Every friggin’ moment I spent in the Major Leagues I appreciated being there.
Too often in today’s baseball world, a cookie-cutter approach is pushed in many aspects of the game.
You want to hit home runs? Swing this way. You want to have success on the mound? Pitch that way. You want to make it to the Majors? Start specialized training early, shell out a boatload of your hard-earned money for “elite” travel teams, get your scholarship to a baseball power and get drafted.
The truth is, there is no “one stop shop” for success on the diamond and there never has been. Players are unique and take different paths in their careers.
Evidence of that can be seen in the career of pitcher Mike Trombley.
The 11-year veteran joins us for this week’s edition of Spitballin’.
Trombley grew up in Western Massachusetts, not exactly ripe with professional baseball prospects the way Southern California is. He went 6-22 as a starting pitcher at Duke University and didn’t have that blazing fastball that makes scouts drool. Trombley was more focused on academics, with a career in professional baseball not even a thought in his mind.
However, the Twins saw something they liked and chose him in the 14th round of the 1989 draft. The great thing about baseball is that if you can produce positive results and take advantage of the opportunities given to you, it doesn’t matter where you were drafted.
Trombley had success in the minors and just three years after being drafted, he got the call to the Majors; he stuck around and pitched in over 500 games, most coming with the Minnesota Twins.
Mike Trombley has a deep appreciation for baseball history and truly cherished his time in the Majors. He’s got a few opinions about the game that he’s not shy about sharing either.
Let’s walk down the road less traveled as we go Spitballin’ with Mike Trombley.
“I don’t even know how I threw a friggin’ strike. I don’t have any idea how the ball went over the plate. Anyone who tells you they weren’t nervous their first Big League game is lying.”
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Trombley. I appreciate you taking the time to talk with us. First, let’s go back to when you were a kid. How did you get your start playing baseball? Did you have a favorite team growing up?
I was just like any normal kid growing up in Western Massachusetts. Like every boy, you grow up playing a bunch of sports but I’ve always loved baseball. I grew up a huge Red Sox fan. My dad was a Red Sox fan and really, so was my whole family. My dad Ray loved baseball history. He took that love of baseball history and passed it on to me. I am a big baseball history guy too and that is because of my dad.
As you grew up playing baseball, was there ever a point where you thought you could pursue a professional career in the sport?
I really don’t mean this is any sort of humble way, but this is the absolute truth. I was never in a position that I ever thought I could ever play baseball professionally. It wasn’t ever an option for me until much later. Western Massachusetts isn’t a hotbed for professional baseball players. I think I am the only one who has ever made it from my hometown.
You played collegiately at Duke, which wasn’t a baseball power back then. Can you talk about your time there?
I ended up at Duke almost by accident. I had some success there, just not in wins and losses, I got better and matured during my time there. It was a blessing in disguise because I was never someone who could put all my eggs in one basket with being a pro baseball player. I went to Duke as a student first. I did get recruited there and earned a baseball scholarship, but by no means was I thinking I would play baseball professionally.
At Duke, we were in a tough situation. We didn’t have as many scholarships as other ACC powerhouse schools like North Carolina, Georgia Tech or Clemson. My college record was 6-22 and my sophomore year I think we went 10-35. We weren’t very good, but I had a great experience there. I met my wife there and loved everything about the school.
How did you make that jump then to becoming a pro baseball prospect?
After my sophomore year I played in the Cape Cod League for the Falmouth Commodores and by that point I thought, “Jeez, I am probably going to get drafted or signed out of here.” Because I wasn’t a big prospect, I thought if I was going to make it, I really had to go all out, work harder and prepare more. I wanted to do stuff that maybe other guys weren’t doing. I didn’t have that 95 MPH fastball and I wasn’t going to be a first round pick. That’s why I always say it was a blessing in disguise. It forced me to work harder.
All of that being said, what was your mindset going into the 1989 Draft?
Going into the draft, I had put up some good numbers, just not with wins and losses. I think I was second in the ACC in strikeouts. I was kind of the big fish in a not-so-good pond. Duke is pretty damn good at baseball now, but not when I was there. I didn’t have any expectations going into the draft. I didn’t know if I’d be picked in the 14th round, 8th round or 20th round. I had a feeling I would be drafted though, but no real expectations.
Pitcher Mike Trombley of the Minnesota Twins in action during a spring training game against the Boston Red Sox at the City of Palms Park in Fort Myers, Florida. Credit: David Seelig / Allsport
What was it like joining the Twins organization as they were starting to enjoy their first success in about 20 years?
They were very good in the early 90s. They won the World Series in 1987 and 1991, but by the time I got to the Majors in 1992, they were ending that run. Because they weren’t in the pennant race when I was there, they weren’t going out and signing these big free agents the way the Yankees and Red Sox did. They wanted to give young guys a chance. I had to pitch well and stay injury-free and be a good teammate.
When I was there, they gave a lot of young guys second and third chances, which worked out great for me because I needed that. I wasn’t a huge prospect. Tom Kelly was my manager and I thought he was great with young guys. The situation the Twins were in allowed me to establish myself a little bit.
You went 43-24 over your first few years in the minors and progressed steadily through the Twins system. What was it like when you finally got that call to the Majors?
I was extremely excited because I was such a late bloomer. I got drafted when I was 21 and made the Majors when I was 24. I did really well in the minors and was lucky to play on some great teams in the minors. I was on a single A team in Visalia with guys like Chuck Knoblauch, Pat Mahomes, Rich Garces, Scott Erikson and some other guys. I think nine guys from that team made the majors. I was very fortunate to be in a real good minor league system.
I pitched well and moved up each year, so I saw the writing on the wall [about being called up]. But in the back of my mind I always had that doubt. I always wondered, “Is this really gonna happen?” I am a kid from Western Massachusetts and all of a sudden was this really gonna happen to me? I never thinking I was going to make a million dollars or anything like that. I just thought, “Wow, this is it. It’s pretty cool.” I was so excited to get the call.
Mike Trombley #28 of the Baltimore Orioles winds back to pitch the ball during the game against the Detroit Tigers at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Maryland. The Orioles defeated the Tigers 2-1.
You made your MLB debut against the Indians in a relief appearance. What do you remember most about that?
I think about it now and laugh. I was so nervous. I was a starter in the minor leagues and I came up because Paul Abbott got hurt. Tom Kelly was great with handling young players, so he gave me a couple of games out of the pen to let me dip my toe in the water. He didn’t want to throw me to the wolves right away. I remember my first time warming up in the old Cleveland Stadium. It wasn’t the prettiest stadium in the world, but for me that night it was the Roman Coliseum.
I remember my legs shaking so bad on the mound that I thought a balk was going to be called! I laugh when I talk to young kids about it now. I don’t even know how I threw a friggin’ strike. I don’t have any idea how the ball went over the plate. Anyone who tells you they weren’t nervous their first Big League game is lying.
That’s great! You got through the inning unscathed too, pitching to guys like Carlos Baerga and Kenny Lofton.
It was really special. The Indians had some really good players at that time. I was there in the Majors pitching against all the big names. Just a few years before as a kid I was flipping through their baseball cards. I think back on how thankful I was to be a Major Leaguer. Every friggin’ moment I spent in the Major Leagues I appreciated being there.
After those first few relief appearance you made your first Major League start against the Tigers, who had a ton of great hitters in the lineup. You had an amazing start to that game. Can you tell our readers about that?
After Tom Kelly let me get my feet wet out of the bullpen, I got my first start. I didn’t have a 95 MPH fastball, but I had a really good slider. For a young pitcher that the hitters don’t know, that worked out great. I ended up striking out the first six batters of the game. I think after three innings I had a perfect game. I laughed and said to myself, “Damn, this is easy!” I didn’t realize what I was in for the rest of the game.
We had a lead and they clawed their way back into the game and then they started hitting me around pretty good. After the game, Dan Gladden came up to me. He was playing with the Tigers, but was on the Twins the five years before. He took me aside and said that they knew every pitch that was coming after the third inning. I was tipping my pitches.
Mike Trombley #40 of the Los Angeles Dodgers is pictured during the Dodgers media day at at their spring training facility in Vero Beach, Florida. DIGITAL IMAGE.
Wow, that’s pretty amazing an opponent would come out and tell you that.
Dan interviewed me for a radio show in Minnesota and I told him that story. I always kept my index finger out of the glove and they saw that I would move it off my glove on certain pitches. That was the last game I ever pitched with my finger out of the glove.
But I thought it was pretty cool how Dan came over and said that to me. Maybe because he played with the Twins all those years and he wanted to help a young guy out. Usually you never tell anyone. You just abuse them and things go around the Majors pretty quick.
You pitched 11 years in the Majors during an era with so many great players. Did you have guys you look back at now and see influential to you or guys that you particularly enjoyed playing with?
I was so fortunate to be with the Twins. The Twins had such great players. We had Kirby Puckett of course and he was just Mr. Baseball. He was one of the best baseball guys you could ever meet. Kent Hrbek, Dave Winfield, Terry Steinbach and Paul Molitor were great too. Rick Aguilera and Greg Swindell were influential to me because pitchers are going to make a bigger impact on other pitchers.
Rick Aguilera really helped me out though. I went back to the minors in 1994 and 1995 and I had to figure something out because it wasn’t working for me. I started throwing a split-finger fastball again. Rick really helped me out. He not only showed me how to throw it, but how to use it. I really give him a lot of credit. He not only helped me pitching-wise, but also with the mental side of it. Rick was a closer and I was the setup guy. He spent a lot of time with a lot of the guys. He was such a regular guy and so humble for being so good. He spent a lot of time with me because we both threw that split.
You mentioned before that you really loved baseball history. Can you tell me about any great memories of meeting stars from previous generations when you were playing?
I was like a kid in a candy store. In Spring Training one year I saw Harmon Killebrew and Tony Oliva. I thought to myself, “Man, that’s the freaking Killer right there!” Early in my career we went to Yankee Stadium for Old Timers Day when Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle were still around. I was always so in awe of those guys. I’m such a big fan of baseball history that I always really enjoyed stuff like that. I played for the Orioles for a couple of years, so I got to be around Cal Ripken and his dad. Jim Palmer too. Getting to watch Nolan Ryan warm up before a game in Texas was really cool. I can go on and on.
That’s awesome. I love hearing about how players reflect on the legends they either played with or against or guys they met along the way. It’s great to see people appreciate the game’s history.
People ask me all the time what I am most proud of for my career and I always say it’s that I never took anything for granted and I enjoyed every damn minute of it. I didn’t know if I was going to last ten years in the Majors or one day, so I always tried to enjoy it. I would always think to myself, “Wow, I am on the same field as Roger Clemens or Barry Bonds or Paul Molitor.” I remember being at an Old Timers Game in Anaheim and seeing Bob Gibson. I have a great story with Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva and my son too.
Excellent, please share it if you don’t mind!
My son was born in 1997 and I brought him to the clubhouse in Spring Training one year. This was shortly after I was done playing. I was just out of the game, but I wanted to bring my son over to say hello. Tony Oliva and Harmon asked if this was my son and I said it was. They took him into another room and I started to follow. Killebrew said, “Dad, we don’t need you in here.”
They were teaching him how to hold the bat and how to stand in the box. I’m thinking to myself, “Wow, if my son only knew this was Tony Oliva and Harmon Killebrew.” This was of course before cell phones, but I wish I had a picture of that.
That’s absolutely incredible! I wanted to ask about your thoughts on the game today. Do you still watch and what do you think of the way the game evolved?
I’m in Red Sox country and can’t help but watch, I don’t find myself watching a lot of games, but I watch from time to time. There are certain guys and certain pitchers that I really enjoy watching. It’s a great game, but I think it’s going through a transition period. I think it’ll figure itself out but I think they’re making some mistakes.
Look at the shift. This is just my opinion, but I think they should leave the shift alone. The hitters will eventually figure it out. If they hit the ball the other way, they’ll get on base. I would rather just let it play out than make more rules about it. The game always evolves. It always has and always will, but you don’t have to force it with these drastic changes. Slowly but surely, people will learn to hit again and be able to go the other way instead of just trying to hit home runs.
Do you have any thoughts on some of the other rule changes?
Well, if the games are too long, why all the replays? The one thing I always loved about baseball was the human element of it. Now, do I want my team to get screwed by a bad call in the World Series? Of course not. But hey, that’s part of it. I think the game was built on two guys having a beer after the game with one guy saying, “He was out!” and the other one yelling that he was safe. That’s great stuff. Some of the other stuff like moving the mound back and universal DH I am against, but that’s just my opinion.
I have to agree with you on all of that! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk; this has been great. My last question for you is open-ended and I just ask if you have any final reflections about baseball that you’d like to leave our readers with.
Maybe I shouldn’t go down this road, but I never liked all the anger surrounding the Hall of Fame. It’s my biggest pet peeve. By no means am I a Hall of Famer, not even remotely close, so maybe I shouldn’t even bring it up. I’m not in a position to say who should be in and who shouldn’t, but I think if they’re going to keep people out of the Hall of Fame for certain reasons, whether it’s steroids, drugs or whatever, they should judge everyone the same. I was a huge Roger Clemens fan growing up and I think the Hall of Fame is such an awesome thing. Barry Bonds too. It’s almost like we’re picking on those guys because they were so great.
If Barry Bonds doesn’t break the home run record and hits, say 510 home runs instead of over 700, would he be treated the way he is now? It’s almost like everyone is attacking them because they were so freaking good. I’m not a doctor and can’t say what people should and shouldn’t be taking or what should be legal, but I just think everyone should be treated the same and they aren’t. It’s like if we went out and committed a crime and the police attack you more than they attack me for whatever reason. I just think there’s a lot of great players out there who should be included and it’s only certain guys who are being held under a microscope. It’s just my opinion, but all those guys are guilty of is being really, really good.