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Atholton alumnus Steve Lombardozzi keeping baseball dreams alive

Steve Lombardozzi, a 2007 graduate of Atholton, takes a swing during a game for the Syracuse Chiefs, the Washington Nationals' Triple-A affiliate. Lombardozzi is back with the organization after spending time with the Detriot Tigers, Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates.
Steve Lombardozzi, a 2007 graduate of Atholton, takes a swing during a game for the Syracuse Chiefs, the Washington Nationals' Triple-A affiliate. Lombardozzi is back with the organization after spending time with the Detriot Tigers, Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates. (Photo courtesy of Rick Nelson)

Just a little more than two months ago, Atholton alumnus Steve Lombardozzi was playing baseball in the independent league for the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs.

It was a new beginning of sorts for Lombardozzi, who in 2011 made his major league debut for the Washington Nationals, and in 2012 played in 126 games and batted .273 for the club.

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Over the last few years, Lombardozzi, 27, bounced around the league, including stints with the Baltimore Orioles in 2014 and Pittsburgh Pirates in 2015, but never played in more than 20 games for either team.

In June, however, Lombardozzi was signed by the Nationals and assigned to their Triple-A team, the Syracuse Chiefs, as he attempts to reach the major leagues once again with the team that drafted him out of St. Petersburg College in 2008.

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Lombardozzi recently took some time before a game to talk to sports reporter Tim Schwartz about his baseball path the last few years, what he feels his true position is, and what it was like to get the phone call from the Nationals inviting him back into their farm system.

Q: For those who may not have been following your journey, how would you describe it?

A: I think growing up as a kid, having my dad who played in the big leagues, and having my mom — the two of them and the support system as I grew up, I owe them a lot of credit for the person I am today. They didn't miss a single game — either of them — and they loved watching me play then and to this day they do. So my upbringing, I credit them tremendously, my dad [a former big league player] helping me along the way, helping me learn the game. I was able to be around the game when I was young. We were able to go to big league games and sometimes go in the locker room and I was able to meet big leaguers, and from a very young age I fell in love with the game. I loved it. I loved competing. I hate to lose. I love working — the hard work I had to put into it.

Steve Lombardozzi, seen in this file photo from 2011 with the Washington Nationals just days after making his major league debut, is back with the organization that drafted him as a member of the Nationals' Triple-A affiliate Syracuse Chiefs.
Steve Lombardozzi, seen in this file photo from 2011 with the Washington Nationals just days after making his major league debut, is back with the organization that drafted him as a member of the Nationals' Triple-A affiliate Syracuse Chiefs. (File photo by Brian Krista)

I went on to go to junior college and did well there for a year and was able to get drafted by the Nationals, and I slowly worked my way up. It was a fun ride going through the minors and actually getting to the big leagues. Again, my parents played a huge role in it. My dad helping me with the grind of the season — it's a long season — and trying to stay even-minded. Making it to the big leagues was a dream come true. It was something I always wanted to do, but to actually get there and do it was something I'll never forget. And also to be with the Nationals; to be 35 minutes down the road growing up, family and friends came to the games. It's unbelievable. To me, it was a very special time when I was in D.C. I don't regret a single thing. The organization has been great to me. I've been moving around the last few years to a couple different organizations, and the ups and downs and continuing to work on my game and find the joy to keep playing the game. And also helping others along the way as I get older. Trying to help other guys that maybe I feel like I can say a couple things to here or there. It's been a fun ride.

You have kind of been through everything as a baseball player — being traded from the Nationals to Detroit and then playing with Baltimore and Pittsburgh, and eventually down to the independent league. How is your approach different this time around in Syracuse from the last time you were there in 2011?

Number one, the way I play the game is the same. I play the game hard; I put work into it. My preparation and all that is the same. That will never really change; that's just kind of who I am. I'll leave it out on the field. I think as I've gotten older I've gotten smarter. I've learned when to take 'x' amount of swings and when to kind of just take a couple and when I feel good to stop. Putting in the work but knowing when enough is enough, and other times when I do need to put in more work. But it's also — coming up through the minors, you want to make it to the big leagues so bad that it's hard. Sometimes you lose focus of where you are, and that's something my dad was able to help me with — how to stay focused wherever I was. I think even now, where I am and where I've come from, I'm learning how to enjoy being here. I was in independent league ball earlier this year and that's where I was. I wasn't worried about where I was going to be later in the year or next year, I knew I was in [independent] ball and I wanted to focus and enjoy being there and working on my game. And now I'm here and I'm focused on this. I have another month or so of the season and I want to enjoy this, I want to enjoy getting better each day and being around my teammates.

Since you've been back in Syracuse you've played a few different positions. What do you feel like at this point in your career your actual position is?

I came up as a second basemen, but obviously then I started moving around and playing the outfield and playing shortstop and third. At second I'm probably the most comfortable, but again that's part of my game. Especially as a utility player, I've got to continue to work and get better because for me the more positions I can play the better.

The dynamic of a Triple-A team is different than a lot of places I have to imagine, even compared to the big leagues, because you have guys like Bronson Arroyo and now Mat Latos who have been there and done that, but you've also got guys like Lucas Giolito and the young guys. What's that mix of guys like?

Yeah, at times it can be a tricky level because, just like you said, you're dealing with guys that could be older and had time in the big leagues and then you have younger guys who are trying to get there. Sometimes you battle with the clubhouse coming together and the chemistry. I think it's really important that the older guys on the team or the guys who have been around a little longer, for them to be a good role model for the guys coming up.

Do you feel like you're one of those guys?

A little bit. I don't want to feel too old yet, but yeah I have been around a little longer I feel like, or more so than some of the guys on this team. If there's any way I can help guys here or there; a lot of the stuff is kind of — I'll talk to guys sometimes more about the mental side, maybe how to approach a hitter or a situation during the game, but also continue to be who I am and play the game hard and go about my business. I feel like I kind of lead by example. I continue to try to go about my business the way I always have.

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Take me back a few months to when you got that phone call from the Nationals inviting you back into the system. Were you ready to just jump at any opportunity to join any major league system? Was there any more inclination that it was the Nats and you had a comfort level there? Take me through the process of all that.

When I was in [independent] ball, I actually was really enjoying my time there. I was getting a chance to play every day; I was working on different parts of my game. I had a good group of guys around me. It needed to be the right situation for me. Obviously, did I want to get back to pro ball and have a chance of possibly getting back to the big leagues? Yeah. But at the same time I needed to continue working on different parts of my game, so it did need to be the right situation for me, and when the Nationals called — I spoke to [Nationals' Assistant General Manager and Vice President of Player Personnel] Doug Harris — I really couldn't think of a better opportunity for me because they drafted me, I came up through the system and they treated me really well. I thought it would be a good opportunity for me.

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Were there any doubts that the opportunity would come again?

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I don't know. I wouldn't say that I was really worried about that. I think my focus wasn't necessarily — I mean yeah, in the back of my head like do I wonder if I will get a call? Yeah, there might have been a little, but that wasn't the main focus for me. My focus was to: one, I was getting a chance to play the game again every day and I haven't had the opportunity in a while. I was focused on enjoying that part of it and enjoy playing the game, being out there everyday. And I think if you go the other way and you start worrying and wondering is there going to be another chance, that can be a slippery slope and can really play games with your mind.

When you first got to Syracuse it looks like you started a little slow at the plate. How long did it take you to start figuring things out again, and was there any adjustment period getting back to that level of baseball?

Yeah, there definitely was a little bit of an adjustment period and I figured there would be facing the pitching. There was some good pitching in the independent league, but you see more consistent pitching here and the velocity is more consistently higher here. So I knew there was going to be a little bit of an adjustment and yeah, I definitely started slow and it wasn't the start I would hope for, but in this game you never know what's going to happen. You can't take anything for granted and you're always learning. It was another learning curve for me to get locked back in and I feel like I've started to get back to where I should be and the hitter I can be. That's just been part of the journey.

It seems like you've been through the entire spectrum that any baseball player can go through, playing at so many different levels. When you think about your career, is there any moment that sticks out the most?

The Orioles added another player to their infield mix Monday, acquiring switch-hitting local product Steve Lombardozzi Jr. in a trade that sent veteran infielder Alex Gonzalez to the Detroit Tigers.

I think making it and getting called to the big leagues. Randy Knorr was my manager in Triple-A and he called me into the office at the end of 2011 and told me I was going up in September. I mean, that's something I'll never forget. And then my first at-bat, walking to the plate in Nationals Park with family and friends there, that's something I'll always remember. It was very special to me and still is. And the other thing I would say is definitely winning the division in 2012 with the Nationals. That was very special.

What's the support been like from your family and old friends or old coaches from your time at Atholton been like?

The support has been unbelievable, and I'm very grateful and blessed to have all the support. Even people who went to Atholton before or after me; there's been times where I've ran into people and they'll stop me and say something. To me, there's nothing special about me. I just love baseball and I've worked hard at it and I've been fortunate enough to get to the big leagues. They're telling me how awesome it is or was to see me play and that's awesome for me. I'm very humbled when I hear things like that from people. I still keep in touch with my high school coach to this day, coach [Kevin] Kelly. He was awesome with me at Atholton and he had a huge impact on me, and we're still very close to this day. I don't think he misses a game; he's always checking in on me and pulling for me.

Overall, what's your end game and what's your motivation to keep this whole rollercoaster ride going?

I don't think I have an end goal. I think I want to enjoy each day that I get a chance to play this game and continue to play it. I'm blessed to be out on a field every day and I want to enjoy that and every day continue to work on parts of my game. Wherever that leads me, we'll find out, but I want to continue having fun playing this game for as long as I can.

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