"I went from a kid with no glove and no shoes in Little League to being one game away from the World Series."
We all remember that one kid on our Little League team.
The kid who showed up to tryouts who never played before and didn’t even have a glove.
If you were a good enough teammate you tried to teach him the basics of baseball, but it was an uphill battle; especially if he didn’t really know all the positions on the field.
That kid might have stuck around for a season or two before trying something else; his baseball experience becoming just a faded memory.
Whatever became of him? He most certainly didn’t become a Major Leaguer, right?
Believe it or not, Danny Sheaffer was that kid and he joins us for this week’s installment of Spitballin’.
Growing up in Pennsylvania, Sheaffer didn’t play organized baseball until he was 11 years old when his dad paid the $5 entry fee to join at a local firehouse. He didn’t have a glove or cleats and didn’t know where left field was.
From those humble beginnings, Sheaffer not only enjoyed a ten-year Major League career, but he also went on to a lifetime of coaching and instruction. His Little League team came within one game of qualifying of going to Williamsport, he played for a Clemson team that went to the College World Series and was a first round draft pick of the Boston Red Sox in 1981.
Although his primary position was catcher, Sheaffer was invaluable to managers because he literally could (and did) play every position on the field. After his playing career, he embarked on a long, successful coaching career as a minor league manager and instructor.
Today, he is managing the Underclass Elite with the New Balance Future Stars Series, powered by Program15. On September 23, he’ll be managing his team in Fenway Park, a place where he caught players like Roger Clemens, Bruce Hurst and Oil Can Boyd 35 years ago.
If you’re wondering how a Little Leaguer without a glove can go on to accomplish all of that, we’re about to find out as we go Spitballin’ with Danny Sheaffer.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Sheaffer. Always love talking to great baseball people who spent their entire lives in the sport. Let’s start at the beginning. Can you tell us what baseball was like for you as a kid?
I didn’t play baseball as a kid until I was 11. The school bully kinda gave me a hard time about not playing, so I went home and told my dad that I wanted to play baseball. He told me to go out in the yard and play with my brother. I told him I wanted to be on a team, so he took me down to the local firehouse and signed me up for Little League. It cost $5 to play. I showed up to the first practice with no glove and no cleats. The coach told me to go out to left field, and I had to ask him where that was. No balls got hit out to me, but the third baseman got hit with a grounder, dropped his glove and started crying. The coach asked if I could play third and I said, “Sure, if you let me use his glove.” A little while later, the catcher took a foul tip, you know where, and he didn’t want to catch anymore. They asked me to catch and at first, I said no because it looked too painful. The coach told me that if I wanted to be on the team, I had to catch, so I did. They helped me put the gear on and that’s how I got my start catching. The next year we were one game away from going to Williamsport for the Little League World Series.
“I believe the right structure is for players to learn how to play the game in the minor leagues and then the Major League is for performance. You shouldn’t be learning the game on the Major League level”
Wow that’s an incredible start and much different than what I usually hear. Less than a decade later you ended up playing for Clemson. How did you end up there?
I played high school ball for Red Land High School in Lewisberry, Pennsylvania. I was hoping to get drafted out of high school, but in March of my senior year, the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster happened not far from us, so we had to evacuate our school and leave the area. I didn’t have a senior year. My coach told me I should consider college and that I should write a letter to Clemson. I didn’t know where that was, but I wrote a letter anyway. They showed up to see me play and next thing I knew, they offered me a full scholarship to go play for Bill Wilhelm at Clemson.
What was your experience like there?
Coach I and butted heads a lot. We had different philosophies and had a strained relationship. I was young and dumb and, well, he was Coach Wilhelm. I’d say the responsibility in that was 50-50 on that. I didn’t play a lot the second half of the season. We had just lost in the College World Series and there was a knock on my door. It was Coach Wilhelm and he wasn’t in a good mood. He told me that I had to earn my scholarship back the next year and it wasn’t guaranteed. I called Oklahoma State and wanted to transfer there, but because of the rules at the time, I couldn’t play or be on scholarship that first year. Instead, I attended a junior college back home that didn’t even have baseball, but still got drafted in the first round, 20th overall by the Red Sox.
1998: Danny Sheaffer #12 of the St. Louis Cardinals in action during a spring training game against the Montreal Expos at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter Florida. The Cardinals defeated the Expos 5-3.
I read that the scout who drafted you was teammates with Ted Williams and that led to you building a relationship with Mr. Williams. What was that like?
Yes, the scout who drafted me was Charlie Wagner, who was Ted Williams’ teammate in Boston. One of the first people I met my first Red Sox Spring Training was Ted Williams. He came up to me in his golf cart and we talked. I got a lot of great hitting advice from him during my time in Boston. He said some really nice things about me in the Boston Globe and that really meant a lot to me.
You had an incredible 1986 season in AAA for Pawtucket while the Red Sox were making that awesome run in the 1986 playoffs and into the World Series. Did you have an eye on the Big League club as you were knocking on the door to join them?
The Red Sox had a special season that year. I did really well in AAA as one of the league’s leading hitters. I batted .340 that year and was hoping I would get a call or be added to the postseason roster. It would have been so cool to be involved in that. My backup was Dave Sax, Steve’s brother. I played most of the games at catcher and he played some first and third too. When the time came, Dave was the one to be called up. I didn’t really understand how it worked at the time, but he was already on the 40-man roster and had Big League experience. The Red Sox didn’t want to take the chance to designate someone for assignment to add me to the 40-man. The next year, I earned a roster spot out of Spring Training.
You had a pretty great Major League debut. Can you take our readers through how that went?
It was against the Brewers and I look at that game and there were four Hall of Famers playing in it. Paul Molitor and Robin Yount for the Brewers and Jim Rice and Wade Boggs for the Red Sox. I wish it was at Fenway Park, but it was in Milwaukee. My first hit came in my third at bat, a hard single to right off Mark Ciardi. My next at bat came in the seventh inning and I hit my first career home run off Chris Bosio to tie the game. I hit it about 420 to left field. I was happy it tied the game, but the next inning, BJ Surhoff hit his first career home run to give the Brewers the lead.
St. Louis Cardinals catcher Danny Sheaffer (L) tags Cincinnati Reds Hal Morris in St. Louis, Missouri. The Cards won 8-6. (Photo: PETER NEWCOMB/AFP via Getty Images)
That’s awesome. Being in Boston in 1987, you got to catch Roger Clemens early on in his career. What was it like catching him when he was a young pitcher?
Roger was so intense and competitive. He was so focused. He would throw a pitch and as the catchers were throwing the ball back to him, he was swiping somewhere on his body to tell us what pitch to throw next. He called his own game. He started to develop a split-finger and we would take a beating back there catching it. I thought if he was ever able to command it, it would really be a problem for batters. I was so lucky to catch some great pitchers. Guys like Lee Smith, he’s a Hall of Famer. Tom Henke was great. Dennis Eckersley too. But for me, Roger Clemens was the most competitive pitcher I ever caught. I had a great time in Boston and loved the history of Fenway Park, but I didn’t get back up to the Majors after 1987. The organization had ideas of me being a manager in their system, but I wanted to keep playing. I ended up playing another ten years after that.
In 1993 you were part of the Colorado Rockies inaugural season. That’s kind of a unique thing to say; that you were part of a franchise that had never played a season before. What was your experience like that first season in Colorado?
I signed with the Rockies before the expansion draft and before they even had a manager, so I didn’t know what the roster was going to look like. Soon Don Baylor was named the manager and he had been my teammate in Boston in 1987, so we had that history. The catchers we ended up having were myself, Joe Girardi, Eric Wedge, Brad Ausmus and Jayhawk Owens. Eric got hurt and Ausmus was young and in the minors, so Girardi was the starter and I was the backup. Joe ended up having surgery on his hamate bone, so I ended up playing a lot. That year was a lot of fun. For the first time, I felt like I had my place in the Majors. I had a two year contract and wasn’t worried about what was gonna happen next spring or if I was going to be sent down. We played at Mile High Stadium those first couple of years, not Coors Field. Then the strike happened in 1994 and I wasn’t sure how that was going to affect the rest of my career.
May 20 1993: Infielder Jeff Gardner of the San Diego Padres tries to tag out Danny Sheaffer of the Colorado Rockies at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego, California. (Credit: Stephen Dunn /Allsport
From Colorado, you went to St. Louis for the last three years of your career. I have a couple questions about your time there. You had played other positions besides catcher before, but in St. Louis it seemed like Tony LaRussa really took advantage of your versatility. Is there a sense of pride there about being able to play just about every position on the Major League level?
Yes, that’s a good way to put it. After the strike I was at the point in my life where I was starting a family and had to do what was best for them. I had been making pretty good money and liked Colorado, but my agent advised me that the Cardinals were interested, and it was a good opportunity. I chose the opportunity over the money and felt like I made the best of it. Tony LaRussa used me at just about every position in the field except shortstop. Ozzie Smith was still there and made sure of the fact that I didn’t play short. Then they traded for Mark McGwire and that took care of me ever playing first base for them again. But I had a great time in St. Louis. Playing in Fenway was special because of the history there, the Rockies didn’t have that history, but I enjoyed my time there too. But what I really loved was playing baseball in St. Louis for what I believe are the best fans in baseball. Fans in the Midwest are great.
Princeton Rays manager Danny Sheaffer in 2019. (Photo: Eric DiNovo via Bluefield Daily Telegraph)
In 1996 you got your first taste of the postseason. The Cardinals beat the Padres in the NLDS then lost in Game 7 to the Braves in the NLCS. How satisfying was it to play postseason baseball, considering the path you took in your baseball life?
I went from a kid with no glove and no shoes in Little League to being one game away from the World Series. That was a tough series because I felt like we had a team that could beat the Yankees. Tony LaRussa was a great manager and without question, the most prepared manager I ever played for, and I played for some great ones. But I think he got outmanaged by Bobby Cox there. He lined up his three aces to pitch games five, six and seven and we didn’t. We were up two games to one and he pitched Denny Neagle in game four. We beat him to go up 3-1 and while we weren’t celebrating just yet, the atmosphere in the clubhouse was a little relaxed. We just had to win one of the final three games. I remember Willie McGee came into the clubhouse and said, “Don’t start celebrating yet, we have to face Cy One, Cy Two and Cy Three the next three games.” Sure enough, the Braves won all three and faced the Yankees in the World Series. There’s still some disappointment there because I really did believe we had the team to beat the Yankees.
I believe it. There were some great veterans on that ’96 Cardinals team. After your playing days were done, you became a longtime minor league coach and manager. As someone who has been in the game for 40 years, what can you say about today’s game and the way it has changed in recent years?
There’s a lot about today’s game that I don’t like. The information and analytic stuff can be great, but it shouldn’t be the be-all, end-all. I think the area that has suffered the most is player development. I believe the right structure is for players to learn how to play the game in the minor leagues and then the Major League is for performance. You shouldn’t be learning the game on the Major League level. I still watch the game and there are so many young, incredible talents, but not everybody is a Bobby Witt or Julio Rodriguez. There are too many guys hitting .200 or lower that don’t belong in the Majors.
As a former player who had experience at multiple positions and so many situations, how do you use your experience when you are a coach?
The analytics can be great, but there are certain things an iPad can’t do for you. When I was in Boston, Walt Hriniak was the batting coach, but you had Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski telling us something totally different in the minor leagues. That’s nothing new, everyone knew there was a conflict there. But we learned from their experience. I learned from so many great coaches. They knew what to do to slow the game down when things started to go south for a player.
When I was in Colorado, we had Don Baylor, Don Zimmer, Amos Otis and Ron Hassey. They were great. I played for John McNamara in Boston. In Cleveland I had Doc Edwards. Bob Feller was always around offering advice. In St. Louis I had Tony [LaRussa], George Kissell and Dave Ricketts. Red Schoendienst and Bob Gibson were around. Stan Musial was there to talk with too. The amount of baseball these guys knew was incredible and to have them as a resource was so beneficial. Baseball has a heartbeat, and these guys could teach you so much about baseball that an iPad can’t. Like I said, analytics are great when used the right way. But there’s way more to baseball than what you can find on an iPad.
That’s an absolutely perfect answer. I really appreciate talking baseball with you. I’d say your opinions and experience match perfectly with what we do at BallNine. Wrapping up, can you talk about what you’re doing now with baseball instruction?
The end of September I’ll be coaching in Fenway Park with the New Balance Future Stars Series through Program15. We’re going to be in Frisco, Texas the week before too. I’m manager of the Underclass Elite and we’re instructing high level youth and teaching the game the right way. Our staff has all played professionally and they’re great kids who love the game. I’ve been in baseball ever since that day I signed up in Little League and still love giving back. If the right opportunity came up as a Big League consultant or instructor, I’d love to take it, but it would have to be the right opportunity. I am really enjoying what I am doing now.