"Well he reminds me every now and then that he was picked second overall and I was picked third."
One of the great sources of pride an elite athlete can have is representing their country in international competition. If you’re watching the Winter Olympics, you’re seeing first-hand the emotions athletes have then competing for their countries.
There’s just something different about putting on a jersey with the name of your country emblazoned on the front as compared to that of a professional sports team.
Bobby Witt has done both and he joins us for this week’s Spitballin’.
In fact, Witt is one of the rare folks who has been able to experience that and also feel a different sense of pride in watching his son represent his country in international competition as well. Bobby Witt Jr. was a part of Team USA and was the MVP as their 18U team won a Gold medal in the 2018 COPABE Pan-American Championship in Panama.
The elder Witt was one of the youngest players on Team USA in the 1984 Olympics and just two years later, he was staring down George Bell, Jesse Barfield and Cecil Fielder as he made his Major League debut with just 11 minor league games under his belt.
Witt had a productive 16-year Major League career that ended about as well as you can hope for. Pitching through a multitude of arm injuries, Witt’s final appearance came in the 2001 World Series pitching for the Diamondbacks. The final batter he faced in his Big League career was the Yankees Shane Spencer, who he set down with a strikeout. That was in the eighth inning of Game 6 of the ‘01 World Series.
The very next day, Luis Gonzalez sent the Diamondbacks home as winners in one of the most dramatic World Series wins ever. The final moments Witt would appear in a Major League uniform as an active player were spent sprinting in from the bullpen to join the chaotic scene as the Diamondbacks celebrated their only World Series win to this point.
Bobby Witt #40 of the Arizona Diamondbacks throws the ball during the Spring Training Game against the Colorado Rockies at the Hi Corbett Field in Tucson, Arizona. The Diamondbacks defeated the Rockies 6-5.Mandatory Credit: Brian Bahr /Allsport
In between his Olympic accomplishments and World Series ring, Witt gathered some incredible stories to tell, so join us as we go Spitballin’ with Bobby Witt.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Witt. I have a lot of questions about your Olympic and Major League career, but let’s start at the beginning. Did you have favorite teams you rooted for growing up?
When you grow up in Massachusetts, so I was pulling for whatever team was playing, whether it was the Red Sox, Celtics, Patriots or Bruins. I remember as a kid watching Carl Yastrzemski, Freddie Lynn, Jim Rice and all those guys. Rick Burleson was the shortstop and I remember telling my dad that one day I’d like to take his job. I ended up going the other side and pitching against Jim Rice and Fred Lynn and guys I grew up watching. That was a really cool thing for me to experience.
You became a great college pitcher at the University of Oklahoma. What was your recruiting process like?
I ended up getting a scholarship offer from Maine and verbally committed to going there. My folks and I took a trip to Maine one November to see the school and there was probably about eight inches of snow on the baseball field. They had a bubble and that’s where they did all their training. I ended up getting a letter in the mail from the University of Oklahoma sometime in March and I had not signed my NLI yet. Recruits were allowed five visits, and I had only used three. I told my dad I was going to take a flight and visit.
They had put in a new field and had great facilities. They were playing their archrival Oklahoma State and I was just impressed with everything. I told the coaches that I had a full scholarship at Maine and the only way I would think about going to Oklahoma was if they matched it. The first call I got was that they were going to do a 75% scholarship, but then they changed it and offered me a full scholarship. My dad told me that it was a decision I was going to make for myself, but if I was going to change my mind about Maine, I was going to have to call Coach [John] Winkin myself and talk to him. That was a very difficult conversation for me, but Coach understood. Things worked out great at Oklahoma.
(On Nolan Ryan) “I told him there was no way they’d be able to keep him on the field because he’d get himself suspended so many times for knocking people down. It just wouldn’t happen; there’d be no way for him to keep from being suspended all the time.”
You were a part of the 1984 USA Olympic team. That was some accomplishment to make that squad. There were so many great college players who went on to be great pros too. What was that like?
It was incredible. There were five guys, including myself, who were underclassmen. It was me, Chris Gwynn, Will Clark, Barry Larkin and BJ Surhoff. We got to see what the older guys were going through with the draft and your head starts spinning a little. I was thinking, “Man, this is where I want to be next year.” The talent on our team was outstanding. In addition to the young guys, we had Mark McGwire, Cory Snyder, John Marzano, Bob Caffrey, Oddibe McDowell, Shane Mack, Donnie August, John Hoover, Billy Swift. Just an incredible amount of talent.
I remember Ronald Reagan coming into our locker room and speaking with everybody. That was when Russia boycotted and Cuba and a few other countries weren’t there for political reasons. That was the year with Michael Jordan, Mary Lou Retton and Greg Lougainis. There were a lot of incredible athletes waking around Olympic Village and being a part of that was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.
The overall Olympic experience was outstanding and something I’ll never forget. Then to have my son by a part of the 18U USA Team that went down to Panama was pretty cool too. We both got to wear that Team USA jersey.
In 1985 you were the third overall pick in the draft. What was your draft experience like? Were you expecting to go that high?
I was draft-eligible as a sophomore, so I still had two years of college eligibility left. I had the most leverage of any of the top guys in the draft really. The Brewers and Giants had the first two picks and had conversations with both teams. If I remember correctly, they asked if I would be willing to take a certain amount of money, but I said I couldn’t guarantee that because I had two more years. So, the Brewers picked first and took BJ Surhoff and the Giants took Will Clark, The Rangers were up next and they picked me. I was pretty happy to be picked where I was.
Co-MVP Curt Schilling #38 of the Arizona Diamondbacks and teammate Bobby Witt #40 hug after winning the World Series over the New York Yankees at Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix, Arizona. The Diamondbacks defeated the Yankees 3-2. DIGITAL IMAGE Mandatory Credit: Jed Jacobsohn/ALLSPORT
You pitched in just 11 games in the minors in 1985 then started 1986 in the Majors. What was that experience like being on the fast track to the Majors?
If you would have looked at my minor league numbers, you wouldn’t think I was on the fast track. The previous year I saw a lot of guys go to AA or AAA to play a little bit professionally after the Olympics. I thought I’d like to go to AA and see if I could get it going there, but I went there and went 0-6 with a six-something ERA. The velocity and stuff was there, but the command was not. Mistakes I would get away with in college, guys were just spitting on. Breaking balls I would strike guys out on in college, these guys weren’t offering at. They wouldn’t chase fastballs out of the zone
How did you make that adjustment from struggling in AA to pitching in the Majors that next spring?
I went down to Instructional League and did really well there. Bobby Valentine had just taken over as manager of the Rangers and he wanted to go with a youth movement. We had five rookies break camp which is unheard of in today’s game. I had a really good spring; I think my ERA was in the mid-twos. Bobby decided that I was gonna be one of the five rookies to start the year with the club with Ed Correa, Jose Guzman, Mitch Williams and Pete Incaviglia. Ruben Sierra ended up coming up later. It was a young team and we were learning on the Big League level. There was no saying, “It’s OK, this is AA or AAA and it’s more about development.” This was the Big League level, so it was about winning and development. We had to learn at the highest level.
Bobby Witt #40 of the Arizona Diamondbacks Poses for a studio portrait during Spring Training at Tucson Electric Park in Tucson, Arizona.Mandatory Credit: Todd Warshaw /Allsport
So many guys I interview say that they looked up to Nolan Ryan as a kid. What was it like being on the same staff as him for four years?
Nolan Ryan and I had a fantastic relationship. As soon as they signed him, they put his locker right next to mine in Spring Training, this way if I had any questions, it would be very easy and comfortable for me to ask. He was always more than happy to talk to about whatever it was I was asking him; whether it was just about the fastball or things he did in certain situations. He wasn’t a guy that was going to come in and talk about himself, but if you asked him any questions, he would take the time to talk. The biggest thing I learned from Nolan was work ethic. Whether he was pitching in Spring Training or the regular season, he was always doing something to prepare for his next start.
His mentality on the mound was that he was by far, the meanest guy I ever played with. He had no hesitation whatsoever about flipping a guy if he took a big swing in a certain count. He just wanted to let you know that, “Hey, I’m out here and if you’re going to do that kind of stuff, it’s gonna be a long day for you.”
All of that is absolutely right on brand. I think that’s missing from today’s game.
I was interviewed for a documentary about Nolan last year and they asked me how I thought Nolan would do playing in today’s game. I said he wouldn’t be playing today. The guy said, “What do you mean he wouldn’t be playing?” I told him there was no way they’d be able to keep him on the field because he’d get himself suspended so many times for knocking people down. It just wouldn’t happen; there’d be no way for him to keep from being suspended all the time.
That’s true for sure. What was it like making those first few starts in the Majors without much minor league experience?
Charlie Hough broke his finger in Spring Training, so we were all moved up a spot. I started the third game of the season against the Blue Jays and it didn’t go very well. The next game I pitched against the Brewers who had a pretty good team with Robin Yount, Paul Molitor and all those guys. Whenever I see Peter Gammons, he likes to bring up my pitching line from that game. I had five innings pitched, didn’t allow a hit and had ten strikeouts but I walked eight guys. When I left the game it was 2-2 and I hadn’t allowed a hit. I probably threw about 120 pitches. My third start I faced the Blue Jays again. I ended up getting my first win that game and that was actually my first professional win. I didn’t win a game in my short minor league season the year before, so my first professional win came at the Big League level.
Pitcher Bobby Witt #40 of the Arizona Diamondbacks throws a pitch against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California. DIGITAL IMAGE Mandatory Credit: Jeff Gross/ALLSPORT
One of my favorite things to do when I interview pitchers is ask them about their hitting. You had one career home run and it was pretty historic. I’ll let you tell the story from there.
That was in 1997, the first year of interleague play. Anytime you ask a pitcher if they can hit they’ll say, “Oh yea, I can swing it.” In the NL, pitchers take bunting practice and swing in the cage, so there’s a little feel. In the AL, we didn’t do that until interleague play started. We were in the cage and everybody was laughing at the pitchers swings. We got matched up against the Dodgers right before the All-Star break. Ismael Valdez was pitching and it was my first time playing at Chavez-Ravine. My first at bat I hit a hard line drive at the second baseman. It was an out, but I made good contact and didn’t embarrass myself.
The next at bat, I was telling our leadoff hitter Mark McLemore, that I was gonna drag bunt because it was a close game. He said, “Well, who is gonna run for you if you get on?” I said, “Yea, you have a point there.” So I went up there and just sat first pitch fastball. Mike Piazza was catching and the first pitch I saw I just came out of my shoes. It was a letter-high fastball and I hit it in the gap. I’m thinking, “Sweet, I got a double!” I was sprinting because I didn’t want to get thrown out. But when I got to second, I saw the umpire giving the home run sign. Internally, I’m going, “You gotta be kidding me!” Jerry Narron was our third base coach and to this day he says it was one of the hardest high fives he ever got in his life.
That was one of those deals I’ll never forget, especially since it was the first home run a pitcher hit in interleague play, the first home run by an American League pitcher in 25 years and the first home run by a pitcher in Texas Rangers history. I tell my son all the time that I’m still wearing the belt in the family. Until he hits his second Major League home run, I’m still wearing the belt!
You spent 2001 with the Diamondbacks and that ended up being the final year of your career. What was it like being a part of that World Series team? Did you know that was going to be your last year?
I tore a ligament in my elbow my first start of the year. It was a 40% tear so I tried to rehab it; I wasn’t gonna have Tommy John Surgery at 37. That was my 16th year and I was getting long in the tooth. I finally got back in August, but had also done something to my shoulder during that time. My elbow got better and allowed me to get back though. I had been on some good playoff teams before and this team had what it took to do some big things. It was a veteran team, guys really gelled, we had offense and defense and of course the pitching with Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. It was amazing to watch those two guys go out and compete every five days. One always wanted to outdo the other one. If Randy went out and threw seven innings and punched out 12, Curt went out the next night and wanted to go eight with 14 Ks. They kept feeding off one another. Miguel Batista really stepped up and Brian Anderson had a nice year too. Byung-Hyun Kim also had a great year leading up to the World Series.
That World Series was such a close one and so exciting. What are your reflections looking back at the Series?
To go through the injuries and come back to finish my career pitching in the World Series with my last pitch striking out a guy was incredible. The way we finished winning Game 7 with Luis Gonzalez was phenomenal. I couldn’t ask for a better ending. Going into the World Series, we really felt like we were the best team. We got up 2-0 in Arizona. Games three, four and five were all one-run losses and two were extra innings. I’m sure many thought we’d never come back from that, we did. Game 7 was unbelievable. Every single pitch was so intense. I was in the bullpen sitting with Greg Swindell when Luis Gonzalez got that hit. I swear to God, when we ran from the bullpen to the mound, I didn’t feel my feet running. You hear people say they are on “cloud nine,” literally, that’s what I felt like. It was like someone put me on a conveyor belt and shot me to the mound.
I’ll be honest though, that was 2001 so it wasn’t long after 9/11. I had been going to New York City for 17 years at that point. I never saw it like that in my life. There wasn’t that electricity going into the Big Apple, and you can understand why. The stadium was electric, but the surrounding places, not so much. New York needed something to help them forget about what had happened to give a little peace in their lives. We wanted to beat them for sure, we wanted to sweep them. But you could see New York really could have used that win for the city.
It’s been incredible reliving your career, thanks so much for joining us. I wanted to end on a question about your son too. He’s generally considered one of the top two prospects in the game along with Adley Rutschman. What has it been like as a former Major Leaguer and high draft pick to watch the same thing essentially unfold for your son?
Well he reminds me every now and then that he was picked second overall and I was picked third. For what he accomplished so far in his young life is amazing. I sit there with my wife sometimes and we can’t believe what he’s done. He was part of Team USA and we got to go down to Panama and watch him play there. He hit for the cycle in the championship game and was MVP. He was the Gatorade Player of the Year in baseball and overall. The things he’s done, I’m just so proud of him. He’s happy about those things, but that’s not what he set out to do. His goal is to become a Big Leaguer and play this game for a long time. He’s got some old school to him and he understands the game. He loves the game and I think he’s gonna be an exciting player when he gets there. He’s been gifted with a lot of tools from God.