Podcast: Bob Apodaca

PODCAST: BOB APODACA

Bob Apodaca pitched his entire, albeit brief, major league career (1973-1977) with the New York Mets. Over five seasons in New York Apodaca compiled a 16-24 career mark with 2.86 ERA. Apodaca joins the MetsRewind podcast to reflect on his 50 years in professional baseball.

Apodaca made his major league debut on September 18, 1973. He faced the Pittsburgh Pirates, threw nine pitches and walked the two hitters he faced. His ERA in 1973: infinity.

“Doubts went through my mind constantly all winter until I got to spring training and faced the first hitter.” said Apodaca. “It was Joe Torre and I got him out and that turned things around for me. I wanted to get it over with. I wanted to get an ERA.”

The Mets came back to beat the Pirates, 6-5, at Three Rivers Stadium. That game is often referred to as the “the game” that changed the Mets fortunes, propelling the Ya’ Gotta Believe Mets into the postseason and World Series.

Apodaca arrived in Spring Training in 1974 and there are 20 pitchers in camp. Eight spots are spoken for and the 12 remaining pitchers (including you) are fighting for the final two roster slots. Apodaca made the Mets 25-man roster out of spring training with one goal in mind: get someone out.

On April 11, he relieved Jerry Koosman in the ninth and induced Tim McCarver to ground into a game‐ending double play with two Cardinals on base. “That’s the greatest feeling in the world,” he said after the game. “It’s even a close second to sex. Now all the negative thoughts I built up over the winter are gone. I feel like a Met.”

Ironically, Apodaca pitched his final major league game on September 18, 1977, five years to the date he made his MLB debut.

The Mets released you in December 1979.

Apodaca eventually entered the coaching ranks and worked his way through the Mets system including stints in Port St. Lucie, Little Falls, Columbia and Jackson. He returned to the Mets as pitching coach (1996-1999) under Bobby Valentine. In the summer of 1999, the Mets were in the Bronx for a Subway Series vs. Yankees. The team was skidding and Apodaca and hitting coach Tom Robson were let go.

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CONDENSED TRANSCRIPTION

MetsRewind: Bob, your birthday was Sunday. You are now retired. Do you start scratching, getting ready for the baseball season when there isn’t one coming for you now?

Bob Apodaca: I still enjoy watching MLB on television. When they talk trades, when they do winter meetings or they talk about the trading deadlines. I still have an affinity with the Mets and see how they’re doing as well as I do with the Rockies that I spent several years with. I still enjoy the game and, and all that’s involved with the game. What got a little tiresome was the day-to-day. I love the interaction with the players. I missed that. The relationships you build with the players and the other staff that all greatly miss.

MetsRewind: You’re a guy who spent 50 years playing in coaching and professional baseball. I mean, you spent your entire major league playing career with the Mets as a reliever, and then obviously your long successful track record as a pitching coach, both in minor league systems and in major league systems, do you think over the next handful of years, you will go back to spring training to just enjoy that part of it, the relationships and enjoy a spring in either Florida or Arizona?

Apodaca: We’ve talked about in the spring where we would want to go, whether it be Arizona or, or Florida, where we have so many friends, cause I lived in Florida for 28 years. You can never replace the relationships.

That’s the first and foremost thing that a coach has to establish with a player. Obviously you have a trust factor, but trust should never be given trust should always be earned and trust can only be developed by building that those relationships. So those players, it really takes time at the major league level.

MetsRewind: It seems like time is at a premium at the major league level because you either perform or you don’t. So if you’re walking into a situation where you’re a new pitching coach with a team, you have to build those relationships fairly quick and earn some trust. That’s gotta be a challenging thing as a pitching coach. Isn’t it?

Apodaca: I think somebody who might be new to the organization, but I had been coaching in the Mets organization for about 15, 16 years before I got the promotion to the big leagues. So I had been coaching six years at AAA. So I had the opportunity to go to major league spring training, and I think was so beneficial to me. I mean, Mel Stottlemyre being the major league pitching coach, who just absolutely took me under his wing. I followed him everywhere if he was walking and he stopped real fast. I bumped into his back. I just followed him like a little puppy. All I wanted to do was observe.

I wanted to watch how we interacted, how he really had a genuine interest in his players, how he talked to his players, how he would correct his players. Then see that respect that he got in return, because of that genuine interest in his players. So that gave me an opportunity to be introduced to some of the major leagues.

MetsRewind: What were some of the universal truths that Stottlemyre taught you about pitching in relationships to pitchers and trust?

Apodaca: Don’t try to make everybody the same. Everybody is built differently. Everybody walks to a different beat. There are some absolutes in pitching that regardless of the style of pitcher, you are, there are certain absolutes that the quality pitchers do accomplish. You have to see what the strengths and weaknesses of those players are, then talk to them. They tell you what things they can do really well and the things they can’t do really well. And then along the way I threw in some of my own things, learning from teachers. How to ask questions and that require a response more than just a yes or no answer.

For instance, you talk to a player and say, ‘tell me about yourself? Tell me what do you do really, really well? What things do you struggle with? Why do you think that you do this really well, but you struggle with it? What is preventing you from doing this really well? And so they kind of give an opinion and you’re trying to guide them into a direction that you have a pretty good idea, because you’ve observed you try to guide them into a certain direction that you know, what that makes sense. So just by talking, communicating, just by asking pertinent questions, not trying to change them because you want them to come up with the answer. It’s like asking a teacher for the answer. You learn better by you developing the answer versus just getting an answer. So much can be accomplished just by taking the time, developing that relationship. Trying to learn about that person. Not trying to make everybody it looked exactly the same, because then that’s going to be a disaster.

MetsRewind: Stottlemyre was the guy for you who poured into you and you observed him quite a bit and listened to him a lot. When you were getting further into your career as a pitching coach were there guys coming up after you, that you were trying to do the same thing? Did they listen and have that same desire to learn it the same way or has baseball changed?

Apodaca: I think that the game has changed a lot. Players still have that desire to want to get better. Tom Seaver, I learned a long, long time ago.. my very first spring training. You work hard all day and then at the end of the day, you’re tired. So you go in and shower, you go out to your car and leave. Well, I would do that and I look out in the field and Seaver was still out there. One day he’s bunting extra. The next day he’s having ground balls hit back to him. The next day he’s having balls  hit back to him and he’s turning a 1-6-3 double play. I finally asked him one day, ‘Tom, I know I’m exhausted. Why are you still doing this? He said, “I think I can get better.’ He’s a three-time Cy Young winner and he’s telling me he thinks he can get better!? That alone, just from that time on, I stayed as long as he stayed on the field. It just left a lasting impression on me that players still want to get better.

Another example, when I was in Colorado, we acquired Jason Marquis. He had successful years in Atlanta and St. Louis, but he never had that breakout year. I said, you know, Jason, let’s, let’s really get to know each other where we can agree to disagree and have that type of relationship where we can, you know, question each other. He said, that sounds wonderful. Let’s really put our heads together and let’s make this a magical year. He said, ‘Why?’ I said, don’t you want to see how great you could be? Don’t you want to be like that? He said, ‘I don’t why. I make $10 million a year. I said, ‘Is that what motivates you? The money? Money is your sole motivation? If money is your sole motivation, then really I can’t help you. My motivation is to make you the best player you can possibly be with your input.’

And so I kind of walked away and then two days later, he came up to me and he said, ‘Let’s do it. ‘ Well that year he was 15 -1 at the All-Star break and made the All-Star team and I got one of my most prized possessions: An All-Star jersey that he wrote on and said, ‘Thank you Dac for pushing me to heights that I didn’t think I could reach.’ That’s just so meaningful. It’s a collaboration that I think every coach it’s worth his salt wants to have that relationship with that player, that their only goal is to make that player be extremely happy with the progress they make.

MetsRewind: You made your MLB debut on September 18th, 1973. Do you remember that appearance?

Apodaca: Oh, God. Absolutely. I had finished my, my season and AAA had a really good season at Tidewater. I drove back to California, which took about five days. I was probably home for another 10 days and then I got a call to meet the team in Pittsburgh. They were finishing up a three-game series with the Pirates and this series was extremely important.

So I’m down in the bullpen. During the course of the game, just, Oh my God. Look at the size of this stadium. It’s got three decks. There’s 50,000 people in the stands. I’m just enjoying the game. Just lapping it up and the Mets were losing 4-1 going into the 9th inning and they score five runs. During that five-run outburst the phone rings down the bullpen to get me up. This is the first time I touched a ball at two weeks. So, I get up and my nervous isn’t a strong enough word, petrified might be closer to it.

So I go in the bottom of the ninth, any, and the first hitter I face is Gene Clines and then Milt May. Hmm. And, uh, I walk them both. Uh, I went, I went three and one on both of them. Um, my ball is doing things I didn’t think I could make the ball do that. It was, it was moving so much and I walked them. I was just missing, you know. They were like an inch or two off the plate. But they were balls. And so I walked the two guys I face and, um, Yogi comes out and says, ‘I don’t think I should have done this to you.’ So they bring in Buzz Capra with the bases-loaded. Two outs, 3-2 count we’re up one run and Manny Sanguillen pops up. So we hold on to win 6-5. I could have come away being the absolute the goat, losing that game.

MetsRewind: That was the game that many refer to as the game that changed the Mets fortunes that year, hanging on to that lead, coming back from that deficit and eventually propelled them …

Apodaca: Right. Right. There was another game I almost got into when we went back to New York. I’m sure you remember this game. The ball that Dave Augustine hit the off the top of the wall in left field, and it came right back to Cleon Jones. He threw a strike to Wayne Garrett, who threw a strike to Ron Hodges to get the slowest runner on the Pittsburgh Pirates team and Richie Zisk.

In extra innings, Ron Hodges gets a game winning base hit with two outs. He doesn’t get that hit and I’m in the game. So, um, It, it, it was a growing experience for me. So I went to spring training ’74, I really had serious talks with myself saying, you can’t be intimidated. You worked so hard to get to this place. Don’t have fear creep into your game. So from that point on, I tried to be put a mask on and tried to be fearless out on the mound and make sure that the guy beats me and I don’t beat myself. So it really served as a motivator to me.

MetsRewind: Were those lessons that you carried on into your pitching coaches day? Cause could you recognize that? And other players who were called up and were young and you can start to doubt yourself pretty quickly here. You got to get out of your own head.

Apodaca: Absolutely. What was my biggest fear was outcome. Outcome outcome is a future event. And that’s what I talked to the players about. What is your job? Your job is have this ball in your hand. Have that contract with that catcher. What am I throwing? And where do I want to throw it? That is your job, not the outcome. You can’t control an outcome. You control the process. You control you. You’ve worked so hard on your mechanics and your delivery. To allow you to put the ball with conviction in a area that you desire that is your job. But as soon as you let outcome creep into it, Now something else happens, maybe fear. I don’t know, but that is, I do so much talking as far as focusing on what you want to accomplish, focus on a target, get totally consumed with that target with conviction, with aggression. That is your job.

MetsRewind: April 11, 1974. You come in for Jerry Koosman and the ninth, and you induce Tim McCarver to hit a ground ball into a game ending double play to beat the Cardinals. When you did that, you were quoted as saying, ‘It’s even a close second to sex.’

Apodaca: I remember saying that. I remember having to really reach to my left to get it,  balancing myself and then checking out second base. And all I see are bodies. I see a runner going this way. I see the runner going into second. I see Harrelson covering second. Fortunately, I threw an accurate throw to Buddy and he made a good throw to first for the double play. That was a big relief. That exhale of air out of your system and then the feeling of accomplishment, not just for you, you, but for all of your teammates that are relying on you for Koosman who pitches  8 1/3 innings and he’s waiting on a raw rookie to get him out of this situation. So, just being able to do something for somebody other than yourself, there’s no better feeling than that.

MetsRewind: Did you ever once shake off Jerry Grote?

Apodaca: When I made the team in ’74, I would be around Seaver all the time, …. He said, ‘We have the best catcher in baseball. He calls the greatest game defensively. There are no equals, but he could get stubborn. If you are committed to a pitch, stay committed to that pitch. Don’t let anybody change your mind … Grote, he warned me. He said, ‘There might be a time that he comes out there and gets in your face because he’s seen him do it to other young pitchers … I’ll probably usually go with what he says because of his experience. He says, ‘Just remember what I said.’

And so, Jerry puts a sign down. I shake him off. He puts the same sign down. I shake him off. He puts it down again. I shake him off. He calls time and then typically like Grote did, he always put the mask on top of his head and walks out there. Well, he looks like he just got off a Brahma bull. He’s coming out and you know his angry walk. He says, ‘You see that sign up, put down, throw it.’ I kind of swallowed and I just remembered what Tom said. I said, ‘Get your butt back behind home plate. I’ll tell you what I’m going to throw.’ He looked at me, turned around, went back, put down the sign. I wanted to have success because I was committed to that pitch. If I was torn, I might take his suggestion into account, but if I’m not committed to doing something, you’re not going to do it as well as you should. So from that point on. Jerry and I had a wonderful, wonderful relationship. And so I always think back to what Tom had told me.

MetsRewind: You were a member of the Mets in June ’77 when Seaver was traded. No darker moment in franchise history. You witnessed it firsthand. What are your memories of that going down?

Apodaca: You thought there might be some divine intervention that would prevent something like that, but it got to the point where it got so personal … I can’t say it was a shock because it was written in the paper every day. So when it happened … you saw Tom Seaver in a Reds uniform; you saw him throw a no-hitter for the Cincinnati Reds; you saw Tom move on to the White Sox and win his 300 that Yankee Stadium, all the things that he should’ve done, an in a Mets uniform.

MetsRewind: You were just 29 years old when you stepped away from the game. Did you have a plan for life after baseball at that young age?

Apodaca: No. To be honest with you, John, I didn’t want a doctor to tell me I’m done with the baseball. I wanted the guy with the bat in his hands to tell me that I was done with baseball. And so I did attempt for two years to rehab … I did come back in ’81 and pitched in Jackson, Mississippi, where Davey Johnson was the manager. But missing that amount of time, I lost so much on. My natural ability that the guy with the bat in his hands finally told me that Bob, your active career is over with. I remember walking into the office and Davie saying, this is the hardest thing but the Mets are going to have to release you. The farm director was on the phone and he says, but Bob we want to offer you a job as a pitching coach in Little Falls. I had no other plans and so when a door closes, another one possibly opens and thank God for me, that that door opened. And, uh, it was a second life,  staying in the game of baseball.

MetsRewind: During your tenure with the Mets you get back to Yankee stadium and in June of 1999 the team lets you. Did you know that was coming? Could you feel a sense of it and how did that happen?

Apodaca: John, it came as a complete surprise … We lost a tough game in at Yankee Stadium and I remember sitting down to having the post-game meal and a real good reporter friend of mine who wrote for Newsday, Marty Noble, tapped me on the shoulder and he said, Bob, and he whispered in my ear, I think you’re in trouble. I said, excuse me. He says, ‘I’m hearing that there might be some coaching changes.’ Five minutes later Steve Phillips was tapping all the coaches on the shoulder and he said, we’re going to have a meeting … One by one, we’re called up up to the office and when it was my turn, as soon as I walk into the general manager’s room, Bobby’s up there. Steve Phillips is up there. Omar Minaya is who was the assistant, is up there.

Now I haven’t said this to too many people and Bobby says, Dac, you’re getting screwed. He’s he used another word, but you said you’re getting screwed. I said, ‘What’s up Steve?’ He says, Dac, I think we’re going to make a pitching coach change. I don’t hear too much after that because I’m just kind of lost. The Mets had been my only family for a lot of years and to hear those words is, is like a, a divorce, you know? And, he said we’d love for you to be our pitching coordinator. I said, ‘Steve, I need time. I need time.’

Then something very cryptic happened after I was fired. Randy Niemann was fired. Why did he got fired? I have no clue. So Tom Robson and I talked after that — years later — and I’m not gonna reveal who he talked to, but there were a number of people in that room and he talked to one of them who said, ‘When I’m no longer a Met, I’ll tell you the real reason why you guys got fired.’ So that stuck in my craw for a long, long time. It hurt. It was something other than your personal performance. All you can do is try to get the best out of a player, give him information and  help along the way you think he needs to do better. But when it comes down to something other than your performance as a coach, that really hurts. I remember that well. I still remember it and it hurt very, very bad.

MetsRewind: Let me ask you, the person that said that to you — when I’m no longer with the Mets I’ll tell you exactly what happened — is that person still with the Mets or did you ever find out why they really let you go?

Apodaca: Well, if you can remember spring training, there was problems. There was some issues with Bobby and Steve Phillips. I don’t know the particulars because those two guys used to be really, really close and then they really, really soured. It really soured. So it was something to do with that relationship. Wow. That’s tough stuff. Yeah. Well, you know, the media reports at that time said, uh, even quoted Steve Phillips is saying if the decision were left to Bobby, he wouldn’t have made the same decision.

MetsRewind: Thank you for your candidness and your time.

Apodaca: I’m glad I was able to say some things I’ve never said publicly, but now at the age of 72, I don’t give a heck. You know, the older I’ve gotten the more I speak my mind and these are some things that needed to be said to clear the air. Some people were held responsible, but really the finger of responsibility belongs to somebody else and so I wanted to John, you were the first person I’ve ever said that publicly to anybody that’s in the media. And I think you, you know, being able to share some of that, especially after you spent that much time with an organization, it, like you said, it feels like a divorce. It feels like an open wound for quite a long time. And I understand it’s still kind of hurts, you know? Um, it is, as long as it’s been, it’s still a very sore spot. Would I have loved to spend my entire career in New York? Absolutely. But it wasn’t meant to be. And so you just have to move on and I have moved on and I’m happy with where my life. I’m not gonna look back and say, whoa is me. I’ve had a wonderful 50 years and I thank God every day for that.

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National League baseball in New York was redefined on March 6, 1961 when the New York Metropolitan Baseball Club Inc. formally received a certificate of membership from leave president Warren Giles. Of the 30 Major League Baseball clubs today, the case could be made that no other team has a more compelling franchise history than the New York Mets. From Casey Stengel to Yogi Berra, Marv Throneberry to Tom Seaver, Willie Mays, Tug McGraw, Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, Keith Hernandez, Bobby Valentine, Pedro Martinez and Matt Harvey, the Mets are loaded with character(s). Then there are the Amazin’ seasons — 1962, 1969, 1973, 1986, 2000, 2006-2008 and 2015 — full of miracles, joy, hope and heartbreak. Mets Rewind is designed for that purpose: To share team history in a distinct and entertaining format. We hope you — the baseball fan — enjoy the content. We encourage you to share your memories.
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