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Mudville: May 28, 2024 1:53 pm PDT

Dave Lemanczyk

"They basically got me drunk every night and deprogrammed me."

Dave Lemanczyk is a true original.

Drafted away from the Tigers in the 1977 expansion draft, Lemanczyk was the first player to sign his contract with the new team out of Toronto, making him the original Toronto Blue Jay.

He was the first Blue Jays pitcher to be named an All-Star when he was selected in 1979 and tossed the first complete game in franchise history. He was the first Toronto pitcher to be saddled with a loss but also the first Blue Jays pitcher to win a game at Yankee Stadium.

In addition to all of those franchise firsts, Lemanczyk is a true original because there simply isn’t anyone like him.

He’s not shy about expressing his feelings and won’t sugar coat things when telling the truth. He doesn’t shy away from telling the fantastic stories that happen across a baseball career and certainly has no objections to using colorful language when doing so. Guarded, canned responses are simply not in Lemanczyk’s repertoire.

Lemanczyck pitched in the Majors for eight seasons before retiring in 1980 at age 29 to raise a family. At 71 he is still involved in the sport as the owner of Dave Lemanczyk’s Baseball Academy in Lynbrook, Long Island where he has been giving lessons for over 30 years.

He’s a one-of-a-kind gentleman, so let’s go Spitballin’ with Dave Lemanczyk.

Thanks for joining us, Mr. Lemanczyk. Some other guys on our site already featured Rick Cerone and Doug Rader, a couple of other original Blue Jays, but you’re the first one I am lucky enough to interview. Let’s get started back when you were a kid though. How did you first get interested in baseball?

I always loved to play. I grew up outside of Syracuse and occasionally on my little transistor radio I would get the Detroit Tigers on CKLW out of Windsor, Ontario. Syracuse was also the AAA team of the Tigers at the time. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up, but occasionally we would scrounge up enough money to go to a couple games a year in the early 1960s.

That’s great. Then you ended up playing for the Tigers. What was it like being drafted and making it with a team you listened to as a kid on the radio?

I remember I was in high school and a bunch of my friends and I went to MacArthur Stadium in Syracuse to watch the AAA game. They were saying that one day if I got drafted maybe I would pitch at that stadium. I couldn’t even think that far ahead. My second Spring Training, I was supposed to go to Rookie League. I threw three innings and Hoot Evers, the Director of Player Development, said I didn’t belong in rookie ball. He told me my new manager was Stubby Overmire in Lakeland, which was the Florida State League in High A.

I was there for six weeks and went 7-1. Stubby called me in his office and said the AAA team in Toledo needed me for two starts. They said it didn’t matter what I did, I was coming back down after two starts. I called up my fiancé at the time and told her I was moving up. She was jumping for joy, but she said, “You don’t sound happy.” I said, “The only thing that’s gonna make me happy is if I’m wearing a “D” on my chest.” I just wanted to be a Tiger.

“Goltzie threw a fastball up and in and hit Freehan right in the jaw. He spit out three teeth and jogged to first. The trainer comes running out, not to check on Freehan, but to go pick up the teeth.”

How did things work out in Toledo?

I pitched against Charleston and went seven innings and beat them. My next start was in Syracuse against the Syracuse Chiefs. I went in there as a visiting player and beat them. When my manager Johnny Lipon took me out of the game in the 8th inning, I had seven friends there. They jumped the fence to give me a high-five at the third base line as I was coming off the field and they all got arrested.

I made my starts and won two games. I was waiting for Johnny Lipon to tell me I was going back to Lakeland. They ended up sending someone else down and kept me. The following year I was with Billy Martin in the Big Leagues. I got lucky, but I pitched well too. My first year in the minors I only played half the year. I pitched three months and won 12 games. It means a lot to me now. The modern day pitcher doesn’t care if he wins or not. Most of them can’t win because they can’t go five innings. The modern pitcher doesn’t have a finish line. We had a finish line and it was the ninth inning. If I’m a thoroughbred racehorse and there’s no finish line, I’m not gonna win.

What was it like to sign and get started on your professional career?

I thought I would get drafted, but had no idea what round I would go in. The Tigers picked me [in the 16th round] and I didn’t care about a signing bonus. I got an incentive bonus, which meant that if I got to AA I would get a bonus, AAA and then the Big Leagues too. That was fine with me. I wanted to earn my money. They didn’t owe me anything for being drafted, I just wanted an opportunity to play.

If the modern player doesn’t go in the first five rounds they’re upset. They think the brass ring is getting drafted. The draft just puts you on the ride. The brass ring is getting to the Big Leagues and staying as long as you can. Some of these guys go in the first or second round and what do they do? They get a chunk of money, pimp out an Escalade, buy their girlfriend a bunch of jewelry and pay off a mortgage for their family. Then in two years, they’re out of baseball with no job. The girlfriend drops them, they sell the Escalade and it’s a mess.

1979 All-Star Game: Dave Lemanczyk (2nd row, 3rd from left) stands next to Reggie Jackson (who is wearing a Mariners uniform because his own uniform was lost).

You mentioned you followed the Tigers growing up and when you made it up in 1973, there were still a lot of key guys there from the great 1968 team. What was it like being teammates with guys like Al Kaline, Norm Cash, Willie Horton, Mickey Lolich?

My first roommate was Frank Howard! He was 6’8” and 340! He was doorway with a head. In the 70 days I was there, I roomed with him on the road. I learned so much about baseball being with him. Our games started at 8pm and Frank and I would be at the ballpark at noon just to get our minds on baseball. When Frank coached, at the end of the day guys would ask Hondo to throw a bucket of balls for some extra swings. It wasn’t a little bucket, it would be a 55 gallon drum filled with balls and he’d carry it in himself. You want to hit? We’re gonna hit!

You were teammates with the great Bill Freehan, who just passed away. What was your experience with him as a battery mate?

We had conflicts at times. He was a 15-year veteran who was a World Series guy. When catchers get towards their end of their career and a suspected base stealer is on first, they call a lot of fastballs. It makes the hitter a real good hitter because he knows he’s getting nothing but fastballs. At times, I’d throw a breaking ball and he’d get pissed and come talk to me. I’d tell him to put down another number.

He was tough as nails though. His nickname was “Big 10” because he went to Michigan. He really earned the moniker Big 10. Playing in Detroit against the Twins one game he was up against Dave Goltz, a big righty who threw pretty hard. Freehan, like Willie Horton, got right up on the plate and didn’t give an inch. Goltzie threw a fastball up and in and hit Freehan right in the jaw. He spit out three teeth and jogged to first. The trainer comes running out, not to check on Freehan, but to go pick up the teeth. That was Big 10. He was one tough character.

Another teammate I wanted to ask about was Mark Fidrych. You were on the staff with him for that great 1976 season. What was that like?

He had an exceptional gift and had a great year, but knew absolutely nothing about baseball. I remember that game we played on Monday Night Baseball against the Yankees. Thurman Munson didn’t play and Fidrych won 5-1. There were 55,000 people and the place was rocking. The media went into the Yankees locker room first. They asked Thurman what he thought of Fidrych and he said, “He had a great game, but in order for me to say he’s a great pitcher, he’s gotta have a lot of great games over a number of years.”

The media comes into our clubhouse and says, “Mark, we were just talking to Thurman Munson and he doesn’t think you’re a great pitcher.” They were trying to set him up. Fidrych says, “Munson? What’s his name? Thurman Munson? Was he in the lineup tonight?” The media says he wasn’t and Fidrych says, “Well if he can’t make their lineup, who is he to say I’m not a great pitcher?” He had no idea who he was. It was funny. He had gone over the scouting report of the Yankees lineup with his catcher Bruce Kim and the pitching coach, so those were the only guys he knew.

Mark Fidrych.

I always read that he did a lot to rejuvenate the franchise. Did you see that first-hand having been there a few years prior?

We were horrible in 1975. We were only a couple games out of second at the All-Star break but when we came back we went on an 18-game losing streak. On that Sunday of the 18th loss, they made an announcement at Tiger Stadium that we were going out on the road. That was the only standing ovation we ever got.

We didn’t make many changes for 1976, so [Fidrych] was like a breath of fresh air. Detroit ended up finagling the rotation so he would pitch home games because they wanted 55,000 people at the park. Our opponents on the road were pissed because they wanted him to pitch there too. He got off to a great start and people loved him. Being in Detroit, automobile companies were gonna offer him the world. Ford came to him and said they wanted to give him a brand new 1975 fully loaded Thunderbird for the season. He thought about it said, “No, I wouldn’t feel comfortable with that. Do you have anything in a ’65 pickup?” He was hilarious!

After the 1976 season, you were picked by the Blue Jays in the expansion draft. Was that something you expected to happen?

I had no idea. I was in Puerto Rico playing, having the time of my life, catching lobster and living on the beach in Rincon. Rick Dempsey was the catcher and we were the only two players doing well. We find out that our owner is gonna send us to Caracas, Venezuela for the Caribbean World Series. Dempsey was property of Baltimore and they approved it. I didn’t know it, but I was no longer the property of Detroit, I was property of Toronto. They saw how many innings I pitched and didn’t want me to go. That cost me about $65,000 for two weeks work. That’s how I found out I was a Blue Jay. As a matter of fact, I was the first player signed by Toronto, so I was the very first Toronto Blue Jay. I’m proud of that.

What do you think now reflecting back on your time in Toronto? You were the franchise’s first All-Star pitcher and I’m sure experienced a lot of other firsts.

The first day they had a parade down Main Street where they put us on fire trucks and it was about nine degrees out. I got the franchise’s first loss, I was the first player fined, I threw the first complete game. Once you’re the first at something, they can’t take that away. We weren’t very good though. We had some veterans, but it was a combination of them and guys that really weren’t seasoned enough to be there. Some of them took the opportunity and did well. We made friends real quick; misery loves company. We were outmanned every game, but we still managed to win 54 games. Every win for us meant something, much more than it would the Red Sox or Yankees. They were expected to win and I’m sure there were people who thought we’d go 0-162.

What do you remember most reflecting on your time in Toronto?

Well, I had a miserable 1978 and there’s a whole bunch of reasons for it. The bottom line was they asked me to try to help a teammate by sitting in on some psychological things. As it turned out, they ended up bringing me in and telling me I was screwed up. They hypnotized me in Spring Training and had me do all kinds of focus things. It was like Happy Gilmore trying to get to his happy place. If you knew me, when I got on the field, you didn’t want to talk to me. I’d bite your head off. Don’t bother me when I’m competing. When the game was over, good, bad or indifferent, my pupils stayed dilated for that day and the next day before they got back to normal. I was psychotic and they told me that was unhealthy. They did all that happy place stuff to make me comfortable. I got so comfortable that I lost my first nine games in a row and I didn’t even care.

Then you bounced back in 1979 and became the first Blue Jay pitcher to make the All-Star team. How did you turn things around?

Towards the end of ’78, Balor Moore, one of my teammates, got a hold of me and said, “Hey man, this isn’t you. When you pitch we hate you. When you don’t pitch we love you. What are you?” They basically got me drunk every night and deprogrammed me. I got better, but the season was over, so I went to Instructional League to hone my nastiness. I started the 1979 season and they didn’t know what to do with me. I was making a lot of money so they couldn’t trade me because I had such a horrible year. I did an interview in Florida and said, “They’re gonna give me an opportunity to pitch and when they do, they’re never gonna get me off the mound.”

Sure enough, I got a couple of relief appearances and did well. I finally got a spot start in Chicago and went 7 2/3 innings and left with the lead. Then I got another start and pitched a one-hit shutout in Texas and the rest was history. That’s what it means to be committed 24/7. You can’t do anything half-assed. I wouldn’t be denied. I’d fight you tooth and nail. That was a great year and then after the 1980 season my body started breaking down a bit. I promised my wife that if we had kids, once they got into nursery school, I didn’t care where I was or how much money I’m making, I’d seriously consider retiring. So, I called it a day and left on my own terms.

Lemanczyk at a Blue Jays alumni event.

You definitely did! Now you have Dave Lemanczyk’s Baseball Academy on Long Island. Can you talk to our readers about your second career providing lessons for younger players?

I’ve been doing that for 31 years. I started off giving instructions and wanted to open my own place. The owners told me it wouldn’t work and none of the clients would follow me. I said, “OK, we’ll see.” When I left I was seeing 140 kids a week and 139 followed me. I am at the point where I’m giving lessons to kids of kids who I used to instruct. I said, once the first grandkid comes in, I quit! But I still throw live BP. I don’t see as many as I used to, but I guarantee I throw the ball about 800,000 times a year. It used to be a million-three. It’s a great way to keep the pharmacy in business.

That’s way more than I can do and you got me by a couple decades. You must really love it.

To be frank, I was going to retire a couple of years ago. Unfortunately my wife tragically passed away. It happened just before the pandemic. I had to close the business and was stuck in my house and was saying, “You know, maybe I’m just gonna go join her.” My kids got me on Facebook and reconnected with my high school friends and teammates. I decided to keep the business alive because everyone is like a secondary family. My own kids, the kids who come into the shop and the friends I made on Facebook really have kept me going.

That’s terrible. I am sorry to hear about your wife but happy to see you have such a big group of people around supporting you. This has been a really enjoyable talk about your career. Do you have any final reflections to leave with our readers?

One of the things that irritates me is when I hear someone say that some Major Leaguer sucks. That’s like saying the silver medalist in the Olympics sucks. He’s the second best person in the world at what he does! These are the best baseball players in the world, none of them suck. I just have to say that.

Another thing I reflect on is when I was a kid, I used to scrounge up some empty bottles and get two cents for a return. It was five cents to get a pack of bubble gum cards. We’d open those packs and it would be great. Now to look back and see that I eventually ended up on those cards, that’s freaking awesome!  

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book was released in April of 2021.

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