"I was very blessed to play with a lot of great players."
At BallNine, we like to celebrate the generational ties baseball has as a sport. Parents pass their love of the game down to their kids and when they grow up, they pass it down to the next generation. It happens with baseball much more than any other sport.
This week in Spitballin’, we trace the path Scott Sanders took to the Majors and see how baseball and sports has traversed the Sanders family tree over the past sixty years.
Scott’s father Jerry was a standout baseball and basketball player at Nicholls State in Louisiana starting in 1962. He later became the college’s Head Men’s Basketball Coach. Scott Sanders grew up on the campus with his dad and eventually pitched for the Colonels himself. Both men are enshrined in the Nicholls State University Athletics Hall of Fame.
Athletic success in the Sanders family didn’t end there as Scott’s son Cameron just had a successful 2021 season in AA in the Cubs system after a fine career pitching for LSU.
Scott has plenty of lessons he could pass on to Cameron as a former first round pick and veteran pitcher of seven Big League seasons. From playing alongside some of the greats of the game to taking the ball as a postseason starter, the elder Sanders can draw on a wealth of personal experience when talking baseball.
Lucky for all of us, he is sharing that personal experience with us too, so let’s go Spitballin’ with Scott Sanders.
Apr 25 1996: Pitcher Scott Sanders of the San Diego Padres looks on during a game against the Chicago Cubs at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego, California. The Padres won the game, 8-3.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Sanders. Looking forward to hearing your stories. Let’s start at the beginning. What was it like growing up for you playing baseball?
My father played minor league baseball and was the basketball coach for Nicholls State, the college in my hometown where I went to school. I grew up playing basketball and baseball, and basketball was my first love. I look back at pictures from my childhood and I always had some type of ball in my hand. I grew up a Cardinals fan and rooted for Lou Brock, The Mad Hungarian, Al Hrabosky and those guys. They were my father’s favorite team, so I followed them too.
I wanted to ask about your time at Nicholls State. You still are the only first round draft pick from the school and actually the only one picked in the first ten rounds. What was your experience like there?
I pretty much grew up on the campus of Nicholls State because my father was the basketball coach there for 11 years. I was on the sidelines for football, bat boy for the baseball team, ball boy for the basketball team. To me, the guys who played sports there were my heroes. My dad played basketball and baseball there, so that was my dream place to follow in his footsteps and do the same.
“I know Ted Williams was a great hitter, but to me, Tony Gwynn was the best hitter to ever walk the earth. God rest his soul, I wish he was still here today.”
Was it a surprise to be a first round pick out of Nicholls State?
I just wanted to be drafted and have a shot. I didn’t care if it was the first round, eighth round, tenth round. I just wanted a chance to play pro ball. More and more scouts kept coming to see me though and it got out that I was gonna be a pretty high pick. The late Kevin Towers drafted me with the Padres. We got to be really tight through the process. They had the 25th and 32nd pick. He called me a week before the draft and was like, “Sandman, we want to take you, but unfortunately we don’t think you’re gonna be there when we pick.” He thought I would be picked between 10th and 15th.
I still had two weeks to go at Nicholls though and I ended up pulling my oblique. They had about 20 scouts there and I tried to pitch through it. I didn’t do very well. When I came out I had an ice pack on my side. Back then they didn’t do a lot of medical stuff, so there were questions about whether I hurt my arm. I slid down to 32, but I’m still proud to be drafted that high.
Detroit Tigers pitcher Scott Sanders throws a pitch in the third inning 09 September against the Texas Rangers at Tiger Stadium in Detroit, MI. Sanders allowed only two runners to reach first base as he walked one in the ninth and gave up a single in the fifth on his way to a one-hit game shutout. The Tigers beat the Rangers 4-0. AFP PHOTO/Matt CAMPBELL (Photo credit should read MATT CAMPBELL/AFP via Getty Images)
You made it up through the minors in just three years. What was it like getting that call to come up to the Bigs?
Kevin Towers had been my area scout when I was in college and he went on to become my GM with the Padres. Randy Smith was the scouting director for the Padres when Kevin was my area scout. I got to know them very well. Randy Smith was the GM when I was in the minor leagues. I was in Tacoma, Washington and I was supposed to be pitching that night. I was lying in bed watching TV about 11:30 and the hotel phone rang, which didn’t happen very often. It was Randy Smith and he said he had some bad news.
He told me I wasn’t pitching that night and my first reaction was like, “What? Why not? I’m not hurt or anything. Why am I not pitching tonight?” He said, “Because you’re pitching tomorrow in San Diego against the Rockies.” I think I jumped up so high I hit my head on the ceiling. He told me to pack my stuff, get in a taxi and get to the airport. The next day was a doubleheader and Andy Benes was pitching the first game. I told Randy I was so excited and thanked him. He said, “Sandman, as far as we go back, this is one of my favorite phone calls I’ve made in my career.”
Can you talk about how it felt making your debut?
Well after I got that call, I ran down to the hotel lobby and got the USA Today to look at the Rockies lineup. I saw the names Dante Bichette, Andres Galarraga, Vinny Castilla, but I was fired up because they had a lot of right handed hitters. I wasn’t on the roster for the first game, so I had to watch from the clubhouse then I rolled out for game two. The greatest part about it was that Tony Gwynn had 1,999 career hits going into the doubleheader. I didn’t know at the time, but there were 62,000 people there and it was towel night on top of it. It rarely ever happened, but Tony went hitless in game one. Most people had gone to see him get his 2,000th hit, so they stayed for game two. I don’t ever really look up in the stands, but for the first time in my life I had butterflies when I stepped out on that mound.
My first batter was Eric Young and I went 3-2 before I walked him. I got out of the first though, got a couple strikeouts and then Billy Bean hit a three-run homer for us so we had a cushion. I had a really good outing. When Jim Riggleman came to get me, I walked off and tipped my cap and looked up for the first time. I thought, “Holy moly, there’s a lot of people here tonight.” We won the game, Tony Gwynn got his 2,000th hit, I got my first career hit and RBI; a lot of good things happened. About 25 people came out to the game for me including my mom, dad, sister and a bunch of friends. I saw them after the game and gave my dad a big hug. I almost got tears in my eyes thinking about it now. It was a night I’ll never forget.
Scott Sanders of the Chicago Cubs pitches against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium on August 14, 1999 in St. Louis, Missouri. The Cubs beat the Cardinals 9-7. (Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images)
Wow, how awesome to share a milestone game with Tony Gwynn. What was it like being his teammate and watching him play every day?
I was very blessed to play with a lot of great players. I played with Ken Griffey, Jr., A-Rod, Sammy Sosa, Rickey Henderson, Randy Johnson, Trevor Hoffman, Ken Caminiti, but Tony Gwynn was the one guy who really stood out as being a really great person and great player. All those other players are great guys too, but Tony was special. He cared about the young guys. He knew San Diego didn’t have a lot of money so we had to develop players instead of signing big free agents, so he always looked after young players.
From the first day I walked in as a Major Leaguer, he took me in and anything I needed he helped me with. We would sit and talk hitting because I wanted to know what hitters thought at the plate. I learned so much about the baseball side and also from the point of being a good human being. At the end of his career, he didn’t have the greatest body, but he still found a way to do things nobody else could. I know Ted Williams was a great hitter, but to me, Tony Gwynn was the best hitter to ever walk the earth. God rest his soul, I wish he was still here today.
That’s great to hear. You never hear a bad word about Tony Gwynn. He seems like a great teammate and a lot of fun to have played with.
He was. We used to have great basketball games too. We both lived in Poway and during the offseason, he’d get the key to the Poway gym and we’d have about 15 pro baseball players show up to play five-on-five basketball. Tony was a point guard and loved to pass the ball. Every time we got to the gym, the first thing he would say was, “I got Sandman on my team! I like to pass, and he likes to shoot!” We had a lot of good times in that gym. We played five-on-five with 15 guys, if you won, you stayed on and the next team jumped in. We would play every Sunday night. Jesse Orosco used to play with us. He wasn’t on the Padres, but he lived in San Diego in the offseason. Jesse went up one game for a rebound and came down and sprained his ankle, then that was it. We scattered like roaches when the lights come on. We never played again after that. We switched back to the golf course.
Sep 21 1996: Pitcher Scott Sanders (right) of the San Diego Padres receives some instruction from catcher John Flaherty (left) and coach Dan Warthen (center) during a meeting on the mound during the Padres 9-2 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers at Jack Murphy Stadium.
The Padres had some tough years early in your career, but they were building up to something good under Bruce Bochy. What was it like being part of that youth movement?
When I got drafted in 1990, the Padres had a pretty solid team, but they started trading off guys like Fred McGriff and Gary Sheffield. Jack McKeon had left as GM and he was an old school guy. Randy Smith took over and they tore it down to start fresh. They had a few of us come through the draft as pitchers like myself and Tim Worrell and they picked up Andy Ashby and Bob Tewksbury. We kind of got our heads handed to us as young guys in 1993 and ’94 because we were young. Then they made trades for Ken Caminiti and Steve Finley and that changed the whole atmosphere in San Diego. When we picked up Greg Vaughn in ’96, everything clicked.
In 1996 the Padres kind of came out of nowhere to win 91 games after having three pretty rough seasons in a row. You had a real good year as a swing man out of the bullpen. What was that season like from your perspective?
We were just a pretty decent team at the All-Star break — just hanging around — but then in the second half, we just made a run where we couldn’t do anything wrong. I remember the last weekend of the season we went into Dodgers Stadium. At worst, we were going to be the Wild Card team. We wanted to be division champs though, so we had to sweep for that to happen. Guess who had the ball on Friday night? Me. The second half of that season was the best stretch of my career. I was probably one of the hottest pitchers in the National League at that point and riding high. I went out to warm up and they were calling me every name in the book. I threw great and we won the first game. Second game was Andy Ashby and he won another tight game. Then Sunday, Bob Tewksbury went out and threw a gem. Then we got to dogpile on the Dodger Stadium mound, which was great because they did it to us the year prior in San Diego. That three game series was one of my favorites in my whole career.
Feb 25 1998: Scott Sanders #27 of the Detroit Tigers poses for a portrait during Spring Training at the Merchant Stadium in Lakeland, Florida. (Photo: Craig Melvin /Allsport)
That led to your first postseason experience. What was that like for you?
We faced the Cardinals in the Division Series in 1996 and the day of my start I didn’t feel very good. I went to the trainer and told him I had the chills and asked for an IV. I probably shouldn’t have pitched, but being such a competitor, there was no way I was missing a postseason start. It wasn’t one of my better outings. I kept us in the game for a while and we were tied 1-1 in the fifth inning. I loaded the bases and we had two outs with Ron Gant coming up. Bruce Bochy was our manager and he came out to the mound. He was my manager in A Ball and AA. We had won championships together in the minor leagues and won the NL West in ’96.
I thought he was coming out to see how I was feeling, but he asked me for the ball. I said, “Boch, come on man!” He said, “Sandman, I know you’re not feeling good. I gotta go to the guy in the bullpen. I think a fresh guy has a better chance to get us out of this inning.” I gave him the ball and was bummed out. Dario Veras came in and Ron Gant hit a double off the wall and we went down 4-1. I wasn’t very happy, but I loved Bochy and respected him. He was doing what he felt was best for the club. I got traded to Seattle after 1996 and we shared a Spring Training complex with the Padres. The first day I jogged over to see him and he was like, “Sandman, are you still pissed at me?” I said, “Boch, you know I would have gotten out of that jam!” He said he was kicking himself after the fact, but he did it for the right reasons. We laugh about it, but regardless of what happened, that was a magical season.
I wanted to ask about your son Cameron. He’s a good pitching prospect in the Cubs organization. What has it been like watching him pursue the same dreams you had?
When I retired, my sons Cameron and Scottie were seven and eight. I had them with me when I played in Japan and they were always around the ballpark when I was in AAA the last couple years of my career. From the time he was about three, I could tell Cameron had something. Everything he did was real easy. He was basically the spitting image of me. You could see he was God-gifted; everything was easy and free. But growing up, Scottie was head and shoulders better than Cameron. I kept telling people that Scottie was great, but Cameron has “it.” I had been the pitching coach at his high school, but his senior season I stepped back. We butted heads sometimes, the way it is when you coach your son, so I stepped away and he really blossomed.
He’s got a 96-MPH sinker and a 12-6 curve ball. He’s at about 2,600 RPMs, which is ridiculous. He originally got drafted by the Padres out of junior college and I wanted him to sign there. But he wanted to go to LSU, so I told him to do his own thing. He did great there and got drafted by the Cubs. Jason McCleod was the Vice President of the Cubs and Head of Scouting at the time. I had known Jason since he was 22-years-old with the Padres. He used to babysit Cameron and Scottie. He even named his son Cameron. Theo Epstein was the Cubs GM at the time and I knew him from when he was real young with the Padres too.
Those are some great connections. What are you expecting from him looking forward to this year?
Cam is working hard and pitched in AA last year. We thought he’d move up to AAA when they extended the season, but he ended up getting Covid and he got shut down for the rest of the season. He’s out at Cubs camp in Arizona working hard and hopefully this year he can get to AAA and knock on the door. Hopefully one day he gets that call to the Majors and I can be a proud papa, just like my dad was when I got the call. He doesn’t walk a lot of people and usually strikes out 3:1. His ball moves so much, like mine did too. He’s learning how to control that movement as he’s gaining experience.
Good luck to him! We at BallNine will be rooting for him and will be happy once he gets that call too! This has been great. Thanks for joining us. My final question is open-ended. Do you have any reflections on baseball that you’d like to leave our readers with?
Baseball has changed since I played. Analytics have taken over baseball. Maybe for good, maybe for bad. I don’t really know to be honest. I watch games now and see the shifts and don’t like it because I think to myself, “Wow, what if that was happening when I was pitching? How much better could my ERA have been if we played defense differently?” Nobody ever shifted when I played and now you rarely ever see all nine guys playing their true positions. You rarely come across a guy who hits the ball from the left field line to the right field line where you have to respect all parts of the park. So in a way, I like what has been happening, but in a way, I don’t like it. I watch Cameron pitching in the minor league games and they do it down there too, now. I see it all the time, they’ll shift the shortstop up the middle and he’ll throw a 98 MPH fastball that the guy just flicks the other way in the hole. It’s a double-edged sword. In the Majors, they have more data and consistent data, so I see it working better up there.