George Lombard earned a World Series ring last week, reaching the pinnacle of his chosen sport as first base coach of the Dodgers.
Watching the 45-year-old Atlanta native throughout the postseason, as he gathered various protective gear from hitters who had reached first and whispered instructions through his mask into their ears, sparked thoughts of what might have been if Lombard had taken the path so many expected.
Bulldog fans of a certain age know the story already, but for those who don’t: the Dodgers’ first base coach and former journeyman MLB outfielder was supposed to be the running back who resurrected Georgia football.
In the fall of 1993, George Lombard was one of the country’s top recruits, a Parade All-American who was the unquestioned star of a Lovett School team that had gone 11-3 the previous year. Entering Lovett’s season opener against Woodward Academy, coach Bill Railey shared with the Atlanta Constitution his rather straightforward game plan: “Keep running George at them until he breaks one.”
Lombard wrapped up his three years at Lovett with 3,427 rushing yards and 55 touchdowns, including scores via receptions, kick returns and punt returns. As signing day approached, he narrowed his choices to Notre Dame, Florida State and Georgia, and ultimately committed to coach Ray Goff’s Bulldogs the final week of January 1994, saying he wanted to play close to home.
His decision was the first in a series of dominos that fell Goff’s way over the ensuing days, as the Bulldogs would get commitments from coveted Crim tight end Larry Brown the next Monday, Forest Park quarterback Hines Ward on Tuesday, and a key signing-day pickup in Dunwoody defensive lineman Marcus Stroud on Wednesday. (Also making things official that day: a 5-foot-11, 175-pound defensive back from Bainbridge named Kirby Smart.)
Lombard’s addition was seen as particularly critical given Georgia’s lack of depth at running back. Most observers expected him to be a significant contributor as a true freshman. While rising senior Terrell Davis had racked up 824 rushing yards for a 5-6 team in 1993, he was third on the depth chart coming out of spring practice behind Sterling Boyd and Bill Montgomery.
That left the door open for the explosive Lombard to enter the fall as Georgia’s featured back, but he would never play another football game.
On June 2, 1994, the Braves made Lombard their second-round pick in the MLB draft, 61st overall. He had hit .447 with a school-record 12 home runs in leading Lovett to a state title that spring, and Atlanta had sent eight different scouts to watch him play at various points. Heading into the draft, Lombard told the Braves he would sign if offered first-round money, and on the day of the draft they faxed a contract featuring a $425,000 bonus to the hotel in Honolulu where Lombard was staying on a senior class trip. (For comparison, the previous year, 20th overall pick Torii Hunter got $450,000 to sign with the Twins out of high school.)
After a conversation with Goff, who tried to persuade him to stick with UGA, Lombard faxed back the signed contract by mid-afternoon Atlanta time and was no longer a two-sport athlete. In interviews at the time, he cited baseball being a better long-term fit: “I don’t think I could be as good playing two sports and I feel I can be a professional baseball player,” he told Tony Barnhart of the AJC.
Goff acknowledged his disappointment in a phone call with Barnhart, but took the high road: “We felt like George was going to be an outstanding player for us. But we’re happy for him.”
It’s impossible to say what might have happened had Lombard heeded Goff’s pleas. The 1994 Bulldogs would go 6-4-1 in quarterback Eric Zeier’s final season, with Terrell Davis (445 yards) and Hines Ward (425) leading the team in rushing. Those two, of course, ended up making quite a name for themselves in the NFL.
Lombard, meanwhile, embraced the baseball life and never looked back — at least not publicly. I interviewed him in late summer 1997 for a feature story in the Athens Banner-Herald and found him to be reflective and self-aware, particularly for a 21-year-old.
“You have to take care of yourself,” he told me. “You can’t listen to other people your entire life. You have to look after yourself, and it was a decision that I had to make.”
“It’s a game of feast or famine. You can be in the minor leagues for five years and not make any money in this game, or you can be up (in the majors) for one year and be set for life.”–George Lombard
At this point, he was wrapping up his third full season of the minor league grind with High-A Durham, back when the Bulls were still in their old Carolina League ballpark made famous by the movie.
He knew he had been drafted for his physical tools and was showing flashes of the power-speed combo that had all those Braves scouts salivating over his potential. He would hit 25 doubles, seven triples and 14 homers for Durham that season, while stealing 35 bases. But he also struck out a staggering 145 times in 541 plate appearances, indicating plenty of work remained.
“If you get drafted and play baseball, you’re the man for the first couple of weeks after you’re drafted,” Lombard said at the time. “You get the big signing bonus and everything like that, but then you go to the bottom of the totem pole. You’re nobody.
“I find that more people will run themselves out of this game that have the talent than actually make it. You see guys who are great athletes out there, and they can do it, but they end up getting in trouble doing something, running themselves out of the game.
“It’s a game of feast or famine. You can be in the minor leagues for five years and not make any money in this game, or you can be up (in the majors) for one year and be set for life.”
Braves scouting and player development director Paul Snyder thought that five-year benchmark was important for a player like Lombard.
“He’s got one thing some of those guys don’t have, and that’s tremendous pride,” Snyder told me. “I look for George to give it four or five years to have a legitimate shot, and if it doesn’t work out, why, I think George will come tell us.”
As it turned out, Lombard did get his shot. After posting the best season of his career in 1998 at Double-A Greenville with a .308 average, 22 homers and 35 more steals, he skipped Triple-A and went straight to Atlanta as a September call-up, making his debut as a pinch-runner for Eddie Perez in a Sept. 4 game against the Mets.
Lombard had made it to the majors, but he hadn’t quite arrived. He would go on to play in 144 big-league games between that day and Oct. 1, 2006, when he replaced Alfonso Soriano in left field for the Nationals in a season-ending loss to the Mets. Of those games, exactly half came in 2002 with the Tigers, when he hit .241 with five home runs and stole 13 bases in his only extended stay in the majors. The other 72 were scattered across the years for the Braves, Devil Rays and Nationals, as repeated injuries took their toll.
After one last stab at glory with the independent Long Island Ducks in 2009 following his release by the Indians organization, Lombard turned the page in 2010 and changed his focus to helping others play the game.
He served as a coach and manager in the Red Sox farm system from 2010-12 and was named Boston’s minor league outfield and baserunning coordinator heading into the 2013 season. In that role, he could claim a hand in helping the Red Sox to the World Series title that year, but he wasn’t closely involved with the major league team.
Lombard took the next step up for the 2016 season, when he joined Dave Roberts’ Dodgers staff as first base coach. World Series trips the next two Octobers ended in losses, but this fall Lombard one was of the men celebrating on the field after the final out of the season’s final game.
So, what comes next? First and foremost, Lombard is headed up the ladder. He interviewed for Detroit’s managerial opening during the NLCS, and though he lost out to former Astros manager A.J. Hinch, the Tigers hired him as their bench coach for the 2021 season. The bench coach is the manager’s second-in-command on the staff, stepping in when the boss gets ejected or is otherwise unable to be present.
Between that appointment and earlier rumors that he might be a candidate for the Red Sox manager job, it’s clear the game’s decision-makers have him on their radar.
The former five-star recruit has carved out quite a baseball career since sending that fax a quarter century ago, and he doesn’t appear to be done yet.