Bred in Desert, Turk Blossoms

Daily News Record
By Paul Montana
June 12, 2012


By the time Mark Lumpa was 8 years old, he loved baseball. It was finding a place to play that was the problem – the only field in his hometown was a worn-down old softball field. Sometimes, he’d play on it; but the only other ballplayers in town were his older brother, Craig, then age 10, and his father, Robert. Fielding a nine-on-nine game was simply laughable.

So, four times a week, Robert would pick up his two sons from elementary school before driving them two hours to the closest baseball field, which also hosted the nearest competitive youth league. After a two-hour long practice – or a game on weekends – they’d drive two hours back.

On the way, they did their homework; on the way back, they usually slept.

Some would call their efforts exhausting, particularly for pre-teen boys. The Lumpas called it routine.

Yes, being a baseball player in Saudi Arabia had its obstacles.

Since then, some things haven’t changed. Lumpa still plays baseball more days than not. But now it’s considerably more convenient. Lumpa, a rising junior at Duke, is a second baseman for the Harrisonburg Turks, and Veterans Memorial Park is a lot closer than that field in Saudia Arabia.

“The two-hour drive to an actual field,” Lumpa recalled Monday, a day off for the Turks, “I don’t miss that.”

But back when he lived in Saudi Arabia – he was born in Al-Hasa before moving to Udhailiyah, remaining there until age 14 – it didn’t seem unusual. After all, he said, “I never grew up knowing anything different.”

His parents, both born Americans, moved to Saudi Arabia in 1980, a decade before having children. The move became necessary when Robert took a job with Saudi Aramco, an oil manufacturer and producer.

Robert encouraged both children to play sports, and they quickly became enamored with baseball. But Udhailiyah – a compound built by Saudi Aramco, with a town of only 1,350 residents – was hardly a baseball town.

“I was in a really, really small town, kind of in the middle of nowhere, and so we didn’t have a league or anything,” Mark said. “It was just me and my brother were the only ones playing.”

Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, though, offered Little League, so that’s where their father took them, and both played in the Little League World Series, twice representing Saudi Arabia; in both of Mark’s years, Dhahran made the final round in Williamsport, Pa.

Soon after that, Lumpa’s life changed dramatically. At age 14, he moved to Jacksonville, Fla., where he enrolled as a residential student at The Bolles School as a freshman. His parents remained in Saudi Arabia.

By his junior year, Lumpa, a right-handed pitcher, was the staff ace. He never lost a start in his high school career, going 28-0 and leading his team to back-to-back state championships his junior and senior seasons, good enough to earn a scholarship offer from Duke.

It seemed that his baseball career had normalized. As a freshman at Duke, he started 22 games – tied for best on the Blue Devils – with a 4.00 ERA. Despite a modest 5-foot-7, 165-pound frame, Lumpa struck out 15 batters in 27 innings.

Then his baseball career took another unusual loop.

Last fall, Lumpa played some infield in intrasquad scrimmages, simply because the Blue Devils didn’t have enough position players to field two full teams. But he impressed his coaches enough that, when several infielders went down with injuries early in the spring season, he was thrust into the starting second baseman’s role.

After getting no at-bats as a freshman and hitting only occasionally when he was in high school, he became an immediate contributor as a sophomore. He hit a modest .259 in 34 starts, but had a decent on-base percentage of .358, stole four bases, and made six errors in 145 chances at second base.

And after a midseason slump, he hit better at the end of the college season, and he’s been the best hitter for the Turks (7-2) through nine games. Lumpa, who called himself “an OK high school hitter,” leads Harrisonburg in batting average (.345) and is the only regular starter over .400 in both an on-base percentage (.486) and slugging (.448).

“With metal bats, sometimes you try to rear back, hit it harder, make the ball travel, but with wood, I’m not going to hit home runs, and I know that,” Lumpa said. “So I’ve just accepted it, and wherever they pitch it, I just go with it.”

Lumpa hits second for the Turks – right ahead of David Perkins, a fellow graduate of The Bolles School who roomed with him there, and again as a freshman and teammate at Duke.

“He definitely was able to adapt [to hitting] much more quickly than most pitchers,” Perkins said. “…They just let him hit in BP a couple times, and he made the switch.”

Lumpa still considers himself a pitcher, saying he also expects to throw for the Turks and manager Bob Wease. But his college career is in a more familiar state of flux.

The coaching situation at Duke is uncertain – Sean McNally resigned after seven seasons, and now is being temporarily replaced by interim head coach Edwin Thompson, McNally’s former assistant. Lumpa said he’s hoping to be a two-way player, but is unsure if that will come to fruition with an unstable staff.

Whatever happens, it will be a long way from his childhood – literally and otherwise.

“Every single night, everyone in town could hear the ping of the metal bats, because we were the only ones that used the field,” Lumpa said.

“…Looking back, it’s an experience that most people would never get to have. I’m really happy, and I wouldn’t have wanted it really any other way.”