Obituary: Julio Lugo (1975-2021)

RIP to Julio Lugo, a part of the 2007 World Champion Red Sox and six other teams as well. He died on November 15, 2021, reportedly from a heart attack he suffered while leaving a gym, at the age of 45. He would have celebrated his 46th birthday the next day. Lugo’s death was originally announced by ESPN’s Enrique Rojas. Lugo played for the Houston Astros (2000-2003), Tampa Bay Devil Rays (2003-06), Los Angeles Dodgers (2006), Boston Red Sox (2007-2009), St. Louis Cardinals (2009), Baltimore Orioles (2010) and Atlanta Braves (2011).

Julio Cesar Lugo was born on November 16, 1975, in Barahona, Dominican Republic. His parents were divorced, and his father worked in the shipping business in Japan and rarely communicated with the family. His mother moved him, his brother Ruddy and his sister Rhina to the United States from the Dominican Republic in 1982. They settled in Brooklyn in 1988. Both boys had a knack for baseball, and Ruddy Lugo went on to pitch for Tampa Bay and Oakland in 2006 and 2007. Julio Lugo went to Fort Hamilton High School in Brooklyn and was one of the city’s top infielders. He hit .420 with a .550 slugging percentage in his senior year in 1993. He then attended Connors State College in Warner, Okla., and was drafted by the Houston Astros in the 43rd Round of the 1994 Amateur Draft. He was, by a large margin, the best player that the Astros drafted that year. His 13.5 career WAR is more than double the 5.6 WAR generated by the next-best player picked by the Astros, pitcher John Halama.

Lugo didn’t sign with the Astros immediately and returned to Connors State for a second year. He was a first-team shortstop for the NJCAA Region II Team in May of 1995, with a .390 batting average, 8 home runs, 60 RBIs and 40 stolen bases. He signed with the Astros on May 19, just before his window to sign with the team closed. “I feel very happy. It’s a big opportunity for me to show I can play,” Lugo said.

Lugo, left, and Ramon Castro celebrate Lugo’s home run during their days with the Quad Cities River Bandits. Source: Quad Cities Times, August 2, 1996.

Lugo was 19 years old when he started his pro baseball career, and it took four seasons for him to advance out of Class-A ball. During that time, he showed he could hit — he batted .303 for Kissimmee in 1998. He had a little power, hitting 10 homers for Quad Cities in 1996. He also had outstanding speed, swiping 51 bases for Kissimmee in 1998. At the start of his career, he may have projected as a utility infielder. However, as he continued to hit, run and show improved defense, his stock rose in the organization. Still, he was stuck behind some other middle infield prospects in the Astros organization, and he didn’t advance as quickly as he otherwise would have done.

“Where I play is out of my hands,” Lugo said in 1998 about his slow rise in the minors. “All I can do is put good numbers up and try to do my best 100 percent of the time. I feel more comfortable at short, but I’m an athlete. I can play short, second, third, even first base if I have to.”

The Astros finally promoted him to Double-A Jackson in 1999. He was rated as the Astros’ No. 7 prospect before the season, and he did nothing to hurt his standing, thanks to a .319 batting average, 25 stolen bases and 10 homers. He began 2000 with the Triple-A New Orleans Zephyrs but was quickly promoted to the major leagues. Aside from a handful of games with the Zephyrs in 2000 and a few with the Gwinnett Braves in 2011, Lugo remained in the majors for the rest of his MLB career.

Lugo debuted with the Astros as a pinch-runner on April 15 against the Padres. He was inserted as a pinch-hitter or defensive replacement into games infrequently at first but picked up his first major-league hit against the Dodgers’ Matt Herges on April 19. As the season wore on, Lugo found ways to play more regularly. He played all three outfield positions as well as both middle infield positions. Once Houston lost second baseman Craig Biggio for the season with a torn knee ligament on August 1, Lugo took over the position. He had a 14-game hitting streak in September and had a 5-hit game against the Cubs as well. In one four-game series against the Marlins, he was 8-for-16 with 5 RBIs, 2 doubles, 1 triple and 2 homers. “Julio Lugo was like Mickey Mantle,” said an exasperated Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez. “It always seems like it’s one guy you wouldn’t expect.”

Lugo’s rookie season ended with a very solid .283/.346/.431 slash line. He had 22 doubles and 10 homers, scored 78 times and stole 22 bases in 31 attempts. He took over the role of starting shortstop in 2001 and had a fine sophomore campaign. He hit .263 with 93 runs scored and 10 home runs. Lugo was always a free swinger and struck out 116 times against 46 walks. The Astros won 93 games and finished in first place in the NL Central, but the team was swept in 3 games by the Atlanta Braves in the NL Division Series. Lugo was hitless in 8 at-bats and had a nightmarish time in the field. In Game One, he bobbled a Julio Franco grounder that could have been an inning-ending double play. Instead, Chipper Jones hit a 3-run homer off closer Billy Wagner to break a 3-3 tie and propel the Braves to a 7-4 win. In Game Two, Lugo made a nice diving stop on a ground ball by Jones but made a low throw that got past first baseman Jeff Bagwell. Braves baserunner B.J. Surhoff advanced all the way to third base and scored on a 6-4-3 double play. It was the only run of the game. Astros manager started veteran Jose Vizcaino at shortstop for Game Three, using Lugo as a pinch-hitter in the 6-2 loss.

Lugo was slowed by injuries in spring training in 2002 and lost some playing time to rookie Adam Everett. His season came to an abrupt end on August 12 when he took a Kerry Wood fastball off his left forearm, breaking it. He played in 88 games and was hitting .261 with 8 home runs at the time of the injury. He recovered, but his career in Houston came to an unexpected and controversial close in 2003, when he was arrested for assaulting his then-wife as she drove him to Minute Maid Park on April 30. The Astros released him immediately. Lugo was acquitted of the charges in July after his wife testified that she had exaggerated the incident and that he hadn’t meant to hurt her.

Shortly after his release from Houston, Lugo signed with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and played very well. He hit a career-high 15 home runs and batted .275 with Tampa. Aside from being soundly booed on his first road trip back to Houston, it appears that Lugo was able to get a successful fresh start with Tampa. He held down the starting shortstop role for the next two seasons, appearing in 157 games in 2004 and 158 in ’05. In 2004, the Rays and Yankees opened the season in Japan, and Lugo hit a go-ahead RBI double. He was named the game’s MVP and was presented with a samurai sword and a 1 million yen check for the feat. On June 24 of that year, he became the first Rays player to record five hits in a game, accomplishing it against Toronto. His 2005 season was one of his best, as he slashed .295/.362/.403 with a career-high 39 stolen bases and 61 walks.

Source: Tampa Bay Rays

Lugo’s 2006 salary was $4.6 million, and while that was the eighth-highest total for a shortstop in baseball, it also made him a cost-effective mid-season pickup for a contending team. The shortstop helped spur those talks with his strong play, as he was hitting over .300 with 12 home runs by the end of July. He also got to be teammates with his brother Ruddy, who made the team out of spring training. Julio Lugo and the Rays kept discussing a long-term deal as well, and according to the Tampa Bay Times, Rays vice president Andrew Friedman arrived at Tropicana Field on the morning of July 31 confident that an extension could be worked out. In the end, however, the Los Angeles Dodgers came through with a deal the team could not pass up. Lugo was traded to Los Angeles for power-hitting prospect Joel Guzman and minor-league outfielder Sergio Pedroza. The move allowed Tampa to bring up top prospect B.J. Upton and the recently acquired Ben Zobrist to fill in at shortstop.

The Dodgers saw Lugo as a super utility player, capable of playing all the infield and outfield spots as needed. “I don’t like it,” said Lugo, who wanted to remain a shortstop, “but I just came here to try and help this team win.” Unfortunately, after several years of steady play at one position, shuffling all over the field didn’t suit him. He struggled at the plate, hitting .219 over 49 games without a single home run. The Dodgers reached the postseason but fell to the Mets in the NLDS. Lugo played in two games and had a double and walk in 5 plate appearances.

While he was a Devil Ray, Lugo played division rival Boston Red Sox frequently, and the team was impressed at what they saw. David Ortiz, a fellow Dominican and good friend of Lugo, lobbied hard for his acquisition to manager Terry Francona, and the manager didn’t need much convincing. Boston tried to acquire the shortstop at the 2006 trade deadline, but when no deal could be reached, the team did the next-best thing: they signed him to a 4-year, $36 million deal in December of 2006. Ortiz even was part of the welcoming committee at the press conference introducing Lugo to the media. “He brings a lot of energy, a lot of quickness. And he’s aggressive,” said the slugger.

Source: Boston Red Sox

Lugo had a disappointing season, slashing .237/.294/.643 in 147 games and had to be removed from his role as leadoff hitter in midseason. He did have his productive moments, though. He drove in 73 runs, just two shy of a career high. He stole 33 bases and was caught just 6 times. He had the 2-run infield single that completed the “Mother’s Day Miracle,” as the Sox scored 6 runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to beat Baltimore 6-5. He and Jason Varitek homered in the ninth inning to beat the Rays 8-6 on September 22, clinching a playoff berth for Boston. His postseason was much better than his first time with the Astros. He hit .300 in a 3-game sweep of the Angels in the ALDS. He was a .200 hitter in the 7-game series win over Cleveland in the AL Championship Series but hit 2 doubles and drove in 2 runs. Finally, he batted a sizzling .385 as the Red Sox swept the Rockies in four games of the World Series. He also made a couple of slick defensive plays to defuse potential Rockies rallies, too.

Lugo never played in more than 100 games in a season after 2007. Injuries and the fine play of infielders Alex Cora and Jed Lowrie cut into his playing time in 2008. Lugo hit .268, but his power all but vanished. His defense, which was about league average at his best, fell off as well. The Red Sox designated him for assignment on July 17, 2009. He had played in 37 games to that point and hit .284 with just 8 RBIs. Lugo was ultimately dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals for Chris Duncan, and he finished the season well for the Redbirds, batting .277 with 2 home runs in 51 games. He played in his final postseason, as the Cardinals won the NL Central Division before losing to the Dodgers. He had 2 hits in 5 at-bats and stole a couple of bases in a losing effort.

Lugo was dealt to the Baltimore Orioles in April of 2010. He was acquired as insurance in case second baseman Brian Roberts was limited because of a herniated disk in his back. “I’m aware that he’s hurt, but I know he’s the second baseman here,” he said upon his arrival, adding that manager Dave Trembley manager “told me I’m going to play more.” Lugo did indeed play more, making starts at second, third, shortstop and left field. He batted .249 and was granted free agency at the end of the season. He remained a free agent until he signed with the Atlanta Braves in May of 2011. After a couple of weeks in the minor leagues, the 35-year-old infielder joined his seventh team in June. His most memorable moment with the Braves came on July 26 against Pittsburgh. As the starting third baseman, Lugo had 3 hits in 8 at-bats in a 19-inning game that ended in the early hours of July 27. With 1 out in the bottom of the 19th, Lugo walked, advanced to third base on a Jordan Schafer single and dashed home on a Scott Proctor grounder to third. He tried to evade the tag at home, and replays showed Pirates catcher McKenry tagged him out. However, home plate umpire Jerry Meals called Lugo safe, ending the marathon with a Braves 4-3 win. Meals later admitted that he blew the call.

Those three hits represent half of Lugo’s total with the Braves, and they were the last ones of his career. After several hitless games and a batting average at .136, Atlanta released him. It was the end of his major-league career. Lugo returned to the Dominican Republic and played three more seasons of winter ball with the Leones del Escogido. He also represented the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean Series. His career came to an official close after the 2013-14 season.

In 12 seasons, Lugo had a .269/.333/.384 slash line, with 238 doubles, 34 triples and 80 home runs among his 1,279 career hits. He drove in 475 runs and scored 688 times. Lugo also stole 198 bases and drew 439 walks. In the field, he played 1,109 games at shortstop and had a .964 fielding percentage. He also had 175 appearances at second base, 31 at third base, 12 in left field, 6 in right field and 1 in center field.

Lugo was inducted into the Connors State College Athletics Hall of Fame in 2013. He returned to Boston in 2018 to take part in an alumni and crushed a 2-run home run off Pedro Martinez that hit a billboard above the Green Monster.

NBC columnist John Tomase wrote a nice anecdote about a time he interviewed Lugo in 2008. They were chatting by the ballplayer’s locker when it came up that Tomase and his wife just had a baby boy. Lugo asked about the boy and his mother and then dug into his locker for a pair of batting gloves to give to the boy. Tomase protested, fearing it would violate the line between players and the press, but Lugo was insistent.

“He wanted me to set them aside until my son was old enough to play baseball, and then give them to him with an explanation that they once belonged to a player who tried his best every day, and my son should do the same,” Tomase wrote.

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