"I just shut my mouth and did whatever I was supposed to do and things kept happening good for me.”
On April 15, 1978, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune ran an advertisement promoting an early season Minnesota Twins home game.
It was a full page ad that featured just two sentences and the photo of a player who hadn’t yet appeared in a professional game above AA.
The ad said, “The skinny kid called Pudge could be the next Jim Palmer. See him pitch his first game at The Met Sunday.”
The kid with all the hype was Roger Erickson, and he joins us this week for Part One of a two-part Spitballin’.
Calling a 21-year old kid who hadn’t pitched above AA the next Jim Palmer was saying something in 1978. Palmer had won back-to-back Cy Youngs in 1975 and ’76 and finished second in 1977.
The thing about Erickson, though, is that wasn’t going to bother him. Nothing was going to, really. After pitching at Springfield College and the University of New Orleans, the Twins drafted Erickson in the third round in 1977 and he reported to the Orlando Twins in the AA Southern League.
Erickson started 14 games that summer, completing 10 of them. It probably would have been 11, but the Orlando Twins pitching coach came in to pitch the final three innings of his last start. Erickson went 8-4 with a 1.98 ERA.
The following spring, manager Gene Mauch, who was notoriously tough on rookies, was dead set against Erickson breaking camp with the Twins. Like we said earlier, that wasn’t going to bother Erickson.
The tall righty’s performance that spring made it impossible for Mauch to keep him off the roster.
Erickson may not have become Jim Palmer—not many ever did—but he pitched in 114 games, mostly as a starter, over six big league seasons.
Lucky for us, Erickson is a master storyteller, too; and he’s here to share his with us in Part One of a two-part interview. Please join us as we go Spitballin’ with Roger Erickson.
Hello Mr. Erickson, thanks for joining us. Really looking forward to hearing your stories. Let’s start at the beginning, though – did you come from a baseball family growing up?
As a family we played Wiffle Ball in the yard. It was everyone. My sisters, brother, parents. Everyone played. My grandfather played in what was called the Three-I League which was in Iowa, Indiana, and Illinois. It was probably the equivalent of a Summer Collegiate League, but there were no schools attached to it. It was just the best players around that age. His sons, my dad and two uncles, all played ball. My uncle, Don Erickson, played in the big leagues [with the Phillies in 1958]. My older brother played some minor league ball and taught kids from the time he was 25. Two of his sons played minor league ball. I played just like everybody else.
I’d say that is a baseball family! Was there a time when you realized you could play the game at a high level?
I played in high school – and during my junior year, I grew from about 5’8” to about 6’3” and started throwing very hard. I went to Springfield College, a small Catholic junior college where my brother was the head coach. I didn’t get any offers besides going to the other junior college in Springfield. It would have been stupid for me to go there because Springfield College was closer, I knew everyone on the team, and my brother was the coach. We only had about 11 guys on the team and as it turned out, we beat the snot out of everybody. Including the other local junior college who had 40 players on the team.
Tommy was yelling at me the whole first inning. Gene Mauch said to me, “Do you know Tommy Lasorda?” I said, “Oh yeah, we’re good buddies.” Gene just shook his head and said, “I can’t believe this kid.”
That had to be great – going around with 11 guys and beating up on everyone.
Yeah the other college in Springfield had good players, but we had the better players. Eleven guys out there, all with long hair. We went out to a district game and played against Lincoln Junior College. I was pitching and they were screaming at me, “Hey, you hippie punk!” We were yelling back at them, “Hey you farmers, go back home and milk a cow!” Maybe some things a little harsher than that, too. The catcher on that team happened to be Brian Snitker, the current Braves manager. After that game, this old Washington Senators player, John Schaive, who knew my brother and father, talked to us. He said, “Why is Roger pitching at this podunk little junior college with 11 kids?” They told him I had broken my left arm playing first base, so I really didn’t have anyone looking at me. He called a buddy of his, who happened to be Ron Maestri, the Head Coach at the University of New Orleans. They gave me a scholarship sight unseen.
What was it like making that transition down to the University of New Orleans?
I showed up and checked into the dorm. The school was just starting to grow. Our baseball field had a snow fence around the outfield and no bullpens until I built them myself. I went to the gymnasium to meet the coach for the first time. I stood outside his office because he was on the phone. I had on bell bottom blue jeans with a tie dye t-shirt with Spider-Man or something on it. He took a look at me and said, “Hey kid, walk out that door, turn left, and keep walking until you hit Woodstock.” I said I was here to see Coach Maestri. He said, “Ah shit. Go outside and wait there for a minute.” He called John Schaive and asked what he was sending him. John said, “Have you seen him throw yet? Get a catcher and watch him throw.”
[Coach Maestri] got a catcher’s mitt because he wanted to catch me himself. We went out to the side of the gymnasium and he said he wanted me to throw to him. I asked if he could find a catcher and he said, “You kidding me? You don’t think I can catch you?” I was like, “Whatever,” and got loose and popped a few in to him. He told me to cut it loose, so I did. My ball used to really tail and it handcuffed him. He went off into the gym and came back with Brian Snitker. Turns out, they had recruited him too. I threw to him and Maestri asked me if I was all set up in the dorms and stuff. He realized he got a good deal out of Johnny Schaive.
You were picked in the third round of the 1977 draft by the Twins. Can you talk to us about your draft experience?
Everyone had been telling me I was going in the first round. I even had umpires tell me that they got word from people that I was going in the first round. I was getting calls from people who wanted to be my agent telling me I would be in the first round. I might have, but I had a bad game right before that. New Orleans made it to the postseason and we were playing in Arlington Stadium. Everyone was nervous about it. First guy against me reached on an error, then Snitker threw a ball into center when he tried to steal. Then our shortstop threw a ball away and I hung a slider and all of a sudden it was 3-0. I think that made my stock drop, but it didn’t matter. Everything turned out good for me.
Were you expecting to be drafted by the Twins or were there other teams that showed interest too?
Teams were coming out to watch me pitch and watch me throw in the bullpens I built myself. I’m not kidding. We didn’t have bullpens, so I got some dirt and built them myself. One day Coach Maestri came to me and said the team we were supposed to play canceled on us, but scouts were coming to watch me, so we played an intrasquad game. Birdie Tebbetts was there, the national crosschecker for the Yankees. I said, “You want me to pitch to our guys and try to get them out? Are you gonna tell them that’s what’s going on?” Coach said he might, but just to go out there and pitch like they’re opponents. I figured everyone would be pissed at me and I was right.
Birdie Tebbetts yelled out, “Hey, can you throw some changeups?” That really screwed up the hitters. Birdie yelled out again from the stands asking how I threw it and I just said, “slower.” He told Coach Maestri that I would be in the Majors. A few years later, I saw Birdie at a golf tournament and he told me that when he went back to the Yankees, he told them to draft me in the first round and I’d be in the big leagues the next year.
Even though the Yankees didn’t take Birdie’s advice, he was right that you were in the Majors the next year. The Twins drafted you in ’77 and you dominated AA and were in the Majors the very next year. First, what was that AA experience like for you?
I pitched about two months in AA and ended up about three innings short of qualifying for the ERA title. It wasn’t a big deal, but I remember the last game of the season I was shutting someone out and we were up 5-0. They took me out and put our pitching coach in to pitch. The Twins needed a left-hander in the bullpen and they decided they wanted it to be the guy who was the travelling minor league pitching coach all summer. He pitched the last three innings. Someone told the manager Johnny Goryl that I needed the three innings to qualify. He said, “I don’t care and Erickson don’t care. This is his first year, who cares about a record in the Southern League.” I didn’t even know about it. But I finished with a 1.98 ERA and got invited to Spring Training in ’78.
What was that first big league camp like?
I just shut my mouth and did whatever I was supposed to do and things kept happening good for me. I remember one drill in pitchers’ fielding practice, I came off the mound and threw to first with a little umpf on it. They kept trying to test my range and we had about 10 veteran pitchers in camp. One time they rolled it pretty hard up the line and I was in the third basemen’s territory. I had already gunned a few to first base, so when I grabbed and turned to throw, the whole group of pitchers was in the way and they all scattered and hit the ground. I just lobbed it over their heads. They had been telling me, “Hey kid, you don’t have to throw it as hard as you can.” I said, “I’m not.” They got the idea that I knew what I was doing.
Managers don’t like pitchers. I remember one day Gene Mauch told the coaches to take the pitchers onto some other field to do some goofy new drill and get them out of his sight. The coaches couldn’t figure out how to do the drill so they asked some of the veterans and they said they didn’t know what it was. One of the coaches finally just says, “Does anybody here have any idea what this drill is supposed to be?” I said that I did and explained it. When it was done, I heard Mauch ask how the drill went. The coaches told him nobody knew what the drill was. Mauch said, “Well I saw you doing it right, someone knew how to do it.” They said, “Yeah, the Erickson kid knew how to do it and explained it to everyone.” Mauch said, “Really? The Erickson kid? Holy shit.”
That’s great. I’m sure you have a million stories about that first Spring Training!
Yes and even before I went to Spring Training, I stopped in New Orleans to work out. The coach asked me to go to a dinner and clinic. I checked into the hotel and got my itinerary for the clinic. I went to this meeting room and was looking around at the spread. I heard a voice behind me say, “Looks like we’re the only two who read the itinerary and got here on time.” I turn around and it was Tommy Lasorda. He asked me who I was and I told him. He said, “You’re Ron Maestri’s boy! You’re gonna be Gene Mauch’s boy now.” He and Maestri were friends. He told me the Dodgers were loaded so if they asked me to pitch against them in the Spring, tell Gene Mauch you don’t want to. When I saw him in the clinic he said, “Roger, I’m telling you, you do not want to pitch against us; we’re loaded!”
Spring Training came and I kept getting everyone out. So the day comes when I’m starting against the Dodgers. All of a sudden, I hear from the Dodgers’ dugout, “Roger! I told you that you don’t want to pitch against us!” Tommy was screaming at me. I turned around and said, “I have to do what the manager tells me!” Tommy was yelling at me the whole first inning. Gene Mauch said to me, “Do you know Tommy Lasorda?” I said, “Oh yeah, we’re good buddies.” Gene just shook his head and said, “I can’t believe this kid.”
What was your experience like playing for Gene Mauch that first Spring? I know he could be tough on youngsters.
He would do things like tell me that when I threw batting practice, that was for me to work on stuff. Then he’d go tell the hitters that batting practice was for them and not to let the pitchers get them out. He loved everything I did in that Spring Training. The Twins AA team, the Orlando Twins, played in the stadium where we had Spring Training. So all the front office guys for the Orlando Twins were there and they were always asking him how I was doing. Finally, he just got so sick of it he popped off, “No punk kid just out of college with two months’ minor league experience is gonna make my Major League team! It’s not gonna happen, never will happen, no chance, nada!” Some reporter was close by and it got into the paper. I used to call my brother as Spring Training was winding down and he would ask me how many pitchers were on the team. At one point I said that there were just ten left. He told me if there were only ten, then I was on the team. Eventually, the reporters asked Gene about his statement saying I couldn’t make the team and he said, “We couldn’t keep him off. He did everything right.”
You did what you had to do, just take the decision out of their hands. Do you have any other stories from that Spring before we move on to the Majors?
I had a start against Montreal in Daytona Beach. I pitched against Wayne Twitchell and was doing well. We had two outs and two on and the number eight hitter was walking up. I hear Gene Mauch say, “Hey rook, get a bat!” I said, “Get a bat? What are you talking about?” He pointed out that we were playing a National League team in their park and pitchers had to bat. I grabbed a helmet and started pulling bats out of the bat rack and players were telling me, “Not that one rook! That’s mine!” I pulled Rod Carew’s bat out and he was standing right behind me. He said, “Not that one either, kid!” He pointed to the other bat rack that had all the broken bats with tape on them. I found one that wasn’t broken and it was a Jackie Robinson model; 34 inches with the thick handle. It was just a log. I was in the on deck circle and guys were laughing.
The eight batter walked, so I was up with the bases loaded. Johnny Goryl starts giving me some signs and I was just staring at him. Jerry Morales was the catcher and he said, “Hey Chico, you don’t know the signals?” Gene Mauch finally yells out, “Just let him hit!” Twitchell threw a fastball down the middle for strike one. The umpire said, “Hey kid, come on take a hack at it!” It gets to 2-1 and he throws a pitch middle-out and I took a hack. I hit a line shot into right field and am running down the line thinking I drove in a couple runs. Well the right fielder was Ellis Valentine. He grabs the ball on one hop and throws me out at first base. There was no place to hide.
No shame in being thrown out by Ellis Valentine! Your teammates had to love that one.
I walked out to the mound all pissed off. Roy Smalley brought my glove out and was laughing. I threw one warmup pitch and told Butch Wynegar to just throw it down. He gave me a look and I was like, “You heard me, just throw it down, I’m good!” Camilo Pascual was the pitching coach. He went over to Gene Mauch and said, “You want I should go talk to Royer?” Gene said, “Do you want to?” Camilo said, “No! Why don’t you go out there?” Mauch said, “I ain’t going out there.”
These stories have been awesome and I am looking forward to hearing about your big league regular season experience, but we’ll save that for next week.
Join us next week when we continue with Part 2 from Roger Erickson, where we discuss his time in the Majors with the Twins and the Yankees.