Earlier this summer, former Yankee left-hander Dennis Rasmussen visited the Cooperstown area to play in the annual Hall of Fame Classic old-timers game. A six-foot, seven-inch left-hander with a good overhand curve, Rasmussen won 91 games and posted a 4.15 ERA over a 12-year career in the major leagues. The Yankees liked Rasmussen enough to trade for him twice–once as part of a deal for Tommy John and later as part of a package for Graig Nettles. At his best, Rasmussen won 18 games for the Yankees in 1986, one of five seasons in which he won in double figures. After a four-year stint with the Yankees, Rasmussen pitched for the Reds, Padres, Cubs, and Royals.
Approachable and friendly in spite of his intimidating size, Rasmussen talked about his previous visits to Cooperstown, the way that he dealt with being traded, and his feelings toward the Yankees.
Markusen: Dennis, coming to Cooperstown, this is very much Yankee country, and you’re wearing the pinstripes, a recognizable figure from the 1980s. What does it feel like when you see so many fans who remember you from 25 years ago?
Rasmussen: Well, it’s very refreshing and humbling at the same time. New York fans were the greatest fans ever. I was fortunate to play there my first four years in the big leagues [after a brief debut with the Padres]. And they haven’t forgotten me. I was just in the city, and I ran into a couple of people that recognized me. It’s kind of amazing. It probably has to a lot to do with my size. They figure I must have done something and then recognize me.
It’s a lot of fun coming to Cooperstown. I haven’t been here since ‘98, when I was coaching in the Red Sox’ chain. And then before that, I pitched in the ’87 Hall of Fame game against the Braves, which was a big thrill. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was a make-or-break game for me. I was told to bring all my stuff to meet the Yankees and join them on a road trip. I pitched well enough to join them, I pitched seven innings, gave up one run. They told me, “Kid, you’re on the bus. You’re joining us back in New York.” So that was a big thrill.
Today was great. The clinic we did yesterday [in Cooperstown] was great. We had about 150 kids who came out for a free clinic. A great weekend.
Markusen: What did you work on with the kids at the clinic?
Rasmussen: I happened to be at the pitching station, but I’ve done a lot of different parts to the clinic. Just teaching them some of the basics, like we always do [with the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association]. We showed them how to throw the ball, depending on how old they are; I stressed to them the importance of going to school, getting the job done in the classroom, and being a good sport.
I always enjoy asking them the question, “What is the best pitch in baseball?” They normally can’t answer. Of course, I tell them, “It’s a strike.” They like that!
Markusen: Tell us what it was like for you after you had success here, winning 18 games, and then I believe it was the following year, you’re traded to the Reds for right-hander Bill Gullickson. Was that a devastating thing that happened, was that real difficult?
Rasmussen: I wouldn’t say it was devastating. I looked at everything as a new opportunity. I was looking forward to that. I guess when you’re getting traded, somebody wants you. And I always looked at it that way.
I was there a brief time, in Cincinnati, and then went on to San Diego. I had some pretty good years there and continued to develop as a young pitcher. I looked at every place, and every release, and surely every trade, as an opportunity, and took advantage of those opportunities. That’s the nature of the game, and most of the guys will tell you that you’re going to get a series of jolts. It’s going to go up and down. You take advantages of certain opportunities at the right time, and you’ll look back at it, and you’ll have played 10, 12, 14 years.
Markusen: You can’t have too many bad feelings for the Yankees, because you’re wearing the pinstripes today.
Rasmussen: Oh, I have great feelings for them. They treated me great. I enjoy working Yankee fantasy camp. It’s a lot of fun wearing the pinstripes, plus they’re probably slenderizing. [laughing] So that might be part of it. But no, it was my first true opportunity to play in the big leagues. When I got called up in 1984, [manager] Yogi Berra said, “Kid, you’re here. You’re gonna get the ball every five days. Show us what you can do” And I did. I took every start–one pitch, one hitter, one inning at a time–and didn’t want to give up the ball every fifth day.
Markusen: Do you still follow the Yankees today?
Rasmussen: Absolutely. I played with Joe Girardi and Mike Harkey [with the Cubs in 1992], and Kevin Long in the minor leagues, with the Royals. So I still stay very close to that situation. I follow them and wish them well. As I do a lot of the guys I played with and against, and are now in coaching and management positions.
Markusen: Is there anybody that you see today, whether it’s with the Yankees or any other team, that reminds you of yourself? Either in terms of height, or your pitching style, that you look at and say, “Boy, that’s kind of looking into the mirror?”
Rasmussen: You know, I probably don’t watch as much, but if I did, I’d probably see that, because everybody is bigger and stronger, and I know that there are pitchers who are six-seven, 250 pounds like I was when played. It’s still not that common, but probably more so than when we were coming up. As a left-handed starter, I like watching some of the guys, how they execute. If there’s a pitching duel, I’ll flip on the game, and with MLB Network, ESPN, and all the televised games and highlights, it’s fun to be able to just flip on the TV and watch a few innings, especially if it’s someone that I pitched similarly to, or vice versa. It’s fun to watch the game from that perspective.
Markusen: Final question, Dennis. I have to admit that I was debating whether to ask you about this, because it was a bit of a controversial episode. I was a young fan, I was going to a game back in the eighties, it was the Yankees against the Blue Jays. I remember that you hit George Bell with a pitch. He got real mad and went off on you after the game. Why was he so mad? What was he so upset about? Do you remember this incident?
Rasmussen: Well, I had a couple of incidents, but I’m not sure if that was the one with the Blue Jays. We battled, it was a pretty significant battle every time we played the Blue Jays. [They had] Dave Stieb and Jim Clancy, and then Bell, Barfield, uh, Willie Upshaw. I remember, I’m not sure if I hit George, and I may have. I know in one game I gave up back-to-back home runs and then threw one over the head of Willie Upshaw, and he charged the mound. It was one of the only times, actually the only time that I got thrown out of a game. It was at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto.
It’s funny, I saw Willie Upshaw just a couple of years ago, and I apologized, because it was the first time I had seen him since. He told me how scared he was. I said, I was out of my mind and I didn’t know what I was doing. You get caught up in the emotion of the game. Surely, I wasn’t trying to throw anything from the shoulders up [to the head]; it did get away, I just threw it as hard as I could, and it ended up going on a fly to the backstop.
Markusen: A little Ryne Duren there?
Rasmussen: That’s right, that’s right. That’ll be my excuse.