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Saturday, February 26, 2011

G21D Interview Part 3: Stunned

Rick Lancellotti gestures to a photo from his first major league hit at his baseball school outside Buffalo. That hit came two weeks before a game-saving catch and subsequent dressing-down by his Hall of Fame manager.

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

Rick Lancellotti took off running. Ron Oester had just hit one to the wall. Lancellotti needed to catch it.

It was the bottom of the sixth, two outs, two Reds were on and the Padres were up by three.

"I would have gone through the wall to catch that ball," Lancellotti recalled recently to The Greatest 21 Days, "I got to catch the ball. Because I'm a rookie, I got to do things. I can't just back off."

This was Sept. 8, Lancellotti's eighth major league start, ninth big league appearance overall. He'd been brought up from the minors for the first time.

It was also his latest chance to impress the Padres Hall of Fame Manager Dick Williams.

Lancellotti dove, slamming into the wall. Stunned and injured, Lancellotti stayed down. It wasn't until the umpire came out, demanding to see the ball, Lancellotti recalled, that he realized he had, in fact, caught it. Inning over.

It was a catch The Los Angeles Times called "one of the defensive plays of the season." It was also one The Times quoted the gruff manager as calling "a game saver." The Padres went on to win the game.

Williams was a manager players knew was tough going in, Lancellotti recalled. Praise was rare. Players also knew to simply keep their distance.

But with the praise from his Williams, also came instructions. Lancellotti badly injured his shoulder on the play. The instructions: Make sure to be there the next day for treatment.

Lancellotti was there. But he was late.

Staying with his wife, they got into the car at the hotel an hour before the appointment for what was supposed to be a 20-minute drive. Lancellotti knew Williams didn't tollerate players being late. Construction, however, turned that short drive into over an hour.

They didn't make it to the treatment session until 2:15 p.m. The appointment was at 2.

Williams was there waiting. He also wouldn't accept Lancellotti's explanation. As far as Williams was concerned, Lancellotti recalled, the only way Lancellotti should have been late was if he were dead.

Lancellotti was stunned.


"I'm like 'do you think I would do this on purpose?'" Lancellotti recalled. "'I've been here three weeks, you know, I wouldn't even dream of doing this on purpose. I got stuck in traffic.'"

By the time the managerial dressing down was done, it was clear: Lancellotti no longer had a future with the Padres, as long as Williams was manager.

"You talk about the life just going right out of you," Lancellotti recalled.

Despite his game-saving catch, Lancellotti didn't start for the Padres again. Williams still used him in pinch-hitting roles, with Lancellotti ending up with 39 at bats and just seven hits.

But, days after the season concluded, the newly-minted first baseman who'd debuted just a month after Tony Gwynn, was sent to the Expos.

His stay with the Expos was brief in 1983. After another brief stint in the Rangers, Lancellotti was back with the Padres. But he was at AAA.

In 1984, the year the Padres went on to the World Series, Lancellotti hit .287 with 29 home runs. He also didn't get called back up.

Lancellotti split 1985 between the Mets and the Giants systems, both at AAA. But was the Giants who would call Lancellotti back to the majors, in 1986. He got one at bat in June, then came back in September.

A photo from the wall of Lancellotti's baseball school, Lancellotti in 1986 as a San Francisco Giant.

It was in September that Lancellotti got his only two major league home runs, Sept. 21 and Sept. 23. The bat he used to hit his first home run is among those on display at his baseball school.

By that time, Japan was after him, wanting him to sign there, and wanting to pay him good money to do so.

But Lancellotti turned them down, multiple times.

"I want to play in the big leagues. That's what I was born to do," Lancellotti said of his decision then. "I wasn't born to go to Japan. I was born to hopefuly some day play in the big leagues. And here I am, and now you want me to go to Japan?"

By the end of the year, though, he was confused. He didn't care about the money. But he also wanted at least some assurances about 1987.

Speaking to Giants Manager Roger Craig, Craig told Lancellotti he believed he could hit and Craig needed a power guy. Then came the "but." But, Lancellotti needed to talk to the team president, Al Rosen. Craig had his opinion, but it wasn't his decision.

Rosen believed Lancellotti might hit 40 home runs, if left alone for a year. Lancellotti responded by guarenteeing 25. If he didn't, he'd play for a dollar. "That's how confident I am in what I do, because it's all I do," Lancellotti recalled, lowering his voice, "it's all I've ever done."

Rosen responded with the uncertainties of baseball in October: there are trades, there's free agency, there's the winter between then and the spring. There were no guarantees. He couldn't.

That deal in Japan, Lancellotti recalled Rosen saying, wasn't that bad.

"As soon as he said that, I'm like, aw, man, he's telling me to go to Japan," Lancellotti said. "There it is, without saying 'go,' he's telling me to go."

Lancellotti went, signing with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp. He would continue hitting home runs, taking the league crown in 1987 with 39. A bat commemorating that fete is also at his baseball school.

But, his decision to go to Japan, was a decision he would come to regret.

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

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