AAABA Hall of Famer Julio Lugo, who spent 12 seasons as a shortstop in the major leagues and won a World Series championship with the Boston Red Sox in 2007, has died of an apparent heart attack, his family confirmed to ESPN’s Enrique Rojas on Monday.
Lugo was 45.
Johnstown baseball fans knew Lugo as the most valuable player in the 1994 AAABA Tournament won by his Brooklyn Youth Service League team – an event he later said served as a foundation to his lengthy career in the sport he loved.
“I’m numb. I can’t believe this,” said Rafael “Papo” Lozada, who managed Lugo and the talented 1994 AAABA Tournament championship team. “I heard from one of my other buddies that was one of the teammates. He told me it was after a workout at the gym. He was still in good shape. He was part of Major League Baseball in the Dominican Republic. I can’t believe it. Forty-five years old. That’s all he was.
“John Rodriguez, who played with him (on the 1994 team) and played for the St. Louis Cardinals was the one who called me,” Lozada said. “So sad. Tomorrow is never guaranteed.”
‘Like a son to me’
Lugo was part of a special team in Johnstown. The 1994 Brooklyn squad had three future major leaguers in Lugo, RBI leader John Rodriguez and star pitcher Nelson Figueroa, who shut out the Johnstown Knickerbockers on the second night of the AAABA Tournament.
Lugo’s younger brother Ruddy played for the Brooklyn Youth Service League team in Johnstown in 1996. Ruddy, who now lives in Florida, also advanced to the major leagues as a pitcher. The Lugo brothers entered the AAABA Hall of Fame together in 2018.
“This is a very big shock,” said George Arcurio III, president of the Johnstown Oldtimers Baseball Association, which sponsors the AAABA Tournament.
“Our last conversation was that Julio was going to help us try to bring a team from Dominican Republic in for one year and see how it went for the tournament, if I was able to get the approval of the national board to do it. The intent was to possibly in the future make the AAABA an international tournament because we had the team from Canada approved last year.
“Julio’s love for the AAABA and especially his Brooklyn team was just immense,” Arcurio said.
Julio Lugo resided in the Dominican Republic, Lozada said.
“He was like a son to me,” Lozada said.
“Two weeks ago, he had sent me a message asking me how my family was. That’s how close he was. He used to spend time in my home with my family.”
Lugo spent parts of 12 seasons in the majors, from 2000 to 2011, playing for the Houston Astros, Tampa Bay Rays, Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, Atlanta Braves, Baltimore Orioles and St. Louis Cardinals.
Pittsburgh Pirates fans might recall Lugo for a controversial play in the bottom of the 19th inning as the Braves beat the Pirates 4-3 in July 2011. Umpire Jerry Meals ruled Pittsburgh catcher Michael McKenry failed to tag Atlanta’s Lugo, allowing Lugo to score the winning run. Replays showed McKenry clearly tagging Lugo before Lugo reached the plate.
‘Such a young age’
In the 1994 AAABA tournament, Brooklyn lost to Altoona L.S. Fiore in the third round, but later came back to beat the Blair County squad twice to win the championship. The final game was televised live on WJAC-TV.
“It’s a loss to the AAABA and also a loss to baseball itself for a guy like that to pass away at such a young age,” said John Austin, AAABA executive director and head of the Altoona franchise.
“It’s one of those situations where you sit back and are thankful for things that are given to you in life.”
Lugo batted .464 with a homer, a triple and four doubles in that tournament. He had nine RBIs.
“The competition was stiff in Johnstown,” Julio Lugo said in a 2018 interview prior to the hall of fame banquet. “It was great exposure in that tournament. We had a lot of kids drafted from our team. It was a great moment for all of us, not only to be there in Johnstown, but to win the tournament.”
Lugo hit a grand slam on opening day in a 17-3 win over Lansing, Michigan, at Highland Park.
“It took off,” he recalled during the interview 24 years later.
On the night of his and Ruddy’s induction into the AAABA Hall of Fame, Julio Lugo was asked to show his World Series ring to the crowd at the banquet. He also recalled the hardware he earned as MVP of the 1994 Youth Service League championship team.
“That’s one of my most memorable trophies, the one I appreciated the most,” Lugo said in 2018. “That definitely was one of the special ones.”
Mike Mastovich is a sports reporter and columnist for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 814-532-5083. Follow him on Twitter @Masty81.