"I wish I would have started better in New York, things might have turned out a little different for me.”
Thirty seven years ago on June 30, 1986, the New York Yankees tried once again to fill a hole that would plague the franchise for over a decade.
It was a hole at shortstop created when George Steinbrenner acquired Roy Smalley, which nudged Bucky Dent to the bench and ultimately to the Texas Rangers in 1982. Smalley didn’t really work out with the Yankees and that was the start of a seemingly never-ending search for the next Yankee shortstop that lasted until Derek Jeter started on Opening Day for the first time 14 years later.
The player the Yankees thought may solve their issue those 37 years ago was Paul Zuvella and he joins us for this week’s Spitballin’.
Between Dent in 1982 and Jeter in 96, the list of Yankees shortstops to start on Opening Day includes Tim Foli, Bobby Meacham, Wayne Tolleson, Rafael Santana, Alvaro Espinoza, Randy Velarde, Mike Gallego, Spike Owen and Tony Fernandez. Throw in Dale Berra, Mike Fischlin and Ivan DeJesus and let’s just say the Yanks didn’t leave many stones unturned in search for their next shortstop.
Although Zuvella’s time with the Yankees was brief, he played parts of nine seasons in the Majors and 12 professionally after a stellar career at Stanford University. As an amateur, he also represented America on Team USA in the Pan Am Games and Amateur World Series.
If you were a baseball fan in the 80s, you saw him on TBS, in your packs of baseball cards and for a brief time, playing the spot in the Yankee lineup once occupied by Frank Crosetti and Phil Rizzuto.
If you’re a fan of BallNine, you’re seeing him right here today as we go Spitballin’ with Paul Zuvella.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Zuvella! Really looking forward to hearing your stories. Let’s go back to the beginning to start. What was baseball like for you as a kid?
I didn’t start playing Little League until I was ten years old. It was a lot different back then. We used to go down to the park to play lob ball and things like that. Growing up I was a shy kid and I felt a little funny playing organized games. My first year in Little League I made one of the major teams because my brother was two years older and they drafted him, so they had to take me too. The first half of the season I struck out every at bat. It’s so funny, I still remember when I finally got my first hit. I hit a ball between the first and second basemen and I remember running down to first base with tears in my eyes because I finally got a hit.
That’s an awesome memory and what baseball is all about. You must have developed into a good player really fast though. You ended up having a great career at Stanford. Could you tell our readers about your time at Stanford?
I just kept playing and by the time I was in high school, I was MVP of my league as a junior and that put me on the radar for colleges. Every sport has that pyramid where you move up levels and it’s always eye opening. At Stanford, I was going against the best of all the high school recruits. I just put my nose down, worked hard and hoped someone noticed me. I opened some eyes with my work ethic and I had good hands and could move my feet pretty well. I played about half the games as a freshman, but very few in the infield. Sophomore year I took over the third base job from a senior about two weeks into the season and never looked back. I played a lot of second base in my career there too. I was recruited as a shortstop and was drafted as a shortstop, but never really played much there in college.
Your career at Stanford overlapped with John Elway’s baseball career there too. What was Elway like as a teammate and player?
John was a really good player. He had some pop and of course had a great arm. He played right field for us. That was my senior year and we also had Steve Buchele and Mike Aldrete. We had a great team. I remember when John got drafted by the Yankees and just knew there was no way he was going to play baseball. He was gonna figure out how to play football instead. I never thought he’d play more than that first summer in A Ball for the Yankees.
As much as I would have liked to see what Elway could have done in the Majors, I’m pretty sure he made the right decision. During your amateur career you also got to represent our country as a member of Team USA in the Pan Am Games and the Amateur World Series. What was that experience like for you?
It was really cool. Back then, everything was amateur. Now they’re doing the World Baseball Classic and Major Leaguers are representing their countries and you could see how important it is to them. It’s fun to watch. Back then, we were just a bunch of young guys getting together to play ball. We played in the World Games in Italy after my sophomore year. They took a lot of guys out of the Alaskan Summer League for that team. We won a Silver Medal there. The next year was the Pan Am Games and we had a lot of good guys on those teams. Terry Francona, Tim Leary and Mike Gallego played on those teams. They took two 20-man teams and one went to Venezuela and the other went to Colombia. My group was in Colombia and we spent two weeks there; it was quite an experience.
Earlier this spring, I gave a speech and threw out the first pitch at my old Little League. I had the chance to go back and see that baseball is alive and well. It may not be what it was on the youth level anymore because kids have so much they can do today, but it’s alive.
I am sure it was. Feel free to share any stories from that experience!
We were in Barranquilla and played the Colombian National Team. They would say the game would start at 1PM, but the umpires might show up at like 1:30. One time we played and there was probably about 10,000 people there. They had these cement overhangs in the stadium, and we were up at bat. We were looking up in the stands and they had military there to keep the peace. A fight broke out in the second inning in the stands and you could see the military go up there to try to get control and the fans started pushing back against them. All of a sudden, the guys start shooting their rifles up above the crowd and bullets were ricocheting off the concrete. Talk about a bunch of guys that hightailed it into the dugout! It was a wild experience.
Yeah, I can’t say I have heard many stories doing these that involved gunshots. I am sure you have so many stories from that team.
Oh, we do! I remember we had a guy named Mark Strucker, who was one of the top home run hitters in the country. We went to the stadium to work out and it started to rain. We could only use the outfield because they were setting up for a boxing match in the infield. They had the ring all set up and fans were coming in as we were finishing up. Mark and Terry Francona went into the ring and started doing WWF stuff. They had a ball jumping off the ropes and putting on a show for the fans. That’s the guy Terry is. He’s a fun-loving guy and a great manager. It doesn’t surprise me he did so well. I played against him in college when he was at Arizona and I was at Stanford. Then we were teammates in Cleveland.
You were drafted by the Braves in 1980 and produced from the time you started your pro career. You got stuck behind some infielders at the Major League level and spent three years in AAA where you continued to produce. You were around or over .300 with some good run production as well all three seasons. Was that frustrating doing so well on the highest level of the minors, but not really being given a chance in the Majors?
It was very frustrating. You get to a point where you’re wondering what else you need to do. I understood they wanted to keep me as an insurance policy. I went back to the mindset I had as a player. I just put my nose to the ground and kept working hard. I wanted to put my best foot forward, so that helped me produce at the AAA level and I just hoped someone would give me a chance. Eventually that happened. They didn’t trade one of the other guys though, they traded me to the Yankees. Before that, the Braves did give me my first extended look in the Majors as a utility guy in 1985. I was always an everyday guy though, so that was difficult. Some guys are comfortable being a utility guy or coming off the bench, but my mentality was that I was more comfortable as an everyday player. I had a tough time coming off the bench. I was a grinder, the whole utility thing and coming off the bench was tough for me to adjust.
Paul Zuvella (left) with Colorado Springs Sky Sox exec Fred Whitacre. (Photo via Denver Post)
Just by a total coincidence, this interview is running 37 years to the day that you were traded to the Yankees with Claudell Washington for Ken Griffey Sr. Did that trade come as a surprise to you? [This interview was originally scheduled to run on June 30th, 2023 – ed.]
I was excited because I had been wanting to get an opportunity. I had been playing in AAA in Richmond and it was like my fourth year in AAA, so something had to give. I was leaving the National League for the American League, which was an adjustment back then. I came from Milpitas, a small town in California and went into New York and, well, it was certainly the big city. I had played against Don Mattingly and some of the other guys coming up in the minors, but it was a big adjustment for me. I wish I would have started better in New York, things might have turned out a little different for me.
You mentioned Mattingly already and there were so many other huge personalities on those Yankees teams. Guys like Rickey Henderson, Dave Winfield, Ron Guidry and of course George Steinbrenner. What was it like being in the mix with all those guys?
That’s a great way to describe it, a lot of personalities. Willie Randolph was there too and he was a great guy. It was fun being his double play partner. You felt like you were in the crucible during that time. I remember George Steinbrenner walking through the clubhouse and just wondering what shoe was gonna fall now. I think the Yankees traded for me because Bobby Meacham – who became a good friend of mine – made a couple of errors and they sent him down. It was a revolving door at shortstop at that time. I remember one game Pat Clements threw a wild pitch that was so wild two runners scored and they sent him down the next day. That’s the kind of stuff that was going on. It’s hard to play baseball with that football mentality where one mistake gets you out of there.
I believe it! Growing up just outside of New York City back then, I saw it all the time, year after year. It was always an interesting mix to me. There were so many Hall of Famers and All Stars on those teams and you had the role players too. George seemed tough on everyone, but it was usually the non-All Stars who caught the brunt of things.
It was not an easy organization to prove yourself in as a young player. When I was there you had Winfield, Mattingly, Guidry, Randolph, Joe Niekro, Rick Cerone, Rickey Henderson. I remember my first year Rickey Henderson didn’t want to go out to the outfield to shag balls because he had already hit. He decided he wanted to take throws at first base while I was taking grounders at short. I took a few and threw them over. Rickey would catch them and flip them to the guy hitting the fungoes. About the fourth or fifth ball, I get it and flip it over and when it was about halfway over, I noticed Rickey was looking at the guy hitting instead of me. I yelled out to him and he looked up but it was too late. I thought the ball hit him right in the knee, but it was a little above. I had probably been there about a week. I was thinking to myself, “OK, I’m gone. That’s it for me.” But he was OK and played that night. But that was the atmosphere around the team.
Probably not a good thing for the new guy to making errant throws at the knee of the all-time stolen base king! Looking at your career, you had two seasons, 1985 and 1988, where you had your most significant number of at bats. Those were also your best offensive years at the Major League level. Did you have a sense of satisfaction that when you were given more of a chance offensively, you showed you could do it?
Yeah, I kind of felt like I was establishing myself a little and showing people that I was the player I had proven to be at AAA. It’s a big jump from AAA to the Majors. In the Majors, you’re facing good pitchers every night. In AAA, you might face two in a four-game series. When you hit the good pitchers in AAA, you show you could probably hit the good pitchers in the Big Leagues. I hit .300 all the time in AAA and when I got a chance to play more in the Majors, I would start hitting and my confidence would grow. I would be thinking, “OK, this is the player I knew I could be.” Then something would always happen.
Take 1988 for example. I played the first half of the year at Colorado Springs and had a really good year. They called me up and I was pretty much the shortstop for the rest of the year, sharing some time with Ron Washington. Then my statistics started to rise. Then in 1989 I was in AAA again and hitting .331 and got called up. Doc Edwards made me the everyday shortstop, I hit my first Big League home run and felt like I was finally establishing myself. Then they fired Doc Edwards and hired John McNamara and I was out. He had his own ideas and I didn’t even get a chance the next spring. From a mentality standpoint, I really had to dig deep quite often. I knew that dream was right there. I didn’t want to just play in the Big Leagues, I wanted to show everyone the type of player I could be and it just never happened for me.
Yes, I understand for sure. Parts of nine Big League seasons and 12 in pro ball is pretty damn impressive though if you ask me. Speaking of your home run, you had two in your Major League career. One off Charlie Hough and the other off Jim Acker, who had been a teammate of yours. The floor is yours to tell us those stories.
The first one came off a hanging knuckleball. I had been hitting the ball pretty well at the time and just got it. When you hit it and you haven’t hit any Big League home runs before, you get around the bases pretty fast. I didn’t have a home run trot. The guys knew that it was my first Big League home run. I shook the managers hand nobody else said anything. Then of course they all came up to me afterwards and were excited. My second home run came against Jim Acker and we played AA together with the Savannah Braves. He was a great guy and we had gone way back. Jim had a good sinker and he tried to throw one against me. It barely made it over the fence and just inside the foul pole in left field. After the game, I signed a bat and sent it over to him. It said, “Thanks for the hanging sinker, Jim!” Like all teammates we like to joke around over the years.
That’s awesome. Nothing like old teammates ripping on each other a little. This has been great and I thank you for taking the time to share your stories with us! One last question for you. When you made the Majors in 1982, it was something less than 15,000 people had ever done before. What are your reflections looking back on your Major League career and being able to do something millions dream of, but so few get to do?
Earlier this spring, I gave a speech and threw out the first pitch at my old Little League. I had the chance to go back and see that baseball is alive and well. It may not be what it was on the youth level anymore because kids have so much they can do today, but it’s alive. I saw those kids and thought that I was in their shoes years ago. I delivered the message that this is my story and this is how I worked hard and made it matter. School mattered to me and I tried to be the best at whatever I did. I got a chance to play college baseball, minor league baseball and then the Major Leagues. I was able to ask those kids, “What is your story going to be?”
When you put that in perspective, it’s nice to know that all the hard work I put in did matter. It created lasting memories for me and my family. It was a great way for me to spend my 20s and 30s and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Between the Majors and minors, I saw the whole country. It was a great experience for me and my family. That was the reason I got out of the game. They got to the age where we couldn’t pull my boys out of school anymore, so it was time to get out. But I wouldn’t trade my Big League experience for anything.