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Mudville: February 7, 2023 4:28 pm PDT
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Best of 2022

"It’s been a fantastic journey and I cannot thank my guests enough for their time."

In the summer of 2020, with the country shut down, I rented a pickup truck in California, pointed it East and started driving. BallNine was in its infancy and we were still trying to figure out what to do with this thing of ours. Somewhere driving through Wyoming, I had the idea to interview former players and reached out to former Dodger Al Ferrara to see how it would go. The Bull was such an awesome interview that it motivated me to turn this into a series. I reached out to BallNine EIC, El Jefe himself, Chris Vitali, and pitched the idea. He came up with the name Spitballin’ and said we should give it a shot.

I was psyched, but then I immediately wondered if I would be able to sustain this on a weekly basis for any more than a month or two. Somehow, this column has now run without interruption for over 100 installments and countless amazing stories.

In 2022, I was able to interview 38 former Big Leaguers, the sons of Ernie Banks and Curt Flood, the dude who painted those Upper Deck team cards who also happened to be Vernon Wells’ father and a former minor leaguer who is currently a sitting judge. And of course, for the 100th episode of Spitballin’ I had the honor of interviewing the great Luis Tiant.

It’s been a fantastic journey and I cannot thank my guests enough for their time. They are generous, honest and forthcoming about their stories in the game. But the most important factor in this equation is the readers and baseball fans who enjoy hearing these stories. We always appreciate the genuine interest people show in these fun little features.

We always said from the start that one of the main functions of BallNine was to bring baseball stories to baseball fans from the players themselves. We want to give those players a voice and platform. As we close the book on 2022, we look forward to 2023 with great anticipation. We hear it may even be The Year of File. But for now, here are some of the best quotes and stories from a fantastic 2022 Spitballin’ year.

These guys will have a hitter with two strikes then they go in their pocket and look at a card to see what to throw that pitch. Goddammit that should be something you know! You’re telling me you have to look at a card to see what type of pitch to throw? That sucks, but that’s what they do now. I don’t care what you tell me, that’s stupid and I’ll tell anyone that to their face. That stinks. The best pitchers have the heart, the balls and the brains. You can throw 100, but if you don’t have that, you won’t do shit. – Luis Tiant, expressing displeasure at the way pitchers handle themselves today

 


 

To this day, I still think I got him. I think he was out. When you do a bent-leg slide, your top foot is in the air. Whenever you’re going into one of the bases it’s no problem because the base is up in the air. Home plate is level with the dirt, so you can’t slide into home and dig your spikes on your lead foot into the ground or you’ll break your ankle. In my opinion, his front foot slid over the plate and I tagged his back knee before he was able to get to the plate. – Mike LaValliere, who still contends to this day that Sid Bream was out and Mike Nelson’s bookie owes him a refund

 


 

We were at the old stadium in Cincinnati and it was so hot. That turf in July was blazing. You just sit there and you’re loose. I was just a kid and our bullpen coach was like, “Wayne, are you gonna throw?” I was like, “I need about five [pitches] man.” That’s all I threw, and they called me in to face Griffey. I was jogging in, and I didn’t feel the turf under my feet. There were two outs. I started with a fastball in and then threw a fastball away and he rolled over on it. Jeff Bagwell dove but missed it. Craig Biggio was there to make the play and I had to cover first, and we got the out. That was my “Welcome to the Big Leagues” moment. – Wayne Franklin on facing Ken Griffey Jr. in his MLB debut

 


The doors opened and the crowd went nuts. I was thinking, “I went to high school and college here! This is my hometown and they love me!” Then I look over and Torii Hunter was in the on deck circle and he was an Angel. They weren’t going nuts for me, they were going nuts because Torii Hunter was coming in to pinch hit. – Heath Bell, on pitching in the 2010 MLB All Star Game

The umpires just got sick and tired of Earl Weaver. There was a game when Ron Luciano was the home plate ump. I was up and Earl was already riding Ron. It was a very hot day and my first at bat, there was a 3-2 pitch that was in the dirt. I had already flipped my bat and moved towards first, but I heard, “Strike three!” Ron looked over at Earl, who was already jumping up to complain, and said, “And you’re out of the game!” The next time up I said, “What was that about Ron?” He said, “I owe you one Doug. Too damn hot out here and I’m not gonna sit here and listen to that little guy scream at me all game!” – Doug DeCinces on playing for Earl Weaver

 


 

I could have looked at it as a downer, but when I looked at the roster of the players they were drafting, I thought there were some terrific players there. There were guys that had already made it in the Majors and some big names. Gil Hodges, Gus Bell, Frank Thomas and Richie Ashburn were on the roster and I thought, “Maybe this won’t be so bad.” I really believed that. – Jay Hook, on becoming an original Met

 


 

I was very blessed to play with a lot of great players. I played with Ken Griffey, Jr., A-Rod, Sammy Sosa, Rickey Henderson, Randy Johnson, Trevor Hoffman, Ken Caminiti, but Tony Gwynn was the one guy who really stood out as being a really great person and great player. All those other players are great guys too, but Tony was special. He cared about the young guys. He knew San Diego didn’t have a lot of money so we had to develop players instead of signing big free agents, so he always looked after young players. – Scott Sanders

 

Luis Tiant (Getty Images)

He reminds me every now and then that he was picked second overall and I was picked third. For what he accomplished so far in his young life is amazing. I sit there with my wife sometimes and we can’t believe what he’s done. He was part of Team USA and we got to go down to Panama and watch him play there. He hit for the cycle in the championship game and was MVP. He was the Gatorade Player of the Year in baseball and overall. The things he’s done, I’m just so proud of him. He’s happy about those things, but that’s not what he set out to do. His goal is to become a Big Leaguer and play this game for a long time. He’s got some old school to him and he understands the game. He loves the game and I think he’s gonna be an exciting player. – Bobby Witt, on his son, Bobby Witt Jr.

 


 

I was fortunate to get to test myself against the best the game had to offer. The way I look at it, if you throw the ball over the plate, you have roughly a 70% chance of success. The fact that I did a little better than that against some of those Hall of Famers, 500 home run guys, just huge names, was something. I don’t know if that’s indicative of me being excellent, but for the time being, I performed admirably against those guys. I also gave up a lot of hits to some career .230 hitters too, so maybe that skewed things in the opposite direction. But it was always really cool to face the guys that I idolized as a kid. – Pitcher Will Ohman

 


 

Pitching in my first World Series [in 2002] was crazy. I’m coming into the game thinking, “Oh my God, I’m pitching in the World Series!” I came in in the seventh inning to face Robinson Cano and Hideki Matsui, who was MVP of that World Series. I punched them both out and went back out for the eighth to face Nick Swisher and Brett Gardner. Swisher grounded out and Gardner rolled over on one. I walked off the mound thinking, “Wow, that’s the last game I’m ever gonna pitch.” It was the last game of the series and we were down a few runs with Mariano Rivera was coming in to pitch. Even though we were about to lose the World Series, that was my most memorable playoff game. – Pitcher Scott Eyre

Curt Flood and Curt Flood, Jr. (Getty Images)

For me, even if they told me they we had to donate our pension to charity, that would be fine by me. Some guys are on hard times and need the money, but for me, it’s not about the money. It’s about feeling included. At least that would be acknowledging that I played. It would be saying, “Yes, you were a Big League ballplayer.” I would give everything I got to the Catholic Church if they would just acknowledge us and allow us in the pension system. I would be happy to do that because it’s not about the money for me. It’s about being included and acknowledged. Right now, we feel like we didn’t even exist. – Former Blue Jay Tom Bruno on being one of 500 pensionless former Major Leaguers 

 


 

I would go to this Holy Rosary Church in town. When [Babe Ruth] died in 1948, I was outside and this young priest from New York asked about The Babe. He said that he heard his confession about a week before he died. Babe had sent everyone out of the room and said, “Send the priest in.” He made his final confession, so you might just see Babe in heaven one day. – 97-year-old former Cardinal Larry Miggins

 


 

I was with the White Sox and we faced the Rangers when Nolan Ryan pitched. I was actually underwhelmed. He was getting towards the end of his career, but I still expected so much. He was throwing maybe 92 or 93 and it just wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. He didn’t have his best fastball, but being tough as nails, he just pitched through it. Then the next time we faced him, he went out and threw a one-hitter. Ron Kittle had a broken-bat blooper over the second baseman’s head otherwise it would have been another no-hitter for him. Just dominated. – Dave Gallagher

 


 

When he was asked by Jackie Robinson to go to Mississippi and join him at an NAACP conference, he jumped at the opportunity. Fast forward to the Supreme Court case where Jackie and Hank Greenberg were the only people connected with baseball to support him. When Jackie came into the courtroom, it brought tears to my dad’s eyes. He was my dad’s everything. – Curt Flood Jr.

Wayne Frankin (Getty Images)

I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity I had. There have only been like 20,000 people who ever played Major League baseball and when I first made it, that number was about 15,000. When I hear how few have ever gotten to play, it makes me aware of how fortunate I was. I found a bunch of four-leaf clovers along the way. Everybody had every right and every reason to not draft me. The Pirates had every reason to release me. The Expos had every reason to not give me a chance. They all did though – and I feel very fortunate they did. – Pitcher Bill Sampen

 


 

I think his legacy was his strength through all of the problems and losing. His strength through Leo Durocher being an asshole. His knee being hurt and having to get it drained, but never complaining. He would call and say, “How do you feel?” Yet his knee would be the size of a basketball. He always had that upbeat personality even though he might not have felt like it. He was an amazing guy and so consistent. Dad never showed any of those accolades in the way he carried himself. He’d win a ballgame, but he wouldn’t come home and act like he won a ballgame. You couldn’t tell whether he won or lost. – Joey Banks on his dad Ernie’s legacy

 


 

Every year in Boston they have an event called Hot Stove Cool Music. It’s a concert to benefit the Theo and Paul Epstein Foundation and I’ll get up on stage and play with different folks. Bronson Arroyo and Peter Gammons are involved too. This year I played with Johnny Rzeznik from the Goo Goo Dolls. I’ve played with a friend of mine, Evan Dando from The Lemonheads and Juliana Hatfield too. I even played with Eddie Vedder a couple of years ago. Bernie Williams plays every year too. He’s just an absolute guitar God. I look forward to it every year. – Pitcher Lenny Dinardo in his experience in music

 


 

I had started that game against Hideo Nomo. There were two guys on base, and I was waiting for Don Baylor to give me the bunt sign, but he never did. I guess he just wanted me to hit, but I wasn’t sure why. I guess it was Coors Field, so you could score a million runs. Nomo threw two balls to me and we put on a hit-and-run. Nomo hung a slider and I just put a good swing on it. I had enough backspin on it that it went into the bleachers. I was running around the bases thinking it was gonna be a double, but it went over the fence. It was pretty exciting, and I still have the bat and ball. The next time the Dodgers came to Coors, I started against Nomo again and he threw a no-hitter! It’s still the only no-hitter at Coors Field. – Billy Swift on his first Major League home run

Lenny DiNardo (Getty Images)

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. – Mike DeJean on his Rockies teammates

 


 

I got in a night game and played left field. It was about 35 degrees if I remember. Cleon Jones was throwing up in left field from the start. He was really sick. Come about the eighth inning, Yogi sent me out to left. I haven’t played in over two months and the temperature seems to be about 35 degrees. Sure enough, Sal Bando hits a ball into left center field. Just out of instinct, I went over and made the catch. I threw the ball back in like I knew what I was doing. It was quite a thrill to be a part of it as I look back. My whole time with the Mets was a thrill. To be able to play with Tom Seaver and Willie Mays. Rusty Staub and Cleon Jones. – George Theodore on playing in the 1973 World Series

 


 

I can remember vividly getting picked for the game. We were in Reading, Pennsylvania, which was AA for the Phillies. I was playing for the Erie SeaWolves and I had just got done playing catch. I was coming into the locker room and got pulled aside and was told I had been picked for the game. I knew about the game and was really excited to go. You get to be a quasi-Big League All-Star for like a day-and-a-half because it happens right before the All-Star Game. They put you up in the same hotel [as the MLB All-Stars] and you’re getting pretty much the same treatment. – Jacob Turner on playing in the MLB Futures game

 


 

Willie Randolph approached me and asked if I was ok. I said, “Yeah, I’m good. I’ve been training!” He said, “Ok, we’ll see what we can do.” The beginning of the second inning, Willie came to me and asked if I was ready. I said I was and he told me to get my glove. Twenty seconds later, he said, “You’re on!” Putting the uniform on and walking out onto the field was like having a flashback. I went back 60 years just like that remembering how it was to step out onto the field at Shea Stadium for the first time. – 79-year-old former Met Steve Dillon on pitching in their Old Timers Day this summer

George ``Stork`` Theodore

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. – Catcher Danny Sheaffer reflecting on the great baseball people he learned from in his career

 


 

Looking back, I think I tried to out-athlete baseball and you can’t do that. You can’t grab the bull by the horns. I think that’s why I went to football. I wanted the ball in my hands every play and dictate the outcome a little more. Young kids could learn what I am saying that patience is the key to the game of baseball. I could have played defense at the highest level for a long, long time, but if I couldn’t figure out my patience at the plate, I wouldn’t have lasted long. Back then, if you were a third baseman, it was expected that you’d hit .275 with 30 or 40 homers and I think I was capable of that physically. But I was so young-minded. It bothered me that I wasn’t a part of every at bat or every play. It felt like I wanted to do more. That’s why I liked football. Now, I know I would be calmer and have an approach, but I can’t do that because I’m 47. If I could put my 47-year-old brain in my 17-year-old body, I would do it. We all say that. – Josh Booty, reflecting on his career as a two-sport athlete

 


 

My second All-Star Game was in Anaheim, where I used to watch the Angels play as a kid. I came in in the middle of an inning. The doors opened and the crowd went nuts. I was thinking, “I went to high school and college here! This is my hometown and they love me!” Then I look over and Torii Hunter was in the on deck circle and he was an Angel. They weren’t going nuts for me, they were going nuts because Torii Hunter was coming in to pinch hit. – Heath Bell, on pitching in the 2010 MLB All Star Game

Heath Bell (Getty Images)

There are 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. – Former minor leaguer Robin Fuson, who is now a judge in Florida

 


 

In 1967 I had a good year. I went to Lee MacPhail, our general manager, for a raise. He said to me, “Steve, what does your father do?” I said that he owned a tavern back in Tacoma. He said, “Why don’t you go back home and become a bartender.” It was total disrespect. I closed the door and told him to go fuck himself. I said, “Are you disrespecting me you son of a bitch? You wouldn’t have this job if it wasn’t for your daddy. Don’t disrespect me! Take that money and shove it up your ass!” Long story short, I wasn’t gonna be with the Yankees that much longer. – Former Yankee outfielder Steve Whitaker who, indeed, wasn’t a Yankee much longer

 


 

Happy New Year!

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 will be out in April 2021.

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