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Mudville: June 22, 2024 5:47 am PDT

Creighton Gubanich

The inning was over and I sat down and thought, “Oh shit, I just played in the big leagues!”

One of of the great things about baseball is that perhaps more than any other sport, anyone who puts on a major league uniform can make history at any time.

Rennie Stennett has the record for hits in a game, not Ty Cobb or Pete Rose. Philip Humber has a perfect game, Greg Maddux does not. Andrew Heaney broke Nolan Ryan’s Rangers franchise record for consecutive strikeouts just last season.

It’s not always the Babe Ruths and Tom Seavers of the world making baseball history.

Red Sox catcher Creighton Gubanich needed just four major league at bats before finding his place in history and he joins us for this week’s Spitballin’.

Born in Belleville, New Jersey, Gubanich became a prodigious high school football and baseball player in Pennsylvania and ultimately passed on a scholarship to play at Texas A&M when the A’s drafted him in 1990.

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Shoulder surgery the following year slowed his progression through the minors, but Gubanich became the poster boy for perseverance. Nine minor league seasons later, Gubanich finally got the call to the majors in 1999.

In his second career start, Gubanich proved that all you need is a uniform and a chance and there’s a shot to find your way into the record books. Starting just his second game and in his fourth major league at bat, Gubanich became just the fourth player at the time to hit a grand slam for his first major league hit.

Gubanich spent 13 years playing professional baseball and now is giving back to the next generation of ballplayers through All-Star Sports Academy where he serves as the organization’s Tournament Director.

Today, he is with us at BallNine, so join us as we go Spitballin’ with Creighton Gubanich.

Thanks for joining us, Mr. Gubanich! I have to say you’re one of just two players born in my hometown of Belleville, NJ to ever make it to the majors, so it’s awesome to talk with you. Let’s go back to your childhood to start. What was baseball like for you as a kid?

Like any typical kid, I grew up playing Little League Baseball and my dad was our coach. Now that I’m in the baseball business and doing travel teams, I actually get some kids who forego Little League for travel ball because they want a little bit more. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, I was a Phillies fan. I loved watching Mike Schmidt play. I loved to watch Larry Bowa, Manny Trillo, Bake McBride, Greg Luzinski and Kent Tekulve too.

You went on to become a hugely successful high school football and baseball player who gained a lot of attention from the pros and colleges. Was there a time when you noticed you were starting to show up on scouts’ radars?

Growing up in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, we played high school ball then American Legion. There was no real travel baseball back in the late 1980s. I had gotten a call from a guy named Steve Bort out of Bergen Beach, New York. He ran the Bergen Beach All Stars and asked if I was interested into playing for them in an event in Euclid, Ohio. Me and my parents were talking to this guy on the phone with a thick New York accent wondering who this guy was and what was it. I went for a tryout in The Bronx and that was my first experience doing something like that. I had a really good batting practice, took some grounders at third and caught and I got picked for the team. I became the MVP of the tournament and we finished second to Puerto Rico. My next year, there was 15-20 college and pro scouts at every one of my games in high school. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I ended up getting drafted in the sixth round by the A’s in 1990.

She dropped the phone and my dad picked it up. He said, “You better not be fucking with your mother!” Those were his exact words. I told them I was getting called up.

I read that you had to choose between the pros and Texas A&M. Can you take us through your thought process in having to make that decision?

I had about an 85% scholarship at Texas A&M and I originally declined the A’s and said I wanted to go to college. The A’s kept calling me though and pushing me to sign with them. My parents eventually said that we had to make a decision, so we sat down and made lists of the pros and cons. Ultimately, we figured that college would always be there for me and if I didn’t take this shot with the A’s, maybe I wouldn’t get any better. They offered me a $60,000 signing bonus, which was a lot to an 18-year-old kid. I didn’t realize spending a few years in the minors, I would go through that pretty quick. My parents left it to me and I said, “Screw it, let’s do this.” I signed with the A’s in early August less than two weeks before I was going to go to college.

I was looking at the roster from your first minor league season playing for the Southern Oregon A’s in 1991. It looks like you were at least three years younger than just about everyone on that roster. What was your first experience in pro ball like?

It was an eye-opener being in Southern Oregon. We’d have 24-hour bus rides. We’d have to go from Southern Oregon to places like Boise, Idaho. One trip there, the bus got a flat tire, so we broke down. The bus driver decided he was gonna limp it for 20 miles to get into town, but the tire right next to it blew too. It was 100 degrees and we’re on a Greyhound bus with no AC. There was probably 40 guys doubled up on seats and smoking hot. It turned out that the bus driver was a rollerblader and had them with him. He was going to roller blade into town to get help.

The whole season was an adventure. We’d have games at 6:00PM and get in at 3:00PM and just grab our stuff and go. One time the bus got caught in the mud and we had to get a wrecker to pull it out. We had five guys living in a two bedroom apartment sleeping on egg crates on the floor. We were making $850 a month, well below minimum wage. I’m thinking, “This is what pro ball is?” Some of the fields were worse than high school fields. But it was cool. I got to live on my own at 18 years old and playing baseball was my job.

Catcher Creighton Gubanich #68 of the Boston Red Sox poses for a studio portrait on Photo Day during Spring Training at the City of Palms Park in Fort Myers, Florida. (Photo Credit) Brian Bahr /Allsport

You could really see a significant jump in your batting average when you got to the higher levels of the minors. In the few years leading up to your call up, you were essentially a .300 hitter with good power. What clicked for you?

When I got to Modesto in 1994, I started to lift a little bit and put on about 25 pounds going into 1995. Jim Lefebvre was the hitting coach for the A’s at that time and during the strike he came down to work with the minor leaguers. He brought a lot of hitting gimmicks. He had the flat bat and a hinged bat and other stuff. He started doing these drills and we were like, “How is this really gonna get me better?”

In 1996 we had a pitching coach named Pete Rickard. He threw batting practice three-quarters from the left side and the ball was always running away. I was always a dead pull hitter, but I thought, “Well shit, if he’s gonna throw it out there, I’m gonna stand off the plate, dive in and hit it the other way.” I started to learn to hit the ball the other way and somewhere in 1996 was when I hit my first opposite field home run. This was the time when they started calling everything a foot outside a strike, so I took that approach in the games and started developing opposite field power. My average went up from .215 to .280 and though, “Huh, maybe hitting the ball the other way really works.

How much did those improvements help set you on a course for the major leagues?

Once I started hitting like that, it opened a lot more doors. Early on, I struggled and wondered if I made the right decision. Then as I started to mature I was like, “Oh, I can hit the ball the other way! Oh, here’s my first opposite field home run!” Then it becomes, “Oh shit, I’m in AA!” Then I was being told I was going up to AAA for the end of the year and felt like I was getting close.

You always hope you get to the big leagues, but being in AAA you’re literally one injury away. I had to rededicate myself in the offseason of 1996 into 1997. I actually remember going to New York City on New Year’s Eve to watch the ball drop and told my buddies I was going to dedicate the rest of my career to do everything I possibly could to get to the big leagues. That’s when I buckled down on the weight lifting, the running, staying in shape, receiving and catching. I had a career year in AAA that season.

That’s a great point about being one injury away. That looks like it was the case with you. Scott Hatteberg got hurt and you finally got called up to the Red Sox. Can you take us through your call up story?

It started back in spring training. I was a minor league free agent and wanted that big league invite. Coming over from another organization, the coaches didn’t know who I was. There were two A Ball kids who were getting in games before me and that was why I wasn’t getting a shot. I knew Jason Varitek and Scott Hatteberg were there and Mike Stanley was a former catcher, so they already had a third catcher. But they also had another guy who I played with who I thought was lazy. He had gotten a little bit of time the year before and I knew I was better than him. I was walking past Jimy Williams’ office in spring training and asked if he had a minute to talk. I said, “You don’t know me from a hole in the wall, but I got a token big league invite. I’m looking around the clubhouse and if somebody gets hurt, you’re screwed. I know what this guy has done. He’s lazy and guys don’t like throwing to him. All I want is a chance.” I caught in the B game the next day and faced Eddie Guardado, got two hits off him and blocked a couple of balls that saved guys from going from second to third in a tight game and threw a couple guys out.

Pretty gutsy move, but it sounds like it paid off. It never hurts to advocate for yourself, especially if you could back it up! Did things change from there?

The next day I was taking ground balls at first and third. They told me to grab my glove and go pick up Mike Stanley at first base. I faced Ryan Bradley from the Yankees and hit a home run. Then the next day they had me hitting with a new group, picking up Mike Stanley almost every day and then I was DH and went 2-3 against Hideki Irabu. Then I hit a home run against the Pirates to put us up late in a game. I drove in two runs to give us a win against Texas. Everything was clicking for me. I got down to the last week and they told me I was going to be sent down, but if something happened, I would have an opportunity.

The last day of spring training they were ready to fly out to play the last games of spring training in Colorado. They were all on the bus and I had driven myself over because they were heading to Colorado and I was heading home. I was in the clubhouse and someone came to me and asked if I was Creighton. I said I was and he said that Pookie Jackson was coming back to get me. He said that I had to go to Colorado with the Red Sox because Jason Varitek’s wife was having emergency surgery. I had shorts and a t-shirt on and said I’d go back to my place, grab a suit and my stuff and come right back. They told me there wasn’t time for that. The Sox were gonna buy me all my stuff when I got to Colorado. Next thing I knew, I was on a flight to Colorado in shorts and a t-shirt sitting next to Dan Duquette. We landed and there was like eight inches of snow. I had to put on Donnie Sadler’s leather coat. Everyone else was dressed up and I was in a pair of shorts!

Creighton Gubanich corrals a wild pitch during the eighth inning of a game against the A's. (Photo By Liz Hafalia/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

How did the games end up going?

The first two were snowed out but we played the third. I made the last out of spring training in 1999. I hit a hard grounder up the middle and my buddy Chris Sexton, who I played with before I was traded, made a diving play and threw me out at first. I was so pissed off. He could have let me get a hit! We flew back down to Ft. Myers and the team had already gone off to Pawtucket.

We played our first two games on the road and then I caught the first game back in Pawtucket and went back to the hotel. I got a call from our manager Gary Jones and he asked me to come back to the stadium. I got to his office and Gene Tenace was there too. I sat down in the chair and just glared at them. I was like, “What’s wrong? What are you gonna yell at me about now?” He said, “Why is it whenever I ask to talk to you, you think it’s going to be bad?” I said that it was because it usually is! He said, “I Just wanted to see the look on your face when I tell you that you’re going to the big leagues.”

That’s a pretty awesome call up story, especially to be able to have Gene Tenace there for it too. What’s going through your mind when you learn you’re going to be a big leaguer?

I called my parents and my mom picked up the phone. I asked her what her and my dad were doing the next day. She said they had to work and had some other things going on. I said, “I was wondering if you wanted to come watch me play up in Boston?” My mom asked me what I was doing in Boston because I was supposed to be in Pawtucket. I was like, “Mom, come watch me in Boston.” She was still like, “What’s that supposed to mean?” I said, “Mom! Think about it!” She dropped the phone and my dad picked it up. He said, “You better not be fucking with your mother!” Those were his exact words. I told them I was getting called up. They couldn’t get up there for Friday, but they’d be there Saturday. Around the fifth inning of the Friday game, a call came down to the bullpen and said that if Varitek got on base, they were going to pinch run for him and I was going into catch. Sure enough, that’s what happened. I ran down to the dugout, threw my bag under the bench and asked who was pitching. It was Derek Lowe, who I had caught a million times.

How did that first big league experience go?

It was fast. We were playing the Rays. The first guy got a hit then Wade Boggs came up. There was a pitch outside that was called a strike on him. Boggs said, “Oh come on! That pitch was a half a ball outside!” I was like, “No shit, you could see that? Wow.” He hit into a double play and the next guy struck out. The inning was over and I sat down and thought, “Oh shit, I just played in the big leagues!” Grady Little came up and congratulated me, which was pretty cool. We ended up losing, but I had played the ninth inning. Grady gave me the lineup card too. Then my parents got up for the next games but I didn’t get to play at all. We spent the weekend and flew out to Detroit where I got a start.

You have a great story about your first big league hit. The floor is yours to talk about it.

After the Detroit series we flew out to Oakland and I knew I was getting a start. They said at the Oakland Coliseum that the ball didn’t travel. I was laying into balls in BP and they’re dying before the track. They weren’t lying. I was batting seventh and Reggie Jefferson was batting before me. He had a couple runners on and hit a nubber in front of the mound and beat it out, so I came up with the bases loaded and two outs. Jimmy Haynes threw a fastball outside and I hit it good, but thought it would be a fly out because it was in Oakland.

I had come up in Oakland’s system so I knew Jason Giambi, Jason MacDonald, Eric Chavez and Miguel Tejada and all them. I hadn’t gotten a big league hit yet, and I didn’t want to be that guy to come up but never get a hit. I told those guys, “Hey, if one comes your way, maybe those alligator arms come out and it gets through!” So I hit it out to the left of centerfield and I saw MacDonald looking like he was gonna go up and try to rob it. I was like, “You sonofabitch! What the hell are you doing?! You said you’d let it go!” The ball sailed over the 388 sign just underneath the stands.

There’s a video of me rounding the bases and I pump my fist thinking I was one of the 85 guys or so to hit a home run for their first big league hit. The next inning, Jim Corsi came up to me and gave me the ball. He had been with the A’s and knew the security guard. I still have the ball and I also have the bat. I swung that bat one time and it has one ball mark on it, from that home run. Then I was told that I was just the fourth player to ever hit a grand slam for their first major league hit. I was like, “Oh great! I have my five minutes of fame!” In 2003, Chase Utley did it and a few more after him, but I was just the fourth to do it at the time.

That’s great! So few people ever get to play Major League Baseball and it’s pretty incredible to make your mark on the game that way. Thanks for taking the time to share your stories. An honor to talk baseball with you sir!

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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