"If you’re not giving it all, they’ll know it."
As Italian Heritage Month winds down, the paisans at BallNine would be remiss if we didn’t have some content with a great Italian-American baseball player.
It’s fitting that the player would be a New York Yankee as well, considering the history with names like DiMaggio, Lazzeri, Rizzuto and Berra, among others.
This week, Mike Pagliarulo, an Advisory Board member of the Italian-American Baseball Foundation, World Series champion, recent inductee to the New York State Baseball Hall of Fame and popular former Yankee, joins us for Spitballin’.
Pagliarulo grew up in Massachusetts and was a star at the University of Miami, helping the Hurricanes to three straight College World Series appearances in the 1980s.
He was called up in July of 1984 and manned third base in the Bronx for the next six years. Pags replaced another beloved Yankee, Graig Nettles, who was traded to the Padres that spring.
For six years, Pagliarulo provided pop from the left side and played solid defense while also embracing what it meant to be an Italian ballplayer wearing pinstripes.
In recent years, Pagliarulo has been highly involved with the Italian-American Baseball Foundation, a group “that is committed to the future of baseball & softball for Italian & Italian – American youths on the high school, college and professional levels,” according to their website.
He has worked youth clinics, spoken on panel discussions and been a fantastic ambassador for the Foundation, which has a presence both in the United States and Italy. The next big event for the IABF is their annual gala on December 2 in Brooklyn, where they’ll honor Trey Mancini, Mike Rizzo, Dom Scala, Anthony Volpe and Tom Verducci.
Pags has incredible stories from his time with the Yankees as well as his time as the third baseman for the 1991 World Series champion Minnesota Twins, so pour yourself a nice espresso and relax as we go Spitballin’ with Mike Pagliarulo.
NEW YORK - CIRCA 1984: Mike Pagliarulo #13 of the New York Yankees looks on during batting practice prior to the start of a Major League Baseball game circa 1984 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City. Pagliarulo played for the Yankees from 1984-89. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Pagliarulo. We were up at the event when you were inducted into the New York State Baseball Hall of Fame, so I know you have some great stories that I’m looking forward to hearing. But first, let’s go back to when you were a kid. Did you have a favorite team growing up?
I grew up in the early 1970s and there was no ESPN back then, so you rooted for the hometown team. For me, that was the Boston Red Sox. My grandfather actually worked at Fenway as an usher. We’d go out and sit in centerfield for like a buck-and-a-half and then in about the sixth inning we’d sneak down to the box seats. I used to know all the Red Sox players. Of course I had my Yaz jacket; he was the idol for everyone. Then Freddy Lynn came along and I actually got to play with him in San Diego. Those guys were great players.
You played collegiately at Miami, one of the best programs in country at the time. Was that a big adjustment coming from the Northeast and going down to a baseball powerhouse like Miami?
In high school I was a switch-hitting shortstop and did well. But when I went down to Miami, there were five other shortstops, all better than me. I didn’t say anything, but I’m thinking, “Oh my God, what the heck is this?” They were lightning fast and their hands were real good. I had to do what I call a moral inventory. I felt like I could throw with all of them and I knew I could hit with all of them, so I figured I’d stay.
The first thing they did was put me in the outfield, but then they moved me to third base. One of the other shortstops, a junior college transfer, switched over to third base too and I was his backup. After about a week or two, they gave me a shot against Florida State in their home opener and I went 4-for-4 and that was it. I played the rest of the time. The thing I liked most about Miami was that I thought our coaches were the best coaches. They didn’t try to teach us anything they didn’t know. Today, you get many situations where kids are getting bad instruction. Their heads get filled with a lot of unnecessary stuff.
I just couldn’t believe that I was talking to Joe DiMaggio and he was in my locker. Finally I said, “Do you mind if I get my shoes out of here?” He said, “Help yourself kid, it’s your locker.”
What was it like playing for College Baseball Hall of Famer Ron Fraser?
Ron Fraser was an amazing coach. One thing that helped was that he would get these pros who would be down at Spring Training and he’d let them hit before us. We would go early and watch them and talk to them about hitting. It also helped that Coach Fraser’s fishing buddy was Ted Williams. He would come by once in a while. He liked me because I was from Boston. He talked to me a lot. He talked about facing certain pitchers and really about the approach you should have at the plate. I felt so lucky.
Another situation we had every spring at Miami was that we would play the Orioles every Spring Training. My freshman year I was playing third base and I was having trouble making the bunt play. Fraser called me over the day we were playing them and said, “Hey Pags, go talk to that guy over there.” I walked over and it was Brooks Robinson! The interesting thing was in about one minute, he not only told me how I should field that play properly, but also how I should practice it. That little bit of instruction stayed with me my whole career.
So you learned hitting from Ted Williams and fielding from Brooks Robinson while you were still in college? That’s incredible and speaks a lot to Coach Fraser’s status in the baseball world. Jumping ahead, you got called up in July of 1984 and essentially were taking over for Yankees legend Graig Nettles who was traded that spring. Did you feel pressure being a young guy in that situation?
Nettles got traded in the Spring and they were thinking of calling me up. Even though I was playing good, I knew I wasn’t ready. About halfway through our minor league season, the Yankees were about 20 games out so they called me up. I did very well in my first game and they kept me in there. But yes, I did feel like I was replacing Nettles and there is pressure that comes with that. You boot one ball and all of a sudden the fans are booing you saying, “Bring back Nettles!” I heard that for about a year and a half, but that’s OK. I understand how great he was and how much the fans loved him.
During Spring Training, Nettles was really good to me and he didn’t have to be. He could have made it really hard for me, but he didn’t. I didn’t talk too much, but I listened to anything he told me. Our styles were a little different, but he was a great player and great person.
NEW YORK - CIRCA 1986: Mike Pagliarulo #13 of the New York Yankees bats during an Major League Baseball game circa 1986 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City. Pagliarulo played for the Yankees from 1984-89. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
That’s all understandable but great to hear Nettles was so supportive. How were some of the other veterans on the team when you were called up?
I was talking to Ron Guidry just the other day at the Yogi Berra Golf Outing. He was telling me a story about how he wanted me called up to play to third because when he pitched, a lot of guys hit the ball to third base. He said he saw me catching everything in Spring Training, so he went in and told Yogi, “Hey call this kid up, we need someone who could catch the ball over there!”
Speaking of Yogi, you were a young player when there was all that manager turnover between him, Billy Martin and Lou Piniella. Does that affect you as a player or are you just focused on your job?
That stuff didn’t really bother me at all. I loved Yogi and I loved Billy, I really did. We had a great relationship. Lou Piniella was not only the best hitting coach I ever had, but he was fabulous as a manager too. The difficult part was having a different hitting coach every year. That’s what was happening. There’d be a new voice coming in and they’d have new ideas. That’s not an excuse; that’s just how it was. It would have been good to have had one manager the entire time, but in the end, you have to manage yourself as a player.
That makes sense. What was your relationship like with George Steinbrenner?
He would come down every once in a while and at first I thought it was a little odd. But after learning about other organizations, I realized he really just wanted to win so bad. That’s why you play isn’t it? You don’t play to meet the bottom line or make money. As soon as the season started, I just wanted to play and win the World Series every year; that was George’s mentality too, and what’s wrong with that? If people don’t understand that, they’re crazy. I wanted to be in that type of environment. That means more pressure and more changes, but if we won, that was alright. He was a very generous man too. He was The Boss!
ANAHEIM, CA - CIRCA 1985: Mike Pagliarulo of the New York Yankees against the California Angels at the Big A circa 1985 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Owen C. Shaw/Getty Images)
He was indeed! Anytime I interview guys from the mid-1980s Yankees I like asking their thoughts on watching Don Mattingly play at his peak. What was it like playing with him every day in his prime?
He’s a good friend of mine. Our lockers were together when I was on the Yankees. He was a tremendous pro and really had a great mind for the game. I wish he played in more postseason games though; he would have been fantastic. He had that kind of mindset. He’s a guy that wanted to be up with the game on the line and anytime he was in a pressure situation, he was gonna get the job done. It was just that simple. Look at the end of the 1984 season when him and [Dave] Winfield went into the last game of the season going for the batting title. Don got four hits to win it.
The following year, Wade Boggs was winning by like six points over him and we were up in Fenway. The last game of the season, Donnie had to go like 5-for-5 and Boggs was sitting out. The first at bat he got a base hit and the next one he hit a double off the wall. I’m thinking, “Oh my God, he’s gonna do it again!” The next at bat he hit a line drive, but Marty Barrett made a great diving catch. I think Boggs went up and started getting loose just in case because he didn’t want to lose the batting title. Donnie was great to play with. A great teammate and not too outspoken, but played like a real good pro and a real leader.
I was at the ceremony where you were inducted into the New York State Baseball Hall of Fame, congrats on that! You told a great story about your best day in the Majors. Could you repeat that for our readers?
Bill Madden had asked that question in the clubhouse when I came back for Old Timers Day after I was done playing. I told him it was in 1984 and I had just gotten called up. I went to the ballpark on a Sunday morning and I couldn’t find a parking space. It was 9:30 in the morning with nowhere to park. Turns out it was Old Timers Day and I didn’t realize it. So, I walk down the tunnel and open the doors and I see all of these great old timers in Yankees uniforms. The greatest players to ever wear a Yankees uniform who were still alive were in this locker room. There’s not enough words to describe what I saw. They were all laughing and having a great time.
My locker was down in the back right corner, so I walk over there and Joe DiMaggio was sitting in my seat! I walked up behind him and was actually afraid to go to my locker. I introduced myself and he said, “Hey Pags, how are you doing?” I said to myself, “Oh my God, Joe DiMaggio knows my name?” He told me he liked the way I played and to keep up the hard work. I just couldn’t believe that I was talking to Joe DiMaggio and he was in my locker. Finally I said, “Do you mind if I get my shoes out of here?” He said, “Help yourself kid, it’s your locker.” I always felt bad for him though because he was never alone. He always had a crowd around him.
Minnesota Twins’ Mike Pagliarulo talks on a cellular phone during an interview at Minneapolis’ Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, Oct. 9, 1991, for the second game of he American League championship series. (Photo: Mark Humphrey, Associated Press)
I’m imagining just how crazy that was to have guys dating back to the 1930s there in that room. How incredible.
It was something else. So then, I was getting some stuff out of my locker and all of a sudden the doors opened and it got real quiet. It was like Jesus had stepped into the locker room. Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin walked in. Mickey commands that much respect. He pointed in my direction and it was so quiet, I heard him say to Billy, “Hey, is that the kid over there?” I turn to Donnie [Mattingly] and said, “Hey, I think he’s pointing at you.” Donnie said, “He ain’t pointing at me, he’s pointing at you!” Joe DiMaggio said, “What did you do, kid?”
Now he starts walking at me. All these great players are all staring at me and the room is dead quiet. Mickey and Billy are walking towards me and I’m sweating. I must have been white as a ghost. I’m thinking, “Did I break a rule or do something wrong in the clubhouse?” Here comes Mickey Mantle and he’s got this shit-eatin’ grin on his face. He grabs my by the back of the neck and pulls me across the locker room and into the training room. Billy was right with him. Everyone was watching this. Then he starts punching me in the training room like I’m a punching bag. I don’t dare hit him back, so I’m just trying to block the punches.
Then he just gives me a slap and says, “Hey kid, I love the way you play. Here’s my number; you need anything, you call. Welcome to the family.” Then Billy Martin just says, “Hi, I’m Billy Martin.” Like I don’t know. I think I said my name back, who knows. They both left and I had the biggest smile on my face. The thing of it is that when I walked out of the training room, all of the old timers started talking to me. It was like I had Mickey’s approval. They must have been great fighters back then, because Hank Bauer came up and started hitting me too. Then later I became Hank Bauer and Moose Skowron’s driver. I would take them to the field on Old Timers Day every year. Now, I don’t remember if we won or lost or how I did that day, but that was easily my best day in the Major Leagues.
Moving on from the Yankees, you were the starting third baseman on the 1991 World Series Twins team and you had a huge game-winning pinch hit homer in Game 3 of the ALCS. That was such a pivotal game with the series tied 1-1. Can you take us through that?
I don’t think I was a real good pinch hitter and I didn’t do it much. What I did was every inning, I went under the stands and hit off the batting tee for nine innings just to keep myself loose. Tom Kelly was so awesome as a manager. He was like Billy Martin, just not as loud. Great managers see everything that’s going on. Cito Gaston had a choice of bringing in a couple of guys and he brought in Timlin, which was the matchup Tom Kelly wanted. Mike Timlin kept the ball down and I like the ball down. It was a good pitch for me to hit. He left one over the middle and that was it.
MINNEAPOLIS - OCTOBER 27: Third baseman Mike Pagliarulo #13 of the Minnesota Twins poses with the championship trophy after winning Game Seven of the World Series against the Atlanta Braves at the Metrodome on October 27, 1991 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Twins defeated the Braves 1-0. (Photo by Focus on Sport via Getty Images)
I wanted to ask you about the Jack Morris game. What was it like playing in what’s considered one of the great postseason games ever?
One thing I could tell you is that Tom Kelly had us ready for anything and it paid off that game. We prepared better than any team in baseball. Even if it was a freak play, we were ready. That’s Tom Kelly. There was a play that game where the Braves could have scored a run. Lonnie Smith was stealing a base and the ball was hit off the wall. He should have scored easy, but all three infielders went down like it was a ground ball and we were gonna turn a double play. He slid in to second not realizing where the ball was. Then he saw where the ball was, started running again and we threw him out at home. It saved a run and probably the game. Jack Morris was a great competitor. He’s one of those mean guys who really competes. He was awesome that game.
This is all incredible insight. I wanted to ask too about your involvement with the Italian-American Baseball Foundation and all the great things they do. How did you become involved with them?
A couple of years ago I met Joe Quagliano and he took me out to dinner to talk about the Foundation. He does a great job making a lot of contacts. He has a great reputation in Major League Baseball and the Foundation does great things, like this year they started a scholarship program. Going to school nowadays, I don’t know how parents afford it. To be able to help with that is a great gift. I am happy to do events with them.
We went over to Italy to help youth baseball and give clinics over there. Johnny Franco was involved too. We’d talk to the people who run the organizations about how they can do fundraisers and make things available for them to come over here too. We try to create these avenues for them to have an opportunity in the sport. We’ve created a lot of opportunities and every year we’re doing more and more. Joe does a fabulous job and he has a great staff with a lot of help. They do so many events between fundraisers and community work. I’d do whatever I could to help those guys.
This has been amazing, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us. My last question is just asking your final thoughts you’d like to leave our readers with.
I learned that the fans in the Northeast really know their baseball. If you’re not giving it all, they’ll know it. I felt like when I finally hung my hat up at the end of the day, that I left it all on the field. I hear from fans today that they appreciated the way I played and that feels good.
I still like the game now too. I was coaching with the Marlins for three years and that was fun. I think in today’s game there’s a lack of coaching though. In the game of baseball, experience is the best knowledge you have. There’s such a great base of knowledge in the alumni, the guys who played the game and that should be tapped into more. I try to keep up with the new stuff like motion analysis and biomechanics. But I don’t know. I read that the best thing for pitchers is to throw less and pay attention to proper mechanics. The guys saying this don’t know what proper mechanics are. I feel like you could improve performance and reduce injuries at the same time.