Pitching. The one place in all of professional sport where the defense controls the ball. It’s a collaborative effort with the catcher to call the game to the pitchers strengths and the batters weakness.
It’s also extremely difficult, going against the body’s physical design. Many have said that pitching is one of the most unnatural motions a body can do over time, placing extreme stresses and strains over the course of a season, and more importantly a career.
We thought it would be good to get inside the particulars of the art of pitching, and could think of no one better from Portland than Kent Bottenfield.
Growing up in Portland, Kent spent the better part of 9 seasons in the Majors spanning 8 teams from ’92-’01(Montreal, Colorado, Giants, Cubs, Phillies, Angels, Cardinals, and Astros), but his professional career spans many more where he worked in the Expos system in the Minors. He has worked in relief and starting roles, that culminated in being selected to the ’99 All-Star game in Boston while with the Cardinals where he posted an impressive 190 innings pitched, a 3.97 ERA, and an impressive 18-7 season. His career ERA is an impressive 4.19.
During the course of the interview we tapped into a variety of subjects from the Expos organization and Gary Carter; to pitching at Mile High altitude in Coors Field; to work habits; to the way a long career in pitching at high levels requires adjusting your approach to your body and your strengths, and what it would be like to have MLB in Portland.
Kent’s start in Portland
OBC: Growing up here in Portland, was baseball your first love as a sport?
Bottenfield: When I was younger it was definitely my favorite. As I got older and got into high school, I started really loving basketball and football. I guess I knew I had the most talent at baseball, but I enjoyed the other sports just as well.
OBC: All kids have dreamed of being a certain player when growing up. Was there guy you most wanted to be like?
Bottenfield: Ya, Nolan Ryan. I appreciated not only his ability, but the way he would go do his work and you didn’t here much out of him, and his work ethic and his integrity.
OBC: As you know Kent, Portland is in the running for the Expos in 2004, or 2005. Since you started your career there, can you tell me what it was like playing for the organization?
Bottenfield: Well, when I was there, when I first signed with the organization, was probably the best in baseball. They had a great player development program. Their coordinators were excellent. They knew how to relate to the young players; they did that extremely well. Then when I first got to the big leagues, in Montreal, we were kind of playing to 35-40,000 people most every night. The next year I was traded, and so I really don’t know what happened. I just think it probably had to do with finance, but I don’t know why they started losing the fans. They were bringing them in so that had to be making money. But they were trading off players and selling them off … it just seemed like a cycle.
OBC: Your teammate from those first couple of years was Gary Carter, who just went into the Hall of Fame. How was Gary to work with as a catcher?
Bottenfield: Yes, I worked with him. He caught most of the games that I pitched, when I was there in ’92. In fact, I was starting pitcher in his last game ever behind the plate. It was really cool because the first pitch of the game, he took it and he did me a favor and rolled it out to the mound. So, I threw it out of play into the dugout so he could sign that ball in private for me later on that day. So, that was a real fond memory. I enjoyed Gary a lot; he was a good example for me.
OBC: There was also a couple of great pitchers on that ‘92-’93 team. Did you try to look at Dennis Martinez and pick up some things from him?
Bottenfield: I tried to look at how, even at that time, which was the later stages of his career, how Dennis was an extremely hard worker. He would go and do his running consistently, and he was really big on throwing everyday. Which, when I was younger, I really stayed away from because I thought I needed the rest in between starts. And here is the first guy I’ve seen who really like to play catch and go at it everyday.
A career spanning several teams
OBC: You spent your time with a number of teams. What was the hardest thing about leaving a team and going to a new one?
Bottenfield: The hardest thing for me – I always felt my relationships with people that worked in the club house or the secretary or trainers, basically they were permanent fixtures. Some of the players I played with were either two or three different teams. I missed that too. The hardest part was those relationships because those were the people that I was closest to over the years.
OBC: You spent some time in Denver with the Rockies. Obviously it’s a hitters park. What’s it like pitching at that altitude? Do you except the fact that the ball jumps there or do you take it hard like you would when you give up that many runs at sea level?
Bottenfield: Well, it was tough for me when I was younger towards the beginning of my major league career, which was when I was there. It was hard you know; mentally, it was very difficult to accept. Now, as a veteran going and back there as a visitor, now you have that understanding that there are going to be a lot of runs scored. You are not pitching for numbers, you are pitching for wins and get your team in a position to win. All you can do when you go in there is, I have to put my team in a position to win, whether it is 1-0 or whether it is 10-9, that’s your only job. It is very hard to do this when you are a young player. It’s much easier to understand that as a veteran.
OBC: Can you tell us how life was with the Giants, Cubs, Phillies, and Astros?
Bottenfield: The Giants – that was very short lived. I came from assignment from Colorado and signed as a free agent and had a month in AAA and I got called up the week before the strike, so I didn’t have a very good feel for that organization.
The Cubs, I really, really enjoyed. It was a great place to play. It was almost like having a normal job with all the dates leaving at night, get home at five or six, pretty much every day. So that was nice for my family. I really tried very hard at the end of my two years to go back there and it just didn’t work out.
The Phillies – I don’t have much to say about that organization. I shouldn’t say the organization. I probably shouldn’t say anything about it. Not my favorite place to play. Not my favorite city. To be honest, I actually turned down a big contract because I didn’t want to take my family there.
That is how I ended up in Houston. From a team standpoint, organization standpoint, it was awesome but that was the year of my injuries and that was the end of my career.
I played with the best all around player I have ever played with in baseball. I have played with Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, and Larry Walker, but Jeff Bagwell is the best all around baseball player, and you don’t appreciate him until you play with him everyday. You should see what that guy does everyday – physically and mentally. It is absolutely amazing. I got to tell him that before he left.
OBC: Once you got to St. Louis and you started to get into a groove, what was it like living through your teammate Mark McGwire’s HR chase?
Bottenfield: We were basically his fans with the best seat in the house. We were so excited for him as a team. We weren’t doing that tremendous at that time, so it was really something. It was fun for us. He handled it extremely well. He got hit from so many different directions with his time. For somebody to be able to focus night in and night out with all the media and all the being tugged in different directions, that is the most amazing thing I have ever seen. I went through a tiny bit of that in ’99 when I made the All-Star game. When I came, with all the interview requests, people wanting me to do this but still not enough, even a tenth of what that guy was going through and he was able to get through that. Seventy home runs, I thought it was amazing.
OBC: Kent, you played with the Cardinals in 1999 when young Jose Jimenez pitched a no-hitter vs. Arizona. Is it true that players avoid pitchers like the plague in the midst of a no-no?
Bottenfield: It’s more like pitchers avoid the players. I mean, you know, they have to find their own little corner. Everybody’s different. As a team you, don’t avoid them. There are people who will say things and you are not paying attention, but there are some pitchers that would go into the dugout and they won’t want to be around anybody. So you kind of see what their feeling is. If they want to talk you talk. If they don’t want to talk, you stay away from them.
OBC: Let’s touch on the mechanics of pitching… You had a career ending shoulder surgery. At the highest levels of the game does the arm movement of power pitching become more or less unnatural? Is it a strain on your body?
Bottenfield: Oh, absolutely. The arm was never meant to move in that direction at high speed. Any more though — this is my own opinion given the ability to throw, if you have health you have health. And you work at it, and you do everything you possibly can. But I have seen guys in great shape that work harder than anybody and they work on their shoulders and they come down with injuries every year. I have seen guys who have been around and don’t do anything for shoulder strength or anything like that, and they pitch for a very long time. But I think it is mostly it’s obviously, I was taught you are supposed to do that but I think it is your makeup. I think there are a lot of times there are things you can to about it.
OBC: On hitting… Did you ever sass any of the players about being able to switch hit?
Bottenfield: You know the funny thing about that, I started switch hitting in AAA. I actually did a little bit in high school. You say a lot of information on yourself when you start to play and I may have put switch hitter on there. I did in high school a few times and I didn’t do it again until AAA and I had a couple of at bats left-handed , but that never left my bio. I never switch hit in the big leagues and I actually, I believe, just for the records they have me as having a couple of hits left handed. I have never taken a left hand at bat in the big leagues.
OBC: A bunch was made of Curt Schilling tipping pitches last season. Did this ever occur with you? Does it happen often?
Bottenfield: Yes, absolutely. I mean in players and one learns from the other. The two best I have ever seen are Tim Wallach and Larry Walker. Those two guys were the best of finding pitchers tipping their pitches and also getting signs from third base coach. I am not talking about being on second base or sitting in the dugout watching third base coach figuring out their signs. There are players like that. There aren’t that many any more. Most guys don’t put that kind of time and effort into their game. But, absolutely, pitches can give it a way. I did give a change up error in my career and had to go to a bigger glove. So it definitely happens.
OBC: Can you tell us any major changes in your style of pitching from ’92 through 2001? Any serious adjustments?
Bottenfield: Yes, because Montreal liked to draft guys that could throw hard and I had no understanding of what pitching was all about. They liked the radar gun to light up 90+ and I could do that. But for years I beat my head against the wall, why was I so inconsistent? And it came down to location. I realized eventually that I wasn’t the kind of pitcher that could throw 92-93 and have the kind of location I needed to be successful. So in Chicago in ’96, I was throwing extremely hard. I was throwing 94, 95, 96. I was doing that in relief role and you know your location is critical but not nearly as much as it is as a starter. So I had some pretty good years in Chicago. But when I became a starter again in St. Louis, the following years I had to learn what type of pitcher I was. And once I did that I had a lot of success as a starter because I understood myself after 14 years of playing professional ball, I knew what kind of pitcher I was. I knew my game plan extremely well and I never tried to go out and find what I could do.
OBC: Starting or Relief? Which did you prefer?
Bottenfield: Well, I started most of my career, but when I was almost out of the game and I got a job with the Cubs, they turned me into a closer in AAA. And I tell you what, I learned a whole lot about pitching because I was coming in, in clutch situations with runners on or no runners on or one out or 9th inning or 8th inning. It was a new situation everyday. So I learned a lot about having the guts to get out of it, and I didn’t want to go back, but that revived my career for those two years in Chicago. When St. Louis suggested I become a starter, at first I said no and finally I said, “You know what you don’t have a choice, you are going to start.” So I went into that kind of concerned that I was going to go back to my inconsistent ways. But I had a great pitching coach in Dave Duncan. He and I spent a lot of time talking and I really started to develop who I was as a pitcher, both physically and mentally.
OBC: Have you ever considered getting involved in baseball in any other capacity other than a player?
Bottenfield: I have. I mean I love the game and I have seriously thought about going back into it. But I almost think I would rather manage than be a pitching coach. But I don’t know if this is the time where for the last eleven, twelve years, I put my wife through the minor leagues and the major leagues, traveling, being away, you know, my kids for the last six or seven years. So right now this time has been important for us, that I just don’t jump back into it and continue it. I am into some other things right now. But I have definitely not ruled out getting back into it some day cause I do love the game.
Life in Portland
OBC: You grew up in Portland. Is there a good story that you can tell about your hometown?
Bottenfield: Well I have probably got a thousand stories. I still enjoy getting back to there. I get back there once a year, sometimes more. It was a great environment. You know I had someone tell me one time, one of the scouts, they said they find usually the toughest, mentally toughest kids, ballplayers out of there. To me it is the perfect sports town from an athlete’s standpoint because it has everything you need but it is not so big that it is overwhelming. It is a beautiful place to live. It is one of those places where, I don’t know about the Trail Blazers, but a lot of baseball players would probably find their way living there year round.
OBC: Knowing what you know about Portland, do you think MLB will wind up here?
Bottenfield: I think it would be a great environment for it. You know, obviously Portland’s proven this with the Trail Blazers. They are going to support a franchise if the stadium is done correctly I don’t think there would be any question.
OBC: If there is MLB, you want to come out for opening day? Kick it with your brother and the rest of us? Would be something to have a team in your hometown wouldn’t it?
Bottenfield: If MLB came to Portland, there is no doubt I would be there on opening day. I couldn’t pass up something like that. I would be involved completely. I grew up in Portland and I spent seventeen years of my life playing professional baseball and eight years playing in the major leagues, so that would be a combination I couldn’t pass up.