"By the time I got to the foul line, I realized I forgot the ball. I really screwed that up.”
On August 9th of this season, the Cubs will be taking on the Mets at Citi Field. It’s a game in the dog days of summer that doesn’t seem like it will have any additional buzz to it. On that date 35 years earlier, the total opposite was the case.
It was August 9, 1988 when the Mets took on the Cubs in the first official night game at the Wrigley Field. It’s hard to understate the hype that surrounded the lights being flicked on for the first time. It was a huge freaking deal.
Mike Bielecki was the Cubs starting pitcher that night and he joins us for this week’s installment of Spitballin’.
The first night game, and all the fanfare that surrounded it, was actually scheduled for the day before. When rain washed away the game in the third inning before it became official, the festivities moved up one day.
That’s not the only historical game Bielecki found himself in, but we’ll let him share the specifics on those stories.
The righty from Baltimore came up with the Chuck Tanner, pre-Barry Bonds Pittsburgh Pirates in 1984 and finished his career as a favorite of Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox as the Braves dynasty was just getting started.
He spent 14 season in the Majors with his best season coming in 1989 when he won 18 games and picked up his only Cy Young Award vote.
The reliable righty had success as a starter and reliever on some very good teams and even battled back from mid-career Tommy John surgery to pitch in the World Series.
He’s got a great story of success and perseverance, so join us as we go Spitballin’ with Mike Bielecki.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Bielecki. I’m interested to ask you about a couple of historical games you pitched in, but first, let’s go back to your childhood. What was baseball like for you as a kid?
I was a huge Orioles fan growing up in Baltimore in their heyday. They were always battling it out with the Yankees. Jim Palmer was my idol. I emulated him out in the yard with his high leg kick. Even through high school, I never had any motivation to pitch professionally because I always put those guys on such a high pedestal that it didn’t seem reachable to me.
You ended up being drafted in 1979. Could you take us through your experience with the draft?
Guess who the Orioles played in the World Series in 1979? The Pittsburgh Pirates. Here I am a lifelong Orioles fan and I got drafted by the Pirates in June of 1979. So that brought up the question, who do I pull for in the World Series? The team who is going to be my next employer or the team I grew up rooting for? To tell you the honest truth, I was pretty ticked off when the Pirates beat the Orioles in 1979.
He said he knew there was some times when my arm was hanging, but I still took the ball and he appreciated that. Coming from number six – Bobby Cox – that puts a little sugar on my career.
You had a couple of great seasons coming up through the Pirates system, winning 34 games over a two-year span in 1983 and ’84. Was there a time where you felt like you really had a good shot to make the Majors?
My first year in AAA was a little bittersweet. The year before in AA, I was almost released. I was pitching in Buffalo and they had a real short right field fence. I gave up like 35 home runs that year and I never really mastered a third pitch, which you need as a starter. I went home that winter and during the World Series, I watched Jack Morris throw that split-finger fastball. I started messing around with it. They sent me back to AA the next year and I led the Eastern League in most pitching categories. I went from the outhouse to the penthouse and was put on the Major League roster.
The next year, I was in the Major League camp and at the end of Spring Training, they sent me to AAA in Hawaii. I ended up going 19-3 and was Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year. The downside was, who wins 19 games in AAA? Usually they’ll call someone up doing that well. I even had opposing managers come up to me and say, “Man, what are you still doing here?”
Pitcher Mike Bielecki #34 of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitches during a MLB game at Three Rivers Stadium circa 1985 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)
You ended up spending four years with the Pirates before you were traded to the Cubs. Looking back, what do you think of your time in Pittsburgh?
I was happy as heck because I was pitching in the Major Leagues. My rookie season they moved John Candelaria out of the rotation because they had to make room for me after being the minor league player of the year. I wasn’t pitching that bad. I was 2-3 with a low-4.00 ERA pitching my first time as a Major League starter. I should have had a few starts the previous September, but didn’t. So this was my first experience. I got called into the office one day and they told me they were sending me back to AAA where I’d stay all year. Why would you tell someone that? I had won 19 games the previous year and at that point, I wanted to be traded. But you don’t open your mouth as a rookie.
What was it like going back to AAA with nothing really to prove?
I stayed there most of the year and had a really bad attitude. My manager was Rocky Bridges and he had been in baseball forever. He took me in the corner, shook me and said, “You’re pissing everything away! You’re not down here pitching for the Pirates, you’re pitching for yourself and you’re giving up because you’re mad!” That kind of woke me up and I started pitching better. They called me up later in the season, then the following year they traded me to Chicago.
You made history in Chicago as the Cubs starter the first official night game at Wrigley Field. That’s a pretty awesome piece of history! That was a huge deal back then, what was it like from your perspective?
Most of it was a pain in the rear end! All year that was all they talked about. It was supposed to be on August 8th — 8/8/88. There were a lot of people who wanted lights, but a lot of traditionalists too who didn’t. We had an OK team that year. Rick Sutcliffe wanted to start the game, even though it wasn’t his turn. Don Zimmer moved the rotation around to make that happen. It ended up being real torrential downpours. We played a couple of innings, but there was just no opening to play the game. It was my turn in rotation the next day, so I got the first official game. That was pretty cool to be a part of. It gave me a token in Cooperstown at least. The first pitch was a strike and they took the ball and sent it to the Hall of Fame. That was gonna be as close as I ever got to Cooperstown!
Mike Bielecki, pitcher for the Chicago Cubs on the mound during the NL East game against the Philadelphia Phillies on September 7, 1989 at Veteran's Stadium, Philadelphia. The Cubs won 6-2. (Photo by Kirk Schlea/Allsport/Getty Images)
That 1988 Cubs team won 77 games but took a huge step forward the next year, topping the NL East with 93 wins. You guys had so many great young players step up. Did you see that success coming?
At the time, the Cubs didn’t spend a lot of money. We had a solid infield with Ryne Sandberg and Shawon Dunston, one of the best guys I ever played with. Some young kid came up from AAA to play first. That was Mark Grace. Jerome Walton was going to play center and nobody knew how he was going to be. He went on to win the NL Rookie of the Year. I ended up going 18-7. Greg Maddux was in the rotation. He was young, but you could already pencil him in for 15 plus wins a year. When September came, we were still in it. All the Cubs fans were waiting for the June swoon and it never really happened. That was such a fun season. Nobody expected us to win. We didn’t even expect us to win except at one point we were like, “Hey, maybe we really are this good!” We ended up clinching in Montreal and we had three games left against the Cardinals, who were our rivals. So we were just peacocking our way around St. Louis after winning the division in Montreal.
Nice! Can’t fault you for that. You faced the Giants in the NLCS and you were the #2 starter behind Greg Maddux, starting games two and five. What was that like pitching in the postseason for the first time?
I wasn’t nervous; I was more pumped up than anything. Will Clark and Mark Grace were on fire in that series. We won Game 2, but I didn’t get the win. I pitched 4.2 innings and Will Clark was coming up. Zimmer hooked me before I could qualify for the win. Game 5 was the last game of the season. There was a lot of pressure because it was win or go home for us. I pitched really well. I was pitching on three days and our bullpen had messed up a little in the previous games so Zimmer just stuck with me. I got two quick outs in the eighth but then walked three in a row. I was done and figured Zimmer had to know I was done.
Most guys don’t want to come out of a game, myself included, but when you have had enough, you’ve had enough. He came out to talk to me to see how I was doing. I thought he was coming to take me out, so I went to hand him the ball and he just put his hands behind his back. That was after the second walk. We were tied 1-1 and the next guy was Brett Butler. He had like a 12-pitch at bat that went 3-2 and I walked him. Then they brought Mitch Williams in to face Will Clark and he got a two-run single up the middle and we lost 3-1.
Mike Bielecki of the Atlanta Braves during Game Four of the World Series against the New York Yankees on October 23, 1996 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images)
Towards the end of your fourth year in Chicago, they traded you to the Braves. Did that come as a surprise to you?
Yes, I didn’t know I was getting traded. We were in St. Louis and the Braves had all that magic going on going from worst to first. It was a Sunday and I was supposed to pitch in Philly the next day. Being from Baltimore, I had a whole busload of people coming to watch me pitch. I had gotten them hotel rooms and everything. After the game, I got called in and they said they just traded me to Atlanta with Damon Berryhill. I was stunned. Usually when you’re gonna be traded, you hear about it in the press. This time, I didn’t hear a word. There were no rumors and it was after the trade deadline. The next day we met the Braves and we just stayed in the background and did what little we could to help them. The deadline for the postseason roster had already passed, so the Braves were trading for me to be in the starting rotation the next year. Unfortunately, that was the year I blew my elbow out. I was pitching real well, too. I kinda had gotten to where I wanted to go, but had to get Tommy John surgery and start all over.
You did make it back with the Angels the next year and then actually had two more stints with the Braves before retiring after 14 years. Can you talk about those last few seasons in the Majors?
I have a real soft spot for Bobby Cox because he brought me back twice after my Tommy John surgery and three times overall. The last time he brought me there was 1996. I pitched for the Angels the year before and didn’t do well. I was having shoulder problems. I didn’t have a job in Spring Training. All through Spring Training, I was throwing at home, but wasn’t getting any looks. I started to think my career was finished. Kent Mercker was going to stay in my house because he had been traded to the Orioles. The Orioles were playing the Braves and he went over to talk to Bobby Cox and Leo Mazzone. Bobby asked how I was doing and Mercker told him I was sitting at home without a job. Bobby asked if I was in shape and Merck told him I had been throwing.
I was sitting at home one day and was having my coffee and I got a phone call from Bobby Cox. My hair flew back and I was wondering why he was calling me. He asked if I was in shape and throwing and I said I was. He said he wanted me at Spring Training tomorrow and put me on the phone with the travelling secretary. I was like, “What? These guys are world champions.” The next day, I got there and put my stuff in the minor league side of the clubhouse. I figured I’d be going to Richmond as an insurance policy. This was like the last week of Spring Training. Leo came to me and wanted to watch me throw. I went out there with some minor league catcher and threw for 10 minutes. The next day, I went to the minor league side and my stuff was gone. I thought maybe someone took it, but they had moved it to the Major League side because I was going to make the team.
Mike Bielecki of the California Angels pitches circa 1980s. (Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images)
That’s amazing. And by the end of the year you were pitching in the World Series. What was that 1996 season like for you?
I started the season as a long man, but by the end of the year, I was the setup man. It felt like a storybook season to me. We were up 2-1 on the Yankees and beating them 6-0 in Game 4 then Jim Leyritz hit the homer off Mark Wohlers to tie it and we lost in extra innings. Then the Yankees won it from there. From sitting at home in April without a job and then by October you’re in the World Series, that’s such a contrast in feeling. I knew after 1996, I was going to play the next year too. It was important to get that year for service time. In 1997, I was 39 years old but throwing the ball as well as I ever had. The Braves were talking about signing me to a two-year contract and it would have been my first multi-year contract. I played 14 seasons on one-year contracts. I was just about to get some stability – then I tore my rotator cuff and I was done.
In the middle of your three stints with the Braves, you pitched in 1995 with the Angels and pitched an inning in the game where Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig’s record. Being from Baltimore, what was that experience like for you?
The festivities in Baltimore for Cal were so great. The Orioles did a great job with that. Coming off the strike year, that was one of the first big events for fans. I was supposed to do side work that day, but I went to my manager, Marcel Lacheman. I said, “Hey Lache, today’s my side day. If you wouldn’t mind, could you let me get into the game and pitch to one batter. I grew up in Baltimore, I played Little League against Cal, I just want my name in the box score.” He said he’d see what he could do. I got in to pitch the sixth inning.
I was real proud to get in that game. I told myself the whole time to make sure to take the baseball if I could. They had these special balls made with a logo on them for Cal. They were guarding those balls too. My plan was to have a game-used ball that I knew was authentic because I pitched it. The opportunity was perfect. I got a strikeout to end the inning and Chris Hoiles rolled the ball back. My reaction was to run off the field. By the time I got to the foul line, I realized I forgot the ball. I really screwed that up. We all got a new ball with the logo on it, but I would have liked to have a game-used ball. Every year they play that game over on that date on TV and without fail, I get calls from friends who tell me they’re watching it.
Braves Alumnus Mike Bielecki prior to a game between the Atlanta Braves and the Milwaukee Brewers on August 12, 2018 at SunTrust Park in Atlanta, GA. (Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Ah man, that would have been awesome! This has been great, thanks for sharing your stories and telling us what it was like to be a part of some historical games! Last question for you is an open-ended one. Looking back on your career, what are your reflections on everything you were able to do in baseball?
I pinch myself and say I was so lucky. I still remember walking into the clubhouse and seeing my name on the back of my jersey for the first time. It was a sense of accomplishment after all the work I put in in the minor leagues. It’s really satisfying now. I have two daughters who are very successful. When I was playing, they were really little. Now they kind of brag that their dad played ball. It makes me stick my chest out a little bit that my kids are proud of things I have done. Putting in 14 years, overcoming adversity and just loving to play the game. That’s why Bobby Cox brought me back to Atlanta three times. He told me that was because I always took the ball when he wanted me to pitch. I never said no. He said he knew there was some times when my arm was hanging, but I still took the ball and he appreciated that. Coming from number six – Bobby Cox – that puts a little sugar on my career.