April 16, 2015
By Mark Frego ’15
It was his calling card, his gift and his defining trait as a ballplayer. It had wowed teammates, coaches and opponents at nearly every level of the sport, beginning with Babe Ruth ball in tiny Pendleton, Oregon. It had attracted a wealth of college suitors, among them perennial powerhouses Oregon and Oregon State.
Artillery seemed oddly appropriate when searching for parallels; Notre Dame head coach Mik Aoki called it “a bazooka,” while Irish second baseman Cavan Biggio dubbed it “an absolute cannon.”
Put a bit more simply, Lane Richards had an incredible arm.
Richards’ uncanny arm strength was on display from the outset of his collegiate career. The defensive wizard started all 58 games at shortstop as a freshman. No ball seemed too deep in the hole for him to make a play. Ranging left, ranging right, charging, backpedaling, didn’t matter; any ball Richards corralled whizzed across the diamond and whacked into the first baseman’s mitt in the blink of an eye. Though Richards struggled from time to time at the plate, his defense alone — highlighted by his rocket arm — cemented his spot as one of the team’s most valuable players.
As a sophomore, Richards sought to shore up his hitting in an effort to improve his all-around game. Defense was an afterthought; blessed with plus range, soft hands and that powerful arm, Richards was already one of the most skilled infielders in the nation.
A few weeks into the season, though, coaches, teammates and Richards himself began to notice a gradual change in his play. He was bouncing the same throws he had effortlessly completed mere months before. Tosses that reached on the fly lacked their customary zip. His trademark arm strength rapidly dissipating, Richards was a shell of his former self.
A handful of visits with doctors confirmed the obvious: something was very wrong indeed. Richards’ UCL ligament was torn. He needed to undergo Tommy John surgery. He would miss the remainder of his sophomore season. Returning for the start of his junior campaign was not guaranteed. Coming back with the marvelous arm strength he once possessed? Even more in question.
Alas, what the baseball gods giveth, the baseball gods taketh away.
While Richards’ arm trouble seemed to manifest itself and intensify over the course of a few short weeks, it did not come as a total surprise to the shortstop; he had battled sporadic elbow pain since high school. Nevertheless, the news was hard to swallow.
“It was really emotional for him,” Biggio says. “After the last game he played, it really hit him hard that he wasn’t going to be able to be out there with us.”
This temporary separation from the team haunted Richards.
“My first thoughts after hearing I had to get Tommy John were more about the team than myself,” Richards says. “The saddest part for me was knowing that I had to sit out and watch the team play and not be able to practice with them and go on road trips with them.”
Richards underwent successful Tommy John surgery in mid-April with team orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Brian Ratigan, and began an arduous recovery program immediately after. Rehabilitation from Tommy John typically takes about a year; Richards made beating this timeline, and thus being ready for opening day as a junior, an obsessive goal.
“My mindset the whole time was that if there was any way I was not able to come back ready for the start of the season, I wanted to err on the side of being too aggressive with my rehab, instead of taking it slow,” Richards says. “If I wasn’t going to be able to come back, I wanted to not come back knowing I gave it my all and really pushed it instead of thinking, `What if I would have pushed it a little harder?'”
Richards spent countless hours over the ensuing months with athletic trainer Scott Stansbury. Lengthy sessions of strength work, stretching and treatment resulted in slow but steady progress. Still, Richards dealt with numerous trying times, wondering through it all if he would ultimately regain his full abilities.
“There was definitely some doubt,” Richards says. “When I first started my throwing in the fall, there were a couple days where I wasn’t able to complete the throwing program. Those were pretty scary days. There was actually a three-week period where I completely shut down throwing altogether around Thanksgiving break. That was probably the scariest time for me, because the season was in a couple months, and I wasn’t throwing at all because it hurt too badly. Just battling through that was tough.”
Richards is candid about these struggles now, but he adamantly internalized them during the months-long process. He greeted his coaches and teammates with the same even, determined disposition each day, regardless of any advances or setbacks with his rehab.
“Lane just carries himself in a way that is different from other people,” assistant coach Jesse Woods says. “He’s never too up, never too down. For us coaches, knowing Lane’s personality, we were really confident that he would bounce back fast from this.”
Richards’ own confidence in his ability to return to full strength was given a much-needed boost when Stansbury finally cut him loose following Christmas break. For the first time since the surgery, Richards fully participated in defensive drills and took up his usual post at shortstop in live scrimmages.
“I was making plays and throwing guys out at first,” Richards says. “That’s when a lot of hope started coming back for me.”
Richards completed each practice without a hiccup as his arm gained strength with each passing day. A few weeks later, he sprinted out of the Irish dugout in sunny Norman, Oklahoma for the season opener. He was in the lineup, batting seventh and playing short. Richards had achieved his goal: the rehab, though bumpy at times, was an overwhelming success.
Richards’ arm is fully healed, and he is turning in yet another sparkling defensive campaign. Though he has regained his gift, reminders of the surgery remain fixtures in Richards’ daily regimen.
“I still have rehab, still have treatment,” Richards says. “I still have to ice it and take extra warm up throws before the game, extra warm up throws between innings. But when I’m actually out there playing, I’ve stopped thinking about it completely.”
Free of arm pain for the first time in years, Richards has done more than just regain his effectiveness in the field; he is also enjoying far and away his most successful offensive campaign in an Irish uniform. He is hitting at a solid clip at the plate (.280), is tied for second on the team in homers (2) and tied for first in RBI (23). Richards admits that while Tommy John surgery certainly was a burden for a host of reasons, it heavily contributed to his offensive growth.
“Because of Tommy John, I took a break from all things baseball,” Richards says. “I came back in the fall and was just hitting. I was a designated hitter all fall and for a good portion of the winter. I was just able to focus on hitting for really the first time in my life.”
Richards has been especially potent in clutch situations. The junior is hitting an impressive .356 with runners in scoring position and has eight RBI in 11 opportunities with a runner on third base and less than two outs. He is also hitting .333 with two outs and is second on the team with nine two-out RBI.
“I’ve been taking a new approach by thinking, `Just win this pitch,'” Richards says. “Don’t try to win an at-bat, don’t try to win a game, just win this next pitch. Taking this approach, really slowing down my at bats and just trying to put the barrel on the ball has really helped me.”
Richards’ breakout season at the dish has come as no surprise to Woods, who believes the shortstop was due to take the next step in his development as a hitter.
“When he came to Notre Dame, one of the things that he needed to improve on was confidence in his offensive ability,” Woods says. “He’s always been a good offensive player. I think he just needed to gain the confidence in all the things he’s done in the last two and a half years. That’s what you’re seeing here. You’re seeing a guy who’s confident in any situation, against any pitcher. He’s taken the confidence he’s had defensively and added that into his offensive game.”
While Richards has certainly developed into an offensive force, make no mistake — he will always be a glove-first, bat-second ballplayer. And that’s fine by him.
“I like the feeling of taking hits away from guys,” Richards says. “I like knowing that the team thinks I’m consistent and I’m steady. That brings a lot of joy to me, just knowing that those guys rely on me and are confident in me. I really take pride in making every play that I can.”
Asked if he would rather stroke a big hit or take a hit away, Richards laughs and responds without hesitation.
“I would take a hit away any day over getting a hit,” Richards says.
Richards has teamed with Biggio to help the Irish turn 44 double plays this season, good for second in the country in total double plays and first in the nation in double plays per game (1.29). The sophomore second baseman is effusive in his praise of Richards’ glove work.
“He’s probably our best glove in the field,” Biggio says. “He has an incredible arm, which really helps him out. He’s very impressive to watch and one of the best shortstops I’ve ever seen.”
Comments like these further solidify what one can observe with the naked eye: the Richards of old is indeed back, and perhaps better than ever. Clear of the daunting hurdle that was Tommy John surgery, Richards has his sights set on a lengthy career in the sport.
“I want to play baseball for as long as I possibly can,” Richards says. “That’s my No. 1 goal.”
Lofty? Yes. Attainable? Biggio and Woods concur that if anyone possesses the attitude to do it, it’s Lane Richards.
“His work ethic is second to none,” Biggio says. “He always has a smile on his face, always goes out there every day trying to get better.”
Woods agrees that Richards’ blue-collar persona sets him apart.
“He’s always where he needs to be when he needs to be there,” Woods says. “He’s a tremendously reliable, accountable kid. He’s just one that you never worry about. He always does what he’s supposed to do when he’s supposed to do it. That, along with his work ethic, has made him into the player he is now.”
Day by day, game by game, pitch by pitch. Simple yet wildly effective, it’s an approach that has enabled Richards to overcome baseball’s most vaunted surgery, regain his legendary arm strength, and morph into one of Notre Dame’s most reliable offensive threats. Who’s to limit how much further it can take him?