Lonnie Chisenhall Has Put A Past Mistake Behind Him
Ray Tanner keeps the letter in his daily planner, a constant reminder of a low moment that became a revelation, as he leads South Carolina's baseball program.
It's the letter Lonnie Chisenhall, then regarded as the nation's top freshman and the Gamecocks' No. 3 hitter, wrote him about a month after Chisenhall was dismissed from the baseball team.
Chisenhall and teammate Nick Fuller—also a high-profile freshman as an unsigned third-round draft pick—had made a fateful mistake on March 13, 2007. They stole a flat-screen television, a video-game system, some DVDs and computer equipment, and more than $3,000 cash from the locker of then-assistant coach Jim Toman.
Six days later, they turned themselves in to campus police. That night, Tanner announced he had dismissed the duo from the team.
"It was a very unusual situation," Tanner says now. "It was very difficult when it came down. It was an unfortunate decision to dismiss both of them, one I didn't want to make. But I felt I had to.
"I did believe in him, though. Even when I was making the decision to dismiss Lonnie, I didn't want to do it. And he showed me something when he sent me a two-page, handwritten letter, where he apologized and really took accountability for what happened. That meant a lot. It still means a lot."
Chisenhall, taking time out for a telephone interview during this first big league spring training, doesn't like to talk about the past, to borrow a baseball phrase of the times. But he is well aware of the draft class he was a part of in 2008—a very strong one—and what might have been had he stayed in college for three seasons and come out in 2009.
"There are a lot of guys that went ahead of me (in 2008) who already are in the big leagues," Chisenhall says of a first round that included Brian Matusz, Buster Posey, Gordon Beckham and former South Carolina teammates Justin Smoak and Reese Havens. "That kind of pushed me down in the draft. If I'd been at South Carolina for three years, who knows what might have happened?
"It would have been good for me if I'd been in (last year's) draft; there weren't many college hitters. But that's not how it happened."
Yet the way it ended up, Chisenhall isn't sure he'd change a thing.
When Chisenhall was booted off South Carolina's roster, his future was hazy. A Newport, N.C., native, he wound up transferring close to home, to Pitt (N.C.) Community College. Pitt's coach, Tommy Eason, had been a minor league teammate of Chisenhall's agent, Eric Sobicinski, and Eason proved to be a good choice to help get Chisenhall back on track.
Chisenhall had been slated to play in the Cape Cod League in the summer of 2007. Instead, he had to attend summer classes at Pitt to become eligible, just to get back on the field. He also wanted to take enough hours and post a 3.5 GPA so that he would be eligible to transfer back to a Division I school for 2009, in case the draft didn't work out. And in February 2008, he was sentenced to six months of probation after pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges of burglary and larceny in connection with the incident at South Carolina. That meant he had to check in with a probation officer periodically.
"I grew up real fast," Chisenhall says. "I feel like I grew up in about an hour. Coach Eason was a big factor. He helped me, worked with me, with my classes, got me on the field and helped get me focused. I really had to get tunnel vision."
Chisenhall stayed focused and hit .410/.528/.765 at Pitt with just eight strikeouts in 166 at-bats in 2008. While some clubs still had reservations about his makeup, the Indians did not, owing in large part to the relationship assistant general manager John Mirabelli has with Tanner. The Tribe's top scout once had served as Tanner's pitching coach at North Carolina State and was his roommate for a time.
"That was a huge factor in why we drafted Lonnie Chisenhall," Mirabelli says. "We had a history with Lonnie; I had scouted him in high school. Actually, it's kind of ironic because I saw a playoff game where Lonnie faced Alex White in high school, and those are our last two first-round picks. So we knew Lonnie, and our area guy, Bob Mayer, deserves credit for getting to know him and doing his homework.
"But we also knew Ray Tanner very well. I would trust Ray with my son. So when he says, 'I believe in him,' and says he's confident that was a one-time mistake, then that's good enough for me."
The Indians took Chisenhall 29th overall, quickly signed him for a $1.3 million bonus and sent him out as a shortstop, where he played at Pitt. His adjustment to professional baseball proved to be a smooth one, as he hit .290/.355/.438 for short-season Mahoning Valley.
The Indians presented him with more challenges in 2009. First, they moved him from short to his more natural position of third base, where more power is required offensively. And they skipped him a level up to high Class A Kinston, in the pitcher-friendly Carolina League. With just eight teams, the CL is notorious for second-half slumps, as teams get to know each other so well playing 20 times a season.
Kinston is also about an hour from Chisenhall's Newport home, but the assignment didn't faze him in either regard. He batted .276/.346/.492 with 18 home runs in just 99 games, ranking fourth in the league, and finished on an 8-for-25 kick with two homers and three doubles.
"He's more mature than most guys and was able to handle that. I really think he has a heightened sense of urgency and immediacy because of what he went through," Mirabelli says. "He knows that one misstep can screw up your career, and he had that coming in. Professional baseball can be full of pitfalls and derailers, and he has looked out for that.
"In a way, what happened was almost a silver lining. He came in with his eyes wide open. He was forced to mature quicker than most 19-year-olds."
A 20-year-old at the end of last season, Chisenhall hit his way to Double-A Akron and bashed four home runs in 24 games despite hitting just .183. His manager, Mike Sarbaugh, said Chisenhall hit the ball hard despite not having results to show for it, and that was reflected in his playoff numbers. He hit .467 (14-for-30) to help the Aeros, Baseball America's Minor League Team of the Year, to the Eastern League championship.
"My first full year really went as well as I could have expected," Chisenhall says. "Playing in Kinston was great, because my family and my friends got to come to some games, but it was also great when I got a chance to move up. Playing in Akron was fun because we had a good clubhouse and a great team. We clinched with like two weeks left in the season, and the playoffs were a great experience."
Chisenhall earned an invitation to big league camp this spring and has continued work on the transition to third base. He's working on fundamentals such as footwork and how to pick up balls off the bat with Mahoning Valley manager Travis Fryman, who made the transition from shortstop to third in the big leagues, and big league infield and third-base coach Steve Smith, as well as special assistant Robbie Thompson. Chisenhall said he has tried to pick a point of contact out in front of home plate to pick up the ball, and works to make sure his eyes are level and he's focused on the plate. The Indians expect him to be an average or better defender at third with experience.
"He has all the tools for third—the hands, the feet, agility, arm strength," Mirabelli says. "But this guy isn't just natural talent. He works at it. He takes hundreds of groundballs a day, he takes a lot of cuts, he really works at it. He's a good teammate and has shown a pro work ethic from the day he came to us.
"He's a gifted hitter. If you can't see that swing, I mean, everybody can see that swing. But he works at his game."
Chisenhall will work at it back at Akron to start 2010, but he might end it in Cleveland, where the Indians are in the midst of another rebuilding project. While veteran Jhonny Peralta, himself a former shortstop, and Andy Marte are ahead of him for now, Chisenhall is on pace to be the Indians' regular third baseman by 2011.
He's happy with where his career is. And with what he's gone through, Chisenhall isn't looking ahead. He's had everything laid out for him before and squandered it. He doesn't intend to mess it up again.
"Everybody wants to do it over again if they could," he says, "but it happened. I got out a year early. How I developed as a hitter and as a person, would I be in the same position if it hadn't happened this way? I'm not sure if things had happened differently if I would be where I am now."