"You wonder if we got to the World Series if we could have stayed together and saved baseball in Montreal."
One of the great things about Major League Baseball is that there is no cookie-cutter way to make it and thrive in the Big Leagues. For all the stories of guys who are first-round draft picks who skyrocket through the minors, there are just as many who experience something different.
Jeff Fassero, who had a successful 16-year career after spending eight years in the minors with multiple organizations, joins us for this week’s Spitballin’.
After pitching for Lincoln Land Community College in Illinois, Fassero pitched a season for Ole Miss. He was drafted in the 22nd round by the Cardinals, the team he rooted for growing up, and began his long journey of trying to make it to the Majors as a late-round pick.
Fassero was 28 years old when he finally broke through and considering how late in a baseball life that is, it’s pretty amazing Fassero had the career he did.
After working his first two seasons out of the bullpen, Fassero became a starter to help his team and largely remained in that role for the next nine seasons. In 2001 at the age of 38, Fassero shifted back to the bullpen for the final six seasons of his career.
During that 16 year career, Fassero came away with many great stories to tell. He was teammates with some of the best players to ever play the game, like Ken Griffey, Jr., Albert Pujols, Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez. He was on pitching staffs with Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez and played for Lou Piniella and Tony LaRussa.
Fassero knows what it’s like to stare down a lineup full of Hall of Famers and All-Stars in an elimination playoff game with an All-Star on the mound against him and come out on top. He also knows what it’s like to come as close as you possibly can to throwing a no-hitter without actually throwing one. Hell, he even knows what it’s like to be in a Saturday Night Live sketch.
There are stories to be told and lessons to be learned as we reflect on his career, so let’s go Spitballin’ with Jeff Fassero.
Thanks for joining us today, Mr. Fassero. Let’s get started back when you were a kid. Did you have any favorite teams or players growing up?
I grew up in Central Illinois, so I was right on the border of where the Cubs and Cardinals fans were. I chose the Cardinals as my favorite team. Growing up as a left-hander, I played outfield and at the time, the guy I followed the most was Lou Brock. He was a good role model to have.
Was there a time growing up that you thought you had a future in professional baseball?
It was probably more in college when that looked like a possibility. I mean, I always wanted that future. It was the late-1970s and the Cardinals brought their AAA team to Springfield, Illinois where I grew up. I would go out to the games and I thought that was something I’d really love the opportunity to do. I wasn’t a superstar growing up though. I didn’t really start pitching until I went to junior college and I had a good pitching coach there. Since I hadn’t pitched a lot, I could basically work from the ground up. After my second year of junior college, everything clicked and that’s when I was thinking that I could possibly have a future in this.
I saw that you pitched for a few organizations before making your Major League debut. What was your minor league experience like?
I got drafted by the Cardinals, but made it to the Majors with the Expos. I actually got Rule 5’d by the White Sox but the lockout messed everything up. I got traded to Cleveland and pitched one year in their minors and had a great year for them, but they wanted to sign me to the exact same contract to the exact same place. I figured I was a free agent, so I wanted to check my options. The Expos called me and said I could close and setup for their AAA team, so I signed with them. They gave me an opportunity. They took me down to preseason camp, which is only for a small amount of guys they want to get ready and show off. I had a great year in Indianapolis for them and got called up a few weeks into their season.
“I took my reliever mentality to my starting role though. I always thought that if I was gonna start the game, I was gonna finish it. That was my goal every time, even knowing that’s not gonna happen.”
By the time you made your Major League debut, you were 28 years old. Did you appreciate it that much more having spent a lot of time in the minors?
Yes, it was the ultimate dream that comes true. As a kid growing up we’d get the doubleheader on Saturdays and that was pretty much the only baseball I’d see unless I went to a game. I had no idea what to expect when I got up there. You walk out onto that Major League field for the first time and to me it was really special. If you look over the course of history, there aren’t too many people who have ever played Major League Baseball.
You pitched six years for the Expos and won 58 games with an ERA of 3.20. You even had some Cy Young consideration in 1996. What did you think of your experience in Montreal?
It was fun pitching in Montreal. We had Pedro Martinez and Kenny Hill in the rotation those years and we had a blast. We took our jobs seriously, but we had fun together. We got to enjoy each other and learned from each other. We didn’t have anything in common as pitchers. I was a lefty, Pedro’s stuff was so electric and Kenny was a solid everyday Big League starter. When I look back at the places I have played, I think my time in Montreal was my favorite.
I grew up in the 1980s when the Expos had all those great teams and were fun to watch. I hope they are able to get a team back there and it looks like they might. What are your thoughts about baseball in Montreal?
I think it would be great if baseball came back to Montreal and I think they deserve the opportunity. I look at some of the current cities and they just don’t draw fans. Tampa is a perfect example. They’ve been in the playoffs for about the past eight years and you look at the games and nobody is there.
In 1994 we started winning in Montreal, the stadium was full. Before the strike, Philadelphia and Atlanta came in and we swept them both. Every game was a sellout. Then in 1995, we competed and we were getting 30,000 or 40,000 people at the games depending on who was coming in. If they could get a new stadium built, it would be a great city to have another team. If you move Tampa there, that’s an AL East team and it would be a great rivalry with Toronto.
Pitcher Jeff Fassero #13 of the St. Louis Cardinals delivers the pitch during the game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Busch Stadium on April 3, 2003 in St. Louis, Missouri. The Cardinals won 6-4. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
That’s a great point. You mentioned the 1994 season. One of the biggest takeaways about the strike is that it may have robbed the Expos of their best shot at winning a World Series. As a player on that team, what is your perspective on that?
I think we got shortchanged. The thought process was that if we waited to strike until say late September, and the Expos had clinched, maybe that changes how our owners looked at things? The Expos owners were hardliners, but if we had already clinched, maybe they wouldn’t have been. Maybe they would have wanted to continue the season. The White Sox were in the same boat. You wanted to go out and get back playing, but everyone was dug in. The White Sox and Expos were the top two teams and we both had hardline owners. I actually think if the Expos went on and won the World Series in 1994, baseball would still be in Montreal.
I agree and I think a lot of fans do, too. That was a great young core you had.
Right, I don’t think the team would have had to be broken up. After 1994, Larry Walker was gone. Marquis Grissom too. The next year we competed and had a good team, but then after 1996, me and a couple more guys were gone. You wonder if we got to the World Series if we could have stayed together and saved baseball in Montreal.
In 1994 you came within one out of a no-hitter. I am sure you get asked about it all the time, but can you take us through that game?
The first four or five innings you don’t think about it. But once I got into the sixth and seventh I start to think, “Hey, something could be happening here.” I don’t think that was the best stuff I ever had; there were a couple of other games I pitched better in. But there were some breaks and some balls bounced the right way. In the end, it’s a tough pill to swallow to go 8 2/3 and then have it broken up.
Seattle Mariners' starting pitcher Jeff Fassero throws a strike to Tampa Bay Devil Rays Randy Winn in the bottom of the first inning at the Tropicana Field 25 April 1999 in St. Petersburg, Florida. Fassero struck out Winn. The Seattle Mariners beat the Tampa Bay Devils Rays 6-4 in the last of a three-game series. AFP PHOTO/Peter MUHLY (Photo credit should read PETER MUHLY/AFP via Getty Images)
After you left the Expos, you were the Opening Day starter and won 16 games for that great 1997 Mariners team. What was it like being a part of that team with Griffey, Randy Johnson, Edgar, Buhner, ARod and all those guys?
That was a really great team and was very disappointing that we fell short, especially with the offense we had. Losing those games to Baltimore were tough. Randy didn’t pitch great the first game, but he was great the next start and we couldn’t win it for him. But playing with those guys, it was amazing. I was fortunate to play with the guys I did. I had three Hall of Fame teammates in Montreal, three so far in Seattle and who knows about Alex Rodriguez, could be another one. But the talent on that team was unbelievable. That wasn’t a lineup I would want to face.
Not at all. Looking at the playoff box score from your start, Jay Buhner was the six batter. That was a great start you had too. You guys were down 2-0 and facing elimination against Jimmy Key. The Orioles had a great lineup too. How do you stay focused and perform in such a high-pressure situation?
Actually my manager made it pretty easy the night before. I was coming back from dinner with my wife and we were walking through the hotel bar. Lou Piniella was sitting at the bar and he called us over. He said, “Why don’t you and Cathy sit down and have a drink before you go up.” I told him I didn’t like to drink the night before a start and he said, “When the manager tells you to sit down and have a drink, you sit down and have a drink.”
Lou said, “Don’t worry about tomorrow. Just go out and do your job. If we win, we get to play another day. If we lose, we go home. Just relax, have fun and pitch the game.” I struggled in the first inning, but got out of it. Then the butterflies went away and as the game went on, I got stronger. I got lucky to get out of the first on a comebacker that I turned into a double play. The second and third I managed OK, but the fourth through the eighth were clean innings. I think at one point I retired 14 or 15 batters in a row. We got just enough runs to win. The Orioles were a great team and had a great pitching staff.
(Digital First Media Group/Bay Area News via Getty Images)
It says a lot that you were able to fight through the first few innings before settling in. The way things are now, they might not have even let you finish the first. You stayed active until you were 43 and pitched your last six years mostly as a reliever. Can you talk about the differences between both roles?
The thing about being a reliever is that there’s an opportunity to play every day and make a difference in each one of the games. As a starter, you’re once every five days. But on the other hand, as a starter you have the opportunity to be a leader and the horse of the staff. When Felipe Alou and Joe Kerrigan asked me to move from the bullpen, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it. But our bullpen in Montreal at that time was so good. We had Mel Rojas, John Wetteland and Jeff Shaw. That’s three closers who were great so our bullpen was set, but our starting rotation needed work. They thought I would make the best starter out of the group, so they started working me in. They would bring me in in the sixth inning and let me finish so I got to pitch multiple innings.
The biggest difference is the mentality. As a starter, you only have to be really focused that day, but as a reliever, you have to be ready every single day. I took my reliever mentality to my starting role though. I always thought that if I was gonna start the game, I was gonna finish it. That was my goal every time, even knowing that’s not gonna happen.
You’re the second guy I am able to ask this question to as I interviewed Marty Cordova a few weeks back. You were in the “Baseball Dreams” skit on Saturday Night Live, which is awesome. How did you get involved in that and what was your experience like?
It was a blast. We had so much fun doing it. It was a long day. We went in the day before and went over the script. Then the day of the show, you actually do two shows. They do a preshow and then decide if they want to change anything for the live show. It makes for a long night. It was something Todd Zeile really wanted to do and our agent got us into it. Todd just wanted to get into the show and see it, but whoever he talked to had the idea to put us in a skit. Out of all the guys that were in the skit, I was probably the one who talked the least, but the one who had the most lines. I had the longest line in the episode. There have been so many people over the years, even to this day, who tell me they saw me on Saturday Night Live.
It was their Christmas show too, so we got to do the ice-skating thing at the end, so we got to hang out with the cast members too. Jack Nicholson was down on the ice with us and Helen Hunt was the host. In between shows, we hung out with the cast. They all wanted to know about our baseball careers and we wanted to know all about their acting careers. Just meeting the cast at that time was such a treat. As athletes, we were all fairly good sized though and you look at these actors and they are so tiny. It was really funny.
That’s so awesome. What a great experience. You got into coaching after your playing days. How did you make that transition?
I took a couple of years off after playing because my boys were in high school. But then, I wasn’t doing anything, so I told my wife I wanted to get back into coaching. I made a couple of calls and got a job about five months sooner than I thought. Mark Riggins was my pitching coach when I got drafted by the Cardinals, and he was with the Cubs at the time. Someone got sick there and couldn’t coach, so he called to ask if I could start on a certain date. I said I could, but needed seven days off because I had paid about $10,000 for a family trip overseas. He said that was fine and we worked it out. I really enjoyed coaching.
Right now, I’m trying to see if I could get back in after not doing it the past two years. I like working with the kids a lot and it’s a lot of fun. It’s something I enjoyed doing and I’ve been making some calls to get back in. I have followed the minor league baseball situation and I do see a few organizations where their pitching doesn’t seem to be very solid. It’s the same organizations that are always focused on going out and signing pitching. How about trying to develop pitching? It always seems like it’s the same teams.
This has been great and I hope to see you back coaching. I think the game needs more guys with Major League experience in general back in the coaching ranks, especially in player development. My last question is open-ended. Do you have any final reflections you’d like to leave our readers with?
For me, baseball was my life. I just didn’t realize it until I finished playing it. Growing up in the 1970s, I played baseball all summer long. I would listen to Jack Buck on the radio. We’d play baseball all day and then when it got dark, we’d all go listen to the Cardinals games. It’s a great game and I am so happy I was blessed to play the game.