Best of 2021
"It was the beginning of a dream come true." –Barry Lyons
In the attic of my mother’s house sits boxes upon boxes of baseball cards. Leftover artifacts from a childhood of loving baseball and everything that had to do with it.
I was up there recently, grabbed a handful of cards, fixed them into a neat pile and flipped through the way I did 35 years ago. I came across a couple of guys I had interviewed this year for BallNine and that was neat to see. I repeated that a few times and in each pile, there were players who have been featured here on Spitballin’ and plenty of others I’d hope to talk with one day soon.
That’s been the essence of BallNine and Spitballin’ from day one. We want to bring you baseball stories from the players themselves. We want to be the outlet for players to tell their stories, share their memories and just shoot the shit about the greatest game out there.
When I talk with players who played in the 1980s, I often tell them I feel like I’m talking to my old baseball cards and 2021 was a great year for that. I interviewed 37 former Big Leaguers this year on Spitballin’, featuring players who have played in each of the past eight decades. That goes along with guys like Mike Veeck, super scout Bob Fontaine, Jr. and Fred Claire of Dodgers fame. We’ve talked to guys who have pitched against Stan Musial, been teammates with Ted Williams and been acquaintances of Jackie Robinson.
It’s been an honor to provide a vehicle for players to tell their stories and for fans to connect with players whose baseball cards may sit up in their attics too.
Here’s to a great 2021 on BallNine with an eye towards even bigger things in 2022. This week’s Spitballin’ is a Best of 2021 article as we remember some of the great quotes and stories from our fantastic guests this year.
Wishing a happy, healthy and prosperous 2022 to everyone in the BallNine family, especially our loyal supporters of this great game.
The absolute, number one, best day in my career I hit four straight home runs in one game. I almost did it a second time too playing for Detroit in Cleveland. I hit three in a row and the fourth one I hit into the upper deck that went foul by about 15 feet. I stood right at home plate and watched it. I knew I hit it out, but it was foul. I was very disappointed. Then I hit a sharp ground ball up the middle, but they had a shift on me and got me out. I really wanted that one though. No player ever did it twice. –Rocky Colavito on hitting four home runs in a game and almost duplicating the feat.
If you read Doug Gladstone’s book, Bitter Cup of Coffee, it fills in a lot of the blanks. Here you have [Steve] Rogers and [Tony Clark] Clark, former players, and they don’t want to have anything to do with us. Granted, we have gotten under their skin, but you know what? They’re big boys. They should be able to handle that kind of shit. —Gary Neibauer on the MLBPA ignoring 600 pensionless, elderly former MLB players.
It’s the best feeling in the world. There’s nothing like representing your country when you’re standing up there and they’re playing the National Anthem. We did it with a bunch of young guys who were nobodies at the time with a tremendous manager [Tommy Lasorda] that everyone knew. It was about all of us together. —Adam Everett on winning an Olympic Gold Medal in 2000
I pitched to Big League hitters before, so I was confident that I could do the job. I didn’t want to think, “Oh wow, I’m pitching to Stan Musial!” I didn’t want to put these guys on a pedestal, I wanted to get them out. I think it’s going to go down in history that the 1950s is the era with the best players. It was after the War, so all the players were coming back to their teams and Black players were now in the league and making their names. It was an era that I thought was great, really the best. —Ray Crone on pitching in the 1950s
“We got off the plane and rode into town in the San Diego Chicken’s limo. That was my first ride to the Big Leagues.” –Dennis Rasmussen on being called up to the Majors
Socially and musically, I take full credit for that. I recognize that it’s in baseball lore and I answered 10,000 letters from people who wanted me killed in various methods. I’m sensitive about it now because obviously when I had the idea, there was nothing about it that was meant to be homophobic or denigrating of anyone. Honestly, I had spent three years on the road playing music and when disco came out, I didn’t want to play it. It was just supposed to be a fun thing, and no one was more amazed than me when that many people showed up. We had been drawing around 20,000 and I thought maybe 35,000 people would show up. That was a really good house draw and something people in my position wish they could do at will. –Mike Veeck on Disco Demolition Night
Oh, there was pressure alright. The thing was that [Don] Drysdale was scheduled to pitch Game 7 but then in the pregame meeting, Walter Alston told us that Sandy [Koufax] was gonna pitch and I felt much better about that. I knew we only had to score a run or two and we could win. Drysdale sometimes we had to score five or six runs. I knew we would win when I found out who was pitching. —Wes Parker on Game 7 of the 1965 World Series
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. When you’re back in the presence of your teammates it’s immediately like we’re back in the clubhouse. It was just like 20 years ago. –Glendon Rusch on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 at Citi Field
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. –Steve Trachsel on pitching in the All-Star Game
When Tony LaRussa left the A’s, there was an edge that was lost. Every time I took the field when LaRussa was there, it was like the battle for the ring. So, I was missing that. I was watching the Orioles in ’96. I saw them get Pat Gillick. Davey Johnson was their manager. Then looking at their lineup and pitching, I was just like, “Man, these guys are gonna be the next dynasty.” All of a sudden, Gillick calls me up and was like, “We’re interested in you coming over here to play shortstop.” I was like, “What?!” –Mike Bordick on replacing Cal Ripken at shortstop in Baltimore
Don Carmen was a great friend that first year and a half before he got let go. Mickey Morandini I knew from the minors and the Olympic team and some of the other guys I played with in the minors were great friends. That’s the cool thing about baseball. It’s a tight network of guys. You want to find those guys who could not only be mentors, but who will be your friends. There’s so much pressure to perform and win, but in the end, we’re all just regular guys. There’s guys from all over the country and from different countries, but and the end of the day, you’re just trying to do the best you can do to win a game. –Pat Combs on team dynamics
In the American League umpires had a big strike zone and I struggled because I had to swing at everything. Also, the American League was a curve ball league. They’d throw a 3-2 curve ball with the bases loaded; they didn’t care. The National League was the fastball league and Bench was a fastball catcher. I knew that, so I was up there looking for a fastball. The 2-2 pitch with that bad swing, that was a slider, and I was looking fastball. But the next pitch, he threw me the fastball I was looking for. —Bernie Carbo on his pinch hit home run in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series
I got there in ’79 and we were just a bunch of young guys learning the Big Leagues together. Rickey Henderson was there and so was Dwayne Murphy, who is my best friend to this day. But we were young and learning and when Billy came in, he added that spark that we needed to believe in ourselves. He looked at this team and saw the potential. He really lit that spark in the fans and that team in 1981 and it was great for us to win. —Mike Heath on playing for Billy Martin in Oakland
That was a great thrill. The All-Star Game itself was phenomenal. In my first inning, I had first and third and I struck out John Roseboro and Stan Musial to get out of it. I have a picture of the moment I struck Musial out. Someone took it from centerfield. I gave up one run on a grounder to short to Luis Aparicio. He waited back and I thought he could have went to get it. The game ended in a 1-1 tie. Rocky Colavito hit a home run and that was the only run we scored. –Don Schwall on pitching in the 1961 All-Star Game
Jackie Robinson was a real hero. He was an outstanding player, and it was an honor to pitch against him. We were on a radio show once at the same time. That was outstanding to meet with him and talk with him, the great player that he was. It was scary any time Stan Musial came up there. He was a great hitter. It was an honor to pitch against him too. He was good; he was a lot better than I was. That was something else to pitch against Stan Musial. Roberto Clemente was another great one. Great at everything. He was very fast. He could run and was just an outstanding player. He was a tough man to get out and when he got on the bases, he really knew how to run. –Al Worthington on pitching against some of the game’s greats
Everything came together for me. Unless you’re a Ted Williams or a Mickey Mantle or [Stan] Musial and do it every year, for us regular players, every once in a while, you have a career year and 1961 was it for me. I was even surprised. Jiminy Christmas it seemed that whenever I got a good pitch to hit, I hit it and it went a long way. Four of us hit over 40 homers, one hit 50 and one hit 60. Do you know how many hit 30 besides us? None. Six of us hit over 40, but the next guy was Bobby Allison with 29. It wasn’t like everyone was hitting homers that year, despite what people say. —Jim Gentile on the incredible seasons he, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris had in 1961
Dave Winfield was a Hall of Famer. Rickey Henderson was a Hall of Famer. Don Mattingly was incredible [and] had a great career. I took Phil Niekro’s number from the year before and was in the rotation with Joe Niekro on that team. Ken Griffey, Sr. was on that team too. He was really nice to me as was Winfield, so I had some veterans making me feel good. You start to realize that someone like Dave Winfield gets dressed the same as everyone else. But yeah, I do look back at it and think, “Wow!” –Bob Tewksbury on playing for the Yankees in the mid-1980s
I was like a kid in a candy store. In Spring Training one year I saw Harmon Killebrew and Tony Oliva. I thought to myself, “Man, that’s the freaking Killer right there!” Early in my career we went to Yankee Stadium for Old Timers Day when Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle were still around. I was always so in awe of those guys. I’m such a big fan of baseball history that I always really enjoyed stuff like that. I played for the Orioles for a couple of years, so I got to be around Cal Ripken and his dad. Jim Palmer too. Getting to watch Nolan Ryan warm up before a game in Texas was really cool. I can go on and on. –Mike Trombley on his love of baseball history
I was in the minors with the Yankees and with a couple weeks left in the season, the Yanks sent me and Edwin Rodriguez to the Padres to complete an earlier trade for John Montefusco. We’re in the airport going to San Diego and I see Ted Gianoulis, who is the San Diego Chicken. We all knew him because he was always in our clubhouse getting dressed, but nobody else would recognize him.
He called me by name when he saw me. I told him that we got traded to the Padres and we’re going up to the Majors for the first time. He asked if anyone was picking us up and I told him there wasn’t. He said, “I got you covered. My limo is waiting for me at the airport, you can ride with me.” We got off the plane and rode into town in the San Diego Chicken’s limo. That was my first ride to the Big Leagues. –Dennis Rasmussen on being called up to the Majors
The Senior Baseball League was a blast. We had such a good group of guys and the best record in the league. Luis Pujols got hurt, so I caught most of the games. I wish it would have lasted. Look at some of the names on that team. Toby Harrah, Ronnie Washington, Dave Kingman, Mickey Rivers, Rollie Fingers. It was really competitive. I thought they should have played fewer games to limit injuries, but it was one of my favorite times of my life. –Randy Johnson on playing for the West Palm Beach Tropics in the Senior Baseball League
I was there three seasons, so I got to play with a lot of those guys. I remember in 1993, I got to play with Kenny Lofton, Albert Belle, Carlos Baerga and Sandy Alomar. It was obvious that there was so much talent. We finished 6th, but we gave teams all they could handle. Other teams would tell us that we were going to be tough in a couple of years. They made some moves too and put the missing pieces in place. I enjoyed playing with those guys and learned a lot from them. —Reggie Jefferson on recognizing the young talent on the Cleveland Indians
The time before, I hit a double and Doug Drabek tried to pick me off of second base twice. But when I walked in the ninth, they took Drabek out and put in Stan Belinda. With Belinda on the mound, I knew it was a totally different situation. There were two outs, so he wasn’t gonna try to pick me off. His job was to get the hitter out. I got a much bigger lead and got a great secondary lead. Everything was working in my favor. There were two outs, so I could go on the crack of the bat. I always prided myself on running the bases well. But I had knee surgeries that made me a whole lot slower than what I was. –Sid Bream on scoring the winning run in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS
Baseball is a great game and it’s a microcosm of life. There’s a lot of ups and a lot of downs in the game of baseball and in life and you have to stay even-keeled. You just have to take life one day at a time and in baseball, you’re taught to take things one pitch at a time or one inning at a time. Before you know it, you grind out the season and life is the same way. You have to make sure you fix your eyes on the Lord Jesus Christ who has a perfect plan in the game and outside of the game. He’s there with you during the ups and downs; the good days and the bad days. He promises to work things together for our good in His glory. I always tried to keep that forefront in my mind during my baseball career and my life. –Chris Bando comparing baseball to life
I have more feelings about drafting Jim Abbott than anyone I have ever been involved with. He had a great career but was he the best player I have ever been associated with? No. But, did he have as big an impact of anyone I have ever been involved with? I’d say yes. When you saw him throw, you came away saying this was a guy we had to consider. But for obvious reasons, there were questions about being able to field his position and do some other things. Our staff all liked him, but they weren’t unanimous in taking him first. But they were unanimous in thinking that he can field his position. He not only turned out to be a good fielder, but he was one of our best fielders. –Super scout Bob Fontaine Jr. on signing Jim Abbott
There’s a story behind [my Major League debut] about a mission to accomplish. I had a buddy of mine who passed away. I still remember the date, December 10. He was killed by a drunk driver. His mom and dad had just bought him a baseball glove and after the accident, they brought it over to me and asked me to use it in the Major Leagues one day. So, years later, I walked out to the mound, looked out in right field and Tony Gwynn is out there. I’m holding my buddy’s glove and it was all pretty surreal. I got the first out, then switched the glove out for my own. I ended up having the glove bronzed and gave it back to his parents. –Doug Bochtler on his Major League debut
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. –Jeff Fassero remembering his time pitching for the Expos
On April 19, a Saturday against the Phillies, I got my first start and Doc was the pitcher. I caught him in Spring Training and being in the same draft, I knew him from Instructional League. He came off that amazing year in 1985 and catching him for my first start was special. Kevin Mitchell was a rookie on that team too and that was his first start of the season. We won 3-2 and Doc went the distance. I had an RBI groundout to tie the game and it was thrilling to say the least. It was the beginning of a dream come true. —Barry Lyons on starting his first MLB game
Another thing I reflect on is when I was a kid, I used to scrounge up some empty bottles and get two cents for a return. It was five cents to get a pack of bubble gum cards. We’d open those packs and it would be great. Now to look back and see that I eventually ended up on those cards, that’s freaking awesome! –Dave Lemanczyk reflecting on his baseball career