Tuesday September 6th, 2016

The baseball season is heading into its home stretch. During Major League Baseball’s September pennant races and October postseason, players all over the league will have highlight performances that they — and their fans — will remember forever.

I am not one of those players.

My brief big league career ended seven years ago after parts of five seasons in the majors. While today’s players are having career moments on the field this fall, I’ll be continuing my off-the-field career as an attorney in San Diego.

If I were still playing, it’s unlikely I’d be creating memorable moments for the fans of my team, anyway. In fact, I never did anything in baseball that will be remembered by anyone other than those closest to me.

I did have “highlights.” It’s just that my greatest moments weren’t the type readily apparent to fans. They’re ones I savor nonetheless, though, even as they’ve long been swallowed up by the game’s vast history.

So, here are nine “innings” of top moments from a completely forgettable Major League Baseball career, presented in no particular order:

1. Not getting beat up by Adrian Beltre, Shawn Green,or the entire Dodger Stadium crowd

My career wasn’t long by any means, but for a moment I thought it was going to be a whole lot shorter — two-thirds of an inning, to be specific.

On Sept. 9, 2004, my Arizona Diamondbacks took on the Dodgers in Los Angeles. After making the most terrifying run of my life (the 300 feet from the visitors’ bullpen in right field to the mound where, if you can believe it, I was actually expected to face major league hitters!), my big league career began with a broken bat single by Brent Mayne. A few batters later, and with two outs in the inning, Steve Finley stepped up to the plate. I figured I’d surprise him with a first-pitch curveball for an easy strike one. Turns out — first pitch or not — veteran professional hitter Steve Finley was not surprised by a hanging curveball right down the middle. I figured this out as he was grunting and crushing that “surprise” curveball into the right-field bleachers.

The next batter, Milton Bradley, roped the first pitch I threw for a single. Two pitches, two missiles. So out came pitching coach Mark Davis. Davis tried to calm me down and reported that Adrian Beltre, the Dodgers’ prolific slugger and MVP candidate who was on deck, was vulnerable to the inside fastball. He made it clear, though, that I had to really get it in there. If it was over the middle, I could expect more of what Finley gave me a couple batters earlier.

To my credit, I took Davis’s guidance to heart. My best fastball of the day ended up right in the middle of Adrian Beltre’s back. Of course, sometimes batters get hit. That’s just part of the game. But in this case, I’d followed a first-pitch homer, a first-pitch laser single, and a mound visit from the pitching coach with a fastball between the shoulder blades of the Dodgers’ best hitter.

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To even the most casual baseball fan, that didn’t look good. To Beltre, it must have looked — and felt — even worse. In fact, I know it did because I could see him deciding whether it was worth his time and energy to come out to the mound to kick my ass. I think he might have done just that if my catcher, Chris Snyder, and the home plate umpire, Tim Welke, hadn’t saved me.

They told Beltre I was making my big league debut, was obviously scared to death, and was not trying to start a riot in my first career inning. Mercifully, that worked, and Beltre appeared to actually smile before heading down to first. Crisis averted.

I had been scared running in from the bullpen. Now I was petrified. And sweating. To make matters worse, up next was Shawn Green, Dodger hero and left-handed hitter. I mention that Green was left-handed because often when I missed with my fastball — especially when I was nervous and my palm was sweaty — I missed up and in to lefties. In other words, right where Green’s head resided as he took his stance. It seemed like a realistic possibility that I was going to panic, the ball was going to slip out of my hand, and I was going to hit Shawn Green in the face. Then either he, Beltre or someone from the Dodger Stadium stands was going to charge the mound and end my career, or maybe my life, before I got three outs.

With legs shaking, I somehow managed to offer up the most cowardly, batting-practice-worthy, nothing-on-it fastball ever thrown by a big league pitcher. It was about nine inches off the outside corner. Remarkably — maybe he took pity on me — Green swung at it and hit a weak ground ball to second base to the end the inning.

I was in the dugout before I exhaled. Davis came over to tell me, much to my delight and terror, that I’d have another chance at a zero because I was going back out for another inning.

“Hey,” he added, “let’s try to make it a little less eventful, huh?”

2. Beating the 105-win 2004 Cardinals

The only true on-field highlight to make this list was my first MLB win, which came 10 days into my career on a beautiful Sunday afternoon against the Cardinals in St. Louis. The Cardinals were 97–50 at the time — the best team in baseball — and while they had technically clinched the division earlier that day (through a tiebreaker), manager Tony La Russa had made it clear that he wanted to win the division on the field. So, in front of over 40,000 people at a raucous Busch Stadium, I endeavored to somehow postpone that coronation. That meant taking on Albert Pujols, Larry Walker, Jim Edmonds, and the rest of that vaunted Cardinals lineup — not an easy task.

I got the start that day and I wasn’t great, but I was good enough. I even got Pujols out once (and with my confidence soaring, he laced doubles in his next two at-bats). When the game was over and I leapt out of the dugout to go through the high-five line behind the mound (an underrated tradition in baseball after a win), I made sure to do two things: get the ball and take a mental snapshot of the way that enormous stadium looked at that moment.

What I saw was a packed house of red-clad Cardinals fans pouring out, disappointed after a rare home loss, and a scoreboard that read, “W: Gosling (1–0).” I still have the ball, which I look at often, and I still have that picture, which I think of even more.

AP file

3. Meeting Paul Molitor and Robin Yount

If you could ask the Wisconsin-bred, 8-year-old version of me what the coolest moments of my career were, there would be no question about the answer: meeting and interacting with my two childhood idols, Hall of Famers Paul Molitor and Robin Yount.

In 2003, Yount, the Diamondbacks’ first-base coach at the time, threw me batting practice during spring training. Robin Yount! I mean, taking batting practice off of my dad was about my favorite thing to do as a kid. I can’t even imagine what would have happened if someone had said to me, “Hey kid, how about we get Rockin’ Robin out here to throw you a couple — does that sound good?”

I loved Molitor even more than Yount, however, and during my few months in the Twins organization in 2009, Molitor worked with me during spring training and in the minor leagues. We talked about how pitchers often tip their pitches and he watched me closely for a few innings to see if I was giving anything away. In the process, he complimented my curveball!

If I could go back in time and tell the kid version of me (who’s already over the moon about that batting practice Yount’s serving up) that someday my baseball hero was going to legitimately compliment something I did as a baseball player, my kid-self would have fainted on the spot. As a grown man, it was almost as cool.

4. Classic songs at Wrigley Field and Fenway Park

Anyone who has been to a Cubs game (or really knows anything about baseball) knows that the Wrigley Field faithful perform a pretty mean Take Me Out to the Ballgame during the seventh-inning stretch. I’m sure it’s awesome to be in the stands, get on your feet, hoist a beer and join in. But it can’t possibly match the experience of taking it in from the center of the diamond, in full surround sound.

Likewise, Red Sox Nation puts all it has into Sweet Caroline when the Sox get ready to bat in the eighth, and it sounds great from the mound at Fenway Park.

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It might not seem like much to have the opportunity to take in these traditions from the perspective of the pitcher’s mound rather than the seats, but it’s an experience so few people ever have that I made sure to soak it in. Whenever I watch a game on TV from one of those classic parks and I can hear the fans singing in the background, I still think of those outings as I took my warm-up tosses to the chorus of happy fans. It always makes me smile.

(Similarly, I gave up a home run in my one appearance at Fenway, and despite the fact that I was pissed about the homer, I distinctly remember thinking as it left the park: Wow, from this vantage point, that ball sailing over the Monster looks kinda neat!)

5. The Delta charter flight from ATL To MIA

As I’ve mentioned, my career didn’t involve a lot of traditional highlights. In fact, I rarely made the nightly highlights. I did make SportsCenter once for giving up the third-longest home run in the history of Great American Ballpark, a 493-foot BOMB to Reggie Abercrombie in 2006. But one day in 2007, I actually made the highlight reel for the right reasons. Playing for the Reds, I came in against the Braves in the 13th inning and held them scoreless for a couple innings, striking out five. When we scored in the 15th, I got the win to complete a rare sweep in Atlanta.

After the game, we left for Miami to begin a series against the Marlins. In the major leagues, that means we took a bus from the clubhouse directly to the airplane, got a 10-second pat down before boarding, and had all the food and drink we could handle while on the plane. Then upon landing, we stepped off the plane directly onto a bus that took us right to our five-star hotel, where our room keys were waiting on a table with fresh-baked cookies.

Moral of the story: Don’t ever listen to those big leaguers who complain about all the travel.

As great as that luxury travel is, though, it was always hard for me to enjoy it when I didn’t feel like I’d earned it. A guy can’t really relax when a demotion to AAA might be right around the corner. And that first beer at wheels-up doesn’t taste so sweet for the guys who did nothing to contribute to the previous series. That’s what made my performance in Atlanta all the more satisfying. For what felt like the first time all year, I’d really earned that row to myself, and that beer, and that beachfront hotel room in which I’d wake up the next morning. I didn’t know what the next day would bring — it was possible I’d never get another big league hitter out — but for those blissful 90 minutes as we headed south, I felt like a truly valuable part of the team. I’d finally earned that big-league lifestyle, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

AP file

6. Meeting George W. Bush

I was one of about three Democrats in baseball when I played (I’m barely exaggerating; in my opinion, most guys are either rich, southern, or both, and think Democrats want to take all their money and guns). As a Democrat, it’s safe to say I was no fan of George W. Bush’s policies. Still, chatting up the President before the Nationals’ opener in their first game in Washington has to be on this list.

I only made one opening day roster in my career — for the Diamondbacks in 2005 — and we were the lucky team slated to serve as the visitor for baseball’s return to Washington after 33 years away. The occasion was tailor-made for a POTUS first pitch, especially with a baseball fan like Bush in the White House. Along with throwing the pitch, President Bush was going to stop by both clubhouses to say hello to the players. I certainly wasn’t going to use the chance to pester him with my political views, but I knew I couldn’t let the opportunity pass without engaging him somehow.

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When the President arrived, I watched as most of my teammates shook his hand and offered a fairly timid (especially for professional athletes), “Nice to meet you.” So when he got to me, I got my courage up, gave him a good firm handshake and pat on the right shoulder and asked him, “How’s your throwing arm feeling, Mr. President?” After his historic first pitch at Yankee Stadium following September 11th, I knew he took a lot of pride in his pitching skills and that this might get him talking. It did.

He said he’d need to get a few warm-up tosses in and that he had a reputation to uphold after that perfect strike in 2001. He noted how the Diamondbacks had been involved in that game, too, and talked about what a great series it was — for all of baseball and everyone all over the country. We chatted for a couple of minutes. With that twinkle in his eye as he spoke, it was easy to see why he always won the “Guy You’d Want to Get a Beer With” vote.

7. Pitching in the same rotation as Randy Johnson

For one month at the end of the 2004 season, I, as a left-handed pitcher, got to be a member of the same five-man starting rotation as the best left-handed pitcher of all time, Randy Johnson. That was cool. The coolest part? The day he asked me, as I came in after an inning, what I had just thrown to strike out a Rockies hitter. When I told him, he gave a thoughtful nod and said thanks.

I was taken aback. Was the Big Unit really implying that something I did against a particular hitter would influence how he — the most intimidating pitcher on the planet — attacked that same hitter the next day? I thought about pointing out that his 98 mph fastball and devastatingly nasty slider had absolutely no relation to anything I was offering up, but I decided to let it be. The next day, in typical form, he punched out 11, including that same guy. It only seems right, then, that one of the 4,875 career strikeouts on his tally should really get tacked on to my 74. (No? O.K., you’re probably right.)

G Flume/Getty

8. Hugging Ken Griffey Jr.

While Randy Johnson topped my “I Can’t Believe I’m Teammates With This Guy” list, Ken Griffey Jr. — the coolest player of my youth — was a close second. He was always upbeat and funny, and a good storyteller, but what really put him over the top in my book came two years after we were teammates.

Having been a part-time scrub reliever for the Cincinnati Reds in ’06 and ’07, I knew that by 2009, I’d been long forgotten by Reds fans. I was also pretty sure I’d been long forgotten by a lot of the Reds players, and I figured it was a safe bet that one of those players was Griffey. A superstar of that caliber doesn’t have time to remember all the bullpen guys who come and go, right?

I was on the Cleveland Indians in ’09 when we made a trip to Seattle to play the Mariners, Griffey’s new (and old) club. When we went out to stretch the first day, Griffey and the Mariners were finishing batting practice. Just as I was beginning to wonder whether I’d have to remind him of my name if our paths crossed over the next couple days, he started jogging in my direction.

Like a character in a bad sitcom, I looked over to my shoulder to figure out who he was coming to see before I realized that he might actually be coming to see me! When he got to me, he threw his arms open wide and said, “Hey, Goose, good to see you, man!” Next thing I knew, I was bro-hugging Ken Griffey Jr. like we were long-lost friends.

He not only remembered me, but he also made the effort to come say hello. One small gesture by him, one lasting memory for me.

9. Every call to The Show

Getting sent down from the big leagues to the minor leagues stinks. It’s embarrassing, really. Basically the team is saying — in a very public way — “You’re not good enough at your job, so we want someone else.” If that isn’t enough, a demotion comes with a severe pay cut and a swap of chartered flights, Ritz-Carltons and games that mean something for crowded buses, Best Westerns and relatively meaningless games played by guys who all want to be (and think they deserve to be) somewhere else.

(I know a lot of people love going to minor league games, and I don’t blame them. But the fact is that the minor leagues exist to serve one purpose: To develop players for the majors. Most players treat the minor leagues that way, and would trade a team win for a good individual performance every day of the week.)

On the flip side, there’s not much better in life than getting called up to the majors, whether it’s the first time or the tenth. Trust me, it never gets old. In fact, my second and third call-ups were even sweeter than my first, because the big leagues were no longer just a dream, but a real thing I had done, that I really wanted to do again. Any player who has been to the majors and back has only one thing on his mind when he’s down: finding a way to get back up. And when you’re down, it’s damn scary to know that the way may never be found.

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When later chances do come, they come full of possibility — and pressure. On the one hand, every call-up has the potential to be “the one” — the one where I go up and stay. Where I don’t just survive, but thrive. Where I will look back and think, That was the moment it all took off.

On the other hand, I was well aware that if a call-up wasn’t “the one,” it might instead be the last one. With too many guys competing for too few spots, I knew that if I didn’t perform, the club would try to find someone who could.

Unfortunately, I never had “the one.” Instead, my MLB career ran out long before I would have preferred, like nearly everyone else who ever played. And though I didn’t leave a lasting mark on the game, it sure left one on me. So this fall, as I watch postseason stars create real highlights that all fans can appreciate, I’ll take the time to appreciate my own little highlights as well — even if I have to dig a little deeper to find them.

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