Growing up in New York in the 1980s, I was always fascinated—if not enamored—by my hometown New York Yankees. Were they good? Not especially. Were they dynamic? Sometimes.
Really, what caught my attention was the way players came and went as if they were items on the Marshall’s sales rack. Omar Moreno and Jerry Mumphrey and Claudell Washington and Bob Shirley and Wayne Tolleson and Joel Skinner and … well, you get the idea. Were you a baseball player between the years 1980-89, odds were pretty good you’d wind up in the Bronx at some point.
On April 10, 1982, the Yankees pulled off deal No. 4,321 of the decade, sending Paul Boris, Greg Gagne and Ron Davis to Minnesota for shortstop Roy Smalley. At the time, I was 9-years old—and elated. Roy Smalley! Roy Smalley!! Hell, the guy had hit 24 homers just three seasons earlier, when he started in the All-Star Game for the American League. And now, for the low, low price of one somebody and two kids, the Yanks had added him to their roster. Boy, oh boy, was this gonna be fun!
Low and behold, it wasn’t so great. Oh, Smalley played pretty well—slugging 20 homers his first season and 18 the next. But his range at shortstop was mediocre, the talent around him was only so-so and nobody could figure out what in the world George Steinbrenner was thinking … about anything. In 1984 Smalley was shipped off to the White Sox, and I never gave him much thought again …
… until a few months ago, when someone slipped me his e-mail. I flashed back to my boyhood; to dreaming of Smalley kicking ass and taking name for the Yanks. Hence, I dropped him a line, mentioning the Quaz, and Roy—who retired after 1987 with 1,454 hits, 163 homers and a World Series ring with the Twins—proved very generous with his time and thoughts.
These days, Roy works as a Twins analyst for Fox Sports North, as well as an investment advisor/portfolio manager and restaurant owner. Here, he talks Killebrew, Bostock, old-school Texas Rangers and why man-made climate change is, in his opinion, overhyped.
Roy Smalley, welcome to the world of Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Roy, I’m thrilled to have you here. A. Because your life fascinates me; B. Because there’s something I’ve long wanted to ask someone in your position. So here it is: You played major league baseball from 1975-87. That means you haven’t stepped on the field as an active player in nearly 25 years. Yet you are still best known as a baseball player. I’m sure you’re reminded of it daily, asked about it regularly, sent cards to sign, etc … etc. What is it like, approaching your 60th birthday, eternally best known for something you did in your 20s and early 30s? All athletes (with rare exceptions—Bill Bradley, O.J. Simpson) go through this, and I wonder whether it’s a blessing or a curse.
ROY SMALLEY: Being known as an athlete is a blessing not a curse. Fortunately, I think I am known as some other things: investment advisor/portfolio manager, for one, and there have been times when being a former athlete has been a bit of a disconnect with people who are considering someone to manage their financial lives, but all in all, I was blessed to have been able to have played in the Major Leagues. I will never be able to get baseball out of my blood, so I guess it is fair for people to have a hard time thinking of me otherwise. I will happily accept if that is the largest part of people’s knowledge about what I have done.
J.P.: You father, Roy Smalley, Jr., was a major league shortstop. Your uncle, Gene Mauch, was a legendary major league manager. Did you grow up knowing this (baseball) was your destiny? Was there pressure? From family? From peers? Was it always your goal to become a ballplayer, or did you ever say to yourself, at age 8 or 9, “Boy, I’d sure like to teach math!”
R.S.: I sure wanted the “family business” to be my destiny. My dad and uncle put absolutely no pressure on me. I put all the pressure on myself. I grew up in a built-in hot stove league. In the winters when the seasons were over my dad and uncle would get together and talk baseball—often times there were other players or coaches around with them. I would literally sit at their feet and listen. I desperately wanted to grow up to be a part of that club. Starting at about age 5 there was no other choice for me in my mind. My dad always stressed good grades in school and being as well-rounded as possible which I have always tried to emulate, but it was always going to be baseball for me until I was told I couldn’t make it.
J.P.: People tend to think of you as a Twin (and, in these parts, as a Yankee), but you were drafted No. 1 overall by the Texas Rangers in 1974, and spent the first two years of your MLB career with the team. The modern fan thinks of the Rangers as a model franchise, what with Josh Hamilton and Michael Young and Nolan Ryan and all. But books have been written about how bad the organization was in the 1970s. So, Roy, how bad were things?
R.S.: I think the Rangers organization was fairly directionless for a long time. When I was there it started at the top with ownership not really knowing what it needed in GMs and managers and cohesive minor league structure. When I was there it was my first organization so at that time I didn’t know much of a difference relative to organizational structure, but the way it most directly affected me was their trying to make me a second baseman. Getting traded to the Twins early in my second year and getting back to playing shortstop is really what made my career.
J.P.: A lot has been written over the years about how the steroid era has negatively impacted the legacies of men like Hank Aaron and Willie Mays. However, in 1979 you were a powerful man at shortstop—leading the Twins with a whopping 24 homers. Nowadays 24 homers is—if not nothing— relatively un-noteworthy. Do you think the PED rage reduces that sort of an accomplishment? And was there a certain point, during your career, when you saw the role of shortstop changing from the Jose Oquendo model (good field-no hit), to a pop-oriented position?
R.S.: Really? Twenty four home runs for a shortstop is relatively un-noteworthy today? Let’s see—look around at the league’s shortstops. [Jeff’s note: Good point]. Seriously, though, I hate the “Steroid Era.” It casts a pall on baseball. Henry Aaron is still the home run king in my mind. But, in terms of shortstops with power, I was very happy to be a part of a new breed of shortstops which began in my era for the most part. Ours was an era of very good hitting shortstops—Dave Concepcion, Robin Yount, Alan Trammell—then Cal Ripken came along as kind of the perfection of what we had started. I know we all took great pride in our ability to play shortstop and hit and we fed off of each other in a way. I think it changed the way people thought about the position for awhile. But, these things go through cycles and it just depends on what kind of athletes each era has and where they want to play. It seems we’ve gotten back to the quicker, less-power-hitting shortstops right now a little bit, but look at Troy Tulowitzki—what a player!
J.P.: I grew up in New York watching the Yankees of the 80s. Those teams always fascinated me, because it was like a conveyor belt of players coming and going. Roy Smalley in, Ron Davis out. On and on. You played for Billy Martin in New York, alongside guys like Dave Winfield, Don Baylor and Graig Nettles. What stands out from your Big Apple experiences? Was it fun—or simply insane? And did George Steinbrenner ever call you in and threaten to trade you to Guam?
R.S.: My Yankee time was fun and insane and tumultuous and terrific. I was blessed to have been a Yankee player even if my time there was marked by more directionless management. George went through a time then when it seemed he wanted an all-star platoon at every position. I think they really lost any sense of strategic direction for a while—then got it back relatively quickly. I never had any run-ins with George, but the thing that struck me about playing in New York then was this: As a player anywhere you play you have to deal with one or two of three “pressures.” Either the media is maniacal, or the fans are maniacal or the owner is maniacal. In New York all three were maniacal.
J.P.: You work for Fox Sports North as an analyst for Twins games. You’ve probably witnessed, oh, 5,000 baseball games in your life. Plus, this year, the Twins are dreadful. Honestly, aren’t you ever like, “Crap, can I just stay home and watch Doogie Howser re-runs?”
R.S.: This has been a tough time for the Twins. It is my view that three factors influence a team’s performance in a given year: player performance relative to expected norm, injury relative to norm and relative luck. In my life of watching baseball and baseball teams I don’t think I have ever seen all three factors go south so severely at the same time. Much of the performance and luck factors are directly attributable to the amazing streak of injuries they are still going through, of course. But this has been a surprising start, for sure. That said, they still are a bunch of kids that play hard, play the game the right way, and keep after it. I still enjoy watching them.
J.P.: One of your teammates with the Twins was Lyman Bostock, the .300-hitting outfielder who was shot and killed in Gary, Indiana. I wrote a lengthy piece on Bostock for ESPN.com a couple of years ago … am fascinated by who he was, and what he could have been. What do you remember about Bostock as a player; as a person? And do you still remember finding out about his murder?
R.S.: Lyman was a wonderful person. He was one of the most gifted hitters I ever saw—and he always had a smile on his face or one was about to break out. He was a great teammate.
J.P.: People like to think that a baseball clubhouse is this coming together of cultures—that blacks and whites and Japanese and Dominican and Puerto Rican and on and on all join together around the card table, holding hands and singing songs of unity. I covered the majors for SI, and I never found this to be even remotely true. Generally speaking, it seems as if the whites hang with whites, the blacks hang with blacks, the Latinos hang with Latinos (and the one Japanese guy hangs with his interpreter). Do you agree? And, of so, why do you think this is? I’ve always been puzzled …
R.S.: It’s true that different ethnicities tend to hang together outside the clubhouse. It is not always the case and depends on the team and the teammates, but I don’t think it is too surprising or necessarily detrimental. There is an age-old saying in the locker room. Before the last day of the season someone would invariably say, “C’mon guys, just 9 more innings and we can go home and choose our own friends.” A ball club is 25 guys from disparate parts of the country and world with all kinds of different backgrounds and languages and peculiarities. It is a stressful time and you develop real closeness from the sheer fact that the guys are your mates with whom you are doing battle, but in down times it seems understandable that guys would tend to gravitate to the most comfortable companions, meaning the ones most like me—where I come from, what I like to talk about, etc. My favorite times with different teams was when the personalities of the different ethnicities really wanted to mix in and not go the naturally comfortable route, but I think I get it and I don’t think it is a necessarily negative statement. Most times teams are full of guys that are fiercely close in the clubhouse, but are not as close socially.
J.P.: The great Harmon Killebrew recently died. Much has been written about him—can you tell us something we might not know? A story? An anecdote? Something?
R.S.: So much has been said about Harmon and what an amazing and unique human being he was. I am happy to think that people now understand how special he was. I won’t reiterate all that. One of my favorite moments was being at a private party with Harmon in Naples, Florida. It was part of a significant charity event and this particular part was a dinner for about 40 donors. Henry Aaron was there and I had helped arrange to have Harmon, Tony Oliva and Paul Molitor there also to sit at this poolside dinner and interact, quite intimately, with all of the patrons. The donors loved it. After dinner, the host had a rock and roll band set up and play on the pool deck. At one point, rather late in the evening, I looked up to see Harmon in the middle of the pool deck dancing his proverbial rear end off. He was great—and having what looked to be the time of his life. He even got the Hammer out on the floor. As long as I live I will remember a beautiful Florida evening under the stars dancing to rock music shoulder to shoulder with two of the greatest home run hitters—and gentlemen—that ever played the game.
J.P.: You’re a senior vice president with Morgan Stanley Smith Barney in Minneapolis. You serve as a wealth advisor and portfolio manager. So please tell me—how do we fix the economy? What needs to be done? And do you support Paul Ryan’s plan to change Medicare, or is that a recipe for disaster?
R.S.: Paul Ryan is one of my heroes. Maybe that is enough said.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH ROY SMALLEY
• What was it like playing with Pete Redfern?: Pete was and is one of the genuinely nicest people in the world. What a tragedy.
• If my son loves baseball, is it OK letting him play year-round? Or do you think that kills the joy?: If a kid loves to play let him play. He will tell you when it is enough.
• Ever think you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: One early May we were leaving Baltimore on a commercial flight (yes, we flew commercial under Calvin Griffith in those days) going to New York. After getting a few thousand feet in the air the pilot came on and said we had lost an engine. Nothing to worry about, but we had to return to the Baltimore airport and get another plane. As the plane went into a fairly dramatic one-wing-low bank turn big Craig “Mongo” Kusick said, “Oh no! I’m going to die and I’m not even hitting .200 yet!”
• Had he stayed healthy, what happens to Andre Robertson?: Not sure. He was one terrific shortstop defensively. Tragically, he never got the chance to show whether he was going to hit or not.
• Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre or Eminem?: Won’t listen to any of them.
• Greatest moment in baseball?: Wow … don’t know. Starting in the 1979 All-Star Game. Winning Game Seven of the World Series in 1987. Hitting a grand slam in the bottom of the eighth in Yankee Stadium to win the game—not long after I had gotten traded over—and getting a curtain call from the fans. There were lots of moments. These three jumped out immediately.
• Worst moment in baseball?: There are no bad moments in baseball—only some you like less than others. That is my view at 58 years old.
• The greatest movie of all time is: The Big Lebowski (maybe not the greatest, but my absolute favorite).
• Would you rather take three staples (from an industrial strength staple gun) to the skull or spend the next week watching a never-ending reel of the 1980 Minnesota Twins highlight video?: Pass the stapler.
• Bigger worry: Global warming or a Twins’ losing streak?: There are now 32,000 scientists worldwide who have documented their refutation of the notion that global warming is manmade. I worry much more about the Twins.*
• You own a restaurant. This rarely seems to end well for athletes. What’s different here? And what should we try?: My majority partner has taken most of the risk, bless his heart. Pick anything on the menu—it’s the best sports bar food I’ve ever had.
* [JEFF’S NOTE: I DISAGREE SO STRONGLY WITH ROY ON THIS ONE, I ASKED HIM TO ELABORATE. HE KINDLY DID]: My position is not necessarily against being “green.” I think we all should be waste-conscious, recycle, promote strategies to have cleaner air, use less energy, etc. I just don’t believe that there is any scientific proof that permanent global warming is happening much less that it is being caused by man. You are most likely too young to remember this, but in the early 1970s I was reading in the news that the scientific community (again, who is that?) was saying that temperatures were cooling and it appeared that the earth was heading into the beginnings of a mini ice age. Forty years ago earth cooling. Now, earth warming. In 40 years? What would we say 40 years represents in terms of the total life of the earth? So let’s even put aside the questionable science used by the global warming crowd that was, if not debunked, at least pretty soundly called into question by the U.N. record-keeping debacle. And let’s put aside the discovery that the statistics used for the main “proof” of hockey-stick type warming numbers were started at a pretty arbitrary time in history (after the universally accepted mini ice age during the Renaissance Period). Let’s just have a smell test. How can we possibly be sure that the earth is warming on a straight-line trajectory and not just going through a standard warming/cooling cycle that has happened throughout its life? And speaking of its life, what time period can possibly be statistically relevant in terms of the earth? Forty years? One hundred years? One thousand years?
Last thought that occurred to me not long ago because I, too, am worried about my children and my 3-year old grandchild: Let’s say that, in our arrogance, we become convinced that our behavior in the last generation or two has altered the characteristics of the multi-million year-old earth. And, in our arrogance, we know how to reverse this warming. How do we know when the earth has cooled back down to the right degree? How do we know that the behavior we adopt will not set in motion a life-threatening cooling trajectory? How do we stop it if we discover we have done too much?
My quarrel is with the universal acceptance that global warming is happening and that we must take drastic measures to “fix it” without having an honest scientific debate and study. We have not gotten to that point yet, so I’m worried about the Twins (though less so lately).
Thanks for your interest in a broken-down has-been, Jeff.
Quaz 13: Drew Snyder
Quaz 14: Roy Smalley