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Mudville: July 19, 2024 1:45 pm PDT

Mike Campbell

"I don’t live by that, I know things aren’t always fair." Being the seventh pick in a draft where the sixth pick was a guy named Barry Bonds, sometimes I’m just like, 'ah man, what could have been?'"

Baseball is the sport of great debate and it has been for decades.

From the sandlots to the bars to the street corners and especially today on social media, there is never a shortage of people willing to engage in a spirited discussion on their stance of choice in the baseball world.

Today at BallNine, we pose the question: What was the greatest draft of all-time?

Was it the 1971 draft that saw Mike Schmidt, Jim Rice, George Brett and Keith Hernandez selected? How about two years later when Robin Yount, Dave Winfield, Eddie Murray and Fred Lynn were chosen?

Want to look at more modern times? Take a look at the 2011 draft. That one featured Mookie Betts, Francisco Lindor, Gerrit Cole, Blake Snell and Javier Baez.

Those drafts are all well and good, but get a load of the fellas picked in 1985. In that draft, you had Barry Bonds, Barry Larkin, Will Clark and BJ Surhoff. That’s just within the top six picks! After that, Rafael Palmeiro, Randy Johnson, Greg Jefferies, John Smoltz, Mark Grace, Tino Martinez and a few of multi-sport stars you may know named Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders and Brian Jordan were chosen.

Mariners pitcher Mike Campbell was the seventh overall pick in that draft and he joins us for this week’s Spitballin’.

Campbell was the second pitcher selected overall and although he never became a Hall of Famer like fellow draftmates Smoltz and Johnson, we’ll never know if he could have if injuries didn’t take their toll.

Prior to shoulder issues and chronic tendonitis, Campbell rocketed through the Mariners farm system to the majors just two years after he was drafted.

Campbell’s first taste of pro ball saw him go 4-4 with a 3.24 ERA in A Ball and he only got better from there. Over his next 36 minor league starts, Campbell went 24-4 with a 2.99 ERA. This included a AAA season in 1987 that saw him go 15-2 with a 2.66 ERA. He likely would have been a rare minor league 20-game winner if he didn’t get called up to the Mariners for nine big league starts.

And he could hit too.

Despite frequent arm injuries, Campbell pitched part of six big league seasons and didn’t just fulfill a dream of pitching in the majors. A native of Seattle, he pitched for his hometown Mariners, making his big league debut against Jack Morris in the Kingdome, the same stadium he went to watch games at as a kid.

He’s a guy who was good enough to be considered among the top two picks of arguably the best MLB Draft of all time and was chosen with the next selection after Barry Bonds, so join us as we go Spitballin’ with Mike Campbell!

Thanks for joining us, Mr. Campbell! We seem to be on a streak here of interviewing prominent rookies from the late 1980’s Topps baseball card sets as you’re our second straight “Future Stars” interview. We’ll get into that in a bit, but first I wanted to start by asking what baseball was like for you as a kid.

I grew up in a baseball family. My dad loved baseball and he built a batting cage in our back yard with a pitching machine. We grew up as hitters. Seattle has a reputation of being pretty rainy, but if it was dray out, we were out there hitting in the cage every chance we got. My two brothers also played baseball. We got started around seven or eight years old and played every year. It was a lot of fun. My dad was tough on us, but he loved the game and wanted us to go as far as we could with the game.

You grew up in Seattle and also broke into the majors with them. Did you grow up a Mariners fan?

I loved going to the Kingdome as a fan. It was a really cool place and was really sweet to go watch games there. But as a player, nobody liked playing in that place! It was a boring stadium, outside of 1995 when they made the playoffs and the fans were crazy every night. It was really loud with all of that and always sold out. As a pitcher, the ball flew out of the Kingdome. It was a tough place to pitch. But it was great getting drafted by my hometown team and playing there for a few years. You hoped on your days to pitch that it wasn’t in the Kingdome, but the guy on the other team had to pitch there too, so he was in the same boat.

You mentioned the draft and it’s not an exaggeration to say that might have been the best draft in Major League Baseball history. You were the seventh overall pick by your hometown Mariners. Did you have any idea that they might take you?

I talked to a lot of other teams, but the Mariners never contacted me until the morning of the draft. Like literally, 15 minutes before it started. The night before the draft, a writer from San Francisco contacted me and told me the Giants were likely going to take me second overall. They ended up taking Will Clark, which was obviously a great move for them. The Mariners asked me what kind of money I wanted and I told them I just wanted a fair offer for where I was drafted. Scott Boras had told me to tell them that. He wasn’t my agent because I still had eligibility left with the NCAA. If I got an agent, I would have lost my senior year of eligibility, so he was more of an advisor.

After being drafted in 1985, you were in the majors by 1987 after a great run in the Mariners system. You went 28-8 over 47 starts in that time on your way up to the majors. Can you talk about your minor league experience and how quickly you made it up to the major leagues?

I just had my head down and wanted to have the best possible year I could [in 1987]. I had no idea what their plans were, but figured that if I kept having that kind of success, they would call me up eventually. I just didn’t know when. It was interesting, our manager in Calgary Bill Plummer called me into his office and told me to sit down. He said, “Soup, I have some news for you. You just got traded to the Yankees.” I was like, “What?! Are you serious?” Then he said, “Nope, you’re going to pitch for the Seattle Mariners on the 4th of July.”

That’s great! I love those stories where the managers joke around a little with that information. You mentioned you made your debut on the 4th of July with the Mariners in 1987. What was that like for you?

It was an exciting time, being the 4th of July and pitching for the hometown team against the Detroit Tigers. I had tons of friends and family call me for tickets. It was really cool. I didn’t pitch that great though. The Mariners gave me two starts and I didn’t pitch great in either of those starts, so they sent me back down to Calgary. I won my next five games in a row down there, so they saw my confidence was still there and they called me up for the rest of the season. They told me I was going to pitch every five days for the rest of the season no matter what and I ended up pitching well from then on out.

I was looking at that box score from your debut and there’s no shame in giving up some runs to that Tigers team. The first guy you faced was Lou Whitaker and of course they had a Hall of Famer at short in Alan Trammel. Their starter that day was another Hall of Famer in Jack Morris and you also had Kirk Gibson, Bill Madlock, Darrell Evans and Chet Lemon in the lineup. That’s a tough road for a veteran, let alone someone making his MLB debut.

They were pretty stacked. They were a real veteran team and the thing that I noticed was that they weren’t swinging at my curve ball very much. The first inning I punched out Kirk Gibson for my first major league strikeout. I had a really good curve ball and after that they just weren’t swinging at it. Those guys were all such intelligent hitters and they saw I wasn’t throwing it for strikes all the time, so they just laid off it. They were probably talking amongst themselves saying that they shouldn’t swing at my curve until I proved I could throw it for strikes. They just sat on my fastball. I didn’t see that stuff in AAA. I had to learn to make some adjustments, so I came up with a slider that I threw the rest of my career. I had to have a breaking ball. If I was ahead in the count 0-2, I could throw a nasty curve ball and have them chase it. But if I wasn’t ahead, I had to have some breaking ball that I could throw for strikes, so I learned that slider.

The crowd was going nuts, Billy was kicking dirt on the umpire. I thought it was pretty cool. I used to see that on TV and now he was doing it in a game in which I was pitching. That’s pretty sweet!

Speaking of tough pitching assignments, your first career road major league start came in Yankee Stadium. It was just your fourth big league appearance. Did you feel any extra pressure facing a very good team in an historic ballpark?

I loved it. For some reason the mound at Yankee Stadium felt so close to the batter to me. I felt like I was about 40 feet away from the catcher. Certain stadiums have that. Sometimes, you felt like that catcher was 100 feet away. Yankee Stadium was the opposite. I didn’t have a lot of starts there and I think they were all pretty good starts. One of my starts there, I struck out Mike Pagliarulo on a fastball and Billy Martin wasn’t happy about it. He came out to argue and got tossed. I was on the mound watching this unfold. It was like entertainment for me. The crowd was going nuts, Billy was kicking dirt on the umpire. I thought it was pretty cool. I used to see that on TV and now he was doing it in a game in which I was pitching. That’s pretty sweet!

I grew up watching Billy Martin manage, so I can only imagine what that was like to see it happen up close in one of your games. Your first big league win was a really impressive one. You beat Bret Saberhagen and a real good Royals team in a complete game. That team still had George Brett, Willie Wilson and Frank White along with young stars like Bo Jackson & Danny Tartabull. Take us through that first major league win.

It was really satisfying. After I got called up the second time, I was pitching well, but the team wasn’t scoring so I had some no decisions. I had a shutout going into the ninth but Kevin Seitzer hit a home run right down the line. It went about 316 feet and just made it out. That broke up my shutout, but I got the next three guys out. I was really hoping to get a shutout for my first big league win. I had been pitching my butt off for a while and things weren’t going my way. It was especially satisfying to get that win against Saberhagen. That guy had some nasty stuff. We had the same agent, so I met him a few times. He’s a really good guy and I admired watching him pitch. If we played the Royals and I wasn’t pitching, I would sit on the bench and watch him work.

I have asked this question before and have gotten some different answers. When you came up in 1987, the Mariners were being managed by Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams. What was your experience like as a young guy and coming up to play for someone known as a really tough manager?

He actually treated me really well. A few other young guys on the team had a different experience with him, but he was fine with me. I think he was tougher on the veterans because he expected them to go out, do their job and play well. For me, I felt like he gave us a little room for error. I liked Dick Williams.

You came up through the Mariners system with Edgar Martinez and were on the Mariners when Ken Griffey Jr. broke into the league too. What were your recollections of them as young players just getting started out?

They’re both amazing. I was roommates with Edgar in AA. He wasn’t hitting that well at that time, which is weird because he hit his way into the Hall of Fame. I was on the bench for Griffey’s first hit against Oakland and Edgar’s first hit against Cleveland. They were great teammates. I knew Edgar better than Griffey, but they were both great.

Yea I never hear a bad word about either of those guys. I have to ask you too about your baseball cards. We always get a lot of interest from readers about that. After going 15-2 in AAA in 1987 and then pitching well for the Mariners, Topps labeled you a “Future Star” in their 1988 set and Donruss picked you as one of their Rated Rookies. That meant millions of kids around the country, like myself, were going nuts for those cards back in the day. What comes to mind when I mention those cards to you?

It was very cool to see those. Those two cards were really popular at the time, so I was getting a lot of mail to sign them. I had to sit down a couple times a week and hammer out those signatures. I still get about one a day in the mail; about 30 pieces a month. Sometimes you kind of have to pinch yourself that all these people are still interested in your autograph, especially since I didn’t have such a long career. But they still want that autograph, which is really cool.

That’s awesome. I can definitely understand people still wanting those cards signed. Change of gears here. I like to talk to pitchers about their hitting. You didn’t get a ton of at bats in the majors, but you certainly looked like you could handle yourself at the plate. You hit .357, going 5-14 with a couple doubles and a few RBIs in your career. The floor is yours to brag about your hitting!

I grew up more as a hitter than I was a pitcher. When I went to the University of Hawaii, they recruited me as a pitcher and hitter. Then when I got there, they told me I was just going to pitch. They never gave me a chance to hit. When I got to the National League, it was fun to hit. There was no pressure to hit as a pitcher. You just go up there and take your hacks. In 1994 in AAA with the Padres I hit three home runs and two of them were in one game. They actually let me pinch hit a few times when I wasn’t pitching. It was a lot of fun.

I wish you had a larger sample size of at bats because you definitely seem like a legit hitter. As someone with the talent to do both at the big league level, what do you think when you see what Shohei Ohtani is able to be so incredibly productive doing both?

That’s the thing. To do it at the level he’s been doing it is incredible. We’ve never seen anything like it. He’s the modern day Babe Ruth. I actually think he’s a better pitcher than Babe Ruth was. It’s pretty hard to say he’s a better hitter than Babe Ruth, but he’s a tremendous hitter and a great pitcher. I hope his elbow comes back to where he can pitch again at a high level. I did read that when you have two Tommy John surgeries, the track record for recovery isn’t great. But everyone is different, so I hope he comes back healthy.

Same here. This has been great and I thank you for taking the time to share your stories with us. Last question for you. When you look back at your career and being one of the very few to ever make it to the major leagues, what are some thoughts that come to your mind when you reflect on your accomplishments?

I kind of beat myself up sometimes. I look back and think, yeah, I got a chance to play for four major league teams and was a first round pick in the draft that a lot of people say was the best in baseball history. I try to look at those positives, but I also think that my career didn’t go exactly how I wanted it to go. Being the seventh pick in a draft where the sixth pick was a guy named Barry Bonds, sometimes I’m just like, “ah man, what could have been?” I had a lot of shoulder injuries and went on the DL with tendonitis in my shoulder just about every year of my career. I tend to do both. Sometimes I think that it would have been so nice to have this big career, maybe win 200 games and be really satisfied with my career. But then I look at it as I had a career, made it to the big leagues with my hometown team and still have kids sending me baseball cards in the mail for autographs. It’s sweet and sour and can go both ways. I am proud of what I did. I saw something where if you filled the Seattle Seahawks up with Little Leaguers, the odds are that just one of those kids is going to make the big leagues. The odds are so stacked to get to the majors, so I am very proud that was one of the few to be able to do that.

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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