"I swung basically with one hand and twirled myself out of the box."
Like all sports, baseball is in a constant state of evolution. The way the game is played dictates how rosters are built, for better or worse.
Pitching staffs have evolved from an era when workhorse starters wore complete games like a badge of honor to the modern game where a stable of velocity-hungry spin-rate monsters are ushered in and out of games not by their performance, but by what the nerds’ algorithms dictate.
In between the workhorse era and lame horse era, sat a time when pitching moves were largely dictated by performance and specialists were only used when needed.
Out of this era came the role of the LOOGY, the “lefty-one-out-guy.” You know him. He’s the guy you swore was on a different team each year, every World Series team had a great one and when you saw him coming out of the bullpen, you knew the batter would be waving at a sweeping curve before tossing his helmet in frustration as he walked back to the dugout.
Randy Choate, perhaps the loogiest LOOGY of his era, joins us this week for Spitballin.’
Choate faced 1,036 left-handed batters in his career and held them to a .195 average. Mind you, most of those batters came in high-leverage situations. He wasn’t coming into face the number eight batter in the fifth inning.
Ryan Howard went 0-12 in his career against Choate. Ichiro hit .125 against him. Christian Yelich, Larry Walker and Fred McGriff had as many hits as you, me and the pretzel vendor in section 218 did against Choate—0.
Before he was a lefty specialist, Choate was an All-American starting pitcher for legendary coach Mike Martin at Florida State and idolized Nolan Ryan as a kid, like all young pitchers growing up in Texas did in the 1980s and 90s.
The Yankees converted him to a reliever in 1999 to groom him as a replacement for Graeme Lloyd and that set him on the fast track to the Majors.
“The first thing I thought was, ‘Oh man, they’re all gonna come in here and want to ask all about this.’ I thought of Mariano and what he went through in ‘01 and you just have to wear it. You stand up and wear the questions.”
Choate debuted for the Yankees in 2000 and played for them for four years before being traded to the Expos in the Javier Vasquez trade. After spending three weeks in Spring Training with the Expos, Choate was shipped to the Diamondbacks. He also played for the Rays, Cardinals, Marlins and Dodgers.
The gregarious Choate was on three World Series teams, pitched in 12 postseason series and even got to bat against Randy Johnson in the 2001 World Series. You can guess how that one went.
Switch on over to the right side of the plate as we go Spitballin’ with Randy Choate because it won’t be a good time for you if you come up lefty.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Choate. Man, did I hate seeing you come into a game to pitch against the Mets. Before we get into your career, let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into playing baseball and did you have any favorite teams or players growing up?
I was more into basketball growing up and I played everything. Growing up in Texas, Nolan Ryan was at the top of my list for pitchers. Mark McGwire was always my favorite position player because I played first base in Little League.
I gave up baseball for a while and played basketball though. But the baseball coach asked me if I wanted to be in seventh period practicing with the varsity baseball team as a freshman or if I wanted to be in sixth period practicing with the JV basketball team. I figured, I’m in high school already and can’t dunk, so I turned to pitching full time.
What was that like growing up an A’s fan and then playing with and against some of those guys later?
When I was with the Yankees I got to play with Jose Canseco. We were on a flight once and the rookies usually double up in the seats. I couldn’t find a rookie anywhere because it was such a veteran group and the few young guys had already doubled up.
Jose told me to sit next to him and we were just talking the whole flight. I was thinking, “Man, I had your poster up on my wall with you hitting forearms with McGwire!” But I was able to tell him that I loved watching him play.
You played for one of the legendary college baseball coaches in Mike Martin at Florida State. What was it like playing for him?
He’s legendary. That was one of the reasons my parents were so comfortable sending me 14 hours away from home. The stories you hear about him aren’t exaggerated. The man was an incredible coach and was that father figure away from the field. It’s hard to put it into words. He helped me learn to play baseball the right way, the way Florida State wants to play it.
It was the perfect environment for me. I’m glad I wasn’t big enough to get drafted out of high school because I needed those three years at Florida State. I needed to get bigger and mature. You see some guys like Wade Davis. He was the perfect example of someone who could come out of high school and handle the pros. He had that maturity level. I don’t know that my maturity level was there at 18.
What did you think when they switched you to the bullpen?
We talked in the offseason and they told me I could go back to throwing at whatever arm angle I felt comfortable with. They said they wanted to get me ready for the Big Leagues in a Graeme Lloyd type of role. It took me a while to figure out because I wasn’t quite sidearm yet, I was more three-quarters. That was ’99 in Tampa and in the second half, it all started coming together.
Somebody got hurt and they sent me to fall ball and I took my lumps. I was pitching against AAA guys and I had only played A Ball. If I started my slider in the middle of the plate, they weren’t gonna swing at that. They knew it would break away.
My last six appearances I either got blown up or dominated and got them 1-2-3. That was when I was figuring out my arm slot and I felt like I was getting it. The next Spring Training, they told me I was starting in AA. I was doing well and by the end of camp, they called me up for some Big League games. I didn’t get in, but when I went back down, they sent me to AAA instead.
You made it to the Majors really quick after the conversion. In ’99 you made the switch and then by 2000, you were with the Yankees. What was it like to get the call?
I went to AAA and had a lot of confidence because I was feeling good and didn’t worry about too much. Allen Watson got hurt and they called me up. Then he came back, and I got sent back down. I knew it was coming, but it was still disappointing.
I’ll never forget it though. I was packing my bags and Watty came over to me and said, “Hey, don’t get too comfortable down there.” He didn’t know how healthy he was going to be. He pitched in back-to-back games and in the second game his velocity was way down. He had re-injured his arm and I got called back and spent the rest of the season there.
The first batter you faced in the Majors was Fred McGriff, who was in his prime. What was it like facing someone like that in your first appearance?
It was a 2-1 game, and I came in for El Duque. It was the sixth inning and there were two outs. I go out there, and I’ll never forget this, but the Columbus Clippers had this song. It went, “Columbus Clippers ring your bells” and all the fans would ring bells. They played it in the seventh or eighth inning, usually when I was coming into the game. My first game with the Yankees, I came in and went through my routine and I remember going, “Columbus Clippers ring your bells.” I’ll never forget that.
So, my first pitch I thought was a strike, but he called it a ball. I was like, “Damn. If that’s a ball I don’t know if I could pitch on this level.” Then my next pitch I thought was a ball and they called it a strike. I was like, “OK, makeup call!”
Posada called a slider and when I watch the video now, I hung it more than I wanted to. At the time, I thought it was a good pitch. I was lucky it was far enough away. McGriff didn’t make full contact, but he got it out there into right center. I saw Bernie going back and I was like, “Catch it! Catch it! Catch it!” He sat under it right at the track and caught it.
You played with so many legends, not just on the Yankees but on most of your teams. I just wanted to ask you about some. What was it like playing with Derek Jeter?
Just a class act. The first specific thing I remember is that he takes all the September callups out to dinner. He took like five or six of us to this legit Italian restaurant and they had the room closed down for him. He just sat there getting to know everybody. He’s just the nicest person. He was never out of control and always conducted himself like a professional.
Obviously, he’s a winner; everyone would say that. But I remember him as a great person. He knew the right amount of teasing to give. He just did everything in the perfect way.
One thing that stands out to me was that I always used to send out Christmas cards every year and I always had a picture of my first daughter on them. We were at a team function and he said, “I’ve really enjoyed watching your daughter grow up on those Christmas cards.” He even said her name. I wasn’t one of the stars, but I was around a lot. I had been up and down. I just thought it was so classy to be able to do that with someone who wasn’t one of the main guys on the team.
Wow, that’s really awesome to hear. What was it like being in the bullpen with Mariano Rivera?
He was my first Big League catch partner. I guess maybe he threw with Watty and with him being gone, he had nobody to play catch with. The first thing I remember is that he could do anything he wanted with the ball. He could put it exactly where he wanted, even warming up. Even joking around.
He would tell me he wanted to do some flat work, which he really didn’t care if he did flat work or not. He would say he wanted to practice his slider. I was like, “Yeah, you want to practice your slider because you want to hit me in the shins.” He was like, “Oh, come on” and got [Ted] Lilly to catch these perfect sliders. Then I got in there and he put it right in the dirt just short of home and right into my shin. He would just laugh.
That’s hysterical. He seems like he would be that kind of guy.
He didn’t get down to the bullpen until the sixth or seventh. He would be in the clubhouse and then do his routine and come down. I played with guys where it would be the fifth inning and they’re like, “Don’t talk to me. Leave me alone. I gotta get locked in.” I would be like, “What? The score is 8-2, you’re not going in.” Mariano was the opposite.
We would fool around, and he had a good time, but never went too far. He would say, “Hey guys, let’s make sure we’re paying attention.” But he always would have a good time and then when it was his time to go, he just flipped the switch. He didn’t need four innings to get ready, he just flipped it like that.
What kind of influence did he have on you as a young pitcher?
I was there in 2001 for the World Series loss against Arizona. The way he conducted himself after the game and then even the next Spring Training was amazing. I remember someone yelled at him, “Hey, you cost me a lot of money on that Series!” He just said, “I guess you shouldn’t have bet it then.”
Between watching him go through that plus the way my dad raised me, that really helped me later on when I went through it in the 2014 NLCS.
Yeah that was a really tough one. Can you walk us through that play and how you handled it too?
I had first and second in the ninth and it was tied. They sacrificed and that’s a throw I make 999 times out of 1,000, but the ball just sailed on me and went wide. The first thing I thought was, “Oh man, they’re all gonna come in here and want to ask all about this.” I thought of Mariano and what he went through in ‘01 and you just have to wear it. You stand up and wear the questions.
The next day Erin Andrews said to me, “Thanks for answering all of our questions, not everybody would do that.” I figured 20 years from now, everyone is gonna remember that I threw the ball down the line. But those reporters were gonna remember me as a good guy that stood up and answered the tough questions.
I can’t imagine how tough it is to stand there and answer those questions like that. There are so many other guys I could ask you about, but let’s do one more with Paul O’Neill.
Paulie had a little bit of a temper, but he was the most stand-up guy. He was someone you really wanted to go to battle with on the field and he was just awesome. On funny story I remember was I think it was my first start in Yankee Stadium. I had just punched out Brady Anderson at home on the Fourth of July. I was pumped.
I came in the dugout and sat in Paulie’s spot. I was talking to Jeter and Bernie was there and they said, “That’s Paulie’s seat, you’re probably gonna want to move.” He had just grounded out and was getting ready to come back. They told me I probably wasn’t going to want to be sitting there. I was like, “Oh my God, I’m sorry!” I ran out of there before he came down there to beat up the water cooler.
Yeah, you’re definitely not gonna be around when he’s taking it out on the water cooler! You played on three World Series teams and pitched in 21 postseason games in your career. What was the pressure like pitching on the big stage?
My mom was at one time asking me the same question. She didn’t know how I handled it because she gets so nervous herself. I try not to make more of it than it is. I always try to treat it like a regular season game and not put that pressure on myself. Obviously, you know you’re in the World Series, but once I would throw that first warmup pitch, you’ve done it so many times you just try to let it be natural.
The only time I really felt the pressure was the game in San Francisco in 2014 after I had made that bad throw. I came in and my ball was really moving. The last thing I wanted to do was throw it to the backstop like I did in Boston in 2001. I freaking grabbed my four-seamer which I never threw anymore. I just thought, I’ll throw it right down the middle and if he hits it 20 miles out of here, well he hits it 20 miles out of here.
I had Joe Panik 3-2 and I just forced it right down the middle. He grounded it right back to me and I run it over to first and flip it over. It was just treating it like a regular game.
You played for six teams in 15 years. Did any of your stops impact your career more than the others?
That would be my time in Tampa, without question. Everyone would think the Yankees and they were the most classy. You can’t beat wearing the pinstripes. But the team that is closest to my heart is Tampa. My first eight years between New York and Arizona, I kept going back and forth between the minors and Big Leagues. Joe Maddon was the perfect guy for me, and Andrew Friedman was the perfect GM. Anytime I give an interview, I go out of my way to talk about how much Joe, Andrew, the Rays and all of them meant to me and my career.
That’s interesting because you only spent two years there, but I definitely understand it.
I loved everywhere I played, but that place in particular meant so much to my career and confidence. Being in Tampa we got to go in and play New York a lot. One of my favorite plays was when Johnny Damon tried to drop a bunt down on me. I picked it up with my glove and got him out pretty easy.
I feel like I was lucky. I played for the Yankees, Dodgers and Cardinals. Those are three of the teams with the longest history in the game.
I came across a video of you batting against the Mets and working out a walk. Your teammates seemed to really enjoy that. Can you take us through your brief career as a batter?
Oh, I hated it. I didn’t even hit in high school. My theory was that I’d rather make guys look stupid on the mound than look stupid myself at the plate. When I got a little older with the Cardinals, I didn’t even take BP. I just went in there and bunted.
That at bat with the Mets was my first one in like 11 years. When I watch the video, I’m standing in the back corner of the box. Someone who played for the Mets that game told me the pitcher thought I was screwing with him. Then he almost hit me and that was my biggest fear. Then he walked me, and I was hoping I didn’t have to run, but they left me in. I was so flabbergasted that I had to run.
One funny thing was all the pitchers would do this thing where they’d hold their hands upside down and make those circles on their eyes. It was saying that he had a good eye. You could see Seth Maness doing it in the video and I am so mad I forgot to do it. I was laughing so hard on first base that I forgot to do it. When I watch the clip, Tim McCarver said it perfectly when he said he didn’t know if I was laughing or crying. The whole clip is so funny because I had no business being on base.
What was it like to bat in the World Series against Randy Johnson?
I was in the far back corner of the box just thinking, “Oh God, don’t hit me.” He threw a pitch and, “Bam!” It was ball one and I was like, “Sweet! I saw it!” The next pitch was right down the middle and I didn’t even see it. I didn’t pick it up at all out of his hand and never saw it. I was up there with Justice’s helmet on and Pettitte’s gloves and bat.
It got to two strikes and if I was gonna go down in a World Series at bat, I wanted to at least go down with a forward K instead of backwards. I freaking load up and start my swing when he lets go of the ball. It was down the middle but looked three feet outside. I swung basically with one hand and twirled myself out of the box. Those are funny memories, but hitting isn’t for me.
These stories are hysterical. Thanks for sharing them with us, our readers will love them. My last question for you is just an open-ended question about your reflections on your career or baseball in general.
I was very fortunate in a number of ways. It started going to Florida State which was perfect for me. Then I got drafted by the greatest organization in baseball and that was the first place I got to play, and in the old Yankee Stadium too.
I love being able to tell my stories, but I don’t do it unless someone asks me. I love being able to say Mo was my first catch partner and talking about the friends I made along the way.
I was fortunate too for the time I played. Now they have the three-batter rule, so that LOOGY role doesn’t exist anymore. I would have had to adjust. I was fortunate that you didn’t have to throw 95 back then because I didn’t have that. It worked out perfect and I was just blessed and thankful for all it gave me and the life I was able to have.