Lot To Prove
Chisenhall tries to put past problems behind him
This wasn't where Lonnie Chisenhall was supposed to be.
The top college freshman in the country wasn't supposed to be playing summer games on dusty ballfields in eastern North Carolina. Chisenhall wasn't supposed to be playing against Brunswick County's American Legion team, let alone pitching against them.
Chisenhall should have been finishing up his freshman year at South Carolina, then hanging out with other top college players in the Cape Cod League. Instead, he was at home in Morehead City, N.C., hanging out with his high school friends, working at youth baseball camps, not trying to impress scouts, but rather trying to prove to the community he grew up in that he was the same quiet guy they knew, not the criminal they read about in media accounts.
Chisenhall's arrest in the spring of 2007 was well publicized, as he and teammate Nick Fuller were dismissed from the South Carolina baseball team after being charged with larceny and burglary in the theft of items from a dorm room. Chisenhall pleaded guilty to charges in February and was sentenced to six months probation.
Even with all the negative publicity surrounding the incident, Chisenhall still had an invitation to play in the Cape Cod League. It's here where his story took a turn down an unlikely path, however. Chisenhall turned down the opportunity to play on the Cape on the advice of his high school coach, Robby Lassiter, deciding instead to play with the Legion team in Morehead City that he starred on the year before.
"I told him I would just feel better (if) you just stay home and play with us, hang out with us and just have fun playing baseball," Lassiter said.
Chisenhall would have the opportunity to spend the summer in the community he grew up in, playing for his high school coach, getting a fresh start. It was just what Chisenhall needed.
It all has worked out beautifully for Chisenhall, who did not respond to interview requests for this story. He spent his sophomore season at nearby Pitt Community College, then became the 29th overall pick in June, with the Indians showing faith not only in his ability but also his makeup.
But last summer, Chisenhall's baseball future was very much up in the air as he played with Post 46 in Morehead City. His performance was as good as ever; the only questions remaining were about his character. Lassiter worked with Chisenhall to get him out in the community and volunteer at Little League camps to make sure the South Carolina incident wouldn't define him.
"Let everyone in the community know that he wasn't the criminal that he was made out to be in the media," Lassiter said. "It just cleared his name within the community. That eased his mind that people were still behind him, we were going to be there for him no matter what."
Chisenhall's summer also provided him with a renewed focus that would drive him through a successful 2008 season. Still, college coaches approached him with apprehension. Tommy Eason, the coach at Pitt, had recruited Chisenhall when he was an assistant at East Carolina and knows his coaches at West Carteret High. "Every person you talked to said it was uncharacteristic of Lonnie," Eason said. "We all make mistakes; his was played out in the media. Some people's mistakes get blown up more than (others)."
So Eason decided to give Chisenhall his second chance, and it worked out well for both sides. Chisenhall shredded junior college competition while playing shortstop at Pitt, batting .408 with six home runs and 61 RBIs while leading the team to a 41-15 record.
But Chisenhall's greatest growth came off the field. Chisenhall had always been considered an on-field leader by his coaches and teammates because of his tremendous ability, but off the field he was labeled as a "follower" by one coach. At Pitt, he became more comfortable being a vocal member of the team.
"The most impressive thing was how he came out of his shell," Eason said. "He had been reserved, but his dealings with the fans and public were some of the most impressive things. He is definitely a more mature person."
On His Way With Indians
Chisenhall's outstanding performance put him back on the radar in the scouting community, but opinion was divided on whether a team would be willing to take him with a high draft pick. The Indians, however, had followed Chisenhall since his junior year of high school, and did a lot of firsthand research. Indians officials know many of the coaches who have worked with Chisenhall, and utilized those connections before taking him with their first-round pick in June.
"We went above and beyond in doing background checks. We used our relationships to find out about what happened," Indians scouting director Brad Grant said.
Even though Chisenhall is only two years removed from high school, the Indians sent him to their more advanced short-season Mahoning Valley affiliate.
"At 19 years old he is definitely advanced enough to compete with guys who are 21 or 22 in that league," Grant said, particularly noting Chisenhall's outstanding pitch recognition and approach at the plate.
After a slow start, Chisenhall provided a signature moment for Mahoning Valley in front of a large Saturday night crowd. In the 11th inning of a 6-6 game and the Scrappers in the midst of a three-game losing streak, Chisenhall belted a walkoff home run to give Mahoning Valley an 8-6 win over Batavia.
Overall Chisenhall was batting .282/.356/.462 with seven doubles in 78 at-bats. In the field, he has remained at shortstop, though Grant said he will likely move to third base in the Arizona Fall League.
The future is suddenly full of possibilities for Chisenhall. But it all started with a return to his roots.
"When he came back home and had a chance to sit and think and face the people that he faces on a daily basis about what he had done, that's what made him realize, 'I made a mistake and now I'm going to do everything I can to get back to where I'm going,' " Lassiter said.