"When I look back at my career I feel like I got every drop of juice out of the lemon.”
BY ROCCO CONSTANTINO
There’s an old trivia question that BallNine Founder Chris Vitali likes to throw out there from time to time.
It goes, “Name the person who played for the Yankees, Knicks, and Rangers in the same season.” The answer is after the interview if you’d like to think about it.
In the spirit of that trivia question and this week’s Spitballin’ guest, here’s another trivia question for you:
Name someone who’s played with David Ortiz, Mike Piazza, Eddie Vedder and Peter Gammons.
The answer is Lenny DiNardo – and he’s our guest this week on Spitballin’.
It’s easy enough to figure out that DiNardo was teammates with Ortiz on the Red Sox. He joined the team during their magical 2004 season and earned a World Series ring as a Rule 5 pitcher; something that isn’t done too often.
DiNardo played with Piazza in Oakland and was also teammates with him on Team Italy in the 2006 World Baseball Classic.
As far as playing with Vedder and Gammons, that’s where the question goes in a different direction. An accomplished guitar player, DiNardo has played in the Hot Stove Cool Music fundraising event that features a great mix of baseball players and musicians. It’s there that DiNardo played with Vedder, Evan Dando, Juliana Hatfield, and, yes, Peter Gammons, who can rip it up pretty good on the guitar.
The affable DiNardo spent six seasons in the majors and one in Taiwan – and in recent years could be seen as part of the Red Sox broadcast team on NESN.
He’s a great dude with entertaining stories about baseball and music, so let’s go Spitballin’ with Lenny DiNardo.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. DiNardo. I have a lot of questions about baseball, and music too, so let’s jump right in. What was baseball like for you as a kid? What are your earliest memories of playing the game?
I have a brother who is six years older than me and like a lot of boys, I wanted to be like my older brother. I remember my dad taking him to practice and I was left behind; so while they were away, I would get my Wiffle ball and bat. We lived in rural North-Central Florida at the time. There were a lot of pine trees and I remember picking up the pine cones and trying to hit them over my house. I was getting a bunch of reps without knowing it. I played tee ball, and then in a league with kids pitching around nine years old. There were no pitching lessons back then, it was just “Here’s the ball, kid. You see that kid with the gear down there, throw it to him. Good luck!”
Did you have any favorite players growing up?
Growing up in Florida, it was Roger Clemens. It was probably my dad’s influence. His favorite ballplayer was Ted Williams. We ended up collecting Clemens’ baseball cards as one of our hobbies. We would go to different card shops and shows and we’d pick up a card or two each time. I still have a huge binder of hundreds of Roger Clemens baseball cards.
“I was warming up in the pen at Yankee Stadium and the crowd was screaming all sorts of obscenities at me. I couldn’t feel my legs and I felt like an ant crawling around a cereal bowl.”
Wow, that’s so great. I love hearing about Major Leaguers talking about collecting cards the same way I did when I was a kid.
You know, I kind of got to know baseball and pitching mechanics looking at baseball cards. They show you basically every step in the mechanics of pitching or hitting. Looking at Clemens on cards instead of tape taught me a lot. It’s one of the memories that sticks out to me. I remember one card with his pointer and middle finger just digging into the ball like they were fangs on a snake. I don’t recall any other pitchers having that. I thought that was the coolest thing ever, and it fit his personality on the mound as well.
That’s a great memory to have. As someone who was that into baseball as a kid, was there a time as you were growing up where you thought you could play professionally?
I dreamed of it for sure. My freshman year I was the only kid to make the varsity team, but I was a six-foot gangly kid who weighed about 150 pounds. I didn’t throw real hard, but I had an idea how to pitch and had a decent curve ball so they put me on varsity; and I got a lot of valuable experience playing against juniors and seniors, many of whom were signed on to play in college. That gave me a heads up on what I needed to do to take it to the next level, whether that was college or pro.
Lenny Dinardo #55 of the Boston Red Sox pitches during the game against the Colorado Rockies on June 17, 2004 at Coors Field in Denver, Colorado. The Red Sox won 11-0. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
You ended up getting drafted out of high school in 1998 but went to Stetson instead and were drafted again three years later. What was it like turning down an opportunity to play pro ball, and how did going to Stetson help prepare you for your future?
I never was really sure if I’d get drafted [in high school]; I thought it was a coin toss, but the Red Sox ended up drafting me in the tenth round. I had to make a decision because I had already signed with Stetson University. The question I asked myself was whether I can get bigger and stronger and mentally and emotionally more mature in three years and how would that help me professionally? I guess the answer was that you never know. As a pitcher, you’re always just one pitch away from never throwing again, so it was a tough decision. I sat down with my folks and talked it out. My mom was still doing my laundry at that time and I felt like I needed a few more years of growing up and getting my feet under me before I took that step to pro ball – and it worked out great.
You were drafted by the Mets out of Stetson, but the Red Sox grabbed you in the Rule 5 Draft. Could you take us through that and what it was like to make your Major League debut?
There’s not a lot of pitchers who stick with the Rule 5 Draft. The Red Sox took me in 2003 and the next pitcher to make the Red Sox as a Rule 5 guy was Garrett Whitlock, who was taken in 2020, so that’s 17 years. I made my debut at Yankee Stadium in 2004. We were winning 11-2, so the game was out of hand. Derek Lowe had started and Tito Francona gave me the ball when I really couldn’t do too much damage. But I was facing Gary Sheffield, Hideki Matsui, and Bernie Williams, so a lot could go wrong real fast.
I had never even pitched in AAA at that point. I split the year before between A Ball and AA and then right to the Big Leagues. I was warming up in the pen at Yankee Stadium and the crowd was screaming all sorts of obscenities at me. I couldn’t feel my legs and I felt like an ant crawling around a cereal bowl. I just kept telling myself that it was the same dimensions on every field since high school and it worked out. Sheff grounded out, I struck out Matsui, and Bernie grounded out too.
Lenny DiNardo of the Oakland Athletics poses during photo media day at the Athletics spring training complex on March 1, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
That’s a pretty impressive job, no matter what the score was. I’m sure the Yankee fans weren’t too happy at that point, either. The rivalry was at a peak back then.
I remind Bernie every time I see him. I usually see him at least once a year at an event where he plays guitar and I’m sure he’s sick of me telling him. You have to know what to expect in that situation. It’s all in fun really. It’s part of the game. You have to deal with the fans yelling and you can’t take it personally. You just have to get tunnel vision.
That was 2004, which of course was the year the Red Sox broke the curse. You were battling injuries and weren’t on the postseason roster, but what did you think about the 2004 run?
I dealt with some blister issues around July and they were pushing me to keep rehabbing. I didn’t make the postseason roster because they were a veteran team with guys between 35 and 40 years old. They had so many veteran guys with Hall of Fame talent and they weren’t going to put a guy like me on the postseason roster. It was a really great year, though. I got my feet under me in a big league uniform and I was very fortunate to be on the “Reverse the Curse” team. I got a World Series ring for my regular season contributions and they gave me a 2018 ring as an announcer, so I have two World Series rings.
Did you go to the postseason games? Where were you when they nailed down the last out of the World Series?
It was incredible to watch. I was at all the home games, but I didn’t go on the road with them, so I would watch the games with friends. I would go out in Cambridge, Massachusetts to different establishments. When they actually won it, I was with a bunch of my friends, including Bill Janovitz, who is the lead singer of Buffalo Tom. Him and a bunch of my friends picked me up on their shoulders and shuffled me around the room and then dropped me on a pool table. I have a photo of it; it’s a really cool photo. I had my own little party, but it would have been nice to be in St. Louis to celebrate with the team. But this was a great second place to be.
Starting pitcher Lenny DiNardo #55 of Italy pitches against Venezuela in the first round of the World Baseball Classic on March 8, 2006 at The Ballpark at Disney in Kissimmee, Florida. (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)
Did you have any coaches or players who were influential in helping you develop?
I’ve had a handful of coaches who were great, starting with my dad. In high school, I learned a lot from Stewart Hancock, who was a lefty who played some Indy [Independent League] ball. He had a great grasp of pitching. When I was in eighth or ninth grade, he took me under his wing and taught me the ins and outs of pitching. Changing speeds, changing eye levels and being a pitcher instead of a thrower. In pro ball, it was Bobby Ojeda. He was my first pitching coach with the Brooklyn Cyclones and he was great. You could read the competitiveness on his face as a coach and you see that it translated from being a player. He had that “screw you” attitude on the mound. He taught me to go out there and take no prisoners. Howard Johnson too. Hojo and Bobby Ojeda really helped me out on the lower levels.
When I was in spring training with the Mets, I remember watching Al Leiter throw a bullpen. I said, “Wow, he’s not throwing the ball 98 miles an hour, but his ball moves a ton.” I tried to mimic his cutter and I really feel like that was the reason I got to the big leagues. It wasn’t because of my fastball, it was because my ball moved.
You also pitched in two World Baseball Classics representing Team Italy. How did that opportunity come about?
I got a phone call and they asked if I could prove my lineage to be a part of Team Italy. They had someone help me, and along with what I was able to gather of my grandpa’s, we were able to prove that lineage. We found a ship’s manifest from 1916 and the name of my great-grandfather who I think was 11 at the time. Then they said I was good to go, so I was on the 2006 and 2009 teams.
What was your experience like representing Team Italy?
I think we run-ruled Australia but then we got crushed by the Dominican Republic. We were in a tough bracket. The best part of playing for Team Italy was that we got a bunch of players from Italy who were in their early 20s and were very enthusiastic. You could see it in their faces when they walked into the clubhouse and Mike Piazza was wearing the same uniform as them. I could tell that these guys were super enthusiastic to put on the same uniform as Mike Piazza, Frank Catalanotto, and other big leaguers. It was great to find things out about my heritage too.
Speaking of other cultures and baseball, you played a season in Taiwan as well. What’s life like for a professional ballplayer in Taiwan?
It was a good experience. I wasn’t ready to retire and once you get to a certain age, the offers start to dry up. I played in Taiwan for the Lamigo Monkeys in 2012 and it was a little different than what I was used to. There wasn’t as much power there, but they were fundamentally sound. You could see they were trying to hit behind runners and play small ball. The difficult part for me was getting used to the food there.
We would come in to the clubhouse and there would be a big pot of chicken soup. I like chicken soup as much as the next guy, but when you opened the pot, there would be a whole rooster in there. You’d see the head and the feet. I remember our cafeteria had these open windows with meat hanging in them and there would be flies all over it. I’d ask what it was for and they said it was for next week’s soup. They ate everything there. When they ate fish, they ate the head, eyeballs, everything. It’s a different culture, but when in Rome. My wife was pregnant and we found out we were having a girl when I was in Taiwan. The fans, teammates and coaches were all great and I tried my best to embrace their culture.
I had some questions about your music interest and guitar playing, too. Was music something you were always interested in like you were in baseball?
Yes. I came from a musical family. My dad played guitar and so did my older brother. My younger brother plays too. I just always heard the guitar in my house whether it was from one of them or from a stereo blasting. In the minor leagues I ended up getting a cheap guitar and a couple of other guys wanted to learn, so when we were on the road, we’d sit around and play and try to figure out songs. When I joined the Red Sox, I became teammates with Bronson Arroyo. He tours, sings, plays guitar, and has a backing band, so I continued playing with him. We would always have our guitars on the road and would jam.
That’s awesome. I love how baseball and music tend to mix often.
Yes for sure. Every year in Boston they have an event called Hot Stove Cool Music. It’s a concert to benefit the Theo and Paul Epstein Foundation and I’ll get up on stage and play with different folks. Bronson Arroyo and Peter Gammons are involved too. This year I played with Johnny Rzeznik from the Goo Goo Dolls. I’ve played with a friend of mine, Evan Dando from The Lemonheads and Juliana Hatfield too. I even played with Eddie Vedder a couple of years ago. Bernie Williams plays every year too. He’s just an absolute guitar God. I look forward to it every year.
I had read that you played with Peter Gammons. What was that like? I don’t think a lot of people realize he’s a musician too.
He’s just great. He had a band back in the 1960s called The Fabulous Penetrations. Just hearing that come out of Peter Gammons’ mouth is hilarious in and of itself. But he’s great. He’s a big Chuck Berry guy, so he loves those blues riffs. He’s a big Little Feat guy too. He’s always been a guitar player and he’s able to sing and play, which is very difficult to do. I tend to talk music with him more than baseball every time I see him. I played on a track called “Model Citizen” with him on one of his albums. We recorded it down in spring training in Florida one year I was on the Sox.
There’s so much to process there, but again that’s incredible stuff. This has been one of the more interesting interviews I’ve done for sure. Thanks so much for being generous with your time. Last question for you is open ended. What are your final reflections on your career in baseball that you’d like to leave our readers with?
When I look back at my career I feel like I got every drop of juice out of the lemon. The last time I had the best arm on any team that I played on was when I was 12 years old. I never lit up the radar gun at any level, so I had to adapt. I had to make the ball move and change speeds and get people out in different ways. Things like learning a cutter or using a change-up. If you go out there and get everybody out, people will stop looking at what you can’t do and look at what you’re doing successfully instead.
In broadcasting, I’m able to stay in the game, which is great. I have the same philosophy as when I was a player as I do broadcasting. I get there early and stay late. I have a saying that prior preparation prevents poor performance. The more you prepare, the better off you’ll be and the more relaxed I am on the air. It’s a baseball philosophy that I took into the studio.
Chris Vitali Trivia Answer: Eddie Layton, the organist at Yankee Stadium and Madison Square Garden.