“I first wanted to be a lawyer because I liked the way Vincent Bugliosi prosecuted Charles Manson when I was a kid.”
The first installment of Spitballin’ came on June 5, 2020 and the goal of the series was to bring baseball stories to the fans from the players themselves. BallNine wanted to help old fans connect with the guys they rooted for growing up and help educate the current generation of fans on players from the past through their own stories and experiences.
We also wanted to see what the guys from our old baseball cards were doing today.
Many have gotten into coaching, teaching, scouting, running their own businesses and a variety of other fields.
Today, we have a new milestone as BallNine is bringing you our first story about a professional ballplayer who in turn became a judge.
Former Red Sox and Indians prospect, The Honorable Judge Robin F. Fuson joins us for this week’s Spitballin’.
After starring for Valencia Community College in Florida, Fuson was a fourth-round draft pick by the Indians in 1978 and enjoyed a ten-year minor league career. Although he made it to AAA in four different seasons and pitched in numerous Major League Spring Training games, he never did get that call to the Majors.
That being said, the stories he has from his experiences in the minors are incredible.
This past season as we all watched Aaron Judge’s trek to the American League home run record, we also enjoyed the inevitable judicial back page headline puns and John Sterling home run calls that predictably accompany Judge’s milestone.
Well here at BallNine, we’re bringing you the real thing.
So everyone please rise as we go Spitballin’ with the gentleman presiding over the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit Court in the East Circuit of Hillsborough County, Florida, The Honorable Judge Robin F. Fuson.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Fuson. At BallNine we pride ourselves on finding unique baseball stories, and this certainly fits the bill! Let’s jump right in and go back to your childhood. What was baseball like for you as a kid?
I started getting involved in baseball early on. My grandfather came over from Spain and he was a huge baseball fan. He wanted to fit in with American culture and baseball was his way. He came in through Ellis Island and was a Yankee fan. I started playing when I was around five or six years old. It was a great time playing Northside Little League in Tampa, Florida. My favorite team growing up was the New York Mets because Tom Seaver was my favorite player. I always wanted to be like Tom Seaver, but nobody let me pitch until I was about 13 because I was a small kid growing up. Somewhere between my junior and senior year my height caught up to my love of the game.
Was there a point in time where you thought that professional baseball was a possibility for you?
Since I could even think about it, that was what I wanted to do. When you are seven years old telling people you want to be a professional baseball player, they said “Good luck,” and laugh at you. You always hear about how slim the chances are. I wanted to be other things too like a submarine commander or a veterinarian. I wanted to be a lawyer when I was 14 too. I never once lost the dream to be a professional baseball player though. My old high school teammates still call me “four-one” because I wore number 41 for Tom Seaver. He’s all I ever talked about. Professional baseball was always a goal and I got that opportunity. I cherished every moment that I played.
I didn’t even realize there was a curfew for home games. Woody would park his car out in front of our complex with a case of beer and just sit there, checking off the list of the guys coming in late for curfew.
You were drafted in the fourth round in the old January draft out of Valencia Community College in 1978. What were your expectations leading up to the draft?
The teams that were most interested in me were the Indians and Reds. Scouts Leon Hamilton of the Indians and George Zurow of the Reds were at my games. Eventually, they told me they wanted to draft me my senior year. I was our best pitcher but our team was terrible. We only won four games and I won two of them. But I was playing youth baseball and that’s where I was getting attention. The scouts said to me that they wanted to see more though. I had a scholarship to go to Florida State, but they talked me out of it.
They sent me to the Valencia College tryout on the day I was supposed to take my SATs. I was given a scholarship offer on the scene. We probably played 160 games my freshman year, about 100 games in the fall and 60 more in the spring. We had enough players for three teams and a lot of them were transfers from big schools like Arizona State, Clemson and Miami. I made the team, was named All-State and we won the state championship my freshman year and then Cleveland told me they would draft me in the January draft, which they did. Being drafted in January was great because I got to go to Spring Training right away.
You spent ten years in the minors and got up to AAA in four separate seasons. You went 91-74 with a 3.79 ERA. What do you think about having all that success yet not making it up to the Majors?
My minor league career was ten years and I also played in the Mexican League. I actually won the Mexican League Cy Young Award in 1987. In my minor league career I was a starter and went out there every five days. I never missed a start. To play that much, win as much as I did and do it in AAA while not making it to the Majors is almost impossible to do. That haunts me to this day. Not in a destructive way, I just can’t believe I never got that chance. When I retired from baseball, Peter Gammons wrote a blurb about me saying I was the best minor league player to have never made the Major Leagues. I thought, “Well, that’s kind of a dubious honor!”
Did you get a chance to pitch in Major League Spring Training games?
Yes, and the best I did was in 1985 with the Red Sox. I pitched in three or four Spring Training games and didn’t give up a run. Right at the end of Spring Training, the Yankees were coming to play us and the game was televised. It was a big deal and they wanted to see how I could handle it. They penciled me in for an inning and I got them three up, three down. I walked back in and they said, “Wow, we didn’t realize you could throw that hard!” At the end of Spring Training, I was the tenth pitcher on the roster.
Everybody else had been optioned down to AAA, so I got called into the office by Red Sox manager John McNamara and Bill Fischer, the pitching coach. They said they were sending me back to Pawtucket. I said, “Well, I’m the tenth guy. There’s nobody else here.” They said they were going to keep a third catcher, move Bobby Ojeda to the bullpen and start the season with nine pitchers. Looking back, I didn’t pitch well after that. I didn’t give myself that opportunity that when they needed a pitcher – which they always do – that they would call on me. That was when I asked to be released. They granted it and I signed the next day with Cleveland.
I saw one of your minor league managers was Woody Smith. I’ve had players share some Woody Smith stories with me before. Do you have any to add to that?
He taught me that baseball players like to drink a lot of beer! He was hard-nosed and old school. When I was playing, we didn’t have a pitching coach, so Woody did everything. He was the manager, pitching coach, batting coach and did it all. I remember once I was out in a bar at about three in the morning. There was about four of us and Woody walked in. He said, “What are you guys doing here? It’s past curfew.” I didn’t even realize there was a curfew for home games. Woody would park his car out in front of our complex with a case of beer and just sit there, checking off the list of the guys coming in late for curfew. I enjoyed playing for him. He learned how to play the game in that era that I loved so much. Those guys are bridges to the past. I don’t know if the guys today have any sense of the past. I am sure some of them do, but it was such an amazing experience playing for Woody.
That’s awesome. Were there any other coaches you met like that along the way that stood out to you?
Mel Queen, the former Reds pitcher, was my pitching coach and he was a big advocate of mine. He spent a lot of time working with me and teaching me how to play the game from a mental standpoint. He taught me how to approach winning and losing. I played for Doc Edwards in AAA too. He was a hoot; he was larger than life. We had a game in Maine when I played for Orchard Beach. We had a pitcher on our team named Jerry Reed. He played in the Big Leagues for a bit. Doc came out and threw a tantrum one game. He flipped the table with the spread of food on it. He destroyed our dinner and it was just laying on the ground. Everyone was sitting there quiet and then Jerry said, in his Southern drawl, “Well that’s fine for Doc, he’s got a whole plate of food sitting in his office!” A couple minutes later, Doc comes out wearing nothing but a towel carrying his plate of food and just dumps it in Jerry Reed’s lap.
Those are the things you don’t forget. When Doc was coaching third, he would always simulate the pitcher in his windup. We had a catcher on our team who was imitating Doc doing that one game. Doc thought he was making fun of him so right in the middle of the game he came screaming across the field at him. Doc had a lot of emotion. Every day at the park was so much fun.
Were there any guys you played with that left a big impression on you?
I roomed with Joe Charboneau and he mentions me in his book. I played with Dave Gallagher who I still talk to on Twitter. He’s a great guy. I played against Wade Boggs in high school and in the minors and then we got to play together with the Red Sox in Spring Training in 1985. Hanging out in that locker room that Spring was really something. I had a locker between Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski. Those guys were still dressing out in uniform and I don’t think they liked each other that much. Roger Clemens was there. So was Jimmy Rice, Rich Gedman, Bob Stanley and Oil Can Boyd. That was quite a thrill. In six of my ten seasons I played Winter Ball in the Dominican and down there I played with Alfredo Griffin, Rafael Ramirez and Pedro Guerrero. I have a great picture of me, Tony Pena and Howard Johnson too.
After your playing days were done, you coached in the Oakland system. How did that come about?
Eventually, you go from being a prospect to a suspect. Like the line in Brewster’s Millions, “It happens to everyone, that’s the nature of the game.” I was going to get out of it and decided I was going to go back to school, but then I had a change of heart and wanted to give it one more shot. I had four or five teams interested in me to come back to Spring Training on an AAA contract, but they wouldn’t guarantee me an invite to Big League camp. I just figured at that point I was done. Oakland called me out of the blue and said they needed a pitching instructor. Johnny Pesky had talked to someone in their organization and said I was the guy they wanted. He said I spoke Spanish and knew the game. They said I wouldn’t have to leave Spring Training and would stay in Arizona all year. They said I would work with pitchers who needed instruction or Big League guys rehabbing injuries. I did that for three years while I was finishing my undergraduate work. Then when I got accepted to Law School, I finally retired.
During your time coaching, were there any guys who worked with who went on to the Majors that stand out to you?
Tanyon Sturtze was one. He was a skinny 18-year-old kid when we got him but he had real good mechanics. We still stay in touch. They were doing a fantasy camp down in Tampa one year and he called me up and invited me down. I went there and got to hang out with Ron Guidry. Meeting Guidry was a blast. He was such a dynamic pitcher. I had a few other guys I worked with get to the Majors for a cup of coffee too.
Once you were done coaching, you went into law school and started your path to becoming a lawyer and ultimately a judge. Was this something you always wanted to do?
I first wanted to be a lawyer because I liked the way Vincent Bugliosi prosecuted Charles Manson when I was a kid. I loved the way he stood up to that evil son of a gun. He wasn’t afraid to stare him in the face and that impressed me. I wanted to be a prosecutor, so I went to law school and interned in the State Attorney’s Office in Tampa and was hired by them out of law school.
What was it like making the transition from baseball to Law School?
I only applied to one law school, Stetson University Law; it’s a great school. It was the only school close to my house, but was 49 miles each way. I had just bought a home and had a wife and kids, so I wasn’t gonna move. I either had to get accepted, or stay in baseball. I sent in my application like a million other people trying to get into the school. I had a solid undergraduate record, but I wasn’t a 4.0 Harvard guy. I had no idea how good or bad my LSAT scores were.
I never heard anything from them. I was talking to one of my undergraduate professors and he told me I should go there and try to sell myself to them. So I went there and met this young lady. She was married and expecting their first child. We got to talking and I brought up baseball. She said, “Oh my goodness, you don’t understand how much I love the game of baseball!” She said the Chicago Cubs were her favorite team and she loved this pitcher Mike Bielecki. I said, “You know what, Mike Bielecki and I went to college together and we did some running around back in the good ol’ days.” This young lady was so happy. Three days after that interview, I got accepted into Stetson and I called up Oakland to tell them I was hanging it up. When I got elected Judge a few years ago, I sent Bielecki a message telling him that he had no idea how instrumental he was in me becoming a judge because if it hadn’t been for him, I might not have gotten into law school.
That is totally unbelievable and the exact kind of story we love hearing about at BallNine. This has been really enjoyable. Thanks for sharing your stories. One last question for you. What are your final reflections on your place in baseball history?
What I always tell kids in baseball is to not ever sell themselves short and not to give up on their dreams. When I look back on my Little League pictures, I was always the smallest guy. Nobody would ever think I would play professionally. If you saw me in high school, you’d say that I was gonna play somewhere someday. I never quit believing in myself. It doesn’t always work that way, but when you think like that, it makes you better in life. I am a better judge because I was a baseball player. I sit on a criminal bench and deal with people who have been accused of some of the most heinous crimes against humanity.
There are also a lot of people that appear before me because they got a bad break. Maybe a share of it might be their fault, but I see a lot of victims of circumstance. All the time I spent playing in the minor leagues and overseas, I got to play with players of color and players from other parts of the world. I learned how similar we all are. When you’re on a team playing a sport, you’re not saying, “That’s a Black guy, that’s a Spanish guy or that’s a white guy.” You’re saying, we’re all Cleveland Indians or Seattle Mariners. We live and fight for each other. I brought a lot of real world experience when I ran for office. I was elected as judge by the voters of Hillsborough County, Florida and I try to give back every day. Baseball is a big way to open the door. I still get invited to a lot of Major League alumni events. I see Lou Piniella and Wade Boggs there. All these great baseball names come from Tampa and I get to see them at a lot of these events. I love going to those events because I get to talk to a lot of kids and get to give back to them through the sport I always loved.