What sandlot baseball player wouldn't want to be coached by a former major-leaguer? And a World Series champion to boot?
The Maryland Red Dogs, an 11-and-underAYRAtravel team, count themselves as one lucky team to have former Minnesota Twins second baseman Steve Lombardozzias their leader.
Lombardozzi, 41, moved to Columbia four years ago to be closer to his brothers, who were living in the area. Now the 1987 World Series star spends his time not only with wife, Jill, 14-year-old daughter, Toni, and 11-year-old son, Stevie, and with his advertising specialty business, Double Play Promotions, but with the Red Dogs as well.
"I love coaching," says Lombardozzi, who grew up in Danvers, Mass., and learned his baseball basics from his father. "It's a way for me to share my gift."
Lombardozzi says he gets as much of a thrill in talking about his young players as he does in relating his own baseball accomplishments.
Those accomplishments include the 1987 World Series in which he was the Twins' starting second baseman. After 4 1/2 years in the minors and eight years with the Twins, Lombardozzi played with the Houston Astros from 1989 to 1991 before retiring.
Now he spends about 25 hours a week coaching, almost nine months a year.
As 8-year-olds, the Red Dogs were undefeated; as 9-year-olds, the team won its league, state and North Atlantic Regional Championships, then repeated as 10-year-olds, traveling to the American Amateur Baseball Congress World Series in Memphis, Tenn., last year.
About 2,400 teams started the season trying to make it to the final eight, says Lombardozzi, "and the Red Dogs did it." The team finished seventh in the series, but neither Lombardozzi nor his kids were discouraged. This season, "We're off to another great start," says the coach, whose assistant is Dennis Thompson. The team, which competes in the Baltimore Metro League, won a Memorial Day weekend tournament in Reading, Pa. Four games a week from the first of May to the first week of August means lots of time to cement another championship season.
Lombardozzi, who calls his kids "awesome," emphasizes basics.
"He brings a lot of knowledge," says AYRA president Ben Adkins, "but in addition, he's an excellent coach. He knows how to teach."
Lombardozzi's approach, Adkins explains, is to make sure the kids know that having fun does not stem from winning games.
"Winning is a byproduct of having fun," Lombardozzi says. "Most people have it backwards. I try to teach the proper fundamentals. If you teach them the basics, then you're setting them up for success. The more successes you give them, the more positive experience they'll have.
"There's a joy in showing them what to do," Lombardozzi adds, "and then, when I see the joy on their faces when they make a catch or throw the ball, that's what I'm in it for - to know that I've been able to create that for them."
Frank McQuilkin, whose son Brett is a Red Dog, says, "despite the tough schedule, Brett is up and dressed before anybody on Saturday mornings, just waiting to get to the field. When a kid is that excited, you know this is a great experience for him."
McQuilkin, a coach himself, applauds Lombardozzi's teaching skills. "He wants the kids to win, but he wants to get everything right even more," he says. "Every kid on the team learns, and every kid gets better. And what a neat thing, to have a big-leaguer like that as your coach."