My All-Star experience was divided into two parts: “what a thrill” and “God, why did you put me back out there.”
It may come as news to fans who have either forgotten the past or just started watching baseball during the social media age, but there are other ways for pitchers to get batters out besides velocity.
Movement, location, deception, command and control are all weapons at a pitcher’s disposal and can be even more dangerous than trying to blow a straight 100 MPH fastball past batters.
When it came to control, there was no full-time starting pitcher in the modern era who was better than Bob Tewksbury. Literally.
The man called ‘Tewks’ joins us for this week’s edition of Spitballin’.
In the history of baseball, only 24 pitchers have ever averaged less than 1.5 walks per nine innings. The only modern pitchers in that group are closer Dan Quisenberry, Josh Tomlin, who split time between starting and relieving and Tewksbury who started 277 of the 322 games he appeared in over his career.
The rest of the pitchers on the list consist mostly of Dead Ball Era ghosts from the 1800s like Pud Galvin, John Montgomery Ward, Cherokee Fisher and even Al Spalding. Tewksbury averaged 1.45 walks per nine innings, good for 23rd all-time. He’s nestled between two Hall of Famers on that list: Addie Joss and Cy Young.
Tewksbury won 110 games over a 13-year career in which he didn’t become a full-time starter until he was 29. He made the 1992 All Star Game and finished that season with 16-5 record and 2.16 ERA. He finished third in the NL Cy Young voting in ‘92 behind Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine.
In retirement, Tewksbury has become a highly accomplished mental skills coach after earning a Master’s Degree in Sports Psychology and Counseling from Boston University. He spent more years in Major League Baseball as a Mental Skills Coordinator than he did as a player.
Tewksbury worked with the Red Sox from 2004-2013, an era in which they won three World Series. He also worked in similar roles with the Cubs and Giants. Among the players that Tewksbury is most closely associated are All-Stars Jon Lester, Anthony Rizzo and Andrew Miller.
Tewksbury is also the author of Ninety Percent Mental: An All-Star Player Turned Mental Skills Coach Reveals the Hidden Game of Baseball, which was published through Da Capo Press in 2018.
“It’s a hard game. We were always talking about not being able to make it if we weren’t given the chance. Just give us that chance. If I don’t make it, I’ll be the first to leave and get on with my life.”
He could get in your head as a pitcher and get in your head as a Mental Skills Coordinator, so clear your mind as we go Spitballin’ with Bob Tewksbury.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Tewksbury. Let’s jump right in and start at the beginning. How did you first fall in love with baseball as a kid?
We lived in an apartment complex in Concord, New Hampshire and it was close to a ball field. My mom said I used to just stare out the window when I was a kid and watch them play ball. We moved to a more rural place and I played in the local Little League. It wasn’t really an official Little League, it was more that a community of five towns put some teams together. That’s where it all started.
Did you have any favorite teams or players growing up?
The Red Sox Impossible Dream season was 1967, so that was a part of my childhood. Back then there was no ESPN, so I followed them. My favorite player was definitely Reggie Smith. I liked his batting stance and the way he threw in the outfield. It was just something about the way he played that I really loved.
Was there a time growing up when you thought you could play baseball professionally?
Not growing up or in high school. I was just hoping to grow up and go to college. Nobody in my family had ever even gone to college. I was just hoping I could pitch in college. I went to Rutgers first, but left there and went to St. Leo College in Florida, so I had to redshirt a year. I pitched with the junior varsity. We called ourselves the Killer Bees.
I remember giving up 20 runs in three innings against Manatee Junior College. So, I didn’t think at that moment I was pro material. My next year I pitched well competing against other young people that were draft eligible. In college at some point I figured maybe I could get to the next level, but at no point did I ever have any idea that I’d be able to pitch in the Majors as long as I did.
You started out in the Yankees system and won a spot in the starting rotation as a rookie in 1986. What was your mindset coming into that spring? Did you think you had a shot at the rotation without ever having appeared in an MLB game?
I had a good season in the minors in 1985 and finished in AAA Columbus. One of the reasons I didn’t get called up in September was that I had a groin injury later in the year. I was feeling good about myself and went back to New Hampshire to train in the offseason. I got put on the 40-man roster. My dad was a big Norman Vincent Peale guy with the power of positive thinking. I found a book that he had that said if you see it and believe it, then you could achieve it. I did a lot of imagery and vision stuff in high school, visualizing myself pitching in games.
I said to myself, “What’s the best possible outcome of being in Spring Training?” That was to walk into Lou Piniella’s office and have him tell me I made the team. I drove down to Florida in my 1978 two-toned brown Mercury Zephyr and kept that in my mind the whole time. Every night before I pitched I would take my Walkman and go out on the beach and imagine myself pitching. I ended up pitching 20 consecutive scoreless innings that Spring. A week before camp ended, I got a tap on the shoulder and the clubbie said Lou wanted to see me. I figured I had made the team before that. I pitched 20 scoreless innings and I was a nobody. I went on to win my first start and had a decent rookie year.
The 1986 Yankees had so much talent. What was it like to be a young guy surrounded by so many legends?
It was pretty overwhelming. Dave Winfield was a Hall of Famer. Rickey Henderson was a Hall of Famer. Don Mattingly was incredible [and] had a great career. I took Phil Niekro’s number from the year before and was in the rotation with Joe Niekro on that team. Ken Griffey, Sr. was on that team too. He was really nice to me as was Winfield, so I had some veterans making me feel good.
I was just trying to survive though. I was trying every day to keep my job, then it kind of just becomes the norm. You start to realize that someone like Dave Winfield gets dressed the same as everyone else. But yeah, I do look back at it and think, “Wow!”
You had some early success in the Majors but were traded away for Steve Trout. One of those young Yankees in the 80’s who was shipped for a veteran in a move that didn’t really work. How did you learn about the trade?
It was during the All-Star break. I was out with my now-wife and when we returned back, the bellman at door told me he was listening to WFAN and heard I was traded to the Cubs. I was like, “What?!” I was a little excited about it as I thought it was a good opportunity. I felt overwhelmed in New York and Lou Piniella didn’t really like pitchers; especially ones like me that didn’t throw hard. I was looking for a new beginning. But what I learned was, sometimes the grass isn’t always greener.
The Cubs weren’t a very good team at the time and I pitched poorly. I didn’t know anyone over there either. I had been with the Yankees organization for six years. It was a hard transition. I spent a lot of time in AAA and then in 1988, I had shoulder surgery about halfway through the season.
Yeah, I can see how that can be tough. But you went over to the Cardinals and that’s where you came into your own. The 1992 season when you were an All-Star and finished third in the Cy Young voting really stood out. How did everything come together for you like that in ’92?
I think it was just a combination of being healthy and comfortable in an organization. Look at that defense too. I pitched to contact and behind me I had Terry Pendleton, Ozzie Smith, Jose Oquendo, Ray Lankford, Bernard Gilkey and guys like that. It happened to be the perfect team for me at the right time.
I feel like this is all a great lesson that you have to make the most of the opportunities you get.
That’s really it. Sometimes players on different levels say they never got a chance. Well, they probably did at some point but didn’t take advantage of it. Baseball in the minor leagues is a hard life. It’s a hard game. We were always talking about not being able to make it if we weren’t given the chance. Just give us that chance. If I don’t make it, I’ll be the first to leave and get on with my life. I was able to take my chance and extend it into a nice long career.
That’s a great way to look at it. What was it like to get the call in 1992 that you made the All-Star Game?
The Cardinals were in Los Angeles [before the break] and the All-Star Game was in San Diego. I was leading the league in ERA and was under a 2.00 at the time. Everyone was talking about me making the team. It was great to feel like you were among the best players in the game.
Yes for sure. I looked at that roster and there were 19 Hall of Famers who were All-Stars in 1992. Can you tell us about your experience pitching in the game?
Tom Glavine gave up some runs and then Greg Maddux and David Cone came in after him. I came in after Cone and had a one-two-three inning on like ten pitches. I was like, “Oh God, I am glad I got through that and it’s over.” I went in the dugout and Bobby Cox came over and asked how I was feeling. I told him I was good. He said, “OK, well you got another inning.” I was like, “What? No! Nobody gets two innings in the All-Star Game except the starter. What am I going back out there for?”
So, I go out and the shit hits the fan. I ended up giving up four runs. Ken Griffey, Jr. hit a double, but then I got two outs. Then I gave up a couple more hits and Ruben Sierra hit a changeup for a home run. My All-Star experience was divided into two parts: “what a thrill” and “God, why did you put me back out there.” I talk about that experience in my book. That was one of my hardest moments because I was out there defeated. It was the negative self-talk, the “woe-is-me” mindset.
I wanted to ask about your book and your career as a Mental Skills Coordinator in Major League Baseball. Let’s start with your book, Ninety Percent Mental. What prompted you to write that in 2018?
I kept a lot of notes and journals about hitters as a player and was always diligent about my own scouting reports. When I got done, I had all this information and thought that I would like to write a book. I had no idea the direction it would go, but I thought it was something good to share. I had someone helping to edit at first and then had an agent reach out to me from New York, but we never got the proposal off the ground. We were torn as to whether it was going to be a biography, baseball book or something else. So it stalled.
I have been in that situation before as a writer. What ultimately led to the finished product?
I talked with Rob Kirkpatrick, who was an agent. He worked on a book with Don Maynard and the distance runner Bill Rodgers. I got a call on a cold December night in New Hampshire that he wanted to kick around the book idea, but that we needed to find a co-writer. I said that I already had the name of the book, Ninety Percent Mental, and that we needed to find a baseball writer. I wanted it to be a baseball narrative, not a self-help or coaching book.
We found Scott Miller, who I knew from the Twins. He’s a great guy and a good writer. We wrote the proposal and sold it. It was the third attempt at doing this and it was something I had no idea what I was getting into. But I knew we had a talented writer and Rob’s vision. It turned out to be a really good thing because 90% of my clients now come from people who read the book.
How would you summarize the book for our readers?
A friend of mine described it as a success book with a baseball background and I thought that was a great compliment. I talk about my career and struggles very openly. I talk about the All-Star Game, injuries and surgeries I went through. Then it delves into my work with players like Rich Hill, Andrew Miller, Jon Lester, Anthony Rizzo and others. A lot of it goes back to the 2016 Cubs season.
Rizzo was a minor leaguer in Boston when I was there. Andrew Miller was in Boston with me and so was Rich Hill. The book talks about how they use their mental skills to help with their success. The book makes the point to normalize that Major League players struggle and it’s OK to do so.
That’s great. I love learning about the mental side of sports. Is there one player who stands out who you felt like you really helped along the way?
I wrote about it in the book, but I would say Jon Lester. I think he’s the biggest one I can say that about and it’s pretty well documented. There is a chapter in my book about imagery and Jon never practiced that as a young player. In 2013 we talked in Oakland just before the All-Star break about how important imagery was. I made Jon an imagery program that he could listen to before games. He started using it then and still uses it to this day as part of his pregame routine. He had a great postseason in 2013 and I can’t say that was the difference maker, but I know it didn’t hurt him.
Absolutely. I am sure that made a difference. This has been incredibly interesting and I always enjoy talking with people I watched playing as a kid. My last question to you is open-ended. What final reflections about baseball would you like to leave our readers with?
If I was commissioner for a day, I’d change a lot of things about baseball. Joe Torre said it best when he said that the game has a pulse. It has a heartbeat. You can’t take that away and I think that’s what analytics is trying to do now. I’ll be frank, I am not a fan of a lot of the rule changes in place. Look at the rule regarding sliding into second base. That was implemented because the shortstop at the time made a bad turn. I didn’t think it was a dirty play. When they start changing rules like that, it changes the sport. I think baseball has been neutered. You can’t break things up around second base like you used to. Players used to take pride in that kind of stuff and managers would be out there arguing. It would fire people up.
I’m not a fan of instant replay, either. One of the reasons we play sports is because it teaches you about life. It teaches you discipline. Life isn’t always fair. Look at the 1985 World Series with the Cardinals and Royals. That wasn’t fair. I think there’s a valuable lesson in that though and now because of replay, those lessons aren’t there anymore. With the analytics, it’s really not that much fun to watch anymore. I probably haven’t watched 18 innings all year. I just don’t have the interest in it.
I’m OK with the rules at home plate with the catchers. I’ve seen Ray Lankford just kill some people at home plate and they’re kind of defenseless. It fired us all up, but that poor catcher can’t defend himself. That’s different. But the other changes, my opinion is that I don’t think they’re good for the game. Where’s the hit and run? I remember pitching against the Pirates back in the day. Jay Bell would hit and run all the time and you’d have to pitch around that. That strategy made games interesting. I know, I sound like one of those guys who is long in the tooth. I do love baseball and I just hope that one day it will come back around to some semblance of the sport it used to be.