Replay: Desi Relaford
"I saw tears in the stands. I saw joy. I saw relief. It was just an incredible memory."
Whenever you see a montage of the iconic home runs throughout Major League Baseball history, you’ll almost always see Bobby Thomson’s pennant clincher for the Giants, Joe Carter’s walkoff in the 1993 World Series and Bill Mazeroski’s shot against the Yankees in 1960.
With all due respect to those gentlemen, none of those home runs had an impact quite like Mike Piazza’s home run did on September 21, 2001.
Desi Relaford, an 11-year Major League veteran, had perhaps the best view of anyone in the country for that home run as he was on first base representing the tying run when Piazza connected for his game-winning shot against the Braves just ten days after America was attacked on 9/11.
Relaford joins us this week for Spitballin’ on the 19th anniversary of 9/11 to discuss the events of that day, his role in one of the most meaningful home runs in Major League history and different things he took from his experiences playing for seven different teams in his career.
We even get into his one dream inning when he was finally given the opportunity to pitch in a Major League game and the impact that had on his career.
So, join us as we go Spitballin’ with Desi Relaford and remember those who were lost on this date 19 years ago.
Peninsula Pilots' Desi Relaford, at 18, is the youngest player in the Carolina League.
Thanks for joining us today, Mr. Relaford. This is a special edition of Spitballin’ to us as we were all affected by the events on 9/11 19 years ago today. Let’s start at the beginning though. You were a great athlete growing up and were drafted as a 17-year old in the fourth round of the 1991 draft. What led you to choose baseball over other sports?
Growing up it was mainly football and baseball. We all played other sports, pretty much everything, in the sandlots, but as far as organized sports, it was baseball and football. I stopped playing football around eighth grade, but I missed it and went back my senior year of high school.
It was awesome and I did really well playing both sides of the ball. But I just hated football practice,
I didn’t like coming home from practice with headaches and all of the other stuff that comes with playing such a physical sport.
I never went home from a baseball practice with headaches like that. I was like 150 pounds as a senior and my body was already betraying me with football.
I had to stick to where I could go and compete without getting killed, so the decision was pretty easy to choose baseball.
“ I had all these people wanting me for their teams or schools or on the business level.”
You were a great scholastic baseball player growing up in Florida and had accepted a scholarship to play at Tennessee before the Mariners drafted you out of high school. Was it a hard decision to make passing up the University of Tennessee to go play in the minors?
That was a very exciting time, it would be in anyone’s life. Being a kid, I had dreams of playing some type of sport at the highest level and in 1991 for me, it was baseball.
I worked hard and Tennessee took notice and they gave me a scholarship. But then not long after Seattle drafted me in the fourth round. I was going through workouts and practices and doing well in games, and then coming home every day to two or three letters from colleges that wanted me.
I would have scouts stop by and would get telephone calls from different organizations. It was just awesome.
Everyone likes to feel wanted, right? You want to be wanted. It was one of the first times where, outside of my family, I had all these people wanting me for their teams or schools or on the business level. On top of all that though, I had the chance to play something that I played my whole life and loved and now I was getting paid for it.
That’s just amazing.
Second baseman Desi Relaford #12 of the Kansas City Royals takes a swing as he poses during photo day on February 27, 2004 at Surprise Stadium in Surprise, Arizona.
That really is. You got to live the dream of millions of kids who grew up playing ball. You played for seven teams in 11 seasons. Do you any favorite cities or specific teams that stand out as your favorite?
I’m the kind of guy who will enjoy it wherever I am at and make the best of things. There’s something from each city and each team that’s special. Like Seattle, it was a really cool city, very pretty with a lot to do there.
The fans were awesome and we had a good team. They were the team that drafted me, so that pulls at my sentimental strings too.
My favorite team I played on was in Kansas City in 2003.
It was just a great group of guys. We were a bunch of nobodies at the time and weren’t supposed to be good.
We ended up playing really well that year and it was a lot of fun.
But New York really stands out to me. I played well there, and you know, it’s New York. They showed me a lot of love there and a lot of memorable things happened.
Obviously, we had everything around 9/11, but my first son was born that year too. It was like my breakout in the big leagues, even though I had been around for a few years. Just being in New York and taking it all in. I loved it.
Before we get into 9/11 and then the game at Shea Stadium ten days later, let’s start with some fun. You remain a Mets legend by turning in the best pitching performance by any position player in team history. You were serious out there on the mound and throwing over 90. Did you have a pitching background and was that something you wanted to do?
Oh man! Yes, my background is pitching, I pitched my whole life. I actually always considered myself a pitcher first, but I also was a good shortstop and could hit a little bit. When I graduated high school, I was only about 5’6” and nobody is looking for that in a pitcher, even if I did throw 90.
But to be honest, that’s my career highlight.
I had been begging people to let me pitch for my entire career. I’d be sitting there during blowouts and thinking it could be my chance.
Even in the minors, I would ask to pitch but they would tell me I was a prospect and they couldn’t afford me getting hurt.
Even Bobby [Valentine], when he put me in, he said, “Look, we don’t want anyone getting hurt out there.”
Desi Relaford of the New York Mets fields against the Philadelphia Phillies at Shea Stadium on May 28, 2001 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images)
So, what are you thinking when he comes to you to put you in the game?
Well, we were playing San Diego and were just getting blasted. It was 15-3 and he came down to the end of the bench and asked me when the last time I pitched was. I said it had been about ten years, but I work on my stuff every day. And I did! I developed a pretty good change up over those ten years.
Then he turned to Todd Zeile and asked him when the last time he pitched was. Zeile said he could go in there and throw knuckleballs and I was like, “Hey! Don’t let this guy go in there, you can’t let him pitch.
I’m your guy and I’m not gonna hurt myself out there. Let me go down to the bullpen.” So, he said alright and that was it.
Well, I came in and got out the side in order in about 13 pitches. Even had a strikeout and got some swings and misses.
I was touching 91 or 92 and Shea Stadium had a slow gun. I swear! Everywhere we went, Armando Benitez would throw 99 or 100 but at Shea he threw 96. I’m telling you, it’s a slow gun. Not blowing my own horn, but I was legit out there. I was mixing speeds and throwing to both sides of the plate.
What did Bobby Valentine or your teammates have to say about that performance?
When I came off the field, Al Leiter came to me and was like, “That was freaking awesome dude!”
He was genuinely impressed and that felt good.
There was a Major League pitcher, a really good one, who was impressed by my pitching. Then Bobby came to me and said, “You know, we’re a little short in the bullpen and I want you to start doing some bullpens with Charlie Hough in case you have to come in again. We want you to have good mechanics and not hurt yourself.”
It was awesome; I was a true utility guy now, something I always wanted.
Except catching, I wasn’t going back there to catch.
A couple weeks later we were in Philly and I had just played for them the past five years. It was like a five-run ballgame and Bobby told me to go warm up.
I ran to the bullpen, was all excited, throwing like crazy and then the bullpen phone rings. Turk Wendell was on the mound and they said if he didn’t get this batter out, I was coming in.
My heart was beating out of my chest and I was just so excited. Then this jerk gets a ground ball double play! He’s not a jerk at all, but at that point, he was. I wanted to get in there but missed my chance.
That was really cool.
That pitching appearance came in May. Four months later the attacks on 9/11 happened. The Mets were in Pittsburgh at the time. How did you find out what was happening in the country?
I had a bunch of messages on my phone and the first one I heard was from a friend of mine who was in Korea playing baseball.
He just said, “Hey man, I see they’re blowing shit up in New York, call me back.”
I was just like, “What’s he talking about?”
Then the next one was from my dad.
He said, “I’m just calling to see if you’re OK with everything going on.”
So, I finally turned the TV on, and I see the towers and everything.
I thought, “Man, is this a movie? Is this another country? This can’t be happening here.”
It was just shocking and surreal, and no one really knew what to do. Our hotel was next to a Federal building in downtown Pittsburgh and they moved us to the outskirts of town to some raggedy Ramada Inn and then back to New York.
An unidentified New York City firefighter walks away from Ground Zero after the collapse of the Twin Towers September 11, 2001 in New York City. The World Trade Center's Twin Towers and the Pentagon were attacked by terrorists using commercial airliners as missiles. (Photo by Anthony Correia/Getty Images)
What was that like? To take that bus ride back and get back to the city after it had been attacked?
You got back there and saw the city and what was going on and it was just like, man. I was talking to people and feeling how crushed and scared and uncertain they were. Nothing like that had ever happened so it was scary.
It was a helpless feeling too because you see people that need help.
The world has literally crumbled around you and you’re thinking, “What can you do?”
You feel so helpless.
But we did little things where we collected and handed out food. We donated money out of our paychecks and did whatever little thing we could do to give back.
It was all very appreciated by New Yorkers, especially the families of victims, that’s for sure. Then ten days later, you’re asked to go out and play the Braves in the first pro sports event in New York after the attacks. I can’t even imagine what that was like.
That game was seen as like a saving grace. People needed to get away for a little bit.
Even if it was just a few hours, people got a little sense of normalcy.
There was all kind of security, but nobody knew if Shea was going to get bombed or if something was going to happen though.
But that game, that night, that was so much bigger than a game.
You know, the feeling in the stadium that night was incredible.
There was just so much love and electricity.
The players on our teams, the fans even the umpires and photographers. Even the Braves.
We’re competitive and we don’t like each other, but I don’t think anyone on the Braves was too upset that they lost that night.
The sentiment that you heard from everyone was that we forgot about all the bad things for a little while.
People in New York were entertained for the first time since the attacks and maybe even inspired.
I look at it as, you know, it’s just baseball. I’m just playing baseball. But when you step back and look at it, the effect it had on people, it really was more than a baseball game.
New York Mets Mike Piazza and Desi Relaford in action vs Atlanta Braves, Flushing, NY 9/21/2001
It absolutely was more than a game, especially considering the way you won it on a dramatic home run by a beloved Hall of Fame player. You were on first base for Mike Piazza’s home run and represented the tying run. Did you have that tingling feeling that something special was about to happen?
Well you know, whenever Mike was in the box something special could happen. But yes, it just seemed like it was the right moment.
The right person in the right spot. The face of the franchise.
He had a chance to win the game and I’m sure there were quite a few people who were calling for that homer or wishing for it that say they knew it would happen.
They wanted Mike to come out and do what he did, and he stepped up on the grandest stage.
We play 162 games and it’s not that each one doesn’t mean something, they all do, but that’s a lot of games.
But that night, to those 40,000 people there plus everyone else, that game meant more than just winning one game.
I saw tears in the stands. I saw joy. I saw relief. It was just an incredible memory.
That gives me chills talking about all of that and every time I watch the replay of that game or that home run. It’s amazing that you were a part of that and probably had the best view in the house, looking right in from first base. Absolutely incredible. For a final question I like to ask our former players if they have any final thoughts to leave our readers with about your career?
That could be a whole book to itself.
But you know, the further away from the game I am the more I relish the career I had.
I say to myself, “You know, I wasn’t the greatest player in the sport, but I played in the Majors for 11 years.”
I hung around for a little while and you know what? I did alright. I’ll put it this way, I got into coaching and was in the Reds organization.
I was in Spring Training and looking around and there were like hundreds of guys out there and they’re all trying to make a 25-man team.
It just seemed impossible, but I did it. It’s something to be proud of.
It’s just a small group of guys who get the be a part of playing in the Majors and I did it for a while. It’s something that as more time passes, I get a little more proud that I made it.