Q&A: Minor Leaguer John Birtwell

John Birtwell pitched four years at Harvard and has gone 12-8 with a 2.25 ERA in three minor league seasons. A co-winner of the team's 2002 Minor League Pitcher of the Year award when he went 7-2 1.59 at West Michigan, Birtwell is currently battling back from arm surgery. Birtwell talked with David Laurila about his approach to pitching, and about the game of baseball through the eyes of a Harvard alum.

David Laurila: Let's start with your roots. You grew up in Walpole, Massachusetts -- do you know "Walpole Joe" Morgan?

John Birtwell: Sort of. My grandfather knew him, but I haven't talked to him much myself -- just a few times. I know he saw me pitch in high school and American Legion ball -- he liked to come out to those games once in a while. I definitely remember "Morgan Magic" in 1988.

DL: I'm guessing you grew up a Red Sox fan?

JB: Sure. I was a big fan; a loyal fan. I still follow them, but I'm with the Tigers now.

DL: Talk about that: growing up a fan of one team, but signing a pro contract with another.

JB: It's interesting. I think you learn to have a greater respect for the game as a whole. You look at the bigger picture, and see teams from a completely different perspective.

DL: Can you give us an example?

JB: The Yankees are an obvious one. I grew up hating them, but have gained a certain respect that wasn't there before. I still don't like them -- I grew up a Sox fan, after all. It's human nature to need a team to root against -- it's a yin-versus-yang thing. The Yankees play that role for Red Sox fans. Still, you see how they operate as an organization, and it's impressive. They actually showed the most interest in me before the draft -- when I was coming out of Harvard -- and they brought me to Yankee Stadium for a workout. Throwing off that mound…it was a great thrill; a humbling experience. You stand there and think about the guys who have been there before you. It makes you take a deep breath.

DL: What would that have been like -- getting drafted by the team you grew up rooting against?

JB: (laughs) I have to admit I was hoping it wouldn't happen. It would have been an honor, but…

DL: Instead it was the Detroit Tigers. Tell us about that.

JB: I had only spoken to them once, so I was a little surprised. I was graduating at the time, and Bono (from U2) was coming to speak at the ceremony. It was pretty frustrating, following the draft on the computer and seeing guys go in front of me that I felt I was on a par with. On the second day (of the draft) I listened to Bono and thought to myself that I was going to play pro ball -- I was going to find a way. When I got home there was a message that the Tigers had called. It was a good feeling.

DL: The Tigers are an organization with a great history.

JB: Absolutely -- great players have worn a Tiger uniform. I'm getting a chance to meet some of them, too, which is a super experience. The team is starting to instill some of the old pride, bringing in a lot of the greats to work with guys in the system. I've met (Al) Kaline, (Willie) Horton, (Bill) Freehan; Phil Regan was my manager in West Michigan.

DL: Talk about your experiences with some of those guys.

JB: There's so much to learn from them. Freehan is funny. I asked him about some of the pitchers he faced when he played; guys like Bob Gibson and Jim Palmer. He said, "Oh, they were all right." How's that for an understatement? He calls me "Professor" because of Harvard, and because I'm usually reading on the bus.

DL: College players have historically gotten a lot of ribbing in the clubhouse. Does that still happen?

JB: I've learned to filter most of it out, but sure. It mostly comes when you do something stupid -- and I'm certainly not immune to that! Doing something without thinking almost always brings a response like: "You went to school where? Harvard?"

DL: You mentioned reading on the bus. What have you read recently?

JB: A lot of baseball stuff. I'm always trying to improve myself, so I'm interested in what some of these guys have to say. I'm reading Catfish Hunter's "My Life in Baseball." I've recently read Dave Dravecky's book, Whitey Ford's biography; Gaylord Perry's book. I also like to know what the enemy is thinking, so I've been reading Ted Williams' and Charlie Lau's books on hitting. I've always believed that while you can only improve yourself so much physically, there's a lot more room to grow mentally.

DL: Unless you use steroids.

JB: Man, I don't know what to say about that. One thing: I hope it doesn't take a crisis for the game to do something. Corey Stringer and the guy from the Orioles (Steve Bechler) died -- not from steroids: that was ephedra -- and it took tragedies like that for people to sit up and take notice. It's a serious issue that goes beyond the cheating aspect of it.

DL: You touched on the importance of learning how hitters think. I recently had a pitcher tell me that he tries to block out the hitter and focus on pitching to his own strengths. What is your approach on the mound?

JB: I believe you have to consider your own strengths, sure. But hitters have weaknesses, and you need to be aware of what they are. A pitcher should learn his opposition -- always be prepared when he takes the mound. Hitters have a plan too, and sometimes you can use that against them. They can get themselves out if you pitch with that in mind.

DL: So, you're more of a finesse pitcher? Your numbers don't necessarily reflect that.

JB: I'm in the upper 80's to low 90's, so I'm not a power pitcher, per se. I do have a somewhat unique arm-slot, though. It's sort of a three-quarter short-arm, and I've had hitters tell me it looks like I'm throwing from my hip.

DL: It sounds like your delivery is somewhat deceptive.

JB: I hope it is. (laughs) I've never faced myself. Mostly I'm out there trying to get ahead in the count and locate one pitch at a time. Every pitcher has a way, and maybe I'm a little different. I know that I want the ball. I love being on the mound and competing -- trying to find a way to get hitters out. That doesn't mean striking everyone out, either. You can't be afraid of contact; you have eight guys behind you, and if you make good pitches you're going to get outs.

DL: You're recovering from arm surgery right now. What happened, and how close are you to returning?

JB: My arm was actually bothering me most of last year, but I pitched through it. Curt Schilling has said that there's a difference between being hurt and being injured. The days of your arm always feeling 100% end when you're about 15, so I just gutted it out. I had an MRI after the season, and it showed a little fraying in the cuff and labrum, so I begrudgingly had surgery. That usually means 6 months to a year. I came back after 8 months, and was actually back on the mound recently, in Lakeland. My first two outings weren't what I hoped for, but then again, I'm also my own worst critic. At this point I'm basically trying to figure out where I am physically. It seems like my arm strength is coming back, but the hand speed isn't there yet.

DL: And now you have mononucleosis.

JB: Yes. That makes it tough, because it's another setback and it won't do anything for my arm strength when I get back. This is a frustrating time in my career, but I hope to take something positive out of it. Adversity can be a good learning experience.

DL: What is it like facing Red Sox farm teams -- I assume you have?

JB: I have, yes. You want to do your best against everyone you play against, and in that respect it's no different. I think facing Sarasota or Portland brings a little extra, though, because of the immediacy. I also want to show the Sox what I can do, because I have to admit that there was some disappointment in them not showing any interest in me at draft time.

DL: You want to beat them, even though you grew up wearing a Red Sox cap?

JB: Like I said, I'm a Tiger now -- I have a job to do. Plus, my days of wearing a Sox cap are over until I retire -- hopefully twenty years from now -- because I don't want to pay the $100 if I get caught wearing one!

DL: $100?

JB: Sure. You get fined if you wear anything from an organization you don't play for.

DL: What does it feel like taking the mound against a Yankee farm team?

JB: (laughs) Always want to beat those damn Yankees!

DL: You split last season between Lakeland (A) and Erie (AA). The year before, you were in West Michigan. I was actually at a West Michigan Whitecaps game last summer, and it featured a bench-clearing brawl. Do you know any of the guys who were involved in that?

JB: Sure. We're like a big family down here in the minors, and most of us know each other. Word travels fast, too -- I heard all about it.

DL: Suppose you had been there. Would you have been hanging back, or right in the middle of it?

JB: (laughs) You can't ask me questions like that! Hey, it's a part of the game and you do what you have to do. There's an unwritten rule that you get fined $100 if you get involved in one of those -- and $200 if you don't!

DL: You mentioned Bill Freehan earlier. He and Denny McLain were teammates on the 1968 Tiger team that won the World Series. There's a great story from that year, where McLain grooved a pitch to Mickey Mantle, allowing him to homer in one of his final games. Can you imagine yourself doing the same thing?

JB: (laughs) Man, don't ask me questions like that, either! But it's funny, because Freehan was just telling me that story last month. I know the game was already decided when McLain did it, but it's hard to imagine doing it myself. As a pitcher, you're usually not willing to walk a guy on purpose, let alone give up a home run. I guess you never know, but it's hard to imagine. Can I tell a story about meeting Mickey Lolich?

DL: Please do. He was the hero of the '68 World Series.

JB: I know; that's why this is a funny story. I met him when he was throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at a game two years ago. I came into the dugout after warming up, and he was sitting there wearing a fishing cap. I didn't recognize him, so I asked him if he was our new shortstop -- just kind of kidding around. He said, "No, I'm a pitcher." I asked if he was a righty or lefty. He said, "lefty," and I said, "all lefties should be shot."

DL: You hate lefties?

JB: Of course! He thought it was kind of funny. But anyway, Phil Regan walked over at that point and said Lolich owes his career to him. He missed a start once, and Lolich took his place in the rotation -- and Regan never got it back. Needless to say, when I found out it was Lolich I just about fell off the bench!

DL: What about the "lefty" thing?

JB: Well, I was just having some fun, but lefties still get a lot of chances. There are fewer of them, so they seem to get nine lives. We righties have to earn our spots on the team!

DL: A lefty you probably know, Jon Connolly, was recently traded by the Tigers to the Cubs. I'm mentioning him because you (30th) and he (28th) were picked two rounds apart in the 2001 draft. In 2002 you were the Tigers' minor-league pitcher of the year, and last season he went 16-3. Despite those accomplishments, neither of you is highly touted. Is it hard for a lower round pick to get recognition and move up the ladder?

JB: It can be. I know that guys with "tools" often get the benefit of a doubt, especially in the draft. It's safer for an organization to take the 6'-10" guy who throws 95, because they open themselves up for criticism if the 6-footer who throws 88 doesn't pan out If the 6'-10' guy fails, they just say "Hey, he had the body and threw 95; who'd of thunk?" Connolly is actually a good example of that -- I do know Jon, by the way; good guy. He knows how to pitch, but doesn't throw hard, so he doesn't get the respect he deserves. There are guys with a lot better stuff who don't know how to win -- he does.

DL: While Connolly was going 16-3 for West Michigan, Mike Maroth was going 9-21 in Detroit. How would you deal with that type of adversity?

JB: You have to stay on an even keel. You can't dwell on the past, be it your last game or the previous season. It's like the Red Sox. They've had some tragic endings over the years, but you can't think about that when you take the field. It's a new season, and a new opportunity, so you have to focus on the task at hand.

DL: Growing up a Sox fan, you've experienced some of those tragic endings. Talk a little about your experiences as a fan.

JB: My experiences are much the same as everyone else's -- the thrills and disappointments. What's interesting is to look back at the players I followed. They just pop into your head, sometimes. Guys like (Nick) Esasky, (Tony) Armas, Greg Harris, Lee Smith. It's funny how many of these guys put a smile on your face when you think about them, remembering watching them play.

DL: Have you had a chance to meet any of the players you once admired?

JB: Rich Gedman came over to Harvard when I was pitching there. He caught me in the bullpen, which was a thrill. Rich is a really nice guy, too. That's one of the things I've learned; that there are a lot of really good people involved in the game.

DL: Let me ask you about someone who was a prominent academic, and a great baseball man: Bart Giamatti.

JB: I was pretty young when he was the commissioner, but I have read some of his writings. He's proof that along with good people, there are also a lot of smart people involved with baseball. (laughs) He's a Yalie, though, so I shouldn't be saying too many nice things about him. Yale and Harvard is kind of like Red Sox versus Yankees!

DL: How about another notable baseball intellectual: Moe Berg?

JB: (laughs) He was an interesting one. I've actually been meaning to pick up one of the books about his life. The espionage stuff has to be fascinating. And I love the quote about him: "Berg can speak seven languages, but he can't hit in any of them!"

DL: I assume becoming an international spy isn't a consideration, but what are you planning to do after baseball?

JB: I hate to think about that, because I want to pitch for a long time. Baseball has been such a big part of my life, and I don't know what I'd do without it. I guess I'd like to stay in the game, and I like the idea of a front office job; maybe becoming a GM. But, hopefully I won't have to make those types of decisions for a while.

DL: You mentioned the thrill of standing on the mound in Yankee Stadium. Have you been on Fenway's?

JB: I have, pitching in the Beanpot. There's obviously a reverence walking onto the field there, too -- especially having gone to so many games growing up.

DL: Keep Fenway, or build a new ballpark?

JB: Keep Fenway. I like what they've done -- putting seats over the Monster, and improving the park in general. A big thing I've been hearing about Comerica Park, in Detroit, is that they didn't retain much of Tiger Stadium's nostalgia. People miss that, and it would be the same with Fenway.

DL: You talked about gaining a new perspective on the game since turning pro. Boston has a reputation as being a tough place to play. What are your thoughts on that?

JB: Bill Monboquette, who works with pitchers down here in Lakeland, says the three toughest are Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. The fans in Boston care so much -- that plays a big part in it.

DL: Tell us a little about Monboquette. He grew up in the Boston area, and had a good career with the Sox.

JB: Monbo is great. He's another example of someone who really knows the game. He can be a character, too. He has some great stories.

DL: Let's hear one.

JB: (laughs) Ok. This is a good one -- I hope I get it right. Monbo claims that he was pitching at Fenway once, and it was "Maine Day." They had things there that Maine is known for, including lobsters and a bear. This was back when the pitchers warmed-up near the dugouts, and the bear -- it was tame -- was tied-up nearby. Monbo took a piece of gum out of his pocket after he warmed-up, and the bear started sniffing at it. So he reached over to give it to the bear, and it bit down on his entire hand! Now, Monbo is a big guy -- forearms like a sailor -- and he punches the bear, hard, in the nose! It let's go, and backs up, whimpering.

DL: That's a great story. Maybe a little hard to believe…

JB: Monbo says it's true, and knowing Monbo, I believe it -- I just hope I'm getting it right. Anyway, the bear was to be given away as a prize to the player of the game, which turns out to be Monbo. When they presented it to him, it backed up and started whimpering again!

DL: Let's finish by talking some more about the game itself. From your perspective, what is the life of a minor league baseball player like?

JB: It's a good life, but sometimes it seems like you're going in one direction and the world is going in another. You're not really looking at the days of the week like everyone else -- you're looking more at series of games. As I said earlier, it's kind of like a family down here -- you're all working for the same goals and feeling the same stresses; living the same lifestyles.

DL: And trying to make the major leagues.

JB: We are, because it's such a great game. Baseball has so much complexity and simplicity, all at the same time. I've had guys -- people who've been in the game 40 years -- tell me that no matter how long you play, you're always experiencing something new. This is what I want to do. I love playing the game, and in many ways it's all I know.

DL: That sounds funny, coming from a guy with four years of Harvard among his experiences.

JB: I think what I mean is that it becomes such a deep part of your life. I look back at where I started, and all I've experienced in the game, and it's always been what I loved to do. It's my dream to pitch in the major leagues, and when I get there I don't want to forget where I came from, and I don't want to lose my fascination for the game. I hope to be the same person I am now -- I just want to be the same person in a big league uniform.

DL: Thanks, John. Good luck fulfilling your dream.

JB: You're welcome.

David Laurila is a sports writer residing in Boston. He can be reached at DLaurila@aol.com.

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