"Hirschbeck said to me, 'Strikeout my ass, that’s the way to swing it!'”
We hear the term “great baseball guy” all the time, but what exactly does that imply?
A great baseball guy is usually someone who has been around the sport a long time, has had success in multiple facets of the game, and is someone willing to grind to achieve levels of prosperity most can only dream of. He’s the type of selfless, winning player or leader you want to have on your team.
Denny Hocking is the epitome of a great baseball guy, and he joins us for this week’s Spitballin’.
Hocking played baseball at El Camino Junior College and admittedly, did so just for fun and with no expectations of a professional career. Considering he was drafted in the 52nd round and had a scout show up to his house saying the Twins didn’t even intend to sign him, the fact that he even reached the majors was a near impossibility.
Instead, Hocking performed on the field, took any negativity and used it for motivation, and grinded his way through the minors. He carved out a 12-year MLB career, 11 of which he spent as a highly popular utility player with the Twins.
Since retirement, Hocking has been a successful instructor, manager, and broadcaster, among other things. Most recently, Hocking was the manager for USA Baseball’s U-18 (Age 18 and Under) Team which he led to a Gold Medal in the U-18 Baseball World Cup.
BallNine loves great baseball people; so join us today as we go Spitballin’ with Denny Hocking.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Hocking! We have a lot to get to between your playing and coaching career, so let’s jump right in. We’re going to start back in your childhood. Could you take us back to when you were a kid and tell us what baseball was like for you when you were young?
I had an older brother and we used to play a lot of baseball in the front yard. He would be the Pittsburgh Pirates and I would be the Dodgers. My mom would take us to Dodger Stadium when we were kids, but I transitioned over to the Angels in high school and was able to drive. It was a much easier drive to Orange County than LA. I was actually a way better high school basketball player than baseball. I had a scholarship to Cal State-Dominguez Hills for basketball and when I took a trip over there, I spoke to the baseball coach and told him I was interested in baseball, too. He told me that I wasn’t good enough to play baseball at a Cal State school. I thought that maybe I should rethink basketball. I turned down the scholarship and went to El Camino Junior College to study journalism. I figured I would play baseball for fun and then try to work my way into sports broadcasting.
It doesn’t sound like you had huge goals to play professionally, but you were drafted in the 52nd round in the 1989 draft by the Twins anyway. Could you talk to us about your draft experience?
I was just playing baseball leisurely in junior college. I would fill out little index cards for scouts here and there and not think anything of it. I got a package in the mail that said I was drafted by the Twins and a scout would be reaching out. I had no idea I was drafted. I showed the packet to a friend of mine and said, “What the hell does this mean?” He said I was going to be a minor league baseball player. A scout came to my house eventually and said, “Congratulations on being drafted, but we don’t want to sign you.” That was weird to me.
Minnesota Twins' Denny Hocking heads for first after hitting a game-winning single off Mariano Rivera. (Photo by Andrew Savulich/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
You broke through in 1992 in the minors and batted .331 and with a little pop, too. The next year you not only got bumped up to AA, but got called up to the majors from there. That’s a pretty quick path to the majors for a 52nd round draft pick. Could you talk to us about your minor league career and how that developed?
That was around the time of the expansion draft. That ’92 season I was in the California League and I picked a great time to have that kind of season. The Twins wanted to protect me after that, so they had to put me on the 40-man roster, which was great. I went to Spring Training the following spring and in my second at bat, I broke my ankle. I missed the first month of the ’93 season, but went to AA when I was healthy. We made the playoffs and I got taken out of our last game. I went in the clubhouse and called my then-girlfriend, who is now my wife. I asked her if she could come pick me up at the airport the next day because our season was over. After the game, our manager, Phil Roof, told me that me, Rich Becker, and Scott Stahoviak were going to the big leagues. I had to call my girlfriend back and tell her to get to Texas along with my parents. I had no idea whatsoever that I would be called to the big leagues.
What was it like to get in there for your first major league action?
I remember the minor league season ended on a Thursday and me and my teammates got to Arlington, Texas the next day for a doubleheader. I pinch hit late in the first game and started Game 2. My first big league at bat was against Matt Whiteside. He baptized me into the big leagues by going “good morning, good afternoon, good night” on me. The thing I remember about that at bat was that I could feel my knees shaking in the batter’s box. I don’t even remember if I swung. I went 2-4 in Game 2 with my first big league hit coming off Charlie Leibrandt and my second against Tom Henke. Saturday we faced Kevin Brown and I walked three times in that game. Then the Sunday game was Nolan Ryan Appreciation Day.
“You don’t have to worry about me being ready. I’ve been waiting my whole life to play a game like tomorrow. Worry about everyone else who is going to be nervous.”
Oh wow! Did you get to face him that day?
I certainly didn’t think I was going to be in the lineup against him. I got to the field and saw the lineup and that I was hitting ninth. I actually walked by the lineup and didn’t really notice. I had to take a couple of steps backwards to make sure I was really seeing my name there. My head just dropped. Kirby Puckett was standing next to me. He put his arm around me and said, “Don’t worry about it kid, he only likes to hit the young guys.” That was quite a moment – to get ready to hit against Nolan Ryan. I went out to play second base and John Hirschbeck was the second base umpire. He said, “Hey kid, how you doing?” I told him that I was scared to death of Nolan Ryan. He said, “Don’t worry about it kid, swing it and you never know what could happen.” I came up to home plate for my first at bat. Durwood Merrill was the home plate ump. I walked straight into the box, didn’t take my time, didn’t dig a hole. Just walked right in and stood there looking at Nolan’s feet until he started his delivery.
When he started, I looked up at him and thought, “Oh my God, that’s Nolan Ryan,” and as I got to “Oh my God, that’s…” the pitch was already called strike one. After that, Nolan threw a really good pitch and Durwood called it a ball. Nolan and Durwood started yelling at each other. I almost wanted to interject and say, “Mr. Umpire, that was a really good pitch and that’s Nolan Ryan, please don’t upset him!” I actually got a good pitch to hit and fouled it back for strike two and figured I was done. But I ended up hitting one out to Juan Gonzalez in left field. He was playing me shallow and it went over his head for a double. As I was standing on second base hyperventilating, Nolan was circling the mound talking like a sailor. Hirschbeck had called time out to dust off second base. He tried to push me off the base, but I was an immovable object. Hirschbeck said to me, “Strikeout my ass, that’s the way to swing it!”
Minnesota Twins first baseman Denny Hocking slides into third base with a triple off of Cleveland Indians pitcher Bob Wickman as Indians 3B Travis Fryman awaits the throw during the ninth inning on September 25, 2000 at Jacobs Field in Cleveland. Minnesota defeated Cleveland 4-3. (Photo credit: DAVID MAXWELL/AFP via Getty Images)
You stuck in the majors in 1997 and after a rough couple of years, the Twins started building up again. In 2002, the Twins won the division for the first time since the 1991 World Series team. What was it like being part of that resurgence?
After the 2001 season, Commissioner Bud Selig was talking about contracting two teams, us being one of them. I was the Twins player rep at the time, so my offseason was spent in a lot of meetings. We had some older guys, but really the core of that team had come up through the minors together. We had AJ Pierzynski, Doug Mientkiewicz, Luis Rivas, Corey Koskie, Jacque Jones, and Torii Hunter all come up together. At the end of the 2001 season, the Indians clinched the division against us and Mientkiewicz was sitting on the bench. I said, “Come on brother, let’s go.” He said, “No, I want to watch this and remember it because this is gonna be us next year.” We survived the contraction talk and all had a chip on our shoulder the next year. We started the year off in Kansas City and Jacque Jones hit a home run on the second pitch of the season and we never looked back from there.
The first round of the postseason, you beat the team that would later become known as the Moneyball A’s. The Twins had a great season, winning 94 games, but the A’s and Yankees won 103 games each. What was your mindset going into that postseason?
We actually stopped the A’s 20-game winning streak and had played pretty well against them during the year. They were so talented though. Miguel Tejada was the MVP and they had Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito, but we felt like we had enough information on those guys that we felt we could put [up] competitive at bats against them. We had Brad Radke, who had been on the DL during the season, so that made him a little fresher. We also had Joe Mays and Eric Milton, who were young and up and coming. We felt prepared and that the A’s were a good matchup if we played Twins baseball, which was throw strikes, play good defense, and get some two-out hits.
That series came down to a great Game 5 and you played a big role in that game. What is it like playing under the pressure of an elimination game?
I hadn’t started any of the previous games and I felt like I had played well against the A’s in my career. Maybe it was that when we came to Oakland, my family and friends were there so I played better. We were beating them pretty good in Game 4 in Minnesota and were about to head back to Oakland for Game 5. Ron Gardenhire came up to me and told me to be ready for Game 5 because I was starting at second. Luis Rivas had a bad hamstring. I remember saying some unpleasant things to Ron Gardenhire at that time. I said, “You don’t have to worry about me being ready. I’ve been waiting my whole life to play a game like tomorrow. Worry about everyone else who is going to be nervous.” It was probably my way of pumping myself up. Up to that point, I had played a lot of MLB games and had been nervous before every single one of them. But that day, stretching before Game 5, I was not nervous one bit. It struck me as weird. I guess I felt I was more prepared than ever before.
My first at bat was against Mark Mulder. The book on him was that he was a tremendous pitcher with good secondary stuff. We knew he liked to go soft with traffic, so I was looking for something up because I was up with the bases loaded and two outs in the second. I singled to center, but I might have hit it too hard, though – because Torii Hunter couldn’t score from second. That was a really cool moment. I also caught the last out in the game, which was pretty special considering what I had been through in the offseason with the contraction stuff. I caught that ball and put it in my pocket. I still have it somewhere.
Baseball can be really poetic. Twins fans are so passionate and the Metrodome was always so loud. What is it like as a player having that great connection with the fans and playing in a place that could be so frenetic?
It was tremendous. I got a lot of resentment when the contraction talk was going on because I was the player rep. Apparently, everyone thought that was my idea. But when you put a quality product on the field, Twins fans come out in droves. There is tremendous support and you have a serious home field advantage at the Metrodome. I enjoyed my time there, especially doing stuff in the community. One of my favorite things was something called Twins Unplugged. We’d have two teammates and go to an establishment to do trivia, interviews, sign autographs, and connect with fans. Every time we did it, the bars were packed.
(Original Caption): Fort Myers Fla. - Lee County Sports Complex - Twins Spring Training - Twins utility infielder Denny Hocking is in camp. IN THIS PHOTO: Denny Hocking is known to be one of the most approachable Twins players. Here he visits with Twins fans in one of the dugouts at the spring training facilities.(Photo By MARLIN LEVISON/Star Tribune via Getty Images)
Changing gears a bit, you were the Manager of the United States U-18 National Team and led the team to a Gold Medal in the U-18 Baseball World Cup. Can you talk to our readers about your experience representing our country and winning a World Title?
USA Baseball is a great organization. They do a great job of evaluating who the right players are in filling out a 20-man roster. Sometimes it’s not always the best players; it’s like putting together a puzzle and you have to find the right pieces. Considering the outcome, we picked the right guys. They bring in people that really know baseball like Lunch McKenzie, whose opinion I really valued. Jason Maxwell was running the team and their World Cup was canceled due to Covid. I worked some camps and that allowed me to get my foot in with USA Baseball. Jason couldn’t do it last year, so I was asked to take the reins and it was a tremendous honor. The first tournament we played in, I had a roster of 20 people and three coaches. Two months later, we had 20 completely different players and three different coaches. It just shows you [how] the talent pool in the US is so deep all over the country. Now I passed it on to Michael Cuddyer, so that’s the past three coaches all coming through the Tom Kelly coaching tree. Cuddyer actually played twice on the U18 National Team and was on Team USA as a pro, too.
Your children are incredible athletes as well. Your son just had a good year as a freshman for UCLA baseball and your twin daughters just became the first sisters to be drafted in the same NWSL Draft. Can you talk to our readers about the accomplishments of your children?
We’ve been super fortunate that all three of our kids have created their own drive and work ethic. My daughters were always good athletes and they really know how to compete. They played with a really high level soccer club and that’s where they got noticed and earned their scholarships to Arizona and USC. They actually became the first siblings drafted in the same NWSL Draft and that was incredible. We knew Penelope would go high and hoped that Iliana would get drafted too. She was taken 44th out of 48 picks, so that was a true testament to them and their work ethic.
My son, being a freshman at a very good UCLA program, didn’t get a lot of playing time early on; but we had conversations about working hard and staying ready. I asked him if he wasn’t happy about his situation, what he would do to change it. He’s done a really nice job staying ready and about halfway through the season, he pretty much became an everyday guy. He’s found his footing on the college level for sure.
Tampa Bay's Steve Cox was out at second as the Twins' Denny Hocking makes the leaping throw to first in 3rd inning action. (Photo By BRUCE BISPING/Star Tribune via Getty Images)
That’s awesome. We wish them the best of luck for sure! Thank you for taking the time to talk with us. As we wrap up here, looking back as someone who didn’t really prioritize professional baseball growing up, what are your reflections on the career you have been able to put together in baseball?
I look back and realize how fortunate I was so many times to be in the right place at the right time. The support system that I had was great. I look back at never wavering from my confidence because I believe confidence is the hardest thing to gain and easiest thing to lose. I preach to my kids not to let anyone take away their confidence. I was just so fortunate to be involved in so many things in baseball and still be involved in the game; maybe not in the capacity that I would like, but I am still involved. I get former minor league players that I coach reach out and check in. I’m giving lessons to about 60 kids in the local area and watching them improve physically and mentally is rewarding. I do pre- and post-game for the Angels here and there and that’s great. There were so many people along the way who didn’t believe in my skill set or who told me I couldn’t do what I did, just being able to show them that I could is rewarding. I always tell my kids, “You have to have an F-You moment,” and I have had plenty of those from high school to college to the minors. Some of those people will come up to me and say, “Hey man, I knew you could do it!” That handshake is always rewarding because I look at them and think, “No, you didn’t!”