I had the opportunity to work with a lot of players during my time with the Cubs – and by a lot, I mean A LOT. I did some research yesterday afternoon, and a grand total of 491 players appeared in at least one game for the Cubs from Opening Day 1988 through August 14, 2012. And that number doesn’t include the players I only spent quality time with in spring training, the minor leagues or during my intern years.
Some players I knew a lot better than others – specifically, starting pitchers and left-handed middle relievers. Starting pitchers typically had extra time on their hands a few days of the week. Left-handed relievers tended to be, well, left-handed – so there were some excellent southpaw bonding opportunities.
As I’m now writing and telling stories, I’ve started reconnecting with some of the unique personalities I worked with during my quarter century with the club. I thought it would be pretty cool to let you know what they’re up to now – and to talk about their playing days.
A few days ago, I caught up with Steve Trachsel, who pitched in the majors from 1993-2008 – and wore a Cubs uniform from 1993-1999 and in September 2007.
Chuck: When you came up, you looked like you had a little bit of an edge to you. But when I was with you away from the field, you were fine; you didn’t exhibit that same type of personality. Did you purposely try to have an edge on the field?
Trax: “I really didn’t realize it. I know there was a conscious effort to leave whatever happened at the ballpark, leave it there. I didn’t want to take it home with me. Obviously, sometimes that was harder than others. Mostly over big losses, that type of thing. If I could leave it at the ballpark, it always seemed to make the rest of my life a little bit easier. I don’t know if it was a competitive edge-type thing while I was on the field. On days I pitched, after the game, I could be there a good couple hours before I could leave to be sure that I left as much there as possible.”
CW: You came up at a time when being a college pitcher was in vogue, and you came up pretty quick.
Trax: “Yeah, two and a half years. The big thing I had to deal with early on was being touted as Greg Maddux’s replacement, which was a little unfair. That’s someone you couldn’t replace. Especially then, since he was continuing to get better and became a Hall of Famer. Being 22 years old and getting tagged with that was a little difficult to handle.”
CW: When you came back in 2007, you seemed a lot more comfortable in your skin at that point in your career. Obviously, there’s a big difference between coming up at 22 and being a veteran 36-year-old.
Trax: “Oh yeah, definitely. I’d been around a long time. My role had changed at that point of my career. Being 22, I was just trying to establish myself. My career was on the upswing. In 2007, I could see the end of my career coming. I was just trying to stretch it out as long as I could. It was another opportunity to be in the playoffs in 2007, even though I knew it was more of an insurance policy. It was something I tried to take full advantage of and enjoy as much as I could, knowing there was a good chance it would be my last opportunity.”
CW: Speaking of playoffs, for me – the greatest moment watching you pitch – was Game 163 in 1998 (Trachsel pitched 6.1 shutout innings in a 5-3 victory over San Francisco in the Wild Card tiebreaker). In your own words, tell me what it was like being there, as it was a different atmosphere that night.
Trax: “It was almost indescribable. I would have to say, without having been in a World Series, I’d like to think that’s what the atmosphere is like for every game. Being in Chicago, where it had been so long since they’d been to the playoffs. Harry had passed that year. It was a one game win-or-go home type situation. The absolute electricity the entire day. There was this constant buzz everywhere you went around the city. You couldn’t turn on the TV or the radio. It was all everyone was talking about. The pure excitement of the entire moment is definitely one of the highlights of my career. One of the biggest games I’ve not only been able to participate in, but to witness.”
CW: When you say buzz, you could audibly hear buzzing. It was like there were locusts all over.
Trax: “And it was everywhere. Around Wrigleyville, it was crazy. Downtown was crazy. And then you get to the ballpark. I still remember this ginormous Harry Caray balloon floating out beyond the leftfield wall. Even more than a buzz, there was this electricity going off everywhere.”
CW: I have to ask about this. You heard about it. You were painfully slow to watch. Was that a conscious decision, or was that something you might have had even in your Little League days?
Trax: “It definitely wasn’t from Little League. Definitely, not conscious. Since I’ve retired, I’ve gone through the painful process of moving all the tapes that my parents had of me pitching from VHS to DVD, and I could consciously see as I was doing them that … the games earlier in my career, I was able to fit a couple games on a DVD. But later in my career, only one would fit. Obviously, early in my career, I wasn’t working slowly. Somewhere around year four, five, six – games started getting longer for some reason. I know going back and thinking about them, the games definitely felt like they were moving really quickly – at least in my head. I know by the time I got to New York, there was a definite conscious decision to try to speed back up again – both by my coaches and by myself. Going back and watching my tapes after the games. I realized how long it actually was between pitches. So there was actually a definite decision with (Mets pitching coach) Charlie Hough – where I asked him to use a stopwatch in between. It started in one of the spring training games. We tried to make it a focal point in my head of how much time was going on. I got better later in my career. But there was probably a good five-year period where my infielders probably thought it was painful for them. I know it was painful for some umpires as well. There would be comments made by them beforehand – especially the guys behind the plate. ‘Oh God, I’ve got Trachsel’s game.’ ”
CW: You liked to wear your hat low. Was there any reason you didn’t want people to see anything other than your eyes?
Trax: “It was a focus thing. I tried to block out the crowd, or anything above, or behind the dugout when I was coming off the field. Just trying to narrow my focus as much as I could. It was easy for me to block it out sound-wise. But visually, I tried to keep it out. I remember the first time I was in Montreal, Shawon Dunston pulled me aside a day or two before and said, ‘Hey, try not to be distracted.’ I guess there were TVs in the Stadium Club behind home plate. I know he was conscious about them. He said every once in a while, a ground ball would come out of the TV and he would lose it. He mentioned to me that other pitchers said that the TVs distracted them. It might not have started there, but I pulled the hat down low, so that everything beyond the umpire was blocked out while I was on the mound. It was easier for me to just concentrate on the glove.”
CW: Looking back now on your career, if there were things you could have done differently, what would you have done? Or are you comfortable with how your career played out?
Trax: “I’m sure there’s stuff I would have done different. If I had worked quicker, I probably would have had some better defense. My style probably helped my defense get relaxed and on their heels a little bit. At the time, it wasn’t a focus of mine. But now going back, I can see where that would have helped everybody. I would have liked to have gotten to know guys better. I always felt with as many players moving in and out, I didn’t want to have to face a friend – so that’s something I always battled with. I probably would have gotten more memorabilia signed from guys I played with for my own personal stuff. Other than that, being a mid-round starting pitcher, I think being around 15 years – I did pretty well.”
CW: You made over 400 starts, you had close to 150 wins. Is there ever a point where you kind of pinch yourself and say “I can’t believe I got that opportunity?”
Trax: “A little bit. Not too much. Opportunity wise, I put a lot of work in. I knew, once I got to Double-A, seeing some of the guys I played against … who had similar type stuff … and had been called up to the big leagues and were succeeding … I knew that as long as I stayed healthy, that I would get an opportunity. I just wanted to make sure that when I got that opportunity, I was at the top of my game and that I was focused. Luckily, I was able to stay healthy for a very long time, so I think that really helped out a lot. When I was drafted, I was a small skinny kid. I wasn’t done growing. I kind of sprouted late, and I think that’s what really helped me out.”
CW: Final question … What are you doing now, and do you have plans to try and get back in the game?
Trax: “Right now, mostly taking care of the kids. My son (Brendan) is playing freshman baseball. So that’s going six days a week right now. He’s 15. He’s the same size I was my senior year of high school, and he’s just a freshman, so I’m kind of curious to see how that’s going to turn out for him. My daughter (Lauren) is 13 and in competition dance. She’s doing that six days a week as well. So I’m putting a lot of miles on the car driving around to their events. I just got engaged in October. So we’re working on trying to plan a wedding and round two of family. As far as getting back into the game, I know it’s really difficult to get back in once you’ve been out. I don’t know if I’d want to do the travel that would be required. I know my fiancée (Rebecca) says that she would like to see me get back in, but I don’t think she knows the extent of what it takes out of a family when you’re going through all that. I think if I did get back in, it would be more along the lines of helping out with the high school or that type of stuff.”