As a boy, I grew up near the top of Emerald Lane, a long hill of a street in the tiny town of Mahopac, N.Y. My house was surrounded by, well, very little. Other homes, a couple of trees, a long ditch. The Millers and Garganos resided to our right, the Daleys and Andersons to our left. Birds chirped and dogs barked and life, while blissful, was also sorta dull.
To pass the time, I would often ride my bike up Prince Road where, if I was lucky, Dave Fleming would be shooting hoops on the basket in his driveway. Dave had no idea who I was (he graduated Mahopac High in 1987; I did so in 1990), but we all knew who he was—and that, without question, he’d be going places. Dave wasn’t merely the ace lefthander on our nationally ranked high school baseball team. He was also an insanely gifted basketball player, one whose uniform number (22, I believe) still hangs on the wall in the old gymnasium.
When Dave helped pitch the University of Georgia to the College World Series title in 1990, then—as a Seattle Mariners rookie two years later—won 17 games, I was in absolute heaven. As was my town. In Mahopac, all anyone wanted to discuss was Dave Fleming, Dave Fleming, Dave Fleming, Dave Fleming. He was the kid who made it; the kid who put Mahopac—if only for a brief spell—on the map; the kid who served as a role model to an aspiring sports writer from down the block.
Though Dave’s Major League career ended after 4 1/2 seasons, he remains Mahopac’s most famous export—as well as a person who can always say, “I was traded for Bob Milacki!”
Here, Dave talks Mahopac, Mariners, what it’s like when a league starts figuring you out and his new life as one of the world’s most successful Wiffle ball gurus.
Dave Fleming, survivor of the mean streets, welcome to the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Dave, so a couple of weeks ago I was doing a book event at the Mahopac Public Library. I was trying to explain what Walter Payton meant to Chicago, and I said he was to the Windy City what Dave Fleming was to Mahopac. I was joking, but most people in the room nodded in agreement. Which leads me to wonder—are you aware of what your college and Major League successes meant to our hometown? I mean, did you ever fully get the impact it had?
DAVE FLEMING: I think it is hard to get the full impact when you are not around because obviously you are out doing what you’re doing and the other people are the ones watching and talking about what is going on. Over the years I have had people approach me and tell me things about where they were when this happened or how they rooted against me when I pitched against the Yankees but rooted for me all other times. I enjoy hearing those stories and I only in the last year heard from my family how they all watched the National Championship game in different rooms. When I asked why they said “Because it was too much pressure” and they didn’t want to see me blow it. I think it was a lot of fun for those people who knew me and some others who were from Mahopac. But it was short lived and, like most things in life, you move on.
J.P.: You pitched 4 ½ years in the Majors, then spent several more years trying to get back. You had some incredible highs, played alongside some of the all-time greats. How difficult was it to finally say, “I’m done—this is over”? And how did you officially reach that point? Was there a moment when you were able to look in the mirror and say, “I will never pitch in the majors again?”
D.F.: It is very difficult to say it is over especially when you have had success doing something. You believe you can get back to that level again so you keep trying and trying until you have some kind of wake-up call that makes you say, “I’m not the same player I once was.” For me it was in Atlantic City on an independent team. I had been trying to come back from surgery and was on my second independent ball stint. I was getting roughed up a little and was spending too much time between pitches and all of a sudden I hear our center fielder yell out, “Lets go! Throw the ball!” I stepped off the rubber and looked out at him in center and thought, “What the heck am I doing here? I can’t get the lowest level of players out and now I am getting ragged on by a guy who has probably never played above A ball.” After the game I told our manager, Wayne Krenchicki, that I was done and that he didn’t need to pay me for that night’s performance.
J.P.: Many, many, many, many, many, many athletes face tremendous difficulties after their careers end. I get it—beyond the physical issues, you were a celebrity, playing in front of 50,000 fans, getting everything for free, traveling in class, seeing the country. Then—pfft. Over. How hard was it for you? And do you enjoy being reminded of playing in the Bigs, or do you view that as a piece of your life best left in the past?
D.F.: Nothing is ever going to give you the same thrill of pitching in front of a huge crowd and performing against the best baseball players in the world. As much as I could wish for it to have lasted even up until today (I’m only 42-years old right now—according to Jamie Moyer I would have seven years left), you have to appreciate just having the opportunity. I know that sounds phony but I did take in some special moments as they happened. Like, for example, being in a 1-1 game against Roger Clemens at Fenway Park. After the seventh inning our rookie catcher (Bert Heffernan) ran off the field with me and said, “This is awesome! We are tied 1-1 with the Rocket!” Everyone else in the stands think you are professionals and this is all no big deal to us but that is not always true. I think that is all you can ask for—to really enjoy the moment as it is happening. Of course, I love talking about my playing career. I understand some people want to know what it was like and they really listen to your stories. I don’t think that was the case right after I retired and I didn’t watch a lot of baseball in the late 90s because I probably was a little bitter at that time watching guys I played with having so much success with the Yankees and living here meant I had to hear about it every day. It is a lot easier to watch the game now.
J.P.: We didn’t know each other as kids, though you lived probably ¼ mile away. That said, I remember your rookie year of 1992, picking up the New York Times and seeing the headline: WHO IS DAVE FLEMING? AND WHEN WILL HE LOSE? You went 17-10 that season, and (along with Ken Griffey, Jr.), stood out as the only real bright spot for an awful Mariner team. What stands out to you from that year? What were the absolute highs? And, nearly 20 years later, does it feel like it ever even happened?
D.F.: The biggest thing that stands out was the first time I pitched in Yankee Stadium. It is a strange feeling to step on the mound of a field that you grew up watching all your favorite players. I really savored that moment walking off the mound in the ninth inning with a lead knowing how many people had attended that game from Mahopac. I was so nervous about disappointing everyone with a short stint (which I did later in my career), but that first game was something was extremely special to me. The other game that really sticks with me was shutting out Minnesota at their place, 1-0, after they had won the World Series the year before. I remembering striking out Kirby Puckett to start the ninth and thinking, “Wow! I am really going to do this!” Of course watching Griffey play every day for 162 games was incredible. I don’t know If he truly gets the credit he deserves. He was absolutely the best baseball player in the game and it was only the injuries that kept him from putting up even better numbers that he ended up with.
J.P.: You had a brilliant first season, a solid second season—then it was sort of downhill. We always talk about, in sports, teams and leagues “figuring” players out. Like, the first time around the league a pitcher sneaks up on teams. Then they watch the tape, have the experiences and adjust. Is that what happened to you? Did teams adjust?
D.F.: Well,1994 was definitely a year of the league catching up to me. People began to notice that I pitched inside more than most lefties who threw 85 mph and they started to lay off that pitch instead of jamming themselves. I felt like I was beginning to make some adjustments myself and then we had the strike. After the strike I never felt the same again. I remember people coming up to me and telling me I looked different with my delivery and I didn’t throw as fluidly as I used to do. I had no pain but I never felt comfortable which was frustrating. I’m not sure when or how it happened but it eventually led to me having surgery after 1995 season. The fact that I pitched for the most of the 1995 season in the big leagues is kind of embarrassing to the league because I had absolutely nothing. I would like to publicly apologize to anyone who took a chance on me that year in their fantasy league because I was in no way Major League material.
J.P.: What was your path? I mean, I know where you’re from, obviously. But how did this happen? What steps along the way led you to a Major League career?
D.F.: I was just a 100-percent jock. I was about sports all day, all night. Either playing them or watching them—that was all I did. I mean, I really understood how to pitch. I did not have great stuff but I knew that If I threw a 55-mph curveball at times that there was no way a player could react to it and I probably would frustrate him as well. I felt at times as I was about to release the ball that I could see where the batter’s hole was going to be in his swing. Having said all of this, I knew nothing about machines or tools. My wife today is still amazed about how little I know about things that need to be done around the house. Literally, putting up a picture might take me an entire month to figure out. I’m comfortable admitting these things now because I feel you have to be able to know your strengths and be able to laugh at your shortcomings.
J.P.: We come from a very small town and, back in the day, it was extremely homogeneous. I was wondering if playing professionally was, initially, an eye opener for you. I mean, we may well be from the whitest place on earth, and suddenly you’re in a world of black, Hispanic, Japanese; guys from farms and from the hood and all places in between. Did that have any sort of impact on you?
D.F.: It was one of the more interesting parts about playing baseball. I played on the USA team in 1989 and we traveled to Cuba and Puerto Rico to play against the national teams of Japan, Taiwan, Italy and others. It was always fun to try to communicate with other players and learn from them. We had a lot of downtime in Puerto Rico and had the opportunity to just hang out with players from all over the world and there were a lot of
J.P.: I once asked whether you keep in touch with teammates, and you mentioned Dan Wilson. That’s a pretty common thing—once careers end, it seems very few athletes maintain relationships. Why do you think that is? I mean, you’re with these guys, in close quarters, for long stretches? Why does it die?
D.F.: I do think relationships carry over for some players but it is hard to do for a couple of reasons. The age gap is one factor. I was 21-years old when I got called up and I did not have a lot in common with guys who were in their 30s and had children. There is also a lot of competition for spots on the roster so some of the relationships are not real. How as a veteran do you root for some rookie to come up and play well when you might be trying to hold on to one or two more years in the show? Or, if you are a struggling pitcher who might be on his way being sent down, do you think you are really rooting for all the other pitchers to pitch lights out. Players don’t admit these things while playing because they would look like a bad teammate but the difference in your lifestyle from being a major leaguer to a Triple A player is so big that it would only be human nature for some players to think this way. Granted with teams that have good leadership and players with guaranteed contracts the focus can be more on coming together as a team. Once the season is over a lot of guys go their separate ways to their homes for the off-season or even when they retire they may not live next to guys they played with. I liked a lot of the guys I played with but I have always been close to my friends from back home.
J.P.: You teach fifth grade in Seymour, Connecticut. My daughter is in third grade, and I’m truly burdened by the way kids come up these days. When you and I were growing up in Mahopac, our neck of the woods was an oasis of kids running, jumping, biking. I mean, it was touch football in the backyard, hoops in the driveway, etc. Now every kid
has a DS, and all kids seem to wanna do is use their DS at all hours. As an educator, do you see the ramifications of this? Or am I just an old fart?
D.F.: I think each generation always looks back to how they did things and likes to think it was the way to go. My friends and I reflect back to how we played Wiffle ball or football outside for hours and you very rarely see that these days and to me it is sad. When I hear kids talking in school I do hear students talking about how many hours they play video games. I am amazed at how some kids can’t remember something about math but they can tell you every little secret there is to win a video game. I do see some kids who claim to play video games are not in the best of shape and get tired more easily than the active kid. I also have noticed how some of these students come into school so exhausted because they stay up so late playing these games in their rooms after parents have gone to bed. Technology is here to stay and like everything else parents have to be aware how long kids are playing these games and put limits on them.
J.P.: According to your Wikipedia page, you coach the Southbury Cool Whips in the American Wiffle Ball League. Uh … what?
D.F.: This is what I really like to talk about. This could go one of two ways. I could tell you how we practice four times a week and that my team could even beat the 2011 Little League World Champs. Or I could be the teacher, Jeff, and warn you not to believe everything you read on the computer (especially Wikipedia). I love the game of Wiffle ball and have a neighbor who puts together a Wiffle ball tournament for his son and his high school friends but that is as close as I am associated to Wiffle ball. I believe that Wikipedia page also mentions a few other pieces of incorrect information … like owning a dog or two.
• Someone’s visiting Mahopac for a week. Give them five things they have to
do: Get a Rodak’s Sub or fried chicken (Christopher’s now); Go to Gino’s—Chicken Francais; take a drive around Lake Mahopac; Check out the new Mahopac Public Library (Admittedly, I’m reaching here—I’ve never actually been inside, but it looks nice); Go watch a CYO basketball game at St. Johns’—I loved that old gym.
• Rank in preferred order—Greg Briley, Erik Estrada, Celine Dion, blueberry muffins, your cell phone, Emmanuel Lewis, Rodak’s Deli, Easter: Rodak’s Deli, Easter, Pee Wee Briley (good teammate), blueberry muffins, cell phone, Emmanuel Lewis (Webster, right?), Erik Estrada, Celine Dion.
• The world wants to know—what was it like playing alongside Juan Agosto?: “Johnny August,” as he was known to some, was a good teammate as well. I was always amazed how he got guys out.
• Five best stadiums you ever played in: 1. Yankee Stadium; 2. Fenway Park; 3. Camden Yards; 4. Mississippi State (great college atmosphere); 5. Old Cleveland Municipal Stadium (For some reason, I loved playing on a football field).
• Would you rather have to eat your own foot or watch 400 straight hours of the 1993 Seattle Mariners highlight video?: Hey, 1993 was not so bad. We got Lou Piniella as our manager and the climate changed and we won more games than the previous year. I’m notot flexible enough to get to my foot so it’s not really a fair choice.
• Ever think you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, please elaborate: After my surgery in 1996, I flew home with my wife the night of the surgery and we had stop in Chicago because of the weather. I think because of the pain medication I vomited for about an hour and probably used every bag in the plane. I don’t know If I though I was going to die because of the turbulence and possibly a crash or because I thought I was going to throw up an organ.
• We give you nine innings right now in a major league game, what’s your line: Give me Omar at short and Griffey in center and I think I give you a solid first inning. After that I would expect a lot of big numbers. Just make it a National League game so I can get a few at bats—2 for 4, 2 RBIs, and a solo shot to right center. I always wanted to be a hitter more than a pitcher.
• Did you ever consider taking steroids or HGH?: I wouldn’t even know where to get them. I don’t like taking anything. As you read earlier I could not even handle pain meds.
• I wrote a book about the ’86 Mets, and Kevin Mitchell once cut off a cat’s head. You were teammates with Kevin. Was he truly crazy? And did you ever see him with any kittens?: Mitchell kind of scared me a little. Again, I was only 22-years old at the time. He left me alone but he did pick on one of our other pitchers. I don’t think we said more than “What’s up?” during the entire year. Kind of goes back to why players don’t keep friendships question. I don’t think “Mitch” would even know who I was.
• Worst movie you’ve ever seen: Cabin Fever—If someone can explain why the boy jumps off the country store porch and screams “Pancakes!” let me know.