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Mudville: June 16, 2024 3:47 pm PDT

Tom Gamboa

“I’ll be doing this the rest of my life.”

Follow your passion.

It seems like a simple concept, but it can be easier said than done. It takes courage, sacrifice, self-awareness and a firm belief in yourself and what you can accomplish.

Tom Gamboa followed his passion and it led to a career in baseball that lasted over four decades and gave him a front seat to history on multiple occasions.

The respected longtime coach joins us for this week’s Spitballin’.

Gamboa found his passion as a youngster and even the wide-eyed ten-year-old who fell in love with baseball may not have been able to dream of the experiences he would eventually have in the game.

His journey ranged far-and-wide, beginning as a prep star in Southern California to a standout collegiate career at UC Santa Barbara before he began his path as a scout and coach. Baseball has taken Gamboa to minor league cities like Butte, Paintsville, Beloit and Brooklyn. It has taken him to Mexico, Puerto Rico, South Korea and Tokyo and to Major League dugouts across America.

His baseball passion is unquestioned and probably not matched by many. Lucky for us, the gregarious baseball lifer is generous in sharing his tales, so join us as we go Spitballin’ with Tom Gamboa.

Tom Gamboa with the Brooklyn Cyclones.

Thanks for joining us, Mr. Gamboa. We have a lot of ground to cover, so let’s jump right in. How did you get your start playing baseball as a kid?

When I was seven or eight I lived in Boston and collected baseball cards. I had Jimmy Piersall, Vern Stephens and of course Ted Williams. I had the cards, but I didn’t really know anything about baseball. Fortunately for me, my mom married my stepdad when I was ten and we moved to California. He taught me how to play baseball. I can remember like it was yesterday being in my uniform eating dinner after my first baseball game and told my parents, “I’ll be doing this the rest of my life.” My stepdad smiled and said, “You may not be good enough.” I told him I’d play baseball until I can’t play anymore and then I’ll be a coach.

You had a great career at UC Santa Barbara and then played on a team associated with the Orioles before you got into coaching. Was there a time you realized your path was more in coaching rather than playing?

For two years I played in a Canadian League outside of Toronto in a town called Stratford and I was a two-year All-Star. In my whole life, I had never struck out twice in a game. I could always hit at any level. We played this team from Toronto and they didn’t have guns in those days, but I swear this guy was throwing 100. He struck me out three times. He threw a complete game shutout and struck out 18 in 9 innings. I got one of our only three hits.

I remember telling my wife after the game that there were guys better than me. She said, “Well, you got one of the only three hits. You hit a double off the fence.” I said, “Yeah, but the other three times I was completely overmatched.” I felt happy two short years later when that guy, Dave Lemanczyk, made the Majors. It made me feel good because at the time I was like, “If this guy doesn’t make it to the Big Leagues, nobody has a chance to!” When I was playing in Canada, our manager got fired and I was made the player-manager, so that’s how I got my start in my second career at a very young age.

“Sosa comes in and says, ‘Hey Gamby, you could have gotten a little excited for me when I came around third today. That’s 62 home runs!’ I just brushed him off and said, ‘Eh, I saw that last week in St. Louis.’”

You got started as a scout in the 1970s with the Orioles and the Major League Scouting Bureau. Do you have any players that you scouted that stand out to you?

There was a little skinny shortstop at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo I scouted who went on to become a Hall of Famer; Ozzie Smith. I can remember one organization that shall remain nameless had this cross-checker. He flew from the East Coast to Los Angeles, rented a car and drove three-and-a-half hours to San Luis Obispo to watch Ozzie play. He called me on the phone afterwards and ripped me. He said, “How could you possibly turn this player in as a Big League prospect? He’s so physically weak they’ll knock the bat out of his hands in pro ball.” This guy blasted me for wasting his organization’s time and money. I was a young scout, not even 30, but I remember saying, “If I’m 100% wrong about this player, at the very worst, he’s going to be a late-game defensive replacement. If I scout 50 years, I’ll never see anyone with such cat-like reactions and soft hands.”

As fans we remember these players as we saw them in the Majors. Sometimes we don’t think of them before they’re fully developed or still growing. That has to be tough to scout.

Well, I think of another guy that comes to mind during my tenure with the Major League Scouting Bureau who was a skinny left-handed pitcher for Santa Barbara City College. He didn’t weigh 150 pounds at the time, but I loved his competitiveness and delivery. That guy was Jesse Orosco. A scout from the Twins signed him for a couple thousand bucks because he wasn’t that interested in school. After his first minor league season, he was traded to the Mets. I was the first one who found him and let the Twins and everyone else know who he was. I used to tell other scouts, if you go there, you have to watch him pitch in the first inning because at 150 pounds, his velocity goes down real fast. He needed to build his strength and stamina. But look what he became and what he did for your 1986 Mets.

Wow! That’s unbelievable and a pretty great eye to see that. How did you make the jump from scouting to coaching?

In 1978, the same guy who got me into scouting, Ray Poitevint, became the Scouting and Farm Director of the Milwaukee Brewers. He hired me not only as a scout and cross-checker, but also as the minor league hitting instructor for the Brewers. I always wanted to be on the field. I knew with my extroverted personality, I would be better on the field than looking through the fence evaluating. I knew I’d get more satisfaction.

Unfortunately, in 1983, I got divorced, but that led to being able to start my managing career. That year, the Brewers had what may have been their best draft class. On my rookie ball team in ’83, I had Dan Plesac, Chris Bosio, and Glenn Braggs, who won the Triple Crown that year in Paintsville, Kentucky. There were other Major Leaguers too and I was the beneficiary of having those guys. I was fortunate that throughout my career, I had teams that won pennants on every level from Rookie, to Low A, High A, AA, AAA and seven of my ten winters in Latin American Winter Ball. I regretted getting divorced, but professionally, it got me on a track that I felt I should have been all along.

Through all of that success, you sent so many guys to the Majors. Are there any guys who stand out to you in doing so?

I managed AAA for the Tigers in Toledo and at the All-Star break I took Travis Fryman and his then-girlfriend and future-wife out to dinner. He was playing shortstop for me and I told him what a pleasure it was to manage him. He said you’re talking like it’s over. I said, “It is, because tomorrow you’re going to be playing in Detroit.” Getting a chance to literally send him to the Big Leagues was amazing. He had a really good career split with Detroit and Cleveland. That was a thrill.

He absolutely had a great career and was a key guy on some of those great Indians teams. Did you have any success stories you’re particularly proud of?

When I was hired by the Cubs in 1995 as the Minor League Field Coordinator, they had what was deemed a “failed” draft pick from 1991 in Doug Glanville. He was in AAA and hit about .240. He hardly stole any bases, but could fly. We were going to trade him. Having scouted for so many years, I could see the physical tools he had. But watching him play, he was a “safety first” kind of player. I don’t think I ever managed a team that didn’t lead the league in stolen bases. Aggressiveness was off the charts for me. What I didn’t realize was how much prejudice Doug had experienced in his life that almost caused him to play in a shell so as not to offend anybody. He became a base-to-base guy. I can remember telling him, “The Cubs are looking for a leadoff man. Brian McRae is at the end of his career and you’re not even on the radar.”

How did you help him develop into the player he eventually became?

I took him to Instructional League and told him I didn’t care how many mistakes he made, as long as they were aggressive ones. I told him that every time there’s a decision make, make the aggressive choice and we’ll get along fine. I didn’t want to see bases loaded, game on the line, going after a fly ball and stopping to play it into a two-run single. I’d rather have you dive and miss it and all four runs score. As time went by, he realized that I meant what I said. We ended up having a terrific relationship.

Doug went to the University of Penn, so we’re talking about an Ivy League, extremely intelligent, high IQ guy. But he had never been out of the country. He was 26 years old and I got him a job playing in Mexico. I was coaching in Puerto Rico and had a dynasty there. I was taking four other guys from AAA Omaha with me to Puerto Rico. Doug said that he was grateful for the opportunity to go to Mexico, but wanted to go to Puerto Rico instead. I remember trying to politely tell him he wasn’t good enough because they were paying me a lot of money down there to win. That’s their Major League season down there.

Tom Gamboa (left) as Scout Martinez in the film Moneyball

So did he end up going to Mexico or Puerto Rico?

Well, at the end of Instructional League, he had done so many things to impress me. Like at one point were on a nine game winning streak and even though wins aren’t important in Instructional League, it keeps morale high. The streak was about to end as we were losing 5-0 to the Angels. We scored a few runs to get back in and the inning kept getting extended. Glanville got a key hit and we were down 5-4 but he was the winning run at second. It was two outs and two strikes and hitter chopped a grounder to the right of the mound. It was the kind of play Derek Jeter made famous where he was on the dead run towards the third base line while throwing across his body to first. That’s what happened and the runner at first was safe.

The first baseman threw the ball immediately to home, but Glanville slid in safe to win the game 6-5. He scored from second on an infield grounder. I almost had tears in my eyes. I said, “Holy shit! How did that happen?” Doug said, “You’re always teaching me to be aggressive. I had a big lead and with two outs and two strikes, as soon as he started his swing, I took off. When I saw the chopper, I knew in my mind I was just gonna hit third and keep going.”

I had his ticket changed from Mexico to Puerto Rico. I had a centerfielder with the Padres, Darrell Sherman, who I was going to bring to Puerto Rico. I sent Sherman to Mexico instead and took Glanville to Puerto Rico. Every time I see that commercial on TV from Mastercard where they say, “The look is priceless,” I think of Doug Glanville’s expression when I handed him that ticket to San Juan, Puerto Rico. I didn’t have to say anything, but he knew it was because he was a winning player and he earned it.

The punchline to that story is that we won another championship and Glanville beat out Roberto Alomar, who was making $25 million from the Blue Jays, for the MVP. Alomar said, “How is this guy not playing in the Big Leagues?” I said, “He will be now. The tools were always there, but now he’s an unbridled stallion letting it all out.”

Chicago Cubs' outfielder Sammy Sosa (R) passes third base coach Tom Gamboa on his way home after hitting his ninth homer of the season 14 May 1999 at Wrigley field in Chicago, Il. Sosa hit the long ball off of Atlanta Braves' pitcher Tom Glavin in the bottom of the third inning, scoring infielder Mark Grace. The Cubs shutout the Braves 9-0. AFP PHOTO/Tannen MAURY (Photo by TANNEN MAURY / AFP) (Photo credit should read TANNEN MAURY/AFP via Getty Images)

Speaking of the Cubs, you were the third base coach during the 1998 season. I have a couple of questions about that. First, what was it watching Kerry Wood’s 20 strikeout game?

Sometime in May, one of our pitchers got hurt and they brought Wood up for what was supposed to be ten days. He made his first start against the Expos and Mark Grudzielanek led off for them. I got up off the bench and went up to the railing. A couple of the guys said, “Hey Gamby, move, we can’t see.” I said, “Are you kidding me? Get up here and watch this. This is gonna be the first of 5,000 strikeouts for this guy.” I knew he was never going back. I was field coordinator when we drafted Kerry Wood, so I knew we had a Nolan Ryan in our system from the start.

In his fifth Major League start on a blustery day in Chicago, he struck out 20 guys on an Astros club that was just loaded. That was the best curve ball I ever saw him have in addition to the fastball and slider. Mark Grace was running around the clubhouse saying, “We were all a part of the best game that was ever pitched.” Ron Santo said, “Gracie, I’ve been in the Big Leagues way longer than you and nothing has topped this.” Billy Williams turned around and said, “This was the second-best game ever pitched.” I said, “Billy, I know what the best game was and I was there. I was in the first row behind home plate when Sandy Koufax threw a perfect game against you guys!” Billy said, “Tommy, let me tell you something. I was a pretty Goddamn good hitter and I had some good games against Koufax, but I had no chance that night. Regardless of what these guns say, no human being ever threw the way that man did that night.”

How about the great home run chase of 1998?

We went into St. Louis for a two-game series and as we were landing, I told the coaches that McGwire has 60 home runs and he was gonna break the record this weekend. I remember when I was 13 I watched Roger Maris hit a home run off Tracey Stallard on my black and white TV. I never thought in my lifetime I’d see someone break the record and now I just knew we were gonna see it in person. Sure enough, he hit a home run Saturday and then Sunday when he came up against [Steve] Trachsel, I got up off the bench and leaned on the railing. Kerry Wood and Kevin Tapani said, “Hey Gamby, we can’t see!” I said, “Get up here; this is gonna be history!” Kerry said it wasn’t gonna happen that at bat and I said I really thought it would. Most of McGwire’s home runs were majestic and far, like Tiger Woods wedge shots, but he hit a rocket line drive that I thought was gonna be foul. I didn’t think it was gonna be high enough to clear the fence either. But in a second, it went over the fence just inside the pole and then it was like The Natural with all these flash bulbs going off. It was like time stood still. Next thing I knew I was in a headlock from Kerry Wood and he was saying, “Oh my God you called it!” That moment was chilling.

We got home on the next homestand and Sammy hit 60, 61 and 62 in the same game. After the game, Sosa comes in and says, “Hey Gamby, you could have gotten a little excited for me when I came around third today. That’s 62 home runs!” I just brushed him off and said, “Eh, I saw that last week in St. Louis.” We had a great laugh.

Feb 21 1998: Tom Gamboa of the Chicago Cubs at Spring Training at the Hohokam Park in Mesa, Arizona. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Carlick /Allsport

That was really some incredible season, especially for the Cubs. It must have been amazing to be a part of.

It was. And speaking of Trachsel, I have to tip my hat to him. We ended up tying the Giants for the Wild Card and played a one-game play-in at Wrigley Field. It was Trachsel’s turn to pitch that day against Barry Bonds, Jeff Kent and all those guys in the Giants machine. Trax pitched the game of his life. He went into the seventh and was great. Chicago hadn’t been to the playoffs since 1989. Here we are ten years later in a winner-take-all and Trax was up to it. I’ll never forget that.

Could you tell us about your experience with Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic? How did that come about?

I feel very fortunate that when I retired, a lifelong friend of mine, Jerry Weinstein, was made the manager of Team Israel. One of the coaches had to bail out and Jerry asked me to replace him. I said, “Jerry, I’m not Jewish.” He said I could be an honorary Jew for a week for this tournament. Jerry is a stickler for detail and since the game was in Brooklyn, and I had managed the Cyclones, he wanted me as his bench coach. We were fortunate enough to win and got assigned to the pool in South Korea. I offered to bow out, but the President of Israeli Baseball told me I was going. It was like the cherry on the top of a chocolate sundae to be in post-retirement and experience that. I got to go to South Korea, where I had never been, to play against Chinese Taipei, the Netherlands and Korea in a four-team pool, which we won. Then we moved on to the Tokyo Dome. If we had won there, we would have gone to Dodger Stadium, but we got beat by Japan in front of 57,000 people. I felt blessed though to go to two different countries and have that experience with Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic. It was a neat way to go out.

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book was released in April of 2021.

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