Thursday, September 3, 2009

Mike Pagliarulo Interview: Part One

Mike Pagliarulo was selected by the Yankees out of the University of Miami in the sixth round of the 1981 Amateur Draft. Recalled in July of 1984, Pags served as the Yankee third baseman for the next five years before being traded to the San Diego Padres. He won a World Series with the Minnesota Twins in 1991, and played for the Baltimore Orioles, Seibu Lions in Japan, and the Texas Rangers before retiring at the conclusion of the 1995 season. A fan favorite during his time with the Yanks, Pags has been a frequent guest at Old Timers' Day since his retirement.

Since retiring, Pags has worked in scouting and consulting. He founded the Baseline Group, which seeks to provide business solutions for baseball, and recently started the non-profit start-up Baseball Institute of Development.

As we mentioned Tuesday, Pagliarulo graciously agreed to an email interview with me in July. Much of the interview was posted at River Ave. Blues Tuesday, but as promised, we'll run the full interview in its entirety here. Part One is below; we'll finish it up tomorrow.

Matt Bouffard: Rickey Henderson was inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer. He's one of baseball's most colorful characters. Do you have any good Rickey stories from your years as his teammate?

Mike Pagliarulo: I spent five years as his teammate. Plenty of stories, but most are kept under wraps. I will say that he was the most incredible athlete I’ve played on the same team with. Bo Jackson was the best I’ve ever played against but Rickey was the best on my teams. His body fat was something like 3.9% and his God-given ability was second to none. When Rickey wanted to do something, he did it. He could control a baseball game. I just can’t imagine having to pitch to him five times a day! Never forget one year, my good friend Donny Mattingly wasn’t swinging the bat very well during the first few months of the season yet he was one of the league leaders in RBI. Every time Donny got to the plate it seemed there was one out and Rickey was on third base. All Donny had to do was make contact and he had an RBI. Funny thing was, Donny usually did more than just make contact.

MB: After coming up in mid-1984, you're first full season with the Yanks was 1985. That was a tumultuous year: Yogi Berra was fired just 16 games into the season and Billy Martin returned for his fourth stint as Yankee manager. You guys spent all summer chasing Toronto, clawed back into the race, and went north of the border for the season's final weekend needing a three game sweep to force a playoff. What was that pennant race like for you and what was the let down like getting eliminated that Saturday?

MP: Tumultuous is a word associated with New York. And it’s not a bad word. I’d like to refer to playing under certain scrutiny and pressure as the way it is supposed to be! We aren’t babies and people pay lots of money to see you play. I hate it when tabloids side with the poor player who’s under so much pressure while making 10 million dollars. That doesn’t appear to match.

1985 was the year in which I learned more about Mr. Steinbrenner than any other. I never realized how much he wanted to win until the last month of the season. One example was during September when we returned from a night game in Milwaukee. The game was late and the flight was delayed. We’d got into Newark airport about 6 AM and the Boss had limos waiting for everyone to take them home. We had a game that night. I couldn’t believe that such a cool and generous thing could be done without being in the press.

MB: Follow up question to that: after being eliminated, Phil Niekro won his 300th career game on the season's final day. What was it like to be a part of that?

MP: That was one of the best games I’ve played in. Knucksie was a true professional and I was so happy for him. Funny thing about that game, he didn’t throw a single knuckleball until the last pitch of the game.

MB: Those years probably weren't quite as wild as the Bronx Zoo years of the late 70s, but they were by no means calm. What was it like playing for George Steinbrenner in his heyday? Any thoughts on him stepping to the background now and allowing his sons to take over?

MP: The Boss was the best, no question. He was the best at taking care of his investment. He was the best at checks and balances, and he always knew what he had in the system - and that’s a much different scenario than today. Back then, we had the most players in the Major Leagues (coming from the Yankees’ system) and we had the best player development system in the world. Facts that are indisputable even with the abundance of players, fields, training methods in the industry today.

I believe the family will do just as good a job because they are all incredibly intelligent and driven; that’s kind of in the blood. I truly wish them the best of luck. Funny thing is, I feel so grateful that the Boss gave me the opportunity to put my kids through college. If he were to ask me to do anything in the world, I’d do it, and wouldn’t ask for compensation. The Steinbrenner family has no idea what it means to me that I can provide for my children and I’m so fortunate and forever grateful. That’s what the Boss means to me.

MB: In your Yankee career you played for three of the most interesting and well-liked men in Yankee history: Yogi, Billy, and Lou Piniella. What was it like playing for them? Were Billy and Lou as temperamental as they seemed? Lou was just getting his start as a manager then, how much of his style did he borrow from his mentor Billy?

MP: Billy and Lou were very much alike. I loved playing for both of them. Tremendous offensive managers and they could see the field so well. Both Lou and Billy had game plans and it was pretty difficult to outsmart them. Yogi was different in that he didn’t scream and holler as much. But to me, they were all in the same category of baseball knowledge and gamesmanship. I was lucky to have played for such great men.

MB: Follow-up: Is it true that Billy tried to get you to bat right handed at some point? I can't seem to find any record of that happening in a game.

MP: Yes, I batted right handed once against Detroit. In 1985, we played a simulated game at Yankee Stadium for one of our pitchers, Marty Bystrom, who was on the DL. Simulated games normally take place at 3 PM, prior to batting practices. On this day Scott Bradley (now the Princeton baseball coach) was the left handed hitter and we needed a right handed hitter. So I volunteered.

Simulated games, if done properly, are helpful and the coaching staff at the time, which included Billy, didn’t want me to do it. They wanted the game to be very serious. After I reassured them I was serious and that I’d switch hit in high school, college, and my first year as a pro, they let me hit right handed off of Bystrom. Well, I got something like four hits with a ball off the right field wall.

The coaches couldn’t believe it and Billy was pissed at me. He said I should stay right handed and continue switch hitting. The real reason for that was Billy liked me in there every day as he felt our team defense was much better with me at third base.

The next road trip was to Detroit and in a tie game in the sixth inning, he handed me a helmet for a right handed hitter. I honestly didn’t want to do it because I didn’t feel I was prepared but I didn’t want to get taken out of the game either. I ended up doing it and struck out. Billy caught a ton of crap for that, but I know what he was thinking. It wasn’t a bad move if I’d have been prepared and actually, it was quite ingenious.

MB: After belting 28 HRs in 1986, in '87, you led the team in HRs with 32, besting teammates Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield. What was that like for you? And when did you suffer the elbow injury that sapped your power in later years?

MP: I never bested a teammate at anything. As a team we finished second and third those years I think. I had two elbow surgeries in a row; 1987 and 1988. The second one was a killer, ulnar nerve surgery; that has a 9-12 month rehab. After having the surgery in November of‘ '88, I tried to play that spring training. Couldn’t throw and had to change my swing. I really believe that if Lou Piniella stayed in the organization I would have gotten back to my old form. He was one of the best hitting coaches and a big reason why I hit those HRs in Yankee Stadium.

MB: Speaking of injuries, didn't you once break your nose on an HBP and return to the line-up the next day? Tell us a little about that.

MP: On a Friday night in Oakland I was hit in the face by a Curt Young fastball. Actually the ball glanced off my wrist first as I tried to block it. It wasn’t Young’s fault, it was mine. A good lesson for young kids is knowing how to turn on the ball coming from the pitcher. I turned the wrong way when I opened up attempting to hit an inside fastball, but the ball just chased me and knocked my nose from one side to the next. It was pretty ugly actually.

I remember Lou Piniella was the manager and he was the first person I saw when they took the towel from my face. After about 10-15 minutes on the ground, they stood me up and took the towel away from my face. I first saw Lou and he said “Oh my God” then turned away. Young had a three run lead and got sick to his stomach; he had to be taken out of the game. Then they took me on a stretcher to the training room and then to the hospital until 2 AM.

Saturday was a day game and I was still bleeding from my mouth and nose. I couldn’t stay on the bench; I guess I was too much of adistraction. On Sunday I was very anxious and requested to play. I didn’t care how I did, my goal was to simply get back in the flow. Lou put me in the lineup and they pasted these bandages on my face for the game. Well, the bandages helped because it actually fixed my alignment at the plate and improved my swing. After that, I went on a pretty good tear.

MB: Any favorite story or memory from your Yankee years that you'd like to share?

MP: Sure, I’ll give you the one that’s the best. A few years ago they asked all the former Yankees, “What was your best day as a Yankee?” Players were reminiscing about their 5 for 5 days and near no-hitters. But, mine was easier than that. It was my first Old-Timers game when I was a player on the team. Joe DiMaggio was in my locker and Whitey Ford was right near him. Yogi, Hank Bauer, Moose Skowron, etc, etc. DiMaggio was talking to me but I couldn’t say a word. It was Joe DiMaggio for God’s sake.

Then there was a quiet in the locker room as Billy Martin and Mickey Mantle came walking through the middle of the place. All of a sudden, all everyone could hear was Mickey’s voice as he lifted his arm and pointed his finger at me, “Hey Billy, is that the guy?” Well, I wasn’t sure what I did wrong but I was ready to apologize for anything. When the god of New York says something to you, you shut up and listen. Then they walked towards me and I felt a feeling of panic set in and didn’t know what to do. Mickey Mantle reaches his arm around my neck and gets me in a headlock. He was wrestling me to the ground! Then he pulled me into the trainers’ room which was across the locker room and began to hit me with light punches in my sides. Just then, he and Billy began laughing as Mickey said, “Hey kid what’s up? How are you? Love the way you play and glad to have you on board.”

Mickey Mantle had just wrestled me to the ground and pulled me out of Joe DiMaggio’s locker (which was mine) to tell me he liked the way I played baseball. Can there ever be a better day than that?

[We'll be back with the conclusion of the interview tomorrow]

1 comment:

  1. this is so cool, thanks for posting it. got goosebumps after the last question/answer.