Then and Now: RC Q&A with Bill Sampen

Bill Sampen pitched for the Royals from 1992-1993, and entered the organization in a 1992 trade with Montreal that also sent Chris Haney to Kansas City in exchange for Sean Berry and Archie Corbin. Sampen, a 6'-2" right-hander, is our latest guest in this edition of "Then & Now".

Royals Corner: Thanks for taking the time to join us, Bill. You attended MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois and besides being the MVP of the baseball team in 1985, were also the MVP of the basketball team in both 1984 and 1985. Which sport did you originally go to school for and consider your strength when you first arrived on campus?

Bill Sampen: Well, I thought I was a basketball player, like everyone else from the Midwest, so I really went to play basketball. I didn't have any baseball offers mainly because I went to a really small high school and so didn't get much exposure at all.

In fact, I actually got cut from our American Legion Team, and I did finally play on that team after my senior year of high school, but I just never got much interest. I didn't pitch much for that team and mainly played short. So part of the lack of baseball interest was that I developed late, and part of it was that I also didn't have much exposure at that point, either.

RC: Before we talk more about your career, refresh our readers on what pitches you threw and what mentality you had on the mound?

BS: Well, I threw a two-seam and four-seam fastball, sinker, slider and changeup. And really, the mentality that I tried to maintain was to make a hitter beat me. I didn't have overwhelming or overpowering stuff, but I learned somewhere along the way, probably in the minor leagues, that if you're going to lose, get beat. Don't beat yourself.

RC: The Pittsburgh Pirates selected you in the 12th round of the 1985 draft. Besides the Pirates, which other teams were scouting you, and did you ever dream you'd be selected in the draft when you first set foot on campus?

BS: No, I didn't dream of it ever happening when I got there. Somehow getting cut from the Legion team put a damper on my dreams (Laughs). To be honest, I don't remember who else was scouting me besides the Pirates, but I do remember plenty hovering around and scouting. I was shocked when they took me. But by the end of my senior year, I did have a pretty good feeling that someone would select me from talking to scouts. Probably at that point, I wasn't real confident, so in the back of my mind, I'm thinking I'd be taken somewhere in the 185th round, even though I know they didn't go that high (Laughs). So the 12th, I was surprised by it, but not totally.

RC: Your first five seasons in professional baseball (1985-1989) were spent in the Pirates system, with stops in Watertown, Salem and Harrisburg. What do you remember about those years?

BS: I had quite a bit of arm troubles in my first two or three years. In fact, I had two surgeries in my first three seasons, and my first two seasons, really didn't pitch a lot. That was a bit of a battle, but I was determined to hang in there.

My third season, although my arm was hurting a lot, I pitched a lot, and that's kind of where I grew up as a pitcher and learned how to pitch through failures and some successes. And I think those were some really maturing years for me as an individual, too, during that time. I had some challenges and I found out a little bit about myself. Don't know that I'd want to go through it again, but I sure wouldn't trade the experience.

RC: 1989 was a big year for you at (AA) Harrisburg, as you tied for the league lead in games started (26) and finished 11-9 with a 3.21 ERA and 6 complete games. Following the year, you were selected by the Montreal Expos in the Rule V Draft. Were you surprised at all to be picked, and how tough was that after growing up in the Pirates organization?

BS: I was a little bit surprised by that. I knew a bit about that draft but I wasn't real well versed in it or what it meant. I really had no contact with anyone from the Expos organization, so I had no heads up and that was a surprise.

In all honesty, it wasn't that hard to leave the Pirates organization, not because I had ill feelings, but because I knew it was an opportunity, and as I looked ahead of me in the Pirate organization at that time, I didn't see a likely opportunity forthcoming there. So again, it wasn't like I was happy to get out of there, but I just saw it as an opportunity and was thankful for it at that point after being there for five years and being 27 years old - it was probably about time to move up or move out.

RC: You made the Expos out of spring training in 1990, and became the first Montreal rookie since Carl Morton in 1970 to lead the team in wins. For the year, you were 12-7 with a 2.99 ERA and 2 saves in 59 games. How surreal was that season, especially the 6-0 start you enjoyed to begin the year?

BS: Yeah, it was pretty surreal. The year before, as you said, I'd been in AA as a 27-year old, and then to have that kind of opportunity, much less success, was probably a little bit more, or quite a bit more than I'd expected that first year. The makeup of our team was such that to get 11 wins out of the bullpen, you either had to be playing in a lot of close games or blowing a lot of leads (Laughs). And we were playing in a lot of close games, and were just a bunch of scrappy guys that didn't overwhelm anyone but hung around, and I'd always come in tied or down one, and they'd always come back and win. So my success in terms of wins and losses was really just the result of the makeup and character of that team. Tim Wallach, Tim Raines, along with some of the rookies, they wouldn't quit and we battled back. But if you told me I'd end up with 12 wins before that season, I would have signed on that line right away.

RC: You mentioned a few of them, but you played with some highly successful players that year in Dennis Martinez, Oil Can Boyd, Andres Gallaraga, Delino DeShields and Raines. What did they teach you and whom did you consider your mentor?

BS: Well, really what I learned from those guys was the right way to approach the game. What I mean by that is to do so as a professional, to show up everyday and play. You look at a guy like Tim Raines or Wallach or Gallaraga, they all had great success but were very humble, and treated new guys as a teammate and not someone as inferior to them. They were prepared to play physically and mentally each day, and they played the right way while respecting the game and teammates. They really were great models of what it meant to be a professional athlete in my mind.

Probably a guy I'd look at as a mentor was Tim Burke, and that was because he was a pitcher. We spent quite a bit of time eating sunflower seeds, flicking pumpkin seeds, stuff like that in the bullpen together. He and I spent more time together than I did with most of the other guys, and he was not only a mentor in terms of baseball, but also we were both Christians and a great help and encouragement to one another.

RC: For the year, the team went 85-77 (3rd in the NL East) and you played under Buck Rodgers. What was it like playing for him?

BS: It was great. Buck was a players Manager. He kept his distance and let you play and showed up to give you counsel and advice and encouragement, or get on you when needed, but was really an easy guy to play for. If you just did your job and went about your business as a professional, you certainly weren't going to have any difficulty with Buck. I can't imagine an easier guy to play for.

RC: Was that your favorite year in the majors?

BS: Well, in a lot of ways, sure, being the first year, having success, and we were in the hunt until late in the season. There were a lot of positives about that year for sure.

RC: French is often spoken in Montreal. Was it a culture shock at all living up there, and how were the fans?

BS: (Laughs) Wow, that's loaded. Well, it was a little bit of a culture shock, yeah. It was different for sure with it being a French province. Most of the folks up there spoke English, but some didn't, so there were some challenges there.

The fans there, I guess I would say were enthusiastic, but also baseball is not their number one love. It's a hockey town, and when you're the Expos and you're competing with the Canadiens, who had such a storied history and so much success, that's a pretty tough act to follow. So I'd say they were enthusiastic, but at the same time, hockey was their first love and the Expos had never tasted the success that the Canadiens had, so it was a challenge.

RC: 1991 saw you on the Expos Opening Day roster for the second straight season, and you finished the year 9-5 with a 4.00 ERA in 43 games. You also appeared in 7 games at AAA Indianapolis, all as a starter, from June 30th to August 11th. Were you sent to AAA because the Expos saw you as a starter and wanted to stretch you out, and did you agree with the move?

BS: Well, I'm not totally sure about all of the motivation behind the move, other than there was a stretch in the season where I didn't seem to be getting a lot of mound time. So no, I didn't agree with the move, I wasn't real tickled with it, but it turned out to be a real positive. I came down and got 7 starts and got quite a few innings in and had some good success. I probably got a little confidence back, and its tough to maintain it if you're not on the mound consistently, so coming down and getting those starts allowed me to do that and we loved it in Indianapolis.

And actually, some of our most memorable times in professional baseball were in Indianapolis, and that's why we ended up moving here afterward. I wasn't real excited at the time, but it turned out to be a real blessing.

RC: 1991 was a tough year for the team, as you guys finished 71-90 (6th in NL East) and Buck Rodgers was replaced by Tom Runnels during the season. What was Runnels like?

BS: Tom was a good guy. He had been our third base coach and he stepped into a tough situation. He hadn't had any managerial experience at the major league level before that, and he hadn't spent a lot of years coaching at that level, so it was a challenge and I think he stepped into a difficult situation. He was a quality guy and I thought a lot of him.

RC: 1992 was your third straight season on the Expos Opening Day roster, and you went 1-4 with a 3.13 ERA in 44 games while the team finished in 2nd place (87-75). However, on August 18th, you were optioned back to Indianapolis and appeared in two games before the Royals acquired you 11 days later. Were you excited to come to the Royals or sad, and what do you remember about the moment you found out?

BS: Yeah, I thought it probably was time for a change, so I was excited about that and getting a fresh start. I didn't know a lot about the Royals organization at that time, but I knew Hal McRae was there, and I'd known him from the past, so I was excited about a fresh start.

RC: You came over with Chris Haney, who ended up having a good career with the Royals from 1992-1998. Did the trade make you and him closer?

BS: Not really. We weren't distant, but we didn't spend a lot of time together; he was quite a bit younger than me. So I don't know that the trade affected our relationship one way or another.

RC: The end of 1992 was good for you, as you had a 3.66 ERA for the Royals in 8 games and 1 start. How did you like your new teammates and situation in KC, and how confident were you heading into 1993?

BS: I loved the teammates - there were some great guys there. Some real professionals and great players, guys that had a lot of success, so that was a real neat opportunity and one I was thankful for, and yeah, at the end of that year, I was looking forward to the next year and by the looks of things, thought I had a good chance of making the club.

RC: The beginning of 1993 was a bit frustrating for you, as you were one of the last players sent to Omaha and missed out on the Opening Day roster for the first time in four years. What do you remember about that, and how tough of a pill was it to swallow?

BS: It was pretty tough. I just remember us being really short on left-handers, and plentiful on right-handers. I think I was probably the last guy cut, and I think Kos (Kevin Koslofski) and I were lamenting together that day as I recall (Laughs).

It was tough though, and I was really, really disappointed at that point in my life and career. That wasn't a real easy thing for me, to be honest. I was looking forward to being a part of the pen, but that's baseball, and so we picked up and moved on.

RC: You got to know Interstate 29 quite a bit in 1993, as you were called up to Kansas City twice and sent down to Omaha three times. For the year, you went 2-2 with a 5.89 ERA in 18 games for KC. What sticks out about that year?

BS: Honestly, that was the year that my desire and passion to play began to wane. One of the major players in that was that we had our first son, Isaac, that year in June of '93, and that began to change things pretty dramatically as well. In fact, I remember that Bruce Kison, our bullpen coach that year, picked up on it before I had, but said to me, "You're different Bill," and I'd known him a long time from my Pittsburgh days. He said, "You're going about things differently and you don't seem to have the fire you used to have."

He detected that before me, mid-season or later, and I think he was right on. I just hung around for awhile to make sure I was done, but it was during that year, for whatever reason, that I just didn't have the strong desire that I had before.

RC: Who were your favorite teammates in KC?

BS: Obviously George (Brett), and getting the chance to play with him was a great privilege. Some of the same things I said about the guys in Montreal were exponentially true of George. True professional. The guy had wrecked knees by then, but what really stands out was that every time he hit a ground ball to second base, he was busting it to first. Here is a guy that had 19 years in the big leagues and was a first ballot Hall of Famer, and for him to still play that way after all those years, it was a privilege to play alongside him.

But guys like (Mike) MacFarlane, (Mark) Gubicza, those kinds of guys, were just great guys and great professionals. It was just a real privilege to be around those guys for a little bit.

RC: How did Hal McRae compare to other managers you had played under?

BS: Buck (Rodgers) was the guy I played for the most back in Montreal, so he's the greatest comparison to my other Managers. Hal had a different approach and different temperament than Buck, a different personality. He'd been our roving hitting instructor in Montreal so I'd known him for years. I loved Hal, I loved to sit and talk with him, or actually, just sit and listen to him. He was so knowledgeable of the game and hitters and pitchers, and I thought the world of him. He was fiery as a Manager and we weren't very good when I was there, and that was pretty frustrating for Hal, and I think it was for everyone, but I'm not sure too many guys know the game any better than he does.

RC: Following the 1993 season, you were granted free agency and left the Royals for the California Angels. How do you feel your times with the Royals went, and were you numb by that point from the tough season?

BS: Yeah, I was a little numb, and honestly, I hadn't given the Royals any reason to keep me, that's for sure. And so when I left, I was honestly just playing out and making sure that I was done and seeing if a new environment would rekindle a spark in my heart. When I went to California, that's where Buck was. Buck and Ken Macha, who I also knew very well, and I thought that'd be a good place to see if I had desire left. I loved Kansas City – both Amy and I did – and we had a great time with great people. But, I just hadn't been productive and my desire was waning, so it was time to see if I had a desire to continue playing.

RC: You appeared in 10 games for the Angels in 1994 before being released on July 10th. Did you ever play baseball again after that?

BS: No, that was it. In fact, I had asked the Angels to release me, but instead they sent me down. So I just rode it out to make sure I was finished, and when they released me, I was frankly pretty happy (Laughs). I suppose it's a little unusual to be happy getting fired.

RC: Did the impending baseball strike of 1994 affect your career at all?

BS: No it didn't affect me at all. In fact, the timing was perfect for me, in that I was done when that all took place and was watching it from the outside.

RC: When you look back at your career, what are your favorite moments?

BS: Well, some of the things that are irreplaceable are just the thrill of that competition, especially against the premier athletes in the world. In particular, my debut in St. Louis stands out.

But really, just the opportunity to play alongside some not only great players, but also a lot of great individuals and great people, the learning experiences along the way, those things all stand out, and like I said before, some of those I wouldn't want to go back and redo, but I wouldn't trade any of it. I really feel fortunate to have had the opportunity.

RC: What do you remember most about Kansas City, both on and off the field?

BS: On the field, the tradition that was there from the ‘70's and ‘80's. I grew up a Cardinals fan so I remember the World Series and all that. The tradition.

Off the field, what I remember were the thunderstorms (Laughs). Those were some of the greatest thunderstorms I've ever experienced in my life! Those were awesome; I loved them, although my wife Amy was scared to death (Laughs).

RC: Do you keep in touch with any of your former teammates from the Royals, and have you seen KC play in person since leaving the organization in 1993?

BS: No, I haven't stayed in touch with any of the guys from Kansas City. Not for any reason other than I'm too busy doing other stuff.

And no, I haven't been back there, and I'd like to do that. I've got three boys who love baseball, and I'd love to get back there and take them, maybe even this summer.

RC: When you look back, do you consider yourself a member of one team or feel like you have loyalties to one in particular, or did all the moving around kind of make that tough?

BS: Yeah, it made it tough to have loyalties bouncing around. That's the biggest difference in the game today from yesteryear. In fact, I'll never forget this.

One day, George asked me what it was like to play in Wrigley Field, and that really struck me. Here's a guy that's been around the game for however many years, and he hadn't played in any of the ballparks from the other league. That was uncommon even then, and it's almost unheard of now. So loyalties, I don't know, I guess because I started with and spent the most time with Montreal, I kind of feel like that's what I'd call a loyalty, especially since they're gone now.

RC: Yeah, must be a weird feeling. What has Bill Sampen been doing the last 13 years, and where will we find him today?

BS: I have actually for the last 10 years been here at the Bethesda Baptist Church in Indiana, and for about eight of those years, I was directing our sports ministries, and the last two years I've transferred into the role of Senior Associate Pastor, which means I help in overseeing ministries. And that's what I'm still doing today; although it is only 12:30 and there is a lot of day left (Laughs).

RC: (Laughs) Thanks a lot for your time Bill. Anything else you'd like to add?

BS: No, I don't think so. Thank you for thinking of me and I enjoyed the talk.

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