By JAY LeBLANC
Defense was Steve Lombardozzi’s calling card during his six-year big league career, but it’s the hot bat he wielded in the 1987 World Series that he’ll always be remembered for. The second baseman hit just .238 with eight home runs for the Minnesota Twins during the regular season that year but stepped up his game in the Fall Classic, hitting a Series-best .412 with a home run and four RBI to help the Twins defeat the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games.
“It’s the absolute best feeling to know that in the ultimate pressure situation, I was able to come through,” Lombardozzi said Monday night while watching his son, Steve Lombardozzi Jr., play for the Washington Nationals‘ Class A affiliate, the Hagerstown Suns. “It gives you a lot of confidence throughout the rest of your life, in everything else you do, to know that you were able to rise to the occasion.”
Lombardozzi, a right-handed hitter, kicked off his dream Series with a two-run shot off righty Bob Forsch in Game 1.
“The feeling was unbelievable. As soon as I hit it I knew it was gone, but I didn’t believe it,” he said. “I hit first base and between first and third, I had all these thoughts about all the friends and family and relatives that were all back home. I was visualizing all these different families - there were probably 10, 12, 15 of them all huddled around a TV going, ‘Oh my God, our Steve hit a home run in the World Series!’ I could just visualize all these families going nuts, and what a great feeling it was to be able to do it, and for them to be able to experience it. It was a highlight of my whole career.”
Lombardozzi’s second-most memorable hit of the series came in Game 6. With the Twins trailing three games to two, he stepped to the plate with the score tied 5-5 in the fifth inning and ripped an RBI single to give them a lead they wouldn’t relinquish as they went on to an 11-5 victory.
“That whole series, I was just able to focus in on the task at hand and block out all of the Homer Hankies and the screaming and the pressure,” he said. “I was seeing the ball good at the plate, and I just tried to slow everything down in my mind and slow the pitch down, and I just ripped it up the middle. That game, we were behind, and we got a couple guys thrown out at the plate earlier, and we were battling for our lives. If we lost, we were done, so we kept just running into a wall and getting thrown out, and then Boom! When I got that hit, that punched us through. And then [Kent] Hrbek hit a big grand slam an inning later and put it out of reach.”
Series MVP Frank Viola came through with his second clutch pitching performance of the Fall Classic the following night as the Twins won 4-2 to capture their first World Championship. Lombardozzi explained his outstanding World Series performance by saying he was simply “in the zone.”
“You can talk to all athletes that are successful, and they all talk about that zone,” he said. “The great athletes, they’re the ones that can get in it and stay in it. I wasn’t able to get in it and stay in it over the long run in my career, but at that moment in time I was just able to take myself there.”
Lombardozzi’s previous experience with “the zone” came at a very opportune time, as he hit .370 down the stretch in 1985 after being summoned from the minors. He credits then-Twins manager Ray Miller with giving him his first big league opportunity.
“Miller, being a pitching guy, a pitching coach, he really valued defense,” Lombardozzi said. “He gave me my chance, and you know, just like everybody else, they give you a shot to go out there and play and I got a couple hits in the first game, and then they run you back out there four or five days later and you’ve got to do it again. I got another couple of hits, and pretty soon it was three days later, two days later, and then the last couple weeks I was in there every day. I hit well, so that gave me my chance to start every day the next year.”
Lombardozzi’s average dropped to .227 in 1986 but his stellar defense kept him in the lineup, as his .991 fielding percentage was tops among American League second basemen. The Twins finished just 71-91 that season, but the pieces of a championship team were slowly but surely coming together. Everything clicked in 1987, as Kirby Puckett, Gary Gaetti, Tom Brunansky and Hrbek carried the offense while Bert Blyleven and Viola led the pitching staff. The Twins edged the Kansas City Royals by two games to capture the American League West, then defeated the Detroit Tigers in the American League Championship Series.
“The biggest memory of all, if you ask any of the guys on the 1987 team, was when we won the League Championship Series in Detroit,” Lombardozzi said. “We flew back to Minneapolis - it was like a Sunday night. It was a school day the next day, and they brought us down to the Metrodome because some people wanted to greet us. They thought it was going to be 5,000 people, and we show up and there’s 50,000 people at midnight, going crazy. Most of the guys broke down crying. It was a very emotional moment for the team and the state of Minnesota.”
Despite his World Series heroics, Lombardozzi was relegated to part-time duty in 1988 after the Twins acquired veteran second baseman Tom Herr from the Cardinals. He was traded to the Houston Astros the following spring.
“I was really disappointed, but I knew it was business,” he said. “I wanted them to trade me - I understood if they didn’t want me there, but ‘let me move on’ was my feeling. But I wish I could have played my whole career there - great guys, awesome fans and city.”
Lombardozzi said Puckett - who was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001 and passed away in 2006 - was a great teammate.
“[Puckett] was always in a great mood,” he said. “He was always smiling. I lockered next to him, and I always used to tell people that I knew every sportswriter in the American League by the back of his head, because after every game they were around Puck’s locker and I was pushed out and looking at the back of all these reporters.”
Lombardozzi appeared in just 23 games with the Astros over the next two seasons, but he did have the chance to tutor a young Craig Biggio as he made the switch from catcher to second base. “I was able to work with him a little bit,” he said. “You just knew that regardless of whether he was catching or playing second, he was something special.”
Lombardozzi decided to call it a career after spending most of the 1990 season in the minors at age 30. “I just felt like I had lost a step,” he said. “I was a below-average Major League hitter but I was an above-average defensive player, and … It’s hard to believe, but when you turn 30, 31, you just start to slow down a little bit. I could feel that I had lost a step, and just really, I wasn’t cutting it.”
After his playing days ended, Lombardozzi focused on his family. He ran a small business and spent lots of time with his two children. His daughter graduated from James Madison University last year, and his son Steve Jr. - also a second baseman - was selected by the Nationals in the 19th round of the 2008 draft out of St. Petersburg (Fla.) Junior College. He’s currently hitting .257 with a home run and 10 RBI for Class A Hagerstown.
“I think each of his big moments, they seem to be bigger than any of the big moments I had myself,” he said. “I think the coolest thing is that, I made a lot of mistakes along the way - everybody makes mistakes - and it’s incredible to be able to have another chance. I definitely am not living things through my son - I don’t want that at all - but what I can do is I can help him not make those same mistakes I made, and I can teach him the game.”
It’s possible that Lombardozzi’s son won’t be the only young player benefiting from his teaching in the near future. He’s considering the possibility of getting back in pro ball as a roving minor league infield instructor.
“I’m looking at it - I’ve been looking at it for the past year or so,” he said. “It’s tough every time I look at an opportunity, because I weigh it against seeing my son play. I love watching him play, you know?”
Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.