"I also struck out Barry Bonds, so for the novelty of it, I enjoyed that at bat."
When BallNine was started nearly two years ago, it was under the premise that anyone who spent any amount of time in a Big League uniform would have stories to share. We wanted to be the vehicle to allow them to share their stories.
Twelve-year veteran reliever Will Ohman has a catalog of stories and he joins us for this week’s Spitballin’.
Ohman comes from a military family and his story began in Germany when he was born on an Army base in Frankfurt in 1977. He graduated from Ponderosa High School in Colorado and pitched for Pepperdine University before being drafted by the Cubs.
Ohman spent just two years in the minors before making his Major League debut but just two years later, had to endure multiple arm surgeries.
After last pitching in a Major League uniform in 2001, Ohman returned to the Majors in 2005 and struck out the first batter he faced—a fellow named Ken Griffey, Jr. Ohman went on to pitch eight more years post-surgery and even represented Team Germany in two World Baseball Classics.
All baseball players have their stories, and as the stereotype goes, lefty relievers tend to be a LITTLE bit more interesting than others.
We’re calling for the lefty out of the pen as we go Spitballin’ with Will Ohman.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Ohman. We have a lot of ground to cover, so let’s jump right in. You’re one of just 40 former Major Leaguers who were born in Germany. What was your experience like as a kid with baseball?
My family moved around a little bit because my dad was in the Army and when he came back to the United States he was a pastor. When you go from the military to the ministry, you’re guaranteed travel. I started playing baseball in Seattle, Washington and fell in love with it. I had a natural enjoyment of the game. I had some really good coaches. I was blessed with three brothers who had a younger brother who was my age and these guys wanted to coach their little brother. I was on their team and stayed with them for four or five years. They made it all about the kids and having fun, but we won a lot of games. It helped my confidence and I liked it, so I figured I’d just keep going. I was like that with anything that had a ball involved. If there was a ball, I wanted to play.
(On his first hit) “Best bunt of all time on a full swing. I ran to first like someone was chasing me with a knife. I got there and am like, ‘I am the greatest hitter alive!'”
Was there any time when you thought you’d be able to play baseball professionally?
I was like every kid who dreams of making it big. My mentality was to throw 100 MPH with my hair on fire. Until the door slams in your face, there’s an opportunity. I convinced myself that was what I was gonna do. I worked hard in school because I couldn’t put all my eggs in one basket, but I had this underlying belief that I’d always keep playing. I don’t think it became a full-fledged reality until my senior year in high school. There was one scout who noticed me and I talked to him maybe once. It was a random meeting because we happened to be playing against Roy Halladay. The scouts were there to see him and I happened to pitch. That was the first attention I got and I was just a kid. It wasn’t until between my sophomore and junior year in college that I went from boy to man. I went from throwing 84 to 94.
That’s pretty amazing you got to play against Roy Halladay in high school! What was that experience like?
It was a very interesting smattering of talent in Colorado that year. In the state playoffs on two neighboring fields were Halladay’s Arvada West High School and my high school [Ponderosa High School] against a perennial power in Cherry Creek. On that team was Brad Lidge, Darnell McDonald, Josh Bard and a couple of other guys who were D1 players and then myself. Something was in the water there that period of time.
``I was with the White Sox @ Wrigley. Had been back on different teams, but always wanted to spray the hose on the bleachers. Nothing mean-spirited. People were jawing/heckling me during bp - I said I’d be right back. Fairly certain I enjoyed it more than most, it wasn’t very warm that day.” (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
What was your first experience like getting called up and making your debut?
I grew up in Colorado and when the Rockies franchise started, that’s where I was living. Don Baylor was their first manager and he was my first manager with the Cubs. On the team we had Eric Young and Joe Girardi who were on the Rockies when I was a kid too. So now, I’m living in this weird altered reality where I’m on the same level as these guys I watched when I was in high school. I got back to my locker and all my stuff was hanging up. I was ready to unpack my stuff, but someone did that for me. Apparently I was being treated like I was good at something!
I didn’t debut that night, which gave my dad time to fly in from Europe. I debuted the next night with my dad there. My wife was there too. It was really special. I squeaked out of my first appearance with a scoreless inning because Geoff Jenkins ran out of the baseline between first and second. I got my first hitter, Marquis Grissom, out. Then I walked Mark Loretta and Jenkins got a single. Then there was a grounder to Chad Meyers at second and when he went to tag Jenkins, he ran out of the baseline. They gave us a double play and I escaped the inning with an inning.
That’s a memorable first inning. You actually pitched in six of the final 11 games of the year, so you made the most of your time up there.
The night after my debut I came in to face Jenkins with the bases loaded and no outs in the bottom of the 10th. I got him to roll over on a grounder to Mark Grace. It was a tailor-made home-to-first double play ball, but Gracie made what was maybe his third error of the year, so it was a walk off loss. It set the stage for my first Big League story. We were walking off the field and Gracie swats me on the butt with his glove and says, “Just don’t crap on me to your grandkids!”
Will Ohman #77 of the Chicago White Sox poses during spring training photo day on March 3, 2012 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
You mentioned Don Baylor earlier and I was actually looking at some of the managers you played for. Baylor, Joe Torre, Dusty Baker and Bobby Cox just to name a few. Did you have any managers you particularly liked playing for?
The quality of managers I got to play for was a who’s who of the 2000s. Don Baylor has a special place in my heart because he was manager of the Rockies when I was at an impressionable age. He treated me well and was a players’ manager. Dusty and Bobby Cox were awesome. They were like playing for your granddad. They were on your side and would go to bat for you. Just fantastic human beings on top of all the baseball knowledge they had. The list continues with Torre, Lou Piniella and Ozzie Guillen too. But I’d say the guy I had the best relationship with was Dusty because I spent the longest with him.
I want to read a stat to you and just let you react to it. Here’s a list of players: David Ortiz, Ichiro, Todd Helton, Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds, Jim Thome and Carlos Beltran. Those guys had a combined 52 at bats against you and batted .077. That’s some incredible work.
I was fortunate to get to test myself against the best the game had to offer. The way I look at it, if you throw the ball over the plate, you have roughly a 70% chance of success. The fact that I did a little better than that against some of those Hall of Famers, 500 home run guys, just huge names, was something. I don’t know if that’s indicative of me being excellent, but for the time being, I performed admirably against those guys. I also gave up a lot of hits to some career .230 hitters too, so maybe that skewed things in the opposite direction. But it was always really cool to face the guys that I idolized as a kid.
Were there any at bats or guys you faced that stand out to you?
My two biggest ones were Ken Griffey and Will Clark. Facing those guys were supremely special. That was the first and only time I faced Will and there’s a great story. He was a childhood idol of mine. We were facing the Cardinals in 2000 and Mark McGwire and Will Clark were on the team. It was my third game in the Big Leagues and next thing I knew I was facing Mark McGwire. I was amped out of my mind. I successfully threw nothing near the zone and walked him. He could have flicked the barrel out there and hit it 9,000 feet. It was an out of body experience. He gets to first and they pinch run with Jim Edmonds. Up steps Will Clark. It was 1-1 and I was supposed to throw a fastball down-and-away, but I open up and buzz his tower. He steps back and the crowd goes, “Oooooh!” I get the ball back and I’m thinking, “I just buzzed Will Clark!”
Next pitch I groove one down the middle and he takes it. Now I have two strikes on him. I look for the sign and they give me a pickoff. As a lefty, I have a terrible pickoff move and never threw over. I picked up and threw over and they were straight stealing on the play. Edmonds was out at second for the third out of the inning. We came back in the bottom of the 9th and won, so that was my first Big League win, but I never finished my at bat with Will Clark. Fast forward two or three years, I’m in the clubhouse in Spring Training and all of a sudden I hear this high-pitched voice. It’s Will Clark. I get a hand on my shoulder and I hear, “We never got to finish our at bat!” I’m thinking, “What are you talking about?” Then he runs by every pitch in the at bat as it occurred. I had heard the legend of his memory, but I’m thinking, “How do you even know who I am? That’s amazing!”
``Dodgers Fan Day, saw a dude with Manny wig, borrowed it, took the photo.`` (Photo courtesy of Will Ohman)
That is absolutely incredible. Being a lefty specialist you’re usually in some real tight spots. Do you have any at bats or situations where you look back and think, “Wow, how did I get out of that one?”
There are always some watershed moments. For me, I missed 2002 and ’03 with three consecutive elbow surgeries. I didn’t think I was gonna make it back. I spent 2004 in AAA and in 2005 I had a disappointing spring. When I finally got called back up, I was the fourth left-hander in the bullpen and by the end of the year I was the only one left. My first game back I was facing Cincinnati. I struck out Ken Griffey Jr., and thought, “Wow, this is real. I am back.” After two years in physical rehab and then a year in AAA, thank God I’m back.
There was an at bat about a month later against the Mets, I want to say it was Carlos Delgado. It was a big at bat and Henry Blanco came out and asked what I wanted to go with. Without hesitation I told him I wanted to throw a slider and punch him out right here. Henry just said, “OK, let’s go!” I did exactly that and that made me feel like I belonged. I also struck out Barry Bonds, so for the novelty of it, I enjoyed that at bat. Of course he later hit a home run off me, so I had my slice of humble pie come back real quick.
You pitched for Team Germany during two World Baseball Classics. What was it like representing your country?
It was on the back end of my career when I got the first invite to do that. I had been released by the White Sox and was in AAA with the Reds. I got a call from my agent and even though I was trying to get back to the Majors, I thought this was such a cool opportunity. When it came to fruition, I felt very fortunate to wear the name of a country across my chest. The weight that you’re representing your country in international competition is extraordinarily special. Even though I don’t speak German, I downloaded the National Anthem so I could be in rhythm when they played it. It was very weighty and special to be a part of that because it’s a fledgling sport there that started on the military bases during World War II.
Will Ohman #43 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim at Dodger Stadium on May 24, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)
What is baseball like in Germany?
If you look at the talent pool of athletes that country has to offer, they’re incredible. Watch them in the Summer Olympics play team handball. They have dudes who are 6’5” who run like deer, jump through the roof and throw absolute fuel. The athletes are there, but it’s not incentivized yet for them to transfer over to baseball. The 2012 German team I was on had Max Kepler too; he was just 19. You saw him and said, “Yeah, that’s a kid with Big League talent.”
I was giving an interview and someone asked me if Germans should go watch a bunch of Americans play for them. I felt like because of the relevance of the game and because it was televised throughout the country, you’re not going to see the fruits of this for another 20 years. The fruits of us playing were that some kid was going to see this and choose a baseball and glove, over a soccer ball. That happens enough times, and who knows where this can end up. The athletes are there. You see them in many other sports.
One of my favorite things to do is ask pitchers about their hitting. You went 2-for-5 in your career with an RBI. Do you remember those hits?
I remember both of my hits vividly. It’s a small sample size. My first hit came off Jeremy Picardo with San Francisco. The first pitch he threw was a fastball at about 97 and I didn’t even see it. Then he threw another one and the dugout railings are pretty low in San Fran. I was so late that I hit a line drive right on line to drill Felipe Alou right in the face. It hit the railing just below him. He ducked and everyone was laughing. I look over and I’m apologizing to the other manager. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to almost kill you. I’ll be done soon.”
The next pitch I started swinging inappropriately early so I got the bat out. I barely touch the pitch with the nub of the bat and it dribbles down the third base line about 37 feet. Best bunt of all time on a full swing. I ran to first like someone was chasing me with a knife. I got there and am like, “I am the greatest hitter alive!” Then Jerry Hairston hits a line drive to right and I go first to third. Now I’m thinking I’m such a great athlete and I’m so good at baseball. All of a sudden, this terror sweeps over me as I realize I cannot get picked off.
I don’t remember who the pitcher was my second hit, but my spot in the order came up and Joe Torre told me I was hitting. Manny Ramirez handed me a bat and told me to use it. I went up and pulled it through the 3-4 hole and got an RBI single. Manny was looking like The Predator with his hair out jumping up and down and being Manny. I was like, “Yea, OK let’s party!
That’s why I love asking those questions! I wanted to ask your opinion too about the current labor situation too.
What’s going on with the CBA is disheartening. I am hoping to have baseball on-time, but it doesn’t seem like it. I feel like the biggest problem is that the fans and players want the season to get played. I lump the players and fans together that way. A lot of times we hear stuff from MLB and Rob Manfred and we try to apply logic. That works from the premise of them wanting a resolution, but I don’t know at this point if that is the intent. I don’t know if they want a resolution, but I know that they want to pick a fight. I said this when the lockout was instituted. If I’m having a disagreement with my wife, if I want to jump start the negotiations, the first thing I do is slam the door in her face. That gets us going on the right foot. When the lockout was instituted, I looked at it and it didn’t make any sense. I was trying to apply logic to something that wasn’t logic-based. I think that’s where a lot of the frustration comes in.
This has been a blast, thanks so much for sharing such entertaining stories. My final question is open-ended. Do you have any final reflections you’d like to leave our readers with?
The state of the game is a very precarious position now. There are a lot of analytically-driven organizations and mindsets out there. The amount of data available is overwhelming and I think it’s great for the sport. How they’re training and preparing guys is phenomenal. Rookies come up with a better idea of what they’re good at now than we did 20 years ago. However, in the same breath, a lot of the feel of the game, a lot of the rhythm of the game is being lost to try to play long-term probabilities. I am hoping this is just a “season” that exists. When you take a singular approach and don’t consider anything else, it breeds a lopsided effect. It doesn’t grow the game or prepare players as well as it could. I still think there is a lot of room for coaches who have played the game.