Then and Now: RC Q&A with Dennis Rasmussen

Dennis Rasmussen pitched for the Royals in 1992, 1993 and 1995. A 6'7" southpaw that pitched parts of 12 seasons at the major league level, Rasmussen finished with a career record of 91-77, including five seasons that saw him produce double digits in wins. Rasmussen is our latest guest in this edition of "Then & Now."

RC: Thanks for joining us, Dennis. You attended Bear Creek High School in Lakewood, Colorado and played both baseball and basketball. In fact, you ultimately signed with Creighton University and competed in both sports at the collegiate level. What made you choose to attend college after Pittsburgh chose you out of high school in the 18th round of the 1977 baseball draft, and who else besides Creighton was recruiting you?

DR: Well, it was real important as the first of three boys to not only me, but also my folks, to get an education. And I almost went to the University of Hawaii because their head coach, who I think was a second year head coach, was from our conference in Denver where I went to high school. He recruited me and they had great baseball teams at that time, and I was going to be allowed to play both sports there. And the Rainbows were nationally ranked every year, but as soon as I made that recruiting trip, I realized it was way too far away from home.

Besides Hawaii and Creighton, I took my other recruiting visits to the University of Idaho, Gonzaga, and the University of Arizona, but ultimately chose Creighton on a basketball scholarship.

RC: While at Creighton, you competed against both Larry Bird (Indiana State) and Dave Corzine (DePaul) on the hardwood. What was that experience like, and what are your favorite memories of Creighton?

DR: My favorite memories were the first year that we re-joined the Missouri Valley Conference again after being Independent, and we went on and beat Indiana State three times, and the last one, at our place, to get to the NCAA Tournament.

I also played against great players like Mark Aguirre and Hersey Hawkins, but the second year, my sophomore year, was memorable, although not on a positive note. Indiana State beat us twice and went to the NCAA Tournament that year, and they were 31-0 and lost to Magic Johnson in the finals.

RC: Following your times at Creighton, you were a first round selection of the California Angels (17th pick) in the 1980 baseball draft. What do you remember about the day you were drafted and how exciting was that?

DR: Well, it was incredibly exciting and a total surprise. I really didn't pitch much because of the weather in my junior year and had a below .500 record, and I don't know, just the innings, there were 40 some innings, I didn't pitch that much. So it was quite a surprise.

On the other hand, scouts were always there watching with some of the guys we faced, like obviously Joe Carter and Phil Stephenson, who I ended up playing with in San Diego, he led the Valley in hitting and stolen bases. And of course Joe was always a tough out when we battled Wichita State, which was each time, although it was only when I or a couple of other pitchers went against them that we could keep in the game – their offense was incredible.

But anyway, it was a big surprise and a big thrill to be drafted, but I also knew in the spring of that year that I was moving toward what I needed to go in case getting drafted didn't happen. I took the test for Dental School, as I wanted to be a dentist and majored in Biology and Psychology, and with some help and good recommendations, I was hopeful to get into Dental School.

RC: Wow. But you really had no clue you'd get drafted, let alone in the first round?

DR: No, I had no idea, honestly. I didn't pay attention – it was a complete and total surprise. Our coaches hadn't had experience with players in the professional draft, so I don't think the scouts or anyone really communicated with them. It was honestly a complete surprise. It was a totally 180 degree change of thought. There was no question I was going to sign and obviously, as a first round pick, somebody thought I was a good enough pick even with no breaking ball. I actually learned my breaking ball the first day I reported to Salinas, California in A-Ball. It was the same way I held it my whole career, my knuckle curve.

RC: Your grandfather was Bill Brubaker, who was a big league infielder with the Pirates and Boston Braves in the 1930's and 1940's. How close were you to him, and did he influence your career and life at all?

DR: I was very close to him. Unfortunately he passed away in 1978 before I got that opportunity, but I also believe he's the reason I got drafted by the Pirates because he played for them and was very close to them. So back in high school, when I was selected by them, I think he had something to do with that. But my goal was to go to school at that time and play major college basketball.

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

DR: Fastball, curve, cut fastball and changeup. The changeup was probably my worst pitch (Laughs). And I look back on it, and I think as my career progressed, they say it's easier to get there than it is easy to stay there. I think I was a pretty astute pitcher and I needed to be because I wasn't overpowering and I had to rely on scouting reports and watching other pitchers on our staff and how they got hitters out. I would videotape my games and watch those and watch how others pitched against particular hitters and exploited their weaknesses. I considered myself a student of the game and was always learning how to get the edge.

RC: You are known for having one of the best pickoff moves of all time. How do you learn something like that and how important was it for you during your career?

DR: Well, I learned it because of being big long and lanky. I was slower to the plate and I needed to develop a better way to hold runners because they were running wild and I wasn't giving the catcher enough to even make a throw. So I just kept developing different ways and working with different pitching coaches at different minor league stops, and I finally figured it out, how to develop a good move without lobbing stuff to the plate. Therefore, teams didn't run on me as much and if they did, I did pick off some guys.

RC: You pitched in Salinas, Holyoke, and Spokane from 1980-1982 in the Angels' minor league system. What do you remember about those three stops and who were some of the guys that you played with that we'd remember?

DR: One that got to the majors and had a long career was my roommate and a guy that stayed with me in my 27-foot trailer, and that was Gary Pettis. Also my catcher was Darrell Miller, whose brother is Reggie and sister is Cheryl. I just saw Darrell at the Winter Meetings and we've got some great memories. But he was my first catcher in Salinas.

The minor leagues are the most memorable time because that's where true friendships begin - money doesn't play a factor. Even at that time, signing bonuses weren't huge like they are now. They were big comparatively speaking, but you were all making the same, which was nothing. In Salinas, we had house parents and other places we were on our own. There were times where we had a dozen eggs and we'd put our initials on half of them. You figured out a way to make ends meet because you had limited finances. I did odd jobs in the off-season, and I ended up playing winter ball and instructional ball, which took me through most of the off-season in 1982 and 1983, but still did the odd jobs for six weeks or so.

RC: 1983 was a big season for you, as you went 13-10 in Columbus with a 4.57 ERA before being traded to the San Diego Padres on September 12th. You made your big league debut four days later in Atlanta. What do you remember about that game?

DR: I remember that I came in and we were down five or six to nothing, and I was in relief of Tim Lollar, and the first hitter I faced was Glenn Hubbard, and the first or second pitch he hit a line drive over first, a one hopper right to Tony Gwynn. And I got out of it but I was facing the middle of the lineup – Dale Murphy, Bob Horner, so that was a great experience.

And then also, I remember my big league initiation; I think it was that third or fourth game of the series on getaway day when I got initiated in the clubhouse. I was the recipient of the three-man lift.

RC: (Laughs) Three-man lift?

DR: (Laughs) Yeah. Anyone who reads this, a former player, will know what that is. I was the middle guy though and didn't know it, and I was the one being held down. And everybody was chanting for Kurt Bevacqua, who was thinking that he could lift all three of us as we were interlocked on the floor. The two outside guys are holding me down as everybody is brewing up mustard, mayonnaise, shaving cream and shampoo. And they pulled my shorts down and threw all this stuff on me (Laughs). It was quite the experience – welcome to the big leagues, rook.

RC: (Laughs) Your first big league start came a few days later on October 1st when you faced the Braves again, and while you weren't the pitcher of record, you retired the first 14 hitters you faced. How did that compare to your major league debut?

DR: That was a great experience – the one thing that I'll never live down though is that I gave up a solo home run to Bruce Benedict right down the line, and he hit limited home runs and that was his only one that year. He was originally from Omaha and his dad was an umpire there, so he was a local guy, and I heard about it for years on end after that.

RC: You opened 1984 on the Padres Spring Training roster, but were soon traded to the Yankees for Graig Nettles and ultimately went 9-6 with a 4.57 ERA for the Yankees in 24 starts. How exciting was it becoming a Yankee and playing under Yogi Berra?

DR: That was really the trade that gave me an opportunity to get to the Big Leagues because it was the very last day of Spring Training, and I was the sixth starter on a five man staff with San Diego, so I had a much better opportunity in New York. So after a month, I started off well and the Yanks were struggling, and I got a chance to get called up. Yogi Berra said, "Hey Kid, welcome to the Bigs, now show me what you got."

They were struggling at the time and basically, I got the ball every five days and showed people that I deserved to stay in the Big Leagues.

RC: Do you have any funny Yogi Berra stories or "Yogi'isms" that you were personally witness to?

DR: Yeah (Laughs.) Probably the biggest thing, and I think he took this from my Triple-A manager Stump Merrill, but Yogi joked with me and said, "When I come out to talk to you or take you out, I want you to step off of the mound so I can stand on top of the mound. That way we can be closer to the same eye level instead of me standing on the mound looking down on you." (Laughs)

But he was just a very, very comforting guy and showed a lot of confidence in the young players, and we all needed that as young players when we first came up because a lot of us came up together from Columbus. (Don) Mattingly, Bobby Meacham, and a lot of young guys that came up that year ended up having lengthy careers in the Bigs.

RC: You bounced between New York and Columbus in 1985, and pitched well during your time in New York, going 3-5 with a 3.98 ERA in 16 starts. The team finished just 2.0 games behind Toronto that year for the playoffs. How frustrating was it to miss out?

DR: We had great teams every year I was there. They always have good teams. And it was frustrating. The whole American League was tough, with Baltimore, Toronto, Boston and it was just unbelievable. We kept beating up on each other but it was a great time - so many great rivalries.

RC: You also made your first Opening Day roster in 1985. How great of a feeling was that?

DR: That's a great feeling, there's nothing like being there for Opening Day. You cherish each and every one of those because you never know when it's going to be your last. I always took that attitude, you're only as good as your last pitch and you go out there as hard as you can for as long as you can, take the ball every five games and keep the team in the game. I took a lot of pride in that and I think I didn't take it for granted to have that opportunity to live out a dream. I enjoy sharing that with people today.

RC: There was a managerial switch that year (1985) with Yogi Berra being replaced by Billy Martin. What was it like playing for Martin?

DR: Well, he was named the manager in Chicago and we were 6-10 at the time. It was so early in the season so that was disappointing, but Mr. Steinbrenner decided to make the move.

I don't think Martin liked pitchers that much and it seems like we caught his raft, especially the younger guys. He liked veteran pitchers, or at least he didn't give them as hard of a time. So it was a whole different experience than playing for Yogi – a total 180-degree change. But I'll tell you one thing, there was no better manager in creating offense for our team. We scored more runs and he could create offense – you hear about "Billy Ball" and it truly was when you've got Rickey Henderson leading off. If he's not hitting a home run, he's getting on base. You're on the road and you've got the lead, that's a pretty big advantage.

RC: 1986 was the first year of your career that you spent the entire season on the Big League roster, and you responded by going 18-6 (4th in the AL) with a 3.88 ERA. That was also the first year that Lou Piniella managed the Yankees. How did he compare to Martin and Berra?

DR: Billy and Lou were very similar, and I think Lou patterned himself after Billy in that he had that same temperaments and standards. It carried on the field and it still does to this day. He's mellowed quite a bit from the early days and it was a great experience playing for him.

I was also fortunate in that I didn't pitch that well in 1985, and I was on the bubble in spring training in 1986. And it actually came down to my second to last start, and I had a bad outing and I thought that'd be it. But Tommy John came up hurt and I was scheduled to pitch in a minor league game, which is the kiss of death when you're trying to make the Opening Day Roster. Turns out, at 10 PM one night I got a call saying I needed to be on the bus to go to Haynes City, Florida from Ft. Lauderdale to pitch against the Royals the last spring training start before Opening Day, and that was my break. I went 7 innings and gave up one run against KC and Piniella named me the 5th starter. He put himself out on a limb and I appreciated it and did pretty good that year.

RC: You spent the majority of 1987 with the Yankees and went 9-7 with a 4.75 ERA before being dealt to Cincinnati for Bill Gullickson on August 26th. Was that an exciting moment for a fresh start or somewhat of a devastating one since you were leaving the proud Yankee organization?

DR: I was disappointed that they kind of gave up on me, is how I felt. I was still young and had just come off of an 18 win season and struggled a little bit in 1987, but we did as a team also, so that was frustrating. But they wanted a veteran pitcher and a right hander, because I think at that time we had all righties in the rotation, and I thought they gave up on me too early, which ended up being the case, I think. I finished up okay in 1987 and struggled at the beginning of 1988.

RC: Were your years with the Yankees the favorite of your career, and what was it like pitching so often in Yankee Stadium?

DR: It's truly the only place to play. It truly was a great experience and I consider myself a Yankee and always will, and it was a privilege to play there and be a member of the New York Yankees.

RC: When you got to Cincinnati, you played under Pete Rose. What kind of a man and manager was he?

DR: He was definitely a players manager, and he could make things happen. We had some decent teams there with guys like Kal Daniels, Eric Davis, Mario Soto and Bo Diaz – just a lot of good players. That was a good experience and I got to maintain some good friendships from those teams.

RC: 1988 was somewhat of a frustrating year for you, as you were just 2-6 with a 5.75 ERA when the Reds dealt you back to San Diego for Candy Sierra. Did you ever expect to go back to San Diego again after they let you go so quickly in 1984?

DR: I never did but I'm glad it happened and that it worked out for me to continue my career and work with the late Pat Dobson. He saw a flaw in my delivery and was able to articulate it to me so I understood it, and that's the art of a good pitching coach. Then, I had to go out and do it, and I did.

RC: You pitched with the Padres from 1988-1991 and won double-digit games in three of the four seasons while pitching under Jack McKeon and Greg Riddoch. What stands out about those years?

DR: I enjoyed playing with Tony Gwynn again. We went to winter ball together in the winter of '83. We were all together - Tony Gwynn, Kevin McReynolds, lots of us. And going back to play with all those guys, like Bruce Hearst, and then watching the development of Andy Benes, he was a great young pitcher and friend, and throw in Benito Santiago, who had a long career, it was fun to throw to him and know that he could control the running game all by himself.

RC: 1991 saw you pitch in 24 games at the major league level but develop some shoulder problems. How long did you pitch through them before you reported the problem to the trainer?

DR: It was actually a freak thing. It was Father's Day and I started warming up and my shoulder basically locked up. And I tried to go out there and pitch and it really never loosened up. I gave up a run early and then a 3 run homer, and when they took me out I was almost in tears it hurt so much. I think I ended up going on the DL and taking oral cortisone and I think I missed two starts and was back in there and finished out the year. I actually pitched pretty well; I just didn't put many "W's" by my name.

RC: You played for five teams and three organizations during the 1992 season, bouncing from Rochester to Iowa to the Chicago Cubs to Omaha to Kansas City. How did you manage to pull that feat off?

DR: (Laughs) That was truly my most memorable season. After struggling and being the last cut in Spring Training with Baltimore and going to Rochester and being promised to be in the rotation and that didn't happen, I asked for my release. I drove all night to Chicago where the Cubs were playing the Padres. I got to the team hotel at 7 AM and asked the Padres GM if he was interested in seeing me throw. He wasn't, so I went over to Sid Thrift, who was also having breakfast in the lobby of the hotel that morning. And I told him I was healthy and wanted to show him, and he told me to meet him at the stadium. So I did, I went to stadium and waited for a couple of hours and they (the Cubs) gave me a uniform. I threw on the side, and they called my agent afterward and signed me.

I went to Triple-A in Iowa and got called up for six weeks after two starts. Frank Castillo went on the DL and I got released by the Cubs once he got back, but continued my way to Omaha and called the Royals. They signed me to Triple-A, and I pitched as well as I ever had in Triple-A and the Royals gave me a courtesy call up and rewarded me for pitching as well as I did in Triple-A, and they needed a starter and I got an opportunity to start. They continued to give me the ball that last month of September and I ended up going 4-1 and was Pitcher of the Month for the Royals. I ended the last start of the year with a one hitter, where I picked off the only guy that got a base hit, and I retired all 27 batters in 1 hour and 44 minutes. George Brett didn't play in that game, he had some lower back problems, and the next day was when he got his 3,000th hit, going 4-for-4.

RC: So wait. You just drove to both Chicago and Omaha and called the teams to let them know you wanted a contract?

DR: Yes. I went there personally – I drove all night from Rochester, New York to Chicago so I could get there, knowing that they'd be having breakfast or I'd be able to meet them before they took the bus to go to the ballpark.

RC: Wow. Okay, let's backtrack a second. You went 3-3 with a 1.42 ERA for Omaha in 11 games that year (1992). Talk about what it was like pitching in Omaha again after you went to college there so many years earlier?

DR: It was great because I have four daughters that live there and they all got to see Daddy pitch. A lot of good friends and a lot of family are in Omaha, and they'd all come out on days that I pitched and it ended up being a very, very rewarding experience I was able to work with some of the younger pitchers and work with Mike Alvarez, who was our pitching coach and help some of these younger guys develop.

RC: Who were some of the young Omaha pitchers that you really worked with?

DR: Well, Rick Reed was there; he had some great success but hadn't had an opportunity. Enrique Burgos, who just never stuck but had a great arm, and unfortunately didn't have as long of a career as we all thought he would. He was a big lefthander. And then position player wise, Jeff Conine was there, Sean Berry, Joe Randa, Kevin Koslofski… We had a lot of guys there that were fun to be around and we'd talk hitting on the bench, too, and they would ask me how I thought they would be pitched, so we had a lot of interaction, it was very much a team oriented place. Jeff Cox was a great manager to play for and just a student of the game. He was always looking for an edge, and patterned himself after Billy Martin since he played for him.

RC: Did it ever get annoying moving around so often, especially during years like 1992, or is that just part of a baseball and a new opportunity each time?

DR: Its just part of the game – you keep trying to figure it out. I knew I could still pitch and I believed in myself. That's why I drove all night after asking for my release when I wasn't getting a chance to pitch, and when I did, it was so infrequent that I wasn't as sharp as I needed to be, and I knew I was healthy. So I showed them that I was, and it ended up on such a positive note and ended up being a very memorable year for me.

RC: How did you like playing for Hal McRae?

DR: I enjoyed playing for Hal. I enjoyed all my Royals years, I felt it was a privilege playing there, especially being so close to Omaha and seeing people come down from there and support the Royals even more so. I appreciate the opportunity that he gave me - he gave me the ball.

RC: 1993 was a bit frustrating for you, as you went 7-8 with a 5.03 ERA in Omaha and 1-2 with a 7.45 ERA in Kansas City. What do you remember about that year?

DR: I started off on a bad note in spring training. I had a foot problem that I had surgery on, a nerve that I had surgically removed, and it just took awhile to get back. That was my push off foot and I really struggled – I tried to pitch through it and couldn't. So that carried over into the season, trying to work myself in shape, and I ended up struggling, didn't get the job done.

RC: Following the 1993 season, you were granted Free Agency and signed with the San Francisco Giants, but never appeared in the majors during the 1994 season after being released by the Giants on May 2nd and re-signing with the Royals on May 27th. What was that year like, especially with the baseball strike, and how did that affect you?

DR: I wasn't in the Big Leagues so it didn't affect me because the minors were still playing. I wasn't a happy camper in Phoenix in pitching for the Phoenix Firebirds, just wasn't having much fun there and got released. I came to Omaha and really turned it around and pitched well. And unfortunately, there wasn't any baseball at the Big League level and they weren't going to call anyone up because they were thinking they were going on strike so they weren't making any moves. But I had a decent year, and therefore they brought me back for the 1995 season.

RC: 1995 would be your last year in the majors, as you went 0-1 with a 9.00 ERA for the Royals in five games after starting the year 6-3 with a 2.89 ERA in Omaha. After you were released July 7th, did you ever put on a baseball uniform again at the professional level?

DR: I did. Not that year, but I signed with Rimini in the Italian League. I tried to go to Japan but there wasn't an interest. Unfortunately, I wasn't in Italy long, only about six weeks. I'd never had any leg problems and I tore a hamstring that was pretty severe, and I came back to Florida to rehab, and at that time I got contacted by the Devil Rays to become a coach and decided it was time to hang up my spikes. I coached for the Devil Rays their first two years in existence. Tom Foley was the Manager and Howard Johnson was the hitting coach, and we went to Butte, Montana and took their first drafted kids.

RC: In retrospect, are you happy you held on as long as you did and played until you couldn't do it any longer?

DR: Absolutely. It was a great ride and I played it out as long as I possibly could where I could still contribute, and it was truly a memorable experience.

RC: Which of your former teammates do you still keep in touch with, and any from Kansas City?

DR: Yeah, I saw Keith Miller at the Winter Meetings. I run into Rico Rossy quite a bit, who lives in Orlando and we actually played in an over-28 wood bat league last fall, and he's still playing, so I talk to him a couple of times a week. He played shortstop in both Omaha and Kansas City.

Outside of that, I know where a lot of the guys are and I run into a lot of different guys in Spring Training or this year when I attended the meetings for the first time. It's fun – you immediately catch right back up where you left off and there could be ten years in between meetings, but it's definitely a brotherhood.

RC: What are your favorite memories of pitching in Omaha and Kansas City?

DR: Probably just the people and the fan support in both places. The personal support from family and friends in Omaha and then they would come down to Kansas City, which was just an incredibly beautiful ballpark. I loved that Midwestern feel where it was all about the Royals, good or bad, and they weren't as hard on you as playing in New York. They were very supportive throughout the years and enjoyed coming to a ballgame on a beautiful summer night at Kauffman Stadium.

RC: Finally, what is Dennis Rasmussen up to today, and what has he been doing since 1995?

DR: I coached for four years, with the Devil Rays for two and the Red Sox for two, and then I got into the financial services industry. Over the last two years I've been in Orlando with Merrill Lynch, in the private banking and assessment side of things. I really enjoy it.

RC: That's great to hear! Dennis, we want to thank you for your time. Before we let you go, is there anything else you'd like to add?

DR: Well, I really valued my time with the Royals toward the end of my career, both in Omaha and Kansas City. I thought they truly had an organization that was trying to win and from the top down, very good people that were running things, from Herk Robinson to Bob Hegman, and they continued to give me an opportunity to be a part of the organization and from that, I think I helped progress a lot of the pitchers that were coming through during my time and sharing some of my experiences. And I know on a number of occasions they had told me they appreciated that, because a lot of times it can be somewhat of a selfish game when you're trying to get yourself back up.

But I was trying to do both, to get myself back and help others realize their dreams of pitching in the Big Leagues.

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