Many players dream of playing at home, in front their families and friends, a short drive from their childhood neighborhood to the stadium, but few have it fulfilled. Since he was drafted in the 19th round of the 2008 draft by the Nationals, Steve Lombardozzi, a Columbia native and Atholton graduate, has been spoiled in that regard. With the exception of Class AAA Syracuse, every stop on his path to the majors was within driving distance of Washington and his family and friends watched him play. That was also the case when he was called up the majors late in 2011.
But on Dec. 2, the Nationals shipped reliever Ian Krol, prospect Robbie Ray and Lombardozzi, the Nationals player with the deepest ties to the D.C. area, to the Detroit Tigers in exchange for starter Doug Fister. Initially, Lombardozzi was shocked. He had seen teammates traded, but now it involved him. Now, weeks after the reality of the move has sunk in, Lombardozzi is appreciative of his unique opportunity.
“It was cool to be able to be from Columbia and play for the Nationals,” he said in a phone interview on Thursday night, his first comments since he was traded. “To be able to play for the hometown team is pretty special. The fans have been unbelievable and all the support I’ve gotten since the trade, there’s been so much positive things that have been said to me. It’s been pretty cool to see that.”
That early December night, Lombardozzi was on his way to dinner when he received a call from Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo about an hour before news of the trade reached the public. According to Lombardozzi, Rizzo informed him of the trade and thanked him for his contributions to the Nationals. Stunned, Lombardozzi also thanked Rizzo in the brief conversation, but then had to pull over on the side of the road to collect himself.
“I told him I appreciated everything he and the Nationals have done for me,” he said. “They gave me a chance to play in the big leagues and gave me my first opportunity. I was kinda out of words. I talked to him but I didn’t have a lot to say.”
Lombardozzi admits feeling shocked, confused and sad about being sent to Detroit because Washington was his hometown and the team that drafted him. He was looking forward to the 2014 season. He didn’t think he was on the trading block or bait.
“Once I settled down and a couple weeks went by, I was able to take a deep breath,” he said. “Even though it is tough leaving everybody, I am very excited for the opportunity. I think it’s going to be a really good opportunity for me. Obviously I’m going to another great team in the Detroit Tigers. It’s a good opportunity for me to play more as well. I’m looking forward to helping them win and hopefully win a World Series.”
The night he was traded, General Manager Dave Dombrowski and new Manager Brad Ausmus both spoke with Lombardozzi. They told Lombardozzi they were happy to have him and that the Tigers had been targeting him for some time.
Ausmus “sees me as kinda bouncing around and doing a little bit of what I’ve done in the past two years,” Lombardozzi said. “They like that I’m a switch hitter and get me in and hit from both sides of the plate and I bring the versatility.”
Along with Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman, Lombardozzi was one of three Nationals players who made the Washington area their home year-round. Lombardozzi had been planning on finding a place to live in between Columbia and the District later this offseason. But now that he has been traded, he will continue to spend his offseasons in Columbia and will rent a place in Detroit. He had been working out often at Nationals Park during the offseason but has stopped since.
His family and friends will also have to adjust. Lombardozzi’s father, former major leaguer Steve Sr. who coaches baseball at Good Counsel High in Olney, came often to Nationals Park to watch his son play. Lombardozzi’s family is already planning trips to Detroit for opening day and will see him when the Tigers visit Baltimore.
Looking back at his time in Washington, Lombardozzi counts his major league debut, at Nationals Park on Sept. 6, 2011, his first hit and the Nationals clinching a playoff berth in 2012 among his favorite memories. “That was pretty special to be a part of that,” he said. In addition to the difficulty in leaving his hometown, Lombardozzi considers parting with coaches and teammates equally hard.
Coaches and teammates alike respected Lombardozzi, a hard-working player who grinded his way from late-round draft pick to prospect to minor league player of the year in 2011 to major leaguer. Lombardozzi was close friends with Tyler Moore, and also considers Ian Desmond, Werth and Zimmerman as confidants. Lombardozzi was also particularly close with first base coach Tony Tarasco (“he’s had a huge impact on me”) and the two had a long conversation after the trade because Tarasco went through the same thing twice as a player.
“Just good guys and I was glad to be a part of it,” Lombardozzi said. “And also, a big part, is the player development. All the coaches that helped me get to where I am now. I could list a long list of names that have helped me get to the big leagues.”