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Former Major League pitcher Wes Gardner talks baseball, playoffs

December 16, 2011

Wes Gardner

Benton native Wes Gardner played eight seasons in the major leagues — from 1984 to 1991 with the New York Mets, Boston Red Sox, San Diego Padres and Kansas City Royals. Drafted in the 22nd round out of the University of Central Arkansas, Gardner was in the same 1982 Mets' draft class with the likes of Dwight Gooden, Roger McDowell and Rafael Palmeiro.

Gardner made his major league debut on July 29, 1984, and pitched an inning of relief for the first-place Mets against the second-place Chicago Cubs. Gardner was at an away Triple-A game when he got the call. He struck out two and didn't give up a hit in his debut, a 5-1 Cubs' win.

"We were in Portland, Maine," Gardner recalled. "That's where Cleveland's Triple-A team was at the time when I was playing for Tidewater. I got called up. I flew in, in the middle of a doubleheader – that's when the Cubs and Mets were neck-and-neck – and I finished the end of the second game. By the time I got a uniform, got to the bullpen, they got me situated and I was in the game.

"Going into Shea Stadium, you fly right over the stadium because the airport was right there," he said.

"I was so pumped up and the ball was traveling," Gardner said about his pitch speed. "That was the first time I pitched in front of that many people. Being on a Saturday and a doubleheader, you know that place was packed."

Gardner, 50, has an 18-30 career record in the majors with a 4.90 ERA, spending most of his career as a reliever. He is also part of UCA's Hall of Fame. After being traded from New York to Boston in 1986, Gardner had his best season in the majors for the 1988 Red Sox, the year the team faced the Tony LaRussa-led Oakland Athletics in the American League Championship Series.

Unlike this year when the Red Sox had a historic collapse down the stretch to allow the Tampa Bay Rays to take the American League Wild Card, the 1988 Boston team lost its last three games, but clinched with four games remaining to take the American League East Division by one game over the Detroit Tigers, which won its last three games. There was no Wild Card in 1988 as each league went to three divisions apiece in 1994 when the Wild Card was established.

"That particular year, we were about 10 games out at the all-star break and we were sitting in about fourth place," Gardner said about 1988. "It wasn't a pretty first half."

The Red Sox led the league in many offensive categories that year including a .283 batting average, 1569 hits, 813 runs, .357 on-base percentage, 310 doubles, and 623 walks. Boston hitters also had the fewest strike outs and the Roger Clemens-led Boston pitchers were first in the league in strike outs with 1085.

It was also the year that Hall-of-Fame third baseman Wade Boggs led the American League with a .366 batting average, 128 runs, 45 doubles, 125 walks, a .476 on-base percentage, and a .965 on-base plus slugging percentage. Despite his season, he was voted only sixth in the Most Valuable Player voting with Oakland's Jose Canseco taking the MVP with his 42-home run, 40-stolen base season.

"He was a very intense player and he was pretty superstitious," Gardner said of Boggs. "I used to hit ground balls to him. He didn't want 48 or 51; he wanted 50 ground balls at third before batting practice started. He'd get on a hitting streak and whichever one of us was hitting him ground balls, you might as well get to the ballpark because you're going to be hitting him ground balls. He'll be waiting with a bucket (of balls) and a fungo."

"He was a great player," Gardner continued. "He was one of the best two-strike hitters I've ever seen. During that era that I played, I think the best hitter I faced was Don Mattingly because he could do so many different things with the ball. If he needed a home run, you kept the ball out away from him. When he needed a single is when he was hardest to pitch to. You couldn't pitch him the same way twice because he studied it.

"Most of your great hitters sit over there in the dugout. They're not jacking around in the dugout even if they're not playing," Gardner explained. "They're watching what's going on because they know they're going to face that guy again. They're seeing what he does to so-and-so."

Gardner had a career-high eight wins in that 1988 season and had a career-best 3.50 ERA, going 8-6 and starting 18 games that year. Gardner was the Red Sox closer at the end of the year in 1987 and finished with 10 saves. The acquisition of Lee Smith – major league baseball's all-time saves leader until Trevor Hoffman broke the record in 2006 – in 1988 moved Gardner to the set-up role that year. Injuries forced him into the starting lineup.

Gardner picked up his first win of the the season in relief of Mike Smithson on June 19. He pitched four and one-third innings, giving up one run on five hits and striking out six without a walk. Gardner picked up his second win nine days later in his first start of the year on June 28.

"John McNamara said I’ve got to have a starter, and he came up to me one night and said I’m going to start you in a ballgame. I just want you to go as far as you can go," Gardner quoted McNamara, the Red Sox manager in the first half of the season.

"We were in Cleveland and I didn’t give up a hit until the third, pitching out of the stretch," he said. "I didn’t fool with a windup in years because I never needed it. Most of the time when I came in the game, when I was in Triple-A and A ball, someone was on base."

Giving up one run in seven innings, Gardner gave up three hits and struck out four with two walks in a 6-1 win against the Indians in his first start of the year. The Red Sox were seven games behind the Tigers after his outing.

Gardner had two more starts before the all-star break and with Boston nine games back in the division, the Red Sox made a big change during the all-star break. The Red Sox fired John McNamara and named third-base coach Joe Morgan manager. Gardner went 2-0 during a 12-game winning streak after Morgan was named manager, a streak dubbed "Morgan Magic."

"All of a sudden we had that 23-game home winning streak," Gardner said. "Once that got going for us, you didn't want to be the pitcher to lose that first game. We went through that streak, and it just so happens the way the schedule worked during that streak, every team we played was the four teams in front of us for two months and we couldn't do anything wrong.

"Our pitching staff stayed healthy," he said. "We had [Mike] Boddicker, Mike Smithson came on and he pitched really well, and of course we had Bruce Hurst. Then we had Clem and me. In the bullpen, of course, we had Lee Smith and then we ended up getting Jeff Reardon. Everything just jelled and everybody fed off of it."

Gardner recalled the day he found out McNamara, the Red Sox skipper for three-and-a-half years, was fired after a five-game series, due to rain-outs, with the Chicago White Sox before the all-star break.

"I left Chicago and I came down (to Benton) to visit with family," he said. "I was going to fly back up there. Of course, you didn't have cell phones and stuff then and there was a message on my answering machine (when he got back to Boston).

"I got back to the house and there was a message on there from Johnny Mac and he said come by (his) house on the way in," Gardner continued. "He lived in Wellesley which is on the way. 'What's he want to talk about,' I thought to myself. Of all the people, he called me. He said, 'Have the clubhouse guys put all of my stuff out of my office into your truck and bring it by here when you come home.'"Uh-huh, they did it," he said.

Gardner said the team was starting to play better before McNamara's firing and that he didn't appreciate the way the Red Sox went about it. As far as comparisons between the two managers, Gardner said that they had different philosophies, but McNamara was easier to talk to. Despite that, Gardner said all the players respected Morgan because he knew the game, was at the ballpark on time and was in the mix.

"It was a surprise," Gardner said. "Joe (Morgan) was on the field. He had been in the bullpen before and stuff like that. We knew him, he threw batting practice and everything, but nobody knew what to expect. We already knew where Mac stood and what he expected out of each and every one of us. We didn't know how Joe was going to be because he had never been a manager before.

"It was kind of an unnerving feeling for awhile because I don't think Joe knew what he was going to do. He made some guys mad to start with and after everybody got on the same page, we started playing. He was all right."

Gardner suffered three hard-luck losses in a row to begin August 1988 when Detroit's Doyle Alexander threw a complete game giving up two runs, and Milwaukee's Don August and Seattle's Scott Bankhead threw complete-game shutouts against the Red Sox during Gardner starts.

Then on Sept. 6, Gardner threw 130 pitches, giving up one run in nine innings to put Boston two games ahead of Detroit. He gave up five hits and two walks, while striking out two. Boston would never relinquish its division lead the rest of the year and would face the Athletics in the ALCS.

Oakland would end up sweeping the series and went on to lose to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series, but each game of the ALCS was close. Oakland won game one 2-1 in Clemens' start, won game two 4-3, game three 10-6, and finished the sweep 4-1 in game four.

"That dad-gum Oakland team was something else," Gardner said. "They had Dave Stewart and Bob Welch. Stewart was just unconscious that year. He could do no wrong. He had good stuff, but ... in 1989 they beat us again. When you have pitching – that reminds me of the pitching staff like Philadelphia has. Basically all four of them could be a No. 1 pitcher. It's hard to put a winning streak together against a pitching staff like that."

Gardner pitched in relief of Mike Boddicker in game three, the only playoff appearance of his career, and gave up three runs, six hits and two walks, while striking out eight Athletics. Gardner came in with two outs in the bottom of the third inning after Ron Hassey hit a two-run home run off of Boddicker to put the A's up 6-5.

Stan Javier grounded out to end the third and after Gardner gave up a single to Mike Gallego in the bottom of the fourth inning, Gardner retired five in a row before giving up a single to Mark McGwire and a double to Hassey to score McGwire, making it a 7-5 A's lead.

"(Hassey) was a tough out for me," Gardner said. "When he played in Chicago, it was just like that, too. Every time I would come into a ballgame and I would have to face him, there was never anywhere to put him because of who was hitting behind him.

"When you got McGwire and Canseco hitting behind him, you didn't want to walk nobody," he continued. "There was enough people on as it is. Canseco probably had as quick a bat as anybody I ever pitched against. He was quick with his hands. They can say steroids this, steroids that, he had quick hands before any of that happened. He just got big in one year and we knew something was going on.

"He stood right on top of the plate and you had to pitch him inside," Gardner said of Canseco. "He was strong enough he could hit it out (anywhere); it didn't matter. Back in the old days, when in doubt, make (right-handed batters) hit the ball to right field. Guys weren't that strong; you had a few, but you didn't see many home runs hit opposite field like you do now."

Gardner retired the side in order in the bottom of the sixth, but gave up a run in the bottom of the seventh with two outs when Javier singled to center field scoring Dave Parker, who doubled earlier in the inning. Gardner struck out Walt Weiss looking to begin the bottom of the eighth inning and was replaced by Bob Stanley after giving up a single to Carney Lansford. On a 1-2 count, Stanley gave up a two-run home run to Dave Henderson to put the A's up 10-6 and deflate the Red Sox.

"1988 was a fun year, and 1989, too," Gardner said. "We just couldn’t get passed Oakland. Right in a ballgame, right in a ballgame. And Larussa, we know now what he did. They’ll do that in St. Louis if they're hitting against the one’s (No. 1 pitcher) and two’s. (Clemens would) have 10 strikeouts in five innings, but they were taking, making him throw a lot of pitches. About the seventh, eighth inning, they’d get to him. And they’re not going to take Clem out of the ballgame unless they were down three or four runs.

"I learned so much about coaching by watching (LaRussa)," Gardner said. "One thing that always impressed me about him was he didn’t sit a guy over here on the bench for two weeks and then pinch hit him against somebody throwing 95 miles per hour and expect him to get a hit.

"You have to get them at bats," Gardner said. "So in games where they would get up or get way down, he would get those guys in there and let them see a baseball. You can throw all the batting practice in the world, but when you go out there, it's a totally different ballgame. Your mechanics are going to be there, but you're going to be behind on pretty much everything if you don't see it all the time.

"Same with the fielders on the infield," he explained. "He'll put those utility guys in. He's always rotating and that's one of the reasons the guys always respect him. The American League was noted for so long for playing the same nine and the rest of you were going to sit on the bench until somebody got hurt – seven days a week. Some of the old-head managers — that's the way they managed."

Gardner coached one of the Philadelphia Phillies' four aces – Benton native Cliff Lee when Lee played American Legion ball. Gardner was talking about Astroturf and how hot it got and how a coach couldn't make Lee run for punishment.

"You watch Cliff pitch; he don’t want to come out," Gardner started. "It doesn’t matter how hot it is. He was one of those kind of players, even when I coached him, you couldn’t run him for punishment. He’d just keep running and grinning at you.

"That’s what Norm Debriyn told me in Fayetteville," Gardner explained when Lee played for the University of Arkansas. "They had him running bleachers during practice and Norm called me that night and he said, ‘What do you got to do to get his attention?.’ and I said running him ain’t going to do no good. That sucker will run all day. I learned that."

Even though the Red Sox were swept by the Athletics in the ALCS, 1988 was a special year for the team as far as relationships between players were concerned, according to Gardner.

"We had a real tight-knit group of guys," he said. "It started out from spring training when they finally started cutting the rosters down. You could just feel the chemistry with all of it.

"Nobody was mad at each other. We didn't have any smartasses on the team. We didn't have any real superstars and the ones that were superstars were older. They still put up steady numbers. Clemons is your all-star pitcher. We had a few good hitters. We were the slowest team in baseball.

"Don Baylor used to say we were the only team that could hit four singles and score only one run," he said. "So we had to hit home runs or doubles. We had a good team. We just had a bunch of guys that would go out there and play hard every day. We had a chemistry and we all got along. If one guy had a problem, we were going to help that one guy. Even if it was off the field – problems at home with an ex-wife or something like that. Everyone went to bat for them. A lot of teams aren't that way.

"That's the way we were," Gardner continued. "We knew a lot about each other and we had a lot of fun. We had enough talent to win, we just could not get past Oakland, no matter how hard we tried. We had a hard time with them during the regular season. I think it was a psychological thing. They would always beat Clemens first game and that even made it worse. You can't get down two games to none against a team like that. They had too many weapons. We had some weapons, but not the way them guys were playing that year. Playing in that big ole ballpark. No telling what their numbers would have been if they played in Fenway Park all year."

Gardner was traded to the San Diego Padres in 1990 and spent some time with another Hall-of-Famer, Tony Gwynn.

"I played with Tony my last year," Gardner said. "He was a quiet guy, a nice guy. He didn't get all up and down. He stayed off that roller coaster. Tony just stayed on that even keel.

"He was a good outfielder and he could hit," he continued. "There's no doubt about it. He could hit home runs if he needed to. His son's the same way. He had a cool head on him. I was impressed playing with him. It was a pleasure playing with him. He helped the young guys out a lot. I think he is going to do real well out at San Diego State. Just because of his demeanor, he didn't get too upset. Wade Boggs was just as good a hitter as Tony, but he'd get up and down. He was high-strung, boy."

Playing with Roger Clemens for several years, Gardner also gave his take on the potential Hall-of-Famer's steroid allegations and the lead investigator for performance enhancing drugs in the MLB, George Mitchell.

"I played with him for several years and I've never known him to do anything like that," he said. "I was around him a lot. We were neighbors off the field.

"If he did do it, it was later on in his career," Gardner went on. "I really don't think he did because he built a 10,000-square-foot workout facility at his house in Katy, Texas, and that sucker worked out every cotton-pickin' day. He had an indoor mound, indoor hitting cages and state-of-the-art workout equipment.

"It would surprise me. And the way he's going about it and the challenges that he has made. After Mitchell resigned, I have a feeling that he's going to challenge it all the way to the hill and that's the way he always was, even on the field. If he isn't guilty, he's going to challenge all the way to the hill."

Injuries eventually forced Gardner to hang it up as all the lining of his elbow eventually deteriorated.

"I had to start taking cortisone shots and stuff like that toward the end and there wasn't anybody taking a chance on that," Gardner said about teams giving him a shot.

"I hurt it in spring training (in 1989) against Detroit and something popped in there and man, it burned, " he said. "I had to nurse that thing and finally made it through the year with it. At least once or twice a year, I'd end up on the DL because of it."

Gardner made the last start of his career with the Kansas City Royals on Aug. 3, 1991, when the Royals were defeated by the Indians 3-1. But, Gardner ended his career the same way he started it – with an inning of scoreless relief. He gave up a hit and a walk and struck out one.

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