"I was on the field when Mariano Rivera threw his last pitch. I am one of just eight guys who could say that.”
Major League Baseball has been around for over 150 years, which makes it remarkable that only 22,858 people in the history of everything can say they were Big Leaguers for at least one day.
That’s about 8,000 less people than attended the Rockies vs. Diamondbacks game on September 19, 2001.
If you want to get to an even more exclusive club, take the 1,500 career games mark. In 150 years, spanning three different millenniums, only 715 players have played in at least that many games.
Basically, you could fit every major leaguer who played at least 1,500 games on two Boeing 777 airplanes.
Lyle Overbay is one of them and he joins us for this week’s Spitballin’.
The comparison between the Diamondbacks attendance on that seemingly random game in 2001 was not a coincidence at all. That was the day Overbay made his Major League debut. We’ll leave it to the hard-hitting lefty to tell that story though.
During his career, Overbay was known as a gap-to-gap hitter and fantastic defensive first baseman. Many advanced and traditional metrics have Overbay placed comfortably in the top 100 defensive first basemen ever.
Almost as importantly, Overbay was known as a fan-favorite at each of his six stops over his 14-year Major League career. Fans appreciated his work ethic, professionalism, leadership and the positive impact he made in the clubhouse and community.
The 1,500 game milestone isn’t one that isn’t talked about often, but it really is a remarkable number to reach. Hall of Famers like Hank Greenberg, Roy Campanella, Jackie Robinson and Ralph Kiner didn’t reach it, albeit for circumstances out of their control.
Neither did 20-year veteran Sandy Alomar, Kevin Seitzer, Gorman Thomas or Bucky Dent.
As you can imagine, someone who sticks around for that many games has seen a few things and has a few stories to tell, so let’s go Spitballin’ with Lyle Overbay.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Overbay! You had a great long career and we have a lot to cover, but let’s start out at the beginning. What was baseball like for you as a kid?
I coach high school baseball and I always tell my players I have pictures of me playing baseball from when I was two years old. My grandma would be throwing me Wiffle balls and I would hit it and go get it. I always loved the game. I never got caught up in the success part of it. You always dream about playing Major League Baseball, but it wasn’t like I was intentionally preparing myself for that. I just played baseball because I loved the game and it was fun. I never thought about where it would take me. I played Little League, Babe Ruth, Legion Ball and high school before playing at University of Nevada-Reno. I always remember that shirt that said, “Baseball is Life, the rest is just details.” That’s what my life was like. I played other sports too, but I loved baseball. I would even go in the yard and play by myself. I had my nine hitters and would visualize a pitcher throwing to me. I was always the four-hole hitter obviously.
I always say that luck happens when preparation meets opportunity, so I always kept myself prepared.
You were drafted in the 18th round by the Diamondbacks in 1999. Can you talk about what your draft experience was like?
We had a couple of players get drafted when I was a sophomore and I put up similar numbers to them when I was a junior so I thought I had a chance to get drafted in 1998. It didn’t happen and I was disappointed, but it was a blessing in disguise. My senior year I had the best year I ever had, so I thought I had an opportunity to be drafted or sign as a free agent. I was very surprised I went as high as I did because I was a senior and had no bargaining power. The draft wasn’t televised back in the old ages, but I knew the draft was going on. My college roommate was a golfer and he was trying to qualify for the US Open at an event in Washington. I actually was caddying for him when I found out I was drafted. I got a call saying I was drafted by the Diamondbacks and was going to Missoula to play first base. I was like, “OK, do you have a first baseman’s glove? Because I never played first base in my life.” I was always an outfielder.
Lyle Overbay #24 of the Milwaukee Brewers prepares to bat against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park on May 2, 2014 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
You went from an 18th round pick in Rookie Ball in 1999 to the Major Leagues by 2001. Can you talk about what it was like to make that jump?
It was quite the emotional roller coaster. I was in AA and I played first base just about every game in 2001. The last three days, they were just DHing me. I thought it was weird. Turns out, they just wanted to make sure I didn’t get hurt because they knew I was getting called up. I had plans to go see my buddy in Vegas after the season, so I wasn’t counting on being called up. A couple of guys got called up and we met the team in San Francisco. I had been to a Major League game as a fan, but I was never in a Big League camp before. This was my first Major League experience of any kind. I didn’t know where to go, so I just went to the field. I was there at about noon for a 7:00PM game.
I got in the cab and didn’t know where to go, but the cab driver had driven players before so he knew. He dropped me off, but I didn’t realize I was where I needed to be. The fans waiting for autographs had to tell me where to go. Growing up in Washington, I idolized all the Mariners greats like Ken Griffey and Randy Johnson. So, sure enough, the elevator at the stadium opens up on my first day and it’s Randy Johnson. I never met him before, but I had my baseball bag and we started talking. He was congratulating me and talking to me for a bit and all of a sudden he sticks his hand out and says, “By the way, I’m Randy Johnson.” I was like, “Yeah, I know! I grew up watching you.” Then September 11th happened and we never played the game. Everything shut down. That was crazy, shocking and emotional.
Lyle Overbay #37 of the Arizona Diamondbacks bats against the San Francisco Giants at Chase Field on April 8, 2012 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Diamondbacks defeated the Giants 7-6. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
When you finally did make your debut, it was the first game back after baseball shut down for 9/11. Again, another great story that I’ll let you tell yourself.
We were in a playoff race with Colorado and I wasn’t a big prospect. I figured I would be the guy they sent in if a game went 20 innings and we ran out of pinch hitters. Jack Cust was their big prospect, just hitting bombs, and doing good things. I was behind him. It was Wednesday Night Baseball on ESPN, so that game was televised and all of my family got to see my first AB. It was the top of the ninth and we were losing. The callups were sitting together at the end of the dugout staying out of the way, not wanting to do something stupid. The pitcher was coming up second and Bob Melvin, our bench coach, came halfway down and pointed at us and said, “You’re hitting second.” I looked behind me to see if he was talking to someone else, but he was like “No, you are!” I was like, “Oh crap!”
I was facing a sinkerball pitcher and we were losing pretty big, so I knew the pitcher didn’t want to get behind me. I was ready and laced a pitch over the second basemen for a base hit. It was pretty cool that my family was able to see that. The next batter was Greg Colbrunn and he grounded into a double play to end the game. I slid into second, and I get emotional at this part because it’s a big deal, but I came off the field and like a normal game, the losing team is packing their stuff and heading up to the clubhouse. But there were two guys, Tony Womack and Matt Williams, who stayed to congratulate me. I remember that like it was yesterday. These guys were Big Leaguers and we just lost a big game in a playoff race. For them to take the time to wait for me showed me the kind of people they are and they are awesome. I don’t really remember the name of the pitcher I got the hit off of, but I remember Tony Womack and Matt Williams congratulating me and I thought that was just so great of them.
I am not surprised one bit that those two were the ones who waited for you. Talk about some winning players and leaders. Now of course the Diamondbacks went on to win the World Series that year. Although you weren’t on the roster for it, take us through that experience of watching them beat the Yankees in that series.
I had driven home after the season and was down in Mexico playing Winter Ball. They were actually showing the World Series games on the old Jumbotron during our games. I wanted to watch, so when I was batting, I would time it to when they were pitching in the World Series, I’d step out of the box. Then when they were out of the box, I would step in to hit. I was swinging at the first pitch so I’d either get on or get out so I could keep watching. That was really special though. Earlier that season when I got my first callup, I grabbed a bat and had everyone sign it. So that turned into an autographed bat by the 2001 World Series Champion Diamondbacks.
Alexei Ramirez (10) of the Chicago White Sox is tagged out by Toronto Blue Jays' Lyle Overbay while being picked off first base at US Cellular Field in Chicago, Illinois, on Thursday, May 6, 2010. (Photo by Scott Strazzante/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
Were you in a game when Luis Gonzalez got that hit off Mariano Rivera to win it?
We were! I was on the bench at the time. I was hoping it wasn’t my time to hit because I wasn’t going up there. You know, the next year I started to hear stories that Andy Pettitte was tipping his pitches in Game 6. They scored six runs off him in two innings. I don’t think he had ever done it before, but they figured something out that game. That was fun to be a part of, even if I was off in the distance.
In 2004 with the Brewers, you got your first chance to be an everyday player and had a great year, batting .301 and leading all of baseball with 53 doubles. How satisfying was it to take advantage of the first real opportunity you were given?
The Diamondbacks had traded for Shea Hillenbrand and he was playing some first base. After the season they had said he was moving back to third and I knew they wanted a power hitter to protect Luis Gonzalez. They ended up having their eyes on Richie Sexson. When I got traded, the Brewers were like, we love everything about you, don’t change a thing. My rookie year, the Diamondbacks wanted me to pull everything and I thought, “That really isn’t my game.” I was more of a doubles hitter and they wanted me to hit 30 homers. That wasn’t me. I felt like I was getting a second chance in Milwaukee and not many people get that. There were a couple of weeks at the beginning of the season when I wasn’t hitting very well. I wasn’t comfortable. But they stuck with me and I relaxed and built some confidence. I had guys behind me that were well-known players, so I just sat back and did my thing. I exceeded my expectations and felt like we had a good nucleus with the team. I enjoyed being a part of that.
You spent five seasons in Toronto, where you were a big fan favorite. What was your experience like playing for the Blue Jays?
I loved it. My wife and I had three young kids at the time and we felt safe there. Guys like John McDonald, Vernon Wells and Aaron Hill are like family to me. We spent a lot of time together there. The players I played with are gone, but a lot of my great friends in baseball were part of those teams in different roles. Guys like the traveling secretary, front office people, clubhouse guys. I still talk to them and when the Blue Jays come play the Mariners, I go up and see them. We had just built the team to where we felt like we could compete with the Yankees and Red Sox, but then the Rays got good too and that was another team in the mix. We actually did OK against the Red Sox and Yankees during that stretch but struggled with the Rays. When you play 19 games against every team in your division that makes it tough. [In 2008] we won 86 games, but finished in fourth place. I always thought that if we were in the AL Central we could have walked right through it. Then if we got into the playoffs, we had AJ Burnett and Roy Halladay and that would have given us as good a shot as anyone. Like the 2001 Diamondbacks with Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling.
You mentioned the Yankees and you got to spend one season playing with them in 2013. It was at the end of their run, but Jeter, Mariano and Pettitte were still there. What was that season like?
When you’re a Blue Jay or on another team, you hate the Yankees. You don’t know why, but it may have to do with being jealous. It wasn’t like they were bad people. Guys like Derek Jeter are awesome. When I got there, I understood why CC Sabathia and all these big names signed there. Some even took less money. But it was being a Yankee that drew them. They go above and beyond to make sure that you’re good. You get to hang out with all these greats. I was on the field when Mariano Rivera threw his last pitch. I am one of just eight guys who could say that. I knew beforehand that he was going to be the first 100% vote for the Hall of Fame. I just knew it.
That was the year Derek Jeter got hurt, so he wasn’t with the team much. He was down in Tampa rehabbing. As soon as he got activated, he came right to me and said he had been watching me. I knew him prior just playing first base and talking to him there many times, but he was awesome. I think of some of the conversations with Andy Pettitte and Robinson Cano. They were great guys. Cano took over that year. He was never a leader because Jeter was always there. But when Jeter got hurt and Alex Rodriguez got hurt, he became our leader. There were some games where he just took over the game and almost single-handedly won some games. I had never seen that before. He was just like, “OK, I’ll put the New York Yankees on my shoulders and let’s go!” We fell a little short, but we were right in it.
Closeup of New York Yankees Lyle Overbay (55) in action, fielding pop fly vs Detroit Tigers at Yankee Stadium. Bronx, NY 8/9/2013 (Photo by Suzy Allman /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)
That’s a great summary of that season. It’s always pretty cool to hear players kind of have the same respect for Yankees history that the fans do.
For sure. You had all the legends coming through too when I was there. Reggie Jackson, Yogi Berra, all those guys. I love the history of it. That was so awesome. You learn the history of the game from talking to them. It’s about keeping the history of the game alive.
I appreciate you taking the time to share your stories, especially the one about your first hit, which I won’t forget anytime soon. One last question for you. What are your reflections on your baseball life as we talked about everything from being that two-year-old boy playing Wiffle ball to having a 14-year Major League Baseball career?
I don’t know what the average major league service time is now, but the average when I played barely got you to your arbitration years. It might have been when I was with the Yankees, when Tony Clark came in to talk to us about the collective bargaining going on with the Players’ Association. He said that there were only a certain amount of players who made it to ten years of service time. It was such a small number; I would have thought it would have been like three times as much. It really put things in perspective for me. Personally, you’re in it to win a World Series or play in the playoffs and I fell short on some of those dreams. But to be able to have so many seasons to try to do that, that put things in perspective for me.
Also, of all the years I played, I really don’t think I had a bad teammate or even ran into a bad guy in MLB. There are some guys who rub you the wrong way, but nobody I would say was a bad guy. I don’t know that a lot of people can say that who go to work every day. There’s a select group of guys who can get to the Big Leagues, but that number is even smaller for those who get to make a career of it. I always say that luck happens when preparation meets opportunity, so I always kept myself prepared. When I got the opportunity, I was prepared to go with it.