Dentistry is dentistry,” says the serious new practitioner. “There aren’t a lot of people running to get into a dentist’s chair because they’re excited about being at the dentist’s—no matter who he is.” That may be so, but when Dr. James Lonborg greets his patients for the first time, he finds them opening their mouths not in dread anticipation but in startled recognition. In Boston, even those with nasty toothaches remember a well-spoken pitcher who used to operate with a fastball rather than a drill.
In 1967 the lanky (6’6″) Lonborg was the toast of Beantown as he hurled the Red Sox to their first pennant in 21 years. A short four years later he was gone, a victim of injuries and hasty comebacks, traded first to Milwaukee and then Philadelphia. Now, after six semesters as the oldest student at Tufts University dental school and another year as an apprentice, 42-year-old “Gentleman Jim” is becoming a Boston professional once again by hanging his dental shingle in the suburban town of Marshfield. “I still read the sports page,” he admits. “But I don’t get wistful. I’m really into dentistry and my family.”
According to Dr. Sheldon Stein, Lonborg’s longtime personal dentist and now his professional mentor, the former hurler is “self-assured and instills great confidence. I remember his image when he played, and he hasn’t changed one bit.”
Lonborg’s jump from the majors to the molars was not as unlikely as it might appear. The son of a California college professor and a local TV talk show hostess, he developed an early interest “in bugs and pond water and looking into microscopes.” Attending Stanford University on a baseball scholarship, he majored in biology and planned to be a doctor.
But, as he tells it now, “I got diverted.” The major diversion was a fastball that intimidated opposing batters, attracted scouts and propelled its owner through the Red Sox farm system and into the starting lineup. In ’65 and ’66 Lonborg developed a reputation as the Sox’s resident intellectual, quoting Aristotle and attending the symphony. In 1967 he was more than their best pitcher, winning the Cy Young Award and almost the Series; he was Boston’s new young hero. But that winter Lonborg badly injured his knee while skiing. The fans, and particularly the press, were irate at his carelessness, and four years later, after stints in minor league purgatory, he was traded.
During his years in Boston, however, Lonborg had established ties with the medical world. He had visited the operating theater at Sancta Maria Hospital in Cambridge to watch surgery at the invitation of professional friends, and he had surprised his own dentist by returning after undergoing bridgework to observe other patients.
In 1979 it all came in handy. Lonborg, who had married the former Rosemary Feeney and had five children (two natural, three adopted), wondered what life had to offer after he was dropped by the Phillies in midseason. “I didn’t have any idea,” he says. Rosemary did. “It was during a vacation trip to Vermont, and she casually mentioned, ‘Why don’t you become a dentist? You’ve always looked good in a uniform.’ ” In June 1980 he was accepted at Tufts.
The transition was not easy, and Lonborg’s baseball money was soon swallowed up by tuition. Drained by his studies, clinical work and his parental duties, he kept falling asleep in class. The one small solace was that other students soon forgot his celebrity status and accepted him. “They realized,” he smiles grimly, “that I was busting my butt just like they were.”
He still is, for good reason. Although his present income of $30,000 is a bit more than the $7,500 he made his rookie year with the Bosox, family finances have now been stretched by a sixth child born in 1982. To help out, Rosemary works as a waitress two nights a week, and the Lonborgs grow their own fruit and vegetables on the three acres surrounding their 200-year-old Cape Cod-style home.
Despite the scrimping, Lonborg is happy. In fact, he almost manages to make pitching sound like a prerequisite for dentistry. “There’s a flow in a dental office,” he explains, describing the need for good assistants. “If your equipment isn’t in a certain place, stresses build up. The same thing happens in baseball. If guys make errors behind you, it can bother you.” Both disciplines, he says, require a “game plan. I’ve already anticipated what will happen, what mistakes might occur.”
So far few have, even though the former big leaguer admits that “dentistry is such a great adventure for me. I’ll never be able to learn all about it. Every day I can hardly wait to get in the car and go to work. I feel very fortunate from that standpoint. I feel very lucky.” And so, perhaps, do some aaah-struck patients.