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Full-Contact Lentz

After two missed seasons, and a lot of throws to second, Brian Lentz is back

By Martin S. Bell, Crimson Staff Writer

Brian Lentz has just been asked whether the fact that he’s never won an Ivy League championship in his Harvard baseball career grates on him, and he smiles.

“A lot of things grate on me,” he says. “That’s one of them.”

Lentz is holding court on the rocks in front of the Science Center almost serenely—cap backwards with a cursive “Crimson” on his forehead, slice of pizza in his hand. He has just emerged from a lecture about the escalation of American involvement in the Vietnam War. A few feet away, prison activists have constructed a hut intended to simulate solitary confinement cells in American prisons.

In a couple of hours, Lentz will head off to baseball practice. In a couple of months, Lentz will finally graduate from Harvard College.

Between now and then, there are weeks of the national pastime.

“It feels like a bonus,” says Lentz, the senior catcher on the Harvard baseball team. “A second chance to come back, it’s nice. You have a chance to come and play college baseball again, go to school, do all the things that you like to do.”

Between now and then, as for every senior, there are weeks of reflection.

“I don’t think the teams I’ve been on here have been disappointments to anybody, and I certainly don’t think I’ve let people down with my play on the field,” Lentz says. “Although you could make a case for me letting people down in other ways. I’ve always played hard here, had success, played injured…I wasn’t bothered by it because I was surrounded by good ball players on good teams and caught a few tough breaks.”

Lentz enjoys his slice of pizza and a chat on the rocks outside of the Science Center. It is 57 degrees out, teasingly warm for mid-March in Cambridge, and this will make for a better outdoor practice later on. Such days come along, at least at this time of year, seemingly whenever they feel like it. March is supposed to storm in like a lion and go out like a lamb, but the products of New England weather are necessarily unpredictable.

The arm is slower now. Lentz won’t volunteer much about most things in life that grate on him, but this comes of his own admission.

Not that this should make him an ineffective catcher. Lentz’ right arm, even if weaker than in past years, is still better than what most catchers work with every day. Eighty or ninety percent of the speed to second once displayed by arguably the best underclass catching prospect in baseball is still pretty good.

Besides, as Lentz will note, controlling a game from behind the plate is about more than just having a cannon. “It doesn’t have as much of an impact on what you can do as a catcher as a lot of people think,” Lentz says. “There are plenty of ways to get the ball to second base. It doesn’t have to be at 99 miles per hour. The smaller things, the less noticeable things you do as a catcher as far as framing and receiving pitches, calling pitches, running defenses will come into play on every pitch, whereas you’ll maybe throw to a bag once or twice in a game.”

Ask pitchers about Brian Lentz, and they’ll start with his head.

“He takes all the pressure of calling the ballgame off of you as a pitcher,” says Harvard captain and reliever Barry Wahlberg. “As a pitcher, all you wanna do is go out there and throw, you don’t wanna think about the game, and he takes that out of our hands, and basically calls a great game every time out.”

See? There’s more to it than just the hose. Still, anyone who ever saw him play would take notice when they hear Lentz suggest that it’s lost a bit over the years—possibly due to overuse.

The arm has seen him through a lot of ballgames. It once propelled him to a spot on the USA Junior National team with current New York Yankees prospect Drew Henson at third and Felipe Lopez of the Cincinnati Reds. The arm carried him to USA Today Honorable Mention All-America honors along with kids with names like Albert Pujols and Adam Dunn.

And the arm could have carried him straight to the pros after high school, except that the mind wanted a college education. So Lentz wound up at Harvard instead.

The arm also absorbed crushing checks as Lentz became one of Massachusetts’ best hockey players. The arm, along with the rest of him, took even more punishment during Lentz’s football career at St. John’s Prep—a record-breaking career alongside NFL draftee-to-be Brian St. Pierre. Lentz crashed through the line on a game-winning two-point conversion against top-ranked Xaverian one Thanksgiving Day in a game that is still the stuff of legend around these parts.

Lentz thinks about football a lot. He was recruited as a running back out of high school by Harvard’s offensive coordinator as well as being wooed by Walsh, but the coordinator was gone by the time Lentz got to Cambridge. According to Lentz, the remaining football coaches wanted him to gain 30 pounds and play middle linebacker. According to Lentz in 1998, that was a bad idea. Now, he’s not so sure.

“Walking away from football is something that I regret constantly,” Lentz says. “And I think that’s something I would’ve enjoyed doing in college and really enjoyed doing in high school. That’s up there on the regret list.”

It would be an interesting list to peruse in its entirety. Lentz had a difficult freshman year. Harvard College’s administration was on him for disciplinary issues. Harvard baseball, for its part, briefly wanted nothing to do with him. Despite all his skill, Walsh cut Lentz from the team. Lentz did not play ball his freshman season.

“He and I had a little bit of a disagreement on work habits,” Walsh says. “He did not make the team as a freshman. That started things off on a bit of a rocky foot, but he came in, a free spirit, a guy that marches to the beat of a different drummer with a lot of baseball talent.”

It would be an interesting list to read in its entirety…but Lentz can’t, or won’t, recall some of the early items.

“That’s a real long time ago,” Lentz says. “I honestly don’t remember what happened that much. I know that he was one of quite a few people around here who weren’t too happy with me. I really can’t remember that.”

Lentz missed the last of three straight Ivy League championships that season, came back and threw out a mess of would-be base stealers on two teams that narrowly missed division championships. And he was ready for a third go at it when he found out that he’d have to miss his senior season. Done for the year. Academic reasons.

“It was hard when I first found out,” Lentz says. “It got harder as I got up and went to work every day at six o’clock, wasn’t in school and wasn’t playing baseball. It wasn’t something that just came and went for a year, it was really sort of miserable.” Lentz spent the year working for Bartlett Tree Experts (“I was an arborist,” he says matter-of-factly).

“When Brian came in he was heartbroken—it hurt him,” Walsh says of Lentz’s reaction to having to leave. “It wasn’t so much the stigma of that, but he had let down some guys on the team, and he wanted to play ball.”

Even without Lentz, the team cobbled together enough wins to reach the Ivy League championship, sweeping Princeton on a sunny day in May as Lentz watched from the other side of the fence.

Walsh says that Lentz has made tremendous strides.

“There’s a lot of people that don’t bounce back when adversity faces them,” Walsh says. “He came back, and to me that says an awful lot about somebody. It could have been real easy to have gone the other way. When life throws some things in front of you that you gotta jump over. He certainly did it. So I like to look upon it that way and move on.”

O’Donnell Field sits in the shadow of the football stadium, and on some game days the trees behind the outfield fence will outnumber spectators five-to-one. Lentz will get a closer look at those trees than he would have imagined coming in as a rookie. Last year, a freshman named Schuyler Mann emerged in Lentz’s stead at catcher, producing hit after hit and calling enough superb ball games that benching him would border on the criminal. He and Lentz will now platoon, with Lentz playing some games at first base and, when Trey Hendricks isn’t pitching, presumably the outfield.

Lentz is asked about this situation. “I think Sky, with his ability to hit the ball, would play anywhere,” he says. “I’m more than happy to teach him what I can about catching. He’s got all the talent in the world so to me it’s pretty exciting to have someone around to teach some things to.”

It’s about teaching now for Lentz, who now finds himself the most senior of the seniors, the guy whose picture is on the scheduling cards Harvard hands out. He speaks with excitement of the “good kids” who will play as freshmen this year, and with respect and pride of his fellow seniors, hardworking veterans like Matt Self and Ryan Tsujikawa.

“He’s come a long way since that freshman year, both on the field and off the field, and I’m real proud to say that,” Walsh says. “I’ll tell you what, that kid’s come a long ways to become what I think right now is a very talented, hard-nosed kid who’s got a lot of leadership abilities on that baseball field. And I don’t throw that term ‘leadership’ around real easily.”

When it comes to leadership abilities off the field, neither would Brian Lentz.

“I think that I am probably the last person in the world to give anybody here advice that doesn’t directly involve baseball and baseball playing,” Lentz says. “So I don’t give any advice. The advice I’d give is to take advantage of it and enjoy it, and they’ll be fine without any advice from me regarding anything other than baseball.”

How about career advice, then? Lentz had to shake the scouts off with a stick back in high school, using a baseball intermediary to call off the dogs and make it clear he was going to college. The scouts will still talk to him, but they may have to call ahead to find out which games he’s catching. Does the regret list extend there?

“I wouldn’t say that I regret any of those decisions,” Lentz says. “When I made them I might not have known how different the two choices would be. I guess I saw myself as doing both, when in fact that may not be the case. But growing up I played sports to get into the best school I could get into, not as a way to make a living, and I think if I could do it all over again, I’d do the same thing.”

Sports as a way to make a living could very well still happen, of course. Walsh rattles off the names of three players from the region who were drafted by Major League teams last year and says that Lentz has a better chance than any of them. Lentz talks to scouts occasionally now but says he has no real sense of his prospects. Nor does he mind much; as he sits on the rocks and watches Harvard and the world go by, Lentz casually notes that he’s “one of the few people around here walking around without a job” lined up for next year.

“It’s something I plan on doing,” Lentz says of playing professionally. “I can’t hang around here any longer and play baseball. So this being my last year, my last college season, I’m going to take advantage of it like it’s my last baseball season. Whatever happens in the summertime to me is gonna be more a matter of something to do after school.”

Lentz is asked about his relationship with the team, having been gone for a year and suddenly surrounded by new faces. Most of the starters he last played alongside are gone.

“I got along with everyone I ever played with here,” Lentz says. “The guys on the team now, they don’t know me as well, so there might be a little more of a mystery for them.”

The thought makes him grin. Tennessee Williams once wrote that, “Some mystery should be left in the revelation of character in a play, just as a great deal of mystery is always left in the revelation of character in life, even in one’s own character to himself.” Lentz seems to believe it, seems to enjoy being somewhat mysterious to those around him and seems at peace with having made what some would see as a mystifying choice to stay the college baseball course at Harvard several times over.

He seems content with the what-ifs as well—that his stint with Harvard, for all its ups and downs, is nearly over, and that baseball holds one last thrilling chance at that elusive Ivy title.

Even New England Marches eventually get their acts together, and the inevitable sets in. Out of all the tumult emerge warmth and baseball games and caps and gowns.

—Staff writer Martin S. Bell can be reached at msbell@fas.harvard.edu.

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