux said. “Not only for me, but for a lot of our friends. It’s still emotional. It’s kind of like a chip on your shoulder. I just kind of carry it around with me. It means a lot, and I think about it a lot.”

Lux, 20, has had a pro career marked by highs and lows so far. The Dodgers drafted him in the first round in 2016, a definite high. He struggled to a .244/.331/.363 slash line in his first full season last year, a definite low. This year he’s back on the high, batting .312 with 17 doubles, eight home runs, 35 RBI and a .911 OPS for high Class A Rancho Cucamonga. He was selected as the starting shortstop for the South Division in today’s California League All-Star Game but will sit out with a hamstring injury.

What sets Lux apart has been his steady, even-keeled demeanor through it all. It’s not because he lacks a competitive fire or passion. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It’s because he understands the bigger picture of life, that an 0-for-4 day or a 4-for-4 day is not life and death. He knows well, too well, what life and death actually encompass.

“You grow up fast,” Lux said. “I was young and I didn’t really understand a whole lot of, I didn’t really get a lot of closure. But you definitely grow and I think you kind of treat people a different way, the respect and everything that goes into being around people and how you communicate with people. I think that makes a huge difference.

“That’s one of the main reasons I wanted to (get the tattoo). It keeps you grounded. And then on days I don’t feel great, I look down and it does give me a little extra motivation and push, just to help you get through it.”

That extra push has helped Lux transform into a vastly improved player. After a difficult season both offensively and defensively last year, he made wholesale changes.

He needed to add strength, so he gained 20 pounds of muscle to jump from 175 pounds to 195. He needed to retool his swing, so he was often the first person at the Dodgers complex in Arizona in the offseason working. He needed to clean up his footwork on his throws, so he took thousands of ground balls from instructional league through the offseason and into spring training.

The result is a bigger, stronger, more impactful Lux than ever, and observers are taking note. One evaluator identified Lux as the top position player prospect in the Cal League’s South Division through the first half. An opposing manager said Lux was the player he expected to see playing everyday in the major leagues first among his Cal League peers.

“He has every tool you want in the toolshed … and for me the intangibles are just off the charts,” Rancho Cucamonga manager Drew Saylor said. “Just the leadership aspect, wanting to understand how we’re going to play, having that internal timing of knowing where everyone else is at and where they need to be at, that’s really starting to come into his own, and that’s what you expect. You want that person to be the guy on and off the field, and he checks all those boxes for me.”

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Talent was never Lux’s shortcoming but he was behind many of his contemporaries when he got into pro ball, mostly due to the nature of coming from cold-weather Kenosha, Wisconsin. Cold-weather players are widely acknowledged to be less pro-ready than their warm-weather peers who grew up playing year-round, and they take a little longer to find their stride. Often, that means year two is better than year one in their professional careers.

Saylor, an Ohio native, understands that firsthand from his own playing days, and saw Lux’s 2018 breakout coming.

“To go from that ‘fall is beautiful and then November hits and then we shovel snow until May and you’re indoors all the time,’ it is a bit of culture shock being outside, being on a baseball field competing,” Saylor said. “You’re adding a lot more volume of games and reps to what you do. I think just his overall shape he came in this year, I mean, he was one of the first guys I saw in spring training where I just went 'Wow’. I think it’s kind of all those things combined which is helping him assimilate a little bit more towards to the traditional southern baseball type of timeline for the game.”

The assimilation period appears over based on Lux’s first half. Now it’s about carrying his success forward the rest of the season. Lux wants to do that for himself, and his family, and the Dodgers organization, of course.

But beyond that, he wants to do it for his friend Davison, who in his own way is helping Lux find his way and serving as a constant reminder of what truly matters, both in baseball and beyond.

“I just try to hopefully to make him proud somewhere and if he’s watching down, it’s just something I carry around with me,” Lux said. “Just as much as everyone who helped me get to here right now, he’s not here to be able to witness it, I think it just adds fuel to the fire any way you look at it. I want to make him proud.”

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