Sunday Q and A: Why Jeff Suppan, 17 seasons and 11,000 MLB batters later, understands ‘the best ability is availability’

jeff-suppan-mlb-autographed-baseball-nlcs-mvp-inscription-3362367Jeff Suppan never needed to be a Superman on the mound.
His accomplishments in the 2006 National League Championship Series for the St. Louis Cardinals were surely MVP-worthy.

628x471Starting a pro baseball career at age 18, right after graduating from Encino’s Crespi High, and making it through 17 big-league seasons, enough to  accumulate 140 wins for seven teams, and finding himself on teams that made the playoff seven times and went to two World Series definitely accounts for something.

But the fact remains that with a four-pitch repertoire through a text-book mechanically sound delivery, he simply did what he was supposed to do and succeeded on many levels. Now’s the time when it’s all put into context.

When he officially announced his retirement on this past Jan. 2 – his 39th birthday, and the sixth anniversary of his mother Kathleen’s passing – it brought some closure for his family.

jeff-suppan-autographed-baseball-card-boston-red-sox-1996-upper-deck-collectors-choice-rookie-class-428-292x400He hadn’t made a pitch for a big league team since he was in San Diego in the middle of the 2012 season. Yet the Calabasas resident has had plenty on his plate the last six years running Soups Sports Grill in Woodland Hills with his wife Dana, as well as taking care of his kids aged 4 and 2.
He explains the process:

QUESTION: What made you decide now this was the time to let everyone know your decision that it was time to retire?


ANSWER:
Last year was tough, not playing. My body wasn’t working with me well. There were a lot of minor things that affected me. I threw a lot of innings. I was winding down. When I first started, my goal was to make the majors and play as long as I can.
suppsWhen the Padres released me, I started the mental process of retiring. I trained that whole winter (in 2013) just in case someone wanted to pick me up. No one did, so that was fine. I went a whole year without playing, and one day, my dad asked me: How come you never announced you were retired? I never thought about it. I called my agent Scott Leventhal and asked him what needed to be done to make it official. All I had to do was pick a date. I wanted some date that was significant and my wife and I both agreed on Jan. 2. A lot of people didn’t know that my mom passed away on that date in 2008, and that really did affect me that whole season (his second year in Milwaukee). I was going through a mourning process and separated myself a little bit. Then I had some physical problems, my elbow was killing me. I just tried to get through that season to honor my mom, and I did it. When you retire, there’s a loss, not just as a player, but from everyone in your family, everyone who watched and rooted for me. I just wanted to give that official ‘it’s over’ for them and for myself.

Q: Were there any shots at getting into spring training this year?
tumblr_mtyey50L6C1r9hrxoo1_500A:
No, and I didn’t pursue anything. Teams were very respectful when I approached them about any interest. Honestly, I just wanted to make sure that when my career was over, it was over, and I had squeezed everything I could out of it. It was just getting harder and harder to go another season. But it was a great run.

Q: How do you stay for as long as you did in the game, which really does become a business, and not let that take away any fun there is in playing?
pop832A:
The reasons that everyone plays are different. When you really find the true meaning and motivation, that anchor you go to when times are tough, it’s all internal. There can be a million critics of you in social media. Why is this guy playing? Well, why not? You have to be in this for the long run, but you also need to find joy. Everyone loves the game when they’re doing well and they’re at their best. It’s how you react when they’re not going well. I’ve had plenty of good and bad times.

Q: So a lot of it was being mentally tough?
A:
Anything doing is worth doing well, and a lot of people just don’t want to put the work in. Mental toughness isn’t as glamorous as working on your fastball, or trying to hit a ball farther. All I’m saying is when you focus on the result and not the process, that’s the one thing you don’t have control of, and that’s what you get paid for. I just had a mindset where I was not going to back down. I knew what my stuff was compared to everyone else and I was going to be resilient. I give a lot of credit in that to my sports and performance psychologist, Dr. Chris Carr, who I met when I was with the Royals in 1999. When I first started, they were just introducing sports psychology to a lot of us, and some of the guys may have felt it was showing weakness if they did it. For four years, I listened to his talks and when I left the team in 2002, I hired him. So from 2003, I ended up  journaling every single start — even in spring games, too. He taught me that by doing the journal, it helped me understand how my mind worked. All I had to focus on was what pitch I was making and where I was going to throw it. He broke it all down that way. It was all about controlling what was controllable. He was just as important as any coach I’ve ever had. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have had as long a career.

1167-194BkA: Does choosing to say you’re retired now make it any easier than if you had done it a year ago?
A: Honestly, I thought I was totally prepared for this now. I had my ducks in a row. But it’s really been hard. I started playing when I was 6, and this is the first time I haven’t played. Everyone eventually leaves the game, whether it’s after playing in Little League, or high school or college or the big leagues – and you’re still considered young no matter when you do it. You have to look at this from a human perspective, not superficial. I had so many routines that I did every day that were now irrelevant. I felt like a rookie again. I was intimidated just thinking about maybe going back to school. Baseball is played in its own bubble, and I experienced all that, but it’s exciting now to see the new challenges. One of those is keeping the restaurant going. It’s something my wife and I want to do together.  We’re very happy to have been in this location for six years now. The plan is to always have great food and service and it’s a successful formula.

Q: How does your arm feel? Could you still pitch?
yr14_jeff_suppanA: The arm is still attached (laughing). I haven’t been throwing that much. You know I never watched any of the games that I pitched. When I watched video, it was always to see how the hitters reacted to my pitches. But the other day, I watched a game that I pitched in San Diego and I couldn’t believe the effort I had to put into every pitch. I could see where I was trying to make a pitch, and I could make it, but I wasn’t getting the out. That was tough to watch. I was blessed that I never had a surgery of any kind. I think that was a tribute to hard work, dedication, staying in good shape and understanding my mechanics. That gave me longevity. I also had a great relationship the last 15 years with my personal trainer Kathy Boyd. She was a motivator and very positive and really helped me through those days when I didn’t want to work out. The baseball season isn’t a sprint, but a marathon, and Kathy always trained me to finish the race.

Q: There are a few ways statistically to measure what kind of career you had on the mound. It’s been pointed out that you faced more than 11,000 batters in your career – you rank 208th in that category, out of the thousands of pitchers in the game’s history. You started 417 games, which was 107th all time. What measurements to you use?
063A:
Honestly, I’ve never been a stat guy. We used to joke with the guys in the locker room who were always checking their stats. Some would run in after a game and calculate their ERA. Of course, I wanted wins and strike outs. Getting 100 wins was a big thing, 1,000 strikeouts. But all I focused on was doing my work, getting a good night’s sleep, a lot of things that weren’t numbers-related at all. I never worried about getting a better strike out-to-walk ratio. People may point out I had a win-loss percentage under .500, but people get jaded looking at your body of work as just stats. I knew I gave everything I had and just let people judge how they want. I was always in the moment. That’s how I kept my sanity. Pitch today, then the next game, then the next game.

Q: So how would you like people to remember your career? Dependability?
A:
Absolutely. That’s not sexy, but I just wanted to be a hard worker, a good teammate, and take the ball every time. I remember it like it was yesterday when a coach was sitting on the bench with me. We were talking about All-Stars, big-time players, utility players, situational players. He said, ‘Soup, the best ability is availability.’ That always stuck in my head. Make every start. I knew I wasn’t the ace of any staff, but I knew I could pitch in any situation against any opponent. I wasn’t going to back down.

DSCN0516Q: Any disappointment in that for as many teams you played for, you never got to play for the Dodgers?
A: Are you kidding me? Every time I was a free agent, I tried to sign with them. Just one year. Looking back, that may have been a bad thing because my mind might not have been in the right place. But think of how fun that would have been? I didn’t go to a lot of games at Dodger Stadium as a kid – the only time I went was when some friends took me. But the first time I pitched there, I looked up at all those levels of seats – red, blue, yellow – and heard the announcer’s voice, and it was magical. I remember the first game I pitched there (with Arizona, in April, 1998) – Mike Piazza hits two home runs off me in the first three innings. My first playoff games there with St. Louis. I remember once getting on base, and Nomar Garciaparra was there playing first. ‘Hey, what’s it like playing at home?’ I asked him. ‘It’s awesome.’ ‘Good for you.’ It would have been nice just one time.
I do know that every time I went out to pitch, I always felt that responsibility to my family, to my high school and to the Valley. I felt like I was always representing the Valley. It’s where I still live, where we have our business. L.A.’s a big place, but one of the best feelings I always had at the end of a season was hitting the top of the Sepulveda Pass on the 405 coming back from the airport and knowing I’m home again.

Q: Here are some quick questions, so let’s see if you have some quick answers: Toughest out?
imagesA: I hated facing Jeff Kent. He would never over-swing. He was patient, balanced. Never gave me me a lot. I knew he wanted it inside. He was one of many tough outs.

Q: Best manager?
tonymuserA: Three of them: Tony Muser with the Royals. He was just a baseball guy and loved being there. Before the 1999 season, we were talking and he said, ‘If you were with the Yankees, where would you be in the rotation?’ At that time, probably No. 5, or in the bullpen. He said, ‘Congratulations, you’re my opening day starter.’ I really appreciated his sincerity.
Tony LaRussa — hard to argue with third-most wins of all time. He was so prepared. He thought everything out, just how I was.
Ned Yost, with Milwaukee. He was the most personable manager. I enjoyed that as a veteran player.

Q: Best pitching coach?
1141302339_6168A:
Al Nipper set the foundation for me in the minor leagues, first, which got me to the majors (with Boston in 1995) and showed me how to go about my business. I learned how to repeat my mechanics. And then Dave Duncan (in St. Louis) was just a rock. Any time you wanted to talk to him, he was a master at figuring out how to get someone out, and it was usually very simple.

Q: Favorite teammate?
A: Scott Rolen (in St. Louis), Raul Ibanez (in Kansas City). And Randy Flores (in St. Louis). For a starting pitcher, the position players were the guys you relied on for your success. Whenever you could find a position  player who understood that, they were there every day, that stood out. Guys with strong character.

Q: Favorite catcher to throw to?
mathenyesA:
A lot of them. Mike Matheny (in St. Louis), Jason Kendall (in Pittsburgh) and Yadier Molina (in St. Louis). And Brett Mayne (in Kansas City). And Tim Spehr (in Kansas City).

Q: Toughest place to pitch?
A: For someone like me who was a medium-speed, right-hander, pitching to contact, Fenway Park was a place where a pop fly would turn into a double, a fly ball to right could hit the Pesky pole, and then there was the Bermuda Triangle in center field that would create a triple.

Q: Favorite ball park to pitch?
stlesA: Probably in St. Louis, both the new and old Busch Stadium.

Q: If you had any kind of do-over, what might it be?
A:
That’s very abstract. There’s no coincidence for anything that happens to you. I always thought I made the best decisions at the time I did and I can live with them. So I don’t have any do-overs.

Q: The greatest memory of the game that you’ll always keep with you?
A:
Way up there is when my family came into the locker room after the last game of the World Series in 2006. To me, that was always the work place, and out of respect to my teammates I didn’t do that much. But this was the time when my parents and family came in and I got to share that world with them.

Jeff Suppan meets visitors to Soup's Sports Grill this week. (Andy Holzman/Daily News Staff Photographer)

Jeff Suppan meets visitors to Soup’s Sports Grill this week. (Andy Holzman/Daily News Staff Photographer)

Also:
== An appreciation of Suppan by Will Leitch by SportsOnEarth.com
== An appreciation of Suppan by Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
== A Sabremetrics review of Suppan’s career at SBNation.com
== The impact Suppan made on one writer who watched him try to come back to the big leagues while in the minor leagues at Omaha, Neb., in 2011.
== How is it that Suppan is the 549th best pitcher in MLB history? See Yahoo.com analysis.
== Suppan’s complete statistical records by Baseball-Reference.com

Facebook Twitter Plusone Digg Reddit Stumbleupon Tumblr Email