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Mudville: April 20, 2024 10:52 am PDT

Aaron Small

"I was broken and ready to give the game up.”

Major League Baseball has been played for over 150 years, so when you have an accomplishment that just a grand total of four players has achieved during that time, it holds some weight.

When you do that for the New York Yankees, one of the most storied franchises in all of sports, that adds some gravitas.

And when the journey of that accomplishment begins just hours after one of those four players, stuck in the minor leagues at the time, decides to give up the game he loves and call it a career, that’s the stuff of Hollywood legends.

The man in question is Aaron Small, and he joins us for this week’s Spitballin’.

The feat Mr. Small achieved came in 2005 and if you were a Yankee fan back then, that’s all you need to know. It was a difficult season for pitching injuries for an otherwise stacked Yankee roster. Fourteen different pitchers made starts for the team that year, including Small, who took the hill for the first time in 2005 in pinstripes.

Small took the ball for the first time on July 20 with the Yankees in a heated pennant race with the Red Sox. He pitched in 15 games, each crucial to the team’s postseason hopes, and he righty delivered time and time again.

When all was said and done, Small ended the season with a perfect 10-0 record. From the time Al Spalding picked up a baseball in the inaugural major league season in 1871, only four pitchers have won as many as ten games without a loss.

Those players are Small, Dennis Lamp (11-0, 1985), Howie Krist (10-0, 1941), and Tom Zachary (12-0, 1929).

There is so much more to his story though, so please join us as we go Spitballin’ with Aaron Small.

Thanks for joining us, Mr. Small! Excited to get into your historic 2005 season, but first let’s start back at the beginning. What was baseball like for you as a kid?

Growing up in Southern California, baseball was huge. Today kids are playing in tee ball leagues when they’re two or three years old. Back then, I didn’t play organized baseball until I was eight…my mom told me that one day I came up to her and my dad and said I wanted to try out for Little League. They said they didn’t even know I liked baseball. I remember vividly my mom telling me that she watched me as an eight-year-old boy at that tryout and her jaw hit the ground thinking, “I did not know my son could do that!” She said that it looked like I was born to hit and throw a baseball.

I believe it! You have to have those God given gifts to be able to do what you have done. Did you have a favorite player growing up?

Before I tell you who that was, I’ll tell you what I did watching this guy. He was a pitcher and back in the 1970s, we didn’t have phones to record with and we didn’t have a VCR. But we did have one of those big video cameras that you put on a tripod. When this guy would pitch, I would record the TV screen with the camera. I didn’t have a VCR to play it back, so I’d have to watch his mechanics in the eye piece. That pitcher was Nolan Ryan.

Aaron Small #31 of the New York Yankees pitches against the Baltimore Orioles on September 20, 2005 in the Bronx. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Before we get into your pro career, I have to ask about your high school team at South Hills High in West Covina. You were teammates with the Giambi brothers, Cory Lidle, and Shawn Wooten. That’s five pretty successful Major Leaguers on one high school team. Could you tell back then that you were playing with future major leaguers?

Cory Lidle’s twin brother Kevin was on the team, too, and he made it to AAA! Cory and Kevin were friends of mine since we were about 11. We hung out all the time. I got to play with Cory in the majors and Kevin one year in AAA, so that was really neat. Watching Cory grow up, I never thought that he would pitch in the big leagues because he was small. Man, did he prove everyone wrong because he did well in the big leagues. Jason Giambi was special. He was a great player in high school. Jeremy was a real good player, but not someone I thought was a big leaguer, so it was great that he made it. Shawn Wooten was a great hitter too, but I wouldn’t think he was a major leaguer either. Jason was really the only guy you thought could be a big leaguer.

That’s unbelievable. I guess anything can happen in baseball, but did you guys ever lose?

The obvious question is, “How many state titles did you win?” The answer is none! The CIF finals used to rotate between Anaheim Stadium and Dodger Stadium every year. Junior year, we made it to Anaheim in the CIF finals against Covina High School. We won Districts and have the flag to hand in centerfield and they faced us in Angels Stadium, but they beat us. Then our senior year we played in the state semifinals. Jason Giambi likes to tell people he was the ace of our pitching staff because he had one more win than I did, but then I remind him about the start he had against Hart High School when he gave up eight and only got two outs in the first inning! We didn’t get to Dodger Stadium as seniors. To have that team and not win a state title is pretty bizarre.

 I still have to step back at times and say, “Wow. I went 10-0 for the Yankees.” It was such a blessing to do that for that team and that city.

You made your debut against the Yankees in 1994 pitching for the Blue Jays. Could you tell us the story of your MLB debut?

I remember Paul O’Neill taking me deep! I was in AAA in Syracuse and got called up as a reliever. The second day I was there, I came out of the bullpen. Dave Stewart had started and he was a childhood hero of mine. I got to play with him and become friends with him. Stewart started and then Mike Timlin relieved him and then I came in for the eighth and ninth. We were losing, otherwise I wouldn’t have been in the game. [The first batter] Pat Kelly grounded out then I gave up a hit to Luis Polonia. I gave up a homer to O’Neill leading off the ninth. I had never met Paul O’Neill until I came to New York in ’05. He was one of the broadcasters [by that time]. After a game, I got onto an elevator after a game and he was getting off. I said, “Hey, Paul O’Neill! Pleasure meeting you. You’re part of my past history.” Paul said, “Wait, don’t tell me!” Then he named the year, day of the week, and the count of that home run. He remembered the location and even where he hit it. I said, “That’s impressive – you remember all of your home runs?” He said, “No, I hardly remember any of them; but I remember that one.” I said, “Because you hit it so far, right?”

Just looking at your career, you spent time with six different major league teams and were in the minors for nine different organizations. How difficult is all of that change to go through? Was there a time when you thought it was too much?

The closest I came to giving up the game was the day I was called up to the Yankees in 2005. There’s no fabrication to that at all. I had called my wife earlier that day and told her I was ready to come home. Later that day, I got the call. There were some other times too. I was with the Marlins organization for the second time in 2003 and was bouncing around. They had signed me after I was released from the Cubs in minor league camp in spring training. The Marlins asked me to go to AA to make some starts. I was 31 and couldn’t get AA hitters out. I was like, “What am I doing? Is it time to hang ‘em up?” I put together a couple of good starts though, and got moved up to AAA, where I did well.

I almost got called up, which would have gotten me a ring. But I didn’t. It would have been nice to have a World Series ring. That was the year they brought in Jack McKeon to finish the season as manager. I later found out from the general manager why I didn’t get called up. He told me that he went to Jack McKeon and suggested I get called up in September and could help out in the bullpen. Jack’s comment was, “I never heard of him. I’m not calling up a guy I don’t know.” He cost me a ring! But that’s the business. Nothing personal, he didn’t want to take a chance on a guy he didn’t know.

Aaron Small #30 of the Oakland A''s poses for a portrait during Spring Training at the Phoenix Stadium in Phoenix, Arizona.

That’s unbelievable on its own – and then you go up and make history by becoming just the fourth guy to ever win at least ten games against no losses in a season. All huge games in a pennant race too! Do any of those ten wins stand out as your most memorable?

[That July] we were seven games out of first behind Boston. The Yankees had dipped down to AA to find guys to make starts. They made a trade for Tim Redding and that didn’t work out. I was like a last ditch effort, so no pressure. I looked at it as I was going to quit a couple days ago and God was giving me an opportunity to put on a big league uniform for an amazing franchise. It was special. Reporters asked me all the time if I had to pinch myself. I threw a shutout in Oakland, which was neat because my wife and kids were on that trip.

But as far as games go, to beat Boston in New York to go 7-0 in such a meaningful game was the best. We were four back, so either we go down five, which is tough to recover from in mid-September, or down three, which is more manageable. We ended up winning; and then to walk off to a standing ovation and see how my teammates treated me was just special. The whole run was historic and I still get mentioned on TV when someone starts chasing my record.

You’ve been back for a few Old Timers Days and Yankees fans love you for what you did in ’05. What’s it like to still be recognized and appreciated by the Yankee fan base?

I’ve been to five Old Timers Days, but haven’t been back since 2012. I know they downsized a lot, but I’d love to be back for the 20th anniversary of the 2005 season in a couple of years. Mr. Steinbrenner was always about tradition and taking care of guys from the past. For a few years after 2005, I would always get recognized when I went back to Manhattan. Now, the older I get, I don’t get recognized as much. Maybe I’m putting on too much weight or looking old. There’s still some that will say to me, “Oh wow! Aaron Small! 10-and-0 in 2005, we’ll never forget!” It’s neat to be part of that and be remembered like that.

Aaron Small #30 of the Oakland Athletics pitches during an MLB game against the Milwaukee Brewers on April 23, 1996 at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum in Oakland, California. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

It’s something anyone who was around for won’t forget. I wanted to ask about those Yankee teammates, too. Four Hall of Famers plus a roster stacked with some of the best to ever do it. What was it like being around those guys?

There’s a slide I use when I’m doing public speaking and it’s all these headshots. There’s Jeter, ARod, Bernie, Randy Johnson, Posada, Cano, and all these legends. Then there’s me down in the corner and I’m like, “And there’s Mr. Potato Head!” It’s not to say look how great I was, it’s a photo that humbles me.

One of my favorite Jeter stories was the first day of camp with the full team in 2005. After the workout, we had lunch. I had not met Jeter yet, although I [had] faced him before. That day at lunch, Jeter called over to me, “Hey Smalley, come over and sit with us. You don’t eat by yourself!” That was cool and we built a relationship from there. I loved playing with him. Just an amazing guy. I was watching The Captain documentary all last year and just thinking, “Man, I love that guy.” I now remind Jeter that the first time I faced him, I struck him out on three sinkers inside and he took all three, but he tells me I’m making it up. Mariano Rivera’s locker was right beside mine in New York, so I got to have a lot of good talks with him and shared our faith in God. Bernie Williams was great too. We exchanged phone numbers and he and I both love music. I play guitar in our band in church and anytime I get a new guitar I’ll text him and he’ll respond about it.

That’s great. You mention your faith in God and I know that’s a big part of your story. How do you see baseball and your religion tied together?

I realize that you have to work hard and train; I recognize that God blessed me with an arm to throw a baseball. You don’t just wake up and say you’re going to throw 95 miles an hour. In my 18 years of playing major and minor league baseball, my faith was a major theme of why I didn’t quit. The day I was ready to quit, I threw my hands in the air and said, “God, I surrender this to you. I’m ready to quit. I’m scared and don’t know what to do. God I trust you.” I was ready to accept going home, getting a 9 to 5 job and being a good husband, but there was fear behind that. I said I was going to finish out that season and pitch the rest of that year for God. Then I walked into the locker room three hours later and got called to the majors. There’s no magic in that. God isn’t magic. I say it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship. I was on teams and in places where I didn’t want to be and I had to step back and say that God placed me there for a reason. Then that makes it easier to go on your journey.

Aaron Small of the New York Yankees pitches during the game against the Minnesota Twins at Yankee Stadium on July 28, 2005 in The Bronx. The Yankees defeated the Twins 6-3. (Photo by Rich Pilling/MLB via Getty Images)

That’s some awesome perspective; thank you for sharing! It’s been great catching up with you. One last question. When you think back to being that kid videotaping Nolan Ryan on TV and think about all that you went on to accomplish in baseball, what are your reflections?

I look back and it’ll be 16 years since I retired. My wife was with me all those years, travelling all over, playing baseball and we’ll look back and she’ll say, “Does that even seem like the same person?” I say that it seems like a totally different lifetime ago and it wasn’t me, although of course it was. It seems like the further I get away from it, the more I reflect. I wish I would have had ten years in the big leagues, but didn’t get it. I had four years’ service. But to think about the way the 2005 season played out, it was almost worth more than the additional six years of service. Some people would say I’m crazy because of the pension and all that garbage. But to have 2005 play out the way it did was a dream. It was magical. Kids still want me to sign autographs and people want me to come talk at events. It’s a neat door that is open. I get to speak and share about it all the time and it’s hard to put into words. I was at the end of my physical ability to throw a baseball. I still have to step back at times and say, “Wow. I went 10-0 for the Yankees.” It was such a blessing to do that for that team and that city.

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book was released in April of 2021.

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