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Mudville: July 23, 2024 3:54 am PDT

Russ Ortiz

“Man, you did pretty good for yourself, kid.”

Twenty years ago this fall, what should have been a meaningful gesture by a future Hall of Fame manager drew ridicule when what seemed to be a sure World Series title slipped through the fingers of the San Francisco Giants.

Russ Ortiz was in the process of throwing perhaps the best game of his life in the biggest spot in his career when his manager Dusty Baker came out to the mound in the seventh inning of Game 6 of the 2002 World Series with the Giants up 5-0 in the game and 3-2 in the series.

The slumbering Angels looked like they might be waking up and Baker decided to go to his bullpen. As Ortiz left the mound, Baker said a few words to him and handed him the game ball; a keepsake from what looked to be a historic series-clinching performance.

Minutes later, a Scott Spiezio three-run home run sent the Angels on a path to come from behind in Game 6. A 4-1 win in Game 7 gave the Angels their first and only World Series title.

The Giants got their World Series title in 2010, and added two more in 2012 and 2014 and Baker finally got his ring three weeks ago.

As for Ortiz, he went on to pitch 12 years in the Majors, becoming an All-Star for the Braves in 2003. At the time of his debut, he was the 17,212th player to ever play in the Major Leagues. Of that number, only a fraction pitched for more than a decade and an even smaller number won over 100 games and pitched in the World Series.

When you put things in that perspective, as Ortiz has, it’s really amazing how few people have ever got to do what he has done.

As for what happened to the ball that Baker handed Ortiz as he left the mound 20 years ago this fall, you’ll have to come with us as we go Spitballin’ with Russ Ortiz to find out.

Thanks for joining us, Mr. Ortiz. We have a lot of ground to cover, so let’s jump right in. What was baseball like for you as a kid growing up?

My brother Shad and I lived with our grandparents growing up because our parents got divorced when we were like three and four years old. At the time, my mom worked late nights for the LAPD as a 911 dispatcher. Living with our grandparents was a stable environment for us. Our grandpa was in the Army and they played fastpitch softball in the Army. He loved baseball, so once we got old enough, we were throwing the baseball around and swinging bats. My mom was really athletic too and I remember playing baseball with her and my grandpa. They always played catch with us until we started throwing too hard for them. Being able to play baseball with my mom, grandpa and brother really fueled my fire and love for the game.

You ended up at the University of Oklahoma and were on their 1994 College World Series championship team. What was your experience like at Oklahoma?

When I was in high school, I was one of the better pitchers in Southern California. I felt good about my talents, but once I got to Oklahoma, I realized that all these guys were the best in whatever area they came from, too. My first two years at Oklahoma I was in a bunch of different roles on the staff. My goal was to be there three years then get drafted. My junior year, I was slated to be one of the starters. I didn’t think I was doing that bad, but the coaches had other ideas for me and I actually didn’t travel with the team for close to a month. That pretty much killed my expectations of getting drafted high enough to leave. I found out later that they wanted to see more grit on the mound from me, and it worked. When I got back, I pitched with some anger.

I was like, “Wow, I am one of only 20,000 to ever put on a Major League uniform.” Then you think about the guys who got to play ten years and that number is way smaller. When I think about pitchers who won at least 100 games, that’s a really small number.

You were drafted by the Giants in the fourth round of the 1995 draft. What was your draft experience like?

We won the College World Series in ’94 and made it back in 1995, so the draft was gonna happen while we were at the World Series. We had a workout and when I went back to the room, the light on the phone was on with a message. My roommate got the message and said, “Hey, you need to listen to this!” The scout from the Giants said they drafted me in the fourth round. I was blown away. I had already figured I was coming back for my senior year. When I heard the Giants drafted me, I was figuring like the 15th round, which I don’t know if I would have signed. But when they said it was the fourth round, I was blown away and knew I was out. I was like, “It’s go time! Let’s do this and see if I could get to the Big Leagues!”

You got to the Big Leagues pretty quickly, making your debut in 1998 in the Astrodome. What was that like for you?

I had worked my whole life to get there and when I did, I couldn’t believe it. But I had a job to do. This was the Big Leagues and I had to get Big League hitters out. Any kid growing up my age watched the Bad News Bears and saw when they played in the Astrodome, so I thought that was super cool. I had a really cool moment with Dusty Baker and I think this is why his teams do so well. The guys told me I had to go see Dusty right away. He told me something very important. He said, “Whenever you get in, do your warmup pitches and once you’re done, go behind the mound and take a look around. Take it all in. Enjoy the moment and understand that you deserve to be here.” He said once I finish that, it’s time to go to work. I thought that was really cool because he wanted me to enjoy that moment. He wasn’t just all business. Dusty’s advice really set the table for our relationship and how great he was for me.

2002: Pitcher Russ Ortiz #48 of the San Francisco Giants pitching during a game against the Atlanta Braves in San Francisco, California. The Giants defeated the Braves 12-3. (Photo Credit: Tom Hauck /Allsport)

Did you do that and what were your thoughts as you took it all in?

I did exactly what he said. I enjoyed the moment and thought, “Man, I worked my butt off my whole life for this and now it’s actually real.” I got up on the mound and they announced the hitter, Sean Berry. I played at OU with his brother Mike. In the clubhouse at OU, we used to watch Sean’s games when they were televised. I ended up striking him out. I wanted to get that strike out and I did. I had a great Spring Training, so I knew I could pitch at that level. Once I got to pro ball, my velocity jumped. In about a two-week span, I went from throwing 93 to throwing 97. I can’t explain it. To this day, I don’t know how it happened. I understand adrenaline, but I had plenty of adrenaline at the College World Series and wasn’t throwing 97.

I was overthrowing though. I pitched two innings and struck out four guys but walked three. I got to face their big three, Craig Biggio, Derek Bell and Jeff Bagwell. Ken Caminiti too. They were a scary lineup, but I held my own. It was my first great experience of many. I knew I could pitch at that level, but this really convinced me. I just had to be able to control my emotions and focus better.

Speaking of Dusty, I wanted to ask you about Game 6 in 2002. You had a great game and Dusty took you out in the seventh with a 5-0 lead in what looked like it was going to be the World Series clinching game – handing you the ball on the way out. The Angels came back and won that game and then the next. Do you still have the ball? Could you reflect on that moment for us?

I still have the ball. At one point I thought about auctioning the ball off for charity because it always came up, especially before the Giants won their World Series in 2010. I have a cabinet in my office with memorabilia and keep it in a case in there. Earlier that series I pitched in Game 2 and did horrible. Fortunately, the other starter did horrible too. When I came out in the second inning, the score was like 7-6. I felt like I had a great plan, but tried to be too perfect and didn’t execute well. I made a promise to myself that if I got another chance, I wasn’t going to let anything distract me from the plan. Not the media, fans or the enormity of the situation.

My wife was with me and there was a car show going on where we were staying. I am one of those guys who likes to walk around, so my wife and I went to a car show before Game 6. I was already prepared mentally and physically. I just wanted to walk around and think of something other than baseball. Once I got in the game, my focus was to execute each pitch. That’s one of a handful of games that I felt like I was in the zone. I was on another level. I didn’t even hear the Thundersticks in the crowd. It was just white noise; I had such tunnel vision. I had zero worry about anything.

Pitcher Russ Ortiz #48 of the Atlanta Braves throws against the Houston Astros in the first inning during game four of the National League Division Series on October 10, 2004 at Minute Maid Park in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Now it’s common for pitchers to be taken out quickly, even when dealing, but 20 years ago it was a controversial move to take you out with a 5-0 lead so late while you were still doing well. What do you remember about that mound conference and inning?

I went through six innings and had given up no runs and just two hits. One was a blooper and the other a groundball in the hole at short that Tim Salmon beat out. That was it. They weren’t doing anything off me. Going into the seventh, I started thinking about the score and that we were up 5-0. That was the first time I thought about it and I went 2-0 on Garrett Anderson, the first hitter. I stopped and was like, “Whoa, I went this whole time and promised myself that I wouldn’t let myself get off track.” The next pitch, I executed it and got a groundout. Next guy was Troy Glaus and he hit a line drive single to left, no big deal. Knowing how dangerous Troy Glaus was, he could hit singles all day long. That was fine.

The next guy was Brad Fullmer and I tried to get him to hit the ball on the ground. I executed the pitch well, but missed my location by about three inches. I got the grounder I was looking for, but he got too much of the barrel on it and it went into right for a hit. Mentally, I was getting ready to face Scott Spiezio and I was thinking that was perfect because I knew what pitches to throw to get a ground ball from him.

But you never got to face Spiezio. Can you take us through the steps that happened next?

I was mentally preparing myself to face him and something changed in the environment. Our catcher, Benito Santiago, stood up and started walking towards the mound. I looked into the dugout and I swear I saw Dusty raise his right hand to the bullpen, so once he does that, I’m out. I’ve seen the video since, and now I don’t think he did that. But in my head, he had already signaled that I was done. In the grand scheme of things, I’m glad he ended up taking me out. Those who have played know how hard it is to turn that back on. I was in the zone and then mentally said that I was done, and you can’t just flip a switch and turn that back on. I didn’t want to come out, but I had already shut down the engine before he even got out there. I didn’t think I had the opportunity to stay in the game because I thought he already called the pen. But I watched the video and in our mound conference, I saw Dusty call to the bullpen and thought, “Wait a minute! I thought he called to the bullpen before that.” It took me a few years to see that.

Atlanta Braves Pitcher Russ Ortiz is congratulated by Greg Maddux after his 20th win of the season. The Braves won that game 1-0 over the Florida Marlins (Photo by Scott Cunningham/WireImage)

Did you have a chance to put your start in perspective that night? Or did it take some time for you to process how well you pitched in that huge spot?

I do remember that when Dusty got to the mound, I was thinking that this was how I needed to pitch from now on. The catcher and infielders were all congratulating me and telling me I did a great job. I also thought that it was such a cool feeling to set out to do something and accomplish it on the biggest stage in the game. My family was there in the stadium and I was proud that I did my job to give our team the opportunity to win the World Series. Dusty got to the mound and told me I did a great job. I gave him the ball and started to walk off. He grabbed me, handed me the ball and said, “I want you to have this. This is for you.” If you see the video, I was still kind of zoned out, so I didn’t think about it. I just grabbed it and walked off. The crazy part about it was that as I was walking off the mound that was the first time I heard the crowd and Thundersticks and how loud it was. Before that, it was all white noise.

That’s some amazing insight, thanks for sharing that. Fast forward twenty years later and Dusty Baker finally got his World Series title. What were your thoughts as you saw Dusty and the Astros win it all?

I was very excited for him. When the last out happened, my immediate thought was, “Now the media can stop talking about him not winning the World Series as a manager.” They can put that to bed. I’m just really happy for him and his family and friends who have been behind him all these years. He helped lead Houston to back-to-back World Series appearances and made it happen this year. He was obviously the right choice at the right time for the Astros.

Andre Ethier of the Los Angeles Dodgers is chased down by Russ Ortiz of the San Francisco Giants between third base and home plate during their contest at Dodger Stadium on April 26, 2007 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Steve Grayson/WireImage)

I love talking to pitchers about their hitting and you were a really good one. Can you talk about taking pride in your hitting as a pitcher?

I was a good hitter in high school, but didn’t get to hit in college, so I was itching to hit again. I didn’t get to hit until AA, but I was a closer so I never got to hit. Then they made me a starter and I was like, “OK, here we go!” We didn’t practice hitting a lot in the minors, so I wasn’t very good. In the Big Leagues, Dusty put a big emphasis on pitchers being able to bunt and handle the bat. He said it’s important to the team to move runners along and just put the ball in play. He also said if pitchers could handle the bat, it could mean they could stay in games longer. That’s when I took it seriously and took a lot of pride in it. There were two times where Dusty kept me in the game because I could hit and we ended up winning both games.

You had seven career home runs. Do any of them stand out to you?

My first one was great. It was off Elmer Dessens of the Pirates. It was at Candlestick and I didn’t feel the ball hit the bat. I hit the ball and was running and thinking, “Oh man, look at that!” The one that I loved came off Roy Oswalt because of the great pitcher that he was. He threw me a good fastball and I turned on it and hit it out. I got to play with Roy and of course I gave him a little grief about it and he played along. I hit two home runs in a season twice, that was cool. I felt like I walked a lot for a pitcher too. I was proud of being able to work the count like that. I did really well bunting too. I ended up 104 hits and I remember getting my 100th hit, which was really cool.

Shortstop Rafael Furcal #1 of the Atlanta Braves congratulates pitcher Russ Ortiz #48 after his home run off of Roy Oswalt of the Houston Astros in the third inning of the game on July 29, 2003 at Turner Field in Atlanta, Georgia. The Braves defeated the Astros 6-3. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

This has been awesome and I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with us. My last question is open ended. What are your reflections on your career as we sit here today and look back at your place in baseball history?

I got to play in the Hall of Fame Classic twice in Cooperstown. Jeff Idelson, who was the Hall of Fame President at the time, talked to us and asked us how many guys we thought had played Major League Baseball since the very first days. We were saying 50,000 and numbers like that. He told us at that time it was less than 25,000. At that time for me, I was like, “Wow, I am one of only 20,000 to ever put on a Major League uniform.” Then you think about the guys who got to play ten years and that number is way smaller. When I think about pitchers who won at least 100 games, that’s a really small number. That put things into perspective for me. I always thought what I accomplished was really cool, but to think of it that way, it made me think, “Man, you did pretty good for yourself, kid.” It was way better than I gave myself credit for.

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book was released in April of 2021.

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