Steve Lombardozzi Jr. was a regular fixture on the Atholton High School diamond from 2004 to 2007 not only during games and practices, but pretty much whenever he had free time.
Lombardozzi's father, Steve Sr., who spent five seasons in the Major Leagues with the Minnesota Twins and Houston Astros and won a World Series with the Twins in 1987, would hit ground balls for hours to his son, who became pretty good at fielding them.
Back then, Lombardozzi Sr. said of his son, "I think he has a better all-around make up than I did, and I feel comfortable making that kind of statement without putting too much pressure on him."
More than just a flattering statement from a doting father, the elder Lombardozzi meant exactly what he said.
Flash forward to this summer — Lombardozzi Jr. is a 6-foot tall, 170-pound switch-hitting middle infielder for the Syracuse Chiefs, the Triple-A affiliate of the Washington Nationals. As the youngest player on the Chiefs roster at 22 years and 11 months, Lombardozzi Jr. leads the team with a .316 batting average (77-for-244) through games of Aug. 22.
Since being promoted from Double-A Harrisburg (where he batted .309 with four home runs, 23 RBIs and and stole 16 bases in 19 tries) June 21, Lombardozzi has been one of the Chiefs' best all around players. Batting leadoff, he hit safely in his first 11 games, and is in the top 10 in most offensive categories. His 40 runs (fourth), two triples (third), nine stolen bases (third) and .792 on-base plus slugging percentage (fifth) all have him in the top five, despite the fact that he has fewer at bats than seven of his teammates.
"My approach going to the plate has been a little different at Triple-A, but my swing and routine daily hasn't changed," he said.
And he hasn't forgotten the lessons he learned with his father during those late afternoons and early evenings at Atholton. In 56 games, Lombardozzi has yet to commit an error with the Chiefs.
While Lombardozzi has stayed focused on the business at hand, there is plenty of fun to be had at the doorstep of the Major Leagues.
He's had the chance to wear different jerseys through promotions such as "Throwback Thursday" and has rubbed elbows with the likes of actor Billy Baldwin and former Oakland Athletics "Bash Brother" Jose Canseco during promotional visits to the stadium. He has also played against well-known players such as Colorado's Kevin Millwood and Detroit's Brandon Inge.
"It's been kind of eye opening, but after awhile you see that they're guys just like you and I," he said. "I don't get as wide-eyed, I'm more comfortable now."
He got his chance to play in front of family and friends at historic Fenway Park against the Pawtucket Red Sox, Boston's Triple-A affiliate. It wasn't his first game played at a big-league ballpark — he played a game at Camden Yards after his senior year of high school as a Brooks Robinson High School All Star — and it will not likely be his last.
When Lombardozzi Jr. was drafted in the 19th round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft out of St. Petersburg Junior College, in Clearwater, Fla., scouts could have hardly predicted such a quick rise through the minor leagues.
But the same relentless work ethic that drove him to success at every other level of baseball has translated into success as a pro as well.
"I wasn't really sure what to expect, but coming into spring training I got promoted (to Harrisburg)," Lombardozzi Jr. said. "I knew to just keep doing what I've been doing."
That means reading up on opposing pitchers the night before games, studying how they approach batters similar to himself during games and taking advantage of the resources around him.
Lombardozzi said that he has become close friends with fellow middle infielders Seth Bynum and Matt Antonelli as well as outfielders Corey Brown and Jeff Frazier. All are minor-leagues veterans.
"They've been awesome, they've really helped me out," Lombardozzi said. "I've picked their brains about the pitching because the pitching at Triple-A is a lot different … it's a lot more finesse pitchers, guys that have a lot more command. At Double-A it was a lot more power pitchers. Here guys throw in the 90s, but with a lot more control."
It's no surprise that Lombardozzi has gravitated to the Chiefs' older players, despite being the yougest player on the roster. The Syracuse coaches have noticed he plays with a poise and approach to the game that belies his age.
"I don't have to worry about him, I know he's going to get his work in," Chiefs manager Randy Knorr said on the team's official podcast. "He's always in the right spot at the right time … He'll grind out the at-bat, he doesn't just throw them away … he's going to fight and fight and foul balls off and do whatever he can. He'll bunt, he'll let the (count) get deep, where I see some of the other guys, they'll just go out there and swing three times and go sit down."
Knorr, who also coached Lombardozzi in the Arizona Fall League, isn't the only one in the Nationals organization the Atholton graduate has impressed with his mature approach to the game. Manager Davey Johnson cited Lombardozzi by name when discussing which prospects he would like to see called up when rosters expand Sept. 1 from 25 to 40 players.
Perhaps even more telling, Lombardozzi' name came up frequently in the rumor mill as a player coveted by other teams as the July 31 trade deadline approached.
"That was definitely something new to me. I heard that there was some talk, but I tried not to think about it too much," said.
While he is trying to remain focused on his job with the Chiefs, it's hard not to detect a bit of boyish giddiness when the normally reserved Lombardozzi discusses the prospect of getting to play in the Majors.
"I try not to think about that, but yeah, it is a possibility," he said. "It would be great, but whatever happens will happen. The bottom line is that I get to play baseball everyday, and I'm loving it … I've really just been enjoying the journey."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun