By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
He was the Toronto Blue Jays’ first ace.
Before there was Dave Stieb, there was Dave Lemanczyk.
And few have fought harder to stay on the mound than Lemanczyk, who tossed 11 complete games for a hapless Blue Jays squad in their inaugural season.
The strong-willed, 6-foot-4 right-hander pitched his best games when he was angry. And if you have an extended conversation with the spirited Syracuse, N.Y., native, you’ll quickly discover that he’s determined yet self-deprecating, loyal but outspoken and optimistic yet rebellious. He’s a devoted husband and father, but also a jokester with a zest for life. And many of these traits likely helped save his life at the end of 2014.
The now 65-year-old Lemanczyk, who runs a successful baseball academy in Lynbrook, N.Y., had a hip replaced 10 years ago, but in the fall of 2014, he began to experience excruciating pain in his hip and legs.
“When my doctor came to my house, at that point, I couldn’t even walk,” recalled Lemanczyk in a recent phone interview. “My doctor thought I had dislocated my artificial hip. But it wasn’t dislocated. He put me on antibiotics that really didn’t work, so my daughter-in-law brought me to the hospital.”
At the hospital, the doctors discovered an infection in his leg and hip that had spread throughout his body.
“They opened up my leg and started the draining process,” recalled Lemanczyk. “They put me on antibiotics that you have to take really slow because if you take them fast, they will destroy your veins.”
The ex-Jay was required to take the antibiotics several hours a day and he was eventually moved to a nursing home where he continued his treatment.
“I was in bed from the beginning of November until just before New Year’s Eve,” he said.
He really didn’t know how serious the infection was until he recovered from it, but he could’ve died.
“I always joke that I’m too nasty. God didn’t want me and the devil didn’t want me either. They both just said, ‘Screw him. Let him stay on the earth a little bit longer,’” said Lemanczyk with a chuckle.
A good laugh is important to the former big leaguer. His sense of humor and positive outlook has helped him cope with the multiple strokes that his wife, Joan, has suffered in recent years.
“I take care of her, so I’ve limited my time at the academy,” said Lemanczyk. “It is what it is. I’m not going to think what could be. We have some good moments. We have good days. We have better days. We have some horrible days, but that’s OK. I can live with it.”
It’s clear in talking to Lemanczyk that his wife, two sons, Dave and Matt, and their families are his priority. In fact, his desire to be there for his kids is the reason he walked away from professional baseball when he was in his early thirties.
Raised just outside of Syracuse, N.Y., Lemanczyk grew up “loving to throw things.”
“I threw anything – rocks, sticks, you name it,” he said. “I lived in the country and I’d throw snowballs in the winter because I grew up just on the other side of Lake Ontario where we had two seasons: winter and July.”
When he was six, he started playing organized baseball. There was no Little League in his area, so he competed in a local four-team league and by the time he was nine, he was playing with 12-year-olds. He cites a minor ball coach named Freddy Esposito as a key influence on him.
“He was probably the best coach I had. He was firm, but he was fair,” recalled Lemanczyk.
In high school, Lemanczyk was known more for his basketball skills, but on the diamond he served primarily as a catcher.
“I basically caught until I went to college,” he said. “I think I pitched four games in high school, a couple of games in my junior year and a couple of games in my senior year.”
When he did pitch, he was overpowering and the St. Louis Cardinals expressed interest in him, but Lemanczyk accepted a basketball scholarship to Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y. instead.
“I didn’t even know that the college had a baseball team until my sophomore year,” noted Lemanczyk. “It was the fall of my sophomore year and my roommate came in with a ball and a glove and I said, ‘Where have you been?’ And he said, ‘I was playing baseball.’”
As fate would have it, the coach of the baseball team was Dave Jacobs, who was also the assistant coach of the basketball team. He was reluctant to give Lemanczyk a tryout because he already had a catcher, but one day Jacobs saw Lemanczyk unleashing mid-to-high 90s fastballs on a practice mound and decided to make the young right-hander a pitcher. In his first collegiate start, Lemanczyk threw a one-hitter and struck out 15.
When the college season ended, Lemanczyk was looking for a summer team and he was directed to the Guelph C-Joys of the Senior Intercounty League in Ontario. He’d pitch there for two summers (1970, 1971).
“My first year there was difficult,” he said. “I wasn’t in a set rotation. In fact, there was a guy that was a legend named Ron Stead. Ronnie Stead was a freakin’ legend. Basically if I was scheduled to pitch on a given day and Ronnie Stead showed up because he got off early and made the two-hour drive to Guelph, he pitched. For someone that was 19 or 20 years old, I didn’t understand that and it kind of pissed me off.”
But Lemanczyk grew to love the city of Guelph. He fondly remembers living in a basement apartment at Hugh and Barbara Bowman’s home. Hugh was the sports editor of the Guelph Mercury newspaper. Lemanczyk also helped the C-Joys win a league championship in 1970.
“What I didn’t know was that I was breaking every NCAA rule. I mean, we got paid,” he said. “If you win a championship, you get money. But nobody gave me an NCAA rule book.”
It was while with Guelph that Lemanczyk first impressed Detroit Tigers scout and Canadian Baseball Hall of Famer Bob Prentice and when Lemanczyk returned to college, the Tigers dispatched scout Cy Williams to further evaluate him.
After Lemanczyk completed his history degree at Hartwick, the Tigers selected him in the 16th round of the 1972 MLB amateur draft. The big righty reported to Class-A Lakeland where he went 7-1 with a 1.77 ERA in eight starts to earn a promotion to Triple-A Toledo.
He made his major league debut on April 15 of the following year and over the next three seasons, he was shuttled between the minors and majors and was employed as a reliever and spot starter by the Tigers.
Following the 1976 campaign, Lemanczyk was playing winter ball when he found out that he had been selected by the Blue Jays in the expansion draft.
“I had no idea that there even was an expansion draft,” he recalled.
It was catcher John Wockenfuss, one of Lemanczyk’s Tigers teammates, that informed him he’d been selected in the expansion draft.
“We went to play and he goes, ‘Yo, Blue Jay.” And I said, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ And he goes, ‘You’re a Blue Jay.’ And I said, ‘What’s a Blue Jay?’ He said, ‘Expansion draft.’ And I go, ‘Expansion for what? What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘You don’t know, do you?’ And I said, ‘No, I haven’t read a paper in months.’ He told me there were two new teams in the American League and that I’d been chosen by the Toronto Blue Jays. And I said, ‘Yeah, OK cool. That’s fine,’” recalled Lemanczyk.
Lemanczyk was familiar with Dunedin, Fla., where the Blue Jays held spring training because he had been there for instructional league with the Tigers. The hard-nosed hurler was also one of the few players in camp that had lived in Canada.
“It was funny in spring training with half a team of Americans and the other half Latin Americans,’” remembered Lemanczyk. “I told them that in Canada every sentence ends in “eh.” I don’t know why, it just does. The money is different, but it’s coloured money, so you know the dominations. Everything else is almost exactly the same. Gas is not in gallons, it’s in litres. It’s the metric system. The only thing you’ll notice is that everything is cleaner.”
Lemanczyk wasn’t guaranteed a spot on the big league staff, but his arm was sharp from pitching in winter ball and he earned a spot at the top of the rotation.
When the team headed north, the Syracuse native was one of the only players accustomed to snow and blustery weather. To the chagrin of most of the players, the city insisted on holding a parade for the Blue Jays on a frigid day in downtown Toronto prior to the regular season opener.
“I got fined because I was the only guy not to show at the parade,” recalled Lemanczyk. “You know why I didn’t show up at the parade? I was looking for a place to live. I found an apartment complex in Oakville and they had about 15 units, all relatively inexpensive. They were gorgeous. I brought that information back and I probably had 10 Blue Jays families living out there with me. I was thinking, ‘Yeah, I’m going to sit on a freakin’ fire truck for a parade?’ I was more worried about where I was going to sleep.”
After veteran Bill Singer started the snowy opener on April 7, 1977 that saw the Blue Jays defeat the Chicago White Sox 9-5, Lemanczyk started the second game. The Blue Jays lost 3-2, despite a complete-game effort from the right-hander, his first of 11 that season. That was the way the season went for Lemanczyk. Despite being far and away the Blue Jays’ most effective starter, he ended the campaign with a 13-16 record, but was rightfully named the club’s pitcher of the year.
“There were times when not a lot of guys on our staff went deep into games, so by the time my turn came around again, we really didn’t have a very strong bullpen and [manager] Roy Hartsfield would call me in and say, ‘I hate to do this to you, but you’ve got to go nine.’ And I’d say, ‘OK. That’s fine,’” said Lemanczyk.
For the most part, Lemanczyk had a harmonious relationship with Hartsfield.
“He’d always come up with a new rule, and I was the subject of many of his new rules. I knew the rules and I’d figure out a way to break them,” shared Lemanczyk with a chuckle. “Well, I’d never really break the rule, but I caused him to make another rule. Like I never wanted to come out of a game and finally one time he made a second trip out and we were at home and if you remember, when we were at the old Exhibition Stadium, the scoreboard was in right-centre field and our dugout was on the third base side. So I stood on the mound watching him on the scoreboard walk out to me. And as soon as he got to the mound, I flipped the ball over my head and I made him catch it, so then he made a rule that pitchers must hand him the ball.”
After posting a 4-14 record in 1978, Lemanczyk went to the instructional league in the off-season and came back bound and determined to return to his 1977 form.
“In 1979, I went to spring training pissed off,” said Lemanczyk. “I go to camp and I really don’t have a position on the team. I have no role. None. I’m not going to start. I’m going to be in the bullpen, so they throw me a couple of cookies here and there, a couple of innings here and there. All of a sudden about a week into the season, Hartsfield calls me in and says, ‘You have to start against Chicago. We’re light on pitching.’”
Lemanczyk held the White Sox to one run in 5-1/3 innings and when Hartsfield asked him to start again eight days later, he tossed a one-hitter against the Texas Rangers. Lemanczyk remained in the rotation and proceeded to throw six complete games in his next nine starts and he was selected to represent the Blue Jays at the all-star game at the Kingdome in Seattle. He did not pitch in the game, but he vividly recalls sharing a clubhouse with legends like Nolan Ryan, Carl Yastrzemski, George Brett and Reggie Jackson.
He finished 1979 with a 3.71 ERA in 20 starts and returned to the Jays rotation in 1980. But after making eight starts, he was dealt to the California Angels on June 3. Lemanczyk would register a 4.32 ERA in 21 games primarily in relief for the Angels and attend spring training in 1981 with the White Sox and then with the New York Yankees, before deciding to hang up his spikes.
The Yankees hired him as a scout, but after two years in that role, they asked him to travel more and he wanted to spend more time with his wife and kids. So he walked away from professional baseball and returned home. Following short stints as a player agent and as a salesman for a printing company, he was hired by a local baseball facility to provide lessons. After a few years, Lemanczyk decided to open his own facility and he has had his own academy, which is now located in Lynbrook, N.Y., for 25 years.
“This is a sanctuary,” he says over the phone from his baseball facility. “Basically what I have is a 3,000-square foot man cave. Most people have a room. I have a building. It’s my slice of heaven.”