Turn back the clock to August 6, 2007. Barry Bonds was up, veins juiced with some foreign substance. The fans at AT&T Park were going nuts for their sour slugger, who two days earlier had tied Hank Aaron as Major League Baseball’s all-time home run leader.
Then there’s Long Island native John Lannan on the mound for the Washington Nationals, 12 days into his big league career, facing possibly the most dominating hitter ever. Mind you, Lannan made history himself July 26 when he was just the fifth player to be ejected from his Major League debut in Philadelphia.
That was a lovely introduction to “the show.” Lannan blew an 0-2 count against the pesty Chase Utley and plunked him. During the next offering he beamed Ryan Howard and was given the boot. Both blasts were from shear wildness and scrutinized heavily.
Vastly different from that scene, the first at-bat against Bonds was smooth. He fouled out to third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. Lannan, a Chaminade High School graduate from Long Beach with a soft southpaw release, was relieved. He walked Bonds during the second at-bat and the third time around got him to ground into a double play.
Lannan, 24, saved his bravado for the final showdown. Hundreds of media members, thousands of flashbulbs popping and his parents in attendance, he forced Bonds’ 3-1 count full with a fastball. The next pitch was a curve ball, low and away. Bonds swung, missed and the kid from Long Island was free from making history that no one wanted to make and on the radar screens of every team in baseball for being calm and collected, a common aura for the newbie.
“It was the best baseball moment I’ve had so far,” he says. “I hope there are more like it.”
It’s moments like that, where some athletes shutter and botch the cage-rattling nuances of being in the spot light. Lannan is different. He shrugs off the tough situations.
It’s his semi-absentminded persona and extremely focused work ethic, which got Lannan selected in the 11th round of the 2005 MLB Draft by the Nationals, then pushed him through four minor league levels in 2007 alone, earning him the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year honors.
Barely reaching the mid-70s on his fastball at Chaminade, the 6-foot-4 Lannan managed to be the ace of his high school team. By his junior year, the Flyers won a Catholic High School Athletic Association Long Island crown in 2001.
“His junior year was our chance to make him a pitcher, rather than a thrower,” longtime Chaminade head coach Mike Pienkos says. “He was a really good high school pitcher, he just didn’t have the size and strength.”
Lannan admits his experiences at Chaminade are what really helped him mature as a ballplayer and fans across the country rarely let him forget.
“That’s the biggest thing I hear,” he says. “People screaming Chaminade from the stands. Everything I learned there still sticks with me.”
He had enough ability for Siena College coach Tony Rossi to recruit him to the Loudonville, NY school that’s mostly known as a bracket-busting March Madness institution, not one that produces Major League pitchers.
Rossi spotted Lannan at a fall tournament in Toms River, New Jersey, where Glen Cove’s Craig Hansen—who plays for the Pittsburgh Pirates—was also being scouted.
“The ball seemed to come out of his hand nice,” Rossi remembers.
It was during the summer between his sophomore and junior year of college, while playing summer ball in Athens, Georgia, when Lannan’s arm seemed to spur off a bit more heat—albeit light heat since he rarely tops 90 today—on his fastball.
“His velocity went up to the mid-eighties, then to eighty six or eighty seven,” Rossi says. “His breaking pitch was much better and he had command of everything.”
By the end of his junior year he won 10 games and set the school record for single season victories.
“I developed a little more each year,” says Lannan, who recently bought a home in Florida and will probably live there in the off-season and not on his native island. “I wasn’t anything special.”
Now Lannan is the go-to guy, the ace of baseball’s youngest pitching staff and the stud on a team that’s competing in the National League East, a division flanked with two of the best pitchers in the game in Johan Santana and Cole Hamels.
“He got in a great organization and threw well,” Rossi says. “He got his shot and everywhere along the track he did well. Big long, lanky lefties can get by without throwing in the mid to low nineties, which he does not do. It’s all about location.”
Lannan also joined a long list of notable Long Islanders to play in the majors when he cracked the Nationals’ roster, including Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski (Red Sox/ Bridgehampton) and future Hall of Famer Craig Biggio (Astros/ Kings Park). Not to mention fellow Chaminade graduate Gene Larkin, who hit the game-winning single in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series for Minnesota.
For a guy who keeps a list of goals in his wallet—which was recently eaten by his dog Bailey—he’s burning through the task list quickly.
He’s also bucking the trend of being a spoiled, young, successful athlete and using various tools to better his ability at a callow age. During this year’s spring training, he started using video to analyze his performances and the tendency’s of hitters.
The Nationals are years away from the playoffs, but that tumultuous mountain probably won’t faze Lannan.
“If he didn’t get rattled facing Barry Bonds, very few things can happen [to rattle him],” Nationals’ manager Manny Acta told the Washington Post before the regular season.
With a new family in the White House and plenty of political news to keep Washington—and the rest of the country—busy for the next half-century, no one thought twice about Lannan being named the Nationals opening day starter in late March.
It’s just another modest accomplishment for a modest person.