"It’s one of the greatest feelings ever to play Major League Baseball.”
As fans, we sometimes lose sight of just what it takes to get the major leagues.
We hear all about the superstar high school and college players who get themselves drafted and make their way to the big leagues on a straight path. We learn of international free agents who are highly scouted and come to America to chase their dreams.
Every so often, we’ll hear of an unlikely story of a player who might have gone unnoticed as an amateur or a low-round draft pick who exceeds all expectations; guys like Mike Piazza and Don Mattingly.
For all those stories though, there are guys whose paths are so unique that they defy everything we know about climbing that impossible ladder of becoming a Major League Baseball player.
Jerry Spradlin has a story like that and he joins us for this week’s Spitballin’.
Spradlin grew up in Orange County, California, an absolute hotbed of baseball talent for generations. Nothing out of the ordinary about an origin story of a 310-game MLB veteran coming out of that area. There’s more though.
Due to multiple circumstances out of his control, Spradlin didn’t play high school baseball and his lone college season was cut short when he didn’t have the money to go on a road trip with the team.
Despite his lack of resume, Spradlin was drafted in the 19th round of the 1988 MLB draft. If you’re thinking that a 19th round pick with not much experience was a longshot to make the major leagues, you’re probably still underestimating the situation.
When finally given the opportunity however, Spradlin blossomed. He pitched five impressive minor league seasons and in July of what was his sixth straight solid season, he was finally called up to the majors.
To put this in perspective, nine players who were picked in the first round in the same draft as Spradlin didn’t spend a day in the majors.
So how did this all happen? Join as to find out as we go Spitballin’ with Jerry Spradlin.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Spradlin! I’m sorry we didn’t get the chance to talk in person a few years back when we crossed paths, but happy to share your story now. Let’s go back to your childhood. What was baseball like for you as a kid growing up?
Back then, every kid played baseball. We didn’t have the video games kids have now, so we were out there playing. We all played Little League and you were looked at weird if you didn’t. My dad played ball and was very big into us playing. He played softball competitively. I was an Angels fan growing up because I grew up about four miles from the stadium. We got to go see quite a few games. My favorite player growing up was Nolan Ryan. They had Ryan and Frank Tanana. I would literally walk by Jim Fregosi’s house on my way to school. Clyde Wright lived a few blocks north of me, so I had two Angels players living on either side of me. Clyde ended up being one of my first pitching coaches and my brother played Babe Ruth ball with Jim Fregosi, Jr.
Philadelphia Phillies relief pitcher Jerry Spradlin laughs with teammates at Qualcom Stadium before a game with the San Diego Padres. (Photo by Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
I read that you didn’t play high school ball, but still found your way to the majors. Could you tell us that story?
High school was interesting for me. I made the team my freshman year and pitched three innings in the preseason, but nothing in the regular season. The baseball coaches were the football coaches and the coach was also my math teacher. I was in the high school marching band too and we’d have our competitions on the weekend, so I’d miss those games. He would tell me I’d be pitching on the weekend, but then I’d be at the band competitions. I charted balls and strikes all year. My sophomore year I played with the coach’s son. I went through all the practices and was getting ready for the season and then the sophomore coach told me that he wanted to keep me, but the varsity coach didn’t want me on the team, so they let me go. My junior year I tried out again. Tryouts were just running from home to first, nothing to do with pitching. Then my senior year, there were optional workouts, but I was working. Then when the tryouts came, they told me I wasn’t at the optional workouts, so they weren’t gonna take me.
I wonder how much time those guys spent kicking themselves that they had a future big leaguer in the school and didn’t take advantage. I saw you were drafted out of Fullerton Junior College. How did you end up resuming your baseball career there?
Two years after graduating high school I ended up at Fullerton but I had no plans to play. I had a guy in my woodshop class and he talked me into playing. I didn’t want to go talk to the coach, but this guy bugged me so much, I said I would just to shut him up. He got pissed at me one day because I kept putting him off. I tried out and made their summer league team. I had nobody to work out with and then I thought about Clyde Wright. Our Legion coach had us work out with him one time. I went down to his pitching school and asked him if I could throw. He told me to throw a few so he could assess where I was. When I was done he came to me and said, “I’m gonna make you a deal. I’m not gonna charge you anything. You come work twice a week with me and I’ll help you get signed [professionally]. When you sign, you give me 10% of what you sign for. Do we have a deal?” I figured he played in the big leagues, so he knew his stuff and I agreed.
I was only supposed to go up for three days. I went up but they sent me back down because Joe Oliver stuck his arm with a fork or something and they needed another catcher.
That’s such an awesome story. What was it like working with a former All Star in Clyde Wright, who had some really good seasons?
He said that he was gonna work my ass off! I didn’t care though. It gave me someone to catch with and kept me in shape. I did well for the summer league and made the team the next fall and regular season. Maybe two months before the season ended I had a couple of bad games and wasn’t pitching as much. During the season, my coach didn’t want me working with Clyde so I had quit going. But I wasn’t pitching and needed to work on things, so I figured I’d just go work with Clyde and not tell him.
We had a trip to Arizona to play some teams there. I was broke and had no money. My dad was a truck driver and was out of town, so I couldn’t borrow money from him; I told the coach I didn’t have the money to go. I ended up working all weekend instead of going on the trip. When I went to practice on Monday, my locker had been cleared out and I had been dropped from the team because I missed that trip. He said that if I needed money, he would have leant it to me. I was thinking, “Well why didn’t you tell me that before?” He told me to come back next year, but for this year, I couldn’t play. I went back and told Clyde what happened and it turned out that there was a scout, Ed Roebuck, from the Reds who had wanted to sign me and Clyde played golf with him. Clyde ended up paying the fee to play in an amateur league. I’d go pitch every weekend and the scout would watch me throw. Long story short, they ended up drafting me June 1.
That’s pretty incredible. I can’t say that I’ve run into many guys who have taken that path to professional ball. You spent six more seasons in the minors then got called up in July of 1993. After all you went through, what was it like getting that call to the bigs for the first time?
I thought I was getting released when they called me in! Mark Bombard was my manager and I had just pitched pretty bad in the game that day. He called me in and asked me to shut the door behind me. I was like, “Oh crap, I’m getting released.” So he just comes out and says, “I just want to let you know that you’re going to the big leagues.” I told him I was shocked because I just pitched horribly, but he said that one game didn’t make a season. I was only supposed to go up for three days. I went up but they sent me back down because Joe Oliver stuck his arm with a fork or something and they needed another catcher. I went back to Indianapolis but they called me back the up the very next day because Bip Roberts went on the DL.
Jerry Spradlin of the Kansas City Royals pitches against the Minnesota Twins at Kauffman Stadium on August 30, 2000 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images)
You finally made your debut against the Pirates and pitched a couple of scoreless innings. What was it like making your debut?
It was so funny because I faced Lonnie Smith in Spring Training that year and the first pitch I threw went over his head. Then he ended up being the first guy I faced in the big leagues and the same thing happened! He had to think I was trying to hit him. I was hoping he wouldn’t charge the mound. When I first walked out to the mound, I was just looking around at all the people. I had to tell myself to just focus on the glove and do my job on the mound. I was able to get through it OK.
I love when players have these interesting places in baseball history and you have one yourself. In 1999 you were just the 34th player ever to strike out four batters in an inning. It’s such a rare event that there have been three times as many no-hitters. What do you think about having that claim to fame?
I think I just got lucky. I wasn’t known for being a strikeout pitcher. [Carlos Baerga] had reached on a wild pitch strikeout for the third one and then I was lucky enough to strikeout the next guy too. It’s pretty cool to have done that. It’s one of my finer points!
I looked at the managers you played for and it seems almost every team you played for had a pretty big time manager. Guys like Dusty Baker, Davey Johnson, Terry Francona and Don Baylor. Did you have a favorite manager that you played for?
I liked Dusty’s approach the best. I really liked Terry Francona too. I liked all of the managers I had, but I’d put Dusty and Francona at the top. I grew up watching Don Baylor in Anaheim and then later played for him so that was interesting. He was really nice. They all seemed pretty cool. Tony Muser was old school and I appreciated him. I can remember him saying, “If you’re afraid to fight, don’t go out there!” He almost fined me for not hitting a batter. It was a situation where the other team showed our team up. I tried to hit a guy, but missed. After the game he said that the next time that happens and I don’t hit the dude, I’d be getting a fine. A few games later we were playing the Blue Jays and they were up like seven runs late in the game. Jose Cruz Jr. bunted for a base hit to lead off the inning. I smoked the next dude [Craig Grebek] in the ribs. Cruz came around to score, but none of his teammates shook his hand. Jim Fregosi called over to Tony Muser after the game and said we should have waited until Cruz got up again. But Muser was like, “No, no, no. We get the next guy!” We lost the game, but I remember David McCarty, our first baseman, coming up to me and saying, “Way to go,” about hitting Cruz.
Jerry Spradlin #48 of the Philadelphia Phillies in action during a game against the New York Mets at the Shea Stadium in Flushing, New York. The Phillies defeated the Mets 7-6.
I love it. In my opinion, the game was better when it policed itself that way. Now you have a generation of fans crying when there’s some kind of brushback pitch and think all this nonsense that goes on is great. There used to be an etiquette about the game.
Oh yeah, nobody pitches inside anymore. I played with a catcher in Indianapolis and he got called up the year before I did. He went into a game and his manager had him bunt against Nolan Ryan. Nolan got the ball back and said, “You don’t bunt on me, son. You better swing or the next one is coming up in your ear!” It was the coach who gave the sign, what was he supposed to do? There was an intimidation factor, but that has definitely changed.
You played with and against a lot of great players and future Hall of Famers. Were there any guys who really stood out to you among the best?
I got along with pretty much everybody when I played. Barry Larkin was a really good guy; I really liked him. They had the rookie stuff that they do with the young guys when they’re called up, but it wasn’t that big of a deal. If you just kept quiet and did your job, you got respect from the stars like that. One of my better friends was Barry Bonds. People might be shocked about that. When I was with San Francisco, they asked me if Barry had gotten on me about anything yet. I said he hadn’t and they told me to just wait. I figured I would just try to build a friendship instead of listening to the hype.
There were times when I was new to the team and I was trying to find a place to sit. I felt like Forrest Gump when nobody would sit with him. I went and sat by myself and Barry asked me what the deal was. I said there was nowhere to sit and he called me over to sit with him. Next thing I knew, I was sitting with Barry on almost every flight watching movies. He took me and my wife out to dinner with him and his wife at the end of the year. He even got my wife to be able to sing the National Anthem for the last night game at Candlestick Park. Barry says what he thinks and he did get on me one time. I came into the clubhouse and he said, “Sprad! What are you doing wearing those tight pants going out onto the field like that!” I was about to say something, but I figured he was messing with me. I told him it was the only thing Mike Murphy, our clubhouse guy, gave me. He started laughing and yelled out to Murphy, “Hey Murph, give my guy some pants that fit. He can’t go out there like that!” People were quick to think he’s always serious, but he had his fun.
That’s an awesome side of Barry Bonds you don’t ever hear about! Thanks for sharing that and for talking about your life in baseball. One last question for you – When you look back and reflect on your career accomplishments, especially considering the challenges you faced in high school and college, what thoughts come to your mind?
It was a great experience and I wish it could have been longer. Part of me still misses it. That’s probably why I continue to coach kids today. I still have something to offer. I have learned a lot from my coaches over the years and I like being able to pass that on. I miss being around the game at the major league level. There’s something about the energy and environment at that level. I have a kid I work with here who got a taste of pro ball this year with the Marlins. It’s one of the greatest feelings ever to play Major League Baseball. Tony Clark would come in and tell us there have only been a little over 20,000 people to ever put on a major league uniform. Just knowing that I was one of them is amazing. I wasn’t a first round draft pick or anything, but I worked hard and did some things that nobody could take away from me. I am so grateful for the opportunity to have played Major League Baseball.