Monday, August 29, 2016

Interview Part 3: Steve Lienhard, How Fortunate

Citi Field in 2009. The Steve Lienhard-coached Mike Pelfrey pitched for the Mets seven seasons for the Mets, including 2009. (Greatest 21 Days)
Part 1: Exciting Time | Part 2: Learning Experience
Part 3: How Fortunate

Steve Lienhard got the call - a local youth team's pitching staff in Wichita needed some instruction in 1997 and Lienhard, a veteran pitcher of six minor league seasons and a few afterward as a coach, accepted the challenge.

Made up mostly of 14-year-olds, the team included at least one younger pitcher, a player's 6-foot, 2-inch 13-year-old younger brother - a younger pitcher with a long, loose arm by the name of Mike Pelfrey that no one could seem to catch.

"I told him some things and worked with him a little bit," Lienhard recalled of that first session with Pelfrey, "and he was receptive."

Pelfrey's mother, there for the instruction, inquired of Lienhard about her son's prospects. What did he think?

"I said, 'Ma'am, this young man's going to pitch in the big leagues some day,'" Lienhard recalled to The Greatest 21 Days of that meeting, about nine years before Pelfrey would debut in the majors. "'The thing about it is you need to make sure and get him with the right person.'"

The teen hurler's mother knew on the spot. Lienhard was that person. Lienhard worked with Pelfrey through his teen years and he continues to work with him in the off-season.

Lienhard recalled working with Pelfrey about 10 times before Pelfrey continued his long big league career in 2016 with the Tigers, his 11th season in the majors.

"It's been extra special," Lienhard said of working with a pitcher like Pelfrey. "He's been given a gift from God. He's really a good person and he's got a good family."
The home of the Clinton Lumberkings in 2014. Steve Lienhard both played and coached at Clinton. He coached there in 1993 and 1994. (Greatest 21 Days)
Lienhard turned to coaching after his own six-season professional career. He made it as high as AA, but he never made the majors.

Lienhard spent four of those seasons in the Giants organization, winning Pitcher of the Year honors in the California League in 1989 and then making AA Shreveport for 1990. But, as spring training 1991 wound down, Lienhard learned the Giants' plans didn't include him.

Out running on the final day of spring training, Lienhard got called into the office. After a decent spring with no terrible outings, he learned the team was letting him go.

Lienhard couldn't believe it. Was it his numbers? Something he'd done?

The response: It's a business. The organization had some lefties and a young righthander on their way up. Lienhard was just in the middle of that getting pushed out.

On the way out, he got a tip. The manager for the Brewers' club at El Paso, Dave Huppert, against whom Lienhad's Giants played the day he got released, heard about Lienhard's release and suggested Lienhard contact their minor league director Bruce Manno.

"I was walking by him to get my stuff," Lienhard recalled of Huppert, "and I can remember him saying, he goes, 'I heard you just got released.'"

Lienhard confirmed the rumor. Huppert, Lienhard recalled, continued, "You still wanting to play?"

A San Francisco Giants pennant signed by members of the 1994 Clinton Lumberkings. The signature of Steve Lienhard, a coach on the team, can be seen near home plate. (Greatest 21 Days)
Lienhard hadn't really thought about it at that point, but, yeah, he still wanted to play. Huppert suggested Lienhard call Manno. They might not have a spot then, but they might soon. Huppert would put in a good word.

In the meantime, Lienhard returned home to Wichita, made some calls and found a spot with the independent California League team in Reno. He got into one game there and he became a Brewer. Manno had responded by purchasing his contact. His destination: Huppert's team in El Paso.

In his first appearance back in the Texas League, Lienhard recalled, he had a no-hitter going through five innings.

"I'll never forget that," Lienhard said of his start. As for his motivations, Lienhard said, "It was a new team. I think I was trying to impress somebody."

Lienhard impressed enough in the first half to make the Texas League All-Star team. A shoulder injury prevented him from playing in the game, or much of the second half until the playoffs. He did pitch in one early second half game, against San Antonio and a young Mike Piazza.

Piazza, Lienhard recalled, hit a high Lienard fastball off the right-center field wall, helping Lienhard realize he needed to rest his shoulder.

Lienhard rested and came back for a couple strong outings in the playoffs. He returned to El Paso for 1992, but his shoulder still wasn't 100 percent. He got into just seven games there, ending his career.

"Why I liked to play is I liked to compete a lot," Lienhard recalled. "Once I started playing, and the competition was so good when I was at Oklahoma State and we were so successful, it just breeded that excitement and the love for the competition and the game of baseball. So it was really hard that they told me that I couldn't do it anymore."
Steve Lienhard, center, with some family outside the home of the College World Series in Omaha in 2016. Lienhard played in Omaha with Oklahoma State and has played or coached in the years since. (Photo Provided)
"I don't have any regrets," Lienhard said. "I worked hard at it, got a lot out of the ability that I felt I had. ... It helped to really nurture the passion that I had for baseball and it gave me a lot of experience that I'm passing on to players today. I feel like I'm very fortunate from all the experiences that I've gotten."

His playing career over, Lienhard started coaching. An old Giants coach of his, Todd Oakes, had become the organization's minor league pitching coordinator. Oakes offered Lienhard a job as a coach in the rookie Arizona League and Lienhard accepted.

Lienhard spent three seasons in the Giants organization and another with an independent team as a coach, including 1993 and 1994 at single-A Clinton. He then briefly coached in college at Kansas University and then turned to instruction and youth coaching.

He's worked in high school, becoming head coach at Kapaun Mount Carmel High School in Wichita in 2009, a job he continues to hold in 2016. He also coaches in 2016 with 316 Elite Sports in Wichita, all while working his day job as an industrial engineer.

A father of four, he even got to coach his son, Joe Lienhard, who has gone on to play at the father's old college, Oklahoma State.

"I realize as I gotten older just how fortunate I have been throughout my career to be involved with the people I've been involved with," Lienhard said.

"I've put on a uniform every year since I was 5 years old,' Lienhard said. "I don't know if I'll ever stop."

Be sure to read Part 1: Steve Lienhard, Exciting Time

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

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