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Mudville: March 4, 2024 7:20 am PDT

Best of 2023

"Wishing the best to everyone in the coming year but before we jump into 2024, here’s the best of Spitballin’ from 2023."

We’re just a few days away from 2024 and like most, we at Spitballin’ are taking stock of the year past. This was our fourth year of Spitballin’ and counting today’s round-up, we have brought you 180 straight weeks of first-hand interviews from players, managers, scouts and family members of former Major Leaguers.

In 2023 alone, we interviewed players who were in the majors from the 1950s through the 2020s. We interviewed Cy Young Award winners, Most Valuable Players, Rookies of the Year and World Series champions.

We reached a milestone with our 150th edition of Spitballin’ which featured beloved Red Sox legend Fred Lynn and did a two-part edition with record-setting closer Eric Gagne. It’s always a highlight for me when someone from the 1986 Mets stops by, and this year, we had some great stories from Doug Sisk.

Spitballin’ liked to celebrate anniversaries and this year was no different. The 2003 Marlins celebrated the 20th anniversary of their World Series win and Carl Pavano checked in to share his memories. The Phillies are 30 years removed from their 1993 National League pennant-winning team and we featured Mickey Morandini and Jim Eisenreich from that squad.

I was able to interview someone whose time I really enjoyed on the Mets, Rico Brogna, and another who was born in my hometown, Creighton Gubanich.

We were also able to feature former players who have been excluded out of MLB’s pension system and have been fighting for what’s fair for decades. We couldn’t be happier to give a platform to players like Mac Scarce, Mike Hedlund, Gene Locklear and others as they continue to advocate for a group of 500 big leaguers which is sadly getting smaller by the year.

I enjoyed speaking to wonderful baseball people like Mark Dewey, whose podcast, In the Bullpen, quickly became my favorite non-BallNine baseball podcast, and Buddy Carlyle, who shared his wonderful story about overcoming diabetes.

I was able to reunite with Aaron Small, Scott Pose, John Morris, Eric Valent, Jerry Spradlin and Adam Melhuse, people I had crossed paths with previously; and Roger Erickson, Ross Baumgarten, Randy Lerch and Eric Soderholm, whose 1981 Topps cards are forever etched in my mind.

As someone who loves baseball history, I often get goosebumps hearing some of the stories that are shared with me and that was true in the case of Matt Dahlgren, the grandson of Babe Dahlgren who was one of the greatest fielding first basemen of the 1930s and ‘40s and a pioneer in coaching.

The same was true when I interviewed Brandon Puffer, who was so open and honest about sharing not only the story of his career, but also being arrested, spending three and a half years in prison and his subsequent life redemption. He shares wonderful messages about family, the Lord and positivity daily on social media and is someone you can’t help but root for in life.

This year we made an effort to feature some more recent players as well. It was great to hear modern insight from guys like Jimmy Gobble, Ryan Lavarnway, David McCarty, Cole Gillespie, Logan Kensing and Matt Kata.

But we didn’t forget the oldheads and what a thrill it was to talk with 90-year old George Altman. The man was the starting right fielder for the Mets the first game played at Shea Stadium, was teammates with Satchel Paige and played for manager Buck O’Neill with the Kansas City Monarchs. Wow!

The Spitballin’ year started with #BaseballTwitter favorite Bob File and ended with Scott Schebler. I am entirely privileged to be able to share these stories on BallNine, but I just see myself as the middle-man in this fantastic equation. It’s the players and other interview subjects who have lived these stories and Spitballin’ is a vehicle to get them to fans. It’s incredible to me that so many players have been so generous with their time to share these stories with us. I sincerely hope you enjoy them.

Wishing the best to everyone in the coming year but before we jump into 2024, here’s the best of Spitballin’ from 2023.

I’m a sinkerball righty guy, so I said give me my location and I’ll go with backdoor breaking balls on them. I had never thrown a backdoor breaking ball ever. I literally made it up. My first time throwing it, I struck out Paul O’Neill. I got Tino Martinez on it too. I was like, “Oh my God, this is the best!” – Bob File

 


 

I wasn’t even on the ballot. I was a write-in candidate. When I got there, the first thing I was thinking was, “Holy crap, Henry Aaron is on my team!” He was at the end of his career, but he was still there. I ended up facing Tom Seaver and he was a USC Trojan too. I just missed one on him and flew out to deep center. The next year, the All-Star Game was in Philadelphia and I was starting. Tom Seaver started for the NL and I was hitting fifth. He threw that same fastball I saw the year before and I hit it out. So, my first hit in the Majors was a home run and my first hit in the All-Star Game was a home run. – Fred Lynn

 


 

I got woken up on Wednesday morning by the Sports Information guy and he asked me if I wanted the good news or bad news. I asked for the good news and he told me I was drafted. I asked him what could possibly be the bad news after that. He said, “It was the White Sox who drafted you.” He knew I was a big Cubs fan. – Ross Baumgarten

 


 It’s incredible to me that so many players have been so generous with their time to share these stories with us. – Rocco Constantino

I played with and against some incredible players. Tony Gwynn I only faced once, but I got to face other Hall of Famers like Andre Dawson, Ryne Sandberg, Mike Piazza and some other Hall of Famers and that was a joy. My first year I played with the Giants, Gary Carter was there as a catcher. When I was with the Mets Eddie Murray was on the team and other great players who aren’t Hall of Famers like Dwight Gooden, David Cone and Bret Saberhagen. At the end of 1992 the Mets traded Coney to the Blue Jays and we got back Jeff Kent. In my opinion, he’s a Hall of Famer. With the Pirates I was teammates with some great players like Andy Van Slyke and Jay Bell. Then when I came back to San Francisco, I played my final two years with Barry Bonds. – Mark Dewey

 


 

Buck O’Neil was a tremendous manager. Looking at his career, he was a great player too. He was different than the managers I encountered in the major leagues, especially Leo Durocher. Leo would always threaten you. He’d say that if you didn’t do well, he’d back up the truck and get you out of there. But Buck O’Neil was different. He was always supportive and positive. He was very encouraging and a very good baseball man. He knew baseball up and down. – George Altman

 


 

Having your freedom back certainly was huge. The gang wars, riots, sleeping on a metal mattress and all the things that happen in prison stinks. At the end of the day, the worst part for me was not being able to reach out and touch my loved ones. When I got out, I was texting them or on the phone constantly. – Brandon Puffer

 

Fred Lynn

I got a call saying, “This Judge kid from Linden is getting a lot of action. Check him out.” I was like, “Where did he come from? Nobody heard of him before this year.” I drove out and sat with my brother-in-law, who knew the family. Honestly, he wasn’t very good. There were some scouts on him though, so we had to keep an eye on him. – Tim McIntosh

 


 

You have a lot of people tell you it’s not possible, but it’s kind of cool that I can use my career as an example that it is possible. A big thing for me was finding out I had type 1 diabetes and being able to play for another seven years to have a little platform to talk about that. I think about the kids who find out they have type 1 diabetes and want to show them what I was able to do. – Buddy Carlyle

 


 

I told the guys on the Orioles that President Nixon was going to come in the clubhouse and come see me. They were like, “Yeah, OK, sure.” But then here comes Richard Nixon right through the crowd and right to me. He says, “Doug! How are you doing young man? Sorry the Mets traded you to the Orioles. I had a gift for you, but I left it in my study.” – Doug Sisk

Spitballin - Carl Pavano

Carl Pavano

We felt like we matched up well against the Blue Jays. They had about four Hall of Famers in their lineup; their offense was off the charts. But we felt like we could beat them. That was our mentality all year. I really believe that if we won Game 4, we would have won the World Series. – Mickey Morandini

 


 

I came off the field and like a normal game, the losing team is packing their stuff and heading up to the clubhouse. But there were two guys, Tony Womack and Matt Williams, who stayed to congratulate me. I remember that like it was yesterday. These guys were Big Leaguers and we just lost a big game in a playoff race. For them to take the time to wait for me showed me the kind of people they are, and they are awesome.  – Lyle Overbay

 


 

We got swept that series and that was the final game. I felt like it was one of those “meet your maker” moments. There was a lot of pressure, not only because it was the playoffs, but it was against a team I played for who didn’t get the best of my ability when I was there. It gave me confidence and a little retribution to pitch well against them. – Carl Pavano

 


 

John Kruk came up to me and said, “Eisey, playing with us crazy people, you must think you’re the most normal person in the world.” I looked at him and said, “Johnny, you just gave me my childhood dream. All I ever wanted to be was normal.” They’re still some of my best friends today. – Jim Eisenreich

Mickey Morandini

Mickey Morandini

Guess who the Orioles played in the World Series in 1979? The Pittsburgh Pirates. Here I am a lifelong Orioles fan and I got drafted by the Pirates in June of 1979. So that brought up the question, who do I pull for in the World Series? The team who is going to be my next employer or the team I grew up rooting for? To tell you the honest truth, I was pretty ticked off when the Pirates beat the Orioles in 1979. – Mike Bielecki

 


 

The hitting philosophy was to take advantage of the Astroturf. We played in a big park and the ball didn’t carry well, so we were encouraged to hit the ball on the ground and run like hell. We didn’t strike out a lot and put the ball in play. It drove teams nuts because if most of us ended up on first, there was a good chance we’d end up on third. We put pressure on defenses and pitchers, caused wild pitches, passed balls and balks. – John Morris

 


 

We had a 1948 Ford converted school bus and when we got back, I didn’t have any place to go. A couple of the guys said I could stay with them. We went back to this house and it looked like the Munsters house! It was that old Victorian style and it looked like the bushes were dead. There were four bachelors living there. It was dark and the screens were falling off. I thought, “Holy crap, what have I gotten myself into?” – Mike Hedlund

 


 

Billy Martin brought me in with the bases loaded and no outs. Billy said, “You went out and had a few beers, huh?” I struck out Eddie Murray, got out of the inning and pitched the rest of the game. That totally pissed off Steinbrenner because the reporters were bothering him asking why I was in the minors all that time when they needed a right hander all year. Billy came to me and said, “I told those idiots you could pitch, but I can’t always make decisions anymore. I got a phone call from Steinbrenner and was told I’m not to pitch you anymore unless it’s some shithole game.” – Roger Erikson

Mike Hedlund

Well what about guys like me who need just 30 days to receive a pension? I met a guy in Syracuse [who] said he needed one day! What about all these other guys who really could use the money? They’ll take care of one group of players, but they won’t take care of us. That’s so hypocritical. They’re waiting for us to die. Once we all die, they’ll have all that money that they can give to other players who are already making millions and millions of dollars. – Gene Locklear

 


 

To the day he died, he carried a first baseman’s glove and rubber ball in the trunk of his car and even into his 80s and with two knee replacements and shoulders that barely worked, he would go to a park and throw the ball against a wall and field balls to the best of his ability. It was his passion and he was so good about it. – Matt Dahlgren

 


 

Being a top prospect who was supposed to be all these things to an organization who wasn’t; that hurts. It was very painful to not live up to expectations. Dealing with the mental and emotional aspect of that was difficult. There was blame and there was the shame of it. I felt terrible about not becoming the player people said I would. I knew about Sports Psychology back then, but I always had that thought that there was nothing wrong with me. I wasn’t a mess, so why would I need a psychologist? – Chad Hermansen

 


 

It’s nice that someone is carrying the torch for us. Nobody is really listening to us about it. Personally, I think we have gotten a raw deal. I dare say that if there were more present-day players that knew what was going on and recognized for what we did from the get-go, how we have been cheated, that someone would show some interest and go to bat for us. – Mac Scarce

Babe Dahlgren

I remember my first year Rickey Henderson didn’t want to go out to the outfield to shag balls because he had already hit. He decided he wanted to take throws at first base while I was taking grounders at short. I took a few and threw them over. Rickey would catch them and flip them to the guy hitting the fungoes. About the fourth or fifth ball, I get it and flip it over and when it was about halfway over, I noticed Rickey was looking at the guy hitting instead of me. I yelled out to him and he looked up but it was too late. I thought the ball hit him right in the knee, but it was a little above. I had probably been there about a week. I was thinking to myself, “OK, I’m gone. That’s it for me.” But he was OK and played that night. – Paul Zuvella

 


 

With the new rules now, it changes everything. You have the guy on second base in extra innings and you’re going to use your closer in different roles. Just by the nature of the new rules, I don’t think anyone can do it. I hope it gets broken though, because it will bring my name back up! I just think it will be hard to do with the way the game is now. It depends so much on the team, too. One error can mess everything up. It wasn’t just me out there, everything had to be right and everything needed to click. – Eric Gagne

 


 

Well we went to play the Royals and I already told you George Brett was my favorite player. He was still on the team then. I was playing third and he was the DH that game. I came up for my first at bat and they put on the scoreboard that I was making my Major League debut. Late in the game, George Brett homers. As he’s rounding second I’m thinking, “What do I do? Do I high five him?” He was my guy! Anyway, he gets closer to me and looks me right in the eye and as he ran by he said, “Hey Scott, congratulations. Good luck.” I am getting goose bumps telling you about that. – Scott Livingstone

Eric Gagne

I thought I was gonna go down there, screw around and drink beer. But when we got there, it was serious. I played for the St. Petersburg Pelicans and was the Opening Day pitcher for the Senior League. Bobby Tolan was our manager and he saw it as a place where he could jump to the big leagues from there. Everything was real serious. We had Jon Matlack, Dock Ellis, Ron LeFlore, Kenny Landreaux, and some real good players. – Randy Lerch

 


 

We were very exciting. We set a record for the most home runs hit by a team by that point. We didn’t win it though, Kansas City went 25-6 the last month of the season and we went 15-15. They went by us like we were standing still. But in August we had a five-game lead and the city was going nuts. We had 40,000 at Comiskey Park every night. It was such a fun year. – Eric Soderholm

 


 

Getting a chance to play in a postseason setting in Fenway Park was unbelievable. Getting some hits to help out was amazing too. There was so much riding on every pitch. It’s hard to describe, but it was just so electrifying. Coming out on the wrong end of it was a downer, but the experience was unforgettable. – Adam Melhuse

There were four or five of us making our debuts. I wasn’t nervous, but I had a lump in my throat. I had a lot of surreal moments that day. Before the game I had Cookie Rojas telling me where I should shade Darryl Strawberry and Eric Davis. These were guys I grew up watching and now I was playing against them; that was wild. Then in the offensive meeting and they were talking about Orel Hershiser. I was just thinking, “What did I do to get here?” These were guys I grew up idolizing. – Scott Pose

 


 

I got dressed and the pitching coach called me into the office saying he had a question about the pitching charts. I thought nothing of it, went into the office and he closed the door. It was a Sunday and the manager, hitting coach and trainer were in there too. I had been traded before and the room had that kind of vibe to it. They said, “We know it’s not your day to do the pitching chart, but if you do it for us today, you can go pitch in the big leagues on Tuesday.” – Brian Tollberg

 


 

Fans want players who are honest, who are gonna play hurt and play every day. They don’t want prima donnas. I always tried to be pretty humble in my success, too, because this game is hard. I played really well right from the start [with the Mets] and that helped too. Those first two months with the Mets I had never played that well in my life. – Rico Brogna

 


 

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. – Aaron Small

 


 

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.  – Jimmy Gobble

 


 

I was fortunate enough to make the team and there were some great players who didn’t; Troy Glaus, Roy Halladay, Seth Etherton and some other guys didn’t make the team. It’s crazy to think of some of the talent that didn’t make the club. We ended up winning a silver medal. – Eric Valent

Rico Brogna

My second at bat he threw me a changeup first pitch and I swung and hit a home run almost up on the tracks at Minute Maid. It hit above the Crawford Boxes and bounced down into left field. Lance Berkman was in left and I was a teammate of his later on. Now, if it’s your first big league hit they announce it and everyone is aware. Not back then though, so he wouldn’t know it was my first hit. He picked up the ball and tossed it into the stands. Looking back at the video of it, you could tell when I’m rounding second I’m holding back a big smile. Now celebrations are a lot different. Even if I played now, though, I wouldn’t be bat flipping. I would act like I’ve done it before. – Matt Kata

 


 

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!” 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 for a grand slam. That was my first big league hit. -Creighton Gubanich

 


 

Fans want players who are honest, who are gonna play hurt and play every day. They don’t want prima donnas. I always tried to

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. – Cole Gillespie

 


 

I was fortunate enough to do it for 15 years professionally and walk away on my own terms. When the Red Sox designated me for assignment, they had a deal in place to trade me to another team, but that was the first year when I went to spring training where my kid said, “Dad, we don’t want you to go.” We had just won the World Series in 2004 and I said to myself, “You know, I’d just rather go out on top as a member of the Red Sox.” So that’s what I did. – David McCarty

 

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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