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Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Vance Law Discusses His Life In Baseball

Vance Law had access to big league baseball that most kids can only dream about. His father Vern had a 16-year major league career as a star pitcher. Not surprisingly, Vance went into the family business and his in the midst of a 40-year (and still going) baseball career.

Vance has an 11-year career (1980-1991) playing in the majors for five different teams as an infielder. He hit a combined .256 with 71 home runs and 442 RBIs. His best season came in 1988 with the Chicago Cubs, as he was an All star, batting .293 with 11 home runs and 78 RBIs. Since his playing career ended he has worked extensively in coaching at various levels.

I recently had a chance to ask Vance some questions about his career. He provided some detailed and enthralling answers. Keep reading for more about his experiences in the game.

Who was your favorite player (other than your dad) when you were growing up, and why?: My favorite player was Willie Stargell for a couple of reasons. First, he took the time to play pepper with this seven or eight year old kid down in the right field bullpen of old Forbes Field, and actually was the one who asked me to play with him. Secondly, he had tremendous power and on occasion would hit prodigious home runs over the right field roof. I also loved to watch him throw because he had a great arm from left field, where most people don’t know he played when he first came up with the Pirates.

Can you describe your draft experience with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1978- How did you find out you had been selected?: It was following my senior year at BYU and I thought I had a very good season. I really thought I might go in the first 10 rounds or so because I played very well in all the major tournaments we played where the scouts were and also in the Western Athletic Conference Finals against Arizona State, a major power in the NCAA. Scouts flocked to watch them play with the likes of Bob Horner, Hubie Brooks, Ken Landreaux, Floyd Bannister, Bobby Pate, Chris Bando, etc. I had a very good series there and had high hopes for the draft.

The first day went by as I sat in my apartment expecting to get a phone call yet it didn’t happen, then the second day passed and was coming to a close and still no phone call. I was very discouraged and was really banking on having the chance to play professional baseball, but it looked like that wasn’t going to happen. After the second day, I didn’t even stay around my apartment and it wasn’t until the 10 pm news broadcast that it mentioned that I was drafted in the 39th round by the Pittsburgh Pirates. I was very excited to at least have the chance to play professional baseball, but didn’t receive a phone call until the following day when I received a call telling me when to report to Pirate City in Bradenton, FL.

What was it like growing up with a father who was a major league player?: I was very proud to be the son of a major league baseball player, but expectations were higher for me and I think I put more pressure on myself to be better than others. I was just a normal kid, though and made physical mistakes like everyone else. Because I had the opportunity to see a lot of baseball games, I do believe I knew better than most kids my age how to play the game, and my exposure of being around the game, being able to shag and play catch with big leaguers during batting practice was a definite advantage.

I felt that kind of pressure all the way through high school and college and would often hear remarks from fans and opposing players that I wasn’t that good and that my dad was the reason I was on my college team. Seems crazy to think that people try to raise themselves by putting a young kid down with their words. As a young kid, I was so proud to be able to walk out of the clubhouse holding my dad’s enormous hand because he was so recognizable and by association, I felt important too.

I had access to major leaguers which was pretty cool and could come and go as I pleased at Forbes Field. One time, while I was shagging, I got the idea that the new balls that the Pirates used for BP would make a pretty good souvenir for some fans, so I kept some of them and lined four or five of them up on the foul line right where it met the right field wall. Following BP, I put them in my glove and went in near the clubhouse and as the players walked by, I asked them to sign the balls. After the ball had a fair amount of signatures, I took them up into the stands near the souvenir stand and undercut the price of the balls they were selling. It didn’t take long to sell them and I had nearly $15 in my pocket. I thought, “what a business!” I sold the balls for about $3 a pop while the souvenir stand sold them for $3.50. I did this so I could have some concession money during the games. My mother only gave me a quarter each night because we went to a lot of the games and I’d have to save for four nights if I was going to get the tasty pizza that was sold for $1. So all of a sudden, I had plenty of money to have a pizza and popcorn. After a couple nights of good business, my mom must have told my dad and he watched me gather balls and start to get them signed when he came out of the clubhouse and asked me if those balls belonged to me. Reluctantly, I said I didn’t buy them but the Pirates had so many of them that it didn’t seem to matter much. He asked me if that was the honest thing to do. That’s all he had to say and I was out of business. But that’s the kind of man my dad is. Always honesty and integrity above all else and I have remembered that lesson my entire life.

What do you remember most about your major league debut?: I will never forget when I was called up. I was in my hotel room in morning of May 31, 1980 in Spokane, Washington playing for the Portland Beavers on a short road trip. Our manager, Jim Mahoney, called me on the phone and asked if I was sitting down. I said, “Should I be?” and he simply replied that the Pirates just called and wanted me in Pittsburgh tonight so to get a cab, go to the ball park, collect my gear, fly back to Portland, have my wife meet me there with more clothes and fly to Pittsburgh. I was so excited, I could hardly believe that my dream of playing in the major leagues for my childhood favorite team was about to come true. I called my wife and she was so excited for me. I wasn’t making enough money to fly her back with me so I made the trip solo.

My dad was coaching in Japan at the time so I didn’t know how to get a hold of him and my mother right away. I’ll never forget landing in Pittsburgh and taking another cab to the ball park and coming out of the Fort Pitt tunnel with the lights of 3 Rivers Stadium illuminated right there in front of me. I wasn’t activated until the following day, June 1, and when I got to the ballpark, I saw that I was in the lineup, playing second base. I was a little scared about that because I had played second only a couple times my senior year in college. I took a bunch of ground balls during BP and turned double plays and tried to get as comfortable as possible in an hour of work.

During the game I actually turned a double play and the action shot was in the paper the next day with Hubie Brooks from ASU, now with the Mets, sliding in and me jumping over him. I remember very vividly my knees and legs actually shaking during my first at bat.

Since it was Cap Day, there were about 55,000 fans there that day (paid attendance is listed at 49,626!) so I was plenty nervous. I was facing a left hander Pete Falcone and flew out to right field my first at bat. I got my first hit, a line double down the right field line, off Tom Hausman in I believe my fourth at bat. They stopped the game and threw my first hit ball to the dugout. I was very proud. When I came off the field, they presented me with the ball and my joy went to shock when I began to read what was written. I’d never be able to show it to anyone, let alone my wife or parents. They had written curse words all over it. After a few seconds of watching my response, they busted up laughing and Willie Stargell, my childhood hero, who was playing first base, presented me with my first hit ball. He has great penmanship and wrote up the game situation and signed it for me. It is a real treasure for me.

Following the game, which we won, I was sitting in my locker almost not believing I actually was in the major leagues. I was bent over untying my spikes, when a pair of shoes walked up and stopped right in front of me. I looked up and it was Harvey Haddix, our pitching coach, but also a teammate of my dad’s back in the 60’s. He reached forward, and said, “Congratulations, have a beer.” I looked at him and said, “Thanks Harvey, but you know I don’t drink.” He said, “I’m just checkin’ son.” Having played a number of years with my dad, he knew that my dad was a strong member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and didn’t drink alcohol and rightly assumed that I had the same beliefs. 

You fared well in your seven major league pitching appearances (3.38 ERA). What was in your repertoire?: I was called on to pitch in those seven games, all blowouts, to save our bullpen for the next night. Because I would often throw early and extra BP hours before game time, our managers knew that I could throw strikes and at that point in the game, that’s all they wanted so as not to prolong the game. I took it very seriously though. I didn’t want to go out there and embarrass myself by giving up a bunch of runs either.

The first time I pitched was against the San Diego Padres and I faced Marvell Wynne, Kevin McReynolds and the late great HOF’er Tony Gwynn. I got all three to ground out; three up, three down. I went to the dugout and joked what’s so tough about that since the game was well out of hand. Many years later, I read an article where Tony was asked if there was one at bat that he would like to have back and he said that was the one. As far as what I threw? I threw a four-seam fastball, a two-seamer that sank a little, a very average slider, and rarely, a very weak change up. The key as I have always heard was to throw strikes. 

What is your favorite moment from your baseball career?: There are so many memorable moments that it is too tough to single out just one. Team-wise, it was winning divisions in 1983 and 1989. It was also truly an honor to be named to the 1988 National League All Star team along with five Chicago Cubs team mates.

Personally, I had a few game winning hits, a few two-home run games, but probably the most memorable was a walk off grand slam while playing with the Montreal Expos against my former team the Pirates. It remains the only grand slam I ever hit, in little league all the way to the major leagues.

Who was the toughest, nastiest pitcher you ever faced?: The toughest pitchers varied from year to year, though they were always tough each year, one year each would have unhittable stuff. Dwight Gooden and Nolan Ryan were tough every year because of their overpowering fastballs and nasty curves.  Fernando Valenzuela was tough with his pinpoint control and screwball, plus he threw pretty hard too. Orel Hershiser was tough to face because of his smarts, a hard sinker and great control, particularly in 1988.

Mike Witt with the Angels was always a challenge, but I think if I had to name one guy, it would be David Cone when he was with the Mets. He threw almost every pitch except his split finger from all angles so you never knew what was coming and he threw hard as well. He’s who I would call nasty. One year I believe I hit .300 off him. I was 3 for 10 with 3 singles and 7 strikeouts! He was very tough to hit.

If there is anything you could go back and do differently about your baseball career, what would that be?: I was way too serious! I would make a conscious effort to outwardly show how much I enjoyed playing. Don’t get me wrong, I truly enjoyed playing, but I didn’t smile enough, and I believe I kind of took it for granted that it would always be there, kind of like raising kids. Before you know it they are grown and gone and you say, “Where did the time go?” I was so fortunate to do what I did for as long as I did. I also would interact more with the fans. I always tried to be cordial but I think I could have done even more. It is always nice to be kind.

What are you up to since retiring as a player?: I took a couple of years off to see if something would grab me in life after baseball. I dabbled in coaching at a local junior college, then when my oldest son was in high school he was going into a terrible baseball program, so I volunteered to the principal to coach the baseball team to try and give him and his friends a chance to have a better experience and what do you know, we won the state championship the third year there and took second and third two other years. From there, I was hired at BYU and was the head coach for 13 years.

For the past six seasons, I have been a roving instructor in the minor league system of the Chicago White Sox, one season over outfield and base running, three seasons as the hitting coordinator and the last two as the infield coordinator. They eliminated that position following this season so currently I am actively looking for a professional level coaching job. I have been so fortunate to have been in baseball either as a player or coach since I signed in 1978, nearly 40 years. Where has the time gone?

You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew

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