RIP to Phil Lombardi, a catcher who spent his major-league career with both New York teams. He died on May 20 at the age of 58 from complications related to brain cancer. According to a Facebook post made by his daughter Lauren, Lombardi underwent a second surgery to remove the tumor, but the complications from the surgery were too much to overcome. Lombardi played for the New York Yankees (1986-87) and New York Mets (1989).
Phillip Arden Lombardi was born in Abilene, Texas, on February 20, 1963. By the time he was starting to make a name for himself in baseball, though, he was living in Granada Hills, Calif. He attended Kennedy High School and helped lead his team to the 1981 Los Angeles city championship. He batted .333 with 2 home runs and had a reputation as an excellent defensive catcher. He was named City Co-Player of the Year in ’81, along with his batterymate, pitcher Jeff Wetherby. Lombardi was also the catcher in the U.S. entry to the World Friendship Series, an amateur tournament played in Newark. The Series was won by South Korea, who bested the U.S. in the best-of-3 championship. Lombardi was an honorable mention in the all-tournament team.
The New York Yankees drafted Lombardi in Round Three of the 1981 June Amateur Draft. He was expected to attend the University of Southern California, to join legendary coach Rod Dedeaux. He ultimately signed with the Yankees and joined their Gulf Coast League Rookie-level team.
“Money’s probably the main thing,” Lombardi said as he was making his decision between the Yankees and USC. “It would take an awful lot to beat out that education, but if I got the right offer, I would go.” Lombardi had an advantage over the Yankees. The team didn’t have a first-round pick and used their second-round pick on Stanford outfielder John Elway, whose destiny was in another sport completely. New York had drafted college catcher Scott Bradley ahead of Lombardi, but the team needed something to show for their top draft picks, and Lombardi was given a deal he couldn’t pass up.
The Yankees kept Lombardi in the rookie leagues through the 1982 season, allowing the teenager to get some experience in professional ball. In 1983, he split time with the team’s Class-A affiliates in Greensboro and Fort Lauderdale, and he hit a combined .290 with 7 home runs. The following season, he spent the entire year with the Fort Lauderdale Yankees and smacked 8 home runs with 70 RBIs and a .293 batting average. He also stole 22 bases. His manager was ex-catcher Barry Foote, who mentored Lombardi and taught him some of the intricacies of catching. Fort Lauderdale won the Florida State League championship, and both Lombardi and Foote were promoted to AA Albany.
Double-A Albany was where injuries started to affect Lombardi’s game. An injury to his finger caused his batting average to drop to .256, and he had to deal with ligament injuries in his knees. He was limited to 76 games and missed the end of the season for his first of several knee surgeries. Lombardi recovered enough to play briefly for the Yankees in early 1986, when catcher Butch Wynegar was placed on the disabled list. He played in 3 games as a catcher and got his first major-league hit on May against Minnesota pitcher Frank Viola. He was then sent to AAA Columbus until September. When he returned to the majors, he didn’t see any action as catcher — he was used either as a pinch-hitter or a left fielder. He belted a pinch-hit 2-run homer in his second game back in the big leagues. For the year, he had 10 hits, including 2 home runs, in 36 at-bats for a .278/.366/.528 slash line in 20 games.
Yankees manager Lou Piniella liked Lombardi’s bat, as well as his ability to step in as a catcher, outfielder or even corner infielder. “This is a tough club to make,” Lombardi said during spring training in 1987. “There aren’t many openings, but I don’t mind being the No. 23 or 24 guy. I have to be realistic. I’m not going to knock anybody out of a job.”
Lombardi appeared in 5 games with the Yankees at the start of the season as a pinch-hitter and a late-innings catcher. He had just 1 hit, and the effects of his left knee surgery were still limiting his ability to play in the field. He was sent back to Columbus, but he missed time for a second knee surgery and then went back to AA Albany for rehab.
In December of 1987, the Yankees traded Lombardi, along with outfielder Darren Reed and pitcher Steve Frey, to the crosstown Mets for shortstop Rafael Santana and pitcher Victor Garcia. He spent the entire 1988 season with the Tidewater Tides of the International League, serving as a backup outfielder, first baseman and catcher. He batted .308 with 9 home runs in 85 games, missing time for a third knee surgery.
Lombardi’s knees had healed enough for him to catch a couple of days a week for Tidewater in 1989, while playing at first base the rest of the time. He had a career-high 14 home runs in 113 games. The Mets brought him to the majors in late June, when catchers Gary Carter and Barry Lyons both went on the disabled list. Lombardi held down the catcher’s job along with Mackey Sasser and batted .229 in 18 games. In his first start as a Met on June 28, he was 3-for-4 with his one and only National League home run, hit off Montreal’s Mark Langston. He returned to Tidewater when the Mets starting catchers were healthy again and came back as a September call-up. He was 2-for-4 on October 1, which was his last appearance in professional baseball. In April of 1990, shortly before Opening Day, he was claimed off waivers by the Atlanta Braves, and he was given the chance to make the team as its third-string catcher. To the surprise of pretty much everyone who knew him, he retired instead, at the age of 26.
In his last day in baseball, he took his batting practice swings with the Braves and did his infield drills. Then, he got a private meeting with Braves’ general manager Bobby Cox to announce his decision. “It was hard enough to tell my parents, let alone tell Bobby Cox in a closed-door meeting,” Lombardi said. His decision was hard to put into words, but he tried to explain it to reporter Wayne Coffey shortly after his retirement. “My dream started to fade,” he said. “It started to get a little blurry, almost like it was time to wake up.”
In parts of 3 seasons in the major leagues, Lombardi appeared in 43 games, with 102 plate appearances. He slashed .239/.314/.380; he had 22 hits that included 4 doubles and 3 home runs. He drove in 9 runs and scored 10 times. In 9 minor-league seasons, he was a .278 hitter with 60 homers.
In the offseason, Lombardi had worked in real estate in California, and he decided to make that his full-time baseball career. He worked for Pinnacle Estate Properties and also coached little league baseball. His daughters all played softball, and Lauren Lombardi learned how to be a catcher from her father. He also taught her how to overcome injuries, like the knee injury she suffered in high school.
Lombardi became highly successful in the real estate world. But the way his baseball career ended bothered him. “I had idols like Johnny Bench and Pete Rose because I thought I could have a career like they did,” he said in a 1992 interview. “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 family of Phil Lombardi has authorized a GoFundMe page to help pay for funeral and medical costs. If you wish to donate, go to: https://gofund.me/ef3c370d