It’s been pretty cool reconnecting with some of the unique personalities I worked with during my quarter century with the Cubs – as I’m on a mission to track down players I worked with to talk about their playing days and find out what they’re up to now.
I recently caught up with Les Lancaster, who pitched for the Cubs from 1987-1991 – and is now a pitching coach in China. Since the time I spoke with him, he has been promoted to his organization's major league coaching staff.
Chuck: The Chinese Professional Baseball League websites are not easy for me to navigate. Tell me a little about what you’re doing.
Les: “I’m here in the minor leagues with the Elephant Brothers club leagues – and we have three American coaches. I use interpreters. They’re young kids, and they’re not bad. We have two of them. One of them stays with the hitting coach and one of them stays with me..”
Chuck: Who are the other coaches who are there with you?
Les: “The manager is Dallas Williams and the hitting coach is Razor Shines.”
Chuck: I know those names. Razor Shines was in Indianapolis for a long time, right?
Les: “Absolutely, that’s him. He was with the Expos when he played and he coached in the big leagues with the White Sox and the Mets.”
Chuck: Do you have American players?
Les: “We have one. We’re only allowed three imports in the big leagues. And they have three pitchers right now. They’re probably getting ready to move him up and send somebody out.”
Chuck: I know you pitched in Taiwan during your professional career. How did you wind up back over there?
Les: “An agent got a hold of me out of the blue. I guess he contacted somebody who was a manager in Indy Ball (independent ball) that I knew. He connected me with the manager here in the minor leagues.”
Chuck: After your big league career, you got to see the world as a pitcher.
Les: “I played in Italy. I played in Mexico. I played in Croatia. I loved Italy; it was awesome. Baseball there at that time wasn’t that great; they still used aluminum bats, and you were only allowed two imports.”
Chuck: How was the language barrier over there?
Les: “Italian and Spanish are similar, so I was able to pick up words a lot easier. But you know what, a lot of places here – especially the younger generation – they understand English somewhat.”
Chuck: When you have mound conferences, is your interpreter allowed to go out there with you?
Les: “He’s allowed to go out there with me to talk, so it’s not a problem. But the umpires are real quick about coming out there because the games are so slow.”
Chuck: Was that the case when you were over there in 1996?
Les: “I think it’s a generational thing. It’s slower now. Overall, the talent is a lot better – especially at the major league level position player-wise.”
Chuck: How are the pitchers?
Les: “To me, they’re underdeveloped. They’re afraid to throw a fastball. They throw a lot of off-speed any time in the count. It doesn’t matter what the situation is. They don’t pitch to the situation. With my team, I’m trying to get them to pitch a little bit more Western. Until they have success and trust it, they don’t believe it – because they’re so accustomed to that old way. They’ve adapted pretty well to me and what I’m trying to do. It hasn’t been too bad. They’re not used to having fun. It’s really like an army. They’re just so used to hearing negativity when they’ve done badly. They’re not used to us just talking to them like a human being when they mess up. Talking to them helps a lot.”
Chuck: What kind of schedule do you keep over there?
Les: “You wouldn’t believe all the days off we have. It gets boring over here at times. We only played three games this week. We played Tuesday, Friday and Sunday. That was it. Every other day was an off-day. If we have two days off in a row, we’ll practice one of the days.”
Chuck: How long will you be there?
Les: “At least through September, for sure. I got here January 15 – that’s when spring training starts. The big league team’s season began March 19. They play all the way through the end of September, too. It’s a long season for them.”
Chuck: With all those off-days, do you even need a five-man rotation?
Les: “I say that all the time. There’s no sense in it. They have Mondays off for sure every week, and at least one other day off. I don’t know why they go to a five-man rotation. We only use three starters. That’s enough.”
Chuck: How do you keep busy?
Les: “I’ll usually go around and see the country. The off-days give me the opportunity to do that. My wife just left yesterday, and we had gone around seeing different parts of Taiwan. That was pretty neat. It’s beautiful country around here. I’m down south of Taiwan – and they consider it the country. So when you go up to the bigger cities, there’s definitely a lot more stuff. I do enjoy it over here. It’s fun.”
Chuck: You’ve had a pretty interesting path in your post career. You’ve been in a lot of leagues and been in a lot of places.
Les: “Yeah, I definitely have. I can probably say that I’ve done just about everything in baseball. From being part owner to being like a GM to doing player contracts. Field maintenance. Hanging billboard signs. You name it, I’ve done it.”
Chuck: What stands out to you? This is what I wish I could have done all the time.
Les: “I liked managing a lot. I really enjoyed it. And dealing with the players’ contracts like a GM – that was fun. Being a manager in independent ball and building your own team was very exciting.”
Chuck: Long term, what do you want to do? Or can you even say that at this point?
Les: “I’m not real sure. I’ll just continue in baseball year-to-year. I just enjoy it.”
Chuck: Looking back at your Cubs career, what was most enjoyable for you?
Les: “Definitely my rookie season of 1987. To be able to come up with the older guys – Rick Sutcliffe, Ryne Sandberg, Jody Davis, Keith Moreland, Andre Dawson. That was awesome – to step in with people of their magnitude right away. And, of course, me and Greg Maddux being together all those years made it fun.”
Chuck: Your story back then was pretty good – an undrafted free agent in 1985 getting to the majors two years later.
Les: “Yeah, I happened to get with an organization that needed pitching. I opened eyes quick and they pushed me through quick. I appreciate that. Also, of course, the 1989 season – what a great year it was for us all.”
Chuck: The Cubs might not have gotten to the playoffs without the role you played all year.
Les: “I appreciate that. It was a great season. I can tell you that.”
Chuck: You probably have some great memories of just hanging out in the bullpen with Mitch Williams.
Les: “No doubt about it. Mitch was definitely a character. He still is. He’s not going to change. I was able to play with a lot of great players, and that was something special.”