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Lonborg looks back -- and forward

Posted by Gabe Kahn February 26, 2009 05:58 AM

BY DICK TRUST

Jim Lonborg hasn't pitched in the major leagues since June 1979, but he's still close to the game of baseball and remains a big — well, he is 6-foot-5 — Red Sox fan.

“I really enjoy having them on the radio during the summer and reading about them in the newspapers,” said Dr. Lonborg, who has been a dentist for 25 years. “I get a chance to go to Fenway Park once a month and do some meet-and-greets up in the Legends Suite.”

Lonborg, who’ll be 67 on April 16, won the American League Cy Young Award in 1967, when the Red Sox’ Impossible Dream team came within a game of winning the World Series. Forty-two years later, the Red Sox have won two World Series titles, in 2004 and 2007. Shooting for a third in this decade, Boston has made a few moves this off-season, and the right-hander gives his old team a thumbs-up.

“I’m very happy with the way they’ve positioned themselves,” he said. “I know they have some money to spend after not having to pay for Manny [Ramirez]’s contract or [Curt] Schilling’s contract. That gives them a little space.

“They’ve gotten a couple of guys who are question marks, but there’s a good chance that John Smoltz and Rocco Baldelli will have good health and be able to help them. Brad Penny certainly has been a productive pitcher when he’s healthy.

“I’m just looking forward to [David] Ortiz, [Mike] Lowell, and J.D. Drew all being healthy. With that lineup, we can compete with anybody. Unfortunately, they’re in the toughest division in all of baseball, with the Yankees and Tampa Bay. One of those three teams is not going to make it to the playoffs.

“On paper, [the Yankees] have some wonderful ballplayers, but a lot of it is going to depend on how good their pitching is,” said Lonborg, a native of Santa Maria, Calif., and a longtime resident of Scituate, where he and his wife, Rosemary, raised six children (they now have three grandchildren). “And I think that our pitching matches up with anybody’s in baseball.”

Doing it all
Boston’s pitching more than matched up to that of its opponents in 1967. Lonborg was the ace of the staff, going 22-9 with a 3.16 earned run average. The 22 victories were a league best, as were his strikeouts (246) and games started (39, of which he completed 15, with two shutouts).

First-year manager Dick Williams had a lot to do with the Red Sox’ astonishing leap from ninth place in the 10-team AL in 1966 to first place in ’67. Meanwhile, Carl Yastrzemski led the AL in batting (.326), runs batted in (121), and home runs (44), capturing the Triple Crown. He remains the last man to have done so.

For Lonborg, who had gone 9-17 as a rookie two years earlier and 10-10 in ’66, the Impossible Dream season was certainly the highlight of his 15-year major league career.

“When you think about what we were able to accomplish and the drama that took place during the course of that summer,” he said, citing the pennant race that involved four teams until the final weekend, “to have that all end up with us in the World Series, it was definitely the finest year I ever spent in baseball.”

Lonborg said the feeling he had when the Red Sox clinched the AL pennant on his complete-game victory over the Twins on the last day of the 1967 regular season “was one of ultimate euphoria. It was what you dream about as a young kid, being able to win a championship game like that at home in front of your own fans. It was one of the happiest days of my life as a ballplayer.”

The St. Louis Cardinals topped the Red Sox in the World Series, 4-3, but not before Lonborg pitched two gems: a near-perfect one-hitter for a 5-0 victory in Game 2, and a 3-1 three-hitter in Game 5. Then, on only two days’ rest, Lonborg faced Bob Gibson — Hall of Famer Bob Gibson — in Game 7.

Lonborg had just enough left to last six innings, while the hard-throwing Gibson tossed his third complete game of the Series and won, 7-2. For the Series, Lonborg went 2-1 with a 2.63 ERA and 11 strikeouts; Gibson 3-0, 1.00, with 26 strikeouts in 27 innings.

“It was disappointing in the sense that we were so close to being able to win it, but we just weren’t able to beat Bob Gibson,” Lonborg said. “That’s what it really boiled down to. I always admired his talent. You just respect it and also believe in yours and know that on that particular day his talent was better than yours.”

Going downhill
The Red Sox soon were thrown another nasty curve. Lonborg was injured in a skiing accident just before Christmas of 1967, and he wouldn’t be the personification of Cy Young ever again.

“[Skiing] was part of my regimen to stay in shape during the course of the winter,” Lonborg said. “We didn’t have a lot of the regimens that they have now for ballplayers. Things were done differently. The reason I had such a successful season in ’67 was because I had skied all winter in ’66 and came into spring training in great shape.

“You think at the time you have an injury, it’ll heal and you’ll just pick up where you left off. But after that, my leg was a little bit weak and I suffered a series of sore arms. I finally figured out how to put everything together and I went on to have some really good years with Milwaukee [1972] and Philadelphia [1973-79].”

The accident happened at Heavenly Valley Ski Resort in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. “We were skiing all day — it was just a couple of days before Christmas — and we missed the particular ski lift that was going to take us over a mountain,” Lonborg recalled. “So we had to walk back over the mountain to get down to the other side where our car was parked.

“That took a lot of energy. I was tired and I caught an edge on the ski and ended up having a fall. I heard some popping in my left knee. It didn’t feel very good. But I got up, got back in my skis and was able to get back down the mountain. But I knew something was terribly wrong with the strength in my leg.

“It wasn’t until a couple of days later that I found out I had torn my ACL [anterior cruciate ligament] and injured my median collateral [ligament]. But I didn’t have any cartilage damage, which was a good thing. Then I came home, had surgery, and tried to get ready for the ’68 season.”

Lonborg started only 17 games in 1968, going 6-10 with a 4.29 ERA. Yastrzemski (.301) won another batting title, but the Red Sox finished fourth, 17 games behind the eventual World Series champion Detroit Tigers.

Lonborg followed with 7-11, 4-1, and 10-7 seasons before the Oct. 11, 1971, trade that sent him to the Milwaukee Brewers, for whom he went 14-12 in 1972. One October later, the Brewers dealt him to the Phillies. He had some good seasons with Philadelphia — 17-13 (1974), 18-10 (’76), and 11-4 (’77) — and finished his career 157-137, 3.86, with 90 complete games. His last big-league appearance was on June 10, 1979. The Phillies released him six days later.

Already armed with a degree in biology from Stanford University, he enrolled at UMass-Boston in September 1979, “taking some courses to get back into shape for studying.” He entered Tufts Dental School in July 1980, and in three years, he had a new profession.

The former boy of summer had become a man for all seasons.

OT contributor Dick Trust can be reached at otfeedback@globe.com

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