“Hey Cole, nothing changed, this is baseball. It’s still just a game.”
If you’re a fan of college sports, you know there’s always something special about the dude who stays home when he could probably go anywhere in the country to play his sport. A local guy carving out a great collegiate career right in his own backyard gives fans an extra sense of pride and can go a long way in boosting the profile of the college for other local stars to follow.
A West Linn, Oregon native, Cole Gillespie stayed local when he went to Oregon State and he’s here to discuss that legacy as well as his Major League Baseball career this week in Spitballin’.
The thing about Gillespie is that he didn’t just stay local, he became a First Team All-American, was named the 2006 PAC-10 Player of the Year and capped his collegiate career by leading Oregon State to its first ever baseball National Championship in 2006 as well.
Talk about making an impact for your home college.
A third-round draft pick in 2006, Gillespie spent six seasons in the majors and 13 overall in pro ball.
Join us as we take a look back on his journey as a kid who went from playing Wiffle Ball in yards around the Portland metropolitan area to become a champion at Oregon State and a fine major leaguer.
Come along for the ride as we go Spitballin’ with Cole Gillespie.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Gillespie! Let’s start off with your youth. What was baseball like for you growing up as a kid in Oregon?
I came from a pretty athletic family. My dad pitched in college at Portland State and my brother played baseball at the University of San Diego. Baseball has always been in my blood. You couldn’t get me off the field or away from a Wiffle Ball game with my brother and friends. We’d play pickle or just set up a backstop and throw into the screen. All sports were a passion of mine, but from a very early age I knew baseball would be my favorite – and I always felt like I held my own pretty well back then as I moved up through the different levels of play.
Did you have any favorite teams or players growing up?
The Giants were my favorite team growing up and Barry Bonds was my favorite player. As a matter of fact, we were playing Pepperdine one weekend in college and the team went out to dinner. We happened to see Barry Bonds at the restaurant we were at. I had on my Giants shirt and we had just swept Arizona State the week before. I went up and introduced myself and told him we kicked his old school’s ass last week. He got a chuckle out of that. He was super friendly to me and my teammates and he even gave us a little hitting clinic in the parking lot that night. We took a photo and that was it.
Eventually I caught on with the Marlins in 2015 and the next year Barry Bonds was our hitting coach. He was my idol growing up and now he was my hitting coach! I showed him that picture from that night and told him that story from 2006. I remember it like it was yesterday, but Barry was like, “Oh shit! I don’t remember that!” I’m sure he’s taken a few photos with people over the years, but that crushed me at first. It was all good though, Barry was super cool as a hitting coach. The game came so easy to him.
Then they asked if I remember how it turned out and dragged it on like I failed a drug test. Finally they told me I was called up and they had balloons behind a curtain. It was just pure joy.
That’s beyond incredible! You had a great high school career as a multi-sport athlete before going on to Oregon State where you were a key player on their National Championship team in 2006. Being a kid from Oregon, was it always a goal of yours to stay home and play there?
Initially I wanted to go somewhere warm. Arizona State and USC were on my radar early, but Oregon State contacted me and I took a recruiting trip there. I fell in love with the campus and being close to home was nice. My parents would come down to games on the weekend. Talking with Coach [Pat] Casey, I could tell it was a good fit. The PAC-10 was a great conference and Oregon State was trying to make a name for themselves and compete at that level. Fortunately for us, we got a bunch of guys from the Northwest to stay home and those guys were really talented. We were able to do something really special.
That’s a great way to put it. You guys really put Oregon State on the map as a national baseball power. In 2005 you made the College World Series, but went two-and-out. What was the mindset coming into the 2006 season?
We had a lot of talent coming back in 2006, but lost Jacoby Ellsbury who is a good buddy of mine. In the press conference after we lost in 2005, Kevin Gunderson, our little lefty closer, guaranteed we’d be back the next year and that was our mindset from there. First and foremost, we wanted to win the PAC-10. Then we wanted to be back in Omaha and once you get there with eight teams, anything can happen. We didn’t make it easy on ourselves losing the first game and having to come through the losers’ bracket, but with that team, when our backs were against the wall, it brought out the best in us.
Cole Gillespie #28 of the Miami Marlins during a game against the Cincinnati Reds at Marlins Park on July 10, 2015 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)
You were in left field for the final out and off the bat, it looked like it was headed towards you. It ended up being the centerfielder who caught the ball right next to you. What are you thinking when that ball went up in the air and then settled in for the final out?
They had the tying and go ahead runs on base and Chad Flack up at bat, who was a big threat. When the ball went up in the air, I was running over to make sure I had a bead on it to see if I had to make the play. Tyler Graham, our centerfielder, looked like he was tracking it all the way. I was looking at him and looking at the ball and thinking, “OK, this is your ball. You got this, right?” We had run into each other a couple times during the year, so I wanted to make sure he had it. Once that ball was locked in his glove, it was just so much excitement and joy.
Before the College World Series even happened, you were drafted in the third round by the Brewers. Could you take us through your draft experience?
Draft day is such a wild card. I filled out medical forms and pre-draft stuff pretty much for every team except the Brewers, so they weren’t on my radar. I had class that day, but I may have skipped it to follow the draft online. I was watching the selections go by on the draft tracker at my house in college with some roommates and eventually got tired looking at the computer. My buddy was following along and the Padres had the next pick after the Brewers in round three. He got confused and said, “Oh dude, you just got drafted by the Padres!” We were all freaking out, then the scout that signed me called to congratulate me on being drafted by the Brewers. I said, “Didn’t you see the Padres drafted me? That’s what my buddy said.” He was like, “No, we just drafted you and you’re a Brewer!” I felt like a complete idiot, but obviously I was pumped. I just wanted any opportunity. The Brewers are a great organization and gave me my start. I have a lot of fond memories with them.
You got called up to the Diamondbacks in early 2010 to make your debut. What was it like being called up to the majors for the first time?
We were on the road in Fresno playing the Giants AAA team. My manager, Brett Butler, called me up to his room at like 10:30 and said he wanted to chat. He was up there with one of our Assistant GMs and another guy from the front office. They sat me down and had real serious looks on their faces. They said, “Hey Cole, did you take a drug test in spring training?” I said, “Of course I did.” Then they asked if I remember how it turned out and dragged it on like I failed a drug test. Finally they told me I was called up and they had balloons behind a curtain. It was just pure joy. Looking back, I loved how they toyed with me to make it more dramatic. I called my parents right away and got on a flight the next day.
Teammates Jose Fernandez #16 and Cole Gillespie #28 of the Miami Marlins sign a flag for soldiers before their game against the Atlanta Braves at Fort Bragg Field on July 3, 2016 in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The Fort Bragg Game marks the first regular season MLB game ever to be played on an active military base. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
What were your first days in the big leagues like?
The first game we were playing the Cardinals and I didn’t start, but I pinch hit late in the game. Chris Carpenter was pitching for them and he was dealing. AJ Hinch was the manager and he told me I was pinch hitting leading off the eighth. It was a close game and I remember having all these emotions and adrenaline and was just trying to soak it all in. One of my teammates, Kelly Johnson, said, “Hey Cole, nothing changed, this is baseball. It’s still just a game.” Those words eased my nerves. I got in the box and hit a double down the line in my first AB to knock Chris Carpenter out of the game. I ended up coming around to score too. It was just awesome and a memory I’ll never forget. Carpenter was a Cy Young Award winner, so it’s really cool to be able to say I got my first hit off someone like that. I got brought back to reality in my first start a few days later though when Cole Hamels punched me out three times.
No shame there! Carpenter and Hamels were two of the best pitchers in the National League at the time. Being that your first taste in the Majors was with the Diamondbacks, what were your thoughts watching what they did this fall winning the NL Pennant and going to the World Series?
They got off to a good start in the season, but hit a rough patch around the All-Star break. But give them credit for getting things right and getting to the playoffs. When you get there, it’s really just who is hot and playing the best baseball at the right time. The D’Backs seemed to come up with the big hit and were pitching well. This season has opened a lot of eyes for D’Backs fans. Hopefully, it can be sustainable. I still live in Scottsdale and the Diamondbacks are still a team I root for.
After you left Arizona, you played for four different teams in a two-year period along with some minor league stops as well. Was it difficult to go through that much change in the middle of those seasons?
When you get that first call up, you’re hoping that you stick and that’s the last game you’ll play in the minor leagues, but you never know how it’s going to work out. I got a little window with the Diamondbacks, even though I wasn’t a regular every day. It was a little difficult coming off the bench because I wasn’t used to that role. I had to find a way to have success as a fourth outfielder and pinch hitter. But then I got DFA’d after hip surgery and it’s a wakeup call that this is a business.
Cole Gillespie #28 of the Miami Marlins is safe at second base ahead of the tag by Asdrubal Cabrera #13 of the New York Mets in the ninth inning at Marlins Park on June 4, 2016 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Joe Skipper/Getty Images)
You played for the Marlins in 2015 and 2016 and they actually had a pretty incredible outfield at that time. They had yourself, Christian Yelich, Giancarlo Stanton, Marcel Ozuna and Ichiro. What was it like being a part of that group?
What a very talented group. Christian was a young guy at that time and Stanton had already established himself as a big power hitter. Ozuna was another young talent and you saw his potential was through the roof. Then Ichiro was chasing 3,000 while I was there. I was like, “Hmm, I don’t think I’ll be the fourth outfielder in this group, but if my name is called, I’ll be ready.” There were some injuries that got me up there in 2015 and I got my biggest opportunity to play in the majors every day. I’ll always be grateful to the Marlins for that. Just being around Ichiro and seeing what he does as a professional was amazing. It was incredible to see what he was able to do at that age. I was hoping to be a part of his 3,000th hit, but I got DFA’d like a week before, so I was bummed about that. Ichiro was super cool with his teammates. He signed a bat for all his teammates when he got his 3,000th hit. He was super funny, but really professional. It was a fun group of guys to be around. I have really good memories with the Marlins. Having Don Mattingly as my manager in 2016 was great too. These were guys I grew up watching on TV and now they were in the clubhouse with me.
You got to play for some pretty good managers during your stops in the majors, including Bruce Bochy who just won his fourth World Series and is almost certainly headed to Cooperstown. Can you talk to us about some of the managers you played for?
AJ Hinch was my first manager with the D’Backs and he had that mentality as a former player. Kirk Gibson was the bench coach there too. He would come to me during the game and ask me questions about what I saw from the pitcher or whether I could steal a bag. I had to make sure when Gibby was on the bench that I was paying attention because he’d pop out of nowhere with some questions. He actually became the manager the following year and he was an old school guy. He didn’t give notice if anyone was having a day off because he wanted players to come to the stadium every day prepared to play. He was great to play for. The year I got my most playing time was when the Marlins brought down Dan Jennings, who had been the GM, to become the manager. I really liked Jennings. He gave me an opportunity. I remember in a press conference he called me a “baseball guy,” which is a great compliment.
That’s about as great a compliment as you can get! This has been great, thank you so much for sharing your stories from Oregon State and the majors. Last question for you. When you look back and reflect on everything you have been able to do in baseball from winning a College World Series to your time in the majors, what thoughts come to your mind?
I’m fortunate to have lived out my dreams. I’m one of a very small percentage to say I accomplished that goal. I wish there could have been more and I could have had a longer career, but I don’t hang my head on it. I played 13 years professionally and parts of six seasons in the big leagues. I’m super proud of everything I was able to accomplish. I knew from a very young age that baseball was my passion. I did a project as a senior in high school about how to get to the major leagues. It was obviously something that was always a dream of mine.
I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish that without the support of my family and friends. My dad would take me up to the batting cages anytime I wanted. I don’t know how my dad’s arm is still hanging on at this stage with how much he threw to me. My mom and dad were super supporters of mine. It’s been one hell of a ride and maybe when my 22-month old daughter gets a little older, she can watch videos online of her dad playing Major League Baseball!