"I got to travel the world because of leather and stitches.”
It’s amazing what a ball of leather held together by 216 stitches can do.
When you boil the sport of baseball down to simply throwing, catching and hitting a five ounce ball around a park, the power that ball has is incredible.
As former Cardinals pitcher, Jason Simontacchi says, that ball of leather and stitches took him around the world and more and the righty now joins us for this week’s Spitballin’ to share his tales.
Simontacchi attended three different colleges and had an admitted rough start to his minor league career, but a stint playing for Rimini in the Italian Baseball League led to the opportunity to pitch for Italy in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. After excelling there, his professional career back in the states got a jump start and he was in the majors two years later.
While the power of that baseball sent Simontacchi on a journey from the US to Italy to Australia and back—with some pit stops in between—it also proved to be a vital tool in helping overcome one of the most tragic days the sport has seen.
On June 22, 2002, Simontacchi was scheduled to take the mound against the Cubs in a game that was ultimately canceled due to the passing of his teammate and friend Darryl Kile. The next day, when the team decided to play in honor of Kile, the ball was once again in Simontacchi’s hand as everyone who knew and rooted for Kile took those first tenuous steps towards healing.
Yes, a baseball physically consists of a rubber core, different layers of yarn and the leather and stitches that hold it together. But in truth, it is so much more than that.
If you need further supporting evidence of that, join us as we go Spitballin’ with Jason Simontacchi.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Simontacchi! Really appreciate you sharing your story with us. Let’s start off by going back to the beginning. What was baseball like for you as a kid growing up?
My dad had played professional baseball after being drafted by the Pirates in 1970. I was born in 1973 and that was when he quit baseball and moved back to California with my mom. He coached us when we were growing up. One of our other coaches was Sam Wyche, who was coaching offense for the 49ers at the time. His daughter was on my tee ball team. I have an older brother and we’d go to the ballpark and play catch. We played all kinds of sports, really. It was more of the experience of getting out and playing. It was all sandlot stuff with whatever sport was in season. Even just going out and playing pickle. Whatever it was, we would be out there playing ball.
You were drafted in 1996 by the Royals out of Albertson College in Idaho. Could you talk to us about your draft experience?
My path is kind of weird. I went to JUCO in California at DeAnza for a year and then went to San Jose State for a year. Then I transferred out and went to an NAIA school—College of Idaho—which was Albertson College at the time. I had a really good year, but didn’t know if I would be drafted. I just wanted to play and dominate. I knew in NAIA I would be one of the better pitchers. There were scouts there watching, but I was a senior. I pitched well, but at the same time I knew where I was at and should have pitched well. Going into the draft, I had no expectations. I got a phone call from my coach telling me I was drafted by the Royals. I went to the airport and met the scout. I signed my contract right there in the airport for $1,500.
I remember stretching out on the field and looking up at Dave Duncan and saying, “What the fuck are we doing here?” He had his arms crossed and he just looked at me and looked down at the ground. Then we both started crying.
After three minor league seasons, you went over to Italy and pitched professionally there. How did that opportunity come about?
I had gotten released by the Royals and played independent ball. Then I went to Australia to play there with a buddy of mine, but I hurt my knee and came back. I was driving a tow truck and got a phone call from Mike Romano with Rimini of the Italian League. I didn’t know anybody there and asked him, “How in the hell did you get my name?” He told me he was flipping through pages in the Baseball Almanac looking for Italian last names. I figured that I didn’t have any money and wasn’t going to be able to travel to Italy or Europe anytime soon, so I might as well give it a shot. It was awesome!
Were you the only player from the United States on the team?
We had a guy Jim Vatcher, who was our centerfielder. He had been in the majors for a little bit and he actually helped me with my pitching. He came up to me and told me how much my ball moved. I didn’t know I was a sinkerball pitcher; I was just out there throwing baseballs and competing. I didn’t realize what my ball did. Don August was on the team too and we hit it off really well. He was at the end of his career and I was at the beginning of mine. He was the one who helped me with my changeup. I didn’t have a good curveball, so when I hung it, those guys hit it. My changeup was the equalizer though. The guys on the team took us in and were awesome. It helps when you play well, but everyone was great.
St. Louis Cardinals' Jason Simontacchi fires a pitch against the Colorado Rockies April 8, 2003 at Coors Field in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by MARK LEFFINGWELL / AFP)
You pitched for Italy in the 2000 Olympics. That’s really incredible! I know it is probably impossible to summarize, but what was that experience like playing in the Olympics?
For the short amount of time that I was there, I took a lot of pride in representing Italy in the Olympics. We had guys like Battista Perri, Dave Sheldon, Roberto Cabilisti, Andrea Evangelisti was our shortstop who were my teammates with Rimini. We practiced for about a week and we really came together. There was so much pride and passion representing the country. The Olympics was such a great time. My dad flew out with one of his friends. I knew it would be a good showcase for me. At that time, that was the highest level I’d ever pitched.
What are some memories that stick out for you?
The aura of Muhammad Ali when he walked into the room was unbelievable. I was about ten feet away from the guy. There were so many athletes who practiced their whole lives just to get to the Olympics, so it was something watching them compete. I remember the Opening Ceremonies too. All the countries met up in this arena before walking out. They would announce the country coming in. I was over with Italy and when they announced the United States of America, everybody booed. I couldn’t believe that. Then we lined up and walked into the stadium, which held about 100,000 people. I was walking through the tunnel not having any idea how big the place was. We walked out and there were flashes everywhere. It was so surreal. I was 26 and old enough to realize that I should absorb it.
I pitched against South Africa and had a no-hitter for six innings. My second game was against the US. I came on in relief and we were tied 2-2 in the eighth. They had a runner on first with two outs and the guy at bat had a swinging bunt that I fielded and threw away. We ended up losing to them. Our last game was against the Netherlands and we lost 3-2. I pitched a complete game and it was over in two hours and ten minutes. They said at the time it was the fastest game in Olympics history.
Jason Simontacchi #46 of the St. Louis Cardinals stands in the dugout during the game against the Los Angeles Dodgers on July 16, 2002 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California. The Cardinals won 9-2. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Two years later you made your Major League debut as well. What was that like getting that call to the majors?
That was surreal. I was fortunate to come across some good pitching coaches that instilled confidence in me that I didn’t know I had. Dave LaPoint was the first guy who helped me when I was in Venezuela. He took the ball from me during a bullpen once and said, “Do you know how good your stuff is? You have great command, your ball never stays straight, you’re quick to the plate and you field your position. You do everything and you’re consistent.”
The Cardinals signed me in January of 2002 to a AAA contract. I went to Memphis and pitched really well. Guys on the big league roster kept getting hurt and the people they called up ahead of me didn’t pitch well. One day I was at the field in Memphis and my agent called me and told me I was traded. I was like, “What?! No way! I don’t want to be traded!” Then he said, “You’ve been traded to the Cardinals. You’re going up!” He told me I was going to pitch Saturday against the Braves at Busch Stadium. I was like, “Holy shit!”
That’s so awesome. What were your first days in the Majors like leading up to your debut?
Flying into St. Louis we flew over Busch Stadium and I was just looking down at the mound and it was the size of a Life Saver. I was thinking I would be pitching on that in a few days. I took a cab to the stadium and got into the clubhouse. It was early in the morning and nobody was there. I was looking at the jerseys and I’m seeing Edmonds, Pujols, Matheny, Viña. Then I see my name on my jersey and I’m thinking that there is no way this is happening right now.
What was that first game day like?
I was nervous as shit. I was playing catch with Mike Matheny on the right field line then did my bullpen. We did the National Anthem and I went out to the mound for warmups. I threw my first warmup pitch and it was a strike. The first batter I faced was Rafael Furcal and the first pitch I threw to him was a strike. I retired the first ten guys I faced. I thought, “This is easy!” Then Marcus Giles deposited one over the left field wall. The first big league hit I gave up was a home run. We ended up winning. I went seven innings and gave up two runs and we won 3-2. I earned another start and before I knew it, I was rolling and was 5-0.
Starting Pitcher Jason Simontacchi #46 of the St. Louis Cardinals throws the ball against the San Diego Padres during the game on July 12, 2002 at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, California. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)
That takes us to the point in the season where I am sure it’s difficult to discuss. You were 5-0 with a 2.45 ERA when you were supposed to take the ball for the eighth start of your career on June 22, 2002. That ended up being the day that Darryl Kile passed away. I’m positive it’s really tough to talk about, but do you mind sharing your experience from that day?
I was taking BP. The starting pitcher usually got about eight minutes of BP and then the other pitchers come in. I had just gotten done and was walking back towards the dugout. Tony LaRussa was there with Walt Jocketty, Dave Duncan and [Head Athletic Trainer] Barry Weinberg. Everybody knew something was going on with DK not being there because he was always the first one there. I don’t know who said it, but as I got near the dugout I heard, “What do you mean he’s fucking dead?!”
I stopped and thought, “He’s not talking about DK.” Then I just kept walking down the dugout. In Wrigley, there’s one tunnel that zig zags around leading to the clubhouse. I was halfway through that tunnel and that group comes flying by me, running up to the clubhouse. I was one of the only guys in the clubhouse because everyone else was up on the field. I heard them talking about what they were going to say, asking each other how they were going to do this. They were discussing calling the game off. I just sat there thinking, “Holy shit.” I didn’t say a word.
I can’t even imagine. Could you take us into the clubhouse and let our readers know what your experience was like being there with your team as everyone found out what happened?
Tony came in and told us what happened. As soon as he said, “DK is dead,” it was like a bomb went off. Everyone just kind of scattered. [Cubs catcher] Joe Girardi announced that they weren’t going to play the game. Eventually, I figured I’d better tell my parents what happened. I had this Nokia phone and I turned it on and was just outside the clubhouse on this walkway above the crowd. I remember turning on my phone and there were so many messages. The first one was from my mom. There’s nothing you want to hear your mom crying about. My mom called me Jaybird. The message just said, “Jaybird! Call me back. Please tell me you’re ok!” I immediately started crying because my mom thought I was dead. I could see my tears falling over onto the sidewalk and people down below me. I didn’t even listen to the rest of the message, I called her back right away and she was hysterical. I told them I was fine, but I was imagining what they were going through.
We went back to the hotel and Major League Baseball did an unbelievable job in the situation. They told us what they saw and what they found out. The Cardinals handled it really well and Tony was an absolute champ about how he handled our team and keeping us together. We were waiting for DK’s wife Flynn to fly in. We were wondering about the game tomorrow, but I didn’t give a shit. This wasn’t up to me to make a decision. We decided to ask Flynn what she wanted to decide. We said that DK never missed a start in his entire career. Not one single start. The next day was his day to pitch, so we were going to pay tribute to him by playing the game.
That’s all just so insane and surreal I am sure. I don’t know how you guys did it, but that was a great way to honor him. You were the starting pitcher that day. How do you even go out to the mound and take the ball in a situation like that?
I don’t remember much of anything from that game. I don’t remember walking out to the right field line and I don’t remember throwing warmup pitches. I don’t even remember pitching in the game. I remember stretching out on the field and looking up at Dave Duncan and saying, “What the fuck are we doing here?” He had his arms crossed and he just looked at me and looked down at the ground. Then we both started crying. I remember Matheny coming up to me and saying that he couldn’t catch that day. He just couldn’t do it. I remember giving up a home run to someone in the game, but that’s really all I remember from the game. I haven’t even gone back to look at the game.
It’s amazing that you all went through that in your own way and still won 97 games and got to the NLCS. I don’t know how you guys did that.
That was a real talented team. Scott Rolen got hurt in the NLDS and that killed us the next round. The Giants got us, those bastards!
That was a team I grew up loving. They were a blue-collar team with Roger Craig and Will Clark. I always said the whole year went so fast. I was 28 years old and did not want to get caught up in the moment. I wanted to enjoy everything and take it all in. Then I got to the end of the year and looked back at it thinking, “Holy crap, I won 11 games in the big leagues!” I was National League Rookie of the Month in June and actually had better numbers the month before. Jason Jennings won Rookie of the Year that year, but in September we went into Colorado and I pitched against him and beat his ass!
This has been incredible, thanks for being so honest and giving our readers a glimpse inside some of the fantastic moments you enjoyed and some of the difficult ones as well. Just wrapping up here, when you look back at your career and what you have been able to do internationally and in Major League Baseball, what reflections come to mind?
I haven’t even done that yet! I know it’s surreal to watch old videos of myself out there pitching. I tell a lot of kids I was coaching that as long as you have a jersey on your back, you have an opportunity to make it to the big leagues. I am fortunate enough to have had a lot of good people along the way to help me. Looking back, it was almost like divine intervention. God had a plan and path for me.
I’d love to be in baseball still; I still have a passion for the game. When I was coaching, I would cut out my stats from A Ball and show these guys. They were horrible. I would say, “As bad as this was to start a career, I still had three years in the Major Leagues.” Take anyone in the Major Leagues and they don’t give a shit about their minor league stats. They know there’s a process to go through and that comes from coaches. I was just so blessed. I got to make so many awesome connections throughout the world. I got to travel the world because of leather and stitches.