"Obviously, it was very hard to pitch in Colorado back then before the humidor.”
In baseball, like life, you have to take advantage of your opportunities.
In the world of sports, those opportunities may not come around too often and they could happen without you realizing it.
Mike DeJean took his sliver of opportunity and turned it into a 10-year Major League career.
He joins us to discuss that and much more in this installment off Spitballin’.
DeJean was a standout athlete growing up in Louisiana and his ability as an infielder allowed him to continue his baseball career on the college level. DeJean admits that he didn’t have the best grades in school, which led him to Mississippi Delta CC and then Livingston University, a Division II school in Alabama.
DeJean mostly played shortstop and performed very well. This led him to believe he had a shot to get drafted as an infielder or catcher. However, it was the six innings DeJean pitched as a senior which led the Yankees to nab him in the 24th round of the 1992 Major League Draft.
From there, DeJean progressed through the Yankees farm system until he was traded to the Rockies for Joe Girardi. He went on to pitch in 565 games over a 10-year career.
So how did DeJean manage to turn his opportunity into a Major League career? God-given ability, a lot of hard work, a healthy respect for the game and a legion of prayers and faith.
His story shows that there is not one set path to realize your dreams, so join us as we go Spitballin’ with Mike DeJean.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. DeJean. Looking forward to hearing your stories! Let’s start out at the beginning. Take us back to when you were a kid growing up in Louisiana. How did you get your start playing baseball?
I started playing baseball when I was seven years old. I don’t remember there being tee ball, but we all played slow pitch softball at our churches. That was the first organized ball we played. From that point, at eight or nine years old we played Babe Ruth League baseball at Walker Park and Recreation in Walker, Louisiana.
Did you have any favorite teams or players growing up?
Back then, the Yankees were so good and Ron Guidry was from Louisiana, so he was easy for me to root for. Louisiana Lightning, a slim, hard-slinging lefty with a great slider. It was easy for me to keep up with him on TV. Growing up with just three channels, our baseball was going to be the Astros games with Nolan Ryan or the Yankees games. Following the Yankees from Thurman Munson to Don Mattingly was great. We grew up four hours from Houston, so it was real easy to follow the Astros and Nolan Ryan too.
“When I was with Milwaukee, I got to play golf with Hank Aaron. I asked him what he thought when a guy hits him. He said, “The next at bat if he leaves on out over the plate, I’m gonna try to hit it right back at his head.” That was the way they got back at people—by swinging the bat..”
As you were growing up, was there ever a point that you thought you had the potential to play professionally?
As a young kid, I was probably the runt of the litter of the kids my age. I didn’t start growing until my first year in college. I had a sister who was four years older than me who was all everything in softball and basketball, so I had some pretty big shoes to fill. I always told my buddies that I didn’t know what I would be doing, but one day I would be getting paid to play ball. Fortunately, that wasn’t football or basketball. My basketball career would have ended pretty quickly being a 6’2” guard and football was brutal on the body.
I graduated at 17 years old and didn’t have the best grades in the world. I had a little football offer and a junior college basketball offer, but back then I had my heart set on going to Northeast Louisiana in Monroe. I didn’t have the grades, so my next option was junior college. I signed with Mississippi Delta Community College about a month before school started. I was very fortunate to get that opportunity. I played for Terry Thompson who was a fine Christian man. He was a hard, old-school baseball type. He was ready to fight at the drop of hat if we didn’t play the game right.
I read that you were a college shortstop, with only a very minimal amount of pitching experience, but you were drafted as a pitcher. How did that come about?
From Mississippi Delta, I went to what was Livingston University in Alabama. Now it’s called University of West Alabama. Mark Hogan, the Head Coach, and Mark Smart, the Hitting Coach, followed me hard through junior college and my sophomore year they really wanted me. They just had Jeff Branson come through and he was in the Big Leagues with the Reds and Michael Carter, who was with the Cubs, so they had a good history of moving shortstops along pretty quick. I played shortstop my junior year and did well. My senior year I didn’t hit real well. I had a little injury I was trying to hide from everybody. Anyway, we got into a pitching crunch in a non-conference game on a Wednesday night against Delta State. Coach Hogan told me to go get my arm warm. I was a shortstop, so it only took a couple of pitches to get my arm warm. I threw three innings, struck six guys out and gave up a hit or two. I thought I might get drafted as a catcher or third baseman, but after the game Coach Hogan said, “You’re gonna get picked up as a pitcher. You were throwing 94 on the gun.” We didn’t know anything about guns back then because not a lot of people had them. But evidently, there was a scout in the stands and I was throwing a 94 MPH sinker and that caught their attention.
Pitcher Mike DeJean #18 of the Colorado Rockies pulls back to throw during the game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Coors Field in Denver, Colorado. (Credit: Brian Bahr /Allsport)
Talk about making an impression and taking advantage of the chance in front of you! Was that all you pitched that year?
I pitched about six innings my senior year. I pitched the last 2/3 of an inning in a game in the College World Series in Montgomery, Alabama. I struck two guys out and the stands were loaded with scouts. Next thing you know, draft day comes along and second day of the draft, I got a call from the New York Yankees that they were picking me in the 24th round. They told me I would be a New York Yankee if I wanted to pick up my plane ticket and go to the airport.
What was that experience like for you? Hearing that you were drafted and about to start your professional baseball career?
It was a Saturday and I was home alone; my mom and dad were out somewhere. The phone rang and I answered it and it was Mitch Lukovitch with the Yankees. He said they picked me in the 24th round and they were going to give me $1,000 for a signing bonus. He said that I had plane tickets waiting for me at the Baton Rouge airport. I had three choices at that time. I could have gone to the military, I could have worked in a chemical plant in South Louisiana or I could take a chance on trying to do something in baseball. What I tell kids now is that all I ever did was try to keep a uniform on my back. The game figures thing out for you. It’ll tell you if you can go further or that it’s over. When it’s over, it’s over.
You were in the same draft as Derek Jeter and spent a few seasons as his teammate in the minors. What was he like back then?
The first time you saw him moving around on the field, you knew he had it. Everything they’re showing on The Captain, doesn’t come close to showing how good of a guy he is. He was never that high bonus guy who acted better than anybody. He was always the first one there and last to leave and very humble. He had great parents and a great upbringing. He’s a guy you can’t talk nice enough about.
You never got to the Majors with the Yankees; they traded you for Joe Girardi in what was a very important move for them. Can you take us through that trade?
It caught me by surprise. I was in the Arizona Fall League, which is a good sign. It means they’re taking a look at you for the next step. The AAA manager for the Rockies, Paul Zuvella, called me and said, “I just wanted to let you know the Yankees have traded you to the Rockies for Joe Girardi.” I was like, “What?!” I still hold that feather in my cap that I was a Yankee before anything. If you were drafted by the Yankees and played in their minor league system, that’s the cream of the crop, top-shelf minor league system. They told me early on when I got drafted that I’d be able to help them later on in the Big Leagues, or they’d be able to trade me for someone we need and help them that way. I was excited to go to Colorado. I grew up in the swamp and was looking forward to do some hunting out west where they have wide open spaces.
What was it like to step on the field for the first time as a Major Leaguer after an unconventional route to the Bigs?
You’re talking about running out of the bullpen with 85,000 crazy Rockies fans. The whole place was vibrating and it did every game. I was out on the mound pitching to our catcher Jeff Reed. You’ve got Andres Galarraga at first, Eric Young at second Walt Weiss at short, Vinny Castilla at third. Then in the outfield you had Dante Bichette, Ellis Burks and Larry Walker. All Don Baylor told me was to throw my sinker for strikes and keep my slider down in the zone and those guys were gonna take care of me–and they did. I just missed Dante Bichette’s year in 1995 and I know Barry Larkin was one of the best ever, but Bichette could have certainly won MVP that year. Then 1997 rolls around and every time Larry Walker swung the bat is was out of the ballpark or a rocket double somewhere.
New York Mets' reliever Mike DeJean, who was brought in in the ninth, delivers a pitch against the Philadelphia Phillies at Shea Stadium. (Photo by Linda Cataffo/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
What was it like being a part of the bullpen at a place like Coors where you probably got more use than most places?
Obviously, it was very hard to pitch in Colorado back then before the humidor. It’s still hard to pitch there. We had such a veteran bullpen with guys like Bruce Ruffin, Steve Reed, Mike Munoz and Darren Holmes. These guys were dinosaurs towards the end of their career. They were taught the same way about the pecking order. The young guys in the bullpen did everything. We catered to the veteran players and I enjoyed that. I knew I was just earning my stripes.
That’s great. Nothing wrong with having the young players earn their way. I think that’s something missing today.
You know, we had a back room in the bullpen with a TV. During the games, the veterans would lay down on these pads and watch the game. I had to sit in a chair by the door with my foot on it so if the phone rang, the bullpen coach could talk to us. I knew I finally made it late in the 1997 season. I had pitched two or three games in a row and pitched pretty decent. Don Baylor said I wasn’t going to be pitching that game, so I went back to the bullpen in our room. I was sitting by the door while everyone else was laying on the pads watching the TV. Steve Reed said, “DJ, come back here and lay on this pad.” I thought he was tricking me. He said, “No dude, you’re not pitching today and you earned it. You come back here and take you a nap.” I still didn’t believe him. But he said, “No dude, you get up out of that chair and come lay down.” They didn’t make it easy on you, but they made you understand that you’re gonna respect the game, respect the bullpen, the guys on your team, your coaches and your opponents too.
Pitching for the Mets, you caught the end of the Art Howe era and were there for the first few months of the 2005 season under Willie Randolph. Could you talk about your time with the Mets?
Pitching a lot kept my arm to where my sinker, slider and forkball worked better. When I got traded to the Mets, Art Howe was the manager. Art was the bench coach for the Rockies and Don Baylor was the manager when I was there. In New York, they switched roles. Art was the manager and Don was his bench coach. When I got to the ballpark, Don took me to talk to Art. Don Baylor and I had a really cool relationship. He was a guy that I leaned on hard and he would always tell me that I was his guy. We sat down at Art’s desk and he said, “Mike, what do you need from me?” I said, “I just need to pitch every day.” Art was like, “What?” And Don jumped in and said, “Pitch him every day. He’s gonna tell you when he needs a day off, but he needs to pitch a lot.” When you go back in my career and see the years where I pitched a lot, my numbers were great.
Fast forward to 2005 with Willie Randolph. I loved Willie and those guys a lot, but I wasn’t pitching enough to be effective. Being that I was drafted by the Yankees and I got to pitch in Yankee Stadium one time before, I understand the passion of the Mets fan. In 2004, I was rockin’ and rollin’ and wanted to pitch well for the Mets because the fans will let you know how much you’re appreciated. I wish I could have changed things to be in there more often and been sharper. When I got let go, I thought, “Man, I really wanted to pitch more for this organization.” But it just didn’t work out, but I got picked up by the Rockies.
Pitcher Mike DeJean #18 of the Colorado Rockies winds back to pitch against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Opening Day at Coors Field on April 3, 2006 in Denver, Colorado. The Rockies defeated the Arizona Diamondbacks 3-2 in 11 innings. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
I read that your sons are also very good baseball players. What kind of advice have you passed along to them as they pursued their own careers?
I’ve told them that they have to dig their own ditch. I dug mine and I told them I could help them dig theirs by telling them how to do it, but they have to do it themselves. I want them to have their own careers and identities. They’re not going to get anywhere from what I’ve done, they’re gonna have to do it themselves. I’ve yet to see a guy have as good a set of hands in the field or at the plate as my oldest son. He just has to go out and do it consistently. I really think this upcoming spring will be the year where someone says, “Hey, we got to have this guy.” He’s got incredible power, he just has to trust his swing and use the whole field.
As someone who clearly respects the game and its history, what are your thoughts on the way the game is played today?
If you’re a veteran and you hit a lot of home runs, I tend to look the other way. Ken Griffey and Barry Bonds hit so many home runs and they didn’t bat flip or showboat. They kind of watched it and went down the line. My thought was, “OK, well make a better pitch next time and that won’t happen.” I can understand why feathers are getting ruffled nowadays. It’s a safety standpoint too. I don’t think as many guys are getting hit, but when they are, it’s from the armpits up, which is ridiculous. If you’re gonna hit a guy, hit him in the belt or the butt. Keep it away from his face, knees and hands. I understand that it’s a showmanship game today. I like the Scott Rolen and Jim Thome way. Hit a bomb, put your head down and run the bases. Now, I’m almost 52 years old so nobody cares what I think. Like the young guys say, “The old guys don’t matter.” That’s what it boils down to, we really don’t matter anymore.
Mike DeJean #35 of the New York Mets pitches during the game with the New York Yankees at Shea Stadium on May 20, 2005 in Flushing, New York.(Photo by Jim McIsaac /Getty Images)
You guys should matter more. It would be better for the game. This has been a great conversation, thanks for taking the time to talk. Just one last open-ended question for you. What final reflections on your career can you leave our readers with?
What I take away from my time in the Big Leagues is all the old timers I got to meet. Guys in the Hall of Fame or just getting in. It makes it a lot sweeter to have met and played with a lot of these great heroes that everyone holds up so high. It’s something I can tell my kids and grandkids, “Hey that guy knew me. We knew each other.” When I was with Milwaukee, I got to play golf with Hank Aaron. I asked him what he thought when a guy hits him. He said, “The next at bat if he leaves on out over the plate, I’m gonna try to hit it right back at his head.” That was the way they got back at people—by swinging the bat.
My career took a lot of prayer from mom, dad, grandparents, my sister and me. You prepare yourself and pray. I am a Christian man and want to pass along that Jesus Christ is the savior of the world and I am passionate about everything I love. Whether it’s hunting, fishing, playing golf, baseball, softball, I am gonna give these kids everything I have and at the end of the day, hopefully they have learned some life lessons and avoid some of the obstacles that I had to go through as a kid and an adult playing in the Big Leagues.