* Welcome to the 96th installment of The Quaz Q&A. This feature—a question-and-answer session with a person from sports/entertainment/politics/whatever—will appear every week on jeffpearlman.com. If you have any suggestions/ideas for people to speak with, hit me up at email@example.com. I’m listening.
Statistically speaking, Kevin Mench is a guy who blends into Major League Baseball history. His numbers—compiled over eight years—are solid: 89 homers, 331 RBI, 632 hits. Baseball Reference says he compares most similarly to the likes to Butch Huskey and Larry Sheets, and this sounds about right. Mench was a pro’s pro—pop in his bat, a smile on his face, willing to do what was asked of him. Solid.
In Delaware lore, however, Mench is much more. First, he goes down as, arguably, the greatest Blue Hen baseball player of all time. Second, as a born and bred in-stater, Mench has remained fiercely loyal to his home. Third, well, he’s just a really nice guy.
Here, in the 96th Quaz, Kevin talks about a Blue Hen making good; discusses what it’s like to play in the Majors, how it feels to be traded (as well as demoted to the minors in Japan) and why he says he refused PED. Kevin would be fine with a gay teammate, but has no patience for Dallas Cowboy fans. You can follow him on Twitter here.
Kevin Mench, step up to the plate. You’re facing the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Kevin. So there’s this old journalistic trick, where you butter a subject up with a bunch of softball questions, then save your hard one for last. However, you’re a fellow Blue Hen, which means you have honor, pride and honesty (Admittedly, I just made that code up right now. But it sounds about right). Hence, I’m gonna lead off with the toughie. You were a muscular power hitter during the 2000s. Your best years came with the Texas Rangers. In 2006 you hit homers in six straight games, and you once hit three home runs in a single game. Kevin, did you use PED during your career? If so, how and why? If not, why—when so many others did—didn’t you? And do you think it’s wrong for someone to ask such a question?
KEVIN MENCH: No, I was never. I’ve always heard the rumors. But if you look at the numbers, look at the amount of plate appearances I had, and then the production numbers. As opposed to when the numbers diminished and then my production. I was the guy who needed to play every day. Some guys are made, like a Lenny Harris, the best pinch hitter ever. That was just a mentality guys had, and I couldn’t do that. I needed some at-bats to get going and to get into the flow of thing. I remember my girlfriend in college, they told he I was on steroids in college. I haven’t. I’ve been the same size—always. I’ve had guys ask me about it, but nobody has ever approached me to do it.
J.P.: Why wouldn’t you? You obviously knew the benefits, and you knew guys were using. So why not?
K.M.: You look at the effects. You look at what it does to people. You see the guys who have the good years—a guy will be throwing low-to-mid 80s, and all of a sudden he’s throwing over 100 mph. And then he falls apart. Or the guys who have good years and then you never see them again. They fall apart. They physically fall apart. I enjoy my life too much. It’s one of those things—like, ‘This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?” It’s one of those things you get scared off of. I mean, I heard the things; that I was using. But growing up the way I grew up—it takes a lot more to scare me off than that. Look at the numbers. If I had 500 at-bats, I could hit 25 home runs.
K.M.: It’s true. it all started when I got traded. It’s hard to get traded. You get into a groove and you’re accustomed to everything and people … teammates. And all of a sudden it’s, ‘Hey, pack your shit and leave. Right now.’ And all of a sudden it finally sets in and you go, ‘Holy shit, what just happen.’ It doesn’t hit you right away. That was the hardest thing. Got traded, go over there [to Milwaukee] and I’m a platoon player in Milwaukee. The next year I came back and I told them, ‘I still feel I can play every day.’ Nobody gave me an opportunity. That’s how it is. They go younger and cheaper, and you’d have guys—you knew the guys who were taking stuff … they’d have one good year, they get paid and all of a sudden they just fall off. it’s unfortunate, but you know what, I don’t need money that bad.
J.P.: Do you not miss being a major league baseball player?
K.M.: Two springs ago was the first time I had a real spring break. I didn’t have to go somewhere, wasn’t training. I said to myself, ‘You know, this feels pretty good.’ I miss the guys. I miss traveling around, but I made my peace with it and moved on. I work with the Rangers—they have a legacy program, which is their alumni. So I’ll go down and see some of the guys who I played with, coaches. Then I go hang with the umpires a little and I come home.
I don’t watch. I never watched when I played. Total, now I maybe watch 25 innings all season. I’m just not into it. I’ve never been into watching baseball. I can remember when I played, guys always sitting watching. I always said, ‘How the fuck can you watch this? We play 162 games and you’re watching more?’ I mean, if the Phillies are on I’ll sit down. But I won’t watch a whole game. Hockey and football—I love. I watch both until I’m blue in the face. It’s just the baseball … I can’t. I went to a game last season, I took Mike Modano and we sat with Nolan Ryan for a little bit. But it was just to go hang out. I don’t watch a lot of games.
J.P.: Do you find watching baseball to be boring?
K.M.: Uh … I just think I’ve had enough of it. After playing it for so long you … I think once my son gets older and I can introduce him to it a little more, it’ll be a lot different. But I need a break. I get my fix from going down there between doing camps and everything else with the Rangers. My days are pretty much filled. I do lessons here and there. But I’m content with not watching any.
J.P.: You were born in Wilmington, Delaware, attended St. Mark’s High School in Delaware and emerged as a superstar at the University of Delaware. The vast majority of athletes I know of from the state (Randy White, Delino DeShields, etc) seem to bolt as soon as they make it big. Yet you genuinely seem to have a devotion and loyalty to a state that’s often an afterthought. Why? And what is it about Delaware that you love?
K.M.: You know, I love the fact I’m from Delaware. People are always like, ‘Why?’ I have a T-shirt—REPRESENTING THE 302. People are like, ‘What is that?’ I’m like, ‘That’s the whole state of Delaware.’ There’s not many people from there. I take pride. I have this little saying sitting at home, my mom gave it to me. It says, ‘Home is where our feet may leave, but not our hearts.’ I’ve always taken that to heart. I’ve got an Eagles tattoo. I just got a Flyers tattoo. I’ve got Wilmington, Delaware with the longitude and the latitude, with the D symbol on my shoulder. I love representing the state of Delaware. Not too many people come from there. Elena Della Donne is a Delaware girl. She went to high school there. She was born and raised there. For her to put Delaware basketball on the map is great. People say, ‘Flacco went there,’ but he was there for two years, I don’t know where he’s from. Rich Gannon—Rich and I got inducted into the Delaware Hall of Fame at the same time. But he’s not a Delaware kid. There aren’t too many Delaware guys. That’s probably the proudest thing—always representing Delaware. That’s why I wear my Eagles stuff around here; just to prove to people that, hey, it’s always about where you’re from. I’m a Delaware kid.
Somebody last year wrote an article for Sports Illustrated saying that before Elena there wasn’t much coming out of Delaware. I remember people on Twitter were saying, “What about [Kevin]? What about Gannon?”
J.P.: Many ballplayers come, many ballplayers go. Yet you’ll always be remembered for wearing a size 8 cap, thereby earning the memorable nickname, Shrek. I’m wondering when you first realized you had a pretty large noggin, and if you took the Shrek thing as a compliment or an insult? Or neither?
K.M.: I’ve always had a big head. They used to call me ‘Cabeza’ back when I was in Little League. And it’s one of those things—Bruce Bochy actually has a bigger head. He’s like an 8 ½. But I’ve always had a big head. It runs in the family. I’ve accepted it. Rusty Greer actually gave me the Shrek nickname. He gave it to me in spring training one day. It was right when Shrek came out. And he’s like, ‘I’m gonna give it to you.’ I was like, ‘Fuck you, it’ll never stick.’ He went right to the media, and ever since the fans … always talked to me about it. That’s how people can relate to me. The kids. I sign it on autographs, sign it on stuff when they ask. It just helps people relate.
The true fans here know, but the newer ones don’t; the ones who just jumped on the bandwagon. The true fans we know, who have been here from when I was first here … I loved, the new ones … meh. That’s how it is here. The fair-weather fans here are awful. Like the Cowboy fans. I despise them the longer I live here. They think they’re America’s Team. I’m like, nobody gives a shit. And if they start winning, you’ll see fans wearing shirts with the creases still in them, pulled off the shelf. It’s funny. I love the people here. But they know. They’re get into it with me over stuff. I don’t take it personal. But so many aren’t fans. Not real fans.
J.P.: In 1998 you led the NCAA with 33 home runs and were ultimately named the Collegiate Player of the Year. Four years later you were a rookie with the Rangers. I’ve heard people talk about the jump from Triple A and Double A to the bigs. But can you compare and contrast what it is to play in college vs the majors? The type of pitching you see, the intensity, etc?
K.M.: Well, the bats today are completely different than how they were when I was in college. The bats today—I picked one up today and I tried to hit with it. you can’t hit anything with it. they put these washers inside the barrels so there’s so trampoline affect on them. These kids, I’ve talked to college coaches and they say it just changes your recruiting process completely. Hit the ball on the ground and run fast. There’s a technique to swinging the bat the right way. I watch college games, and I always see one or two kids who can actually understand it. You’re better off giving them a wood bat. I know, money wise, the aluminum is cheaper.
College baseball was great. It helped that I have two older brothers. One is 10 years older than I am, the other is 14 years older. They used to throw baseballs to me as hard as they could. It kind of got me into that development part of it. I didn’t hit my growth spurt until the summer of my senior year, and after that I just took off from there. Sherm played minor league baseball—he could swing the bat. And Hannah was a pretty good guy. So … with Coach Hannah, the comfort level was there, so I was pretty much able to settle in easily.
But you can’t compare college ball from then to now. There are only a handful of guys who can really play at a high level. Everybody in pro ball is basically your best guy from college from different teams. Everybody has the same talent—and it’s what separates you from the others. What can you do better? Making the adjustments. You can make an adjustment starting at 12 and just keep making the adjustments as you go along. Not peak, really, but just keep going. Kind of like lifting weights. Find a way to change your routine to keep building stuff. You know those kids who, at age 12, were All-Stars all the time, and then they just fizzled out and had enough of it? I relate it to Todd Marinovich. Being bred to play football your whole life, as opposed to trying different things. Like now here, you can’t play more than two sports in high school. You’re forced into one or two. And when we grew up you played something in the fall, something in the winter, something in the spring. It was better that way.
J.P.: On July 28, 2006, you were traded to the Milwaukee Brewers—the first time you’d been dealt in your career. I’m wondering what that feels like? Is it a sense of abandonment? Hurt? Excitement? And when one is traded to Milwaukee, does he think, “Dang, why couldn’t it be San Diego?”
K.M.: Being traded feels like a kick in the nuts. Your gut just drops. We were in the process of building a new house. I remember we were looking at granite counter tops. And all of a sudden [Rangers GM] John Daniels calls and says, “Hey, you got traded.” And it’s one of those where you go, “Ugh. Really?” You kind of can’t believe it. I remember my wife—she just had to stop. We both did. We couldn’t handle it. I flew in that night and got up there. You have to get settled in. and I remember talking to Jeff Cirillo about it. He’s like, “Yeah, it’s tough.” You’re so used to one thing. I was just used to the comfort level I had here with the fans and the team. And all of sudden you have new guys to learn, new atmosphere, new league, new pitchers. It was tough.
K.M.: Nah, it doesn’t really matter. If I had been traded to Philly or New York … somewhere close to Delaware, I don’t know. But Milwaukee was perfect. Just like me. It’s blue collar. It’s more laid back than Philly, but at the same time it has that atmosphere of a blue-collar, hard-working people. It’s just a lot to take in at once, and to do it all at one time is tough.
I think the next year, going through Spring Training, I was able to finally settle in. If I had a chance to play every day it would have been better, but they platooned me with Geoff Jenkins. So that’s what it was.
J.P.: In 2009 you played with the Hanshin Tigers. I remember being a kid, and guys like Bob Horner and Warren Cromartie going to Japan and assuming they were absolutely going to kick ass; that American ballplayers were so much better than Japanese ones. Did you initially feel that way, too? Why did you sign with the Tigers to begin with? And did you, ultimately, enjoy or hate the experience?
K.M.: I remember my agent telling me, “Look, you can either go and accept it, or you can fight it.” OK, that’s pretty black and white. So I accepted it. They wanted to know early. The money was good to go over there, you get to try something new. I wasn’t going to get much of an opportunity over here. They really wanted me to come over and try it out. I figured, “Why not try something new?” And if I didn’t like it I could always come home the next year and play in the States again. And if I had a good year I could stay.
I went over there, and it was a lot to take in. You’re taught your whole life to do something one way, all of a sudden you have to learn a whole new system. Then you have to learn new pitchers, new pitching styles. It’s tough. It’s a lot to take in in a shot amount of time.
I think I had 50 at-bats. My team—I just didn’t get a chance to play. I was with the Tigers. Other teams give you an opportunity. They expect you to hit six home runs a night over there. “Oh, he’s a former Major Leaguer.” But it’s a tough adjustment. Look at their pitchers who come over here. Most of those guys struggle. It’s tough. It’s one of those things where you try and take it all in and it wears on you. They sent me down to the minors, and I played there. I played well there, and I had a chance to see things and learn. But they want you to do it every night.
K.M.: When I first went down, one day I was talking, just sitting there, and I think I was just physically worn out. The third inning game and I just couldn’t move. I told the guys, and they wanted me to go get tested and I had tests and all this shit, and they said, “You just need to take a break.” So I took three days off, went to the minors for a rehab thing, played well, they called me up, I had—I think—six at-bats, and then they sent me back out. It was strange. They came to me July 4. I was gonna come home before my kids were born. I told them my wife was due, and I had to go home when he was ready to deliver. They were like, ‘OK.” On July 4 they said, “We’ll send you home, but with four months of pay.” They owed me for five. I said, “Uh … no.” I came back, and two weeks later they said, “OK, you can go home.” They paid me in full. And the minor league coach was great. He would be like, “You don’t have to come today—whatever.” And where we lived it was like an Americanized island. There were two teams there—us and the Orix Buffaloes. So guys there I knew. Ryan Vogelsong was there, Tuffy Rhodes. There were a bunch of guys. So we all hung out together. They took really good care of you. That was nice. It was a fun experience—just too far away. The fans were great. How into it and everything they are. But coming back and being able to talk about that experience was fun in itself.
J.P.: This past February, you confirmed on Twitter that you were officially retired. How did you come to that decision? And now, looking back, are you shocked by how quickly a professional baseball career flew by?
J.P.: I don’t think I’ve ever actually turned in my paperwork. But it was one of those things where it was like, “Do I go through the minor leagues and make that kind of money traveling around?” or I could find something here to do. I took the year off, played golf, played with the kid. I work now with an orthopedics firm around here, Trinity Orthopedics. I work at a batting cage. I do lessons, help promote, and work with the Rangers. It’s basically just talking to people, which is something I love to do. Going out and talking to people, meeting new people, playing golf. Just hanging out and just being me. It kind of just fell into my lap. My wife was cleaning the head doctor’s teeth one day and he asked, “Hey, what’s Kevin doing?” I met with them and it kind of just fell into my lap really.
I took that first year off, took a step back. I’ve made my peace with it and I’ve moved on. I don’t regret not playing in the World Series or playing in the playoffs. I had fun. And I hope I represented the state of Delaware and Delaware baseball as best I could. People always say, “I love the way you played.” And I say, “That’s the way I was taught. You play hard, you get your uniform dirty.” I think Mickey Mantle said it best—“If I change one kid’s life by the way I played, I’ve done my job for the day.”
J.P.: Did you feel like you, at age 32, were not the name guy you were at age 25, 26?
K.M.: Uh, I think part of it is not playing every day. Playing, not playing, getting hot and cold. It wears on you. And it was one of those things where I was like, “It’s time to move on.” I still play now. I play softball. We play a baseball game here once a summer for the Heroes. I’ve played in that for two years. I play slo-pitch softball now.
K.M.: It’s funny. One guy was like, “Do I know you from somewhere? Did we do business together?” I was like, “No.” He’s like, “It’ll come back to me.” Other people go, “Is this fun for you? Is it sort of like working on your short game? You can’t hit home runs—you have to find the holes.” Some people recognize me. The orthopedic firm I work with has a team, and I’ve got a men’s league over here … people call me to play.
I went to Spring Training with the Wounded Warrior Softball team. I travel with them a little, play with them. They want me to help them out. Whatever I can do to help out. I’m not worried about making money. I like helping out, traveling to new places, meeting new people.
J.P.: You played with and against some of the all-time great baseball players. You were a good, solid Major Leaguer who put together some excellent years. What’s the difference between guys like them and guys like you? Between, say, a Derek Jeter and a Jose Vizcaino? Between a Ken Griffey, Jr. and a Jay Payton? What separates the absolute elite superstars from everyone else?
J.P.: Being able to minimalize slumps, move forward. Mentally and physically being able to handle it. that’s what separates everybody—their ability to minimilize that stuff. Make the adjustments. That’s the big one. What’s the difference between Double A and Triple A and the big leagues? There are guys in A ball who are good enough to play in the big leagues. But it’s the mental part—being able to make an adjustment. Being able to master that and being able to move on from a bad at-bat, a bad swing and move on. I’ve known Albert Pujols 10, 12 years. The way he handles it—it’s a mentality he has when he’s up there. You look at him and he has a killer mentality. And at the same time you know how these guys are away from the game. It’s amazing how they can turn it off and turn it on.
• Did Josh Hamilton make right move leaving Texas and signing with the Angels?: Yes.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: No. Never.
• Five reasons one should make Wilmington, Delaware his next vacation spot: Five!? 1. Hagley Museum, 2. the Hotel DuPont, 3. the Delaware Art Museum, 4. the waterfront, 5. depending on a time of year you can do the loop.
• Five nastiest pitchers you faced: Tim Hudson, Pedro Martinez, Jeff Nelson, Scott Shields, Octavio Dotel when he was in Houston.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Brian Lesher, Spencer Dunkley, Von Hayes, George Thorogood, Grotto’s Pizza, Rehoboth Beach, Delino DeShields, Leo Hamlett, Spencer Dunkley, the Wing-T offense, Love Seed Mama Jump, Margherita’s Pizza: Oh, goodness gracious. Margherita’s; Spencer Dunkley—I love Dunkley; the Wing-T; Love Seed Mama Jump; Delino DeShields; Brian Lesher; George Thorogood; Rehoboth; Leo Hamlett; Grotto’s (I only like their Bianca pizza, the one with no sauce); Von Hayes.
• How shocked were you when R.A. Dickey, your former teammate, won the Cy Young award?: After the year he had, I’m so happy for him. I’ve known R.A. forever. I played in the minors with him. Born without the UCL. For him to do that, it’s awesome. I’m glad for him, after everything he’s been through. He’s a guy who transformed his whole career from nothing to that.
Who would you rather have as your starting quarterback—Michael Vick or Tony Romo?: Who’s the coach? Aw, I don’t know. That’s tough. I don’t know.
• The Wilmington Blue Rocks call and want to hire you to be player-manager. Pay is $200 per game. You in?: Yes, but I only play home games.
• The New York Yankees call. They’re willing to sign you to a four-year, $20 million deal on the spot—but you have to have a nude photograph of Celine Dion tattooed across your forehead. You in?: No chance.
• I’m not—in any way, shape or form—asking for names or specifics. But have you knowingly had gay teammates during your baseball career? And do you think it’d be difficult for an openly gay player to survive in the Majors in 2012?: I don’t think I had any gay teammates, and it would not bother me one bit. I’d be open to it. If it makes my team better, it doesn’t matter what your sexual orientation is. If we’re going to win, I don’t care if you’re gay or straight.
• What’s your line if we give you 500 ABs for the 2013 Oakland A’s?: .265, 21 homers, 78 RBI, 3 steals, 100 strikeouts.