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Mudville: February 27, 2021 10:49 pm PDT
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What Could’ve Been

The solution to Jamie Cochran’s problem turned out to be worse than the problem itself.

The Flint, Michigan native appeared to have quite the future as a closer for the St. Louis Cardinals nearly three decades ago. At least that’s the story the numbers told through his first three professional seasons. The once hard-throwing right-hander set the New York-Penn League record for saves [24] in 1992 and followed that up by setting the minor league record for saves in a season [46] in the South Atlantic League the following year.

Both records still stand and will likely be very difficult to break. The records, however, are all that Cochran, 52, has. He was out of affiliated ball by the end of 1994 and a year later was done with baseball altogether. His promising career had come to a shattering halt, the result of a surgery that proved to be more harmful than helpful.

“I was actually kind of sore at the end of the year [1993] because I had a lot of appearances,” Cochran said. “We won 94 games, I had 46 saves and we had a lot of close games. So I would warm up, sit down, warm up and the wear and tear took its toll. Then after the season I went to instructs [Instructional League] and my arm was still sore.

“I went home to give my arm some rest but at spring training [1994] I was still having the same issues. I did a rehab program through spring training but I was still having the issues. Finally, at the end of spring training, they sent me to a surgeon to get looked at.”

Cochran’s career would never be the same.

“If they had just taken the chip by the ulnar nerve instead of messing with everything else, I’d be okay. Whatever they took out, I was never the same again.’

GETTING STARTED

Cochran was the fourth starter of a very strong Flint Central high School pitching staff, the same school that produced Jim Abbott, who won 87 games over a 10-year career. The first three starters were lefties and Cochran was a 150-pound righty who had some power in his arm but not the size to attract big-time college programs or the professional scouts.

So, Cochran ended up at Mott Community College [in Flint], where he was twice named MCAA All-Conference while playing the infield and pitching. He went 9-3 at Mott in addition to hitting .350 with seven homers. He was also named Mott’s 1989 Athlete of the Year.

Cochran’s effort earned him a scholarship to the University of Detroit Mercy, where he played for former 1950 Phillies Whiz Kid team hurler Bob Miller. When he went to UD he did so with the impression that he was going to start but through the early part of 1990 that proved not to be the case and that led to a frank discussion with Miller.

“After we got back from spring training I told him I thought I was going to start, that I came here to be a starter and that I thought there were guys pitching ahead of me that I was better than,” Cochran said. “We were going to play Michigan and one night after practice he asked me if I wanted to start [against Michigan]. It was a nine-inning game and I was all geeked up to go against Michigan.

“[Former Tigers catcher] Bill Freehan was coaching Michigan and I had a couple of friends from Flint on that team. I pitched 12 1/3 innings and we lost 4-3. We didn’t have pitch counts or anything like that back then it was 35-40 degrees.”

Cochran had seven relief appearances prior to that start, throwing a total of 10 1/3 innings with three saves before facing Michigan. That game against the Wolverines, however, served its purpose and he made three more starts. He finished the season by going 3-3 with three saves and a 7.21 ERA in 43 2/3 innings over 15 games [four starts].

That summer brought more baseball, a few unanswered questions and some construction work as Cochran focused on finishing school. He was out of eligibility so heading back to Detroit Mercy for the 1991 season wasn’t a baseball option. So he played in a summer league – he was scheduled to start the All-Star Game – while trying to figure out his future. One of his teammates on that summer team was his catcher from Mott CC and he introduced Cochran to a college coach who worked to get him a tryout with a Major League club.

“Michigan has the cold weather, so you don’t get a lot of scouts,” Cochran said. “There was a coach from Missouri Baptist there to scout a couple of players [during the city summer league], though. He was there for a week and I pitched a no-hitter and threw a perfect game in the same week. He said ‘I can’t believe you’re not in pro ball. I’ll take you to St. Louis and get you looked at by some scouts’.”

Cochran was scheduled to throw for the Royals first but that fell through. He moved on to the Cardinals, though, and threw a bullpen on a field just outside St. Louis.

“I warm up, I throw my pitches and the next thing he puts the [radar] gun away and leaves,” Cochran said. “He didn’t say anything to me. I thought ‘okay’, but he called the next morning and I signed for $500 and a plane ticket home so I could get all my stuff.”

Then it was off to Johnson City [Tenn.] where he appeared in 15 games for St. Louis’ Rookie Level Appalachian League affiliate. Cochran was 1-0 with a 3.00 ERA while striking out 32 in 24 innings. While those numbers should have been enough to earn Cochran another season, he says the Cardinals were set to release him until Johnson City manager Chris Maloney stepped in.

Maloney, who would also manage Cochran in the NY-P League and the Sally League, convinced the St. Louis brass to keep Cochran around, pointing out that because he got to Johnson City so late in the year, there wasn’t a big enough sample size to judge him fairly. So, Cochran was spared and went to spring training in 1992 and then extended spring before setting out on a record-setting two-year run.

Cochran was so good at putting fires out, he won the 1993 Rolaids Relief Man Award.

SETTING SOME RECORDS

Cochran rewarded Maloney’s faith and blossomed into a premier closer in 1992, helping the Hamilton [Ont.] Redbirds [56-20] to a runaway division title. Hamilton’s .737 winning percentage remains the third highest in league history while the 24 saves Cochran collected remains the league standard despite the fact that the league media guide lists Jamie Corcoran as the league single-season saves record holder.

“Jamie had this big sweeping curve and he could throw it for strikes any time,” Maloney said. “He also had supreme confidence so the fact that he still holds the record is not news to me. So many records have been broken in baseball that I haven’t thought about it in a long time.”

While Maloney hasn’t given either season much thought of late they were certainly on the minds of many, including him, nearly 30 years ago. Savannah blistered through the regular season in 1993, easily winning the Southern Division with a league-best 94-48 mark. The Cardinals then handled Greensboro, the New York Yankees’ affiliate, in the finals with Cochran getting Derek Jeter to ground out for the final out of the series.

Savannah was the only team to post a sub-3.00 ERA [2.72], thanks in no small part to Cochran, who posted a 1.55 ERA while striking out 62 in 64 innings.

“Jamie was the leader of that pitching staff,” Maloney said. “He always wanted that ball in a save situation. He just got it done, too. He was outstanding that year. If we got to the ninth inning with a lead, it was over. He was kind of like Mariano Rivera before Mariano.

“We wanted a defined closer that year and if we identified a guy that could do it he would and he was that guy. He took to it like a duck to water and thrived on that adrenaline. The only stipulation that we had was that we would never throw a guy three days in a row. He could go three if they were easy saves and all under 20 pitches but generally they had to have two days off. If any of the saves were tough or if he labored, we wouldn’t use him the next day.”

Most of the duties fell on Cochran, though, who recorded 46 of the clubs 53 saves. He is one of nine minor-league pitchers to crack the 40-save mark since it became an official stat in 1969. Cochran’s effort also marked the second consecutive season in which the minor league save record was broken. Steve Reed [Texas League/Pacific Coast League] set the previous mark in 1993 with 43 saves, which broke the record of 41 shared by Mark Soper [1991, Carolina League] and Mike Perez [1987, Midwest League].

Brent Stentz [Eastern League] and Jon Albaladejo [International League] each have come the closest to Cochran with 43 saves apiece in 1998 and 2010, respectively. Others in the 40-save club include J.J. Trujillo [42 in the Midwest League, 2000], Brandon Reed [41 in the Sally League, 1995] and BJ Leach [40 in the Sally League, 2000]. Reed, incidentally, currently lives about 15 miles from Cochran and the two play in the same over-40 league.

“I go back and look at our championship ring once in a while,” Cochran said. “It had our record on it. We basically had a team of lower draft picks but we had Joe McEwing on that team and he was one of the only guys to have a longer career in the big leagues.

“We beat Jeter and Mariano Rivera in the finals, three games to two. That last game wasn’t a save opportunity. But Jeter was the last out of the game. He grounded out to first and I went over to cover.”

Cochran pitched a career-high 64 innings, faced 258 batters and allowed only one home run and was named the Minor Leagues Rolaids Relief Man of the Year at the Winter Meetings. The end of his career was in sight, though, and he didn’t even know it.

These days, Jamie Cochran has traded his Cardinals Red uniform for Blue.

THE PAIN

Cochran would eventually learn that the pain in his elbow was the result of a bone chip pressing against his ulnar nerve. He said he told the Cardinals in January of 1994 that he was still experiencing pain despite resting his arm for much of the winter. The club sent him exercises to do, which he did, but when he arrived at spring training a few weeks later the discomfort when throwing had not subsided.

“When I got to spring training I was throwing a bullpen and I actually had to take Advil for the pain,” Cochran said. “It hurt so bad I pretty much threw up. I tried to fight through the pain but then finally sent me to get looked at. I had surgery in St. Petersburg. I got the local surgeon, not Dr. [Frank] Jobe or anything like that.”

While Cochran had the chip removed it was the bone spurs that the surgeon removed from his forearm that changed everything. The spurs were the residue of him breaking his elbow backwards while playing football as a ninth-grader.

“My ulnar nerve had a bone chip and I could feel it,” Cochran said. “When I broke my elbow, they put three metal pins in there for a month. After they pulled them out, I had a slight, natural bend where I could never straighten my arm out again. The doctors told my mom that I might not be able to pitch again but I threw a tennis ball against a wall for hours and that year, in ninth grade, I started.

“In the upper part of my forearm, where the break was, they took out the bone spurs and after that, the top of my forearm would kill. If they had just taken the chip by the ulnar nerve instead of messing with everything else, I’d be okay. Whatever they took out, I was never the same again.”

Cochran said that he kept thinking about former Giants pitcher Dave Dravecky, whose humerus bone had snapped on a pitch in 1989. That Dravecky’s battle with cancer had led to his arm snapping mattered little to Cochran. The image of that event remained with him and he was fearful that the same thing would happen to him.

“It hurt so badly when I got to the bottom of my delivery,” Cochran said. “Whenever I pitched I felt like my arm was going to explode. I would recoil from the pain when I threw and as a result I ended up with a subscapularis tear. I didn’t get that repaired until the early 2000s when I started coaching baseball.”

Cochran did have a brief two-game, one-inning stint in Savannah in 1994 but the pain was still too much to bear. He was released by the Cards at the end of the year and made nine appearances for Winnipeg of the Northern League in 1995 before retiring.

“I was still sore and I had lost five or six miles an hour on my fastball,” Cochran said. “I went up and played a half season in Winnipeg but it just wasn’t the same so I decided to retire. When you’re an undrafted free agent, they don’t have a lot of money invested in you. You don’t get the treatment of a big-round draft pick.”

POST BASEBALL

Cochran returned to school following his playing career and upon graduating with a degree in criminal justice, he went into law enforcement. He has been a police officer for nearly 23 years and is currently the police chief at a small township north of Flint.

Baseball was never completely out of his blood, though. He coaches at an instructional facility not far from his home and he plays in an over-40 league.

“It took me a long time to get over it [the end of his career],” said Cochran, who has been married to his wife Lisa for 14 years. “It was almost like a PTSD thing. You dream about making the big leagues because you love the game so much. A lot of times you have those dreams where you’re told to warm up but you can’t find your glove or your cleats and when you wake up it was just a big nightmare. I had those for a long time but they stopped. I’ll only have them once in a while, usually right around spring training.

“My arm feels good now, though. It doesn’t hurt like back in the day. I can still get it [the fastball] up around 80. I’ve had knee surgeries and a hip replacement but I still keep playing.”

Playing and wondering what could have been.

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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