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Bob Ojeda - An Extra Inning
05/03/2012 - By Paul Williams
Photo: McKay Imaging (mckayimaging.com)
An Extra Inning
Former NY Mets Bob Ojeda – Life after baseball at SNY.
Game six of the 1986 World Series will forever be remembered for the ground ball that rolled through Bill Buckner’s legs in the 10th inning. That blunder completed the Mets’ comeback victory over the Boston Red Sox, forcing a decisive game seven, which the Mets won along with their second World Series trophy. While everyone recalls that moment in the 10th inning, very few may remember the starting pitcher, Bob Ojeda, who put forth a superior effort for the Mets in that elimination game.
In the midst of a career season, Ojeda went toe-to-toe with Roger Clemens that night, pitching six innings and yielding just two runs before being lifted with the score tied 2-2. Ojeda was an integral part of the Mets’ success in 1986, amassing 18 wins that year while posting a career-best 2.57 ERA. In the post-season, the Mets won all four of his starts, with Ojeda receiving the decision in two of them.
Ojeda notched 115 wins in his 15 seasons with the Red Sox, Mets, Dodgers, Indians, and Yankees, along with 1,128 strike-outs, 41 complete games, 16 shut-outs, a 3.65 ERA, and one memorable World Series ring. On the surface, you wouldn’t expect an undrafted player from a junior college to accomplish that much in the major leagues. But Ojeda’s dedication to the game of baseball elevated his talents to a level that enabled him to live out his childhood dream.
After retiring from a short coaching stint in the minor leagues, Ojeda, who lives in Rumson with Ellen, his wife of 25 years, and their children, seems to have found a second home in the TV studios of SNY, where he works as the lead analyst for the Mets’ pre- and postgame broadcasts. Ojeda takes pride in educating viewers on the nuances of the game in which he spent more than two decades of his professional career. About two weeks into spring training, Living In The Jersey Shore caught up with Ojeda, who openly and honestly shared thoughts and opinions about his personal journey through the game he loves.\
LIJS: You grew up near Los Angeles. Were you a Dodgers fan?
BO: I was. My grandmother and my Uncle Arthur lived close to Dodger Stadium. You could almost see the stadium lights from the house. One of my favorite memories was sitting in my uncle’s room and listening to the ball games on his radio. One day when the Dodgers were home, I said to my dad and my uncle, “Why don’t we go?” I was maybe 12, and we didn’t have any tickets, but decided to go anyway. We went to the stadium and I walked up to the guard and said, “You won’t believe this, we lost our tickets on our way here.” The guard looked at me, and said, “C’mon in.” I’ll never forget this. We walked in the stadium, and the field just opened up to us. There was a haze because people smoked back then, and the sound of Vin Scully, the whole scene, I was just like, “Oh, my gosh!” It’s a vivid memory of mine.
LIJS: Did you say to yourself then, “I want to be a major league player”?
BO: That was a moment where I said, “I can’t imagine ever being able to do this. But if I could, this is as good as it gets.”
You see utopia right in front of you. It either hits you or it doesn’t, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. That was over 40 years ago, and I remember the sights and the sounds. I think my Dad might have looked at me that day like, “This kid is maybe going to go somewhere.” He was always one of my coaches. He played baseball in the Army. A lot of the stuff that’s taught in baseball now: curveballs, only throwing once a week -- he was ahead of his time. If you were the good player, coaches wanted you to throw more because you were going to win. When I was young my father wasn’t afraid to stand up to anybody and would say, “I’m not doing it.”
LIJS: Did he try to mold you into a type of next generation pitcher?
BO: No, not really. I was always the one who asked him when he came home if we could play catch. He didn’t come through the door and find me and say, “Let’s go practice.” My mother was encouraging. They were always supportive.
LIJS: Was there a player you idolized as a child?
BO: Sandy Koufax. He was another lefty and just somebody I admired because of the way he played the game. That was an era of the Dodgers. I’ve been fortunate enough to talk to Vin Scully over the years, and I tell him that his voice and call of the game is as much of the Dodgers as Koufax. When Scully called games in the World Series and I heard him, even as an adult and a grown man I would think, “Wow, how cool was that! Vin Scully calling the World Series I’m in.”
LIJS: When did you go professional?
BO: I was undrafted. In 1978, I had an opportunity to sign for $500 and a ticket to Elmira, who were affiliated with Boston. It was 500 bucks, they said, take it or leave it. I took it.
LIJS: How much of a grind were the minor leagues?
BO: I didn’t do a lot of training in high school or junior college because I didn’t have to since I was pretty good. Once I signed, I told myself I was going to do everything I could to make it. And if I didn’t -- and this must have come from my father -- don’t have regrets, don’t sit there like one of those guys who sits there and says, “I could have.” I put my nose to the grindstone. When I went to Elmira, I stunk. I was 1-6 with a 5.00 ERA, back when that didn’t get you another year. Now that gets you a raise (laughs). The manager saw me work really hard. I would try to hide and work out. He saw me at night out running. I didn’t want to be that guy that says, “Oh hey, look at me, coach.” I just wanted to do it on my own. I went down to the instructional league and Johnny Podres taught me my changeup, and curveball, and the next year I was 15-7. So I had two months in Elmira, two years in the Florida State League, the next year I was in AAA and halfway through the year I was called up to Boston. I started a game against Detroit in Fenway, which was a dream come true. But I got beat around and took my lumps. I got sent back down and didn’t get called back up in September. So during the off-season, I went home and took up karate.
BO: Even my Dad said, “What’s up with karate?” I told him if I ever get back to the big leagues and get beat around like I got beat around, somebody’s going to pay. It may be the last thing I ever do, but somebody’s going to wear one until they come out to the mound and get me (laughs). The next year was the strike year. I had a good camp and was going to break with the club, but they told me they were going on strike and I would get called up when the strike ended, and they were right. That’s what they did, so I came up in ‘81 for good.
LIJS: When you were traded by Boston to New York before the ‘86 season, did you ever think you would be in the World Series against the team that just traded you?
BO: Honestly, I didn’t know much about the Mets at first. I knew Boston was pretty good. When I came over and the season played out, I started to get a little heartburn, thinking: you’ve got to be kidding me! I’m over here having the time of my life, and I’m happy with my friends over here, and now I might compete against my friends in Boston? As the end of the season got closer, I remember thinking, this just cannot be happening. At the same time, I knew I would be fine, but I knew one of my weapons was gone. There was no way I was going to intimidate Boston because they knew me, and they couldn’t do that to me either. When it came to pass and it was us against them, I had, not mixed emotions, because I wanted to beat them, but more thoughts like, I don’t have my wedge with me today, we can’t play golf after the game. I didn’t have the edge that we had as a unit on the ballclub. But it was still game on.
LIJS: What about the perception that the ‘86 Mets were viewed as the “Bad Boys” of baseball?
BO: It’s over-played because it sells. We were pretty wild, but the ‘80s were a wild time. But at the end of the day, we were likeable. The guys who conveyed that most were the beat writers who were with us and saw us every day. They knew when the door opened, we went on the field and the show was on. Then they would see us in a different environment, petting a kitten or something. It was part of our act. We wanted to intimidate, and we did - and it worked. That was part of our deal. It played well in New York. We had some of the best writers in the world of sports. We were honest and straightforward with them, and they knew it was a little bit of a facade.
LIJS: 1986 was a career year for you also. You set highs with wins (18), ERA (2.57), strikeouts (148), and innings pitched (217.1). What worked so well for you that year?
BO: Our team fed well off of each other. I snagged a lot of those wins because our bullpen was so good. I had some good years in Boston where I only won 12 games. Sometimes I couldn’t buy a win. That team was not as good as the New York team, and a lot had to do with our bullpen.
LIJS: When did you know you could succeed in the majors?
BO: I was fortunate to play for Ralph Houk early on. As a young player there’s always that doubt, and you’re a little unsure if you belong. I was struggling and Ralph called me into the office. I’d just had another bad game and he goes, “Kid, you’re going to get the ball once every five days, I don’t care what you do. You can lose every game, give up 100 runs, and you’re going get the ball once every five days.” So I walked out of there and said, “I can do this.” It was like a weight was taken off of me. That was a huge turning point in my career. Ralph was totally lying, but he knew as a young guy I needed to hear that. I just had to deal with my own anxiety. I had to psych myself out, lie to myself, tell myself this or that, just to get through it. For me it was always a struggle, but I managed to do OK for almost 15 years. You have to figure it out yourself. When you’re on the mound, the beauty of pitching is, there isn’t anyone there. It’s just you.
I watch a guy like [Johan] Santana, and he’s in control and having fun. I never had any fun during the games. Those other four days maybe, but that one day, during the game, I was that one guy alone in the dugout with the game face saying, “Don’t come near me.” I see him joking in the dugout between innings. I wish I could have done that. I couldn’t relax and enjoy the game like he does, so it’s neat to watch a guy like that. Being back in the game as a coach and now with SNY, this is the most fun I’ve ever had. As soon as I quit playing the anxiety was gone.
LIJS: How did you land your current job at SNY?
BO: I’ve always been open and honest with the Mets’ ownership. I always spoke my mind when I coached in 2001-2003 in Brooklyn and Binghamton. When I left in 2003, I sat down with Jeff Wilpon and Jim Duquette, the interim general manager at the time. They wanted to hear what I had to say about the organization. For three hours I said, “This is what’s wrong, this is why I think it’s wrong, and this is what you need to do to fix it.” Right or wrong, it was my opinion. Then, at Shea Goodbye in 2008, I was up in the left field party room with a bunch of older Mets. Jeff found me in there and said he’d really like me to come back and join the organization. I interviewed and got the job. Kurt Goudy Jr. gave me advice I use to this day: Be honest, tell people something they don’t know, and be fair. The one thing I add to it is I won’t say anything on-air that I won’t say to the guy’s face. I’ve been on the other side and I understand that relationship.
LIJS: Were you always critical of a game while it was going on and analyzing situations as a player?
BO: The SNY gig was never something I aspired to. I always liked to sit and watch to listen and learn. You don’t really admit that because it’s an edgy environment, but you watch and absorb the game little by little. I was very fortunate to have two great coaches who helped me along the way. Mel Stoudamire and Ron Perranoski taught me a lot. They were outstanding. At the time, you don’t take note of that until you get out, and I was out of baseball for seven years. And then I had the opportunity to be a coach for the Brooklyn Cyclones. You decide at that point, I really love this game or I really don’t. And you have to admit to yourself that you do, which is really hard to do while you’re a player. If you admit you really love it, then you’re scared of losing it. Every guy playing the game right now knows there’s going to be an end. Every one of them does. But you don’t like to face it and acknowledge it, you just have to face it and do it. I love baseball, and now, watching every single game, I learn something new every day. I watch more baseball now than I ever did before. I don’t want to shortchange the audience. I told Gibson Jr. after he hired me that I really laid myself out there, and I was really trying to get this job. I would have been upset if I didn’t. The SNY ownership, the Wilpons, have been great to me since they’ve been there.
LIJS: Is it difficult to make on-air criticisms of the organization that you’ve been so closely affiliated with for so long?
BO: I think it really falls back on the fact that I won’t say something on-air that I wouldn’t say to someone’s face. That clicked with me because I could really cross the line. The coaching experience really helps me do this because it gave me a different angle as far as trying to explain the game to someone. Coaching the players helps me when I try to explain the game to our audience. I do a ton of homework. I get to the studio around noon, and we don’t go on until 6:30. But I figure if I don’t explain it to you to where you get it, then I’m not doing my job. I have to really delve into it to get the audience to understand, similar to teaching a player something to get them to understand. I loved coaching and I implement some of those same principles that I learned from it.
LIJS: How do you feel about the current state of the Mets?
BO: The organization is heading in the right direction. Without being disrespectful to anyone else, Sandy Alderson in the best general manager they’ve had since Frank Cashen. I think Sandy is intelligent, tough, and has the right sense of humor for this area. He’ll make a decision, not based on how the wind is blowing, but on how it affects the Mets from the foundation up. When he signed on, a lot of things hadn’t hit the fan yet. He’s doing a great job of managing this organization through some very troubled times. I respect Mets fans. Mets fans are some of the best in all of baseball. They’re patient and he’s got this organization going in the direction that’s going to get it back on its feet sooner rather than later.
LIJS: Are there any specific moves he’s made that impress you?
BO: When he walked in and said, “Adios” to [Oliver] Perez and [Luis] Castillo, which were two of their worst signings. I think he didn’t even grasp how much those guys were disliked by the fans. They were two veterans, and when he sent them packing that told me a lot about him. He’s a year into it now and he’s got a much better feel of what’s going on around him. He’s steering the Mets in the right direction. I admire him for speaking his mind and making decisions. Picking Terry Collins was a great choice. I think this organization needed to be jerked back on the right track.
It jumped off the rails after the two collapses in ‘07 and ’08, and then they had the disastrous’ 09, ‘10 that unfortunately coincided with the new stadium. Sandy doesn’t have an emotional attachment to people. He has a business and a fan attachment to them, and that’s the way I believe it needs to be. I don’t want to him to be the player’s friend. He’s their boss. I think that helps a general manager makes unbiased decisions.
LIJS: What are your thoughts on letting Jose Reyes walk?
BO: One guy is not going to take them all the way this year. This club is a lot more people away. To devote that kind of money into a player who, honestly, is breaking down, wouldn’t have been a good fit for them.
LIJS: Are there any younger players in the organization who could emerge as future stars?
BO: He’s still unproven, but I’ve got high hopes for Ike Davis because he swings the bat incredibly well. And he had it taken away from him last year when he was injured. When you have it taken away from you, you have a whole different perspective on it once you get it back. They have two pitchers who could be monsters in [Matt] Harvey and [Jeurys] Familia. They are going to be pushing some guys out of the rotation soon, with or without Santana.
LIJS: What about some of the young guys in the rotation this year?
BO: Dillon Gee could be OK. I think he’s got the stuff to be a good back of the rotation guy. He’s got four good pitches and he’s a good kid. He’ll do fine. Jonathon Niese will be fine, too. His curveball is one of the best. He just needs to stick with it.
LIJS: When you analyze a game, is there anything you look for that a casual fan might miss or overlook?
BO: That’s exactly what I look for. I look for the little things that you didn’t notice, and maybe we caught on another camera. When we’re in the studio and a game is going on I like to see if we can pull up something that happened away from the ball. I always like to tell you why something happened and help you understand the game. If it’s a little thing, you see where it happened, and then how that enabled something else to happen. Games are won and lost in any inning. You don’t know it at that time, but there can be certain critical at-bats or pitches early in the game that can decide them.
Every game, there’s about five points like that, and when I’m watching the game I’m looking for those five things that could determine the outcome. They may seem benign at the time, but in reality they can determine who wins the ballgame – like a throw to the wrong base that enables someone to move up, and then he comes home later on a groundball -- or some physical things, like glove-tapping before a throw. I go down to spring training and I take notes and look for things that I think may surface when the season starts, and then I want to show you those things. I always want to show you something you didn’t notice or won’t think about. That matters to me. I respect Mets fans because they know how to hang in there, and they know baseball. So I feel like I have to help them understand even more about the games they watch.
LIJS: Are you good friends with any members of the ‘86 team?
BO: Yes, with a lot of them. You don’t really lose the friendship, but you don’t see them all that often either. The guys are scattered. I talk to Sid Fernandez a lot on the phone. Our paths cross at shows and appearances, things like that. Unfortunately, a lot of us were recently down at the service for Gary [Carter] in West Palm. Gary and I actually coached together a little bit, and then he moved in a different direction. Guys come and go, but it’s amazing how when we get together it’s like we never left. We had such a good time together.
LIJS: What do you enjoy the most about your job at SNY?
BO: The really cool thing is that now people really feel like they know me. Now it’s not so much, “Oh here’s Bob Ojeda the pitcher,” it’s “Hey Bobby, how about Santana’s 2-2 curveball in the fifth inning last night?” And I’m like, “I know, I can’t believe it. It was a great pitch!” It’s cool that people now feel like they know me. Now I’m just like a regular dude. That’s nice for me.
LIJS: Do you consider yourself a Met more than a member of any other team?
BO: I do, without a doubt. Every one of us from that ’86 team does. Even two guys who had tremendous success elsewhere, Doc [Dwight Gooden] and Straw [Darryl Strawberry], both were Mets, and they won it with the other team. Doc even had a no-no with the other team, but they’ll say, “I’m a Met.” There’s something about that group that doesn’t happen very often in people’s careers or lives. Even Keith [Hernandez], I know Keith is the same way. He’s a Met.
LIJS: What can Mets fans expect from their team this year?
BO: This ball club will go as far as they will go collectively. I don’t think this team’s season is hinged on any one player. They might be a little bit short this year, but are in transition and they are likeable because they’re playing the game with a sense of urgency. Mets fans are not front-runners and they don’t have to watch or put up with guys who are half-stepping it anymore. They have to put up with a team that is lacking a little bit of talent for that very tough NL East, but they’re going to give you your money’s worth. But then again, look at what Arizona did last year. For everybody who’s a fan of a game, that’s the beauty of spring: Anything is possible. Is this team more watchable, likeable, and worthy of Met fans than, say, the ’09 team? Absolutely.
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