by Larry Ham
Former major league pitcher Dennis Springer will be the guest speaker this Saturday night at the Reedley College Baseball kickoff dinner, at six p.m. at the Reedley Community Center. Dennis pitched for Reedley College in the mid eighties before spending eight years in the big leagues, pitching for six teams, including the Angels and the Dodgers. I had a chance to ask Dennis a few questions leading up to Saturday night’s banquet.
Larry: First, tell us about growing up in Fresno and when you became interested in sports and baseball in particular.
Dennis: My dad was a teacher and coach at Washington Union High School, so I followed him around and was interested in football. It wasn’t until I was 9 I started playing little league baseball.
Larry: Did you, like most boys, have dreams of being a big league baseball player at an early age?
Dennis: Of course, who doesn’t. My best friend and I would pitch to each other in our backyard and we would put ourselves into situations like bases loaded and we would try to pitch out of it. And we would also go over to the elementary school and play home run derby all the time.
Larry: Who were your favorite players and teams when you were growing up?
Dennis:My favorite team has always been the Dodgers. I can remember watching Saturday morning baseball with my grandpa and the Dodgers were his favorite team. My favorite player was always Cal Ripken Jr.
Larry: Tell us about your time at Reedley College and Fresno State.
Dennis:My time at Reedley was great. I think basically because it was like high school but with more freedom. I met some of my best friends there. The baseball team was good (not great). It is always fun to go back. Fresno State was like a dream to play there. During high school we would always go to the games. And I went to a couple of baseball camps so I knew the coaches. Again meeting some really good friends.
Larry: The knuckleball is a difficult pitch to throw in the first place, and it’s extremely difficult to throw well enough to get outs in the majors. How did you first start throwing the knuckleball, and how long did it take to master it?
Dennis:I always messed around throwing the knuckleball however I didn’t start throwing it in games until college. When I got into pro baseball the coaches told me that the knuckleball would be my ticket to the majors. I never stopped learning even into my last year of pro baseball. I would say it took me several years to master it.
Larry: What was it like to be drafted by the Dodgers?
Dennis:I didn’t think I was going to be drafted at all, so when I got the phone call from our family friend who was actually the Dodger scout, I was really excited. I would later learn that the Dodgers were truly the best organization in baseball.
Larry: You spent several years in the minor leagues. Did you ever contemplate giving up the dream of playing in the majors?
Dennis:When I got drafted out of college I really didn’t think I had what it took to be in the big leagues. I thought I would play a couple of years and then come back to Fresno and be a teacher and a coach like my dad. It took me eight years to finally make it to the majors so yes along the way there were doubts, but I wasn’t married and I didn’t have a family so it made it easier to never give up.
Larry: Tell us about that special moment when you got the call that you were headed for the big club.
Dennis: In 1995 I was with the Phillies in AAA. Towards the end of the season there were rumors of who was getting called up. Until that moment comes you still don’t know. After our last game our manager called myself and another pitcher into the office and told us that we would be meeting the big league team in Philly on Friday that we had been called up. It’s crazy how you feel. No matter how many times you get called up, it’s always an amazing feeling.
Larry: Most fans would probably think being a major league baseball player is nothing but fun 24 hours a day. It isn’t as easy as we think it is, is it?
Dennis:Most of time it is really awesome. But people don’t realize how difficult it is. Always traveling, and being away from your family. One year I had a house in Fresno, an apartment in Tampa Bay, and I got sent down to AAA so I had an apt there also. My wife was my traveling secretary. But 95% is awesome.
Larry: You saw first hand the rivalry between the Dodgers and the Giants. Is it as intense between the players as it is between the fans?
Dennis:It’s not the same as in the old days. Coming up with the Dodgers we would here all the stories of the old timers. And they would tell about the rivalries. But now the players switch teams all the time. Rivalries aren’t built by the players; they are built by the fans.
Larry: You had a very good career, but many people identify you with a home run you gave up to Barry Bonds. How do you feel about that?
Larry: I have to ask you this, too…. Do you think Barry Bonds belongs in the HOF?
Dennis:The whole steroid thing is difficult for me. I really don’t know how to answer that. Are they cheaters? When did they start using? Was there whole career on steroids? I don’t believe it was. So as you can see there are a lot of questions that need to be answered. I don’t really know how I do stand, sorry.
Larry: Who was the toughest hitter you faced in MLB?
Dennis:There were all kinds of tough hitters. When the knuckleball was working I felt like I could get most people out. If it wasn’t working or I was inconsistent with it then it was tough going. I can remember Mark Whitten as being very tough. Also Ken Griffey Jr. and of course most of the Yankees.
Larry: If you had to pick one specific highlight, what would be the number one highlight of your career?
Dennis:I think probably my highlights were throwing four complete game shutouts in the majors, against. Baltimore, Cleveland, Tampa Bay and Atlanta. The one against Atlanta was cool because it was against Greg Maddox. The one against Tampa Bay was cool because it was against the team that had released me the previous year. The other two, against. Baltimore and Cleveland were at their parks and I just loved both of those parks.
Larry: What have you been doing since your playing career ended?
Dennis:I have been a firefighter for the city of Hanford for eight years. I have always wanted to be a firefighter and that is what I went into as soon as I retired from baseball.
As a lifelong Dodger fan, it was a real treat to talk to Dennis, and I want to personally thank him for his time. Again, the Reedley College Baseball kickoff dinner is this Saturday night at six at the Reedley Community Center. Tickets are available by calling Richard Bruce at 431-3774.