It took Lew Ford almost five years to return to the majors after the Twins released him in October 2007, and sometimes he couldn't help but feel forgotten.
In 2009, after a miserable season in Japan, Ford latched on with the Long Island Ducks in the independent Atlantic League. At age 32, the Texas native had a strong season, batting .330, but those old "Lewwww!" cheers that used to echo through the Metrodome never surfaced on Long Island.
Then one night, a group of eight Minnesotans turned up at a Ducks game. They were in New York for college and went to lend their support, each wearing a T-shirt with a letter that spelled out L-E-W-W-W-W-W-W.
"They had the signs, and they were yelling 'Lew!'" Ford said in a telephone interview this week. "That was kind of cool."
But Ford spent most of those five seasons with relatively little adulation, including one in Japan, one in Mexico and three with the Ducks. So when this year's improbable journey took him from Long Island to Baltimore, just in time for a stirring pennant race, Ford arrived with a new perspective.
"When you're in independent ball, making no money and riding on those buses -- most of the guys [in the majors] haven't been through that," Ford said. "They haven't been through Mexico in the summer. That's why I appreciate it more this time. I know what some guys go through because they love playing this game."
'Out of sight, out of mind'
Ford overcame long odds to reach the majors the first time. The Red Sox made him a 12th-round pick out of Dallas Baptist in 1999 and traded him to the Twins for reliever Hector Carrasco. Ford emerged as a key player on the Twins' 2004 playoff team, finishing 24th in that year's American League MVP voting.
But after batting .299 that year, he batted a combined .229 in his final two years in Minnesota.
"He ran out of his shoes for our team; I love the kid," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He had one of the better years you'll ever see at one point. He just was not very consistent after that."
In explaining his five-year big league absence, Ford said injuries were one factor and another was being "out of sight, out of mind."
"When you're out of the system, it's hard to get back in, especially at my age," said Ford, who turned 36 last month. "There's so many good players out there, and there's only so many spots."
Ford had another injury-marred season last year on Long Island and looked around for coaching jobs last winter. Finally, he decided to give it one more go with the Ducks.
"I really didn't want to end my career the way I did last year," he said. "I guess I kind of wanted to go out on my terms."
Orioles come calling
Ford said his goal was to help the Ducks win the Atlantic League title, but after batting .333 over the first 19 games, he landed a minor league contract with the Orioles. This is rare for an independent league player, but Baltimore General Manager Dan Duquette had been Boston's GM when the Red Sox drafted Ford in 1999, and here was another chance.
In 62 games for Norfolk, Ford batted .331 -- including a staggering .510 with runners in scoring position. On July 29, he found himself back in the majors, at Camden Yards. From left field, he threw out Oakland's Yoenis Cespedes at second base that night, and a few Orioles fans could be heard yelling, "Lewwww!"
One month later, Ford hit home runs in consecutive victories over the White Sox -- one off Francisco Liriano, one off Chris Sale -- and the "Lewwwww!" cheers grew louder. He added a homer off CC Sabathia in Saturday night's 5-4 victory over the Yankees. Those have been the highlights, as Ford is batting .196, with manager Buck Showalter using him primarily against lefthanded pitchers.
The Orioles haven't finished above .500 since 1997, but Saturday, they climbed back into a first-place tie with the Yankees.
"I think our guys have a respect for how short the distance is between the penthouse and the outhouse," Showalter said.
Nobody knows better than Ford. He fully expected this to be his last season, but this latest taste of the majors has convinced him to play again next year. In the meantime, he is enjoying the ride with the Orioles.
"They're their own underdog story," Ford said. "No one really thought that they would be here, except for them. ... If we could go to the World Series and win that -- I mean, it would be just the most amazing year that anyone could have."