"You feel like you’re failing a lot of the time. That’s the nature of the sport.”
On May 20, 1990, Cubs manager Don Zimmer met with the press as his team was getting ready to face off against Mike Scott and the Astros when he was asked if he was worried about his rookie starter drawing a tough assignment in his Major League debut.
In this instance, Popeye turned out to be a soothsayer.
The venerable baseball lifer said, “Some managers don’t like having rookies, but I think it’s fun to watch a young guy break into the Big Leagues.”
That rookie turned out to be Shawn Boskie and he’s our guest on this week’s installment of Spitballin’.
So how did Boskie do against Scott and the ‘Stros?
He hurled a complete game, five-hitter as the Cubs won 5-1 in a tidy 2:19. Boskie also went 2-4 with a double and RBI at the plate.
Sometimes veteran baseball guys just know.
Boskie was a first-round pick of the Cubs in the 1986 January draft and methodically worked his way through their minor leagues before that 1990 debut.
He appeared in 217 games, mostly as a starter, in his nine-year Major League career and had some pretty impressive numbers against some of the greats to play the game.
Check out some of these legends that Boskie turned pedestrian: Tony Gwynn (2-12, .167), Paul Molitor (3-16, .188), Tim Raines (2-14, .143), Will Clark (1-12, .083) and Joe Carter (3-20, .150). Of course, there were others who had their share of success at the plate against the righty, but holding that group to some feeble numbers raises eyebrows.
Boskie’s most visible appearance came on September 6, 1995 when he was the Angels’ starting pitcher in Baltimore. It was that night when Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games streak and Boskie was the pitcher that served up Ripken’s dramatic home run.
We have another streak going at BallNine. Every Friday since June 5, 2020, we have been able to bring you an interview with fantastic baseball players and people around the game.
Let’s all extend that streak together as we go Spitballin’ with Shawn Boskie.
“There’s nothing that can prepare you for the surreal nature of being around the Big Leaguers when you’re a young guy. You had been watching them on TV for years and then you’re in the locker room wearing the same uniform as them. ”
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Boskie. I appreciate the time. I usually start these interviews by asking you what baseball was like for you as a kid. Take us back to your childhood.
My parents were the biggest influences in my life because they both played city league softball. I was around ballparks all the time when they were playing. I started Little League when I was nine. When you talk about the formative years, do you remember Pitchback? That sort of trampoline that you threw a ball into? When you asked this question that was the first thing I thought of. It was so frustrating. You had to hit that little square so the ball would come right back to you – and that was a tough assignment – but that was invaluable in my development as a kid.
Did you have favorite teams growing up?
I grew up in Reno, Nevada so we didn’t have a team. The San Francisco Giants were everybody’s favorite team. I didn’t have a favorite team or player, but I went to my first Major League game at Dodgers Stadium. My grandparents lived there. I went to the souvenir stand and bought a Baltimore Orioles plastic helmet. I was excited and thought it was cool looking. On my way back to my seat, some guy said, “Hey kid, you’re at the wrong game!” It was kind of a crushing moment, but I had that helmet sitting in my room the next ten years of my life. So I thought it was really cool to play for the Orioles later on. I was really intrigued by the logos as a kid. I remember in Little League they had the hat with the logo on it. It was kind of awe-inspiring and intimidating. The logos were so official when I was a kid.
1991: Pitcher Shawn Boskie of the Chicago Cubs throws a pitch during a game against the San Francisco Giants at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California. (Credit: Otto Greule /Allsport)
In doing my research, I read that you were a really good high school football player too. What led you on the path to choose baseball over football? Did you think you had a career in the sport?
Like a lot of people, I played different sports. It just came down to me being better as baseball. I also knew around high school that I liked baseball better than football. Football had just one game a week and tons of practice. Baseball was way more rewarding to play several games a week. I played infield in high school. I knew I was good enough to play in college, but hadn’t thought beyond that. I thought it was weird that guys had dreams of playing Major League Baseball. It was like me saying I wanted to be an astronaut. It didn’t even land with me that I could have a career in baseball until I was drafted.
You were drafted in the old January draft out of Modesto Junior College. Could you share your draft experience with us?
I was sort of surprised. It was like these things just happened to me. Where other people might be talking about it, I might have been interested to listen to the conversation, but I wasn’t expecting to get drafted in a certain round or anything. One day, my coach pulled me aside and said that the Cubs wanted to draft me in the first round as a pitcher and there were other clubs who were interested in me in the lower rounds as a position player. The Cubs wanted to know if I would pitch and if I did, they would draft me first. I said I would.
Of course you want to be picked first; that feels good. When they drafted me, all of a sudden, I was “on the scene.” Back then, you got drafted in January, but you still played the [college] season. So I played that season [for Modesto] and actually played more infield than I did pitcher. Which is weird. When I showed up for minicamp in Arizona for the Cubs, it was weird to just be sent over with the pitchers. Nobody knew anything about anybody’s background. All the pitchers went out in right field to talk about what they were gonna do and it took a little getting used to. But I got through it and came to grips with the fact that I was a pitcher.
What was it like first getting called up and then beating Mike Scott head-to-head with a complete game in your Major League debut?
There’s nothing that can prepare you for the surreal nature of being around the Big Leaguers when you’re a young guy. You had been watching them on TV for years and then you’re in the locker room wearing the same uniform as them. That’s an out-of-body experience. Getting called up was a dream. That’s what everybody talks about and you just don’t know. When I’d go back to Modesto to work out in the offseason with other players, we’d all look around and wonder who is gonna make it. You just don’t know. When it happened, it was a great sense of relief and it was a big deal.
What I remember distinctly about my first game was actually coming to the plate to bat against Mike Scott. I couldn’t get over the fact that I was going to be standing 60 feet away from Mike Scott. Like I’m just Shawn from Reno, Nevada and this was Mike Scott! That first game was like nothing I’ve experienced before. I played four years in the minors, so it wasn’t like I was just learning to hold a baseball, but I was really nervous and focused on throwing strikes. I knew that if I walked guys that was the fastest way to fall out of favor with the manager, so I was fairly aggressive. It ended up being a great game and maybe I set the bar a little too high for myself. It’s such an odyssey and you just have to jump right in.
We’ve come to the point in the interview where I always have to ask pitchers about their hitting. You hit one career home run. The floor is yours to tell us the story.
I’m embarrassed to say that I actually didn’t see the ball’s flight. I thought I might have hit it foul, but at the last second I saw it go over the wall. I actually thought I would hit a lot more homers! After I hit the first, I was like, “Oh wow, that wasn’t that hard to do!” I hit some others that I thought were going to be homers after that, but they didn’t go out. I didn’t have this great expectation about what was going to happen with me. Of course I wanted to be an All-Star and all that, but I didn’t think success was a foregone conclusion. So anything that happened like this was all a bonus. I wasn’t super surprised that I hit a homer. We used to play home run derby in batting practice. But to have it happen against Norm Charlton was very cool. The Reds pitching staff was awesome. In fact, one of those surreal moments came my rookie year when we played the Reds and Rob Dibble closed out the game. I had never seen a ball travel that fast before. I don’t know how anyone got a hit off that guy.
March 11, 1998: Pitcher Shawn Boskie of the Montreal Expos in action during a spring training game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at the Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Florida. The Dodgers defeated the Expos 13-2. (Credit: Stephen Dunn /Allsport)
I agree. He must have been a scary guy to hit against and he had that attitude and mound presence too.
You know, the last out of the game was Shawon Dunston, who had a monstrous amount of charisma and was a great teammate. It might have been an 0-2 count and Dibble threw one up around his chin and knocked him down. The next pitch was a slider that bounced and Shawon swung at it and that was the end of the game. We were all going into the locker room and about five or ten minutes later, we hear this huge commotion in the tunnel. It was Shawon coming up the tunnel and he was pissed. He was screaming some stuff and I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but one of our pitchers started screaming something back at him and they got into this arguing match. It was about protecting your players. Then Don Zimmer came running down from his office and he got into the middle of it. Now they were all yelling at each other and my eyes were as big as saucers. I was like, “Wow! I can’t believe this! I have never seen anything like I have seen in the last half hour. Ever.” Things that happen in the Big Leagues are so magnified.
You came up with the Cubs in 1990 and were on the staff with Greg Maddux just as he was breaking out and becoming a superstar. You guys are the same age. What was it like watching Maddux develop like that?
I actually played against him in high school. Our team from Reno went down to play Valley High School when I was a sophomore and he was a junior. I didn’t play because I had come off a broken arm, but I was there and I’m pretty sure he threw a shutout against us in the state championship game. He was probably about 5’10” and maybe weighed 135 pounds, but he threw Aspirin tablets. Back then, nobody ever talked about great control. They talked about throwing hard and he threw hard. He got drafted in the second round and that doesn’t happen unless you have arm strength.
Fast forward to when we were in the minor leagues. He was a rookie with Chicago in 1987 and a few of us went there to visit. We ended up staying at his place, so I met him then. We were in Big League camp together, so he knew who I was. We talked about being from Nevada and playing against each other in high school. He threw that in my face that they were champs. I would ask him where he was the next year because we won the state championship and Valley wasn’t even there and that was his senior year!
June 29, 1997: Pitcher Shawn Boskie of the Baltimore Orioles in action during a game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Maryland. The Blue Jays won the game 3-2. (Credit: Doug Pensinger /Allsport)
Did you learn a lot from him being a teammate of his for those few seasons?
We all knew that he was really good because he was an All-Star in his second year. He won 18 games and the next year he won 19. But I didn’t know what the difference was between what a good pitcher was and what I was. I didn’t know at the time that there was a different way to approach the game. I just thought it was about execution and he just happened to be able to execute better than me. What I learned along the way was that he was playing the game at another level. He didn’t just execute, but he was able to concentrate, remember what hitters did and so many other things that I didn’t have built into me.
When you talk about what I learned from him, we were having a pitchers meeting talking about hitters and I made a comment about a hitter and he refuted it. Afterwards, he came up to me and said, “Sorry to do that, but that guy’s approach is different with two strikes.” I thought it was cool that he came to me and said he was sorry and he didn’t mean to show me up in front of everyone, but he knew to correct it. That was the first time I was like, “OK, this guy is different than us guys who just kind of see things on the surface.” I had the chance to play with some guys who were really remarkable and I’m grateful for that. At the time, I thought we were all the same, but I found out later that, no, we all weren’t the same.
Who were some of the players who made you think that?
I was on the Mariners briefly with Ken Griffey, Jr. I watched him play every day for about 25 days and could not believe my eyes watching what he could do. Those kind of guys know it too. The stars know down deep that they’re better than most. They can sense it. If a star is hitting .300, he feels like his capacity is to hit .350. Most of the other guys who hit .300 think they’re doing what they should be, but in reality they’re probably .280 hitters who had a remarkable period of time to bring their average up to .300. But it’s that much of a difference between the star players and everyone else. It’s really humbling.
This has been a great conversation and I appreciate you taking the time to speak with us. I have just one more question for you. Looking back on your Major League career, what reflections do you have now after almost 25 years away from it?
It’s a really interesting, strange existence. There’s very little that can prepare you for meeting all these celebrities, actors and politicians. I’m obviously glad I got to do that and grateful that it was part of my life. But candidly, I like my life now more than I did back then. It was such a wild adventure and it was great, but it’s a lot. People would ask me how I handled the stress. I didn’t even realize there was stress because I was in it. But looking back later on, you realize that it was a lot of stress. It was great though. I’m deeply grateful I got to do it. I know some guys that are addicted to competition with that intensity, but it’s very rare. I like competition, but I don’t live and die for it. I had teammates like Greg Maddux who were ultra-competitive and they probably miss it much more than me. They have to find ways to be competitive, whether it’s gambling or golf, but I wasn’t built like that. I’m glad to reflect on it, but I was OK with it coming to a conclusion. You feel like you’re failing a lot of the time. That’s the nature of the sport. That gets to be a burden.