"That slap slapped me onto my course."
Baseball fans have a tendency to get, well, a little fanatic.
We cheer, we boo, we demand guys be sent down and we embrace others as heroes.
We also tend to forget that the players are human too. They deal with life’s ups and downs the same as anyone else, oftentimes alone.
Former pitcher Dennis Powell dealt with incomprehensible loss as a player. He lost three brothers, a daughter and a nephew within the span of a year while an active player and still had to answer the bell when he was asked to take the mound. In the 1980s, there just wasn’t the support for players as there is today, so he dealt with the pain in isolation.
Talking to Powell today, you’d never know he had a difficult day in his life. Powell is an optimist who acknowledges his difficult past, yet sees the opportunity to share his lessons with others to help make the world a better place. He’s about as positive a person as you can hope to meet.
In his upcoming book, Standing Over Home¸ Powell takes the lessons he learned throughout his life and uses them to provide guidance to fathers to keep them from “striking out at home.”
Powell’s story is also about humble beginnings.
He came from a tiny town in the Deep South, a town in which he now has a street named for him. Powell wasn’t drafted and didn’t play college ball. He was discovered the old-fashioned way: scouting and word of mouth.
Incredibly, despite not following a traditional route, Powell found himself pitching in the Majors at the age of 21, just two short years after signing with the Dodgers as an amateur free agent.
To this day, Powell shows tremendous appreciation for his career and continues to give back to the community. He is very active with the Dodgers Alumni group and in many community service endeavors. Whether reading to grammar school kids or offering life advice to parents, Powell has been making a positive impact on the world for a long time.
Powell pitched in 207 games for the Dodgers, Mariners and Brewers over eight Major League seasons. Knowing his journey and what he has been through, one can’t help but have a tremendous amount of respect for what Powell has done on and off the field.
Let’s all hear his tale and be grateful for what we have in life as we go Spitballin’ with Dennis Powell.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Powell. I have admired your work with the Dodgers alumni and love your positivity and community work. We’ll get to that for sure, but let’s start out in your childhood. What was baseball like for you as a kid?
I grew up in Norman Park, Georgia; born in 1963. It’s about 150 miles south of Atlanta in the Deep South. There was a population there of 891 at the time. We had two policemen who shared one car. It reminded me of Mayberry with Andy and Barney. I was approached by a white man in 1969, and being in Georgia at that time, there was still racism there. But this white man and his son approached me when I was walking on the road and asked me if I knew how to play baseball. I said I didn’t and he told me to get in their car because they were headed to practice. I always get a laugh because I’m not advocating getting in the car with strangers, but I did. I got on the truck and we went up to the practice field. That was my introduction to baseball. He could never know that invitation would one day lead to me playing for the Dodgers.
Yes, for the kids at home, please don’t get in cars with strangers. Did you watch baseball as a kid and have any favorite teams or players?
Ironically, even though I am from Georgia, it was the Pittsburgh Pirates. TBS and WGN were the only stations I had back then so I saw the Pirates play the Braves and Cubs a lot. I loved watching Bill Madlock, Dave Parker and Kent Tekulve. Those were guys I grew up watching. Then I had a chance to play with Dave Parker with the Brewers and it was so surreal.
Those are things that make me think about starting out the way I did from a small town and thinking about my journey. I remember things like throwing up and in to big Dave Parker.
How did you go from those humble beginnings to playing pro ball?
Well, there’s a story behind that. My father was a drinker and we had an altercation one day. I had gotten grounded, which meant I couldn’t leave home. After he left on a Saturday morning, I got coerced by one of my cousins to go help him load a grill. I told him I was grounded, but he promised we were coming back. I took the chance and got in the truck. We picked up the grill and right when I was about to go back home, my father showed up and he had been drinking. He walked up on me unexpectedly and just slapped me right in the public, right in front of my cousins. I was about 17 and the embarrassment of it fueled my anger. I just started running.
I ran back home and on that run, I thought about a conversation I had with a coach about a week prior. I don’t know how the coach heard about me, but the owner of a semi-pro team in Georgia called the Albany Hawks, Tom Wilson, had called me and said if I came to pitch for them, they would give me a place to stay with two older players and a job. The incident with my dad fueled me to take that. I went home, threw my stuff in a bag and let my emotions take me. I called them and told them I’d take the offer and to come pick me up. My father came home and fell asleep in his chair. Mr. Wilson came and picked me up, so I went to play for the Albany Hawks.
Dennis Powell accepting the MVP Award for the Gulf Coast League for the Bradenton Dodgers in 1983. (Photo courtesy of Dennis Powell)
You signed with the Dodgers as an undrafted free agent at the age of 19. Can you tell us how that came about?
Through playing on the Albany Hawks. There was a gentleman who used to keep score for the team named Benny Wiggins. He liked what he saw. I threw the ball hard, had good control and pitched some good games for them. Mr. Wiggins had a friend who was a Dodgers scout, Tommy Mixon. He called him and said to come out to see this left-hander. They came to watch me pitch and I pitched the whole game. The scout talked to me after the game and asked all the pertinent questions. I was naïve to what professional ball was. I was just playing baseball. He said he’d be in contact with me in a few days. About a week later, he called and said the Dodgers wanted to sign me to a contract. They gave me $3,000 which was like $300,000 to me at the time. We went back to my home town and signed a contract in front of a local reporter and I was off to Bradenton, Florida. That was in 1983, about 12 months after my father had slapped me. I see it as destiny. That slap slapped me onto my course.
I think hearing that whole story and where you came from makes it even more unbelievable that you made it to the Majors so fast. You debuted in Rookie Ball in 1983 and were pitching for the Dodgers by 1985. How did you rise through the system so quick?
I was oblivious when that was going on. I was like a horse going into battle. The horse has no idea they’re shooting bullets over his head, he’s just charging forward. I really didn’t understand the magnitude of it, I just knew how to throw a baseball. My first year in Bradenton, I won the league MVP. I went 8-2 with a 1.46 ERA. In ’84 I played a little bit in A Ball for a month and then they moved me to AA. My third season, I started in AAA and started the season 9-0. The Pacific Coast League was known for high ERAs. You could have an ERA over 4.00 and still be pitching pretty good. Mine was 2.74. Everything was working for me. Steve Howe had just gotten through his first incident with cocaine. My AAA team had flown from Albuquerque to Los Angles to Hawaii. We landed in Hawaii, got our bags and got to the hotel and the coach called me over. He said, “Hey, you got traded!” I said, “Traded? To who?” He said, “You got traded from AAA to the Big Leagues, you’re going up!”
I had to get back in the cab, go to the airport and fly from Hawaii to St. Louis for a day game against the Cardinals the next day. It was an unbelievable time. I signed in 1983 and by July of 1985, I was in St. Louis pitching against Ozzie Smith. It was crazy and memorable, but I was so oblivious. I was just throwing a baseball and growing every day. It took me until about 1993 to really understand what I was doing. Playing with guys like Bill Madlock, Fernando Valenzuela, Orel Hershiser, I didn’t understand the magnitude of what that meant.
Former Dodgers player Sandy Koufax jogs down the third base line and high fives former Dodgers players Orel Hershiser, Rick Honeycutt, Dennis Powell, Ron Cey, and Tommy Davis during the Dodgers Old-Timers Game at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
You played for a couple of Hall of Fame managers in Tommy Lasorda and Dick Williams. What was your experience with them like?
Tommy was the best manager I ever had. He was even-keeled. I had Dick Williams and Lou Piniella too. I call them the nasty guys. If you were going good, Tommy acknowledged you. If you were going bad, Tommy still acknowledged you. With Dick Williams and Lou Piniella, if you were doing well, you’d get a smile or acknowledgement. But if you were not doing so hot, you were Casper the Ghost and they didn’t acknowledge you. And if they did, it was going to be negative. Tommy by far was the best. I had Tom Trebelhorn with the Brewers and I liked him too. With the Mariners, I played with five different managers. We had Dick Williams, Lou Piniella, Jim Snyder, Jim Lefebvre and Bill Plummer.
That’s pretty crazy to have five different managers in the six seasons you played in Seattle! I always enjoy talking to guys who played in the 1980s because that was the time I grew up watching baseball and felt like there were so many amazing players in that era. Do you ever take a step back and think about what it was like pitching against the guys you did?
Absolutely! Those are some of my best stories. I got Tony Gwynn out five of the six times I faced him. I started against the Padres and it was one of the quickest games recorded. I went 8 1/3 and he went 0-3. There were so many great hitters like George Brett, Don Mattingly, Wade Boggs. If you notice, they’re all lefties and they gave me trouble. I got a video of myself striking out Brett. I saw a video of me striking out Darryl Strawberry. I was 3-0 on him and came back with three fastballs right by him.
Those are things that make me think about starting out the way I did from a small town and thinking about my journey. I remember things like throwing up and in to big Dave Parker. I played with Ken Griffey Jr. and then when I was with the Brewers I pitched in the Kingdome against him. I struck him out, but he also hit a double off the wall. I remember talking to a kid once and told him I gave up a home run to Bo Jackson. He said, “You pitched to Bo Jackson?!” I said, “Yea, he golfed one out on me. I thought it was a good pitch and he thought it was a better one!” Those are special things that I have in my head.
Photo coutesy of Dennis Powell
I love talking about hitting with pitchers and learned you hold a pretty great distinction. You’re one of only three guys who has at least three Major League hits and all went for extra bases. You never hit a single; just three doubles. Can you talk to us about that?
I always had that dream to hit a home run one day. If I had the opportunity to swing the bat and not have to bunt, I was swinging for the fences. I considered myself a decent hitter. Certain times, I was looking for fastballs and just swung it. My double in Cincinnati against Mario Soto was down the line. The first time I saw him, I said to myself that I was gonna swing at the first pitch. Before I could even lift my cleat to step, I heard the ball hit the mitt. I thought, “My God!” The one in San Diego, I had given up a home run to their pitcher, Dave Dravecky. The next inning, I came up and hit one real deep to left-center. As soon as it left the bat I said to myself, “I got a home run!” It hit about three-quarters up the wall for a stand up double. I didn’t have quite enough to get it out. I never got that home run, but I like it when they mention that I’m part of a record where all my hits were extra base hits. Only me, Earl Hersh and Verdo Elmore have done it.
You have a book that you’re finalizing called Standing Over Home. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
I remember one time I came home from Winter Ball and my daughter looked at my wife and said, “Is dad gonna spend the night?” When I was playing, I was gone for nine or ten months at a time. That question struck me that I had lost my place in the home. I had been gone so long that I lost my fatherhood role in the home. My wife raised my kids and did all the things a dad would do. I did all the same things my father did to me, except I did it on a different scale. One of the things I wrote in my overview asked, “Do you want to know the secret to winning both in life and with your son? Then Standing Over Home is the book for you.”
I take real life experience and surefire ethics to safeguard against striking out with your son. This is a book about fatherhood and how to really score with your kids. It’s about how to spend time and be there for your kids and how to balance things out. I shared my experiences on and off the field. There were five of us in my family and I am the last of my immediate family still alive. I lost four brothers. I had three brothers, a nephew and a daughter pass while I was playing in the Big Leagues and it all happened within 13 months. I document these things and the effects they had on me at the time.
Dennis Powell joins the Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation in breaking ground on a universally accessible Dodgers Dreamfield at Jack Bulik Park during World Autism Awareness Day on April 02, 2019 in Fontana, California. Dodgers Dreamfield 51 marks the first step on the road to 75 fields by the Dodgers 75th anniversary in Los Angeles. (Photo by Rachel Luna/Getty Images)
Wow, that is terrible and I’m sorry to hear that. I think fans tend to forget players are human beings and deal with real life problems too.
If something like that happened today to an athlete like that, they would put you in some type of therapy and give you someone to talk to. We didn’t have that. Nobody came to me and said, “Man, you lost three brothers, a nephew and a daughter in a year, what can we do for you?” I wound up isolating myself and my remedy was Jack Daniels. Even though I was pitching well at times, I would go back and drink in my room to self-medicate myself. I remember the pain of losing so much so fast. I would go to the ballpark and then just right back to my isolation. The book details that journey from my little town to the Majors and everything I went through along the way. The book is to help people become better fathers.
That’s a great lesson and I wish you all the success in the world. It’s great to see you making something positive out of all you have been through in the hopes to help better the lives of others. You’re still very involved in Dodgers Public Relations and have such a strong connection to a legendary franchise. Reflecting back on your career, what do you think of being able to say you wore the same uniform as guys like Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax, Roy Campanella and so many other legends?
I met Jackie’s wife. I have talked with Don Newcombe and people like that. When the Dodgers were bought by Guggenheim, they did a ceremony in the outfield with a whole bunch of Dodgers alumni and dignitaries. I was a part of that ceremony with Davey Lopes, Vin Scully and guys like that. They introduced us all by name. Magic Johnson got up and spoke. He said one of the easiest decisions he ever made was to become a part of this prestigious Dodgers brand. It just struck me that, wow, I played for the Dodgers. The same team as Jackie Robinson, Koufax, Drysdale, Hershiser, Garvey.
All these great names and I played for the same organization. It struck me that I needed to tell my story also. That’s where the inspiration for my book struck me. Right out in right field that day. I read the Jackie Robinson story to grammar school kids. Jackie was born in Cairo, Georgia. That’s just 42 miles from where I was born. Jackie was one of five kids. Guess what? I was one of five kids too. A lot of times when I am reading this book, I share my experiences too to show these kids that they can make it too. To be a part of the Dodger brand, knowing the history and players who put on that uniform and knowing the history of the franchise and how it changed the game not just for Black players, but for everyone, is a blessing.