"I just love the sport and always have."
As fans, we recognize that sports often plays a role larger than what happens on playing fields across America. Sports can unite (or divide) families, bring communities together and create moments that foster a connection between competition and history.
When America suffered the harshest cruelty of this generation, the attacks on our country on September 11, sports were there to play their role in helping to pick up the pieces and help regain a sense of normalcy.
Major League Baseball and in particular, the Mets and Yankees, were front and center during that time and 20 years later, we still remember and salute the efforts teams made at that time.
Glendon Rusch, a starting pitcher on the Mets in 2001, joins us for this week’s Spitballin’ to reflect on his career, including the surreal moments from that fateful time in September.
Drafted out of high school by the Royals in 1993 after a fantastic senior year at Shorecrest High School in Washington, Rusch was in the Majors by the age of 22.
After going 26-14 with a 2.70 ERA in Single A, Rusch made the leap to AAA in 1996 where he continued to thrive. The following Spring, he was in a crowded competition for a spot in the Royals rotation.
Rusch made the team and after spending the first few games waiting in the bullpen as a long man, manager Bob Boone gave him a start against the Twins. After a rocky first inning, Rusch retired the next 19 batters he faced. When all was said and done, he pitched 8 innings of four-hit ball and didn’t allow an earned run.
Rusch went on to pitch for six teams over a 12-year career, but will forever be remembered by Mets fans as a starter on their 2000 World Series team and the 2001 team, which history will remember as a team that transcended the sport.
Let’s go Spitballin’ with Glendon Rusch as we reflect not only on his career, but the role that he and the Mets played 20 years ago in helping our nation heal.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Rusch. That was a great ceremony you were involved with at Citi Field on the 20th anniversary of 9/11. I wanted to ask about that, but first let’s start with your career. Going back to your childhood, how did you get your start playing baseball as a kid?
I’m 12 and 14 years younger than my two brothers, so I was a little ballpark rat whenever they were playing baseball or basketball. I was just always at the park playing wiffle ball. I just love baseball mainly because of how much they both played.
Did you have any favorite players or teams growing up in Washington?
We watched the Mariners a lot and eventually they were my favorite American League team. In the National League, I rooted for the Braves because they were on nationally on TBS. Two of my favorite players growing up though were Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry. Those Mets teams were always on and that’s when I was like 11 and 12 years old. I loved those guys. I wore number 18 for Strawberry all the way through high school and all the way through the minors until I got to the Majors. The only reason I stopped was because Johnny Damon had it already.
Those were great times. I’m the same age as you and even though I was a huge Mets fans, I really loved watching all players from that era.
For sure. Then as I got older Ken Griffey came on the scene and Randy Johnson too, so of course I followed them close being from the Seattle area. I still loved the Braves too with Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, Steve Avery and all those guys. But for sure, Strawberry was my number one guy as a kid.
You had a great career as a high school pitcher. Was there a time where you thought you might have a shot at pro ball?
I didn’t really get into that until the Spring of my senior year. As a younger player in high school, I was just hoping to play in college somewhere. The summer before my senior year scouts started coming around and I was going to more invitation camps with Major League scouts too.
The beginning of my senior year, the University of Washington gave me a scholarship to come play there. I was ecstatic and happy as can be and then as the draft approached, there was a chance that I would be drafted. At that time, I wanted to play baseball full time. I wasn’t a huge college guy so I really felt that full-time baseball would be my best option.
“It probably gets more exciting each time I watch it just because of the enormity of the moment. I think about what happened to all those people, all those fans, anyone who had lost loved ones, the first responders and their families.”
You were drafted by the Royals and had a really good minor league career. Going into the spring of 1997, you were in contention with a few others for a spot on the Opening Day roster. What was your mindset that Spring?
I was about as young and naïve as you can get. In my head, the furthest thing from reality was making the team out of Spring Training. That was my first Major League camp as a 22-year-old kid. I just went in and did my thing. I was oblivious to any media reporting and wasn’t reading what went on behind the scenes. I just went in and did my job and tried to learn from the veterans like Jeff Montgomery and Tim Belcher. By the end of Spring Training, the manager Bob Boone told me I was going to make the club. That was pretty incredible.
You had a pretty incredible first start. Your final line was 8 IP, 0 ER, 4 H and at one point retired 19 straight. Take us through that first start.
I was nervous sitting out in the bullpen the first three games of the season in Baltimore. They put me out there at first in case they needed a long man. It’s probably more nerve-racking when you don’t get in the game. You just sit there wondering when the time’s going to come.
My brother Rob flew all the way in on a red-eye from Seattle for my first start. He was the only one there from my family because of the late notice. I was nervous warming up and going into the first, but I got settled and got in a groove. The Twins had a good lineup. Mike Sweeney was catching and we were working well together. We had come up through the system together so we had a good level of comfort with each other. It was a great first start.
At the end of the 1999 season, you were traded to the Mets. How did you find out about the trade and was that a surprise to you?
It was a total surprise. The trade happened in September and nobody really gets traded then. I was actually supposed to be the starting pitcher that day for the Royals on the back end of a doubleheader. I got the call that I had been traded to the Mets and packed my bags and went right to the airport for a flight to Denver. By game time, I was in a Mets uniform out in the bullpen in Colorado.
The Royals had struggled when you were there and the 2000 Mets had high expectations. What was it like that first Spring Training with the Mets?
It echoed my 1997 Spring Training with Kansas City except there was the bright lights and the big city of New York. I was trying to make the team and there was only one spot open in the rotation. There were four guys battling for that one spot. I jumped right in, worked hard and went about my business. I just wanted to have an opportunity to make the team. If I didn’t, it wasn’t the end of the world. They had traded for me so I figured they’d use me at some point in the season.
I had a good Spring and Bobby V and the coaches were confident that I could handle the job. I didn’t get a start until a pretty good way into the season though because the Mets didn’t need a fifth starter. I started one of the exhibition games in Japan and I pitched an exhibition game in AAA. Then my first start got snowed out, so I didn’t start for a while.
You had your first chance to pitch in the postseason with the 2000 Mets. You were always known as a guy who was calm and in control. How do you stay that way when the pressure is high in a postseason in New York?
The year before I was with the team, but not active for the postseason. But I was watching those guys that playoff run. I wasn’t participating, but I learned that you have to try to keep everything under control and focused. You have to look at it like a regular season game, but everything is on the line. In 2000, they put me in the bullpen for the postseason which was new to me. I hadn’t really made many relief appearances in the Big Leagues at that point. I adapted as best I could and tried to be ready every day.
That was the year of the Subway Series, which was incredible to experience in New York. The Yankees were a powerhouse and you guys were a Wild Card team. What was the team’s mindset going into the 2000 World Series?
I would say we were quietly confident as we could be. We felt like we were playing at the height of how well we played all year coming off the Giants and Cardinals playoff series. Bobby Jones had pitched a one-hitter. Mike Hampton and Al Leiter had been pitching great. Rick Reed too. Going into the Series, we felt like we had as good a chance to win as they did.
Game 1 really hurt us losing in extra innings. For me, what changed that Series is the Yankees bullpen. Mike Stanton, Jeff Nelson and Mariano in particular. Once they got the lead that was it. We lost four games by a total of five runs. All the games were real close.
You mentioned Game 1, which the Yankees won in 12 innings. You played a key role in that game, coming on in relief. After a wild pitch, it was second and third with no outs with the game on the line and you ended up getting out of it. You ended up pitching one and two-thirds scoreless innings. Can you take us through that performance?
We had Joe McEwing in left field and he was playing Little League distance. He was about 200 feet away so he could throw a guy out at home. Anything deep, the game was over. I got one in on Tino Martinez and jammed him. He hit a perfect short fly ball. McEwing had to run in for it, so it wasn’t even 200 feet.
We ended up walking Posada, which was smart. He swung the bat well against left-handed pitching. Then I got Paul O’Neill to hit into a double play. It was a Houdini act. I felt like I was walking on clouds coming off the field. I tell people that Bobby M. Jones and Pat Mahomes jumped over the rail at Yankee Stadium and almost met me at the foul line. They were so pumped.
That’s some amazing pitching against some incredibly clutch hitters. I had some questions too about the next season and the events around 9/11. The Mets played a huge role in helping the city during that time. Let’s first start with the morning of 9/11. Can you take us through your own experience?
We had come up from Florida and were in Pittsburgh. We had an off day on Monday and were just hanging out. Some of the guys went out for dinner and were watching Monday Night Football. The next morning, I got a call from my wife Kelly. Like everyone else’s story, she told me to put on the TV because a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I watched the second plane hit live. She was scared, I was scared; nobody knew what was going on.
My wife’s friend from California was in town visiting. We were away, so the day before they spent the whole day in Manhattan. They were right down there next to the Trade Center on September 10 to do some sightseeing. Thank God they were there one day earlier.
Wow, that’s unbelievable. What happened with the team at that point?
We were staying at a hotel in Pittsburgh and they packed our stuff and got us out of there. They took us to a different hotel out in the suburbs and we regrouped there. The one we were staying at originally was right next to a Federal Building, so nobody knew what was going on, what was under attack and what was coming next. We ended up busing back to New York.
The team was off for a week as Major League Baseball figured out the next steps. The Mets were very active with the relief effort around the city. What was that week like between the attacks and your first game back against the Pirates on September 17?
There were so many emotions and you just kind of feel helpless in a way of not knowing what you can do to help. Bobby V and Johnny Franco were instrumental in giving us a purpose to help in any way. It was a small effort that we put together but it was big to the people we were helping. It helped us stay busy too and just contributed any way we could.
It meant a lot to everyone to see how much you all helped the people of the city. The Yankees too. I wanted to ask about what has become known as the Mike Piazza Game. Take us through that game and what the whole atmosphere was like.
We played the Pirates first in Pittsburgh and those first three games were like a blur. We didn’t know if it was a good time to be playing or if we came back too early. Then when we got back to New York, the thing I remember most is being overwhelmed with emotions and sadness. The beginning of the game we had the ceremony with bagpipes and the National Anthem. Everyone was standing and the stadium was full.
Everyone was out there to watch us and have an escape. Then I realized it was really worth it for us to be playing. As the game started, we all relaxed a little bit. I didn’t play in the game, but I think everyone had a sense of normalcy being out on the field and being back at Shea in front of our home fans.
What are your thoughts looking back at that game, the way it ended and its place in history?
As the game progressed we got to that famous eighth inning. We were down by one and Mike hit that home run. It was just incredible. I get goosebumps watching that every single time and I’ve seen it hundreds of times. It probably gets more exciting each time I watch it just because of the enormity of the moment. I think about what happened to all those people, all those fans, anyone who had lost loved ones, the first responders and their families.
I have those same feelings. The enormity of the home run seems to grow as time goes on. Last weekend you were at Citi Field with your teammates from 2001 for the 20th Anniversary of 9/11. What was it like to be back there for that?
It was so cool to be back there and see all the guys. We were missing a few, but there was a pretty good group of us. Having the guys together and reliving our memories is always awesome. I had been anxiously awaiting that weekend because I really wanted to get back to New York and see the guys. We all communicate through text and social media, but it’s great to see everyone in person.
It’s funny, when you’re back in the presence of your teammates it’s immediately like we’re back in the clubhouse. We have that banter and the guys are razzing on each other and having fun. It was just like 20 years ago.
That sounds like an amazing experience. Thanks to you and the Mets for everything you guys did and continue to do to support the city and the families who were affected by the attacks on 9/11. I have one last open-ended question for you. Do you have any final reflections on baseball you could leave our readers with?
I’m always humbled and thankful for everything I got to do in my career. I feel like for a guy who never made an All-Star team and never won a Cy Young, I got to experience some incredible things along the way. I got to pitch in a World Series and I am so grateful for that. I love reflecting back on my career and rehashing some of the old games and stuff with my buddies. We always have a good time and I’m thankful for what I got to do.
I still love watching baseball now, even though the game has changed. I have some guys in the Majors who I coached when I was in the Padres system so I like watching them too. Guys like Eric Lauer, Joey Lucchesi, Trey Wingenter, David Bednar in Pittsburgh. A bunch of guys all over the place. I just love the sport and always have.