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Only Pain Remains for Lombardi : Chronic Aches Remind Former Catcher of Unfulfilled Potential

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The left knee produces a steady, dull ache these days, the result of cartilage and tendons worn ragged from more than 500 games as a pro baseball catcher and countless hundreds of other games squatting behind the plate from Little League through high school, followed by three operations to make the pain more bearable. The shoulder aches too, cartilage frayed from 1,000 or maybe 5,000 rocket-launch throws from behind the plate.

A flight of stairs can send shuddering pain racing through the left leg of Phil Lombardi. Lifting things can bring a jolt of lightning raging through his shoulder.

Baseball exacted a heavy toll.

Phil Lombardi is 29.

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Lombardi vaulted into pro ball in 1981 after three years spent crushing baseballs and baserunners for Kennedy High. When the New York Yankees selected him in the third round of the free-agent draft that year, they got a young man whom some believed was the finest high school catcher in the nation. A 6-footer who weighed 200 pounds, he was a force behind the plate. Collisions with baserunners left Lombardi grinning and the baserunner pondering the meaning of life.

In his third season in the minors he batted .300 and caught 50 games in near-flawless fashion. His future, it seemed, was as bright as the lights of New York.

Today, Lombardi sits at his desk in the Pinnacle Estate Properties real estate firm in Northridge. The abbreviations that once filled his life with joy-- AB, H, HR and RBI --have been replaced by 3BD, 2BA.

He appeared in 43 major league games, batting .239 with three home runs and nine runs batted in.

Lombardi’s dream has died.

Its passing was slow, painful and horrible.

“All I’ve got left is my baseball card,” he said. “Really, I was just a common player. My card isn’t worth a nickel. And it hurts, because I know I could have been so much more.”

When Lombardi led Kennedy to the City Section 4-A Division championship in 1981, he had his career all planned out. He envisioned himself following in the footsteps of the catching greats like Johnny Bench. His defensive skills, highlighted by a marvelous, powerful arm, were such that by his senior season he seldom got a chance to show them off.

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To run on Phil Lombardi was to be met at second base by the shortstop, who already was holding the ball and whistling to pass time until your arrival.

In 1989, after having been traded by the Yankees to the New York Mets and then picked up on waivers by the Atlanta Braves, he was told he would get a shot at being the No. 3 catcher. Maybe. With an aching knee, shoulder and heart, Lombardi said no thanks. He retired.

“I had idols like Johnny Bench and Pete Rose because I thought I could have a career like they did,” Lombardi said. “Instead, I became a so-so player, in all honesty. My career was one step forward and one step backward. A lot of things happened, but in the end, my injuries wiped me out.”

The left knee, already badly worn from a decade of youth and high school catching, worsened dramatically in 1983 when Lombardi was catching for the Yankees’ farm team in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He missed the last two months of the season and had his first operation. In 1985, after batting .292 the previous year with the Yankees’ triple-A club in Columbus, Ohio, the knee became more painful than ever. Operation No. 2 did little to help, Lombardi said, and he learned to endure the pain.

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In 1988, a year after the Yankees had traded him to the Mets, the pain became excruciating and Lombardi underwent a third operation and missed the final three months of the season. After spending most of the next season rehabilitating the knee with the Mets’ triple-A team in Tidewater, Fla., Lombardi got another shot at the major leagues. He played in 18 games for the Mets but mostly at first base. The knee simply would not endure more squatting. He batted .229 in 48 at-bats, and after the season was released.

The Braves invited him to spring training, told him they would consider him as a reserve catcher, and the long and standout career that Lombardi had envisioned had come to a thudding halt.

“When I was with the Mets, (catcher) Todd Hundley watched me behind the plate one day,” Lombardi recalled. “He could tell I was hurting and noticed that I had all my weight shifted onto my right leg to alleviate the pain. Then he told me his father (longtime major league catcher Randy Hundley) had the same type injury to his left knee when he had been catcher, and shifted his weight onto his right side too.

“The result was that his father’s hips were thrown out of alignment and at the age of 50 he had to have a hip-replacement operation. Right after he told me that story, my hips started to hurt. I swear.”

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So, when his playing career ended a year later, he accepted it. There was another plan, however, one Lombardi had formulated as the knee injuries mounted. If he could not play, Lombardi reasoned, he still could stay in the game he loved so much. He could coach. Work his way into a management position.

Plan B panned out no better than Plan A.

“I always looked at myself as a baseball person,” he said. “I lived it and breathed it and studied it and consider myself pretty intelligent. But as much as I wanted to stay in the game, it wasn’t my place to announce that I was done playing and now wanted to be a coach. Things don’t work that way.

“They’re supposed to ask you.”

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Lombardi returned to his home in Sylmar and waited for the call.

And waited.

“I turned my back on baseball, and I guess baseball has turned its back on me,” he said. “The phone just never rang. That was that. I was a real student of the game and I figured someone would see that and give me a call. The phone never rang.”

Asked if he has tried making the call, inquiring about minor league coaching openings, Lombardi said no.

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“It could be arrogance on my part,” he said. “I know I can coach, but I have to feel needed. Maybe no one knows I’m interested. But I just can’t bring myself to start calling everyone, looking for that chance.”

Joe McIlvaine, the vice president of baseball with the Mets when Lombardi played in Shea Stadium and now the general manager of the San Diego Padres, knew Lombardi well. He also knows that sitting by the telephone is not the way to get back into the game.

“Phil has great baseball acumen, a great sense of the game,” McIlvaine said. “I think he might make a solid contribution to a baseball team. I tell anyone in his position to stay out of baseball for a year or two after they stop playing, to absorb the real world for a while.

“Then, if he wants to get back in, he’s got to pound on some doors. He’s got to write letters and call and go all-out to get some attention. There are jobs out there. But those jobs don’t just fall out of trees.”

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Lombardi has taken the time off that McIlvaine suggested. But instead of pounding on baseball’s doors, he has immersed himself in the real estate business, a move that certainly didn’t rank too highly on the timing scale. But he said he has learned the business during these recession years and that he will be prepared for the anticipated flood of business when the recession ends.

Real estate, Lombardi said, will be his future.

Disappointment has been his past.

“Things didn’t work out for me, and the frustration is so great,” he said.

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“In one sense my dream came true, to play in the major leagues. But overall, the dream I really had, the dream of having a long and successful career, has died.

“My dreams these days are not quite nightmares. But they are uneasy dreams.”

Baseball: The Rites of Passage.

A four-part look at players from the region in various stages of their professional careers.

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Thursday: Dmitri Young--The former Rio Mesa High standout is a fledgling in the St. Louis Cardinals organization.

Friday: Scott Radinsky--The Simi Valley High product is considered one of the American League’s top relievers and appears to be on the verge of becoming a superstar.

Saturday: Dwight Evans--The curtain is about to close on the former Boston Red Sox great and Chatsworth High graduate.

Today: Phil Lombardi--The one-time Kennedy High star’s potential was never fulfilled during an injury-plagued career, and at 29 he is out of baseball.

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