A few years ago, after I’d written some articles for a website, Dugout Central, that he owned at the time, I talked with Mike Pagliarulo, the ’80s and ’90s third baseman for the Yankees, Twins, and other teams, on the phone. The bulk of the interview was about the 1991 Minnesota Twins, and that part was published in a Twins season preview magazine. But we also talked about some other things I was interested in learning from Mike. Here are those exchanges, organized into three subjects:
Q: I wondered what you saw in the Mariners that year in September as they made their comeback, whether there was a sense of them having changed from earlier in the season.
Mike: Yes, we had, in the final series there in Texas, we stopped the Mariners from winning the division, won the last two games against them. Johnny Oates, God bless his soul, he was our manager. The Mariners, they were a very well-balanced team, power from the right side, the left side, good pitching, ran the bases very well, they really knew how to play the game. They had dangerous hitters, could score a bunch of runs in a minute.
Q: What was it like facing Randy Johnson, someone who, at 6-10, he’d be throwing the ball a half-foot higher up than most pitchers. Was it hard to change your eye level and pick up his pitches?
Mike: You have to change, make an adjustment according to the different pitchers, so you’ll see the ball better out of his hand. With a left-hander like Johnson, I’d try to hit everything off the left-field wall. You had to have a plan for the opposition.
Randy was very deceptive, with a lower arm slot, you fought to pick up the ball. There was always a battle going on, facing him. I’d come up, struggle to see how the ball’s moving, and all of a sudden I’d be saying hey, what the heck, what happened, I’m down 0-1, 0-2.
Q: That year, you were playing against Lou Piniella, one of your former managers with the Yankees. Could you say something about his qualities as a manager?
Mike: He’s a super guy, just one of the greatest. He’s one of the most brilliant men at teaching hitting mechanics. It was fascinating to play for him with the Yankees. I was fortunate to get the chance to learn from him.
Q: To start off, I figured I’d ask if you remember the near-perfect game the A’s threw against the Yankees on May 26 in New York?
Mike: No, I don’t. What was that?
Q: The one guy to get on was Rickey Henderson, on an infield single, and then the very next hitter, Steve Sax maybe, hit into a double play. That was the only runner of the game.
Mike: Huh. That’s funny, I don’t know that game at all. We had an injury, someone-Winfield-was out with a bad back in 1989. That year my elbow was a mess. I tried to play, but it wasn’t fully recovered.
Q: What was your response when you learned of Rickey Henderson’s trade to the A’s?
Mike: In New York, we had all come up with each other in the Yankees’ tremendous minor league system. Played on the same teams, winning teams. And some guys from the organization, they had played with Rickey for 5 years. He was one of the guys, a great teammate, a phenomenal athlete, so it was hard to see people like him go.
Q: I was reading through some articles from the time, where the Yankees management was saying that Rickey’s legs were going, he wasn’t that great a player anymore. He’d been struggling a bit with the Yankees, but did you guys have any sense of him running down?
Mike: No, I wouldn’t say he was running down. When you play with a good teammate, you never want to see them go, whether they’re going well or not. You rely on each other day and day out, so you never expect someone to be traded. You never think in those terms. Rickey was a real impact player, he helped the whole lineup.
Baseball is the ultimate team game, your teammates affect how you play offense and defense, what kind of pitches you get to hit-look at the Red Sox this year , J.D. Drew batting ahead of Manny Ramirez, and how well he did. There are so many variables, it’s hard to say which one it is that impacts whether you do well.
Q: What was your impression of Greg Cadaret and Eric Plunk? Because when I went through those articles about the trade I saw Cadaret saying that at least in New York he’d still be able to talk about hunting and fishing with Plunk in the bullpen. Were they out of place in the Bronx?
Mike: [laughs] Well, some players don’t feel very comfortable in New York. It can be a rude awakening for some players, they’re out of place. Some, they adapt, but I was always real comfortable there, didn’t have to get used to New York.
Q: What, for you, were the biggest reasons why the A’s were so good in ’88 and ’89?
Mike: The A’s, they had those two big guys (McGwire and Canseco) coming up. I was talking to La Russa one day not long after he got hired by the A’s. When was that, 1986 or so? (It was.) And he had a pretty good plan for what to do with the team. They had Ron Hassey, a good friend and teammate with the Yankees.
On the A’s, everyone knew their role, what their job was, and that’s a compliment to La Russa. He ran a pretty tight ship, everyone had a place they fit into, and there was a really good mix of young and old players. Every good team I’ve been on has had that characteristic. It’s a prerequisite for winning. And they had really good coaches.
Lansford, he was a steady, steady, steady player, a real tough out. Stewart, I don’t remember how I did against. But he was like Clemens: the ultimate challenge for a hitter. You want that so much-that challenge, and the great ones, they’re great challenges. The A’s were very prepared, they always gave their best game.
In ’89, we had a coach, Dallas Green, we went outside the organization to get him, and people said, “this guy’s not a Yankee”-he wasn’t Billy (Martin) or Piniella or Yogi Berra. So it was different: he had some trouble adjusting, it wasn’t easy there.
Q: And then you got traded to the Padres not long after Rickey went to Oakland. What did you remember from playing against the Giants late that year? You guys in San Diego were running right alongside the Giants for the division title.
Mike: I remember Matt Williams having a great year, and that guy in left field, Mitchell, just everything they had (offensively). You’d look up and boom! there’s the ball flying out of the yard. The Padres had a tremendous team, one of the most talented sets of players I’ve seen. We had Jack Clark, Bip Roberts, Alomar, Santiago, Gwynn, but we were missing one pitcher.
Q: How did you respond to Billy Martin, first as your coach on the Yankees, and then upon learning of his death?
Mike: I loved Billy Martin. That was a very sad day for me. I burst out crying when I heard the news.
He was the kind of guy who wasn’t afraid to tell you what he thought of you. If I got one hit in a game and hit a couple other balls well, but they were caught, what he’d say to me was, “You dumb-ass dago, you can’t get more than one hit.” Billy was very honest.
I remember one day, a game against the Angels. It was 1985, my first full season. In the eighth inning I fielded a bunt, threw the ball to second, and the throw pulled the man off base. When I got back to the dugout, Billy was waiting on the top step, screaming at me, “What the hell were you thinking out there? That wasn’t the right play.” I didn’t back down; I told him, “It was the right play, I just didn’t make the throw.”
A little while later Clete Boyer, our third base coach, says Billy wants to see me in his office. I’m thinking I’m going to get sent down, but Billy said, “Hey look, maybe you were right about that play.” He didn’t say “You’re right,” but he said maybe I was right. He was willing to admit he was wrong. Of course he added, “You dago son of a bitch, I’m only saying this because you’re Italian.”
Billy could see the field so completely; he knew what everybody was doing. My manager with the Twins, Tom Kelly, was like that. One day I made a step on third and throw to first double play, and back in the dugout T.K. said, “Maybe you should have stepped on the base with your other foot, it would have put you into better position to make the throw.” T.K. did the same kind of ribbing as Billy, just a little quieter. I’m half-Irish, and it’s funny, one day T.K. said the exact same thing Billy had: “I’m only saying this because you’re Irish. Now get the hell out of here.” Billy and T.K., they noticed everything. Sometimes you didn’t necessarily like it, but they noticed everything.