Why George Lombard left the Los Angeles Dodgers for Detroit Tigers' bench coach job
He went to three World Series in five years as the Los Angeles Dodgers' first base coach, winning a championship in 2020, and felt prepared for the next step in his career. The Tigers loved his interview, but general manager Al Avila picked AJ Hinch, fresh off a year-long MLB suspension.
Still, Avila's front office crew didn't forget about Lombard. Neither did Hinch, who faced Lombard in the 2017 World Series. That year, the Houston Astros — amid the sign-stealing plot that got Hinch suspended — won the title in seven games.
The Tigers, after hiring Hinch on Oct. 30, offered Lombard a role as the team's bench coach. Lombard weighed the positives: young players; potential to build a winning culture; being a bit closer to his family living in Florida.
He accepted the job and was announced Nov. 7, with hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh and third base coach Chip Hale.
"It's also one of the things I need on my resume to help me become a major-league manager," Lombard said Sunday. "Super, super excited about the opportunity. ... I definitely want to manage at some point. I'm in no hurry; I have a 15-year-old (George) and a 13-year-old (Jacob)."
And there are no hard feelings between Hinch and Lombard for what happened in 2017 season, when the Astros — with Hinch as the manager — used video monitors and trash cans to electronically steal signs from their opponents.
"I think we've all made some mistakes in our life," Lombard said. "For me, personally, I've made a number of mistakes. From here on out, by winning a World Series (in 2020), it's easy to turn the page, focus on where we're at now and move forward.
"I've had a long relationship with AJ. I've known him back from my playing days. When I first got into coaching, we picked each other's brain, so it's an exciting opportunity."
When deciding whether to stay in Los Angeles or move to a new city, Lombard checked in with Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and manager Dave Roberts.
They told him to pick the role that allowed him to build his resume, take on further responsibilities and make more decisions. The answer was simple: join the Tigers as the bench coach.
"With AJ, I think he's going to be a great person for me to learn under and really teach me the X's and O's of the game," Lombard said. "There's not a ton of pressure to jump right in."
The Tigers aren't going to carry the pressure of playoff expectations in 2021, meaning Hinch, Lombard and the rest of the coaching staff can focus on long-term development. The organization seems to be targeting 2022 as the year to make a postseason push.
Following four consecutive losing seasons — three of which resulted in last-place finishes in the American League Central — the Tigers' farm system boasts esteemed prospects, including pitchers Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning and offensive weapons Spencer Torkelson, Riley Greene and Isaac Paredes.
Lombard knows what it takes to develop players. He worked for the Boston Red Sox in the minors from 2010-15 and was promoted in 2012 as the organization's roving outfield and base-running coordinator. That's when Lombard, an outfielder in his playing career, helped 2018 AL MVP Mookie Betts transition from the infield to the outfield.
He wants to make a similar impact with Detroit's young talent.
"Obviously, we want to win every game that we possibly can," Lombard said. "But we have some good young players. We have some money. And there's a lot of trust in AJ with the deal he signed."
Playing for Tigers
Lombard had a six-year MLB career, playing 144 games for the Atlanta Braves (1998-2000), Tigers (2002), Tampa Bay Devil Rays (2003) and Washington Nationals (2006). He will never forget the circumstances surrounding his trade to the Tigers.
Coming off a rehabilitation assignment, Lombard went to Atlanta for the second game of an interleague series with the Tigers on June 19, 2002. There wasn't an opening for Lombard in the lineup, and he was out of options. So that day, he was traded to the Tigers for right-handed reliever Kris Keller.
"I remember (former Braves manager) Bobby Cox calling me in," Lombard said. "He goes, 'George, you're one of my favorites. I love you to death. But we had to make a move, and I think this is a good opportunity for you. We're going to trade you to Detroit.' I remember walking over to the other locker room, putting the Detroit Tigers uniform on and coming back out and taking BP with the Tigers. It was a unique start to an organization."
For the Tigers in 2002, Lombard hit .241 with five homers and 13 RBIs in 72 games. He was selected off waivers by Tampa Bay in March 2003. He had a career .143 batting average, eight homers and 21 RBIs.
Lombard played professionally until his retirement in 2009.
"The fact that baseball was so difficult for me helped me as a coach," said Lombard, a second-round pick in the 1994 draft. "Playing for that long, I would say Year 14, 15 and 16, I was getting more coaching offers than I was playing offers. That's a good sign that it might be time to close the book on that chapter.
"I never envisioned myself as a coach, but I was doing a lot of coaching in those last three or four years with the Cleveland Indians. My last roommate was Michael Brantley. I would like to think I helped them. So I got in (as a coach) and enjoyed it. I've kind of done it at every level."