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Friday, February 25, 2011

G21D Interview Part 2: Moving Up

Rick Lancellotti laughs as he tells a story from his playing days at his Buffalo School of Baseball.

Part 1: Christmas Morning | Part 2: Moving Up
Part 3:
Stunned | Part 4: Lived It | Postscript: How Cool It Was

Drafted by the Pirates in the 11th round of the 1977 draft, it wasn't until 1979 that Lancellotti started showing exactly what he could do.

He played his first two seasons at single-A Charleston and Single-A Salem, hitting 24 home runs between them.

But, in 1979 at AA Buffalo, Lancellotti hit a staggering 41, batted .287 and won the league MVP. Part of the jump was attributed to Buffalo's old War Memorial Stadium.

Despite his success, though, Lancellotti stayed there, in Buffalo, as the big-league Pirates went on to win the World Series.

And Lancellotti was fine with that. As long as he was making progress.

"I felt that I was moving up the ladder," Lancellotti recalled to The Greatest 21 Days recently in a sit-down interview. "What you're trying to do in pro ball is just go one step at a time. If you jump steps, that's great. As long as you can move up the ladder.

"Did I wish I was in AAA? Yeah. But you know what? I was fine, I was OK. I was doing my thing. I was having a good year. Life was good for that year."

Also, he noted, with Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, Bill Madlock, and Omar Moreno, Rick Lancellotti, along with anyone else, isn't going anywhere.

He did move up. He hit AAA Portland in 1980. Then, after a trade, hit the majors with San Diego in August 1982.

That year in Buffalo was also important for Lancellotti for another reason. That was the year he met his wife, Debbie. He kept coming back to Buffalo, then finally made his home in his wife's hometown, running Rick Lancellotti's Buffalo School of Baseball outside the city since 1993. They have two grown children, Joe, 24, and Katie, 20.

Born in Rhode Island, Lancellotti and his family moved around New England growing up, as his father moved up in the insurance industry. The Lancellottis lived in Vermont, then New Hampshire. For college, the destination was New Jersey and Glassboro State, now Rowan University.
Photo of Lancellotti with AAA Portland in 1980 on display at Lancellotti's baseball school. The caption reads "1980 Portland, Or., Broken Nose"

It was out of Glassboro that the Pittsburgh Pirates selected Lancellotti the draft. After his breakout year in 1979, Lancellotti moved to AAA Portland for 1980. But he hit just .221 with 7 home runs in 61 games and was shipped back to Buffalo.

In 30 games back there, Lancellotti did better, hitting .262 with 10 home runs. The Pirates then traded him, to the Padres. He finished out the season at AA Amarillo, hitting .380.

Hawaii Islanders pennant from 1981 above the door at Rick Lancellotti's Buffalo School of Baseball

He spent 1981 completely at AAA Hawaii, then Hawaii again for 1982. It wasn't until August 1982 that he finally made the majors.

"It's amazing with baseball," Lancellotti said when asked if he was frustrated by how long it took to make the majors, "it's such a great game, it's so much fun to play when you're little ... and then, as you get older and you start getting into the pro ranks, you realize it's not so fun, it's not so great. It becomes a very cold-blooded game.

"If you don't do good, you're out. They have no problem canning you. You can't afford to do bad."

The frustration level, he said, does mount. Friends get traded, they get released, sent home.

"Your team becomes very, very close, because it's like you guys against the world," Lancellotti said. "You're not making any money and you're all after the same thing and your battling."

"It's so hard to go to that next level and you know that that whole team is not going to go up," Lancellotti continued later. "You not only feel bad for yourself, you feel bad for them. And you're fighting demons like left and right, you're fighting them off and you've got to keep plugging away."

"You can't afford to have a bad week," Lancellotti said. "You can have a bad game once in a while, but don't you have a bad week. Then all of a sudden your name starts coming up in trade rumors, release rumors. And it starts to wear on you pretty good."

"That's only after three or four years," Lancellotti said, "after 15..."

After 15 years, Lancellotti had gone through 15 seasons, played in Japan and played in 36 major league games.

In the end, it was his work in the minors that got him noticed, by Bob Ryan, of the Boston Globe. Lancellotti had continued hitting homers, though not at the pace of that 1979 campaign. And he kept hitting home runs.

By the time he was done in 1991, he was credited with 276, then cited by Ryan as the career record for minor leaguers. Lancellotti recalled Ryan likening Lancellotti to the fictional Crash Davis of Bull Durham.*

A sampling of newspaper articles on display at Lancellotti's baseball school

That was in June 1990. And, all of a sudden, news outlets all over were calling him. When The Today Show called, he recalled. At first he didn't believe it was really them. But it was.

"People would say 'Rick, you've got 200 home runs,' and I'm like, 'yeah, great, they're all in the minor leagues. What the hell good are they?'"

Lancellotti knew nothing about the minor league home run mark, until then. He didn't even think about it.

That wasn't the goal.

"Every home run in the minor leagues, to me, at some point was one more to get out of it," Lancellotti said. "That's how I looked at it. You know, maybe that's the one to get me out of here. Maybe somebody finally says, 'you know what? enough of this shit. Let's get this guy up in the big leagues and see if he can hit them up there."

Helping keep Lancellotti in the minors to hit those home runs, Lancellotti credited a construction-slowed drive to Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium during his first stint in the majors in September 1982 - and the life-draining dressing down by his Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams.

Part 1: Christmas Morning | Part 2: Moving Up
Part 3:
Stunned | Part 4: Lived It | Postscript: How Cool It Was

*Correction August 2015: Rick Lancellotti was cited as the minor league home run record holder by Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan, however, he did not hold the actual record. The actual minor league record was held by Buzz Artlett, who hit 432 in a career that ended in 1937.

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