Pitching at home for the first time
Considering I saw Bobby Cramer make and win his Major League debut then get his second win in Minneapolis (hey, he's undefeated when I'm in attendance!), maybe it was destined that I'd eventually interview him. However, it wasn't until I sent off some prints to his father that I thought to ask Bobby about doing this. He graciously agreed and we spoke for close to an hour Monday morning by phone.
The result was this 40-minute interview and it covers pretty much all the main details about his path to the Majors. Some know it, though many probably don't. I enjoy stories like this that show what can come of hard work and perseverance, but at the same time I know for every Bobby Cramer out there you can probably find half a dozen more people, if not many more, that never get a second, third or even fourth chance. We can read about it but he's the one who's had to deal with it and I know what that means as far as what he's going to continue doing. He's also still in an underdog role and I root a little extra for those guys. Of course there are harder things out there that people go through on a daily basis compared to sticking in baseball or not, but that isn't what we're here to talk about.
The interview is long enough that I'm breaking it up into two posts. The first talks about the years spent in and out of organized baseball, who and what kept him going, other options he started to look into as recently as last summer and what happened when he actually got the call and made four starts in September.
Part two, which will run tomorrow, covers his off-season, what he's been working on for 2011, the pitching competition heading into Spring Training and where he sees himself fitting in, plus a little pitching philosophy and an eye toward the future. It will also have the full audio of the interview.
Without further ado, here's Bobby Cramer.
ATHLETICS NATION: Being from Anaheim, you grew up an Angels fan and have attended many games there along with having season tickets as recently as a few years ago. Everyone has players they look up to on their favorite teams. Who were some of the ones you followed the most and what made them stand out to you?
BOBBY CRAMER: I grew up an Angel fan but when I was younger they weren’t having the success they’ve been able to have since 2000 roughly, so I went to games and I rooted for the team but I didn’t have any one player on the Angels that was somebody I wanted to emulate.
My favorite athlete is Bo Jackson. I’m a Raider fan also when it comes to football but I just admire what he could do from a multi-sport status, to be at the pinnacle of pro sports and be as good as he was, obviously it takes the natural talent he had as a gifted athlete but he had to work hard too. When you see somebody do that it shows you that it’s possible and just for me for somebody who was trying to concentrate on one sport, if he could do it in two sports then there’s no reason why I couldn’t try and put that kind of effort into one sport.
I’d say Vlad Guerrero over the last few years in terms of the Angels. He’s a fun player to watch. He’s an exciting player to watch and having the chance to pitch against him was pretty fun last year, but in terms of Angels players he’d probably be the one that sticks out to me, even though he’s not a pitcher he’s still part of my favorite Angels and he’s fun to watch.
AN: You pitched as a Dirtbag at Long Beach State along with going to Fullerton College, but when did you figure out pitching was the way to go compared to other positions you could have played? Was it obvious from the start or even something you just knew you wanted to play more than another spot?
BC: Basically I just kind of got shoved into that role. When I was in Little League I was always bigger for my age and I was one of the better hitters on every team I ever played on as well but I didn’t make varsity until my senior year in high school. Because I wasn’t the stud athlete in high school I kind of got locked into that pitching role. I was on JV as a junior in high school which was pretty embarrassing but one thing I found out as my career went on is it doesn’t matter where you’re at, you need to get the work in and get to pitch.
Being on JV as a junior was probably the best thing for me because I was their best pitcher instead of a #3 or #4 on varsity. I got my work, I got better, then by the time I got up to varsity they had pretty much taken the bat out of my hands. You get DH’d for and it pretty much started then so by the time I had gotten to Fullerton College and Long Beach I was a couple years removed already from swinging the bat.
You know, I get it. I played with some two-way players. Jason Vargas with Seattle was a two-way player at Cypress Junior College and Long Beach State. You see it done but I just didn’t have that kind of physical strength to be able to still swing the bat with any kind of authority to keep me in the lineup from a batting standpoint, so I’d say probably my senior year in high school was the last time that I ever swung a bat in a game that counted for anything.
AN: Your path to the Major Leagues has been as long and winding as it gets. You began in the Tampa Bay system after Seattle drafted you and you had Tommy John surgery, but in 2005 and 2006 you were out of professional baseball before even getting to Double-A, working odd jobs like pipeline maintenance for Shell and subbing as a teacher at continuation schools while playing on Sundays. Let’s go back to that time and talk about what you were going through and how baseball stayed on your radar.
BC: Baseball has always been and will always be on my radar. I’ve had a love for the game since I was a kid whether it was playing it, watching it or coaching it. It’s a part of me, it’s what I am and it’s what I do. When I got released, in hindsight the right thing would have been to try and play on an Indy ball team but at the end of Spring Training I was ready to go. I chose to shut it down and it was tough. I’ve said before in a couple other interviews basically I had to remove myself from the game for a few months. Four, five, six months, I couldn’t watch games on TV that year, I couldn’t read boxscores, I couldn’t do anything because it felt like a breakup.
It’s hard for me to be away from the game but a guy that I had worked with at a pizza place in college was playing on a Sunday men’s league team and he asked me if I wanted to come out and play on his team knowing that I was a Minor League pitcher and that’s a huge bonus for them to pitch in something like that. I was basically throwing and was playing not with any intentions of ever trying to get back into organized baseball. I was just playing like all the other Sunday league guys, just playing for fun and kind of being out there doing what I used to do when I was younger. No radar guns, no scouts, nothing like that, but I knew when I was throwing that I was in physically good shape. My arm felt good. You never know how hard you’re throwing but it was pretty much what I was always at.
Then my scout, Craig Weissmann, he was with Tampa and then he left and went over to Oakland after the 2005 season. So he tried to sign me and get me to go to Spring Training in 2006 and although I declined in 2006 and again in 2007 he ran a scout ball team for Oakland with a bunch of high school kids in Southern California on Sundays and he had me come out. For one he was trying to talk me into giving it a shot again but also he just liked to have an older guy that had played in the Minor Leagues around these young high school kids to talk to them, mentor them, give them some pointers and just be somebody out there for them to look at and try to pick up stuff from.
I’d say because of playing in the Sunday league and because of working in the scout ball games it kept a close relationship with me and my scout. We hit it off on a personal level aside from his interest in me as a baseball player. That kept me close to the game, as much as I tried or I’d think I didn’t want to give it another shot because I didn’t want to be let down again, he was always in my ear trying to plant that seed. He did. He planted the seed and when the time came and he came calling and I was in a position where I didn’t have too many other options at the time I took him up on it. Between my love for the game and willing to continue to play and his persistence I’d say he played just as big a part in this whole thing as my own ability does, and that’s pretty much how I stayed close to the game.
AN: That does bring us into 2007 and as mentioned the A’s would bring you into the system. It seemed more because they needed another body than anything else but you did put together a pretty solid year in Stockton and Midland with good numbers, strong strikeout and walk rates too. But you had shoulder problems during Spring Training the next year and the A’s let you go. You’d land with Orange County in the independent Golden Baseball League but where did being released leave you prior to that?
BC: It was tough. Like you said I was coming off a good season in 2007. I kind of put myself on their radar a little bit. My shoulder, it was really my first year back after not playing for a couple years and I didn’t get hurt as much as my shoulder just kind of wore out at the end. The best thing would have been for me to shut it down in the winter but they had me go try to play winter ball in Mexico which made things worse and it just took some time to get better.
I missed Spring Training but I went to extended [Spring Training] in 2008 and I was getting better every day, getting better, getting better. At the time we were pretty stacked at the Double-A and Triple-A level and I just didn’t think they wanted to have to put somebody on the DL or release somebody to put me back in there despite my success in 2007, so they asked me, "How did it go?" and I said, "Great, I’m ready to go," and they said, "If we had to put you on a team somewhere tomorrow you’d be ready to go?" and I said, "Yeah," but the next day I went to the field and got released.
It was tough just because that was my biggest fear when I came back, that I’d get released again and what made it even worse was that I had had the success in 2007 and to get released on top of that I almost felt like, "Man, what’s going on here?" I came back, I didn’t know why I came back at the time but I knew that I did well and here I am jobless again. It was really disheartening and I started to feel like, "Hey, maybe this isn’t for you. You tried before and it didn’t work out and you tried again and it’s not working out," and I kind of felt like doors were being shut in front of me. I think at that point I felt committed, I’d decided to come back and I wasn’t going to give up that easy.
I wasn’t crazy about playing Indy ball. I always told myself I’d try to avoid that if I could but ultimately I knew that I was motivated, I was healthy, and I just needed to go throw some innings somewhere to prove to everybody that I was healthy. I knew I’d throw well and I did, but unfortunately for whatever reason nobody picked me up and I ended up finishing out the whole season at Indy ball and it’s a pretty interesting experience to say the least.
Toiling away in Mexico with Quintana Roo, from Baseball Mexico
AN: Yeah, I’ve seen a few games out there and it’s definitely a different world there. With that season, it did get you back with the A’s as you went into 2009. That year didn’t look like it was quite as good the first time but you did spend time in all three levels, Stockton, Midland and even Sacramento. Then last spring you were loaned to Quintana Roo of the Mexican League, which must have been a shock. Recently your father actually told me that in July you were talking in Cancun and you’d never felt so far away from pitching in the Majors. How close were you to possibly leaving the sport even then, or were you at all? What kept you going after all the other challenges?
BC: As frustrated as I was down there I never considered packing it in simply because the one thing that playing out of the country in all the different winter ball leagues I’d played in and playing in the Mexican summer league was there’s a lot of international contacts that I’d made playing out of the country that ultimately lead to jobs in other foreign leagues.
Obviously, every baseball player’s dream is to play in the Major Leagues and play there for a long time, but it’s just not a reality for everyone and basically the way I looked at it was, "Hey, I think I’m good enough to play this game for a while longer but if I’m not going to fit into any Major League team’s plans then where can I continue to play where I can fulfill my need to play baseball, have fun, help the team win, but also at this point start making some money at it?"
I talked to a scout from the Yokohama BayStars in the Japanese League that was interested in bringing me over for this season and the prospect of that was very exciting to me because the financial reward would have been great. Even if something like that hadn’t happened there’s a lot of guys, especially Americans like Kit Pellow and Brian Mazzone that played in the Major Leagues briefly and couldn’t stick for whatever reason, but they make $10,000 a month cash playing eight months out of the year in the Mexican winter and summer leagues, and you can set yourself up pretty nicely. I mean you can’t retire on that but you can do it for five or six years and stash some money away in the bank.
I think down in Mexico I was starting to lean that route. I didn’t feel like I was shunned by Oakland but I felt like they did what was best for the organization at the time and when I was pitching well down there and they didn’t bring me back I started to feel like, "Well, maybe this is it," and started to not so much give up on baseball but to start to refocus the direction I thought I would have to take to stay in, pretty much.
AN: You did earn Pitcher of the Year honors there, and then in August you returned to start about half a dozen games for the Sacramento River Cats. Once again you had some solid performances in the middle of their division race as well. Then all of a sudden you get the call in early September – I actually remember seeing it on your Facebook page. Take me through that very moment considering where you were just a couple months before.
BC: I hate to say this but I’m just being honest. When Tony D [DeFrancesco] called the team up in Sacramento he was giving a speech about us being down two games to none [to Tacoma]. I felt like he was giving us one of those rah-rah speeches so it kind of came out of left field but when he finally told me I was going to the big leagues I kind of blacked out for a second. I was trying to think if he really just said that to me or what not but when I had the chance to let it sink in and thought about it I felt like, I think my first reaction if I had to put it in words was, "It’s about damn time."
I’d wanted this for a long time, I did everything I could to get it and for a bunch of different reasons it never happened and I got it. You know, I wasn’t that "can’t miss" prospect. I was the guy that was going to have to do everything twice as good as everyone else to get that look and when it finally happened I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders, that I could finally relax, all the hard work had paid off. The feeling was, "I’d worked hard for it, I deserved it and I finally got it," and like I said it took a weight off my shoulders.
AN: In my case that happened to coincide with me taking a trip that I’d planned a few months prior because I wanted to see the A’s in Kansas City and the new ballpark in Minnesota. So September 13 is your Major League debut, over again in Kansas City. Your first batter was Jarrod Dyson, who doubled for his first hit in the bigs. Then an out later you picked him off and finished the inning scoreless before going on to get the win. On the 19th you outpitched Francisco Liriano in Minneapolis for your second win. What was going through your mind as you took the mound for the first time in KC, got through that first inning and first win, then the next time out you’re in that new ballpark facing people like Joe Mauer and Jim Thome, who took you deep for #588? What a first week, right?
BC: Yeah. I didn’t know what to expect but I knew it was going to be baseball. No matter what the setting is, the game is still the same. You just try and focus on the game and not focus on everything else. It’s definitely different facing Minnesota as opposed to Kansas City because Kansas City, I knew some of their hitters but I knew them from the Minor Leagues. Minnesota, I knew the hitters because I’ve been watching them on ESPN for the last five, ten, twenty years.
It was different in that regard but basically I was able to somehow keep my emotions under control which helped a lot. One thing that we learned in college that we worked really hard on was playing the game one pitch at a time and as clichéd as that sounds it helps because you know with Dyson I gave up a leadoff double to the first batter I ever faced in the Major Leagues and it was his first Major League hit. My biggest thing, I was actually relieved that I gave up the double because I fell behind 2-0 and I didn’t want to walk the first batter I’d ever faced in the Major Leagues, I’d rather give up a hit and that’s always been my philosophy. You’re never going to throw a no-hitter every time out so I was okay with that.
It just showed me I could settle down and bounce back under pressure and being able to pick him off, it just slowed everything down for me. I was able to go out there and just relax and just try and throw strikes and not worry about everything else that’s happening. Then you do that, you just concentrate on throwing strikes one at a time and the next thing you know you’re in the dugout and you’re like, "Oh wow, I just got out of that." When you realize that I had a leadoff double and could have gave up a run without even getting an out in my Major League debut and the next thing you know you’re in the dugout with no runs scored, it just helped me relax and kind of helps me like that in every game. I’ve never really felt myself get backed up or worked up and get out of control emotionally.
Sharing a moment with friends before the last start, from Cramer's Facebook
AN: Your third start would then be your first one in Oakland on the 24th, which ended up being a loss to Texas, but on the 29th your fourth and final start was in Anaheim of all places. It was your best outing, though you did wind up with a no decision in a close loss. Your father also got to see you pitch in person for the first time with the A’s and from what I heard you had quite the fan base there to see you take the mound. Knowing the location and the path, tell me what that day was like.
BC: It was a lot of things. I said in an interview before, you grow up watching Major League games and if you’re lucky enough to live close to a stadium you get to watch them in person, and although if had made my Major League debut for the Royals and my first game was in Milwaukee, or not there but any one of those teams, it’s a big league stadium and it’s the Major Leagues but it’s not what you grew up knowing as the Major Leagues and for me Anaheim was the Major Leagues.
Getting to pitch in Anaheim Stadium, all those times as a kid growing up, going there and watching games live, that was the Major Leagues to me. So although I pitched in three games before that and had been to a couple of stadiums, that was it for me. That was kind of like, that made me feel like I had arrived and to have it be in the city where I grew up in with all my family and friends there, I might have only left twenty-five or thirty tickets for that game but my mom started getting the notepad and she started writing down all the names of the people she knew were there. She’s still got it at home and it’s somewhere around three hundred right now I think, and that’s not including people that watched it on TV.
Pulling up to the stadium that day, I didn’t stay at the team hotel. I stayed at my parents’ house. I slept in my own bed that I grew up in. I got up and went to the field and when I was driving through the parking lot over to the players’ parking lot I had passed a couple buddies of mine and they’re like, "What are you doing? Aren’t you pitching today?" and I said, "Yeah, but we don’t have to be there as early as everyone else on the days we pitch," and they’re like, "Well, everyone’s over there by the big A," so I followed them, drove over to the big A next to the 57 freeway next to the stadium and I had about forty friends over there tailgating and I got the chance to kind of visit with them for a second before I went in.