"You can create the kid for the path, or the path for the kid."
If you collected baseball cards at the hobby’s peak in the late 1980’s you’ll know Pat Combs. One day you were going to cash in all of your Pat Combs rookie cards and swim around in your earnings like Scrooge McDuck.
Why would you think otherwise? The 11th overall pick in the 1988 draft, Combs was just 22 in 1990 and had already put together an All-American career at Baylor, won an Olympic Gold Medal with Team USA and shot through the Phillies organization from A-Ball right to the Majors in 1989, his very first professional season.
Then when he got to the Phillies, he went 4-0 with a 2.09 ERA that included a 4-hit shutout against a very good Cardinals team. Steve Carlton had just retired, so could you blame Phillies fans (and young baseball card speculators) for dreaming big when it came to Combs’ potential?
Things didn’t work out the way Phillies fans had hoped, but you would never know that talking to the gracious and affable lefty.
Combs joins us for this week’s Spitballin’.
If you want to feel good about baseball, talk to Pat Combs. You won’t sense an ounce of regret or bitterness about the injury that curtailed such a promising career. Instead, you’ll hear gratitude for the experiences he had and a desire to make the game fun again for young kids.
After Combs’ remarkable 1989 season, he led the Phillies with 10 wins in 1990 and was second on the team with 32 starts. However, due to injury, he made just 17 starts over the next two seasons and was out of baseball by 1994.
Today, Combs is not only rooting on his son Casey, a catcher in the Miami Marlins system, but he also wrote a book that was published last October called More Than the Score: How Parents Can Cultivate Virtue in Young Athletes.
Combs calls for an end to the ultra-competitive insanity that has infested youth sports and a return to the way the game was played on the youth level for decades: for the pure joy of it. He shares the lessons he has learned raising his children in these settings.
You may not have made millions off of your Combs rookies, but you’ll be richer for the experience of listening to his message.
Let’s go feel good about our great sport as we go Spitballin’ with Pat Combs.
Thanks for taking the time to join us today, Mr. Combs. Let’s jump right in and get started at the beginning. How did you get your start in baseball as a kid?
I had an interesting start. I enjoyed playing ball in my neighborhood, but I was very fond of boxing and wrestling as a kid. My grandfather took me down to the local Little League one day to sign me up for baseball. I was seven and thought we were there to sign up for some boxing lessons.
I remember driving back and he said that he thought I would like baseball. I wasn’t so sure about it. It was kind of a precarious start, but when my foot hit the ground coming out of the dugout for my first Major League start, I couldn’t help but think back to that day when my grandfather signed me up for Little League.
You had a great high school career and then a great career at Baylor. Could you talk about your experience there?
I didn’t think that I was quite ready for the pros, so before my senior season I committed to Rice University, which was a local school for me. It made it easy for my parents to come see me play and Rice had a great foundation as a good college program. I stayed for one season in 1986 and then transferred to Baylor and attended for a couple of years. That was a tremendous experience for me.
Pat Combs with the Phillies in 1990
As a collegiate player, you also were a part of the 1988 Olympic Baseball Team. How did that come about?
Well, they would invite about 40 players and then have open tryouts too. I was one of the guys who was invited. That was in 1987 and ’88. It was a great experience coming together with the top collegiate players at the time. I also played for some great coaches like Ron Frazier, who was the Head Coach at the University of Miami. My pitching coach those two summers was Skip Bertman and I got to play for Ron Polk, the legendary coach at Mississippi State.
I was 14 during the summer of 1988 and remember that Olympic Baseball Team being such a big deal. Did you feel that too as a member of the team?
Those two summers on the USA Team were incredible. I learned a ton and played with and against some great competition. A lot of the guys, like myself, made it to the Major Leagues. What was interesting in ’88 was they were making comparisons to the ’84 team, which was loaded with talent. They had guys like Raffy Palmeiro, Will Clark, Bobby Thigpen. It was a very talented team.
They made the comparison that we didn’t have as much talent as that ’84 team, but we came together. It was great chemistry with the guys. To get to Seoul and win the Gold was absolutely incredible. We exceeded the expectations that the writers and some of the guys who followed the team had for us.
“My brother-in-law was not a big card collector, but when I made it to the show, he started collecting my cards. It’s amazing, I only played four years, but he had about 73 different cards of me.”
One related question I have for you comes from my own experience collecting baseball cards as a kid. I remember those 1988 Olympic Topps cards and they were such a huge deal. As a young player, what was it like to see yourself on that card and really all the other ones you had in your career?
I was a huge baseball card collector as a kid. When I was 12, I built this little landscaping company as a summer job. The company was actually just me. At the peak of my business, I had about 25 yards I would do. I would get up in the morning, do my yardwork, then go to wrestling in the evenings or baseball in the summer. I would take about 25% of what I earned and spend it on baseball cards.
Growing up, I had a dream of having my face on a baseball card. My uncle reminded me of this story years ago. When he was collecting, he would take his cards out and I would sit there as he was going through them. Apparently, when I was young, I told him, “Hey Uncle Chet, I’m gonna be on a baseball card one day.” He kind of chuckled and told me that it was a good dream to have, but that’s tough to do.
Of course, years later, I get my face on the Team USA card, which was in the Topps extended set. That was a dream come true to find myself on a card. That was the heyday of card collecting too. My brother-in-law was not a big card collector, but when I made it to the show, he started collecting my cards. It’s amazing, I only played four years, but he had about 73 different cards of me.
I love those kinds of stories and I most certainly have my stack of Pat Combs cards somewhere in my attic. You were a first-round draft pick in the summer of 1988 too. What was that experience like?
My thought going into the draft was that I would be a first-round pick. The surprise of it was being picked by the Phillies because they had never even talked to me. During that time, the Phillies scouting played everything tight to the vest and kept things in house. They didn’t want other teams to know who they were looking at. I had talked to the Pirates, Astros, Angels and some others, but not one conversation with the Phillies.
Wow, I can’t imagine that happening today. What was it like to get that call?
There wasn’t any internet or cell phones back then and the draft wasn’t televised. I got a call and the guy on the other end said, “My name is Cotton Nye and I’m with the Phillies, and we want to let you know we just picked you in the draft.” My reaction was, “Who is this?” I thought it was one of my buddies messing with me. He said, “My name is Cotton.” I said, “Yea, that’s a good name. Who picks that kind of name for a fake name?” He finally goes, “This is really Cotton Nye, I am really a scout with the Phillies.” I thought it was one of my buddies playing a joke and we had a good laugh about it.
I finally said that I was so surprised to get a call from the Phillies because I had never talked to anyone there. He told me that was how they did things and he had actually been scouting me for three seasons and he always had me slotted as his number one guy for this draft. It was really cool to get that call and realize that it was a real.
In 1989, you started in A Ball and advanced through every level of the minors before going 4-0 in the Majors. You’ll never see that anymore. What was it like having that kind of a dream season?
It was a wild ride. When I went to Spring Training, I had no idea how quickly I could get to the Big Leagues. The Phillies were going through a rebuild after having those great runs in the early 1980s. They traded away a lot of their prospects to make those great teams though.
I remember seeing some things in the papers saying the Phillies needed to have some good drafts to restock their minor league system and some of those guys have a chance to move quickly. I remember thinking that it would be really cool if I could make it to the Majors by 1990. That was a good time frame to shoot for.
Can you take us back to the start of that year?
I was working out with the AA team that spring, but right at the last minute they put me down in Single A in Clearwater. It was fine, but I got a little upset because most of the guys I had been working with went to AA. I just made a promise that I’d get out of A Ball as quick as I could. I made four starts and three weeks later I was in AA.
I started well, had a rough patch and then finished really strong. The AA season ended beginning of August and the roving pitching instructor told me they were going to send me to AAA to pitch the month of August to gauge what level I would be at the next year.
I had a conversation with George Culver, the roving pitching instructor and said, “Look, the Phillies are having a rough year, why couldn’t I make the jump to the Big Leagues now? Just kind of get my feet wet in September?” He said, “I know that’s what you’d like, but you’re the player and we’re management.”
What was it like to get the call to the Majors and prove them wrong?
I felt like if I could pitch well at AAA I could get a shot and I wanted to do it that season. I was on a good roll in July and August. They put me in AAA and I threw two shutouts in a row, one was a one-hitter and another a three-hitter. Then the next start, Phillies GM Lee Thomas came down to watch the game.
I had another good start and remember him coming into the locker room afterwards. After I showered, I heard Lee wanted to see me in the office, which was unusual. When I went in, he said, “I don’t know if you’re reading the papers, but you’re forcing my hand.” I didn’t know what he meant, but he said, “I’m forced to bring you up to the Big Leagues in September.”
I got really excited, but the look on his face was that he was ticked off. He said he didn’t know if I was ready or if they should be making the move, but the writers were giving him hell. The papers were saying the season was such a disaster, why not bring the kids up and let them play?
Pat Combs (Photo: Baylor ``B`` Association)
Something like that would never happen today, especially with a first round starting pitcher. Teams are so careful with their prospects. What do you think of the way that has changed?
It comes down to the science being a lot better. There’s data saying you have to have a certain amount of innings and you have to be able to show some success and progress with things like spin rate and all the things they’re measuring now. I think that’s gotten better.
Do you think overall the system in place now is better for pitchers?
I looked back and there were a few pitchers who made it to the Big Leagues really quickly and got hurt fairly quickly too, and I was one of them. Someone like David Clyde comes to mind. But I think that can happen at any time. We look at injuries in sports and you just can’t calculate when they’re going to happen. I do think the science is better, but at the end of the day, you’re dealing with human beings. You look at the data and do the best you can with the data you have.
You mentioned your own arm injury, can you discuss what happened there?
I knew something was wrong with my elbow, but we couldn’t figure out what it was. We thought it was really bad tendonitis at first and I had some minor swelling. Then I pitched a complete game shutout in Houston in May of ’91 and I woke up and had a sack of fluid on my elbow. I went to the trainer’s office and he was like, “Oh that’s not good.”
They did a few days of ice treatments and the swelling went down. They didn’t take an MRI and they probably should have. They got the swelling under control and I tried to pitch through it. I thought it was getting better, but it got stressed and blew up again. We finally took and MRI and they saw a pretty big bone spur in the back of my elbow.
That doesn’t sound like a major injury with today’s science, but 30 years ago, that was tough news to deal with.
Yeah, one doctor told me to have surgery, and another told me to pitch through. I tried to pitch a couple of times and it just wasn’t working. We decided to shut it down and have the surgery. Typically, you can go in arthroscopically and get the spur out, but mine was tucked behind a tendon, so they had to split the tendon and go right through it to get it. It was pretty invasive.
For whatever reason, my arm just never came back from it. It was never quite the same. It took me almost a full year to get my elbow going again to where I didn’t feel any residual pain. Surgery today is so much more advanced than it was back then.
When you got called up to the Phillies, did you have any players who mentored you or you were close with?
Don Carmen was a great friend that first year and a half before he got let go. Mickey Morandini I knew from the minors and the Olympic team and some of the other guys I played with in the minors were great friends. That’s the cool thing about baseball. It’s a tight network of guys. You want to find those guys who could not only be mentors, but who will be your friends.
The crazy thing to me is that there’s so much pressure to perform and win, but in the end, we’re all just regular guys. There’s guys from all over the country and from different countries, but and the end of the day, you’re just trying to do the best you can do to win a game.
I wanted to ask about your book More Than the Score. I think it’s a great message and such a timely topic. Youth baseball has become so competitive and you, along with many people, would like to see the fun of the game brought back on the youth level. Can you talk about your book?
The past 20 years I have been able to coach my sons in various sports, from hockey to baseball and football all the way through high school. Then they all played collegiately and now my son Casey is a catcher in the Marlins system. The book is about where youth sports have come from what it was like when I played.
Back then, it was community oriented. You played Little League against the kids in your town and it was fun. They had All-Star teams and things like that but for the most part, it was all in town. Then all of this club ball and select ball got popular and it changed youth sports.
There was a big culture change. It used to be about teaching the fundamentals and the great life lessons from sports like virtue and character. Things we could hold onto for our whole lives. The main focus was how to be a good teammate, how to win with grace and lose with dignity. I started seeing this shift where the main focus started to become how to get to the next level and what will it take to get a scholarship. The book is about how do we keep youth sports and bring back the pureness of it.
That’s really great and I am seeing more and more people have that message. Hopefully the pendulum swings back the other way.
The thing I tell parents is there’s always two ways you could look at sports. You can create the kid for the path, or the path for the kid. I think it’s so much better if you’re pouring into your son or daughter the right things on how to succeed on their own. You don’t want to carve the path out for them to take it to where you think it should go. Parents push the scholarship thing and think they’re paying so much money that it should pay off in a scholarship. Don’t put that on these kids.
Perfectly stated. I really enjoyed your positivity of sports in general and your own career. It’s awesome to hear you speak with such enthusiasm about baseball, the sport we love. One last question for you, it’s just an open-ended question about any final thoughts you’d like to leave for our readers.
I am so thankful for this game and what it’s taught me. It has helped me in life and in business and it’s helped me as a husband and dad. Those are the things I take away from the game that means so much to me. Also, the relationships that I was able to build, even going back to Little League. I’ve got friends that I played Little League with that I still keep in touch with. I have gained so much from the game and am incredibly grateful.
Also, I remember when I was a teenager, I became so self-absorbed with performance. It wasn’t until my first Spring Training that I gained a different perspective. Mike Schmidt invited all of the players to a baseball chapel service. That was the first time I heard a guy talk about faith in a way that made it real for me.
I began studying the Bible and who God is and the fact that he sent his son Jesus to save us. All of that became real to me and changed my life. That’s another great thing I gained from the game. It’s not about performance. Of course, you get paid for performance and you get to achieve things through performance, but at the end of the day, it really should be about people. It’s about others and what’s best for other people. How could we help others? Becoming a Christian through the game of baseball meant everything to me.