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Pitching In

Lesley's Stint as Vigilantes' Interim Manager Has Been an Eye-Opener

July 12, 1997|STEVE KRESAL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MISSION VIEJO — Brad Lesley is in debt and no matter how hard he works he will never be able to clear it.

But Lesley, the pitching coach and current interim manager of the Vigilantes, considers himself fortunate that his debt is to the game of baseball.

He was a first-round draft pick of the Reds out of Merced College in 1978 and played parts of four years in the majors before playing three more years in Japan, where he became and remains a celebrity. He's done some acting in Japan and the United States and has returned to this country to pursue careers in acting and coaching.

"Every door I've walked through in my life has been a direct result of my success in baseball," Lesley said. "I can never repay baseball enough for the doors it's opened for me. I've been truly blessed. As much as I try to give back to the game, it's never enough."

Lesley, 38, came to the Vigilante franchise last year as a pitching coach and had no interest in managing. But he was pressed into service after Buck Rodgers left the team to be with his father in Ohio, who was seriously injured in a car accident that resulted in the death of Rodgers' mother. Rodgers is expected back in Mission Viejo Sunday.

"This managing deal," Lesley said, "I'm not going to say it's more than I bargained for but it sure cuts into my expertise, [which] is reconstructing pitchers' mechanics.

"I feel very confident looking in the mirror that there are not many better pitching coaches I've met. I miss Buck Rodgers because for the first time in three or four years I was learning more about pitching from him. There were things he would say that would make sense and I would apply in my teaching."

Club president Pat Elster is well aware that Lesley longs to work with the pitchers and appreciates the sacrifice his coach has made.

"He's stepped up and handled some pretty tough times for us," Elster said. "He really misses Buck. Everybody wants somebody they can grow with and Brad can really learn from Buck. He loves being a pitching coach."

And managing is something else entirely. As pitching coach, Lesley believes in building a team within a team. But as manager he has had to terminate close relationships, and he's looking forward to concentrating solely on the team's pitchers when Rodgers returns.

"He started out trying to run Buck's team," starting pitcher Mike Smith said. "Now he's running his team and I think Buck would be happy with it."

Smith has also gained in another way from Lesley and Rodgers working together.

"They found something in my delivery and I have picked up two or three more miles an hour on my fastball," Smith said. "Animal [Lesley] is a great guy. He is your friend and he is a father figure to some of the guys. He treats us just like his own kids. He even got a lot of us a job in a commercial for Japan."

It was with the Reds that Lesley got his nickname. He reached the majors with the Reds in 1982, getting four saves that season and gaining attention for his emotional fist pumps after strikeouts and stomps around the mound.

"One day I'm in Indianapolis and at 7 o'clock in the morning I get a call that I'm going to the big leagues," Lesley said. "That night Johnny Bench is flashing my signs. I'd always been a pretty headstrong pitcher. If I had a slider grip I was going to throw a slider. All of a sudden for the first time in my life I have a slider grip in my glove and Bench [calls] fastball and I say 'OK.' "

Bench gave Lesley the nickname. Bench, playing first, picked up a grounder and Lesley charged over and yelled for the ball. The startled Bench tossed the ball to him then told Lesley he looked like an animal coming toward first base.

The name stuck but Lesley didn't. He was traded to Milwaukee after the 1984 season. He appeared in five games for the Brewers in 1985 then signed to play in Japan.

Lesley said he didn't like the idea of playing in the American League and went to Japan hoping to establish himself and get a chance with another National League team.

Lesley, who signed with the Hankyu Braves, didn't change his antics a bit in Japan and it took the normally reserved fans a while to get used to him. But he was 5-3 with 19 saves and got the victory in the all-star game his first year.

Lesley made the decision right away that he wanted to learn to speak Japanese in an effort to avoid being an "ugly American." He took classes and also each night took his books to the bullpen where he was helped by his teammates.

He met his wife, Chiho, in Japan and the couple had a son named Luke about four months ago.

As his popularity grew, he was more and more in demand. His first movie was an action one called "Animal Goes to Japan."

He also started to appear on talk shows and in television dramas. His career lasted three seasons after which he said, "I lost my killer instinct and it became a hassle to go to the ballpark every day."

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