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Mudville: January 25, 2021 3:57 pm PDT
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Greatest Hits: 2020

"It's a vanilla game."

This past May, with the pandemic raging and my full-time job shut down, I hopped in my car and drove across the country. With a route carefully planned out to avoid Covid hotspots, it was somewhere in the middle of Wyoming where I had the idea to interview former Major League players to share their stories. Thus, the idea of Spitballin’ was born.

BallNine had just launched under the premise of bringing fun baseball stories to fans from the players themselves, so Spitballin’ seemed like a natural series to run. A stroke of genius on par with the invention of indoor plumbing, it was not.

But it has been an incredibly fun and rewarding adventure to bring our readers interviews with players every Friday. The feedback and interaction have been great.

My first interview in the series was with former Dodger Al Ferrara and over the course of 29 straight Fridays, I have interviewed players who have played in each of the past eight decades.

I have been able to ask people what it was like to be friends with Jackie Robinson, how they pitched to Ted Williams and what it was like to be managed by Rogers Hornsby.

I was able hear what it’s like to umpire with Phil Niekro on the mound, what it’s like to have a Hollywood movie made of your life and what it was like being incorrectly declared dead by the New York Mets.

Some interviews even gave me goosebumps, like talking with Billy Martin Jr. or Josh Gibson’s great grandson, Sean.

Before we get going on our 2021 interviews, we’re going to remember some of the baseball greats who were gracious enough to take the time to talk to BallNine.

Let’s go Spitballin’ with all the great guests we have had the past seven months.

[Mickey Mantle] was like my father’s brother. When my dad passed Mickey stepped up and took me out to dinner once or twice a month just to tell me stories about my father. A lot of things I didn’t know. It’s hard to put into words how much that meant to me. He was a special man and I’m very lucky that he was my father’s friend. – Billy Martin, Jr. on his father’s relationship with Mickey Mantle.

Pitching in Ebbets Field was a joy. The grandstand felt like it was right in your back pocket and it was so loud. They had a jazz band that played in the stands that played during the ballgame. That added a lot of enthusiasm. When you stood on the mound and looked in at home plate, you felt like you could urinate on home plate from the mound. It seemed so small. – Bob Kelly on pitching at Ebbets Field in the 1950s.

I love it. I love that kind of pressure. Playing in the World Series in that setting was amazing. My best friend when I was playing on the Reds was Paul O’Neill. He got to play in so many World Series. I still tell him, “You’re lucky, I only had one World Series.” I wish I was traded to the Yankees with him too. – Chris Sabo on the intensity of playing in the 1990 World Series.

ruppert jones yankees

CHICAGO - UNDATED 1980: Ruppert Jones of the New York Yankees bats during a MLB game at Comiskey Park in Chicago, Illinois. Jones played for the New York Yankees in 1980. (Photo by Ron Vesely/Getty Images)

“You think the Dodgers weren’t happy as hell? You can take them analytics and shove ‘em.

What I want to leave people with is that we need good stories. We need grace and humor. We need to be able to look at each other and smile. We may have masks on, but you can tell by a person’s movements whether they’re happy or smiling. Our eyes say it. Right now, in this time, there is so much that we must overcome. We’re dealing with this flood of things and for me, faith has carried me through. – Jim Morris on getting through the difficult times 2020 has brought us.

I also liked the stories of Josh playing multiple sports. He ran track and was a great swimmer. He wasn’t just a baseball player. Those are the stories that our family talked about. In our family, he was known as Big Josh. We would never say Josh. When you heard someone in our family say Big Josh, they were talking about Josh Gibson. – Sean Gibson on the stories he enjoyed about his great grandfather, Josh Gibson.

 I came to bat with two outs in the third inning and grounded out. As I am running by Satchel Paige, he looks at me and says, “Good luck, young man.” I just thought to myself, “Wow! What a thrill.” I didn’t realize I was the last to bat against him until a couple of years later when I was in a book about it. – Jim Gosger on being the last person to face Satchel Paige in the Major Leagues.

Jim Gosger getting it done.

At the time, I honestly didn’t know anything about Kansas City except that’s where George Brett played. There wasn’t the television exposure back then that you have today. The first thing I did was learn about Kansas City, who played for them and even just where they were located. I was only 18 at the time, so it was an opportunity to learn a little geography. – Buddy Biancalana on being drafted by the Kansas City Royals.

The only thing I had to do is score a few runs for them, and that was our key. Otis gets on, score some runs, steal some bases and [the pitchers] would take it from there. I thought that if I could score two runs myself, I just need my teammates to score a couple and that’s all we’d need. – Otis Nixon on being a key cog in the great Atlanta Braves teams of the early 1990s.

 

You know, we had our 35th anniversary and most of the guys were there. Our first night in town we had a dinner and we met in this quaint area of this hotel we were staying at and the synergy was still there. We had something as a team that even 35 years later, it was still there. We talked about it that night. It was the first time we really talked about it. – Ruppert Jones reflecting on the chemistry of the World Champion 1984 Tigers.

 

We went to Yankee Stadium every home game. We put our Yankee uniforms on, and it was just like going to work with dad. I think back to those early years. I was three or four years old out on the field for batting practice and just stood in the grass next to guys like Mickey Mantle. Or hanging out with Thurman Munson and Bobby Murcer and so many other big names. When you’re a kid, you don’t really understand how special it is. It isn’t until later on when you look back and say, “Wow, what a childhood.” – Todd Stottlemyre on growing up with Mel Stottlemyre as his dad.

Can you think of a better way for a good, red-blooded American kid to live his adult life by putting on a Major League Baseball uniform to go to work? My office was Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park and Comiskey Park and Tiger Stadium. That’s a pretty damn good way to live your life. – Al Clark, reflecting on his career as a 26-year Major League umpire.

It was definitely surreal and honestly the first month I was in the big leagues, I was trying not to fail and not to embarrass myself. It’s a lot of pressure when you’re looking around and you’ve got Palmeiro, Pudge, Dean Palmer, Juan Gonzalez, Ruben Sierra. We got all these studs on the team and I’m just trying to keep my mouth shut and do the best I can. I just wanted to make my best impression and get another shot the next year. – Jeff Frye on making his MLB debut for the Texas Rangers

It was different. We really thought we had the team to beat the Reds. We had a couple of young guys in [Jim] Rice and [Fred] Lynn and they had great years. But most of the guys were veterans. We had myself, Yaz and [Carlton] Fisk. Our pitching staff was mostly veterans with Luis Tiant and Rick Wise. We had a good bullpen, and we could score runs. We weren’t intimidated at all. It was just a matter of going out there and being aggressive. – Rico Petrocelli comparing his Red Sox in the 1967 World Series to the 1975 World Series.

1986 ALCS ANAHEIM - OCTOBER 12: Home Plate Umpire Rocky Roe (center) calls Ruppert Jones #13 (left) of the California Angels safe after an attempted tag by catcher Rich Gedman #10 (right) of the Boston Red Sox in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 5 of the 1986 ALCS played on October 12, 1986 at Anaheim Stadium in Anaheim, California. (Photo by David Madison/Getty Images)

Jim Sundberg

I believe it was 2006 and Johnny Bench came to talk to us as an instructor. He said the name of the game is defense. If you can catch the ball, it’ll buy you some time in this game. That’s what kept me in the game. Catching the ball and being able to play different positions. I had great coaches, especially my dad. He always said, “No matter where you are, just make sure you catch it.” — Adam Rosales on the importance of playing good defense.

My first hit, the first win and you always remember your first game. But I really enjoyed playing against the guys I watched growing up. Playing against Hank Aaron, it was almost a hard thing to do. There’s times when you get caught between wanting to get an autograph and trying to get a guy out. That’s the biggest thing I remember from my first year. Playing against all those guys that I had not gotten that close to before. – Jim Sundberg reflecting on his rookie season.

I was thinking, “I can’t screw up this no-hitter,” and I got the Bash Brothers coming up with a two-run lead, which is dangerous as it is. I came in and muddled through Dave Henderson, who hit a ball to Ripken on a backhand. I tried to make a good pitch down and away and Ripken made a nice backhand play. I’m kind of like, “Dude, you better wake up and get through this because you’re gonna screw up a no-hitter.” So, I did and struck out Jose Canseco and Baines to end it. – Gregg Olson on closing out only the second combined no-hitter in Major League history.

I was surrounded by about 15 members of the media and they were asking if I could fill Gary’s shoes. I was like, “Heck no, nobody can fill that dude’s shoes! My job was to be Ed Hearn and if I could just be average Ed Hearn, we’re gonna be alright. – Ed Hearn on filling in for an injured Gary Carter on the 1986 Mets.

I don’t think any pitcher goes into a start thinking they’ll pitch a no-hitter or a perfect game for that matter. It was against the Dodgers and we were still in the pennant race, but almost eliminated. I grew up a Reds fan, so I was Dodgers hater. I didn’t need any extra motivation to pitch against the Dodgers. I got to the ninth inning and I couldn’t feel my legs, but I was pretty calm on the inside. I just really wanted to throw strikes. – Tom Browning on throwing just the 10th perfect game in Major League history.

I am just so grateful that fans still remember that ’69 team. Even though they might not have been around, the fact that they remember or learn about it is so special. It was something so special in their parents or grandparents’ lives and it gets passed on. I sense that. I am thankful that the team lives on forever and I am thankful that there’s a nucleus of guys that are still around too. – Art Shamsky on the legacy of the 1969 Mets

Thank you to all of the players who were gracious enough to share their stories with BallNine in 2020 and to all of the fans who enjoyed reminiscing right along side of us.

I often say that these interviews are like packs of baseball cards come to life and we hope their stories are so nostalgic that you can taste that sweet, sweet chalky Topps gum as it disintegrates in your mouth.

So, throw another log in the hot stove, grab your El Tiante coffee mug and let’s set the ship straight towards Opening Day. There may be snow on the ground where you are, but there are only ten more Spitballin’ columns until the first day of spring.

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book will be out in April 2021.

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