"I was like a pariah on that team and it was really tough.”
BallNine’s Kevin Kernan, New York State Baseball Hall of Fame Writer, often likes to point out that over the past 20 years the New York Yankees have as many World Series titles as the Miami Marlins.
If it wasn’t for Carl Pavano, America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter might not be able to make that claim.
On the 20th anniversary of that World Series season, the All-Star righty joins me for this week’s Spitballin’.
If you haven’t yet connected the dots, the fact that it’s been 20 years since the Marlins’ World Series win over the Yankees means that it’s also been 20 years since the Bartman Game. You can expect some vignettes about that once the postseason rolls around, especially if the Cubs qualify. While the game may be known best for that one incident, there are some often overlooked factors that actually led to the Marlins avoiding elimination and winning that game.
Most notable are the error by Cubs shortstop Alex Gonzalez on an easy chopper, with the Cubs five outs away from the World Series; and the stellar pitching performance by Pavano, who started the game.
After giving up a run within the game’s first three batters, Pavano settled in and matched Cubs ace Mark Prior pitch-for-pitch through six innings. With the Marlins down three games to two, anything short of a masterful performance by Pavano likely would have ended the Marlins season.
It wasn’t the first fantastic performance Pavano would have that postseason, nor his last. Pavano picked up wins in relief in Games 2 and 4 of the NLDS against Barry Bonds and the Giants and after pitching in relief in Game 1 of the World Series, Pavano found himself on the mound as the Game 4 starting pitcher facing off against Roger Clemens.
The Yankees had a ton of momentum after beating the Marlins the previous two games by identical 6-1 scores; and again, Pavano needed to be on point to avoid the Marlins falling down three games to one.
Pavano responded with eight blistering innings in which he allowed just one earned run, capping his night by striking out Derek Jeter looking to end the eighth. The Marlins would pull the game out in extra innings before completing the unlikely World Series win the next game.
It’s been 20 years since that magical season, so let’s celebrate by going Spitballin’ with Carl Pavano.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Pavano. We’re highlighting players from the 2003 Marlins on the 20th anniversary of their World Series and you were a huge factor in that series as their ace, probably pitching the two most important games of the postseason. But before we get into that, let’s talk about your baseball path. Take us back to your childhood. What was baseball like for you as a kid?
I grew up in an Italian-American home in central Connecticut, so the Yankees were on all the time where we lived. We were halfway between New York City and Boston, so I saw a lot of Red Sox games too. I grew up watching Roger Clemens, Wade Boggs, and Mike Greenwell. Then the Yankees had Don Mattingly, Dave Winfield, Rickey Henderson, Mel Hall, and Dave Righetti. We were a big baseball family, so to come from a small town in the Northeast and to go on to have a baseball career wasn’t as common as it is for those from the South.
I signed with the Indians and they gave me an opportunity. My second start of the season came against the Yankees in the new Yankee Stadium after spending four years there as a punchline.
Speaking of the Red Sox, they drafted you in 1994 but you also were pretty locked in to go to LSU. Can you talk about the decision of bypassing LSU to start your professional career?
I was pretty set on going to college, so that dropped me down in the draft. I felt like I needed more development and LSU was a big powerhouse. I had a cousin who was seven years older than me and he went to LSU and won a championship there. I fell in love with the place. I loved that area of the South with the bayou and the culture. I had visited a lot of colleges that had mystique to them, but the colors and campus of LSU were a big draw for me. I was pretty much committed, but the Red Sox came calling and gave me a very fair offer. It was tough to turn away from the Red Sox.
They had an AA team in New Britain where I was born. I had a lot of opportunities to talk to a lot of people. One of our good friends was a host mom for players who went through there. I talked to them and the thought was that I could go to school and get hurt. Anything can happen. The Red Sox were a great organization that was going to develop me. They were investing a lot of money in me, so they were going to give me a fair opportunity. That all made a big impact and led me to turn away from a college education. At 18, I don’t know if I should have been making that decision, but my parents left it up to me. Physically, I was ready to go, but mentally that’s tough on a young man.
Carl Pavano #45 of the Montreal Expos hurls a pitch against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California. (Photo Credit: Scott Halleran/Allsport)
Absolutely. And you progressed up through the Red Sox minor leagues with great success. Then in 1997, you were traded to the Expos for Pedro Martinez. Did that come as a surprise to you?
I had finished my AAA season, but didn’t get called up. Dan Duquette offered to put me up in Boston over the winter to work out with their strength coach and I took him up on that, so I was living in Boston at the time. One of Dan Duquette’s roommates was Mark Manning and he owned a stockyard off the Mass Pike. He took me under his wing and we did a lot of stuff together like going to Bruins games. I was out at dinner with him and a couple of other guys when the trade came through. I didn’t know how to take it. There weren’t rumors, so you learn right away that baseball is a business. I was 21 years old, so I was excited, but nervous. The Red Sox were all I knew and I was looking forward to putting on their uniform. I was knocking on the door, but it turned out to be a good move. Being traded for Pedro, the Expos were going to give me an opportunity to do my thing.
You made your Major League debut at 22 years old facing off against Curt Schilling and a pretty stacked Phillies team. Can you take us through that game?
The crazy thing about pitching against Schilling my first and second career starts was that Schilling was with the New Britain Red Sox when I was growing up. I used to go to their baseball camps when I was about 12 or 13. I was a big kid with a good arm. Schilling pulled me aside and told me I had a good arm and that I reminded him of himself at that age. He took a liking to me and at the end of the week, he told me he was pitching in a couple of days and would leave me and my family tickets for the game. We go to the game and he wasn’t pitching. It turned out he had gotten traded to the Orioles for Mike Boddicker. But he had signed a photo for me and gave me his number in case I ever needed anything from him. Then he was off to Baltimore. Fast forward 10 years later, and my first Major League start comes against him. I got my first career hit and first career win against him.
Starting pitcher Carl Pavano #45 of the Florida Marlins throws a pitch in the first inning against the New York Yankees during game four of the Major League Baseball World Series October 22, 2003 at Pro Player Stadium in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Wow, that’s a really unbelievable coincidence! You mention your first career hit and I always like to talk to pitchers about their hitting. Did you take pride in your hitting?
I always say that pitchers are the best athletes on the teams growing up, but when you get to the higher levels, it starts to separate people. What led me to being a pitcher was that as the velocity increased, it exposed my weaknesses as a batter and I figured pitching was the way to go. But hitting was always fun. We took batting practice and I enjoyed working on bunting or just having a good at-bat. I felt like I could help the team. I took it seriously, but I knew my main job was to be successful on the mound.
You had two career homers, and both came in 2004. You have an open floor to talk about your home runs.
I hit both of them in California. One was off Jason Schmidt in San Francisco and the other was against Sterling Hitchcock in San Diego. I don’t know if the record still holds, but the homer I hit in San Diego was in the upper deck and was the longest by a pitcher for a long time. It was a 3-2 split-finger and I hit it for a three-run shot. You know, that was the last game Sterling Hitchcock ever pitched. He retired after that game.
Oh man! I bet that’s not the way he thought he’d be ending his career! You made your first All-Star Game in 2004 too and got to pitch two innings. Five of the nine guys you faced are Hall of Famers. What was it like being out there in that spotlight facing guys like Derek Jeter, David Ortiz, and Vlad Guerrero?
I got Ichiro out! Jeter hit a grounder to the right side. I was late covering the base and he beat it out. I pitched well after that, but gave up a home run to David Ortiz. Maybe that was something I wished hadn’t happened. That was the year they were doing home field advantage in the World Series based on the All-Star Game, so that homer helped the Red Sox get home field advantage.
New York Yankees General Manager and Chief of Baseball Operations Brian Cashman, pitcher Carl Pavano, and Manager Joe Torre during a press conference. Carl Pavano who is signed to a 4 year deal, formerly of the Florida Marlins with a record of 18-8 with a 3.00 ERA, at press conference in Bronx, New York on December 22, 2004, (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/WireImage)
I have a few questions about 2003, which was 20 years ago this spring. First, you pitched in multiple huge spots in that postseason and came through with a great outing each time. How do you stay focused as a pitcher and consistently perform at that high level under that pressure?
We came into the postseason with momentum and I had been pitching well. We had that attitude where we never gave up. We had a lot of veterans that kept things in perspective which helped us stay calm. There were a lot of young guys in their primes too. We hadn’t been in the league as long as some of the veterans. It was a good balance with the really young guys, guys in their prime and then guys who had accomplished a lot in the game like Jeff Conine, Mike Mordecai, and Andy Fox. They were the utmost professionals.
I think it gets lost in all the controversy, but you were the Marlins starter in the Bartman Game. Mark Prior started for the Cubs and he had a great season and was ready to send the Cubs to the World Series. Wrigley was crazy, but you matched him pitch-for-pitch. What was your mindset going into that game?
I gave up some cheap hits early but then got through that and pitched six innings. Prior was pitching well, but he had thrown a lot of pitches in the previous games and we started to get to him. His pitch count was always up. That was a factor late in the game. We took advantage [of the Bartman play], but that wasn’t the biggest mistake in my opinion. The foul ball kept us in the game, but then there was a ball hit to Alex Gonzalez at shortstop that was an easier play. But he went back on one foot and didn’t make the play and we took advantage of that. Our team was so good at taking advantage of mistakes. There’s a little luck involved as well, but we always took advantage of our opponents’ mistakes. We won a bunch of games that way.
I was in the dugout during that rally. That error was huge. That put us into a different mindset and was a difference maker. We won the Wild Card. We weren’t the best team, but we grinded. We had very unselfish players like Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo. They weren’t worried about their own stats. They were worried about getting guys over, dropping down a bunt. That tenacity fed our hunger to play good baseball. Dontrelle Willis was on fire; he came out of nowhere. Then Miguel Cabrera was so young but was such a big part of it. It was lightning in a bottle with a lot of guys.
Carl Pavano of the Cleveland Indians poses during photo day at the Indians spring training complex on February 21, 2009 in Goodyear, Arizona. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
From the standpoint of a pitcher, how did you find success against that Yankees lineup?
We all had a lot of confidence. We knew that we could matchup against anyone’s pitching. We happened to play Boston that year in an interleague series and didn’t do well at all. I started a game and didn’t even record an out. In the back of our mind, maybe we were hoping to play the Yankees. It really was “pick your poison” though. We did notice that the Yankees took a lot of pitches. We felt like if we were aggressive and went in and got strike one it would put us in the driver’s seat to pitch. It helped us mentally against that lineup to work ahead.
I think your start in Game 4 of the World Series was the turning point. If you go down 3-1 there against the Yankees, that’s asking a lot to come back from. Can you talk about facing off against someone you said was a boyhood hero of yours, Roger Clemens, in that game?
We had 70,000 people there and there was a flyover and everything. I was fired up. Roger Clemens was supposed to retire at the end of the year. When he got taken out of the game, there was a standing ovation and my teammates were up on the top step clapping for him. I was sitting there on the bench thinking, “What are we doing? We’re in the World Series and giving this guy a sendoff right now?” We were winning [3-1] at the time and I was actually pissed. That energy was great to have because it was late in the game. I used that to get through the eighth inning. I was not happy. I gave a couple of the guys a piece of my mind. I know you want to be professional about it, but this wasn’t a regular season game.
Coming off those great 2003 and 2004 seasons, you had a rough spot with injuries after signing with the Yankees. Can you talk about those years and trying to get yourself healthy?
I got paid a lot of money in New York and never really got on the right foot during my time there. I was injured and had a lot of things go on that I didn’t have control over. People think we wake up and everything is hunky dory, but there are a lot of things we have to deal with especially late in our careers. I was like a pariah on that team and it was really tough.
Carl Pavano #48 of the Minnesota Twins hugs catcher Joe Mauer #7 against the New York Mets at Citi Field on June 26, 2010 in Flushing, Queens. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
How satisfying was it to be able to overcome those injuries and doubters? That 2010 season was great with 17 wins and leading the league with seven complete games for the Twins.
I signed with the Indians and they gave me an opportunity. My second start of the season came against the Yankees in the new Yankee Stadium after spending four years there as a punchline. There was a lot of energy and it was a lot of fun. I got traded to the Twins in August of 2009 and later on in the year, I ended up starting against the Yankees in the playoffs. It was the final game played in the Metrodome. I toed the rubber against Andy Pettitte and pitched well, but gave up two solo home runs and we lost. We got swept that series and that was the final game. I felt like it was one of those “meet your maker” moments. There was a lot of pressure, not only because it was the playoffs, but it was against a team I played for who didn’t get the best of my ability when I was there. It gave me confidence and a little retribution to pitch well against them.
This has been great and I appreciate your honesty and stories. You were a part of some great teams and it was awesome to hear some stories from some of the classic games I remember watching. Just one last question for you. What are your reflections on your career going from that baseball-loving kid from an Italian-American household in Connecticut to Major League All-Star and World Series champion?
I was blessed to be able to make a career in Major League Baseball. People ask me what my favorite stadium was or who my favorite manager was and my answer is always, “All of them.” Just to put on a uniform and represent all those teams and represent myself was amazing. I think of the World Series, All-Star Game, all the big games I pitched in and it’s amazing and tough to comprehend how long ago it was. It’s the 20th anniversary of that Marlins team and it feels like it was just last year. Time goes by fast.
I have a 14, a 13, and an eight-year-old. My oldest and youngest are boys and my middle one is a girl. It’s tough to explain the experience to them because they weren’t part of it, but I think they get the gist of what went on. We don’t talk about it a ton. There’s some pressure on the boys because of who I am, but I try to alleviate that and say how lucky I was when I got the opportunity. I tell them they create their own opportunities through hard work. I try to stress things to them that are important like work ethic, attitude, and being a good team player. You’re going to have adversity, so it’s important how you handle it. Being in baseball that long, I faced all of that.