Interviews | Roy Smalley

Smalley’s Topps 1983 card (Photo courtesy of Amazon.com)

For Roy Smalley III baseball was a part of his DNA. His father, Roy Jr., was a Major League shortstop with the Cubs, Braves, and Phillies and his uncle, Gene Mauch, was a Major League second baseman who won 1,902 in his second career as a manager. After winning the College World Series with USC in 1972 and 1973, Roy was taken with by the Rangers as the number one overall pick in the 1974 amateur draft. After a brief stay in Texas, Roy went to Minnesota where he broke the mold for shortstops by slugging 24 home runs during his all-star 1979 season, a then-record for that position.

On April 10, 1982 Roy was traded to New York for Ron Davis, Paul Boris, and Greg Gagne. The Yanks got the better end of the deal as Smalley slugged 20 home runs that year, becoming the first Yankee shortstop to do so. He hit 18 more in 1983, then was traded to the White Sox at the mid-way point of the ’84 season.

Roy is currently the president of Pitch In For Baseball, a fantastic organization that strives to equip young ballplayers to play the game they love. The organization’s recent efforts have made a huge impact on the New York/New Jersey area in places decimated by Hurricane Sandy. Roy was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about his time in New York and his charitable efforts.

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Describe your emotions on being traded to New York following a great 6-year run in Minnesota.

Mixed at the time. I had some good years there and my wife was from Minnesota. I really felt like I was a Twin. In that scenario no one wants to be traded, but it was really exciting though to be traded to the Yankees.

What was your favorite part about playing in New York and what aspect was the most challenging?

I loved playing in the Stadium. I loved wearing the pinstripes. I was so proud to be a Yankee and to be a part of that history and legacy. Every night there were so many people in the stands, not just for the big games. It was the kind of big league baseball you dream of. The challenge was every possible detraction a ballplayer could have was there: the media, ownership, and tough fans. In New York it was on steroids. At that time [George] Steinbrenner was very energetic and you had to deal with all of that. It was a triple threat.

In 1982 you hit 20 HR, becoming the first Yankee shortstop to do so. In 2012 only one AL SS hit more than 20 HR. Tell us what that milestone means to you in an age of inflated numbers.

It was important to me. I made myself into a shortstop that could hit it out. It was really gratifying to do that in New York. I didn’t have great range at short, but I had a good arm. To contribute offense on top of that was gratifying. It was wonderful to have that record with the Yankees. I am very proud of that. I was also proud that [Derek] Jeter broke it. I told him after he got his 3,000th hit that I was very proud of him, that all shortstops were proud of the example he sets. I meant that from the bottom of my heart. It is a true privilege to watch him.

How grievously do you think that steroid era has affected the careers of you and your contemporaries from the late 1970s and 1980s?

It’s a real black spot on baseball. For those that didn’t use it’s frustrating that kind of blight has to be on the game we love. I look at the guys associated, but not necessarily proven to have used drugs, and I look at their talent and say, ‘Why? You’d have been a great player anyway.’ I don’t know if I was affected. I saw the beginning of the steroid era in the early 80s. You’d see a guy that you knew from the minors and all of a sudden he’d become the Incredible Hulk. I’m thinking, ‘I could have lifted all summer and wouldn’t look like that.’ It’s a shame the game is tarnished.

Your 1984 Topps card lists you as a SS/3B/1B. What does that tell us about those Yankee teams of the early 80s?

I really felt like personally I wanted to end my career with the Yankees, but things got crazy in ’84. George and the front office were searching for strategic direction at that time. When I was there they tried everyone everywhere. They played Ken Griffey at first and centerfield. They played Dave Collins everywhere. The stated objective was to have an all-star platoon at every position. In ’84 I played a little at first, but Mattingly came along and it was obvious that he was the answer so me and Toby Harrah played at third. I batted against righties and he batted against lefties. I was batting over .300 and Toby was batting like .180. Yogi [Berra] was the manager at the time, and I asked him to give me a chance at playing every day since I thought I could hit better than .180 against lefties, but platooning was the strategy. Then they traded Toby and brought in Mike Pagliarulo and I was asked to bat against lefties. That’s when I asked to be traded.

One of my favorite Yankee moments was the Pine Tar Incident.

[Laughs]

So, it’s July 24, 1983. George Brett comes charging out of the dugout after being called out. What went through your head?

Well I have to tell you about the whole situation. There was a lot going through our heads. Someone, I forget who, told Billy [Martin] that they thought Brett had too much pine tar on his bat. After the home run off of Goose [Gossage], Billy questioned it. By rule the bat was illegal. As the umps were conversing I remember thinking, ‘It is against the rules, but you can’t take the home run away. It’s crazy.’ I knew George, we were both born in LA, and I remember sitting in the dugout thinking, ‘If they call him out, George is gonna go bananas.’ There was the anticipation of something violent happening. I remember thinking there was gonna be an explosion.

Your time in New York coincided with the beginning of Don Mattingly’s career–a Yankee icon. Tell us what you remember about Donnie when he first came up and what you remember from his breakout ’84 season.

It was interesting when he came up in ’82. He was a slap-the-ball-to-left-field hitter. He was good at first base, but he didn’t have a lot of power so they tried him in left field. He was a terrific athlete, had a great knowledge of the strike zone, and got the bat on the ball. You could tell right away he’d hit .300. By the end of ’83 he was working to pull the ball correctly. I’ve seen it so many times. Young guys come up as high-average hitters, then take that approach and adjust to pulling the ball. It never happens the other way around. Guys gotta know how to control the zone and hit to all fields. But I don’t think anyone dreamed he would explode in ’84. It was cool. It’s wonderful to see good talent develop.

What was it like playing for Billy Martin in 1983?

Well he was my first big league manager in Texas. It was much more intense. By the time I came to New York I was much more experienced, I had started an all-star game, so it was not nearly as intense.

During the 80s the Yankees were known to have a revolving door. Was there a palpable tension on the team, that at any moment the Boss could pick up the phone and jettison you?

There was palpable tension for the whole two and a half years I was there. That was the nature of the Yankee club at the time. Bucky Dent was the shortstop and was kind of an icon at the time, so that was the lynch pin of some of that tension for me. But you had to be a pro and do what you do. At shortstop in particular there was an interesting dilemma. A manager always wants the rangiest player at shortstop, but if that defensive specialist is batting .205 a manager starts to think, ‘How long can I live with this?’ I was always there to provide offense and some good defense. The question was what kind of shortstop they wanted and what the best combination was. Billy would tell me I was playing short, then he’d say, ‘I need to give Andre Robertson a try,’ and if he’d struggle I’d go back out there. It was a revolving door and not a comfortable situation.

What was your favorite moment as a Yankee?

It was in ’82. I hadn’t been there very long. I was taking heat from the fans for replacing Bucky–I was even getting hate mail from 16-year-old girls. It was the bottom of the 8th against Seattle in a 1-1 game. The bases were loaded. They brought in Bill Caudill and I hit a grand slam into the third deck to put us up 5-1 and with Goose coming in in the 9th the game was over. It was my first curtain call at the Stadium. That moment will stay with me till my last breath.

What was your funniest memory from your time in New York?

There were plenty but I don’t know if I can repeat any of them. [Laughs] One of the funniest things I remember was the explosion Goose had in the locker room in ’83. Billy used Goose in some funny ways like bringing him in in the 7th to finish the game. Goose was frustrated. We had just finished a doubleheader against the White Sox and Goose had either given up the game-tying or game-winning runs in each of the games. We weren’t playing well, the fans were booing, and Goose just went off. We were all chewing on our towels to keep from laughing. That kind of stuff happened all the time.

Well, it was the Bronx Zoo.

Yes it was.

You are the president of Pitch In For Baseball. Describe what your organization strives to do and how it has recently made an impact here on Long Island.

We provide new and gently used equipment to kids in communities that are under-served either because of financial circumstances or natural disasters. We have had requests for hurricane and tornado relief where not just a team but whole leagues have lost equipment. It’s a passion of mine that kids play baseball. It can make such a big impact on them and if a kid can’t play simply because he lacks resources we want to help. David Rhode started the organization in his garage and the genius behind his idea was stumbling on a conduit between truck loads of equipment not being used and kids that want to play. He was able to bring those groups together.

Our relief effort for those affected by Hurricane Sandy is a perfect example of that. We will be able to help roughly 4,500 kids from the Long Island, New York, and New Jersey area. It is by far our biggest effort to date. It will change everything for us. With the exposure we have gotten we will get a lot more requests and will need more donations. Hopefully we can continue to grow. The thing that I love is that it makes a difference. This is a charity where you can fix something right now. You give and a kid can play tomorrow. We’ve had some poignant stories from parents about the impact it has had on their kids and helping them get their minds off a difficult situation and return to normalcy. I’m happy to be a part of that.

Well, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us, Roy. I hope your foundation continues to do well. We will do our best to get the word out.

Thanks so much. I really appreciate you making the time to talk with me. Take care.

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Follow Pitch In For Baseball on Twitter @PitchInBaseball.

Find out what you can do to help at PitchInForBaseball.org.

Follow Dan on Twitter @161st_and_River.