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Mudville: April 13, 2024 5:44 pm PDT

Tim Pyznarski

"I don’t live by that, I know things aren’t always fair."

If you were a baseball card collecting kid in the 1980s, 1987 was a banner year for you. There were rookie cards of Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and Will Clark to be found in that year’s issue and everyone wanted their hands on Don Mattingly and Jose Canseco cards.

Topps resurrected their “Future Stars” series after sunsetting it for a few years and that brought a ton of attention in those early days of the rookie card chase. The six-card subset featured Bo Jackson, BJ Surhoff and Rafael Palmeiro as the headliners but all six of the cards that had that green, yellow and orange Future Stars logo on the front were targets for collectors.

Tim Pyznarski was one of those six Future Stars and he joins us for this week’s Spitballin’.

Pyznarski earned that designation by dominating AAA in the year before to the tune of a .326 batting average with 23 home runs and 119 RBIs. He even added 25 stolen bases to his output.

The huge season earned him The Sporting News and Topps Minor League Player of the Year Awards. The Sporting News award dated back to 1936 when Johnny Vander Meer was the first winner. Some other players who followed as winners were Phil Rizzuto, Johnny Bench, Jim Rice, Derek Jeter and Pedro Martinez.

Pretty good company indeed!

Pyznarski received 47 plate appearances in 1986 and after starting his career 0-11 against Mike Scott, Mike Krukow and Vida Blue, he batted .323 the rest of the season.

From there though, injuries hampered the promising career and four shoulder surgeries later, Pyznarski was done with professional baseball by 1989.

Although there is always that “what could have been” thought attached to Pyznarski’s career, he did what only 15,258 people had done before him: suit up in a Major League Baseball uniform and take his place on the field.

He was a fellow Topps Future Star in 1987 with Bo Jackson and won the same Minor League Player of the Year Award as seven Hall of Famers, so join us as we go Spitballin’ with Tim Pyznarski.

Thanks for joining us, Mr. Pyznarski! I have to say it’s really cool talking to a guy whose baseball cards were supposed to fund my retirement. I still have all those 1987 Topps Future Star cards in my attic and I do want to ask you about that. But first let’s go back to your childhood. What was baseball like for you as a kid?

I grew up in a family of 11 kids, seven boys and four girls. My dad always found sports to get the boys involved with. He created a ball hockey league and we played flag football, but baseball was always the main sport. There was always somebody to play with, so in the summers we weren’t in the house at all. From sunup to sundown, we were outside playing ball. I went to Marist High School in Chicago. My senior year we won a state championship and had a great team. We had a great pitcher named Bob Hallas who went 18-0 that year. It was one of the best baseball teams in the modern era for the state of Illinois.

After that great high school career, you ended up at Eastern Illinois University. Can you talk about your time at Eastern?

After Marist, I went to Eastern Illinois University and played for who I considered one of the best college baseball coaches for his time, Tom “Skip” McDevitt. He just passed away a few months ago and I miss him very much. He was almost like a second father to me. I’ll never forget what he told me. I had some baseball scholarships coming out of high school from the University of Illinois, Purdue and some other places. Back then, Eastern was Division II and only had four scholarships that he had to divvy up among the team.

He told me he had nothing to offer me, but because of the size of my family, I could apply for a grant and I’d most likely get it. He said that he couldn’t guarantee me a starting job because Willie Mays might come out of retirement and beat me out. But he did say he wanted me to come there really bad. He was one of the most honest and sincere people I’ve ever met. I went to Eastern and played for three years. Every year we had a really good team; we were runner-up in the Division II College World Series and it was all because of Skip. He had nothing to offer financially, but we had so many good ballplayers who came there just to play for Skip.

(Original Caption) Zephyrs behind Steve Stanicek (foreground) and Tim Pyznarski join in the pledge of Allegiance at the start of the game Saturday.; (Photo By Brian Brainerd/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Skip sounds like such an awesome baseball guy. You were a first round draft pick with the A’s, 15th overall in 1981. Can you share you draft experience with us?

I thought there was a chance I could be a first round pick. Oakland had talked to me when we were in the College World Series, so I had a feeling there was a possibility they would take me. The Cubs and a couple of other teams that were in the middle of the first round that year were a possibility too. I was actually out golfing at the local golf course with my dad. Someone came out from the pro shop and told us that they got word that I was drafted with the 15th pick by Oakland. We finished the round of golf and went back home. It’s nothing like it is today with the big event that they have. I was very blessed and excited. I had a couple of agents at the time, and they got my first contract signed pretty quick and then I was on my way to Bend, Oregon for extended spring training. From there, I went to Modesto, California to play A Ball.

You battled some injuries in the minors, but had a couple of pretty incredible seasons when healthy, specifically in 1983 and 1986. In ’83 you had 29 home runs in just 124 games in really just your second full season. What was it like having that breakout season in 1983?

Skip McDevitt really worked hard at preparing players who he knew had a shot at professional baseball. I wasn’t surprised by too much, but being away from home was an adjustment. The grind of playing every day was another adjustment. I was somewhat ready, but you’re never really ready until you get there. That year I had 29 home runs in Albany and it was a really good season. I worked hard in the offseason. In the beginning of the season, Oakland had fired their AA manager and brought in a new one, so things were more settled and I got into a routine. That was the season I realized I could play in the big leagues.

You were traded by the A’s to the Padres in 1985 and then went on to have a huge season in AAA for them in 1986. Can you talk about that season leading up to your major league debut?

I ended up getting traded to San Diego in 1985. Throughout my career I had four shoulder surgeries. My last year in the Oakland system, about halfway through the season, I had my first surgery. I showed up to spring training the next year and was only able to play first base because of how much damage I had in my shoulder. Based on my tools, Oakland wanted me to be more than a first basemen, so they traded me to San Diego. My first year in Vegas, I did so-so. I hit about .285 and did OK. But that winter I did a lot of work with Eric Soderholm, one of the White Sox Southside Hitmen. He was very influential in preparing me for the mental side of the game. Physically, I got a lot stronger too. I went into that 1986 season telling myself I was getting to the big leagues.

It’s amazing, when you start figuring out the game of baseball, like Yogi Berra said, “It’s 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.” At that level the game is so mental. If you could start figuring that out and working on your mental approach to the game, that’s where some guys really excel and knowing you belong in the big leagues is a big key to that.

 I don’t know if you could ever fully conquer the mental side of the game, but I did fully believe I could play in the big leagues. It was such a great honor to win those awards.

That’s awesome that Eric Soderholm was such an influence. I interviewed him in a previous installment and he was a great guy to talk baseball with. I can really see how he would help with the mental side of things. He talked about that a lot.

Yes, that is big with him. When I met [Soderholm], Jim Adduci from the Brewers and Cardinals was already hitting with him. Eric had a batting cage and Jim asked me to go over and hit with him. That’s how I got to know Eric. I then did some mental training sessions with Eric besides fundamentally working on my swing. I owe both of them a lot of credit for my career.

Another person that influenced me a lot was Larry Bowa. That was his first year coming off retirement as a player. San Diego had hired him to manage the Padres. He was probably one of the most intense people I played around. I learned a lot from him. That 1986 season was the one year I felt like nobody could get me out. I was mentally strong that year and ended up getting called up to the big leagues in September.

1986 looked like a pretty big year for you. After that fantastic minor league season, you were called to the majors and also won The Sporting News and Topps Minor League Player of the Year Awards. What was it like receiving those accolades and making it up to the Padres?

I went 0-11 to start my career! Welcome to the big leagues! I remember getting my first hit in the Houston Astrodome against Bob Knepper. Pretty exciting time. I ended up with 11 hits after that [in 31 at bats] and it ended up being a great experience and I started feeling I belonged in the big leagues. I don’t know if you could ever fully conquer the mental side of the game, but I did fully believe I could play in the big leagues. It was such a great honor to win those awards.

I don’t know that my name should be up there with some of those [Hall of Fame] previous winners but I was lucky enough to put together a good season. I still say it came down to the mental aspect of the game, wanting to get to the big leagues and proving to myself that I could. I was able to run a little bit and defensively, I was OK, but I really believed I was one of the best hitters in the game and stayed with that thought. As long as you believe in certain aspects of your game and you have the ability, it’s hard not to succeed.

That’s some great perspective! Once you got to the big leagues, what was your experience like with the Padres?

We were in the AAA playoffs and won the Pacific Coast League championship that year, so I was called up a little later. They didn’t mention anything to us about going up until after we won. The next day we had to catch a flight to San Diego and I was with Benito Santiago. We dropped our stuff off at Jack Murphy Stadium and the next day was going to be my first game. It turned out we were facing that year’s Cy Young Award winner, Mike Scott.

I remember going onto the field and was in awe of everything. You can’t help but be in awe of everything based on the situation I was in. The first time I faced Mike Scott, he threw a couple of fastballs to me that started down the middle of the plate, but ended up being a foot outside. I’ve never seen a ball moving like that. Then he did me a favor and threw me a forkball and I grounded out on it. After the game, Larry Bowa called me and asked me what I was swinging at. He was like, “Those balls were a foot outside!” I told him that they started off in the middle of the plate. Back then, they didn’t change the ball every time it hit the ground. Mike Scott, whether it’s true or not, had a reputation of doctoring up the ball a little bit too. I’ve just never seen a ball move like that. He was a great pitcher and definitely deserved the Cy Young Award.

Looking at that 1986 Padres team, it was a team in transition. You had some veteran holdovers from the 1984 National League champion team like Graig Nettles, Steve Garvey, Goose Gossage and of course Tony Gwynn. Then there were young promising guys breaking in like yourself, John Kruk, Benito Santiago and Bip Roberts among others. What are your thoughts on that roster?

I was fortunate to be able to play with a group of guys like that. You’re talking about Hall of Famers and incredible players. Steve Garvey should be in the Hall of Fame. Graig Nettles is one of the best third basemen of all time. Tony Gwynn was one of the best hitters in the history of the game and super nice guy. Kevin McReynolds was another great ballplayer. John Kruk too. Even the pitchers, we had Dave Dravecky and Eric Show. They were all such good ballplayers.

When I got up there the veterans knew our season was coming to an end, so they wanted to get it over with. They had been so successful in 1984 and it was pretty much the same group of guys. But in 1986 we were under .500 and it was tough on everyone. I don’t know why that happened. They all seemed to get along really well, so I don’t think it was a chemistry problem. But I was just so fortunate to be able to play with guys like that.

The 1987 Topps Tim Pyznarski Future Stards card.

I’m a baseball card guy and 1987 was one of the peak years collecting cards in my childhood. I have to ask about your 1987 Topps card. You had a Future Star card in the 1987 Topps set along with Bo Jackson, BJ Surhoff and Rafael Palmeiro among others. That was a big deal to us as kids! I have to hear your thoughts on that 1987 Topps Tim Pyznarski Future Stars card.

I still get two to six a week in the mail from people looking for autographs! The one thing I remember when it came out was that it was very exciting to see. Unfortunately there weren’t many more cards to follow after that. It was great to see myself on a card and I felt very fortunate to be on one. I have a desk drawer full of them because people will send me a couple in the mail to sign and then tell me to keep one. If you need any, I got some for you!

I still have all of the ones I was going to retire on up in my mom’s attic! It’s been great reliving all these memories and I appreciate you taking the time to share your stories with our readers. Last question for you, when you look back and reflect on what you were able to accomplish, making the major leagues at a time when only about 15,000 had ever done that before, what thoughts come to your mind?

I’m so grateful for the parents I had who supported me 100%. They gave our family the foundation where whatever we wanted to get, we knew we had to go out and work for. I thank God every day for giving me the ability to get to that level of baseball. Without His help, that would never happen. Glory goes to God. It wasn’t me; I am such a strong believer of our Father in Heaven and his son Jesus Christ. I am so thankful that he allowed me to do that. As you get older, you start thinking about how great of an achievement it was to play in the big leagues. But then, there’s time I see that not everything is fair in life.

I don’t think about it too often, but occasionally it comes up, but I wonder what would have happened if I had a longer chance to play. I wonder what I could have done if I was given more of an opportunity. I see some players in the game that they’ll give three or four years in the majors to see what they can achieve. I had 44 at bats in the big leagues and never had the chance to play again.

I don’t live by that, I know things aren’t always fair. Not having a better opportunity to play a long time happens to a lot of people. You just have to move onto the next thing in life and try to be successful with it. It opened the door for me for what I do now. I am an independent rep for a metal finishing companies. People like talking baseball. I am in Monticello, Indiana now and married to my wife Kim. I have my three daughters and five grandkids. I thank God for the life he has given me and I enjoy my grandkids tremendously.

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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