An Interview with Joe Sambito

added 09/04/01 by Ray Kerby

Relief pitcher Joe Sambito was one of the most dominating closers to play for the Astros. After three consecutive years with ERAs of 1.77, 2.19, and 1.84, and elbow injury sidetracked his career and led to an early retirement. He finished his career with the Red Sox and made an appearance in the 1986 World Series. He now works as a player agent and graciously agreed to an interview through email.

(c) Houston Astros
Ray Kerby: As a child, did you always want to be a ballplayer? What made you want to be a ballplayer?

Joe Sambito: I cannot remember a time when I did not want to be a baseball player. It may go back to my earliest interests, or it could have been my father's influence, or it could have been growing up in New York when the Yankees were dominating Major League Baseball, much as they seem to be doing at this time, but to an even greater extent. It could have been a combination of those reasons, but the bottom line was that I loved playing the game from the time I could walk and through everyday of my career.

RK: Did you have a favorite team? Who was your idol? Why did you like him?

JS: When I first started understanding and following baseball, the Yankees were my team and Mickey Mantle was my idol. At that time, and in that place, Mickey was the Yankees and the Yankees were baseball. There was Mays, Aaron, Koufax, Musial, and others but to a young New York kid, there was only Mickey and the Yankees.

RK: Growing up in New York, how did you feel about being drafted by a Texas team?

JS: Being drafted by any team was exciting to me. I was a 17th round pick and just happy to have the opportunity to play professional baseball. It had always been a dream for me and I was now living my dream. It didn't matter where my dream took me.

RK: What were your primary pitches? Which ones did you have the most confidence in?

JS: My primary pitches were fastball and slider. I threw two different fastballs, as most pitchers do. One was a sinker and the other was a cutter. As my Major League career developed and I became a closer, the fastballs and the slider became my weapons. In game saving situations, there's no time to experiment with other pitches.

RK: After being a starter in the minors, you were immediately moved into a relief role in the majors. Why was that change made? How did you adjust to the switch in roles?

JS: I believe the change to a relief role came about for more than one reason. Among the reasons were my ability to get loose quickly along with the resiliency I had in that I could pitch often with a short recovery time. I was able to throw strikes, which is important to all pitchers, but crucial to relief pitchers who are often brought into games with runners on base. You can't kill a rally by walking batters. Another reason was that I was left-handed and there was a need for that in our bullpen, as is the case with most teams. Another reason was that I was the product of a pitching-rich organization. I was one of several young pitchers who came to the Majors at about the same time and I don't believe I possessed the variety of pitches the others possessed. Simply put, I didn't have the same "stuff," and that made me better suited for the bullpen. My initial reaction to the bullpen was, "I'll do anything to stay in the Big Leagues, but I'd prefer starting." However, I learned to enjoy the role and came to love it as I realized that I could come to the stadium each day with the thought of playing a role in the outcome of the game. I found that nothing compared to the rush of coming into a game and nailing down a victory.

RK: When you first made it to the bigs, who were some of your mentors? How did they help you?

JS: There were two minor league pitching coaches who taught me what pitching was all about. They were Cliff Davis and Bob Cluck. They schooled me on the mental part of the game and helped me understand the mechanics involved in being a successful pitcher. Cluck went on to become a Major League pitching coach with Houston and San Diego. I believe Cliff Davis left baseball to become a shrimper in Corpus Christi.

RK: On May 1, 1979, you gave up a game-winning grand slam to Roger Freed. But immediately after that, you started an incredible string of over 40 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run. How difficult is it to handle a tough loss like that, and did your response to it have anything to do with the scoreless streak that followed?

JS: The home run to Roger Freed was about as disappointing a game as I've ever experienced except for the game when my elbow came apart. We had a three run lead in the bottom of the 10th inning. I had just hit a double and driven in a run or two as we took the lead. I had sandwiched two outs between a couple of walks and an infield hit to load the bases. Roger Freed was the pinch hitter and he worked me to a full count. He then hit a high fastball over the left-center field wall for a grand slam and we lost the game. That was a tough night for me. Ironically, I didn't give up another earned run until July 19, a period on 27 games and 40.2 innings. I think the scoreless streak had more to do with the fact that I was throwing very well that year, than any conscious thought process of mine as a result of the Freed homer.

RK: In 1979, you were named to the All-Star team along with teammates Joe Niekro, Joaquin Andujar and Craig Reynolds. Do you remember who you faced and how you did? What was the pressure like when you were on the mound?

JS: Please keep in mind that as I looked across the clubhouse locker room at Rose, Morgan, Winfield, Carlton, Brock, Schmidt, etc. I was trying to understand how and why I was there. I recall sitting in the NL bullpen early in the game and looking directly into the AL dugout. Sitting on the bench, with his bat, was Reggie Jackson, fresh off of three successful seasons with the Yankees. He was the biggest thing in baseball at the time. I turned to Joe Niekro and told him that all I wanted to do was face Reggie. As it turned out, in the sixth inning, Gaylord Perry ran into some trouble and with Reggie announced as a pinch-hitter, Tom Lasorda brought me into the game. Reggie and I had quite a battle as he fouled off 4 or 5 pitches with two strikes. he then grounded to 2B. I intentionally walked Roy Smalley and got George Brett to fly out to shallow centerfield. When Don Baylor was announced as the next hitter, Lasorda took me out. I had my fun and maybe my most satisfying memory in my baseball career.

RK: What are your thoughts on J.R. Richard as a pitcher and on the stroke he suffered in July, 1980?

JS: At the time J.R. Richard suffered the stroke, he was arguably the most dominant pitcher in the game. It was a shame that his career had to end as it did.

RK: You were an important part of the 1980 team that reached the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. What are your thoughts on the team's win in the one-game playoff immediately following the three straight losses?

JS: That game, as you know, came on the heels of us losing three straight games to the Dodgers setting up the one-game playoff. With Niekro pitching, I felt we had our most consistent guy going and the guy who I felt would pose the most problems for the Dodger line-up. I was confident that Niekro would rise to the occasion and he did just that. Art Howe was our offensive hero. Having lost the three games leading up to the playoff put us at a disadvantage in that we no longer had our #1 pitcher going in Game 1, plus the fact we had to travel from LA to Philadelphia immediately following the playoff game, arriving in the early morning hours and having to play later that day.

RK: The Astros have never been closer to the World Series than they were during the 1980 playoffs. What was the mood on the team when the series started? How do you handle the tough losses at the end?

JS: I felt that the two best teams were playing in the NL Playoffs. It was one of the most exciting series ever. The Phillies were a more veteran team than we were and I believe that benefited them through the series. I was extremely disappointed when we lost, but at the same time, very proud to have been a part of it. I'm confident we would have defeated the KC Royals and become World Champions had we gotten by the Phillies.

RK: Who did you feel was the toughest hitter you had to face and why?

JS: Pete Rose and Manny Mota were very tough for me because they were pure contact hitters and they knew they were going to see the fastball from me. I think Mota hit .667 against me. The two toughest power hitters were George Foster and Bill Robinson, both good low fastball hitters.

RK: After years of being probably the best reliever in franchise history, you missed most of 1982 and all of 1983 with an injury to your left elbow. Can you describe the injury and what your rehabilitation was like? In hindsight, was there anything you could have done to avoid the injury?

JS: My elbow injury was a rupture of the medial collateral ligament. As a result, I had the "Tommy John" surgery, where a tendon from my leg was transferred into my arm to replace the ruptured ligament. I don't know if my injury could have been prevented. Over the years, the surgery has become almost common and has been improved to the point that pitchers are returning from this surgery throwing harder than they were prior to the injury.

RK: According to Nolan Ryan, your injury was supposedly one of the reasons Don Sutton wanted to leave the Astros and look for his 300th win elsewhere. What is your opinion on this story and was it well-known that Sutton's focus was on getting to 300 above all else?

JS: That's very flattering. I had heard stories to that effect, but those are questions better answered by Don Sutton. Ironically, Dave Smith, who took over for me as the closer, is the Astros All-Time saves leader.

RK: How did it feel to return to the mound in 1984 and pitch well after such a long rehabilitation? Did you have to change your style of pitching to accommodate your elbow?

JS: Although the numbers were fairly good upon my return in 1984, I was never able to throw as well after the surgery as I did prior to the surgery. I developed complications with the ulnar nerve, which still affects my left hand and arm. I was fortunate to get back to the Major Leagues after the injury.

RK: Your last year with the Astros was in 1984, you pitched very little with the Mets in 1985, and finished with two years in Boston. What caused you to leave Houston? Did you reinjure your elbow? Did the team give up on you? Did you leave on good terms?

JS: At the end of spring training, 1985, the Astros wanted me to play at AAA. They didn't feel I was ready to help them at the Major League level. Having eight years of Major League service, I had a choice to report to the minors or become a free agent. I elected to become a free agent and signed with the NY Mets. As it turned out, I was not throwing well enough to stay in the Majors and ended up in AAA for the Mets. Towards the end of the season, I asked the Mets to release me because I thought my career was over. In the winter, I decided to give it another shot and went to Venezuela to pitch. A Red Sox scout saw me throw and I was signed and brought to camp as a non-roster player. I made the 1986 Red Sox team and ended up playing in the 1986 World Series.

RK: At one point, you made a go at broadcasting. How did you like that? Why did you give it up?

JS: The only broadcasting I did was during the 1983 season. I was out for the season with my elbow injury and was asked to do "color" for the Astros cable telecasts.

RK: I understand that you are now a player agent. How has that worked out for you? Who are some of players that you represent?

JS: Since my retirement in 1988, I've worked with Randy and Alan Hendricks representing players. We were Hendricks Sports Management until three years ago. We are now called SFX Baseball Group, Inc. We have grown into the largest company in the industry with offices in Houston, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. We also have agents in Florida. I enjoy my work and really enjoy working with and counseling players. My personal experiences have become very valuable to me as I apply what I've learned in advice for my clients. Some of my clients include Andy Pettitte, Ryan Klesko, Jeff D'Amico, and future Astro, Morgan Ensberg.

RK: Do you still find time to pitch nowadays? How does your elbow feel when you throw?

JS: I'm able to pitch in one or two "Legends" games each year. I don't use the term "Old Timer." In 1990, I was invited to participate in an "Old Timer's" game in Boston. The Red Sox opponent that day was the Texas Rangers. I was standing outside the visitor's dugout when I heard a familiar voice calling to me. It was Nolan Ryan, and he was scheduled to pitch that day for the Rangers. He yelled out to me, "How does it feel to be an Old Timer?" The man is eight years older than I am and I was the one in the exhibition game. The elbow is good enough to play golf and retire hitters in my age category.

RK: Thanks for your time!