NEWPORT — Lonnie Chisenhall told kids at a Newport Middle School (NMS) assembly that he wanted to be a baseball player or … well … there was no “or.”
“When I was in the second grade, I wrote down that I wanted to be a Major League Baseball player,” he said. “I never had a backup plan.”
The former Cleveland Indians outfielder, who has recently retired, was back at his alma mater Thursday to have his jersey dedicated.
Baseball coach Paul Sproul, a NMS staff member since the school opened in 2001, recently ran across the original baseball uniforms while cleaning out his office with fellow physical education teacher Katrina Smith. He also kept scorebooks from that season.
They thought the find, and Chisenhall, was worth celebrating. His No. 16 jersey will be prominently displaced at the school for all to see.
“There are too many people to thank,” Chisenhall said. “Coach Sproul is one of them. I always say that odds are, if you think you had a hand in my career or my life in general, chances are you played a part in it, so thank you.”
The Newport native showed a strong arm and a smooth, efficient southpaw swing.
“But the most important thing is the people who nurtured those skills and pushed me in the right direction,” Chisenhall said. “Coach Sproul was a part of that. (Former West Carteret coach) Robby Lasater was a part of that. (Former Broad Creek Middle School coach) Doug Garner was a part of that.”
In addition to thanking those who shaped his early life, he encouraged the kids to be proud of where they come from and spoke of the love for his community, stating he’s always proud to say he’s from Newport. And his hometown has shown it’s plenty proud of him.
“I’d be in New York, I’d be in Dallas, I’d be in Chicago, there would be a sign, saying ‘We’re from Newport,’ ” he said. “They would pop up anywhere. They wouldn’t ask for tickets. They would be there purely to support me. That continues to this day.”
Chisenhall has paid back to those that have helped him along the way, providing a large donation to help fund an impressive 5,000-square feet, $170,000 indoor athletic facility at West Carteret, known as the Chisenhall Hitting Facility.
Sproul introduced his former player to the middle school, extolling his youthful exploits.
In a testament to his power in middle school, Chisenhall had more doubles than singles and more triples than singles as well. He hit .634 and also shined as a pitcher, throwing a perfect game with 16 strikeouts against Broad Creek and a no-hitter with 11 K’s against Arapahoe.
“All of those things are pretty impressive, but the thing that impresses me the most about him, first of all, he’s a very humble kid,” Sproul said. “And his work ethic is beyond belief. I had to get him out of the cage. There’s a little field on Loop Road, and raining, snow, sleet, you could hear a ball being hit off the tee. It was him hitting.”
Chisenhall went on to star at West Carteret where he was named the N.C. Gatorade Player of the Year and a second-team All-American.
In 2008, the Indians took him with the 29th pick in the first round out of Pitt Community College. He made his big league debut in 2011 and hit .244 with 23 home runs, 74 RBIs and 36 doubles in 203 games during his first three seasons.
In the 2013 American League Wild Card Game, he went 3-for-4 in a 4-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays.
He had a breakout campaign in 2014, setting career highs in games played (142), home runs (13), RBIs (59) and doubles (29) while hitting .280 with a .343 on-base percentage and slugging .427.
He was the talk of baseball on June 9, 2014 in a 17-7 win over the Texas Rangers.
He went 5-for-5 with three home runs, nine RBIs, three runs, a single and a double. The Boston Red Sox’s Fred Lynn was the last player to have at least three homers, five hits and nine RBIs in a game on June 18, 1975. Lynn was the AL MVP and Rookie of the Year that season.
Chisenhall, who was hitting .385 on the season at that point, was just the fourth player since the RBI became an official stat in 1920 to have a five-hit, three-homer, nine RBI performance. Besides Lynn, the other two players to do it were Hall of Famer Gil Hodges on Aug. 31, 1950 and Walker Cooper on July 6, 1949.
The 31-year-old Chisenhall began 2015 as the Indians’ starting third baseman but struggled at the plate and was optioned to Triple A Columbus where he ended up giving new life to his career by transitioning to right field.
Following a near two-month stint in the minors, he returned to Cleveland as the calendar turned to August and proceeded to produce one of the best months of his career, hitting .403 with two home runs, 14 RBIs and four doubles while sporting a .474 on-base percentage and slugging .552.
He continued to produce in 2016 as the Indians advanced to the World Series, hitting .286 with eight home runs, 25 doubles and 57 RBIs in 126 games.
Chisenhall was hitting .305 in mid-July 2017 with eight home runs and a team-leading 55 RBIs at the all-star break when he suffered the type of calf injury that would plague him during the final three seasons of his career.
He led the team with a .321 average in 2018 when he went down after 29 games with another calf injury.
After eight years with Cleveland, he signed a one-year deal later that winter with the Pittsburgh Pirates, who originally drafted him when he was a senior at West Carteret, but he never saw the field due to continuing calf injuries.
“I’ve only played 29 games in the past two years,” Chisenhall said during a Q&A session with the students. “So between that, and I have three kids at home, they are all in school, traveling around the country wasn’t practical anymore. It was a pretty easy decision.”
He ends his career having appeared in 688 games, hitting .268 in 2,159 at-bats with 578 hits, 64 home runs, 296 RBIs, 132 doubles, 10 triples and 20 stolen bases.