"I still look back and think, “Did I really do that?”
What were you doing when you were 17 years old?
Most likely you were worried about getting a driver’s license, thinking about going to college or just getting into general teenage hijinks.
Unless you happen to be a former big leaguer yourself, chances are you weren’t deciding what to do after being a first round pick in the Major League Baseball draft.
That’s the situation Jimmy Gobble found himself in after the Royals selected him in 1999 and the lefty joins us for this week’s Spitballin’.
One of the youngest students in his class at tiny John S. Battle High School in Bristol, Virginia, Gobble went 10-1 with a 0.49 ERA as a senior, allowing just 23 hits against 151 strikeouts in 71 innings. He was already on the radar of major league teams by then and had signed an NLI to play for the University of Kentucky before the Royals came calling.
Gobble’s teenage years were good to him on the baseball diamond and now there’s a new set of teens who are benefitting from his experience and baseball knowledge. Gobble is currently a high school and travel ball coach and using the lessons he learned when he was that age to help develop young men and the next generation of baseball players.
If you talk baseball or life with Gobble for just a few minutes, you know for certain that his athletes are better off as ballplayers and young men for it.
His journey as a young man from a small town on the border of western Virginia and Tennessee to the major leagues is an inspirational one, so join us as we go Spitballin’ with Jimmy Gobble.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Gobble! Appreciate you taking the time to share your stories with the fans. Before we get into your professional career, let’s go back to your childhood. What was baseball like for you as a kid growing up?
I was a Cubs and Braves fan growing up because they were always on TV. The Braves were in the cellar a lot, but right when I started getting into baseball more seriously, they went from worst to first. With the Cubs, I was always a big Ryne Sandberg fan. I loved Mark Grace too.
The way I got my start playing was that I had a walnut tree at my house and we had a farm pasture where cows were that had a power line that went across. When I got home, I would grab my Wiffle Ball bat and would play nine innings and be the Braves and Cubs. Who knows how many walnuts or rocks I would hit. One day I brought home a flyer to my dad and said I wanted to play baseball. I went to a Little League tryout at eight years old. My dad didn’t even take me to the actual tryout because he had to work. I just always had a knack for playing baseball. You’re an athlete first, but then you find your niche. Baseball was something I was just always routinely good at.
You had an incredible high school career in Virginia, especially as a senior when you went 10-1 with a 0.49 ERA. You got drafted in the first round in the 1999 draft out of Battle High School in Virginia. Was there a time when you noticed the scouts starting to show interest in you?
My freshman and sophomore years I was good, but we were a small school. We were a 1A school which was about 500 students. I could compete really well with a fastball with good velocity and a secondary pitch that I could command. Little did I know that having a secondary pitch was pretty rare for my age. I was a late bloomer, so going into my junior year I jumped six miles an hour. I went from good to really good and I already knew how to pitch. Things accelerated from there. There were a lot of phone calls and tough decisions. We didn’t have a ton of money growing up, so college was on the radar, but not really. Especially as a left-hander throwing 94 as a junior. I graduated at 17, so I was really young too. I was just a pup. There was a major learning curve for me in what I was learning and what I saw. I really didn’t know anything. I had so much to learn, but luckily it all worked out.
Pitcher Jimmy Gobble #41 of the Kansas City Royals during spring training on February 25, 2008 at Suprise Stadium in Surprise, Arizona. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
It looks like you got it figured out pretty fast, considering. You won 22 games the next two years in the minors with a good ERA and then in 2003 you went 12-8 with a 3.19 ERA in AA as a 21-year old. As you’re having that success, are you kind of looking at the majors with one eye or are you just focused on getting better every day?
In 2002 I was looking towards a September callup, but I was hurt a lot so it was pretty much a bust. In 2003, they wanted me to go to Winter Ball because I didn’t accumulate enough innings, but I wasn’t ready. I had some arm fatigue and my leg wasn’t fully healed, so it didn’t work out. Going into Spring Training in 2003, I had no expectations. I was just trying to stay healthy. I started off good, but I still had some arm fatigue. I had a trainer work his tail off with me to help me get over that hump. I never saw myself moving forward and when I got called up, Kansas City was in a pennant race.
Exactly – the Royals were in first place when you made your first start against the Devil Rays. What was it like getting that callup from AA?
I was coming into my own. I had pitched maybe 18 scoreless innings and was in a good place. I never expected a callup though. We were about to go on an 18-day road trip, which in the minor leagues was pure hell. We were in Tulsa and it was the first series of the trip. We were then supposed to go to El Paso. We got to El Paso and I had to go meet the team in Kansas City. I had to get up at like three in the morning and I flew on Southwest without a first class ticket. When I got there, it was just insane. Everything about it. It had never entered my mind that it was a possibility to be called up because I was still so young and they were in a pennant race. The year before, I would say I was disappointed that I didn’t get the opportunity to fight for a callup, but in 2003, it was unexpected. We were in a pennant race in AA too, so my focus was there. When I was called up, it was such a blur.
Coaching and playing go hand-in-hand. If you know those guys believe in you, that’s a formula to starting success.
What was going through your mind as you’re making that scramble to get up to the Royals to make your first major league start?
I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I hadn’t even thrown a two-seam fastball by the time I got to the big leagues. I had a four-seam and a curve but my changeup was just not very good. My pitching coach, Larry Carter, really worked on it. We got it to where it was usable and it allowed me to get some outs in negative counts. I was a tough competitor on the mound and enjoyed that atmosphere. [During my first starts] my main thought was to try not to screw it up. I did not throw a strike in the bullpen. The ball was going all over the place. I was walking and it was hot as crap. I was sweating and had a towel around me and I didn’t know what was gonna happen.
Your first two starts you went 12.1 innings and allowed just one earned run and your second win put the Royals back in first place. It seems like you got things figured out pretty quick!
Brian Sanches, my roommate in 2003 and a fabulous human, told me then when I stepped on the mound, I should just take it all in. That Sunday, the umpire said, “Play ball,” and I stepped off and took it all in. I’m not gonna tell you the exact words I said to myself because there are some expletives involved, but it was basically like, “Come on, let’s go!” Then I just went out and competed. It was just a mindset. In AA, I had been pitching pretty well and logged a lot of innings. I had been pretty successful in minimizing damage that year, so I just stayed with what I was doing and didn’t change anything. Brent Mayne was the catcher. My gosh, what an unbelievable receiver. I didn’t have to do anything except shut up and follow his lead.
Jimmy Gobble of the Kansas City Royals winds up against the Minnesota TwinsJuly 17, 2004 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Dave Kaup/Getty Images)
After the 2004 season, you transitioned to the bullpen and had some success there, especially in 2007 when you made 74 appearances at the back end of games and pitched to an ERA of 3.02. Can you talk about that season for us?
That season was a blast. I wish we could have won more and solidified what Buddy Bell and Bob McClure did for that clubhouse. They turned things around very quickly. They had such a good big league environment and brought in some great people. Me, Zack Greinke and David Riske hung out together all the time. There were guys like Alex Gordon and Paul Bako too and it was a really fun year.
Going into that year, Buddy came up to me about his expectations and the bullpen was a huge catalyst. 2005 and 2006 were rough – and 2004 wasn’t what it was supposed to be. There was a lot of up and down during that era of Royals baseball. I hope that what I did in 2007 was a bright spot during some of those tough days. Pitching in that many games was a lot on my arm. But every single day I walked into Buddy’s office and said I was OK and wanted to go. That was my mentality.
Those are a couple of great baseball guys, Buddy Bell and Bob McClure. You seem like you had a really good relationship with them and I can see why.
They were both great. Mac would say, “If I’m not talking to you, everything is good.” I would hide from him and tell him to stay away! But that’s how you build that concept of team. You know guys like that have your side. Coaching and playing go hand-in-hand. If you know those guys believe in you, that’s a formula to starting success. Dayton Moore came in and did some good things, but I’m not sure where the break happened with Buddy and Dayton. But yeah, I can’t say enough good things about Buddy and Bob.
Jimmy Gobble of the Kansas City Royals poses for a portrait during Spring Training Photo Day at Surprise Stadium on February 26, 2005 in Surprise, Arizona. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
Were there any other guys in addition to Buddy and Bob who you see as being instrumental in your success?
Larry Carter is by far number one on my list. That man pretty much taught me 90% of what I learned. He’s just a fabulous human too. His ride through the minor leagues was something. Over 20 years of busting his butt and being a true professional. I was so glad to see him in the big leagues doing a job he was so prepared for. He is still with Kansas City too. How often do you see someone stay with an organization that long? He was instrumental to my development. Mike Mason was absolutely phenomenal too. His mechanical outbreak was so unique and he was so patient. He was all about sequence.
Jeff Garber was a great manager I had in the minors. He was the hardest working manager I had. I had him in High A and we were in the playoffs. I lost Game 5 and I felt terrible. Garbs and LC gave me one of the best coaching years I had because they were so passionate. There were some long damn days though! Jaime Garcia was another great coach for me. I was 18 years old and such an idiot and he was so patient. I remember walking a nine-hole hitter and acted like I walked him intentionally. He came out to have a conversation with me and I was very stubborn. I remember him looking at me and saying, “OK, we’ll you’re in this one!” He let me wear it, as he should have. The next time I had a bullpen, I don’t think I threw a pitch. He just talked to me about what I should look for and stuff like that. It wasn’t negative though and it turned me around.
Jimmy Gobble celebrates after striking out the Milwaukee Brewers Prince Fielder for the third out of the eighth inning. The Royals defeated the Brewers, 6-0, at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri, Sunday, June 25, 2006. (Photo by John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
You’re now a baseball coach yourself and I can tell from your comments that you have a lot of that old school mentality. How do you adjust and combine some of the new thoughts around baseball with the way you were coached?
You have to pick and choose. You take in and assess and see if it is something you as a coach that you can utilize. High school is different than college and college is different than pros. The kids are different from a maturity and athletic standpoint. You have to be careful with what you bring in. You have to translate that to your assistants too. On my level, you have to realize this is high school. Most of these kids just want an outlet and want to be loved. Yes, they want to be instructed and have success, but really they want to be loved and be a part of something.
On the college level, you have to dive into analytics a little more and get more specific. [In high school], we’re outside of that analytical circle, but we do embrace it and talk about it. We just don’t live it though. If I was in college, I would have to live it more. But we adapt. Each year, we try to bring something new in to grow. You just have to sift through the stuff you can use and the people who want to try to create some kind of formula that’s not really there.
You mentioned Zack Greinke and I wanted to talk a little about him. You were a first round pick in 1999 and he was a first round pick in 2002. What was your relationship like with him as two highly-touted pitchers coming up in the Royals system together?
What I think people don’t know about Zack is what kind of heart he has. He’s an ultra-competitor who loves that side of the game. But he’s such a genuine human being. He’s not a prototypical baseball guy. He’s brutally honest, but he won’t be negative. He’s just a good human. I would have a golf tournament and he’d spend a week or two with me playing golf and we really were close. Zack is a really good guy, and he’s odd, but that’s what makes him great. He’s still running it out there competing and he loves it. Me and Riske would pull Zack aside and question what he was telling reporters at times, but it was always harmless.
Jimmy Gobble works in the sixth inning during against the St. Louis Cardinals at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri, June 29, 2008. (Photo by John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
I remember those early days of Zack trying to find himself. We always heard about his incredible potential, but it took some time to develop.
I thought Buddy did a really good job with Zack as a youngster. He was patient and allowed him to separate when he needed. They knew the talent that he had and you had to massage what you were getting out of him. The potential was always there, it was just about learning how to give him his space and letting him compete how he wants to compete. Once he found it, he was great. Kansas City was notorious for bringing up their young prospects early. There was always a little “what if I’m not ready” with us, but he always performed. He was pretty damn good out of the bullpen and I think that made him into an elite starter as well. In the pen, you can’t alienate yourself for two or three days like you can as a starter. I hope he gets into the Hall of Fame one day. He is well deserving.
I agree for sure and really do believe he’ll end up in Cooperstown. This has been great and I appreciate you sharing your stories! Last question for you. When you think back to being that kid hitting rocks and walnuts with a Wiffle Bat and reflect on what you were able to do in the sport, what thoughts come to your mind?
It’s still surreal. I still look back and think, “Did I really do that?” I don’t talk about myself a lot or dive into what I did or didn’t do. But living that baseball life has had more impact on my life than I am able to put into words. When I retired, my oldest son had one month before kindergarten. I was with the Rockies and just couldn’t get healthy. I had said that I always wanted to take him to kindergarten. I was able to retire and never look back. I try to stay in that forward mindset. I chose to walk away from baseball to be a dad and I’m honored I got to share all those moments with my kids.
But my baseball life was such a journey. It was so much fun and there were heartbreaks too. It’s funny to know you’re in a fraternity of approximately 20,000 and to know I did something on that level for eight seasons is great. I’m so honored to be part of that discussion. On a daily basis, I am now trying to give back to the community. The clubhouse stuff was great. The people I was around is what I miss. If Buddy Bell or Bob McClure called me up and said, “We’re starting a team, let’s go!” I’d say yes immediately, even if it was for free. It was the relationships in the clubhouse and on the bus rides and all the untold stories that are just insane. I’m just a country guy who doesn’t like to talk a lot, but it’s very nice to be able to reflect.