Jim O'Donnell: Ryan Lidge is gratefully swinging through Dog days of baseball
ON A CLEAR DAY, Ryan Lidge can still see his baseball forever.
That forever would include a run up to the major leagues.
Perhaps even impact and prime time MLB stardom touching that of his cousin -- the fireballing Brad Lidge.
Maybe a sweeping professional success approaching that of his late grandfather -- the renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. Ralph Lidge, one of the medical founders of Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights.
Dreams still within reach. A pedigree that demands the pursuit of excellence.
Right now, Lidge is a 26-year-old catcher and designated hitter with the Chicago Dogs of the independent American Association of Professional Baseball. From the team's Rosemont base at snazzy Impact Field, he is staying in the moments.
His .371 batting average for manager Butch Hobson -- one of the top numbers in the AAPB -- is doing nothing to dissuade that sort of thinking.
"I am having the most fun playing baseball since I was a kid," said the University of Notre Dame grad (Class of '17) and one-time all-stater at Barrington High School.
"When the Yankees let a bunch of us minor-leaguers go last June because of the pandemic, I decided to quit the game for all of one day. Then during an informal workout down in Florida, I hit an opposite-field home run to left off Steve Cishek (of the Los Angeles Angels).
"I had never done that before. I was kind of stunned, and elated. After the game, I got in my car and Aerosmith's 'Dream On' was playing. I looked up at the sky and thought somebody is trying to tell me something.
"My dream wasn't going away. In my mind, I was back in the game."
• • •
The Lidge hallmarks of precise focus and aiming for full self-realization didn't skip Ryan's branch of the family.
His father Chris was the youngest of Dr. Ralph and Jackie Lidge's four children, caboosing after Ralph Jr. (Brad's dad), Tom and Patty.
At age 17, Chris Lidge left Arlington High School to chase his dream of professional hockey in Canada.
"My parents may not have been crazy about it, but their support never wavered," the Hawthorn Woods resident said.
"I started in Junior B in Toronto, moved on up to Junior A the next year and finished with the Windsor Spitfires a few years after Joel Quenneville played there.
"Then, in a decision I've always regretted, I decided to come home.
"The best of it may have been that Ryan has learned from his father's mistake to hang in there until all who you respect tell you it's over."
That transitional choice turned positive when Chris married Peggy Carlstrom of Rolling Meadows.
Now the vibrant household has produced four of its own including: eldest son Mike, a strength coach high up in the Phillies organization; daughter Maggie, married and the mother of Emma; and Dylan -- Ryan's twin -- who is with Cressey Sports Performance in Florida.
• • •
Ryan and Dylan were switch hitters from Little League baseball forward. With the Dogs, this is the first season that Ryan has elected to bat exclusively left-handed.
A critical accelerant to this day remains Steve Petersen, owner of The Evolution Baseball Academy in Crystal Lake.
"Steve has such a phenomenal baseball mind," Lidge said. "He played for Eddie Stanky at South Alabama and then never really pursued professional baseball.
"But he's a thinker and a craftsman. He developed a batting aid called 'The Power Pipe' and it continues to help me."
Lidge's baseball progression appeared to need little help once he advanced from Barrington to Notre Dame. Then, a knee injury at the start of his junior season altered his ascent.
"There's no point in going into how all of that was managed because I loved my time at Notre Dame. But after the injury, I know there were some different perceptions of my game."
Still, the Yankees drafted him in the 20th round of the 2017 June Amateur Draft.
But then, around the time he hit Rookie League in Pulaski, Va., Lidge was given the dreaded tag of "organizational catcher."
"What that means is, wherever they need a catcher, they send you," he said. "It could mean 10 days here, two months there, whatever. A lot of sleeping on air mattresses. I was in Charleston (Class A), the most time in Trenton (AA), even on up to Triple-A Scranton for a brief period. Tampa, Staten Island, all around.
"It can certainly hinder your development. And it made Yankee Stadium seem like such a far away place."
Said Brad Lidge, one of the grand heroes of Philadelphia's 2008 World Series championship:
"Baseball became a roller-coaster ride for Ryan. He did everything the Yankees asked of him and then some. He was a true team player."
Nonetheless, the true team player felt a degree of liberation when the Yankees released him last June.
• • •
Butch Hobson knows sudden baseball acclaim.
He experienced it at age 24 back in the mid-'70s, playing for a Boston Red Sox team that featured future Hall of Famers Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Rice and Carlton Fisk.
He also knows the grind side of baseball, a depth charge he has been managing with the Dogs for co-founder Shawn Hunter and COO Trish Zuro since their inaugural season of 2018.
"We're here to do two things," said Hobson, once a backup QB for Bear Bryant at Alabama (1970-72) and a past manager of the Red Sox (1992-94).
"No. 1, we want to have quality players who are positioned to move back to major league organizations when their call comes. And No. 2, we want to entertain and win ballgames."
Hobson's realism appears to be a godsend for Lidge.
"Ryan Lidge is a very good baseball player," the top Dog said. "I told him when he got here last August from Winnipeg that I wanted him to be my quarterback, to take charge of games and help us win. Any offense he provided would be a sweetener."
Said Lidge: "After all the flip-flopping in the Yankees system, Butch's conciseness was so welcome. It was the first time in my pro career a manager sat me down before a season, said what he wanted and let me focus on matching my talent to his direction."
• • •
The strength/weakness discussion of Lidge's skillset is an interesting one.
That he can play the game and his competitiveness are above question. At 6-2, 220, he has acceptably fluid size. His lofty batting average suggests his decision to bat only from the left side this season was a beneficial one.
"And," adds cousin Brad, "he has always had a cannon for an arm. He showed that in high school and that's never gone away."
Career numbers indicate power hitting is not a strength. He says he has been told elements of his defensive catching style are "question marks."
"I have heard I block too many pitches," Lidge said. "That leads into a question of whether I consistently frame pitches correctly. Personally, I think I manage pitchers well and I am constantly working on my framing. I just hate -- hate -- to lose baseball games."
Lidge, Hobson and the Dogs are in second-place in the AAPB's six-team North Division. They close a three-game weekend set at Milwaukee Sunday and open a six-game homestand beginning with Fargo-Moorhead at 7:05 p.m. Tuesday.
From his daily chair on SiriusXM's MLB channel, cousin Brad says:
"Ryan has always had such a great attitude. He is as solid as it gets with understanding how the game can sometimes be cruel. But he never loses his optimism and tireless work ethic.
"He's even tried pitching -- he does have 'a cannon' after all -- and anything else to keep the dream alive.
"He's such a bright guy that we all know he's going to have a great career ahead of him whatever he does. He won't have any regrets when it's all said and done and that's as important as anything."
Adds Hobson: "Since our season opened May 18, 48 players from across the league have been signed by major league organizations. That's far and away the highest rate since I've been here. With the way Ryan is hitting and catching and the way we're winning, I can't believe he's not being watched."
So for Ryan Lidge, the dream remains alive.
And even on cloudy days -- from the home ballpark of the Chicago Dogs in Rosemont -- he can still see his baseball forever.
• Jim O'Donnell's Sports & Media column appears Thursday and Sunday. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.