Former outfielder Tom Shopay had the pleasure and the misfortune to play for either veteran or very good major league teams during his career. It allowed him to have some great teammates and experience a winning environment, but it also invariably meant that he never got much of an opportunity to establish himself as an everyday player.
Taken in the 34th round of the inaugural MLB amateur draft of 1965, Shopay went on to play parts of two seasons with the New York Yankees and parts of five seasons with the Baltimore Orioles. A left-handed batter, and right-handed thrower, he was a good hitter with some speed at the minor league level, though he never showed much power. He was spectacular at nothing, but a solid all-around player who could play all three outfield positions, and provided a versatile option off the bench. He never got more than 74 at-bats in any of his seven major league seasons, but his staying power belied his value.
One of the high points of Shopay’s career was being a member of the 1971 Orioles team that went 101-57 in the regular season, before losing to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series. He pinch-hit five times in the Series, going hitless. Nevertheless, that Baltimore team was one of the greatest of all time; managed by Earl Weaver, it featured four 20 game winners in their starting rotation, and Brooks and Frank Robinson in the lineup.
For his career Shopay batted .201 in 253 games, spanning 309 at bats. He hit 3 home runs, drove in 20 runs, and stole 11 bases. More information about his career statistics is available at http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/s/shopato01.shtml.
Recently, I had the good fortune to be able to chat for a few minutes with Tom Shopay. He shared many memories with me of his playing career, and let me know what he has been up to since he hung up his spikes.
Tom Shopay Interview:
How did you first become interested in baseball?: I’m originally from Connecticut, and at the time I was growing up there were three channels on t.v.; there were no computers; there were no Nintendos; there were no video games. Whatever sport was in season, we were outside playing.
Long story short, I tried out for Little League when I was 10 years old, and got cut. I couldn’t even make a Little League team. At that time, kids didn’t have to play. You made it because of your ability.
I played soccer, basketball, and baseball in high school, and then baseball in college. I got interested in all three of those sports, but baseball I was the best at.
Did you have a favorite team or player growing up?: I lived in Bristol, Connecticut, the home of ESPN now. I was exactly two hours away from Boston and two hours away from New York. So, as a kid, it was cut and dry that you were one way or the other. There was no other way to go.
When I was younger, the Yankees were my team and Mickey Mantle was my favorite player. I had favorite players on the other side too. Of course you had Ted Williams. One of my favorite players in Boston was Carl Yastrzemski, but Mantle at that time was my favorite player.
What was it like to play next to your childhood hero Mantle during your first major league season?: I got called up in 1967 after the Triple-A season. My first start was in Yankee Stadium, the old Yankee Stadium. I was playing left field and Mantle was playing center. At that point in time Mantle came over to me when we were in the outfield when the game was just starting. He yelled at me and I came over to him. He looks at me and he says, ‘Hey Tom, take everything that you can get. Anything close to me that you can get, take it.’ His knees were bad at that time, but that was just a thrill in itself to be able to play alongside him.
You were drafted by the Yankees in 1965; how did you first find out that they were interested in you?: Actually I was in the free agent draft. That was the draft where Rick Monday was the first player chosen. At that time, playing high school ball and American Legion ball, there were scouts going around looking at players. I’m sure now they have all kinds of computerized systems, rating players, or whatever.
When I graduated from high school, there was no free agent draft. I had a chance to sign with the Phillies, the Yankees, and I can’t remember the third team. I chose to go to college, and at that time the only way you could re-sign is if you went to school for two years, or flunked out of college, and basically that was it. That was when the first draft took place, that was in 1965, and I was drafted by the Yankees. I was drafted in a higher round. You’re talking 34th round; something like that.
Do you have a favorite moment from your playing career?: There are a few, really. The first one, of course, was making it to the major leagues. A million kids dream about making it, and my dream came true. I got to play in the major leagues and it was just a thrill.
Another great moment was playing in the 1971 World Series. I got to pinch hit five times in that World Series.
I played on the same team as Mantle, a Hall of Famer; Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer, Eddie Murray, Earl Weaver, and Reggie Jackson, who was with us before he signed his free agent contract. I got to play with six or seven Hall of Famers, which was a thrill in itself.
I was also at the game where Frank Robinson hit his 500th home run. I was in Minnesota when Harmon Killebrew hit his 500th home run. I was in Baltimore when Al Kaline got his 3000th base hit. There’s not really one that outweighs the other. At the time, that’s your biggest thrill and then all of a sudden something else comes along.
Out of all of the Hall of Fame players you played with, who was the best teammate?: Probably Brooks Robinson. Brooks was like you and Brooks was like me. Brooks was just a normal human being. Brooks cared about everybody. He cared about people; he cared about fans. He just cared, and he was a good baseball player. That was just him. Jim Palmer was a good guy too, but I would have to put Brooks at the top of the list.
Who was the biggest character you ever played with or again?: A guy I played with was Tony Muser. Muser was a utility ballplayer, and he actually coached and managed at the major league level. He was probably one of the funniest people I have ever known in baseball. He’s just a character.
If you could do anything differently about your career, what would that be?: When I started off with the Yankees I played for Ralph Houk. Ralph Houk called me into his office in the ’69 season when I was up with the Yankees. He said to me, ‘You’re going to start against all right-handed pitching.’ I said, ‘That’s great! That’s fine! That’s perfect!’
The thing was that it never materialized. He was the type of guy who said something out of one side of his mouth and something out of the other side of his mouth. I was disenchanted. He was a veteran players’ manager. I wish I would have voiced myself a little bit more. I never really did because I was a fringe player and didn’t want to rock the boat. If I had to do it all over again, no matter what the consequences were, I’d voice my opinion.
Earl Weaver was a players’ manager, and honest. Earl didn’t sugarcoat anything. What he told you came true. If he didn’t say it to you, forget it, but if he said it to you, he backed it up.
What have you done since you stopped playing baseball?: when I stopped playing baseball the first thing I did, and I have an background in education, was buy a nursery school. I owned the nursery school with my ex-wife for about seven years.
Then my brother who was in the security business in Miami, wanted me to come into business with him. At that time, when he bought the company, it had security guards and electronics. At that his business had 50 employees.
He said, ‘come out here with me.’ I said, ‘No, no, I’m happy here.’
After a while he had 150 employees, so at that point I decided I would come out with him because I had a couple of people interested in buying my school. So, for 25 years I was in the security industry. We developed that business, and we sold that business a number of years ago, and we had 1,700 employees at that time. I retired two years ago.
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