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Lombard is one centered center fielder

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The ball traveled over the wall in straightaway center at Fenway Park, clanged off a cameraman's leg, and came to rest on the field. That was a blessing for George Lombard, who was able to retrieve the ball he hit off Sunny Kim for his third career home run and first in Boston. He inscribed, signed, and dated the ball.

To the best grandfather ever. George Lombard. July 7, 2002.

He delivered the ball to his grandfather and namesake, then 91 years old.

"That was just a special time," said Lombard, a 29-year-old center fielder contending for the one available spot on the Red Sox bench.

That time was special because Lombard had enjoyed his childhood summers at his grandfather's home on Wings Neck in Pocasset on Cape Cod. Special because his grandfather, George Francis Fabian Lombard, was once the dean of the Harvard Business School. Special because, by his estimate, seven relatives attend or attended Harvard.

Special because Lombard's grandfather had lived the previous 17 years with the burden of being at the wheel when Lombard's mother, Posy, was killed in a car accident.

"It was very difficult for him," said Lombard, who was 10 at the time. "When my mother passed away, he set up everything so we wouldn't have to worry about any of our education. My brother got the chance to go to law school. My sister is in grad school at Harvard."

That accident robbed Lombard of a remarkable mother, a woman who graduated from Smith College in 1964 and moved to the South as the civil rights movement reached a crescendo.

"She was one of those people, from everyone I've talked to, who thought she could make a difference," Lombard said. "And I think she did."

As an activist, Posy Lombard marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whom she knew personally, Lombard said. She taught art and designed silk screens that depicted people marching.

"A lot of the silk screening she did I still have," he said. "They're trying to get it into the Smithsonian. It's pretty powerful stuff. That's another thing I had no idea of, how big a deal that was for her to take a stand during her time."

While living in the South, Posy, a white woman from Weston, met a black man named Paul Williams, with whom she had three children. She raised them in south Georgia.

"She just believed everybody should be treated equal," Lombard said. "She stood up for a lot of things. That's the way we were raised. That no one was any better than anybody else, no matter what background they came from."

That influence shows in the careers her children chose. The oldest child, Matt, became a public defender. The youngest, Rosemary, went on to graduate school at Harvard, where she's studying education.

Lombard, the middle child, never did go to college.

"I'm sure that was a little disappointing to my family, coming from an educational background," he said.

He came close, committing to play football at the University of Georgia for the fall semester of 1994. A Parade All-American and USA Today All-American his senior year of high school, Lombard was a 215-pound running back with power, precision, and, above all, bedazzling speed. He chose Georgia over Notre Dame and Florida State and figured to play as a true freshman.

"I got to meet [Lou] Holtz," he said. "Bobby Bowden came over to my house. I wouldn't trade the football experience. I had the time of my life. The top 24 players in the country, Parade All-Americans, we did a TV show in Orlando with Peyton Manning, Orlando Pace, Tony Gonzalez, Donovan McNabb. Next thing you know, I had a chance to get drafted."

The Braves called his name in the second round of the 1994 draft. He didn't have an agent when the fax came across with an offer of $425,000.

"At the time, it was more money than my dad ever made in his life," said Lombard, whose father worked for General Motors in Atlanta. "My dad was a single dad. I'm 18 years old. I don't know how much money that is. Then you realize, after taxes, you just lost half of it.

"One day I was going to Georgia. Next thing I know I'm down in the Gulf Coast League playing minor league baseball."

He reached the majors in 1998 with the Braves, but played just 39 games in the big leagues before Atlanta traded him to Detroit in 2002. That meant he'd finally play in the American League and in Boston, a place he grew to love as a child.

"Up until I was 13, I missed one year, going to the Cape for the summer," he said. "That young, you don't know enough about places to realize how special a place that is. With my grandfather, on the Cape, there was never a TV. There was one telephone. That was the place to get away.

"Everything was outdoors. Fishing, hanging out on the water. That's what I wanted to do, be a marine biologist. We had fishing overnights to little islands. You rode your bike every day.

"And I remember my grandfather had a little radio in the kitchen. He'd listen to the Red Sox games."

His grandfather died last year at 93. Meanwhile, Lombard played the outfield -- predominantly center -- at Triple A Pawtucket. He hit. 276 with 3 home runs, 23 RBIs, and 16 stolen bases in just 55 games.

If he makes the Red Sox, it will be thanks to his legs.

"His time to first as a lefthanded hitter is the best in the organization," said Ben Cherington, Boston's director of player development.

Generally, 3.9 seconds is the fastest any lefthanded hitter can go home to first.

"He's consistently around 4.0 or a bit under," Cherington said.

In a best-case scenario, Lombard envisions himself as someone who can supply what Dave Roberts did last summer. Like Roberts, he brings a cerebral component that pleases Sox management.

"He's got a perspective on life and how he fits into the world that's a little bit different than the typical player," Cherington said. "He's been exposed to a lot of people and ideas that some others haven't. He's a very intelligent guy.

"That relates to the game he plays. He prepares himself well, is methodical in his preparation, studies the game, and understands what he needs to do to carve out a niche in the big leagues."

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