Brad Lesley, former major league pitcher from Turlock, dies at 54 of kidney failure

Brad Lesley, courtesy of Cincinnati Enquirer
Brad Lesley, courtesy of Cincinnati Enquirer

Brad Lesley had a big fastball and big personality that matched his frame, combining the two into careers in professional baseball and acting.

The 54-year-old Turlock High graduate, nicknamed “Animal,” was a first-round draft pick of the Cincinnati Reds out of Merced College in 1978. He died Saturday at a nursing home in Marina Del Rey.

According to reports, Lesley had been ill for several years and had been living in the nursing home for seven months while receiving dialysis.

Lesley appeared in 54 games over four seasons (1982-85) with Cincinnati and Milwaukee, then played three seasons in Japan. It was there that his larger-than-life personality -- quite a feat for someone standing 6-feet, 6-inches and weighing 230 pounds -- made him a celebrity off the field.

While playing with the Reds, he ran to cover first base on a ground ball with such ferocity that Hall of Famer Johnny Bench said he looked like an animal, and Lesley had an instant nickname he quickly embraced.

But people in Turlock and Merced already had seen that side of Lesley.

He attended Central Catholic before transferring to Turlock High, and while playing high school and junior college baseball had no problem showing his emotions on the mound -- yelling and fist-pumping at a time when such antics were rare in the game.

“Coach (Atch) Pedretti was kind of his father, since Brad grew up without a father around,” said Turlock baseball coach Mark de la Motte. “Coach Pedretti patted him on the back and kicked him in the rear, which was exactly what he needed at that time.”

Lesley is one of four Turlock High baseball players to have reached the majors, joining Frank Duffy, Steve Soderstrom and Dan Reichert. In 2006, Lesley returned to Turlock to participate in the one of the school’s centennial celebrations.

He played for Butch Hughes at Merced College for a season, and at 19, as the No. 9 overall pick in the draft, received a $48,000 signing bonus -- par for the time.

“He once told me I was his favorite teacher and that was after I gave him a D in English,” said long-time Merced College instructor coach and athletic director Steve Cassady. “That tells you what kind of student he was. He was a different kind of guy.

“At Merced, he was big and gangly and talented -- different in ways I found amusing, but not necessarily in ways that I would have seen fit to reward with a grade.”

After reaching the majors, Lesley frequently would return to the area to train, run camps, participate in fund-raisers and keep in touch with friends.

“He’d come workout with our guys (at Turlock High) before going to spring training,” de la Motte said.“He announced one day in the middle of practice that they team was going on a run to Jack in the Box. He needed to lose a few pounds, so he took the whole team on a training run from the school to Jack in the Box and back. They didn’t eat.

“He really was a larger-than-life guy -- a guy you had to love.”

But it was in Japan that Lesley discovered how to turn his personality into a second career.

He signed with the Hankyu Braves, stepping into a closer role on a team in the middle of winning three straight Japan Series.

It took a few months, but Japanese fans learned to embrace Lesley’s on-field antics, and he helped his own cause by immersing himself in local customs and the the language. He met his wife (since divorced) Chiho in Japan, and in 1997 they had a son, Luke.

Lesley parlayed his popularity into his first acting role, in an action movie called “Animal Goes to Japan.”

He stayed in Japan, appearing on talk shows and taking small parts in soap operas, had a bit role in “Mr. Baseball,” then got a break when he was asked to read for the part of John “Blackout” Gatling in the successful movie “Little Big League.”

He went on to appear on the big screen in “Space Jam,” “A Boy Called Hate,” “Buddy,” “Big Monster on Campus,” “Brother” and on the television comedy series “Son of the Beach.”

Lesley remained tied to baseball as a pitching coach, giving private lessons and also serving for several years on the field staff of the independent league Mission Viejo Vigilantes of the Western Baseball League.

“Every door I’ve walked through in my life has been a direct result of my success in baseball,” Lesley told the Los Angeles Time in 1997.

“I can never repay baseball enough for the doors it’s opened for me. I've been truly blessed. As much as I try to give back to the game, it's never enough.”