"That’s real professional not to get the job done and get him in.”
As fans, we tend to picture Major Leaguers as people who were born with incredible talent who followed a natural progression in their baseball lives with an eye towards the Major Leagues. Some get sifted out after Little League while a large majority give it up after high school or college.
A very lucky few have the chance to play professionally, so when that opportunity arises after a player is drafted, you’d figure they’d jump at the chance. Most do, but there are some who have other ideas about their future.
One of those guys is Marty Cordova and he joins us for this week’s Spitballin’.
Cordova was a standout player growing up in Las Vegas and was good enough in high school for the Padres to come calling in the 8th round of the 1987 draft. Instead of signing, Cordova had a different passion: medicine.
A fantastic athlete, Cordova wanted to stay in sports, but as someone who performed surgeries on athletes to help them back onto the field. His path was winding and probably almost ended multiple times on his way to the Bigs, but Cordova made it and thrived.
Cordova spent nine years in the Majors, his first five as a fan-favorite with the Minnesota Twins. Injuries took their toll on him, but when healthy, Cordova could flat out hit.
His best season came in 1996 when he batted .309 with 46 doubles and 111 RBIs. He topped 20 homers twice and had a .350 on base percentage five times. He was also the 1995 American League Rookie of the Year.
Cordova’s playing stories include anecdotes about Dave Winfield, Paul Molitor and Kirby Puckett while his off-field stories touch on Dana White, Will Ferrell and Jack Nicholson.
He’s an interesting person with a great outlook on life and baseball, so let’s go Spitballin’ with Marty Cordova.
“I hear the guys I played with say, “Back in the day, we didn’t do those kind of things.” I think they sound like a bunch of old guys.”
Thanks for joining us today, Mr. Cordova; looking forward to talking about your career. Let’s start back when you were younger. How did you get your start playing baseball and did you have any players you looked up to as a kid?
I grew up in Las Vegas and we didn’t have a Major League sport here. There was a AAA team here when I was in high school. I have two older brothers and my parents kept us busy in sports. My oldest brother and I really pursued baseball. He was a huge Cincinnati Reds fan; therefore, I was a Reds fan. Dave Concepcion was my idol. My dream was to play shortstop one day for Cincinnati.
Was there a time you thought that you had a real chance at playing baseball professionally?
My story is probably 100% different than most of the guys you interview. I really didn’t have aspirations to play in the Majors. It was a dream, but then as I played in high school I really fell in love with medicine. I wanted to be a sports surgeon. I wanted to do orthopedic surgeries for athletes. That seemed more realistic to me than making the Major Leagues and making a living. I knew I wanted to be around sports and figured as a doctor, I could help players get back on the field.
Wow! You’re right, I haven’t run into any players yet with that career path. You got drafted out of high school but went to college first. Was that a tough decision?
I was drafted in the 8th round by the Padres out of high school, but I really wasn’t excited about being drafted. It was a really short conversation about signing. I didn’t want to go to pro ball, I wanted to go to college. I had a scholarship to UNLV to stay here locally to play. Things didn’t work out; I had too many friends here and too many distractions.
Then I went to play for USA Baseball and got Steve Sax syndrome. I couldn’t throw the ball from second or short to first. I couldn’t even warm up before practice. I was afraid I was gonna hit someone, so I quit the team. The manager was Fred Dallimore. He thought I was joking, but it just wasn’t fun for me.
Splendor in the grass. Marty Cordova.
From there you ended up at Orange Coast College, one of the best two-year programs in California. How did you end up there?
Out of the blue, their coach Mike Mayne called me up. If I wanted to continue playing, I had to go to a junior college because if I went to a four-year, I would have to sit out a year. He had me come down to Costa Mesa. I saw the campus and it was beautiful. The baseball team was very good too. I ended up getting drafted by the Twins after my season at Orange Coast.
Coach Mayne was a great mentor. His son is Brent Mayne, who was a good catcher in the Majors. I really appreciated my time with him. He was a really big influence on me. But even so, I was drafted in the 10th round and had a scholarship to USC and still wanted to go back to finish my schooling at USC, which was expensive. I wanted to become a doctor and move on with my life. They gave me $40,000 that I could use for my education if things didn’t work out and that took away the reason I was giving them for not wanting to sign.
Was there a point where you did start to focus more on baseball? When did it seem like you had a shot at the Majors?
I was hurt off and on the next two years, so nothing really changed. In 1991 I ended up in Visalia and hit like .212. I didn’t play all the time and wasn’t excited to be there. I still had my long hair and was more interested in having fun than playing baseball. We had some big first rounders on the team; Scott Stahoviak and Dave McCarty. There was a documentary being filmed covering those first rounders and some guys like myself. During that time, the manager Steve Liddle, came to me and said I had one year left. He wasn’t gonna sugar coat it. He told me to come back as a changed person, or I should just give up playing baseball.
It must have worked because you had a huge breakout season the next year.
I went home in the offseason and started lifting weights for the first time. I had to give it a real try, because if I didn’t, I was done. I only hit .212, but I thought I had talent. I wasn’t putting it to use. I came into Spring Training dedicated to honing my craft as an athlete. A lot of things fell into place. Midre Cummings was supposed to be the starting left fielder in Visalia that year, but he got traded to the Pirates last minute. That opened a spot for me. If he hadn’t been traded, I don’t know if I get my chance.
I ended up having an amazing season. I hit about .340 with 28 homers and 131 RBIs. I became fully immersed in it and thought, “Hey, maybe I could make the Major Leagues.” I focused on it as my job and every waking moment I had, I spent playing baseball.
The 1995 Twins team you debuted on was only four years removed from winning the World Series, but a lot of guys from that 1991 team were gone. What was your first impression being a part of the Twins?
Tom Kelly was a strict manager. He was no frills and thought everyone had to earn their position. He treated everyone roughly, even the veterans. Normally, in Spring Training, you play four or five innings and get a few at bats before they get you out of there. I’m not joking, Tom Kelly made me play every inning of every game in Spring Training. If I was gonna start in left field as a rookie, I was gonna earn it. I had like 140 Spring Training at bats. It was crazy. Road trips, home games, it didn’t matter. I ended up hitting like .310 and earned that spot on the roster.
Tom Kelly always sounded like a tough old-school guy to play for. I guess that was the case.
Yes, for sure. I’ll never forget Eddie Guardado and I were flying to Minnesota after breaking camp. We were so excited to be on the team together because we were such good friends. We were kind of messing around on the plane, elbowing each other and laughing. Tom Kelly came over and said, “What the hell are you two rookies doing playing grab ass over here! You’re lucky to be on this plane. Sit there and shut up!” He kind of rained on our little parade, but that’s the kind of manager he was. He wanted to make sure you stayed humble and always respected the game.
You went on to have a great season and won the 1995 Rookie of the Year Award in a close vote over Garret Anderson. What was it like being recognized like that?
It was really exciting. The season was shorter because of the strike, and it was even shorter for Garret because he didn’t get called up right away. To be honest, if he got called up at the start like me, he would have won it. He only played like three and a half months, and I was a starter from the beginning. His numbers were great. He hit .321 with 16 home runs. I wasn’t too concerned about the award, but it was great to be recognized for my season.
Tanning beds be damned. Marty Cordova.
Your rookie year happened to be Kirby Puckett’s final season. What was it like playing in the outfield with him?
He was a great teammate and such a positive influence on me – such a good guy. He could turn on the charm at any time. It was tough seeing him have to retire because he loved the game so much. That was his life. He was an ambassador for the game and really loved baseball. To see him get glaucoma and start to lose his vision was just terrible. He had at least five more good years in him, maybe more. But he always kept the same positive spirit.
The next year you got to play with another Hall of Famer when Paul Molitor came over. What was it like watching him play every day?
I became really good friends with him. He’s an amazing player and was the smartest player I ever played with. Whether he was noticing pitchers tipping pitches or stealing signs from second, he was so smart. There’s nobody who put more effort into running the bases than he did. That was a serious part of his game.
He was a super generous guy too. He hit a record-breaking double and he gave me the ball. He signed it, “To Marty: Here’s something to shoot for, Paul Molitor.” It was such a cool thing that he would give me something like that. When he was approaching his 3,000th hit, he started to collect the balls. He got to 2,991 and gave me the ball. I still have it today and that’s one of my most treasured things.
I’ve heard stories about Molitor picking up signs and any advantage he could get. That’s unbelievable and great of him too, to share that piece of history with you.
There was one negative story too. Molitor’s 3,000th hit was a triple in Kansas City, and I was up next with one out. Everyone came on the field to congratulate him, and it was a really big moment. All I wanted to do was get him in from third. Sure enough, I chased a high fastball and popped up to the third baseman. Tom Kelly was so pissed. He said something like, “That’s real professional not to get the job done and get him in.” That’s the type of manager he was, we had a love-hate relationship and at times, it was more hate than love. But he was trying to get the best out of you, he just had a unique style that sometimes didn’t mesh well with me.
AL Central legend, Marty Cordova.
Looking back on it now, do you have a different perspective on Tom Kelly as a manager?
After I left, I understood why he did what he did. He was very harsh, especially on young guys. He was even hard on veteran players. He did something to Dave Winfield that I couldn’t believe. He was hitting outfield drills and even Kirby let Winny go first because he was the veteran. It was the first drill of Spring Training. Just an easy drill where he hit the ball towards center, you ran over, did a 360 and hit the cutoff man. It was just a warmup drill.
TK hit it a little hard and it went all the way to the fence. Winny asked him to hit another one. TK took his fungo and hit the ball two fields over and told him to chase it. Winfield asked if he was serious and Kelly said, “Does it look like I’m kidding? Go get that ball.” He made him run two fields over. It set the tone that it doesn’t matter who you are, you’re all part of a team. That was a clear message. Even Kirby was telling him not to go get it, but he did.
Isn’t that awesome? I could see how that would set the tone. You spent 2001 with the Indians during their great run. I look at that roster and it’s amazing the talent that was on that team. What did you think of your time in Cleveland?
It was an All-Star team. I remember I hit in between Juan Gonzalez and Jim Thome. I was like, “Can I keep this lineup card? Nobody will believe me if I told them I hit between Juan Gonzalez and Jim Thome.” It was so nice to be around those guys. They were a good group of veteran guys who won a lot. It was my first experience in playoff baseball but we lost in five games to the Mariners.
I have a couple of non-baseball questions for you. First, you had that appearance on Saturday Night Live in the Baseball Dreams sketch with Chris Kattan and Will Ferrell. How did that come about and what was your experience like being on SNL?
It was a great experience. My agents had accumulated a lot of good players and we used to go out to this Mickey Mantle charity event every year in the winter. Todd Hundley said that he wanted to go to Saturday Night Live, but just to be in the audience. The agents reached out for tickets, and they asked how many players they had. They said maybe we could actually be in a skit. So, he asked us if we’d want to do that and I was like, “Hell yea!”
I got to meet Jack Nicholson and it was just a great experience. The sketch airs live, but you also do a taped rehearsal. The taped rehearsal was perfect. Everyone did their lines perfectly. When it was live, there were a couple of small mess-ups, but you wouldn’t really notice. But it was funny and it all came about just because Todd Hundley asked about going to the show.
That’s absolutely incredible. I also wanted to ask too about your friendship with Dana White and how visible you are around UFC. How did all of that come about?
Dana and I grew up together. Our families are friends and I’ve been tight with him since we were little kids. He’s made a major sport out of nothing and had so many cool opportunities to meet people and he brings me along. I am so proud of him and love hanging out with him doing these fun things. I’ve gotten more calls for being on Hell’s Kitchen with Gordon Ramsay and Dana than I do about playing baseball. I have people coming up to me asking for my autograph because I was on Hell’s Kitchen.
This has been great, and I thank you for all the insight. My last question is open-ended. Do you have any final reflections to leave our readers with?
I think that baseball is trying to evolve, and the younger generation is more into quick entertainment. It’s short consumption of short-form content that holds their interest. Baseball is trying to make the games more lively. It’s been interesting to watch the old-school values mix with that. When I played, you hit a home run and you didn’t even look at the pitcher. Now they’re trying to spice it up more.
I always wonder why it mattered if you celebrated on the field. The pitcher made a mistake and he’s not happy, but he didn’t do his job. When he strikes someone out, he can celebrate; it happened all the time. But when a hitter hit a home run, you’re supposed to just celebrate passively in the dugout. Now, it seems like they’re having more fun.
I think a lot of it has to do with the Latin influence. There was a huge percentage of Latin players when I played and now there’s even more. A lot of the guys who are the face of baseball are Latino and they like to have fun. When you played winter ball in a Latin country, the game was fun. They’re dancing and having a good time enjoying the game, the way life should be.
I hear the guys I played with say, “Back in the day, we didn’t do those kind of things.” I think they sound like a bunch of old guys. At the end of the day, the game is the game and if you could make it more fun while not being disrespectful or rude, why not.