Mike Pagliarulo was selected by the Yankees out of the University of Miami in the sixth round of the 1981 Amateur Draft. Recalled in July of 1984, Pags served as the Yankee third baseman for the next five years before being traded to the San Diego Padres. He won a World Series with the Minnesota Twins in 1991, and played for the Baltimore Orioles, Seibu Lions in Japan, and the Texas Rangers before retiring at the conclusion of the 1995 season. A fan favorite during his time with the Yanks, Pags has been a frequent guest at Old Timers’ Day since his retirement.
Since retiring, Pags has worked in scouting and consulting. He founded the Baseline Group which seeks to provide business solutions for baseball and recently started the non-profit start-up Baseball Institute of Development.. He agreed to answer some questions from Matt Bouffard of Fack Youk. What follows are some highlights of the conversation. The full interview will run at Fack Youk in the near future.
Matt Bouffard: What’s it like being a former Yankee living outside Boston these days? Do you get any flack for that? Didn’t you grow up as a Yankee fan, and if so, how did that come about, and what was it like to be a Yankee fan in Medford during the 1970s?
Mike Pagliarulo: My dad was the biggest Billy Martin fan ever. We grew up in Boston and everyone was a Red Sox fan except him. When I was a kid I always thought my father was right except when it came to the Yankees. Well, after my first big league spring training where I met the big league guys for the first time; I said, “Dad you were right again!” The Yankee organization was built on class and respect and everyone I met there was the same way. Back in Boston I still caught heat, but nobody gives out that much crap without being scared!
MB: After coming up in mid-1984, you’re first full season with the Yanks was 1985. That was a tumultuous year: Yogi Berra was fired just 16 games into the season and Billy Martin returned for his fourth stint as Yankee manager. You guys spent all summer chasing Toronto, clawed back into the race, and went north of the border for the season’s final weekend needing a three game sweep to force a playoff. What was that pennant race like for you and what was the let down like getting eliminated that Saturday?
MP: Tumultuous is a word associated with New York. And it’s not a bad word. I’d like to refer to playing under certain scrutiny and pressure as the way it is supposed to be! We aren’t babies and people pay lots of money to see you play. I hate it when tabloids side with the poor player who’s under so much pressure while making 10 million dollars. That doesn’t appear to match.
1985 was the year in which I learned more about Mr. Steinbrenner than any other. I never realized how much he wanted to win until the last month of the season. One example was during September when we returned from a night game in Milwaukee. The game was late and the flight was delayed. We’d got into Newark airport about 6 AM and the Boss has limos waiting for everyone to take them home. We had a game that night. I couldn’t believe that such a cool and generous thing could be done without being in the press.
MB: Those years probably weren’t quite as wild as the Bronx Zoo years of the late 70s, but they were by no means calm. What was it like playing for George Steinbrenner in his heyday? Any thoughts on him stepping to the background now and allowing his sons to take over?
MP: The Boss was the best, no question. He was the best at taking care of his investment. He was the best at checks and balances, and he always knew what he had in the system. And that’s a much different scenario than today. Back then, we had the most players in the Major Leagues (coming from the Yankees’ system) and we had the best player development system in the world. Facts that are indisputable even with the abundance of players, fields, training methods in the industry today.
I believe the family will do just as good a job because they are all incredibly intelligent and driven; that’s kind of in the blood. I truly wish them the best of luck. Funny thing is, I feel so grateful that the Boss gave me the opportunity to put my kids through college. If he were to ask me to do anything in the world, I’d do it, and wouldn’t ask for compensation. The Steinbrenner family has no idea what it means to me that I can provide for my children and I’m so fortunate and forever grateful. That’s what the Boss means to me.
MB: In your Yankee career you played for three of the most interesting and well-liked men in Yankee history: Yogi, Billy, and Lou Piniella. What was it like playing for them? Were Billy and Lou as temperamental as they seemed? Lou was just getting his start as a manager then, how much of his style did he borrow from his mentor Billy?
MP: Billy and Lou were very much alike. I loved playing for both of them. Tremendous offensive managers and they could see the field so well. Both Lou and Billy had game plans and it was pretty difficult to outsmart them. Yogi was different in that he didn’t scream and holler as much. But to me, they were all in the same category of baseball knowledge and gamesmanship. I was lucky to have played for such great men.
MB: Is it true that Billy tried to get you to bat right handed at some point? I can’t seem to find any record of that happening in a game.
MP: Yes, I batted right handed once against Detroit. In 1985, we played a simulated game at Yankee Stadium for one of our pitchers, Marty Bystrom, who was on the DL. Simulated games normally take place at 3 PM, prior to batting practices. On this day Scott Bradley (now the Princeton baseball coach) was the left handed hitter and we needed a right handed hitter. So I volunteered. Simulated games, if done properly, are helpful and the coaching staff at the time, which included Billy, didn’t want me to do it. They wanted the game to be very serious. After I reassured them I was serious and that I’d switch hit in high school, college, and my first year as a pro, they let me hit right handed off of Bystrom. Well, I got something like four hits with a ball off the right field wall.
The coaches couldn’t believe it and Billy was pissed at me. He said I should stay right handed and continue switch hitting. The real reason for that was Billy liked me in there every day as he felt our team defense was much better with me at third base. The next road trip was to Detroit and in a tie game in the sixth inning, he handed me a helmet for a right handed hitter. I honestly didn’t want to do it because I didn’t feel I was prepared but I didn’t want to get taken out of the game either. I ended up doing it and struck out. Billy caught a ton of crap for that, but I know what he was thinking. It wasn’t a bad move if I’d have been prepared and actually, it was quite ingenious.
MB: Didn’t you once break your nose on an HBP and return to the line-up the next day? Tell us a little about that.
MP: On a Friday night in Oakland I was hit in the face by a Curt Young fastball. Actually the ball glanced off my wrist first as I tried to block it. It wasn’t Young’s fault; it was mine. A good lesson for young kids is knowing how to turn on the ball coming from the pitcher. I turned the wrong way when I opened up attempting to hit an inside fastball, but the ball just chased me and knocked my nose from one side to the next. It was pretty ugly actually.
I remember Lou Piniella was the manager and he was the first person I saw when they took the towel from my face. After about 10-15 minutes on the ground, they stood me up and took the towel away from my face. I first saw Lou and he said “Oh my God” then turned away. Young had a three run lead and got sick to his stomach, he had to be taken out of the game. Then they took me in a stretcher to the training room and then the hospital until 2 AM.
Saturday was a day game and I was still bleeding from my mouth and nose. I couldn’t stay on the bench; I guess I was too much of a distraction. On Sunday I was very anxious and requested to play. I didn’t care how I did, my goal was to simply get back in the flow. Lou put me in the lineup and they pasted these bandages on my face for the game. Well, the bandages helped because it actually fixed my alignment at the plate and improved my swing. After that, I went on a pretty good tear.
MB: Any favorite story or memory from your Yankee years that you’d like to share?
MP: Sure, I’ll give you the one that’s the best. A few years ago they asked all the former Yankees, “What was your best day as a Yankee?” Players were reminiscing about their 5 for 5 days and near no-hitters. But, mine was easier than that. It was my first Old Timers’ Game when I was a player on the team. Joe DiMaggio was in my locker and Whitey Ford was right near him. Yogi, Hank Bauer, Moose Skowron, etc, etc. DiMaggio was talking to me but I couldn’t say a word. It was Joe DiMaggio for God’s sake.
Then there was a quiet in the locker room as Billy Martin and Mickey Mantle came walking through the middle of the place. All of a sudden, all everyone could hear was Mickey’s voice as he lifted his arm and pointed his finger at me, Hey Billy, is that the guy?” Well, I wasn’t sure what I did wrong but I was ready to apologize for anything. When the god of New York says something to you, you shut up and listen.
Then they walked towards me and I felt a feeling of panic set in and I didn’t know what to do. Mickey Mantle reaches his arm around my neck and gets me in a headlock. He was wrestling me to the ground! Then he pulled me into the trainers’ room which was across the locker room and began to hit me with light punches in my sides. Just then, he and Billy began laughing as Mickey said, “Hey kid what’s up? How are you? Love the way you play and glad to have you on board.”
Mickey Mantle had just wrestled me to the ground and pulled me out ofJoe DiMaggio’s locker (which was mine) to tell me he liked the way Iplayed baseball. Can there ever be a better day than that?
MB: In July of 1989 you were traded to San Diego. What was that experience like for you after having been in the Yankees organization since being drafted in 1981?
MP: I did not like leaving New York. I felt it was my home, and the place that gave me a professional baseball life through an opportunity. I’ll never forget that, and I’ll always be grateful to the Steinbrenner family and the personnel working for the Yankees. I would not have wanted to start my career any other way.
MB: Some Yankee fans have been critical of your group’s role in the Kei Igawa signing. What’s your side of the story on this issue? Do you think Kei Igawa could succeed as a Major League pitcher, perhaps outside of the AL East?
MP: Let me correct you on that. Yankee fans know exactly what they’re looking at because they love researching the players. I suggest they weren’t real Yankee fans. Because in this instance, those same people don’t know how Matsui was acquired and they probably think I had nothing to do with Matsui either! I did the work and got all the information on Matsui and advised on all the other Japan negotiations. That’s a fact. It saved the Yankees about $8 million and helped developed the relationships they currently have there too. When the front office wanted little Matsui (Kaz Matsui) I was the only one who said no, and with good reason. I’ve got a good reason for all my decisions.
Then they changed the process for signing Pacific Rim players when Igawa was available: no more conference calls and no more collaborative meetings. Kei Igawa could succeed as a Major League pitcher. Keep in mind my business is consulting and players have roles determined by the various MLB teams. Igawa could play, but not for the New York Yankees. Igawa could play for a second-division type club and on the back end of the rotation. His success would not be good either. But, if you look at the talent out there and you’ve got pitchers in their forties getting extensions because the talent development isn’t like it once was, he (Igawa) can most definitely play.
The rest is history. My group has projected more than $350 million of player contract value and has never been wrong. We are the foremost leader in projecting risk of injury and talent for championship roles. I’ve got data to back all research findings for risk of injury and skill value. Assigning a player to a role is a piece of cake. Do you actually think I’d still be working if I was wrong about a player when millions of dollars are on the line? Our prediction models and research far exceeds most MLB teams because it’s all we focus on. We have to be right, so we don’t scout. We use a unique system capable of measuring performance and projecting risk. I’m really not sure with all those millions why other teams aren’t doing the same.
MB: What’s going on with the Baseline Group these days? What are your plans for the future of the organization?
MP: The plan is to help support the foundation of baseball. That is done by understanding the core elements of how the game was built, and then protecting those interests: Ownership, fans, players. Leadership provides the environment. Players compete at a high level of skill to provide unique value. Fans justify that value. The focus is those areas and they’re all connected. They are the most significant part of the game; to think otherwise would be a mistake.
The future looks very bright, and with a little help we’ll be able to purchase a minor league team and implement development as owners so that other ownership groups can benefit. The main benefit would be to create transparency for owners. I believe things are the way they are because the metrics associated with measuring value stinks. Baseball is the only industry that is unable to value the core assets of its businesses; that is a shame. The owners, fans, and players deserve more and it doesn’t start with money because everyone doesn’t have money. It begins with respect.
MB: At the ceremonies prior to the final game at Yankee Stadium, you were featured in the montage of former Yankee third basemen. Were you watching that night? What was that honor like for you?
MP: I missed the ceremonies last year, I’m sorry to say. But I have fond memories always. That day might have been the greatest but it comes second to the people I was able to share baseball and friendship with all around the Stadium. Honestly, I can see that batting cage as clear as a bell, and feel the fans along the third base line, and picture The Boss pacing around his suite, pacing because he always wanted to win so very badly. Those memories will never fade, because the fans won’t let it. I thank them for the great honor of recognizing me and keeping those thoughts in the front of my mind. I’m reminded today everywhere I travel by New York Yankee fans. It’s the greatest feeling.