Throughout my career as a sports writer, one thing that has always amazed me is how players spend so much time atop the world—then vanish. Oh, certain types always remain in our thoughts. Superstars, obviously. Those who die young. Those who make it big in another field. Murderers. Drug addicts.
Generally, however, it’s a quick and undistinguished permanent farewell. Where the hell is Jeffrey Hammonds? Is Mo Lewis? Is Chris Morris? Is John Vander Wal? They come, they impress, they disappear into society, only to reappear for the occasional Rotary luncheon or so-and-so reunion.
Such is certainly the case with Steve Trachsel.
Back when I was covering the Majors for Sports Illustrated, Trachsel was a journeyman mainstay, always guaranteed a job, generally a lock for 30-plus starts and 170-plus innings. Over the course of his six-team, 16-year career, the righty went 143-159 with a 4.39 ERA. Once, he was an All-Star. Once, he led the league with 18 losses. Such was the nature of a steady performer who was always gracious with the media and liked in the clubhouse. Then, after 2008, he was gone.
Here, Steve talks about surrendering Mark McGwire’s nonsense 62nd home run; about why he took so long to throw a baseball and how he likes cold ziti more than Joe Biden. One can visit Steve’s Baseball Reference page here.
Steve Trachsel, pride of Long Beach State, bring the heat. You’re facing the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Steve, I’m gonna start with this: I probably covered, oh, 20 of your starts over the years, and almost all of them took f-o-r-e-v-e-r. Hell, over 16 seasons this became your calling card—if Steve Trachel was starting, you were looking at, minimum, a three-hour game. Steve, being 100 percent serious: Why did it take you so long to throw a pitch, then another pitch? Was it strategy? Habit? Recovery? I’ve always wanted to ask.
STEVE TRACHSEL: It’s amazing how this is always the first question I get asked, even before McGwire. I wasn’t always a slow worker—it kind of evolved during the last years in Chicago and came to a head in New York. It wasn’t something I was ever conscious of during the game until I got to New York and started watching tapes with our pitching coach, Charlie Hough. I guess some of it was strategy that became a habit that took years to correct. I noticed that it only happened with runners on base as well. From the wind-up the game moved as it should. The correction came when I actually asked Charlie to time me in the dugout and let me know the results in between innings. That’s when the game times started to drop, but by then I’d been slow for so long that it was gonna stick no matter what. Newsday’s Marty Noble actually did a check on it one year and he showed that Kevin Appier and Al Leiter had longer game times than me. That made for a lot of long games that year, I guess
J.P.: In the lord’s year of 1998, you surrendered Mark McGwire’s 62nd home run, to break Roger Maris’ record. You’ve since stated that you knew he was using; that it was beyond obvious. So I’d like to ask you this: A. Did that make giving up the homer worse—knowing the man was cheating? And can you, having played nearly two decades in the Majors, understand why one would cheat and willingly break the rules to accomplish things?
S.T.: I never have said that I knew Mark was cheating. It was just that I had suspicions like everybody else. I’ve never had any proof that anyone used steroids. At the time of the homer the Cubs were in a tight race for the Wildcard so my focus was entirely on winning that game and getting us to the postseason.
As far as why guys did it—lots of factors apply. Money has got to be the biggest reason, followed by statistics that get you more money. The recovery factor also plays a big factor from what I understand. I understand it from those standpoints but I don’t accept them because it created an uneven playing field for those who chose not to do it.
J.P.: Here’s what I know—you’re from Fullerton, California, you graduated from Troy High School, you led Long Beach State into the 1991 College World Series. But Steve, where did you love for baseball come from? When did you first realize you were special at the game? Was there a moment? A time? And when did you first know you’d be more than merely a good local player?
S.T.: My love of the game definitely came from my father. He was always involved since Little League and I remember pitching to him in the backyard after the Saturday Game of the Week. We spent lots of time at batting cages and we went to many Dodger and Angel games.
It was a long time before I realized I was special at the game. I was never the best player on any team I ever was a part of. I only played varsity baseball my senior year and went to Fullerton Junior College before Long Bea ch State. I knew I would get a chance at being drafted during my sophomore year but wasn’t until after my junior year. I remember being in Double A and Paul Wagner from the Pirates was called to the Big Leagues and won his first start. We had similar stuff and I knew then that I would get a shot—if I stayed healthy—to pitch in the Majors.
J.P.: This is sort of out of order, but it’s a question I’ve long wanted to ask a Major Leaguer. When we, the media, would enter the clubhouse after a game, we’d ask about the “mood of the team” or “what are you guys thinking?” Steve, is this nonsense? What I mean is, how in the world would you know what, say, Rey Ordonez is thinking at any given time? And with 24 different men, doesn’t the mood vary from guy to guy?
S.T.: This one is kind of nonsense. I always felt that if your team is winning the mood was always gonna be good. Now I can see that during the playoffs the mood could get tight because of pressure, but that’s when you needed to have players who could lighten the mood in a clubhouse. Maybe that speaks more to team chemistry and having everybody on the same page and not mood so much.
J.P.: I recently had a chat with a former Major Leaguer, and he said to me, in a moment of blunt honesty, that, in the big leagues, team success is generally the third priority, after solidifying the best contract and compiling personal statistics. Steve, is there truth to this? Is winning not as important as fans would like it to be?
S.T.: I hope to God that this guy was never a teammate of mine. That’s amazingly selfish. Winning was why I was there. You spend your entire life trying to get to the Majors and you’re just satisfied with numbers and money? That sucks. If you win and are on a winning team those things naturally come with it. I know as a fan of other sports I watch only to see my team win.
J.P.: In 1996, you made the All-Star game as a Chicago Cub. Three seasons later, you lost 18 games and had a 5.56 ERA. I’ve never fully grasped the dramatic fluctuations players can have from one season to another to another. How do you explain it? I mean, you were still—chronologically—in your prime. Why does this sort of thing happen?
S.T.: The simplest reason is that this game is tough. Other than that many things happen throughout a season or from year to year. Player turnover is a big part. Health is another. That year I pitched poorly and maybe tried to do more than I was capable of doing. I think when a player is struggling it’s better to go back to the basics instead of trying harder to make the adjustments necessary to find the consistency that made you successful in the first place.
J.P.: I’m gonna ask you an awkward question, and hope enough time has elapsed for you to answer it. I covered the Mets a ton when I was at SI, and I ALWAYS presumed Mike Piazza was a PED guy. All the signs were there—his back WAS coated with acne; he WAS a late-round nobody who grew enormously; his growth coincided with stints in Latin America; etc … etc. Steve, I’m not asking you whether Mike used. What I’m asking is this: Since the Players Association fought and fought and fought against proper testing, is it wrong for me (and others) to take guesses and stabs and rely on circumstantial material? I mean, if the testing wasn’t there, what are we supposed to do?
S.T.: I think during that time that was all you could do. We can debate all day about what the union did or didn’t do about testing. I think the owners share equally in not wanting testing. Many players got caught up in the circumstantial elements with inflated numbers and the way they looked. That being said, we will never know for sure on most of them.
J.P.: The Baltimore Orioles released you on June 13, 2008 and—like most ballplayers—you sorta vanished into midair. Steve, what have you done since retirement? Do you miss the game? Do you still watch?
S.T.: I tried out for the Padres in 2009. They had no veteran presence on their pitching staff and were in need of starting pitchers. I felt like I threw really well for them and three weeks later, when they finally made a decision to not sign me or even look at me further, and knowing that they were probably on the bottom end of teams in the Major Leagues, I figured if I couldn’t even pitch for them then I guess it was time to be done.
I miss certain parts of the game. The guys, mostly. I don’t miss the travel and being away from my family at all. I watch a little bit of it on TV and I take my son to Petco for games but I don’t follow it real closely.
J.P.: A couple of weeks ago Jason Collins became the first openly gay active player in an American team sport. Do you think an openly gay ballplayer would have trouble in the Majors? How would you have handled it back when you were playing? I’m not asking for names, but did you know of any gay teammates?
S.T.: I definitely didn’t know of any but the statistics say that there had to be some. I would like to think that I would have handled it very maturely. It’s hard to say how it would go in a baseball clubhouse. There are multiple nationalities to deal with, all with varying views on homosexuality, but it would probably be more acceptable now than 20 years ago because I think people are just more accepting.
J.P.: You were a relatively high draft pick (eighth round) who shot up the system quite quickly. You had a fantastic five-team, 143-win career. Just great stuff worthy of tons of pride. I’m wondering, though, does there come a point when one must accept what he is and isn’t? What I mean is—you were a good, solid Major League starter who ate up a lot of innings. Did there come a point when you realized, “I’m not going to the Hall of Fame; I’m not Bob Gibson. I’m just … good.”?
S.T.: I don’t think I ever saw myself as a Hall of Fame-type pitcher. I didn’t throw hard and strike lots of guys out. I felt that every time I took the mound my team had a chance to win that day and that was my goal. I could see that some guys were better than me, but that didn’t change what I felt I had to do to be successful. Sixteen years was more than I ever thought I would play when I was in college and I’m proud of all the good things I accomplished in my career.
• In 2000 you were a member of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. How would you describe life in the Tropicana Dome?: Really quiet and disappointing.
• Climate change—hoax or real? And how worried are you?: Most likely a hoax. I’ll be long gone by the time I would need to worry.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Stratego, Will Smith, Edgardo Alfonzo, Snicker’s, Wrigley Field, the USFL, Joe Biden, cold ziti, Terms of Endearment, toe fungus: Edgardo Alfonzo, Wrigley Field, Snickers, Will Smith, cold ziti, Stratego, USFL, Terms of Endearment, toe fungus, Joe Biden.
• The world needs to know—what was it like playing with Kevin Orie?: Too short … good player who got hurt too early.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, details?: Never have. Hope I never do.
• Five nicest guys you ever played with?: Rod Beck, Joe McEwing, Brian McRae, Robin Ventura, Aaron Heilman
• Five reasons one should make Poway, California his/her next vacation destination?: Close to the beach, close to mountains, close to downtown San Diego, Stone Brewery, perfect weather.
• If we give you 20 Division I college starts right now, what’s your pitching line?: 14-6, 3.40 ERA
• On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being most convinced), how convinced are you there’s life after death?: 3 1/2
• Biggest myth about life in the Major Leagues?: Groupies.