"In all of professional sports, there’s a lot of luck in the things you get to do."
When we were kids, most of us daydreamed about putting on a Major League uniform, hitting a game-winning home run, pitching a no-hitter or playing in a World Series.
For millions who dream, life eventually sends messages that Major League Baseball isn’t in the cards though.
Maybe you couldn’t hit a curve, got cut from a team or didn’t get a sniff on the recruiting trail and it’s time to concentrate on other professional pursuits.
The thing with former Big League pitcher Bill Sampen is that life sent him all those messages and more, yet he still preserved to find himself on a Major League mound.
It’s a fantastic message and Sampen is here to share his story with us in this week’s Spitballin’.
Sampen’s unconventional route took him from a small town in Illinois to MacMurray College, where he remains the only player drafted from the school to make the Major Leagues. A lack of attention on the recruiting trail didn’t deter him and neither did being cut from an American Legion team in high school.
Even two arm surgeries while a young pitcher in the Pirates system couldn’t keep him from the Majors.
Sampen’s path may have been more crooked than others, but it was a path that led to the Major Leagues nonetheless.
How often do we see the opposite? Baseball is littered with tales of the high school superstar who plays on the highest levels of travel and college ball before being drafted high and signing for a huge bonus, only to flame out before he sniffs the Bigs.
When Sampen debuted with the Expos in 1990, he was just the 15,738th person to ever don a Major League uniform. He led the Expos in wins as a rookie with 12, which was no small feat considering other pitchers on the staff included veterans Dennis Martinez, Oil Can Boyd, Zane Smith and Kevin Goss.
The good news in all of this is that Sampen has been passing down this experience and love of the game to the younger generation for years. He founded Samp’s Hack Shack, an instructional facility that has been in operation since 2009 and established the Indiana Expos, a highly competitive travel program that has grown to 15 teams.
He has a great story of perseverance, selflessness and a humble appreciation for his place in baseball history, so let’s go Spitballin’ with Bill Sampen.
“Even while playing professional baseball, I was still a Cardinals fan. Now I was facing Ozzie Smith, Terry Pendleton, Jose Oquendo, Willie McGee and Vince Coleman. Those were guys I was rooting for right up until that day.”
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Sampen. I think you have a great message and I love to see that you’re so involved in youth baseball but let’s talk about your career first. What were your early days of playing baseball as a kid like?
I grew up in a town of about 500 people so it was very local and small. We weren’t even a sanctioned Little League; we were just a bunch of small towns that played in a league that was self-organized. We did a couple of tournaments here and there, just local stuff. I always loved the game and the Cardinals were my favorite team. Lou Brock and Bob Gibson were two of my favorite players. It’s a little ironic when you fast-forward several years and my debut came against the Cardinals. It was both frightening and pretty cool at the same time.
Wow, yeah that’s great to make your MLB debut against your favorite childhood team! As you were growing up, was there a point where you thought you could play ball professionally?
Well, American Legion was pretty much the travel ball of our day. I tried out for the American Legion team following my junior year of high school and got cut. It was always a dream to play professionally but coming from a tiny school and being cut from the Legion team, it looked like it was dead. That didn’t exactly boost my confidence of ever being a professional athlete. I wasn’t recruited out of high school either. I had a couple of little schools talking to me about basketball, but literally nobody was talking to me about baseball. I ended up going to MacMurray College, a small local college, because I thought I could play basketball and baseball there. I wasn’t recruited there though, I just kind of showed up.
May 31, 1991
Incredible to think that you’d end up in the Majors following that path! How did you go from a non-recruit to being drafted out of MacMurray just a few years later?
It wasn’t the typical route because MacMurray was not a very good program when I played. I think the coach was a volunteer and we had no funding for the program whatsoever. We didn’t have dugouts and we didn’t even have an outfield fence. We had a snow fence. I contacted a couple of summer collegiate leagues in Central Illinois about playing and I couldn’t even get a team that wanted to try me out. I played slow pitch softball every summer during college.
My senior year, a new coach came in and we played a couple of Division I schools. Somewhere along the line, I noticed some scouts showing up and honestly, I wondered who they were there to see. I figured it was somebody on the other team, but then I noticed they were only there when I pitched. No scout ever talked to me though. Not a word. I was thinking that they were coming around for a reason though and maybe I’d get drafted in like the 50th round, but honestly I didn’t give it much thought.
So when the Pirates drafted you in the 12th round; that had to be a shock. How did you find out that you had been drafted?
I was actually at a friend’s house playing basketball in the driveway. My friend’s mom came out and said that my mom was on the phone. I figured that I was in trouble or something, but she was like, “Hey, the Pirates called and they drafted you!” I was like, “OK, cool,” and went back outside to finish playing basketball because I still really didn’t know what that meant. Obviously, they made some follow up communication and seven to ten days later, I was reporting to Bradenton, Florida to begin my career.
That’s a totally different path than most follow. What was your minor league experience like?
At first it was shocking coming from a town of 500 people. I don’t think I had ever been on a plane before then. I got placed in Watertown, New York in the New York-Penn League and what I noticed was that I was seeing guys on other teams who I had just watched play in the College World Series. All these high draft picks and stuff and all I can think about was, “Wow, I went to MacMurray. We didn’t even have dugouts. I got cut from my American Legion team. What the hell am I doing here?” It was a major adjustment for me. Logically, it took me a while to feel like I even belonged or deserved to be there.
Was there a time when that started to change for you?
Well, my first year I ended up having arm problems and I only threw about 11 innings, so that didn’t help. I had surgery and was back in the New York-Penn League the next year again and still had some arm problems. It wasn’t until my third year when they advanced me to the Carolina League where I started to hit my stride a little. I started to feel like I belonged and started to progress as a player.
That’s great you stuck with it when many others probably wouldn’t have. You ended up playing five years in the minors, the first two shortened by injury. Then you were taken as a Rule 5 pick by the Expos. What were you thinking when that happened?
That was a total surprise to me. I doubt I even knew that [the Rule 5 Draft] even existed. I was with the Pirates and had gone to the Dominican for Winter Ball. The team I played for had an agreement with the Cleveland Indians. Now, this was all unbeknownst to me until I showed up in the Dominican, but they could only have seven Americans on the active roster. The Indians had sent seven guys to that team and guess who was number eight? That was me. So I had to sit and watch Winter Ball for a couple of months. When the Rule 5 Draft came along, I hadn’t even pitched. It was a shock to me, but I was grateful.
I had nothing but gratitude for the Pirates. They drafted me and stuck with me through two arm surgeries. I was never a high prospect, but they hung on to me. I had never been on a 40-man roster and was never in a Big League camp. I wasn’t a young guy either. I knew at least this was going to give me an opportunity I never had. They either had to keep me [on the Major League roster] or offer me back to the Pirates. It was a no-lose for me. I was either going to be in AAA with the Pirates or in the Majors with the Expos.
Pitcher Bill Sampen of the Kansas City Royals throws a pitch during a game against the California Angels in Anaheim, California. (Credit: Ken Levine /Allsport)
Those early-90s Expos teams had some great young talent too. Guys like Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom and Delino DeShields were just getting started. Did you recognize the young talent there was on that team at that time?
It was obvious that those guys were really gifted athletes. You could never foresee how great some of those guys became. We weren’t expected to do that much that year because it was a combination of those young guys and some older refurbished players. Guys like Dennis Martinez and Oil Can Boyd who were getting second lives in their careers. Tim Raines and Tim Wallach were the veteran guys. But that team ended up being really good and a lot of fun to play with. We had some of everything. We had Mike Fitzgerald, Andres Galarraga and Spike Owen. Those guys were the epitome of professionalism. You talk about young players coming into an environment that is inviting and healthy and it could not have been better. Those guys were fantastic.
You’re right, that’s a great list of just pro’s pros. You mentioned earlier about making your debut against your favorite team, the Cardinals. Take us through what that was like for you.
Even while playing professional baseball, I was still a Cardinals fan. Now I was facing Ozzie Smith, Terry Pendleton, Jose Oquendo, Willie McGee and Vince Coleman. Those were guys I was rooting for right up until that day. I guess running onto the field I was numb. I had been to that ballpark several times as a kid and now I’m on the same field and those people I rooted for are now my opponents. The first guy I faced was Tom Brunansky and he lined one into right field for a hit. It was a positive thing though because it snapped me into reality. I was like, “OK, crap. I better get my shit together or they’re gonna beat the hell out of me.” I couldn’t have asked for a better place to take my first step on a Major League field though.
Bill Sampen #55 of the Montreal Expos pitches against the Philadelphia Phillies during an Major League Baseball game circa 1992 at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Sampen played for the Expos from 1990-1992. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
What an awesome, surreal feeling that must have been. You were teammates with so many great players and I wanted to ask your experience as a teammate with a couple of Hall of Famers who were at the ends of their careers when you played with them. Let’s start with George Brett, who you were teammates with him for his last two Major League seasons.
In all of professional sports, there’s a lot of luck in the things you get to do. I was very fortunate to get to Kansas City right before George got his 3,000th hit. We were in Anaheim and George was in the tub before the game not even knowing if he was gonna play. He was sitting on 2,996 hits and was a game-time decision. Of course when game time comes, he’s in the lineup and gets four hits. It was a really cool experience to get to play with him because you knew he was a Hall of Famer.
He was a veteran who was hurting with knee issues and all this stuff, but he would roll a ball to the second baseman and run hard to first base. That struck me because I knew the condition he was in. He was hurting, but he respected the game so much that he still did what he had to do. He didn’t have to; nobody would have faulted him for jogging, but that was just the way he was. He was a humble guy too. One time we were on a bus and he was in the seat behind me and asked me what it was like to play in Wrigley Field. I was like, “Whoa wait a minute. Why would you ask me what anything was like in this game?” I’ll never forget that.
That sounds about right. You also got to play with Gary Carter in Montreal for his last year. What was he like?
Gary was such a great guy. That smile that you saw on TV, that was him. He was always happy and humble. He was a great teammate, a good friend and a just good person. People loved him with that engaging personality. It’s no wonder the guy was so popular. Not only was he a great player, but a great ambassador and a great human being.
Now here’s my favorite part about interviewing pitchers, talking about your hitting. You went 3-27 in your career with all three hits coming in 1991, one game in which you went 2-2. The floor is yours; talk to us about your hitting prowess.
Specifically in [the 2-for-2] game, I remember getting to second base and Ozzie Smith told me, “nice swing.” I was like, “Alright, I’ll take that!” As a reliever, we didn’t hit much. Even in the minor leagues when I was a starter, we didn’t hit down there. You go years without seeing any competitive pitches. Then you get to the Bigs and it’s like, “Oh by the way, here’s some Major League pitching, why don’t you hop in there and takes some whacks.” You’re in survival mode up there. Coaches would tell us just don’t get hurt in the box. The times I was able to get some hits came when I was able to string some starts together and got some consistency in seeing pitching.
After your baseball career you got really involved in baseball instruction on the youth level. You founded the Indiana Expos, a highly competitive travel baseball organization and in 2009, you opened Samp’s Hack Shack instructional facility. Could you talk about those endeavors?
I stayed involved in baseball from the time I was done with my Major League career. About the time my kids were entering high school, I would take them to places that were 30 or 40 minutes away to work out. It got to where taking my kids to hit and throw turned into a four hour venture, so I thought that I could do that [near where I lived]. It started as a hobby, then it kept morphing until about five or six years ago when I jumped all-in. I always said I would never do teams, but sure enough, I ended up adopting a team and then coached two other teams that same year. Now we have 15 teams and that will probably continue to grow. It’s a lot of fun. I work with kids literally of all skill levels. I work with kids who will never make a middle school team to kids that will one day play professionally and it really doesn’t matter. It’s a cool opportunity to get to work with kids, get to know them and give them confidence and life skills.
Always great to see Major Leaguers keeping the game alive by helping the younger generations. One last question for you and it’s an open-ended one. What final reflections on your career can you leave our readers with?
I would summarize by saying that I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity I had. There have only been like 20,000 people who ever played Major League baseball and when I first made it, that number was about 15,000. When I hear how few have ever gotten to play, it makes me aware of how fortunate I was. I found a bunch of four-leaf clovers along the way. Everybody had every right and every reason to not draft me. The Pirates had every reason to release me. The Expos had every reason to not give me a chance. They all did though – and I feel very fortunate they did. I feel really fortunate to have played with and against the best players in the world.
One thing I would say is that I do wish I had the chance to do it all over again because I would change some stuff, but that’s life. I tell my kids about this sometimes, but when I got to the Major League level I found myself thinking, “OK, maybe I don’t deserve to be here.” I do regret that because I let that sneak into my mind too much as a player. On the minor league level, I was 100% confident that I could get every hitter out. I knew I belonged there and was better than them, not in an arrogant way, but in a competitive way. On the Major League level, I didn’t think that way and that’s something I regret. But I am thankful and so fortunate to have the experience that I did.