The Complete Interview with Pitching Legend Tommy John
- Updated: December 10, 2009
I recently interviewed former MLB pitcher Tommy John, for those of you who have been under a rock for the past 30 years, Tommy had played 26 seasons, accumulating 288 wins with a 3.34 ERA and over 2200 strikeouts. He played for 6 Major League Teams, including the Yankees twice. By the way, they named a surgical procedure after him, too.
I started off the conversation talking about how he became affiliated with the increasingly popular children’s book, “A Glove of Their Own”. Part one of this two part interview with Tommy John will highlight his involvement with it. At the end of the interview will be an embedded MP3 player where you can listen to our conversation in its entirety.
So I asked Tommy which came first, the chicken or the egg, or in this case, “A Glove of Their Own”, the popular children’s book, or his meeting Bob Salomon? He replied, “Well, the chicken came first. There would be no AGOTO if there was no Bob Salomon. But the book came first and then Bob got involved with it and we just hooked up one time and started talking and he asked me if I would help him with this and get some things started and going. It sounded like a good idea to me.”
But, before he met Bob he stated that in actuality, “the guy that got involved with me was one of my pitchers that I had at Bridgeport named Garrett Berger. Garrett was a first round pick for the Marlins in about 2000, I believe, and ended up having to have Tommy John surgery and was out of baseball, and I ended up picking him up for my independent league team in 2007. He has a company called ifungo.com where he sells sporting equipment over the internet and that’s where he emailed me and asked me. He said it’s really a good project, it’s baseball oriented, the monies go to charity, and I know Garrett very well, so if he says it’s a good organization (then it is).”
He speaks of how Garrett then introduced him to Bob Saloman and “found out that he’s just (the) salt of the earth. He (Bob)really is passionate about what he’s involved in. And, you know, when you read the book, it’s kind of like the baseball book of Dr. Seuss, where it’s all in rhyme, it’s about paying it forward, you know? Doing things for people and having people do things for other people and before you know it, you’ve got a lot of people doing a lot of things for a lot of people.”
Tommy then speaks about how Bob has been promoting the book.
“ Bob’s gone out and he’s gotten a lot of ex ball players and managers and coaches, and I think he just got Bernie Williams to come on board.”
When asked what he and Bob are specifically doing to promote AGOTO and this is what he had to say, “You know, all we can do is let people know what’s out there. We’re kind of like the catalyst, going around with the signs, like the guy behind home plate all the time, holding up the sign John 3:16, you know? Well, we’re that. We’re holding up AGOTO and if you go online, the thing that I like about it is 1. It’s involved with baseball, and baseball is my passion and my love and it’s all the things that I enjoy doing. If you buy the book online, you can go and pick out whatever charity you want $3.30 to go to.”
Tommy then explained that “$3.30 of every book sale goes to charity.” And that the charity he is a strong supporter for “happens to be ALS because of Catfish Hunter.” He and Catfish use to pitch for the Yankees back in 1979.
He later states that they do a lot of “word of mouth” to help promote AGOTO, “that’s what Bob Solomon does. He goes out and contacts people who contact people who contact people. It’s the same thing: paying it forward with word of mouth.”
I asked Tommy if he was given an advanced copy of the story or if it was just told to him in a conversation he had with either Garrett or Bob he told me that he “did a book signing in Somerset, NJ” and “it was the first time I saw the book. I met a couple of the authors, and it was fun. I enjoyed doing it, and I told Bob I would do whatever I can to promote the book and make sure that the people out there got a chance to see what it is and what’s there and how good it is.” He said that aside from the book signing he has also done “about 30 phone interviews for Bob Solomon and the book.”
Then I asked what Tommy sees as the goal of the book and what he hopes to accomplish by having his popular name attached to promoting it.
“Well, one, to get kids involved in baseball and in helping other people out, maybe not in baseball. That’s that the idea of paying it forward is about. And the other thing is the charitable aspect.
Getting money to charity and helping people that are less fortunate than ourselves.”
I then asked him if he could explain the concept of “paying it forward” a little further?
“Well, if you’ve ever seen the movie Pay it Forward, where the little boy does one good deed and that deed to that person then becomes another deed to another person and then to another person. Then it’s two and then four and then it’s 16 and it’s 32 and it just keeps going and it just goes all over. I think the show was shot in Las Vegas and it was really a good show and the little boy ended up getting killed and the final scene was the mother and her boyfriend went out and here were all these people with candles, thousands of them, coming forward to pay their respects to the boy who started paying it forward. You know, if someone does something for someone else, and then that person does it for two people and those two do it for two more people and all of a sudden, you’ve got a whole bunch of people out there doing good deeds for other people.”
When asked if he had AGOTO story from his past that he could share with our readers, but he said, “You know, I don’t. It’s about little kids playing ball and not having the equipment, and a guy comes by and makes sure that they have equipment. You know, growing up, I didn’t grow up in an affluent family by any stretch of the imagination, the most money my dad ever made was $4.65 an hour, and that was right when he was retiring when I was out of the house. So you can see. . . but I had every piece of sporting equipment I could ever want: baseball gloves, basketball, and you know, that’s what I did, and that was the great love of our lives back then: sports.”
Tommy John and His Coaching and Playing Career
When inquiring with Tommy if he was currently managing, he had this to say, “No, I resigned July 8 from the Bridgeport Bluefish, and I took a job with a company out of Murray (sp), Kentucky, and I sell sports scoreboards: football, basketball, baseball, softball, soccer, lacrosse, all sports scoreboards. I’m the sales rep in the state of Texas, and what we’re trying to is get the coaches and athletic directors to look at our product. We have a good product. The company’s called Sportable Scoreboards out of Murray, Kentucky, and I think I’ve sold 4 so far since I’ve been going at it.”
Getting back to Tommy’s career, we discussed how you don’t hear guys playing 20+ years anymore, let alone 26, especially as a pitcher. Tommy didn’t attribute his longetivity to a workout regimen.
“No, I think it was genes passed down from my dad. I developed a pretty good work ethic from my dad. Other than my elbow, I really didn’t have any significant arm problems. And, I just kept myself in very good shape. Very good shape. Workout regimen? Nolan Ryan had a very good regimen. But his was just as good as everybody else’s. It’s just the fact that in his family, someone gave him the gene to throw the ball harder than anybody else that I’ve ever seen.”
As I mentioned earlier in part one of this interview, Tommy played for a few teams. So I asked him if there an organization that was better to play for, and likewise, was there one that was the worst, or that he least liked to play for?
“Well, as long as you’re playing major league baseball, they’re all very good. I particularly enjoyed playing for the Dodgers when Theo O’Malley had the ball club. I thought Walter and his wife Kay and then when he passed on to Peter and his wife and then Peter’s brother in law ran the team. They treated it pretty much like a family. But the best place in the world to play baseball, or in fact, to play sports was New York City. Playing for the Yankees was probably one of the best things that ever happened to me as far as my pro career went because it’s a tough market to play in. The fact that you can go out there and play and go through all the stuff that happens within the organization. . . it’s tough and if you enjoy people and you enjoy doing the things that New York has to offer, you will absolutely love it. If you don’t, it’ll be a very, very tough time for you.” He continued to say, “I absolutely loved every place I played. I know that sounds like a very political answer, but. . . I did! I enjoyed every place I played. I started out in Cleveland and then I went to the White Sox and I spent 7 years in Chicago. That was close to home. I could get home on the weekends or my mom and dad could come up on the weekends. Chicago was great. Los Angeles was outstanding! The weather, the ballpark, the fans out there were great. New York, like I said, it’s the best place to play. I never played in St. Louis for the Cardinals, but that would be a very good baseball town too. I even played in Oakland, too, for a very short time, and I enjoyed Oakland as much as any place I ever played.”
Looking at ballparks: Tommy spoke about which ballparks he pitched well in, and which one that he just didn’t want to pitch in at all.
“Well, I had a tough time starting out pitching at Tiger Stadium. White Sox park was a great park to pitch in back in the early to mid 60’s. The old Dodger stadium, before they moved the fences in, was a great ballpark. Old Yankee stadium was outstanding. You know, when I first went there and played there with Cleveland and DiMaggio and Mantle and Maris, that was a great ballpark. Then they reconfigured it and made it smaller and now they’ve made it even smaller and you know, but back when it was 465, 467, and left field was 407, you could just throw balls and guys could hit ‘em a mile and they were outs! The old ballparks were great! In fact, I even enjoyed pitching at Fenway with the short left field wall because everybody was trying to hit it over the wall, and that made my sinker down and away even better.”
Given Tommy had a good sinker, the line drives he gave up at Fenway that might have been a HR in most ballparks were just line drives there. “(chuckle)Oh yes, I dented the wall many, many times!”
When asked if there were any guys that he just didn’t want any part of pitching to Tommy replied, “Well, I didn’t mind pitching to anybody. There were some guys who hit me better than others. They guy who comes to mind who hit me well was Ken Griffey, Sr. I could get Junior out, because he was only about 10 years old at the time! The other guy, statistically, Ned Yost, the ex-manager of the Brewers, was like 12 for 14 off of me, and I don’t ever recall him hitting the ball like that, but obviously he did.”
Be sure to check back tomorrow for part 3 of my interview with Tommy John. At the end of the third section there will be the complete audio of the interview.
Tommy John and His Thoughts on the Game Today
I started off the conversation in part 1 talking about how he became affiliated with the increasingly popular children’s book, “A Glove of Their Own”. For the record, in my humble opinion, he should be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame by the veterans committee ASAP! His omission is tragic…26 years!
At the end of this section of the interview will be an embedded MP3 player where you can listen to our conversation in its entirety.
Swinging back from Tommy’s career to the way baseball is currently played I wanted to get his opinion on a few of the differences since his playing days. But I also wanted to get a feel for his take on who he likes to watch, especially modern pitchers.
“I like to watch Chris Carpenter, Brandon Webb, Peavy, Santana. I like Carpenter because he throws the ball. He gets the ball, gets on the rubber and throws. He throws strikes and he puts the ball in play. He gets it, and he pitches old-time baseball. Brandon Webb has one of the best sinkers I’ve seen in a long time. I like Halladay at Toronto. Santana has some of the best, I call it variance of speed. He goes from 94 mph to 72 or 73 mph and if you as a hitter have to slow your bat down or speed your bat up that much, it makes it very tough to hit. Most pitchers in baseball today are 2 speed pitchers. They may have 3 pitches, but their split and slider are the same speed so, you get something fast, something not as fast. If these guys have something else they can throw that’s slower, they can get guys out on it. You don’t see guys that pitch that have curve balls anymore. Big curve balls. And if you have a big curve ball, you can be very effective. Kershaw with the Dodgers has that big curve ball. And guys are swinging at it in the dirt because they just don’t see it anymore. It’s just not there.”
Seeing that Tommy played in the AL before the DH and also in the NL after the DH so I wanted to get his opinion about pitchers batting and he was very adamant about his views.
“I think pitchers should be able to hit, run bases, slide, take the second baseman or shortstop out to break up double plays, I think they should be able to do all that stuff.”
I wondered if Tommy thought there were any current day batters that he thought would give him a hard time if he were pitching to them todayand he said, “Jeter would. Rodriguez would. Anyone who likes the ball out over the plate. There are some guys that are very good hitters now. Good hitters are going to get their hit. Pitchers are going to give them their hits. You just want to do it without anybody on base.”
Knowing the bond that can be built up between a pitcher and a catcher, I asked Tommy if there was a certain catcher that he just loved to throw to. His response was “Munson, Johnny Oates, and for the Red Sox fans out there, I loved to pitch to Pudge Fisk. I only pitched to him 2 innings in the All Star Game in ’80, but he was very good. Better than what I thought. I knew he was a good hitter, but he was a very good catcher.”
Personally, I don’t think fans in general or even some managers respect the art of a catcher who has the ability of calling a good game. Seeing how strongly Tommy felt about pitchers hitting, which I totally agree with his stance there, I wanted to know how important it is from a pitcher’s perspective.
“Well, it’s the pitcher’s responsibility to throw the ball, but you’ve got to have good rapport between the pitcher and the catchers. I would tend to let my catchers call the game. But, I had good catchers, and I didn’t pitch well when I had bad catchers. I was constantly second guessing myself. “should I throw this? He’s not the greatest thinker in the world. What should I do?” I liked to have a great thinking catcher behind the plate. The catchers in the last few years have been offensive, and they catch between at bats.” Likewise, I was eager to ask Tommy for his take concerning the use of pitch counts.
“Pitch counts are like putting a governor on a car because they don’t want the car to go too fast. They put pitch counts on the pitchers to keep the pitchers from throwing a lot of pitches because 1. They have a ton of money invested in them and they probably are on huge salaries and they can get more out of their money if they have a pitch count on him. Back when I played, the starting salary was $7000, and if the guy hurt his arm, he was back selling used cars on his buddy’s lot, but now they have millions invested in salaries, scouting, training. And so the pitch counts, I call them necessary evils. Honestly, though there is no reason why a guy can’t throw 120, 125 pitches, in a ballgame and not hurt their arms.”
I briefly returned to ask Tommy about his managerial days to see if he adhered to pitch counts when he managed.
“Oh yes. When I managed an affiliated team, we had pitch counts and we had to adhere to them. But when I managed in the independent league, there were no pitch counts. Guys pitched 7, 8, 9 innings. If they were still throwing the ball good, they would stay in the game. I just kept asking “how do you feel?” and if they felt good, they could stay out there. If they were getting tired, I’d get someone warmed up…”
My final question to Tommy was to ask him what he saw change from his rookie year to his last year, 26 seasons later.
“Mainly the players were rushed through the minor leagues towards the end. You might have to spend 5, 6, 7 years in the minor leagues before, but you can’t afford to do that now because like I said, they have so much money invested in these guys you just can’t afford to have them in the minor leagues very long. They have to get through the minors and into the big leagues and that’s the way it is.”
I would like to thank Tommy once again for his time and for the interview. Hopefully this will generate interest in the book A Glove of Their Own, too.
Next is the audio file of the interview embedded in an MP3 player where you can listen to our conversation in its entirety full of all my “and”s and “uh”s, etc. After all, this was my first phone interview. By the way, he played for 6 teams and I nervously only said 3 even though I had it all written down in front of me…I was nervous!