CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Not many folks recognize former Winfield High School star Jim Lett when he works out early in the mornings at the YMCA in Teays Valley, but I do.While I plod along and walk/jog on the treadmill, Lett, who has now spent 19 years in Major League Baseball and 40 years in pro baseball altogether, rips through all of the weight facilities in the place and looks as if he could still play. His story is worth remembering. It's a good small-town West Virginia story. Lett was an outstanding multi-sport athlete at Winfield High School from 1966-69, excelling in football, basketball and track. He was coached in all three sports by John Hensley.
His best sport may have been baseball, but the Generals did not have a high school baseball program in the late 1960s. He attracted the attention of the college scouts while playing American Legion and Babe Ruth baseball in the summer.After high school he strongly considered playing football at Marshall. Had he done so, there is a good possibility he might have been on the 1970 team that was lost in the Nov. 14 plane crash. Instead, Lett chose to play football at Kentucky. He played on the freshman team in 1969 and the varsity from 1970-72. He played for John Ray and was used as a quarterback, safety and kick returner. The Wildcat games were played in Stoll Field, a charming, smaller stadium in the center of campus, much like old Mountaineer Field in Morgantown.Like many in our area, Lett has his memories of Nov. 14, 1970."We played a freshman game against Marshall at Fairfield Stadium and we competed against many of the sophomores and juniors that were killed in the crash," recalled Lett. "On the night of the plane crash, many Kentucky fans thought that the plane that crashed was our plane. We were coming back from LSU and were flying in the same general area at the time of the crash. It was a pretty nervous night in Lexington that night also." Lett also played baseball at Kentucky and was a third baseman from 1971-73. Times were different then and the baseball coach was also one of the top men's basketball assistant coaches, Dickie Parsons.In the summer of 1973, Lett began his journey into pro baseball as he signed with Cincinnati. He played four years of third base in the Reds organization, advancing as high as Class AA for Three Rivers in Canada. He then went into coaching and has been in baseball since that time. He was brought to the major leagues in 1986 as a coach with the Reds under manager Pete Rose. He has also coached with the Toronto Blue Jays, Milwaukee Brewers, Pittsburgh Pirates and Los Angeles Dodgers.Lett is getting ready for his third season as the bullpen coach with the up-and-coming Washington Nationals under manager Davey Johnson. Last year he was with the first Washington baseball franchise to make the postseason since 1933.As the bullpen coach, he works a great deal with Nationals pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg, a pitcher that Lett says, "can have five or six 20-win seasons if he stays healthy." Throughout his 40-year baseball career, Lett and his wife, the former Diane Craig, have kept their home in Putnam County. His two children, Craig and Meridith, are both Winfield High and West Virginia Wesleyan grads.
"Baseball has taken me everywhere and I have been all over the country working in the game. It has been an incredible life," says Lett. "But, trust me, I do know where home is."Reach Frank Giardina at email@example.com.