The first professional athlete I ever met was Ted Williams, when I was about 9 years old. The experience was extremely disappointing, given how profane and cranky Williams turned out to be, even to a little kid like myself. The second professional athlete I met was Bob Zupcic, when I was about 12 or 13 years old. The encounter with Zupcic was completely opposite than that with Williams, and made him a favorite of mine.
I met Zupcic at a baseball card show at an old VFW building in White River Jct., Vermont, where he was a guest. I got in line and had him autograph an index card for me, but I was too shy to say anything to him. My timidity was challenged after the show, when I was waiting outside, anxiously scanning the streets for my late mother, who was supposed to be picking me up. As my aggravation for having to wait mounted, Zupcic exited the VFW building and started to walk past me. I thought I was going to faint when he stopped and asked me if I needed a ride anywhere. Before I could contemplate what excuse I could tell my mother later on, in order to take advantage of the situation, I saw her driving towards me. Although I had to decline the offer, I was totally awed that Zupcic had talked to me, let alone offered me a ride. It is still a memory I can vividly recall today.
Bob Zupcic played in the Major Leagues with the Boston Red Sox from 1991 to 1994, and the Cleveland Indians in 1994. He was drafted in the 1st round of the Major League Draft by Boston in 1987, and progressed through their minor league system quickly, in part because of solid play, and also because longtime stalwarts Jim Rice and Dwight Evans were nearing the end of their long tenures with the team. Zupcic played all three outfield positions with Boston, attaining over a hundred games played in both 1992 and 1993. However, he was never able to get things going offensively to the point that it won him a long term job. In 319 games over 4 seasons, Zupcic hit .250 with 7 home runs and 80 RBI. More information on his career statistics can be found at http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/z/zupcibo01.shtml.
Despite his relatively short time in Boston, Zupcic displayed a knack for producing the big play. He hit two grand slams in 1992 and towards the end of the season, made a play that is still recalled by many Boston fans. He climbed up the bullpen wall and took a certain home run away from Mickey Tettleton of the Baltimore Orioles. It was such a spectacular catch that legendary Boston journalist Bob Ryan described it as the finest catch he had seen in over 40 years of attending games at Fenway. Although Zupcic was only with Boston for a few seasons, he made himself into a memorable part of the team’s history. And just think; I almost got to have him drive me home once!
Bob Zupcic Interview:
How did you first become interested in baseball?: When I was a kid I had an older brother and we just always played. Back when I played [Little League] we didn’t start until nine years old. We didn’t have tee-ball or anything like that. But I was always younger than my brother, so when I was six I was playing with ten year olds; always playing with his friends. That probably helped me a little bit, playing with better competition.
What was high school playing like?: Yeah, we had a great team. We had one guy, well first myself, and then another guy… he got drafted by the Rangers. We had a really good team. I still keep in touch with some of the guys. You know not as much as you would like because life keeps you busy with family and everything like that. We had great coaches, great school, so it was a lot of fun.
Did you have a favorite player growing up?: Well I guess my favorite player, even though he passed away before… was Roberto Clemente. A big reason was I was born in Pittsburgh and was a huge Pirate fan. He was just a great player and his first name was the same as mine, so I think that was kind of one connection. He was just a great player. Loved Dave Parker and all the Pirates growing up. When I was younger we moved to Philadelphia, so the Phillies and the Pirates had great rivalries back in the mid 70’s, the late 70’s. I can recall going to the back yard and hitting balls and listen to the games on the radio. We didn’t have a lot of tv back then.
Did you go to a lot of Pirate games growing up?: I didn’t. Matter of fact I went to a couple of Phillies’ games. We moved when I was about 8 or 9 years old. I grew up in the Philadelphia area.
You went to college at Oral Roberts?: Yep. Went to college at Oral Roberts. How that worked out is my brother was going to a bible college out there to be a minister and he used go over to watch the games when he had time. They actually had one guy who pitched quite a bit in the Majors, Mike Moore, who was the number one pick, so there was a lot of activity and stir because of that. And then my father called the coach there and kind of recruited them.
What was your draft experience like; getting picked in the first round by the Boston Red Sox? Did you expect to go that high?: Well I had a feeling the day before the draft, the Pirates actually flew me in and I was thinking they were maybe thinking the second round. I didn’t even talk to the Red Sox. There wasn’t as much communication back then as they have it now. I was extremely, extremely psyched.
I guess I kind of took a liking believe it or not, ’86, I can recall sitting in my dorm by myself, it might have been a Saturday, I’m not sure. The game that Buckner let the ball go under his glove. I remember feeling sorry for him and I guess you can’t help but pull for the Red Sox even if you’re not a Red Sox fan because of the history. And then not even a year later I was drafted by them.
How was your experience playing in the Red Sox organization?: Oh, unbelievable! The minor leagues was great, had great teammate I played with; great coaches. Then getting to the Big Leagues… the number one thing even more than Fenway is the fans. You know, the fans in Boston just make it a special experience, and then you add Fenway Park, the Green Monster, and the history. What a great experience.
I would have liked to have stayed longer. They let me go and the White Sox picked me up, and then the strike happened, and then I got sent to the minor leagues. There’s always that day where you have to make the decision if it is all still worth your time, and that point at thirty years old you can see the writing on the wall.
Was there anyone on the Red Sox who you connected with or treated you especially well?: Boggsie was great, but the biggest influence I probably had was Tom Brunansky. He was a veteran at the time and he made the effort to come over to me and teach me things and help me up if I was struggling, or give me a pat on the back. I think there was someone who really took a leadership role. Coming up with Mo Vaughn, and Cooper, and Valentine, and all those guys, they were more your immediate peers, where you had guys like Clemens, Boggsie, and Reardon, and then Brunansky, Jack Clark… I think that Brunansky had a huge impact. He was a great player. He could just do everything extremely well.
Who is the biggest character you ever played with or against?: The person who I loved watching play the most was probably Kirby Puckett. I wouldn’t call him a character. You know, I don’t know. I can’t recall anyone just being crazy. Like a Bill Lee or something like that was before my time. I can’t really recall anyone who was a character.
What was your favorite moment from your playing career?: Well, I think the biggest moments were the two grand slams. I think the first one was the biggest one because it was in the bottom of the ninth to win the game. It was off of Henneman and the second was Thigpen.
It’s kind of funny, the other day I went up to Boston to sign some autographs and took in a game with my middle boy. One of the writers who used to write came up to me, and I made one of the catches over the railing in right-center, and I had never seen it. He did some research and I guess they went back to NESN and the guy sent me a DVD of it. I’ve never seen the catch and I got to finally see it. I’ll tell you, that is a pretty amazing catch. I certainly won’t pump myself up. I’m not that type of person, but the catch was, that was a big moment. Now that happened so fast.
Did you have a favorite coach or manager?: Well I think Butch Hobson was one I had going up. He really gave me a lot of opportunity, even when I struggled. Butch was the type of guy even how he played; I think his heart was bigger than his talent. He always played… probably played hurt more than he should have, but I would say that he gave you the opportunity to experience some struggle, but also get to the Big Leagues. He was a big influence.
Who was the toughest pitcher you ever faced?: Oh no. Probably when Randy Johnson was on, he was pretty nasty. We were playing in Seattle, and it was when I was with the White Sox, and it was a 1-0 game, in the ninth inning he struck me out with a 101 mile per hour fastball and I swear I was on it. It must have gone straight through my bat.
Juan Guzman, I think he struck me out three times in one game; every single time with the base loaded and one out. And I recall that fourth time I was 0-2 facing Duane Ward and he jammed me and broke my bat at 98 miles an hour and I was happy. You shouldn’t be happy breaking your bat and hitting the ball back to the pitcher, but I didn’t strike out a fourth time.
I remember after that; that was the first time I had played in 17 days; Burks’ back was hurting. I mean thought I was done. They’re going to send me back. It’s over. And that when Brunansky came up to me and said, ‘hang in there kid, it’s just part of it.’ And then I think after that you relax; you feel like you belong and then I started playing.
Looking back on your career, is there anything you would do differently?: No, and I tell all the kids; I tell all the kids I work with… I have no regrets. I can look back and know I left every single thing on the field. You know, I didn’t cheat. I didn’t do no steroids. I didn’t do anything to where I would be ashamed of. No, I wouldn’t do anything different. Now I wish someone would have had worked with me maybe when I was a little younger and perfected my mechanics a little better, but other than that, no, no regrets.
What have you done since you stopped playing?: I’m in the car business. I’ve been selling cars since ’96. Now I work for my brother-in-law. We have our little own used car lot, so I have a lot more freedom. I love it. My oldest boy plays, my middle boy plays my daughter is in cheerleading, my youngest son… we’ve got four kids, so we stay pretty busy. My wife and I have been married for 23 years, so I would say just being with my family is what I have been doing.
Can you envision a scenario where you would get back into coaching or baseball?: Well I coached my sons for 11 or 12 years. I still work with my sons and I still work with kids. I don’t think I ever have any visions of going back to pro ball. I’d rather influence the kids when they are about 14 to 18 before they leave.
How many autograph requests would you say you typically receive?: I still get a few things. It’s pretty neat. It’s quite humbling that people still want your information even after being out of the game 15-16 years. I try to get them back as much as I can. I’m not saying I’m perfect, but my kids kind of stay on me about that. If anyone takes the time to do it, it’s worth sending it back.