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Mudville: September 18, 2021 12:10 pm PDT
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Dennis Rasmussen

"To play with that many guys who were superstars was great. It was unfortunate we didn’t win."

Bill Veeck once said, “The true harbinger of spring is not crocuses or swallows returning to Capistrano, but the sound of the bat on the ball.”

In Charlevoix, located on the north shores of Lake Michigan, the harbinger of spring is when the Charlevoix Dairy Grille fires up its first burger and crafts its first Avalanche Ice Cream Sundae.

Dennis Rasmussen has a strong connection to both; and the affable lefty joins us this week for Spitballin’.

This spring, for the first time in two decades, Rasmussen is back in uniform. He is serving as the pitching coach for the Bluefield Ridge Runners. The Ridge Runners are part of the retooled Appalachian League, now a ten-team summer collegiate baseball league under Rob Manfred’s new minor league system.

It’s a change from what Rasmussen’s summers have been in recent years. He is a co-owner of Charlevoix Dairy Grille; an ice cream and burger stand that has been in his in-laws’ family for 50 years. In a small town of about 2,500 people that is buried in 100 inches of snow a year on average, when the Dairy Grille opens for the season, it’s a welcome sign that spring is coming.

Rasmussen’s story isn’t all about ice cream and baseball though. His prime sport had always been basketball and he was good enough to earn a scholarship to Creighton. He played from 1977-1980 and was a key member of two NCAA Tournament teams, even beating Larry Bird and Indiana State three times in his career.

When basketball season was over, Rasmussen would head right to the diamond where he pitched for the Creighton baseball team. Despite basketball being his top sport, Rasmussen was a first-round pick by the Angels in the 1980 MLB Draft.

Rasmussen went 91-77 over 12 Big League seasons. The reliable lefty won 18 games for the 1986 Yankees and went 14-4 with a 2.55 ERA for the 1988 Padres.

He was the winning pitcher on Opening Day in 1987 for the Yankees, outdueling Hall of Famer Jack Morris in Detroit. It may have been a loss for the Tigers, but baseball was back, and spring was here. About 300 miles to the north, the Dairy Grille and people of Charlevoix were readying for what they hoped would be another memorable summer.

“We got off the plane and rode into town in the San Diego Chicken’s limo. That was my first ride to the Big Leagues.”

Today, as the dog days are at hand, we’re reminded that there’s still a lot of baseball to be play and stories to be told.

So, take your German Chocolate Avalanche with extra pecans for the road as we go Spitballin’ with Dennis Rasmussen.

Thanks for joining us, Mr. Rasmussen. I enjoyed watching you pitch for the Yankees growing up and am looking forward to talking about that. First though, I want to ask how you got your start in baseball as a kid and if you have any favorite team growing up?

I grew up in San Clemente, California, a sleepy little beach town back in the day. I played Little League there and we always had Little League Day at Anaheim Stadium where we’d watch the Angels. I always loved baseball, but I played basketball and tennis too. I was tall and thin and too fragile to play football. We moved around a bit, and I was in three high schools in four years and kept playing all sports. The love of baseball never ended, and I knew if I was going to do anything professional, it was going to be baseball.

You were drafted by the Pirates out of high school in the 1977 draft but went to college instead. Were you expecting to be drafted?

Well, my grandfather, Wilbur Lee Brubaker, played for ten years for the Pirates in the 1930’s and 40’s. He had a 100 RBI season and played with Arky Vaughan, Pie Traynor, Lloyd and Paul Waner, four Hall of Famers. After my senior year in high school, I got drafted by the Pirates and I wondered if my grandpa had something to do with it. I always played basketball though. I knew to get to college; basketball was the way to go because I could get a full ride. I got recruited by a lot of the top schools.

That’s unbelievable your grandfather was on those Pirates teams. Those are some absolute legends.

It’s amazing to think about. You know, I have a ball that has all four of those signatures on it. Pie Traynor from when he managed, Arky Vaughn, the Waners. How about that? It’s one of the things that I have that’s priceless.

Willie Upshaw of the Blue Jays took exception to a pitch thrown close to his head by he Yankees' Dennis Rasmussen in fifth inning of game last night at Exhibition Stadium and charged the mound to get at the 6-foot-7 left-hander. Rasmussen had given up two home runs earlier in the inning. Upshaw and Rasmussen were ejected as the Jays won; 10-3. (Photo by Tony Bock/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

You were at Creighton the same time Larry Bird was at Indiana State and played against him a bunch. What was that like?

It was quite the thrill, especially after the fact when he went on to have that great career. His junior year was my freshman year. That was our first year in the Missouri Valley Conference. We beat them three times, the last time was in the conference championship to go to the NCAA Tournament.

I started the first four games of my career in college because we had four guys who were ineligible. After that, I was like the sixth or seventh man. The next year after we beat Larry three times, they beat us twice and went undefeated all the way to the NCAA finals and lost to Magic Johnson in ’79.

How did you manage to do both basketball and baseball at Creighton?

It came to my junior year and my focus was basketball. Once it started getting to the spring, I would start throwing after practice. One of the catchers would meet me down at the old filled in swimming pool in the gym. They put concrete down and that was our batting cages and pitching mounds. I would throw to keep in shape.

Two of my three years we were in the NCAA Tournament, so I had to fill that commitment and join the team on the spring trip. I never really got a lot of innings in. I was throwing 93 or 94 but I had no idea where the ball was going and had no breaking ball.

Can you talk about your draft experience there?

I was a good enough athlete, so I got picked 17th overall in the first round in 1980. Nowadays, that would never happen. When they drafted me, it was $80,000 to sign. If I didn’t work out, who cares? I saw Kumar Rocker would get about $6 million for the 10th pick. There’s a little more money on the line so they’d take a more polished pitcher. But it was kind of a surprise to get drafted.

I actually had been going to dental school. I took the dental aptitude test and thought I always wanted to be a dentist. When the draft happened, I had done everything I needed to do through my junior year. I would have needed some great recommendations to get into dental school when I finished, but I was confident I would be able to make a career of it. But then baseball got in the way of those plans – and thank God it did.

What was it like getting called up to the Majors?

Well, funny story leading up to that. I was in the minors with the Yankees and with a couple weeks left in the season, the Yanks sent me and Edwin Rodriguez to the Padres to complete an earlier trade for John Montefusco. We’re in the airport going to San Diego and I see Ted Gianoulis, who is the San Diego Chicken. We all knew him because he was always in our clubhouse getting dressed, but nobody else would recognize him.

He called me by name when he saw me. I told him that we got traded to the Padres and we’re going up to the Majors for the first time. He asked if anyone was picking us up and I told him there wasn’t. He said, “I got you covered. My limo is waiting for me at the airport, you can ride with me.” We got off the plane and rode into town in the San Diego Chicken’s limo. That was my first ride to the Big Leagues.

You had a few relief outings, and then got to make your first Major League start. What were your first experiences like as a Big Leaguer?

I made my debut in relief against Atlanta and pitched a couple other games. I made my first start at home against Atlanta, and I actually pitched pretty well. Then they asked some young guys to go to winter ball in 1983. So, I went to Puerto Rico with Tony Gwynn, Kevin McReynolds and three other guys plus a coach. We played for the San Juan Senadores. We came back in 1984, the year the Padres went to the World Series. I went through all of Spring Training, then on the very last day of Spring Training, I get traded back to the Yankees for Graig Nettles.

You were with the Yankees from 1984-87 and played for Yogi Berra, Billy Martin and Lou Piniella. What was it like playing in that era with the Yankees and George Steinbrenner?

We went into the 1985 season, and we started the season 6-10. We were in Chicago and Yogi got fired and we were told Billy Martin was coming in. You couldn’t have two exact opposites as managers. I wasn’t under anyone’s wrath though because I was a young guy and not making any money. It was the big free agents who got the heat when things weren’t going well.

We were playing in the toughest division in baseball. The Yankees, Boston, Toronto, Baltimore and were all equals. We just beat each other up all season. In 1985 I struggled, but in ’86 I figured it out. The team hit well behind me, and I got credit for a lot of wins. Dave Righetti set the saves record that year and a lot of them were my games. He got his 46th save to set the record in a game I started in Boston.

1st Annual ``Raise Your Hand For Africa`` Texas Hold'em Poker Charity Tournament<br /> Retired baseball pitcher Dennis Rasmussen arrives for the Raise Your Hand For Africa charity poker tournament at Golden Nugget Hotel & Casino on February 19, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by David Becker/FilmMagic)

You have to have some incredible stories playing in that era in The Bronx. What were some of your favorites?

One of my best memories happened when we were coming off a road trip. I had pitched a great game right before we came back. Yankee Stadium had that marquis outside and sometimes they’d put messages for players. Usually, it just said, “Game Tonight,” but every now and then they would have something like “Louisiana Lightning Strikes.”

So, after that road trip I was driving south on the Deegan towards Yankee Stadium and I look out at the marquis and it read, “Rasmatazz!” I probably never smiled more or was more proud. I wish I had a picture of it, but I surely wasn’t stopping on the Deegan to do that.

There were some incredible guys on the Yankees those years. What did you think of your teammates?

Don Mattingly was in his heyday. He was the same age as me too, which was really cool. I was on the team in 1985 when Don and Dave Winfield fought for the batting title down to the last game of the season. Watching Winny play was great. Obviously playing with Rickey Henderson too. Ken Griffey, Sr. was great, and Willie Randolph was just so steady. To play with that many guys who were superstars was great. It was unfortunate we didn’t win. We had so many good teams, but it was just a tough division. No Wild Card back then, just two divisions.

You’re talking my childhood there; just so many great players.

I can’t forget Lou Piniella either. I played with him in 1985 then he was my manager in 1986 and ‘87. I remember one game he popped up or missed his pitch and was all pissed. He came back and slammed his helmet and went out into left field. We were in the first base dugout and you could only see outfielders from the waist up because the dugout is deep, and the field is crowned.

We look past the pitcher and see Lou’s number 14. His back was to home plate, and he was in his batting stance! He was taking this stride and taking a fake swing, barely moving his hands. The pitch was thrown, and he stayed with his back to the plate. The owner’s box was facing the dugout and you never wanted to be caught laughing. I nudged the guy next to me and told him to look at Lou. Another pitch goes by, and he still has his back turned practicing his swing! He missed two straight pitches. He was out of his mind!

What was he like as a manager?

In Spring Training in 1986, I was vying for a fifth start spot. Towards the end of the spring, it didn’t look like I was gonna make it. I was pitching in minor league games the same day Tommy John was pitching in the Major League games. That was a kiss of death. Right before contracts were going to be guaranteed, Tommy John came up with a stiff back. They called me at 10:30 at night and said, “Ras, you gotta be on the bus to Haines City to pitch against the Royals tomorrow.” It ended up being my last spring start.

I thought, “Great, here’s my opportunity!” I went seven innings and gave up one run. Lou named me the fifth starter the next day and that year I went on to win 18 games. Just by default, and TJ not being able to pitch, I got a chance to start and made the most of it. That was Lou’s first year managing and he gave me my opportunity. We talk about it every time we see each other.

That’s a great lesson. This season you’re back in uniform after 20 years as the pitching coach for the Bluefield Ridge Runners who were part of the MLB minor league reorganization. Can you tell us about that?

It’s the old Appalachian League. All those teams are now in a college summer wooden bat league for freshmen and sophomores, and it’s run by USA Baseball. The General Manager of USA Baseball is Eric Campbell and he’s a former Creighton guy. He used to catch me during the offseason. I reached out to him and threw my name in the hat. My name was on the short list and Joe Oliver, who I knew from my time with the Reds was going to be a manager. He gave me a call and said he wanted me to be his pitching coach.

It’s been a great experience for these guys. Major League Baseball wanted former Big Leaguers to help show the players the way to be professional and teach them about pro ball. They wanted us to run it like a minor league team. We’ve been doing that while also not dampening the spirits and enthusiasm of these college kids, and they have a ton of it.

That’s great to hear that Major League Baseball is using actual former players to teach these young guys professionalism and respect. I think that’s really needed.

You know, they come out of the dugout all the time and we explain to them that you don’t really do that in pro ball, and they start to understand. But it’s OK to show that enthusiasm too, there’s just a time for it. They’re doing some Kangaroo Court and some of the things we used to do. But they’re also learning to play every day; and they’re dog tired because they’re not used to playing so much.

It’s been a great experience and I’ve enjoyed it even more than I thought. I haven’t coached for 20 years just running the ice cream and burger restaurant in Northern Michigan. It’s the Charlevoix Dairy Grille and it’s been in my wife’s family for 50 years. She knew I would like to get back in the game and was still young enough to do it, so she gave me her blessing. It’s enjoyable to see the fans back because they didn’t have a team last year and didn’t know if they were gonna even have a team at all.

It’s been a lot of fun catching up with you. My final question for you is just open-ended. Do you have any final reflections you’d like to leave our readers with?

The biggest thing for me is that it’s enjoyable to share my experiences and every year that goes by, it seems like it becomes more and more special. I get to do interviews like this and share my stories that I remember or am reminded of at alumni events. There were so many funny things that happened in the game because you have to keep it loose to deal with the pressure. It was such a special time in my life that I enjoy sharing. I hope to continue to be able to share my experience because I’ve enjoyed putting a uniform on and getting back in the game to mentor these young men.

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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