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Mudville: March 3, 2024 3:45 pm PDT

Bill Bathe

"Baseball was entertainment, the fire department was life and death.”

At BallNine we strive to keep baseball history alive, so naturally, we’re big on anniversaries. We’re also big on saying, “Wow, can you believe it’s been that long since that happened?”

This week we’re here to remind you that the Giants vs. A’s World Series that was interrupted by the Loma Prieta earthquake happened 35 years ago.

Bill Bathe, who made history that World Series while playing for the Giants and came up in the A’s system with many of the guys he played against in that series, reminisces with us on this week’s Spitballin’.

Bathe was a big catching prospect in the A’s system as a rare catcher who could hit for both power and average with a cannon for an arm. Injuries and a post-surgery infection that nearly cost him his life, hampered what he was able to do, but he did make history when given the chance in the 1989 World Series.

The series was delayed for 12 days as the Bay Area recovered and resumed with game three in San Francisco. In front of his home crowd, manager Roger Craig called on Bathe to pinch hit in the bottom of the ninth for his first World Series at bat.

Bathe deposited a 1-0 pitch well over the left field fence to become just the fifth National Leaguer to homer in his first World Series at bat.

It’s a great accomplishment by a great baseball man and he’s got many more stories to tell, so join us as we go Spitballin’ with Bill Bathe.

Thanks for joining us, Mr. Bathe! Looking forward to discussing your historic role in the 1989 World Series and the tragedy of the Loma Prieta earthquake, but first let’s go back to your childhood. What was baseball like for you growing up as a kid?

I grew up in Southern California and had a dad who was all about baseball. From the time I was three years old I had a glove in my hand. Being in LA, I was taught to love the Dodgers and hate the Angels and Giants. I grew up in Dodgers Stadium dreaming about playing there one day. As I started playing as a kid in Southern California, I realized there were a lot of kids with that dream, but I was fortunate enough to have the talent. No matter where I played, I had other parents come up to my parents and ask if I was their son. They would say that I had a great arm and could be a pro ballplayer one day. I learned early on that I had something special and I had a love of the game. All I did was eat, drink and sleep baseball all the way up through college.

You jumped a couple of levels and started your pro career in AA and did great. What was your time in the A’s minor league system like?

I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to play the game I love. I just wanted to be out there playing. I loved the smell of the grass and the pine tar. My first full spring training, Billy Martin was still the manager. I wasn’t intimidated by it. I was excited to show what I could do. I was invited to big league camp and there were all the great A’s from the past and present. I remember we were doing a first-to-third drill and Rickey Henderson was on third and I was catching. I came up and faked to second and threw a bee-bee down to third and almost hit Rickey in the head. He had to hit the dirt. His teammates were laughing and mocking him because this rookie came out and almost drilled him.

 He said to just let it go and that was just Billy. I have the privilege of telling people that I got my butt chewed by Billy Martin.

That’s awesome to have played for Billy Martin. Do you have any stories about your interactions with him?

We had a coach, Lee Walls, who was a former teammate of Billy’s. He came up to me one day and said that if Billy ever got on me, just tell him that you’re sorry you screwed up and it won’t happen again. Whatever you do, don’t have an excuse. The first Cactus League game I played in, there was a runner on first and it was an 0-2 count. I took pride in never missing a sign. Billy was sitting on a chair and I kept looking at him for any sign. I never saw a sign for a pitchout, so I called a slider. As the pitch was thrown, I started to hear the chair being thrown and all these expletives. I thought, “Oh my gosh, what did I do?” When I came off the field, he just undressed me in the dugout for ten minutes. I just kept saying, “Yes Billy, I messed up, I’m sorry.” You could hear a pin drop. After he walked away, Lee Walls came up to me and said, “Son, don’t take it personally, he’s just making an example for the other young guys.” I said, “Well it sure feels f-ing personal!” He said to just let it go and that was just Billy. I have the privilege of telling people that I got my butt chewed by Billy Martin.

You came up through the A’s system with guys like Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire. Could you tell those guys were destined to do what they eventually did in the game at a young age?   

I remember the first time I met Mark after he was drafted. He wasn’t a buff guy at the time, but you shook his hand and I thought, “This guy is like corn-fed Nebraska strong.” Then you saw him hit and immediately saw that he could hit. I knew Jose Canseco when he was as skinny as a pencil then he came back the next year looking like Charles Atlas. I watched him flourish on the diamond. I never saw a player have such an effect on the game.

When I was in AAA with him, opposing teams would stop what they were doing to watch him take batting practice. They literally sat there with their mouths open. One game we played in Vancouver against the Brewers AAA team. When he came up to bat, the scoreboard read “Roy Hobbs.” In Tacoma, nobody had ever hit one over the 40 foot wall in dead center. The wind was always blowing in and we always had rainy weather. His first day there in batting practice, he consistently launched them over the centerfield wall and then launched them over the light towers in left field. You looked at him and said, “This isn’t real. He’s a freak of nature.” He was a real good guy to me.

After your time with the A’s, you had a couple of great seasons for the Cubs in AAA then signed with the Giants. Can you talk about that period in your career?

I played in Venezuela and actually almost lost my life before going to the Cubs. I took a foul tip and snapped my collarbone. I underwent surgery there and got an infection that became septic. I was on the table with a 105 degree fever and bleeding internally. They didn’t think I would make it, but I pulled through.

In 1988 I played on the Iowa Cubs with Mark Grace and Damon Berryhill. I made the All-Star Game and finished second in the league in hitting. I led the league in hitting for 99% of the year and [LaVel Freeman] passed me by a few percentage points the last week of the year. Then he sat out the last few games. I needed three hits the last game to win the title. I got two hits and then the third time up, I just missed my third hit foul before making an out. Then the Cubs didn’t protect me and my phone rang off the hook with offers. Ultimately, I signed with the Giants.

That was the great Giants team of 1989, which is incredibly, 35 years ago. What were your impressions of that team when you joined them?

I was batting close to .500 in Phoenix in June when they called me up. The team was already in first place and I didn’t play the first two days I was there. The third game, I asked Roger Craig if I could talk to him in his office. I said, “I don’t think you know who I am.” He said, “Of course I do.” I said, “I really don’t think you do because I could flat out hit and I can help you win. I know what you’re thinking. You’re in first place and you don’t want to fix something that isn’t broken, but I can help you win ballgames.” He said, “OK big boy, you’re gonna get your shot.” He sent me in that day to hit against a lefty, Dave Leiper, who I played Little League together with. That was my first National League at bat and I got a single off him. I came in and Roger didn’t say anything to me. The next game we were in San Diego and I came in on a double switch with Terry Kennedy.

I went 2-2 and after the game, Roger told me to get in his office. I was thinking, “Oh my God, what did I do?” He sits me down and says, “God dang, you could hit! I don’t know if I’m more excited about the game or what you just did.” I said, “Roger, I would pay you $5 million dollars for you to put me in there with the game on the line.” He said, “I like you, big boy. You’re gonna get your shot.” The next day he brought me in against Mark Davis, a Cy Young Award winner, with Will Clark on third base and less than two outs. I hit one to deep right and if it wasn’t for Jack Clark robbing me, I would have had a home run. But I drove in the run and from that point forward, I was Roger’s guy.

(Original Caption) Former MLB player and current Tucson Fire Department Fire Captain Bill Bathe and his wife Alexa Bathe in attendance of the MLB game between the San Francisco Giants and Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on September 11, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Darin Wallentine/Getty Images)

It’s awesome when you could back it up like that! I love the confidence. Getting to the 1989 postseason, you guys beat the Cubs in five games in the NLCS and I think that gets lost in the shuffle with the A’s and the earthquake. The Cubs had the best record in the NL that year. What do you remember about that series?

We thought we could beat anybody. In order to win at that level, you have to have good chemistry and the right mix of young guys and veterans. You have to have good pitching too. It just so happened that we outperformed them. That’s what it comes down to. We were two good teams battling it out. They had a phenomenal team and I had the privilege of playing with a lot of them, so I had a lot of satisfaction walking by their clubhouse when we won, just staring at them. Some of them jokingly gave me the finger and we laughed.

We mentioned it already a couple of times, but that 1989 World Series is of course famous for the tragic earthquake and I have some questions about that. First, what was your experience like when it happened?

I had just come out of the dugout and took a couple steps onto the field and was taking it all in. All of a sudden, I felt like I was going to pass out or hit the ground. I thought I was overly excited or something, but then I heard people screaming and yelling, “earthquake!” Then I realized what it was because I grew up in California. It really hit home when I saw the police cars coming in from centerfield and wives coming out on the field. We didn’t know how bad it was on the outside though. There was emergency lighting in the tunnel that went from the dugout to the clubhouse that didn’t come on. There were guys in the clubhouse who thought they were going to die there. They could hear the concrete cracking and there were no lights. I remember going through the dark to get my stuff and leave.

Wow, I can only imagine what thoughts cross peoples’ minds in a situation like that. When did you realize how bad it was?  

When I was leaving the stadium, it looked like a war zone. There were fires everywhere and collapsed buildings all over. It looked like San Francisco got bombed. I lived 30 minutes from Candlestick and it took me about four hours [to get home]. For me, it was a really hard time because my wife was back in Tucson and we had just had our first child. Her mom had just died of cancer and she was wanting me to come home. I couldn’t leave and it ended up creating a dynamic that ended up costing us our marriage. It’s two ends of the spectrum because I was living my dream, but I had family in Tucson who were suffering.

I’m sorry to hear that and I can understand both perspectives for sure. When the games resumed, you actually made a little World Series history. The floor is yours to share your Game 3 story with our readers.

When we resumed, I still had to have my mind in the game. I finally got the call in game three for my first at bat. I walked up to the plate in the seventh inning and hit a three-run homer in my first World Series at bat. Tony Phillips jumped up on the fence like he was gonna catch it, but it dropped pretty far back on the grass. The camera angle looked like he was close to it, but he wasn’t. Tony was my ex-roommate, so I went up to him the next day and said, “Hey T! What are you doing trying to steal my home run! Don’t you be trying to steal my hits!” He had a big smile on his face and was laughing.

But that was the first game back after the earthquake and it had a lot of meaning because everyone was still trying to heal. We had a little rally going and Roger had me pinch hit against Gene Nelson, who was the setup man for Dennis Eckersley. Coming out of the dugout, I was thinking that this was what I lived for my whole life. The first pitch he threw up and in and I took it. I figured he was going to try to challenge me the next pitch. He threw a fastball in my zone and I didn’t miss it. I didn’t get all of it, but I knew I hit it well enough to be a home run. As I was rounding the bases, I was telling myself to slow down and enjoy it because I may never do it again. I was thinking that I loved my whole life for this fleeting moment and everything I did, the hard work and struggles, were all justified that one at bat.

What an awesome accomplishment. I think of all the superstars like Ken Griffey Jr. or Ernie Banks who never even played in a World Series, so to hit a home run in one, and just the fourth player to do so in their first at bat, is incredible.

You’re right. I remember just taking it all in and getting back in the dugout. You know, Roger Craig had to choose between Bob Brenly and myself for the roster spot and he chose me because of my hitting. That upset Brenly, but he was there in uniform on the bench. After I hit my home run and sat down on the bench, Brenly said to me, “I’m glad you got to hit that home run. That was worth it.” Even though I took his spot, I made something of it. It was surreal. The next morning I remember waking up and getting a newspaper to make sure it really happened and it wasn’t a dream. That was one of the two best highlights of my baseball career.

Well now I definitely have to ask what the other one was!

My first at bat in Yankee Stadium, I took Ron Guidry deep for a home run. When I first made it to the A’s and I was told I was catching the first game. I couldn’t sleep; I was so pumped up. I took the subway and got there early and walked around the monuments. I’m glad I can say I played in the original Yankee Stadium where Babe Ruth walked. I felt like I had arrived when Bob Sheppard announced my name.

I was facing Louisiana Lightning, a guy I grew up idolizing. He challenged me with a fastball and I took him deep. After the game, they asked Guidry what he thought of the rookie catcher Bill Bathe. He said, “I don’t know much about him. I challenged him and he hit a home run. Good for him.” About six weeks later they came to Oakland and faced him again. He hung a slider and I hit it out for a three-run homer. Again they asked him what he thought about that rookie catcher. This time he said, “Well, I guess I need to pay attention to him!” That was the ultimate compliment.

That really is! This has been great, thanks for sharing your stories with us. Last question for you, when you look back on your career and what you were able to accomplish, what thoughts come to your mind?

I’m proud of the fact that I grew up with a great family that always supported me. I always had the drive to be willing to work to succeed no matter the cost. I was willing to put in the work. While guys were out dating on the weekends, I was out at the cage hitting until my hands bled. Even when there were obstacles, I found a way to work around them. If you dealt me a blow, I was gonna come back twice as strong. I constantly went after my goals and when I had the opportunity, I had to seize the moment. I am proud of that and the lessons I learned in baseball I have carried on in life. During the earthquake, I volunteered to help people. Little did I know, it would light a fire inside me that led me to change my career. I was fortunate to get on with the Tucson Fire Department. I was a medic within two years and was a Captain in the Tucson Fire Department for 20 years. I was a Battalion Chief for year and a half too. It was the same philosophy, desires, determination, team atmosphere and joking around, but on a different stage. Baseball was entertainment, the fire department was life and death.

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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