"I guess the way to put it is that I was able to go out there and not think."
In 1985, Don Mattingly was the best baseball player on the planet. He won the MVP in a landslide, batting .324 with a Major League-high 48 doubles. His 145 RBIs were 20 more than anyone else in the game and he played Gold Glove defense at first.
At the same time, Jim Mecir was a 15-year-old high baseball star on Long Island who rooted for Mattingly like everyone else.
A decade later, Mecir made his Major League debut at Yankee Stadium pitching for the Seattle Mariners. The Yankees had a rally going and Mecir was asked to put a stop to it. To do so, he was going to have to get through his childhood hero, Don Mattingly.
Find out how that showdown went and much more as Mecir joins us for this week’s Spitballin’.
The odds are practically impossible that a kid is going to grow up to make his Major League Baseball debut in his hometown stadium against a childhood hero, but things got even better from there for Mecir.
That offseason, he was traded to the Yankees with Tino Martinez and Jeff Nelson. He spent the 1995 and ’96 seasons shuttling between the Bronx and AAA Columbus, as the veteran-laden bullpen was tough to crack.
Mecir was sent to the Red Sox at the end of the 1997 season but never played a game for them as he was selected by the newly formed Tampa Bay Devil Rays in the expansion draft.
After pitching two and a half very effective seasons in Tampa, Mecir moved on to the A’s where he continued to thrive.
A key member of the Moneyball A’s bullpen, Mecir helped the team to the postseason in each of his first four seasons in Oakland. He appeared in seven postseason games during that span, pitching to a 1.74 ERA.
“That call was weirder than the one I got when I got drafted. It was pre-social media, so there were no rumors. I just got a call that said, “Welcome to the Yankees, you just got traded.” You feel like someone is lying to you.”
Mecir was featured prominently in Michael Lewis’ book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, and was even slated to have an acting role in the movie until a change of directors scrapped that idea.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Mecir’s journey is he accomplished all of this despite being born with a clubbed foot. He had two surgeries before the age of ten that left his right leg shorter than his left and his calves damaged.
For overcoming his childhood adversity and the subsequent lower body injuries that caught up to him in adulthood, Mecir was the 2003 winner of the Tony Conigliaro Award for overcoming adversity through spirit, determination and courage.
Mecir’s story is uplifting and proof that no matter what obstacles you face in life, you should always dream big. You never know where it could take you. It could be the mound at Yankee Stadium staring down your childhood hero.
Let’s relive all those great moments and find out what he thinks of Major League Baseball today as we go Spitballin’ with Jim Mecir.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Mecir. Let’s get started at the beginning. You grew up on Long Island in the 1970s and ‘80s. how did you get your start playing baseball and who did you root for?
I got into baseball because I happened to be the youngest kid on the block. Whatever the other kids were doing at the time, I followed along. If we were playing baseball, all the kids would grab a glove and put it on me. I can’t even remember not having a glove on my hand.
Growing up early, I was a Mets and Yankees fan, but then I kind of changed later. When the Mets started becoming good, there were a lot of bandwagon people. It got me aggravated so I stopped rooting for the Mets and was solely a Yankees fan.
You were a third round pick out of Eckerd College in Florida. Can you take us through how you found out you were drafted? What was that process like?
At the beginning of my junior year, I was supposed to be a pretty high draft pick. But in the middle of the season, I pulled a forearm muscle and I started to hear my name was falling. But the last three outings of the year, I came back healthy. I didn’t know where I would get drafted. I was surprised when the Mariners picked me in the third round.
I was home in New York. I couldn’t see it on the ticker or anything. A guy from the Mariners called me up and said, “Congratulations, we just picked you in the third round.” I was pretty shocked.
In 1995 you made your debut at Yankee Stadium as a September callup. What was it like pitching against the guys you rooted for as a kid?
It was everything as a kid that your dream looks like. I got called up September 1st, and I don’t think I ate, drank or slept for three days. We go to New York, and it was my hometown team with all my friends and family there. I hadn’t pitched in a game yet. We started losing bad and I just thought that this had to be the day.
We got the call in the bullpen, and they told me to warm up. I felt like I was throwing the ball all over the place because I was so nervous. But when the bullpen gate opened up, this calmness came over me.
You came in the game with Bernie Williams on third and Paul O’Neill at bat. Also, due up were Ruben Sierra and Don Mattingly. That’s a tough situation to get through, but you did. What is that like being a New York kid pitching to those guys?
It didn’t feel real. It was really special too because this was Don Mattingly’s last month of his career and he was my favorite player growing up. I held him hitless in two at bats, so that was great for me, and I didn’t give up an earned run in 3 2/3 innings.
It was a great experience. I was out there thinking, “I can’t believe I’m doing this.” That was the only game that I pitched almost as a fan. After that, I was like, “OK, I’m here and now I gotta stay. I have a job to do.” But that first outing, I’d throw a pitch and go, “Wow, I can’t believe that’s Paul O’Neill up there.” When Mattingly came up, it kind of took away my nerves because I just couldn’t believe I was throwing to him.
That’s absolutely incredible. If that wasn’t great enough, you got traded to the Yankees with Tino Martinez and Jeff Nelson. How did you find out about that and what was your reaction?
That call was weirder than the one I got when I got drafted. It was pre-social media, so there were no rumors. I just got a call that said, “Welcome to the Yankees, you just got traded.” You feel like someone is lying to you. I got to the Yankees, and it was tough. I think between 1996 and ’97 I was up and down about six or seven times.
I wasn’t really ready yet and it’s tough to go to New York like that. They’re all about winning. I was one of those guys where no matter what happened, I went back and forth. I knew if Hideki Irabu or Darryl Strawberry came off the DL, I was going down whether I was pitching well or not. I had a lot of pressure to do well, and I tried to be perfect. I didn’t really know what I was doing yet. Putting on the pinstripes was awesome; I just wish I could have done it later in my career when I had things figured out a bit.
Being a young kid coming up to that team with all those superstars, were there any guys who helped you adjust?
Mostly the bullpen guys because that’s where I hung out. Jeff Nelson, [Bob] Wickman, [John] Wetteland, all of those guys. Mariano Rivera was young at the time, so he was in the same boat as me. They’re all about winning. They’re a professional organization and they always have everything in check.
After the Yankees and a few strong years in Tampa, you were on the A’s teams right at the start of the Moneyball era. Let’s start with the movie. What did you think they got right and wrong with Moneyball?
Well, a lot of it was behind the scenes baseball business, so I don’t know how accurate that was. But as far as what they got right; they made the clubhouse look like the clubhouse. There were some stupid things they had in the movie like where we were charged $1 for sodas. That never happened. Most of it though had a pretty good likeness.
The biggest thing they got wrong was how they portrayed Art Howe. Art is one of the best guys in baseball and I thought they made him look like a jerk. I didn’t appreciate that. Overall, they did a pretty decent job though.
What were your thoughts when you heard they were making this movie about your team?
Well, originally, the players from the team were supposed to be in the movie. The year prior they flew about eight of us to Arizona and we were gonna be extras in the movie. They were giving us prep and makeup, but the movie got sold. Steven Soderbergh was supposed to be doing the movie, but there was a difference of opinion and they told us we weren’t going to be in it anymore.
The 20-game winning streak played a huge role in the movie. What was it like experiencing a record-setting streak like that in real life?
It was more for the fans. We’re just trying to win. We started that season horribly and we were just happy we started to win and clawed our way back into the playoff race. I didn’t think it was a big deal until we hit about 14 or 15 straight. The thing I remember most about it was that we were not a serious team. We had fun and that’s when we played our best. We never had team meetings or anything.
We were in Minnesota when we tied the record and someone called a team meeting. I was like, “No! Why would you do that?” That’s not the way we play. We were a young team that just went out, played the game and had fun. I just knew that people would start thinking too much. Sure enough, and it could be a coincidence, but we went out and lost that night.
That was such a great stretch of years in Oakland. You made the postseason four years in a row. As a reliever, what is that like coming into such high-pressure games and usually with so much on the line?
It’s funny, the anxiety is there more when you’re not pitching. It’s more pressure and tension before the game or waiting in the bullpen. The postseason is obviously loud too. I knew Yankee Stadium would be loud when I pitched against them in the Division Series, but at least that was open. The loudest place I ever pitched was Minnesota in the dome. We were in the playoffs there in 2002 and I couldn’t even hear the guy next to me in the bullpen it was so loud.
You had some good success in the playoffs. How do you focus on the task at hand in a situation like that?
I guess the way to put it is that I was able to go out there and not think. I just tried to decide what pitch I wanted and throw it to the glove with conviction. That’s the only thing I could do.
You have a great Major League Baseball story and what makes it even more remarkable was that you overcame health issues with your foot as a child. Can you talk about that aspect of your life and career?
People always think that me having a club foot was the toughest thing for me growing up. It really wasn’t though. I had surgery when I was seven and it affected me a little at the time athletically. I couldn’t play ice hockey and playing basketball, it was hard for me to move. My parents and doctors didn’t want me to play football, so baseball was my thing.
I was young and strong though, so I didn’t have a lot of injuries growing up. I had to figure out ways to pitch and hit that were different than other people because I didn’t have the same mechanics. It wasn’t until I was in the Big Leagues where all the damage that my club foot caused to my knees caught up with me.
You won the Tony Conigliaro Award in 2003 for your perseverance through everything you overcame. What did that award mean to you?
I had to really persevere when all that damage got to my knees. I had to be resilient. That was a hard point because I wasn’t the same and I had to go out and perform anyway. I learned a lot of lessons, like consistency over perfection. I had to have a short memory and be resilient. Like in the playoffs, just concentrate on throwing that pitch with conviction. If there’s any voice in your head besides how you’re gonna attack the zone, you have to step off and reset.
But the award meant a lot because I went through a lot. Even when I was doing rehab, I would have a goal for that day, complete that goal and then celebrate it. I didn’t worry about the end goal as much. I couldn’t do anything about it; all I could do was control that day.
That’s great and I have a lot of respect for you to have the success you did while battling through health difficulties pretty much your whole life. My last question is just if you have any reflections on Major League Baseball you’d like to leave our readers with.
I hope that they change baseball back. I am not a big fan anymore. I’m not a big fan of the shifts and I’m not a big fan of the “walk, strikeout or home run” guys. They don’t try to place the ball in play, and they don’t try to bunt or steal. I did appreciate Moneyball for its value in on base percentage though.
During the regular season you can get away with some of this stuff because you’ll play some teams that just aren’t good. But in the playoffs, you’re facing the three best pitchers on the best teams and that means you have to play small ball sometimes and move runners. You can’t just walk and home run your way to victory when you’re facing the best pitchers.
These players that complain about the shift, what I say is learn how to hit. I hope that some teams change back to play the way the old St. Louis Cardinals teams did, with speed and defense. It’ll work and hopefully it would change the game back to the way it was because watching these guys just trying to throw the ball as hard as they can and talking about spin rate and exit velocity is just ridiculous. Baseball is not a science, it takes skill, resiliency and intelligence. Hopefully it changes back one day soon.