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Mudville: July 29, 2021 7:51 am PDT
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Reggie Jefferson

"Man, did I play with some great players."

Reggie Jefferson loves baseball.

If it’s not evident from the inflection in his voice when he’s talking about the sport, he’ll tell you flat out. He loves the nuances, he loves the camaraderie and when he played, he loved to hit.

Jefferson, who batted .300 on the nose over his nine-year career, joins us for this week’s Spitballin’.

There’s a lot of negativity surrounding Major League Baseball these days. The list is almost too long to type, but it starts with the radical gimmicks, pitchers being frisked on their way off the mound and skyrocketing strikeout totals.

The fanbase is at war with each other and a work stoppage is the albatross nobody is talking about.

About the only thing fans could agree on is that Rob Manfred is bad for baseball.

One conversation with Reggie Jefferson though, you realize the joy that the sport can still bring. Currently a player agent, Jefferson will gladly talk to you about his love of The Big Red Machine and the miracle that he eventually got drafted by the team he idolized as a kid.

Jefferson’s time in Cincinnati was short-lived. A top prospect, he was called up in May of 1991 and homered off Andy Benes for his first Major League hit. However, his Reds career was done after five games.

Jefferson contracted pneumonia and was put on the disabled list. What happened next is a grey area that many don’t seem to fully understand to this day, Jefferson included.

Although the Reds denied it, it appeared they tried to save about $2,300 in salary by manipulating rules around Jefferson’s status. The Reds got caught and were forced to trade him.

Barry Larkin and Eric Davis weren’t happy about it. Larkin said, “Reggie is going to be a great player. It’s ridiculous to lose the number one prospect in the organization.” Davis added, “Every time you turn on ESPN and see Reggie Jefferson in an Indians uniform, it won’t die down.”

“That’s one of the things you don’t hear about anymore. I’m an agent now and I never hear them talk about what they learn from their teammates. I guess they do it, but it’s not really talked about. They’re more with their hitting guy while we learned from each other. And if we didn’t learn from each other, we weren’t gonna be around.’”

Jefferson looks back on it now with a grain of salt and a laugh, which is his personality.

His best year came in 1996 when he batted .347 for the Red Sox. Although he just missed qualifying, the only players with a higher average in Major League Baseball that year were Alex Rodriguez, Tony Gwynn and Frank Thomas.

You were a multi-sport star growing up and a great athlete. What made you choose baseball as your path?

I loved baseball and football growing up and when I got to high school, I fell in love with basketball. As a 6’3” forward though, there wasn’t much of a future in that. In high school I started seeing baseball in my future. I continued to get better. I played on a Babe Ruth World Series championship team after my sophomore year and played some good competition. That kinda told me that I could hold my own with the better players around the country.

Then I started really focusing on it. My first tryout I went to was with the Cincinnati Reds. Cam Bonifay had a workout at Florida State, and I went over to the tryout. He really liked me and followed me for the rest of my high school career. He ended up drafting me.

That’s great. You were called up when you were just 22. Where were you when you got the call that you were going to the Majors?

I was in AAA with the Reds and had a good Spring Training but got sent down as the last guy cut. I was playing well, and my AAA manager was Pete Mackanin. We were in a game and about the seventh inning, he took me down into the tunnel. He said, “Hey, good game tonight. I want to let you know you’re going to the Big Leagues tomorrow.” That’s how he told me, in the middle of the game. I couldn’t sleep that night. I was so excited. The next day I flew to Cincinnati for my debut.

You had an exciting start to your career. Can you tell us about your first experience in the Majors?

The first game I pinch hit and the next day Lou Piniella told me I was gonna start at first base. I had been swinging a particular bat in Spring Training and was doing pretty well. We were facing Andy Benes that day and I remember thinking that he was one of the hardest throwers in the game. I decided to go with a lighter bat. My first two at bats I struck out against him. I had some good swings, but maybe a little out in front. I went back to the bat I had been swinging before and sure enough, I hit a home run. My first Major League hit was a home run against a pretty good pitcher.

Despite that, your career in Cincinnati lasted just five games. Can you describe what happened?

Even working as a player agent now, I still don’t totally understand to be honest. We went on a West Coast trip, and I got sick out there. My wife rushed me to the hospital. I had pneumonia. The team knew I was sick and wasn’t close to being well. They designated me for assignment. My understanding is that they meant to do something else but messed up. I don’t know what else they could have done though.

You can’t option a guy down when he’s unable to perform. He stays on the DL. They said it was some clerical error, but I was confused. I guess their gamble was that in those ten days, I would be well enough to play. I wasn’t well enough after those ten days, so their options were to trade me or release me. That facilitated the trade to Cleveland. I still don’t understand why they didn’t just leave me on the DL.

Such a crazy situation. I know some of the veterans on their team were pretty vocal against it.

Barry Larkin and Eric Davis were very supportive about it. It was a weird deal looking back. When you’re drafted by a team, that’s where you think you’re gonna play. You go through the minors and break in with them. Then to get traded so fast, it was a big shock.

I came back with Cleveland, and I was struggling. I was coming off pneumonia and lost about 15 pounds. I hadn’t played in the Big Leagues much and then got sick. I got off to a terrible start there and I think it influenced my time in Cleveland. I didn’t think I made a great first impression on the manager there.

Now I look back on it and wonder what would have happened if I stayed in Cincinnati. That’s a good thing about baseball, you could always second-guess everything.

You came to Cleveland and the roster was loaded with young talent. It would be a few years before they won big, but could you see that something special was brewing there?

Oh yeah, no doubt about it. I was there three seasons, so I got to play with a lot of those guys. I remember [in] the 1993 season, I got to play with Kenny Lofton, Albert Belle, Carlos Baerga and Sandy Alomar. It was obvious that there was so much talent. We finished 6th, but we gave teams all they could handle. Other teams would tell us that we were going to be tough in a couple of years. They made some moves too and put the missing pieces in place. I enjoyed playing with those guys and learned a lot from them.

It really was amazing the caliber of players they brought in too. There was a superstar at each position it seemed.

I played with Jim Thome there and he came up as a third baseman. They ended up moving him to first so they could sign Matt Williams. I had played against Matt Williams before. I said, “Man, this guy might be the best defensive third baseman I ever seen!” He was that good. Then when he left, Travis Fryman came in and played a hell of a third base. It was a talented team, but then I moved on to Seattle and Boston. I wanted to do well against Cleveland when we went there because I had a little chip on my shoulder.

Probably tough to sum it all up or pick just a few, but can you talk about some of the guys you thought were the best you played with?

I got to play with some really great players, but Ken Griffey Jr. is always right at the top. He had the God-given ability and had a father who played 20 years in the Big Leagues. He had so much talent. I get to tell all these stories about the things I watched him do.

I remember my first Spring Training in Seattle. Mackey Sasser was from the same area in Florida where I grew up, so he came over and introduced himself. All during Spring Training he would tell me about how great Griffey was. It got to the point to where I was like, “Man, this guy loves Ken Griffey!” But then during the season when I got to watch him every day, I always thought back to that Spring Training because we were always so amazed so often.

Yeah, he’s gotta be at the top of that list for that generation. After Griffey, who were some of the other guys who impressed you?

Well, even on the same team, you had Edgar Martinez, one of the best right-handed hitters I’ve ever seen. Tino Martinez was on that team too. He went on to do great things for the Yankees. Jay Buhner was a perennial All-Star. I was glad I played there and did well. They moved Edgar to DH and Tino to first though, so I moved on to Boston.

In Boston there were great guys too. I got a chance to play with Mo Vaughn who was an amazing hitter. I used to be in the same hitting group as him. I studied hitters like nobody else. I used to say, “Man, what is Mo doing different than me?” He had a lot of the same principles as I did like staying inside the baseball and using the whole field. One day it just hit me though. I said to myself, “Man, I’ll never be as good as that guy because he’s twice as strong as me!”

Mo was a tremendous hitter who always came through in the clutch. He hit good pitching too. Nomar Garciaparra’s rookie year was a special year to watch. Pitching-wise, I played with Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson. Man, did I play with some great players.

You really did! As a fan it was great to watch that era.

It was. And you know, I was also proud of a guy like Jason Varitek. I saw him at the winter meetings and he said that being able to hit with me and Troy O’Leary every day when he was a rookie helped him a lot. Seeing how we approached hitting and took it so seriously. That’s the great thing about the game. Guys learn from each other; you help each other out.

That’s one of the things you don’t hear about anymore. I’m an agent now and I never hear them talk about what they learn from their teammates. I guess they do it, but it’s not really talked about. They’re more with their hitting guy while we learned from each other. And if we didn’t learn from each other, we weren’t gonna be around.

That brings up a good point. You’re a player from the previous generation who is still involved with today’s game. What are your thoughts on the way the game has changed?

I always say first and foremost, I love baseball. It’s a great game. Even when I get frustrated, I still say, “Man, I love the game.” Baseball has been very good to me and my family. But I do not like all the rule changes. Why do we need to change rules? Things like the pitcher has to face three batters now. Just play the game. It’s not meant to be four hours every day, but it isn’t meant to be two hours either. Just play.

You know the game is going to be around three hours, but they’re trying to cut it down. They’re doing that by taking away a lot of the little things that make it exciting. Those little things were the things we used to look for as fans.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. That couldn’t be any more on point. Do you think the game can be fixed?

Well, I think they’re attacking the wrong issues. The issues should be let’s get back to the game the way it should be played: with speed and athleticism. I watch baseball every day and there are teams that I know there’s no way they’re gonna win. They’re not athletic and they don’t do the little things you need to do in the postseason. You can fool people all you want, but if you don’t have that athleticism that you’re gonna need in the postseason, it’s gonna be hard to get over the top.

Look at the Dodgers. How important was Mookie Betts and his athleticism in the postseason? Until they added him, they were missing the piece to win it all.  He made such a difference on that team with the energy he brought with his athleticism. You gotta have those guys if you want to win.

You talked a lot about how serious you were about hitting and how much you analyzed hitting. What do you think of today’s hitters compared to your era?

My biggest pet peeve is the approach in hitting. Guys are saying you can’t hit the way you used to because guys throw harder. I watch the game every day. There’s more guys throwing harder, but as a hitter, I loved to hit a four-seam fastball. Anyone who wants to tell me that a four-seam fastball is not easier to hit, they’re crazy.

The problem is guys are swinging 0-2 like it’s a 2-0 count. There’s no game plan to hitting anymore. I was probably the slowest guy you could find, but if teams shifted on me, I would have tried to bunt. It’s dumbfounding to me that a guy won’t lay down a bunt on a shift when that could be an extra two or three hits a week. That adds up. Then they’d stop shifting on that guy. I can’t even fathom why they don’t do it.

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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