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Sunday, August 28, 2016

Interview Part 2: Steve Lienhard, Learning Experience

A Bakersfield pitcher delivers to the plate in 2012 at Bakersfield. Steve Lienhard pitched at Bakersfield with San Jose in 1989. (Greatest 21 Days)
Part 1: Exciting Time | Part 2: Learning Experience
Part 3: How Fortunate

Steve Lienhard remembered thinking of the altitude.

Specifically, the newly minted Giants farmhand and pitcher at rookie Pocatello, Idaho, wondered how the altitude would impact his curveball. The answer: Not in a good way.

"That was what I really remembered in Pocatello," Lienhard recalled recently to The Greatest 21 Days. "The air was a lot lighter and a lot drier. The balls were professional baseballs, the seems were smaller and I really started out bad and it was because I couldn't get my curveball over."

Soon, he started thinking of his pitching coach, Diego Segui. The pitching coach approached him and began working with Lienhard to get his pitch selection in order - and ramp up the young hurler's intensity. Segui also introduced Lienhard to the slider.

"I can remember the day in the pen when he started yelling at me - but not yelling at me in a mad way - but yelling at me to get intense and get aggressive on my breaking ball," Lienhard recalled. "I started getting after it and started throwing it as hard as I could and that's when I really started kind of making the change with my breaking ball that made it better."

The by then of the year, Lienhard recalled pitching well. He went on to hit double-digit wins over his next two seasons in the minors and post sub-3 and sub 2 ERAs those years.

While he never made the majors himself, he did make AA and he's worked with countless youth in Kansas in the years since, including helping a young Mike Pelfrey reach his potential and send him on to the majors. Lienhard spoke to The Greatest 21 Days recently by phone from his Kansas home.

Lienhard started with the Giants in the summer of 1987, taken in the 29th round of the draft out of Oklahoma State University. He went to Oklahoma State out of his hometown of McAlester, Okla.
A pitcher delivers to the plate in Clinton, Iowa, in 2014. Steve Lienhard pitched in Clinton in 1988. (Greatest 21 Days)
While Pocatello marked the furthest he'd been from home, he recalled being ready for the distance. Having been in Stillwater, Okla., at Oklahoma State, for five years, that helped prepare him, he said.

Also helping him, he recalled: His parents.

"My mom and dad, they were always so supportive and they worked so hard," Leinhard said. "They knew what I wanted to do and they were behind me 100 percent.

"I think the support that they always gave me gave me the confidence where I could play away on my own. Because I knew if I needed them, I could always call them or I could get in touch with them and they would help me out. I always felt like they were there with me."

He recalled the system of host families for rookie ball players also helped in the transition, giving a bit of a family atmosphere. And Pocatello, Leinhard recalled, wasn't much bigger than McAlester.

Even some of the players were familiar. Lienhard saw players he'd played with at Oklahoma State - and against.

"You kind of look forward to seeing guys you played against or you played with on other teams that were playing professional baseball," Lienhard said. "Those relationships and that kind of stuff makes you more comfortable and relaxes you."

On the field, Lienhard had to make that pitch change. He had a good curveball in college. He threw more breaking balls that fastballs then. But in pro ball at Pocatello, that curve didn't work. He soon went to his slider - and worked with Segui.
The April 7, 1988, Clinton Herald, with the 1988 Clinton Giants. Steve Lienhard is second from the left in the back. (Photo Provided)
He recalled Segui getting him to throw his overhand breaking ball harder. That turned into a good slider. Though he picked it up toward the end of the year, his early struggles showed in his stats. In 14 outings, 12 starts, he went 3-6, with a 5.96 ERA.

"The Pocatello situation was tough," Lienhard said. "That was a challenge getting through it. Getting through that year, really helped me a lot, even after my career in baseball. Because I learned a lot about myself in Pocatello."

From Pocatello, Lienhard went to single-A Clinton for 1988. He extended himself, logging nearly 200 innings on the year and throwing six complete games. He also showed what he could do - he went 12-7, lowering his ERA to 2.93 over 27 starts.

He continued for 1989 at single-A San Jose, going 12-3, with a 1.79 ERA over 31 outings, 17 starts. At San Jose, Lienhard pointed to another coach, Todd Oakes, in helping his approach to pitching.

"I really learned a lot about pro ball and pitching and staying strong, persevering," Lienhard said of his time in Clinton in 1988. "That's where I learned a lot. The next year, when I went to San Jose, I think my relationship that I had with Todd Oakes was really the kind of the difference that year."

Lienhard said he and Oakes really clicked. Both were personable and liked to talk to people. And they talked a lot.

"He talked to me a lot about the mental side, how to set hitters up and what to think about, how to challenge myself mentally," Lienhard said.

"We had good, good guys when I was in the Giants organization," Lienhard said. "It really helps to be around good people and good situations. I was super blessed in being around positive teams."
Bakersfield's Sam Lynn Ballpark in 2012. Steve Lienhard played at Bakersfield for visiting San Jose in 1989. (Greatest 21 Days)
Lienhard recalled throwing five pitches for strikes under Oakes' watch in San Jose - all after barely making the team. An early spot start gave him the opening he needed and he ran with it.

He recalled throwing a couple one-hitters and a couple two-hitters, all keeping his ERA under 2. He even won California League Pitcher of the Year honors.

"I really pitched well that year," Lienhard said. "I mean, it was surreal, really, how well it went."

The next year, he made AA Shreveport and he recalled thinking the majors would be a real possibility. Oakes joined him there as coach. Lienhard stayed in Shreveport the full year, helping the team to the 1990 Texas League championship.

Lienhard started in the bullpen that year, then moved into some starting as guys got hurt. He turned in a 2.50 ERA overall, saving five games.

In the run through the regular season, Shreveport won the first half, then hit a rough spot in the second. Lienhard recalled his manager Bill Evers getting upset with the team, throwing his hands up and asking what the team was going to do about it.

After getting some reinforcements, the club took on San Antonio for the title. Shreveport went down early at home, then came back to win the title. Lienhard didn't have a big role, but he did pitch in a couple games in relief.

"That was just a big learning experience of guys coming together," Lienhard said of the title run. "It was really a team atmosphere, picking up each other, pulling for each other. You don't see that a lot of times in minor league ball because everybody's trying to get to the top by themselves."

For Lienhard, if he was going to get to the top himself, he found out the next spring that he would have to take a different route to get there after the Giants gave him his release. (Go to Part 3)

Go to Part 3: Steve Lienhard, How Fortunate

Part 1: Exciting Time | Part 2: Learning Experience
Part 3: How Fortunate

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