"Amazingly, my elbow and shoulder are, for the most part, intact."
The summer of ’98 is known as the summer that revived baseball. The 1994 strike was four years old, but a pall of indifference still hung over the sport as spring rolled around.
That changed when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa captivated the baseball world with their steroid-enhanced chase of Roger Maris. As the summer rolled on, it became clear that it was more a matter of when Maris would be passed and who would pass him first.
While everyone was tracking McGwire and Sosa, a great pennant race was forming in the National League.
Steve Trachsel played a huge role in the Cubs’ push for the playoffs and the great home run chase of 1998 and he joins us for this week’s Spitballin’.
Trachsel’s story is a great lesson in baseball fortitude. A late-bloomer, Trachsel didn’t receive any interest from four-year colleges out of high school, but got an opportunity to pitch on the two-year level at Fullerton College in the highly-competitive Orange Empire Conference in California.
Trachsel parlayed that opportunity into a starting spot in Long Beach State’s rotation and was in the Majors a few short years later.
In 1994, Trachsel was considered one of the top rookie pitchers in baseball and from that point forward, was a stalwart on the mound for 16 seasons. He pitched in 420 games in his career, starting 417 of them.
In the Summer of ’98, baseball’s wheel of fate landed on Trachsel and he had the assignment of pitching to McGwire as he sat on 61 homers with a chance to pass Maris. In the fourth inning of game 144, McGwire ripped a line drive down the left field line, barely clearing the fence in Busch Stadium. It was his shortest homer of the season, but one that put him and Trachsel in the baseball record books.
Steve Trachsel #46 of the Chicago Cubs pitches during an Major League Baseball game circa 1994 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. Trachsel played for the Cubs from 1993-99 and 2007. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
While that moment generated huge headlines, Trachsel had his eyes on the bigger prize: winning the still-hot pennant race.
The Cardinals faded and the Cubs and Giants tied in the standings, forcing a one-game playoff. Once again in the season’s biggest moments, Trachsel found himself on the mound and like he did so frequently, he got tough and answered the bell.
Trachsel pitched into the seventh inning and allowed just one hit, lifting the Cubs to the postseason for just the third time since the end of World War II. In a season where so many were focused on a wildly entertaining, yet tainted, home run race, the ultimate team-first guy was the guy who led his team when it mattered most.
Let’s relive that Summer of ’98 and so much more as we go Spitballin’ with Steve Trachsel.
“Why isn’t there a fistfight with the manager on the mound about being pulled? Wins don’t matter for starting pitchers anymore?”
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Trachsel. I wanted to start off at the beginning and ask how you got your start playing baseball as a kid and did you have any favorite teams or players growing up?
I was born and raised in Southern California, so I was a Dodgers and Angels fan, especially the Dodgers of the late 1970s. I started playing baseball when I was about seven years old with tee ball and loved it. I continued playing obviously all through high school and at Fullerton College and Long Beach State. I think I started pitching when I was about seven years old and it was just always something I was good at. I played other positions, but pitching was something I always did.
Was there a time when you thought you had a chance to pitch professionally?
It was something I always wanted to do, but it probably wasn’t until my second year of junior college at Fullerton I thought it was possible. That was when scouts were taking note of me. I would fill out all those scouting information cards and things like that. When I graduated high school, I was just 5’10” 160, so I was still kind of small. I blossomed late that way. I got a contract offered to me by the Cubs when I was in the Alaska League before going to Long Beach State, but I didn’t feel like I was ready. I wanted to go to Long Beach and learn more from [Head Coach] Dave Snow. Then I ended up getting drafted by the Cubs anyway.
You had two very good years in AA and AAA then made your Major League debut at 22. What was it like going out and making that first start?
It was the end of the 1993 season and I was in AAA in Des Moines. We had made the playoffs and I had just pitched Game 6 of the finals and won the game to tie the series and keep us alive. Marv Foley was the manager and Bill Earley was the pitching coach. They called me into the office after the game. They told me that Game 7 was tomorrow and that after the game, I was being called up to Chicago. I thought, “Oh my God, that’s amazing!” But then they gave me the caveat that I couldn’t tell anyone because we want to win Game 7 and there were about seven other guys being called up too. They wanted them to be focused on winning Game 7. We went out, won Game 7 to win the championship and then all of us got called up.
Aerial view of Chicago Cubs Steve Trachsel in action vs Colorado Rockies, Denver, CO 8/20/1995 (Photo by Tim DeFrisco/Sports Illustrated)
That had to be an incredible experience for all of you!
Yes, it was for sure. I remember going to Wrigley Field for the first time. I had never been there before and didn’t know where I was going. I walked downstairs in the clubhouse and Jim Lefebvre was there. He said, “You must be Trachsel. Where the fuck have you been?” I asked him what he was talking about and he said, “I’ve been trying to get you here for three and a half months and they wouldn’t let me do it!” I got to make my first start a few days later against the Marlins and I ended up losing 3-2 on a squeeze play. Alex Arias got the bunt down; I’ll never forgive him for it.
Just a few years later you got selected for the 1996 All-Star Game. Were you surprised by the selection?
I was completely shocked to get the call. My ERA was really good, but my win-loss record was pretty average and we weren’t doing great as a team. I figured one of the regulars like Sammy Sosa or Mark Grace would represent us, but Sammy didn’t get the call. Being the lone representative for the Cubs was surprising and a great honor.
What was it like pitching in the game?
The game was great. I had never pitched out of relief, so that was new. John Smoltz started the game and I was down in the bullpen. The phone rang and Bobby Cox told me to get up. I didn’t have a routine other than what I did for starts, so I did my starting routine in the bullpen, which was like 60 or 70 pitches. I went into the game, threw seven pitches and the inning was over. Todd Hundley was catching me in the bullpen and he came in the game with me as my catcher too.
I faced Cal Ripken, A-Rod and Sandy Alomar. I almost hit Ripken in the head. That was the year Roberto Hernandez slipped during the team picture and elbowed Ripken in the nose by accident and broke it. He got his nose broken and then I just about hit him in the head with a fastball. I went 3-1 on him and went fastball away. He pulled a rocket grounder to short and Ozzie Smith picked it like it was nothing.
Looking at the roster, you had some amazing veterans like Ozzie, Ripken and Boggs on both teams. What was it like being around those guys?
It was surreal. Guys that I grew up watching were hanging out in the clubhouse. I got asked to play cards with Smoltz, Glavine and Maddux. I definitely felt like the odd man out there. I was just a 25-year-old kid trying to wrap my head around it. Unfortunately, I never got to go back to another one. It would have been nice to do one later on when I had more experience in the game.
I can understand that, but it’s still an amazing accomplishment so many players don’t get to experience. Moving on a couple of years later. I am sure you answer this question all the time, but I wanted to ask about giving up Mark McGwire’s 62nd home run in 1998. Can you take us through that?
At the time it was something we didn’t want to do. We actually had a team meeting about it. It was our normal team meeting before a series and we usually didn’t bring up one guy at it. But obviously with what Sammy and Mark were doing the entire year, it was something we couldn’t get away from. We dealt with it every single day since early June. The Cubs were finally in a playoff race after a while. The game was against the Cardinals obviously and that was our big rival.
We said in the pitchers’ meeting that we didn’t want to be the guy who gave it up. McGwire hit number 61 off Mike Morgan the night before and I just shook my head and said, “OK, I guess it’s on tomorrow.” It was a fastball that was supposed to be down and in, but it cut just a little. It was a line drive down the left field line. In most ballparks it would have been a double off the wall. I was expecting it to hook, but it never did. I wasn’t too happy about it honestly for quite some time. But we ended up making the playoffs. Over time I just look back at it as part of my career. There’s worse things you could be known for. When he admitted to the steroids stuff, I think it got tarnished a little and it wasn’t that big a deal anymore.
Steve Trachsel of the Baltimore Orioles poses during Photo Day at Ft. Lauderdale Stadium on February 26, 2007 in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. (Photo by Marc Serota)
You mentioned the playoffs and you guys might not have gotten there if it wasn’t for your start in the tiebreaker game. You ended up pitching into the seventh and giving up just one hit and no runs. Can you take us through that game?
The atmosphere was far and away the most electric I’d ever experienced in a game I played in. There were 42,000 in the stadium and that was the year Harry Caray passed, so they had a giant Harry Caray balloon in left field. There were supposedly another 70,000 people in the streets around the stadium and you could hear them too.
It was a do-or-die game; win or go home. Those are the types of situations I always wanted to be in. I always wanted the ball though games. I took a no-hitter into the seventh, but I think I walked six guys. Ed Lynch just reminded me about that at fantasy camp. Gary Gaetti hit a homer for us and Rod Beck got the save with a little pop up to Mark Grace to end it. The celebration inside and outside the stadium was amazing. It was like something I had never experienced before.
I’m a big Mets fan, so it’s always great interviewing guys I rooted for. I enjoyed that era of Mets when you were on the team from 2001-2006. How did you end up joining the Mets?
I really loved being in New York. In 2000, I was trying to get there and was having talks with Steve Phillips but it didn’t work out at the time. There were some players he wanted to move to make it happen, but he wasn’t able to do it. I remember how honest and open he was with me, which wasn’t always true with General Managers. I went to Tampa for a year and ended up in New York after that, which was where I wanted to be. The expectations for winning were very high there and I wanted to pitch under that pressure. I struggled early my first couple of weeks, but was able to figure it out.
You guys came so close in 2006 and there were so many awesome players on that team. You led the team with 15 wins too. Could you reflect on that season?
I was coming off my back surgery in 2005, so 2006 was my first year of being completely healthy. We had a fantastic team and it seemed like every game somebody new was stepping up to get a clutch hit or home run. It was about as well-rounded a team that I had ever been on. Unfortunately, we came up a little short. It was a great series with the Cardinals. I just saw Endy Chavez at fantasy camp and we still talk about that unbelievable catch all the time. I think we probably would have won the World Series if we got by the Cardinals. I wished it would have come out a little different.
THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO --The Chicago Cubs and actress Heather Locklear pose for a photo on May 4, 1998 -- (Photo by: Margaret Norton/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)
I still can’t believe that catch Chavez made and never get tired of the highlight. Did you have a good view of that?
I was down in the right field bullpen trying to stay focused in case I was needed. I didn’t have quite as good a view as the guys in the dugout. Off the bat, we were all like, “Shit, that’s not even close to being catchable.” To see that he was able to get it and then see the crowd completely erupt was unbelievable. The way Shea sounded at that time was amazing too; there’s no way to duplicate that at any other venue. Sometimes you see it and you still can’t believe he did it.
You were always solid and dependable on the mound and you could handle the bat a little as a pitcher. You hit over .260 a couple of years with the Cubs and hit a few homers too. What was it like hitting your first Major League home run?
I didn’t think it was a homer off the bat. It was off Curt Schilling and it was a 3-1 fastball. I hit it into the family section of the bleachers. I knew I hit it hard, but I just put my head down and ran hoping for a double. As I got to first, I looked up and saw it went out. It was the first home run I had hit since high school. I don’t know if it came from Curt or Benito Santiago, but Mark Grace came to the plate later and they asked him if I was peeking on the pitch. I’m like, “I’m the pitcher at bat with a 3-1 count, what other pitch would I possibly get other than a fastball?” The only homer I hit where I knew it was gone off the bat was my third career homer at Shea Stadium. I hit one in Coors Field that was a dozen rows deep in dead center, but I still didn’t feel like I hit it that great. The one at Shea I knew it was gone, so I got to enjoy it before I got into first.
03 Apr 2002 : Steve Trachsel of the New York Mets pitches against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the game at Shea Stadium in Flushing , New York. The Pirates won 5-3.
It’s great you got to experience that! As a pitcher, you were someone who was always reliable for 30 or more starts and 200 innings every year. What do you think of the way the game has changed in the short time you’ve been out?
It’s a whole different ballgame. People ask me if I want to coach or get back in to the game, but I don’t see where I’d fit in. I see the game being played completely differently these days, especially in the starting pitching side. I don’t understand pulling pitchers so early. Living in California, I see it with San Diego all the time. You could be winning 8-0 and there’s like two outs in the fifth and you get pulled because you got to 85 pitches. Why isn’t there a fistfight with the manager on the mound about being pulled? Wins don’t matter for starting pitchers anymore? That should be the only thing that matters. They probably don’t even have box scores anymore, but when you opened the box score, you had a win or loss listed next to the starting pitcher and so did the manager. Those are the only two people who get credited a win or loss.
If your starting pitcher isn’t gonna get a bunch of wins, then really what are they? How do you go to your arbitration case and say, “I had a great year last year; I went 8-5 with a 4.20 [era] 150 innings pitched.” My first thought would be the guy got hurt because he only pitched 150 innings. But that’s what you get over 32 starts now. I can’t make sense of why the game has changed this way. I remember sitting down with Jim Riggleman in Chicago and he told me he had me penciled in for every fifth day. I said, “Fuck that! Don’t pencil it in, put it in ink! I’m not missing starts, don’t worry about it.” He still talks about that every time I see him. I went out there every fifth day and I tell him I would have been out there every fourth day if he would have let me. Somewhere along the line they came up with the metrics or studies saying starting pitchers are better off only pitching 85 pitches, but I don’t know of anyone who pitched before me or during my time who would agree with that.
I agree completely and couldn’t have said it better. You’ve really had some great experiences in the game and I appreciate you sharing them with our readers. Do you have any final reflections about your career or baseball in general that you’d like to leave our readers with?
It would have been nice to get a World Series ring in my career, but I was able to do a lot of great things. I was voted Rookie Pitcher of the Year, got to pitch in an All-Star Game, got to pitch in the playoffs and got to pitch in a lot of great baseball cities. I played a long time and other than my back, I stayed pretty healthy. Amazingly, my elbow and shoulder are, for the most part, intact.