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Major Strides : In their pursuit of a career in baseball, there were stops on the road from Denver to Maine and points in between. Today five players from the Valley have reached the big time in a big way.

November 27, 1986|RICH TOSCHES | Times Staff Writer

Phil Lombardi calls New York City home these days. The city that never sweeps. The city that made the news recently when a mugger snatched a man's pet monkey, held a knife to its throat and threatened to "cut the monkey's head off" unless the owner handed over some money.

But say what you will about New York, it isn't Paintsville, Ky. And Lombardi is very, very thankful for that. The former Kennedy High catcher spent an entire baseball season in Paintsville. The year was 1982, his second season in the New York Yankees' organization. Lombardi has a permanent mark on him from Paintsville. Two coats.

"They called the season at Paintsville an extended season," Lombardi said, "and it sure seemed extended to me. It was real small and, well, it was very country. That's a nice way to put it."

Lombardi also has a realistic way of putting it.

"There were no apartments in Paintsville, so they put us all up in some small college dormitories," he said. "It was like a military setup. There were two beds and a bathroom, and lots of dirt. It was awful, really. There was nothing to do. Nothing. Just play ball and come back to this dirty room.

"Paintsville is not what I had in mind when I signed to play professional baseball."

New York is what Lombardi, the Yankees' second selection in the amateur draft, had in mind when he signed a contract for about $60,000 in 1981, right after he led Kennedy to the City baseball championship. The road to New York has taken him through Sarasota, Fla., Greensboro, N.C., Albany, N.Y., and Columbus, Ohio, as well as Paintsville. But finally, it seems, he has arrived.

Lombardi, who spent 12 days with the major league club early in the season but saw very little action, was recalled from the Triple-A club in Columbus on Sept. 1 and spent the rest of the season with the Yankees. In 20 games and 36 at-bats, he batted .278 with 10 hits, two homers, three doubles and six RBIs. He also struck out seven times and walked four times.

The Yankees traded regular catcher Ron Hassey to the Chicago White Sox during the season and backup Butch Wynegar was off the roster for much of the year with emotional problems. His status for 1987 is "questionable," according to a club official. Barring a trade for a veteran catcher, that could leave Lombardi to battle with Joel Skinner and Juan Espino for playing time in 1987. But the 23-year-old Lombardi already has learned not to try to figure out what the Yankees and owner George Steinbrenner are thinking.

"I'm trying hard not to think about next year," Lombardi said. "They know what I can do. I've proven myself in the minors. The Yankees have seen me play, but they've still got Skinner and Espino and Wynegar and myself. Skinner is really something. I haven't ever seen an arm like that. I thought I had a pretty powerful arm, but Skinner . . . the guy's just got a cannon.

"But I don't know what the Yankees' plans are. They don't tell you too much around here. I hurt my knee in 1985, and even though I feel I'm fully recovered, that might play a part in their decision. I spent most of last season wondering if they gave up on me or not. I wondered if they even knew I was injured, or cared. They just don't tell you much."

For example, when he joined the Yankees in Oakland on Sept. 2, Manager Lou Piniella greeted Lombardi with a handshake and then delivered a speech.

"He told me, 'You'll get plenty of hacks at the plate,' " Lombardi recalled. "That was it. That's all he's said to me."

Taking the cue, Lombardi has also been quiet in the clubhouse. His bat, he figures, has done his talking.

"I was pretty nervous when I came back up Sept. 1," he said. "I had a pretty good season in Columbus, ending up right about at .300. But up here the pitching is really different. It's so much better. For one thing, there's definitely a lot more control up here. You see a little of it at the Triple-A level, but up here, the pitchers are always around the plate. And in Triple-A you didn't see this many guys who really throw the heat, the real hard throwers. If they could throw real hard and keep it around the plate, they would have been up here in the major leagues.

"In the minors, sometimes you see bad pitchers and bad teams. But up here, there's really no such things. Even the bad pitchers up here are real good, and the bad defenses here are pretty good."

And another difference: There is no Paintsville.

"It's just another world, between that place and the major leagues," Lombardi said. "Now we travel in planes everywhere, first-class hotels, the works. The crowds are so knowledgeable and the parks are so perfect and the traveling is so organized. It's like night and day. I've spent five years in the minors and now experiencing all this, well, now I can say I've been through it all.

"Even if I make it here and play a long time in the major leagues, I'll never forget Paintsville. I don't think I could ever go through that again."

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