Last week, I was excited to interview Orioles relief pitcher Rocky Cherry, who I have followed personally through minors solely because of his name. But now he is back from injury and seeking redemption proving he can pitch at the Major League Level. He was a really nice guy just a day after his birthday and answered all my questions with a lot of details. Cherry is expected to be one of the September call ups Saturday getting one last chance to showcase himself for the Cubs. I want to thank Matt Kramer for giving me this opportunity to interview one of his clients, it is so much fun and I really appreciate it.
ELI: You pitched back to back games successfully Aug. 18th and 17th, what was working for you during those outings?
ROCKY: You know, I was commanding my fastball pretty well, getting ahead of hitters. And when I threw my slider, which is my out pitch, I will speed their bats up with my fastball and then fool them a little bit with the slider that forces a ground ball or a strikeout.
ELI: What do you think was most improved in your game from the end of high school to when you got drafted at Oklahoma?
ROCKY: In high school I was still inconsistent. I'd have some games where I'd throw the ball exceptionally well and I'd have games where I wasn't throwing that well. In college, my coach dropped my arm angle down to a three-quarter slot and when that happened, I was able to get a lot of good movement leading to ground balls. And professional scouts, especially Chicago Cubs scouts because balls fly out of Wrigley, like to see a pitcher that can throw a good sinker and I think that was probably the biggest difference.
ELI: In 2005, you had Tommy John Surgery, what do you remember from the game where it happened.
ROCKY: Well, it was in the first inning against the second batter, and my arm was feeling fine. I went back to throw it, right where you are about to whip your arm through the zone, it was like time had stopped, even though it didn't. It seemed like time stopped and I felt a tear in my elbow. I kind of had an out of the body experience like I was looking at arm, but I wasn't looking at my arm. Like I was looking at my arm as it was tearing. It was kind of a weird experience because as soon as I through it, I was like 'Oh man.' The trainers and coaches came running out to ask what was wrong. I tried to throw another pitch and I two hopped it to the plate and I was like 'Oh man.' The funny thing was at the time I was 25, my first year in Double-A, I was like, what am I going to do? Sit out another year and a half, get surgery, I was actually thinking about hanging it up and not pursuing baseball anymore, but I'm glad I didn't.
ELI: After the swelling went down in your elbow, what were the next steps to getting back?
ROCKY: Truly, my surgery went as well as it possibly could. I had the surgery done by Dr. Steven Gryzlo and he did a great job. I remember for about two weeks I couldn't do anything because I had the stitches in. I could move it a little, but it was basically in a cast, one of those Velcro casts. Fortunately, the swelling wasn't that bad, my body acted well to the implant tendon. Also, I came back after nine months, which was exceptionally fast. Everything fell into place, I had one minor setback but it wasn't bad. God really blessed me and gave me a good recovery.
ELI: You worked at Home Depot during the summer of 2005, what was that like? Do a lot of minor leaguers get jobs on the side?
ROCKY: Man that was a great experience, I really enjoyed that. Being around people, helping people. Also, my father has a painting company, so I was familiar with paint and that was where I worked. It was good because when people came in and asked questions, I was able to help them out, tell them shortcuts, little tricks for trade, you know? It was a great experience for me though and I made some money on the side too. But I did it more for me to stay sharp for my fathers company because I know I'll end up working there.
ELI: Do a lot of minor leaguers get jobs on the side?
ROCKY: I think most of your guys will have some income coming in the fall except for your first five round guys, the big money guys. You just can't live off of 1500 dollars a month for five months, just can't do it. A lot of people do lessons because that is a good way to make money. They help out other kids and you get paid well, there are all different kinds of things.
ELI: What was spring training like for you this year? What pitchers, if any, did you work with?
ROCKY: That was my first big league camp and that was pretty exciting for me. I wanted to go in there and just show them that I belong there. That I have good enough stuff to be there and I ended up kind of making a name for myself. This was my first one so I didn't open up too much didn't talk to much, just sort of hung back. Michael Barrett really kind of helped me out, really worked with me a lot. 'What's your best pitch when facing a certain hitter at this count? What would you throw?' He'd have me write them down on a chart. We did a lot of things to help with the mental side of the game. Of course Ryan Dempster was really nice, a joy to be around, and would always make you laugh.
ELI: Can you take me through the night you got called up on? Did you know something was up?
ROCKY: Yeah the day I got called up we were winning a one run [game] in about the ninth inning and I should be getting up to close the game. And he [Manager Buddy Bailey] gave me my signal, which every guy in the ‘pen has a signal and mine is the uppercut, like Rocky Balboa. So he gives me the fist, and then tells me to sit down. And I was like ‘What the world?’ You know I haven’t thrown in a couple days. Someone else got up and started throwing and that’s when I first thought ‘Alright, something is going on.’ So when I got in the locker room, usually the manager will call you in and say ‘Hey Rock you’re going up to the big leagues, you got the call.’ But he didn’t call me in so I was like ‘What in the world is going on?’ So I left and went to the hotel room and I had no idea what was going on. Next thing I knew was I got a call from my pitching coach Mike Harkey and he was like ‘Has Buddy Bailey called you?’ And I was like ‘No. Why?’ And then he was like ‘Oh. Damn. Call me back when he calls you.’ Obviously I knew what was going on and about five minutes later Buddy Bailey calls me up and says [impression of accent] ‘Rock, you’ve been called up to the big leagues.’ That’s how he kind of talks. I kind of expected it, but I still didn’t know how to take it in. It was a good feeling though, words I wanted to hear for a long time.
ELI: What did it mean to you to get called up so early in the season?
ROCKY: It felt like I accomplished something I worked so hard for. And I have had so many set backs and obstacles to overcome. It seems that things hadn’t fallen my way and I feel like my persistence and hard work to make it to this level really paid off. I felt like, in my heart, you know a ‘Yes!" Just wanted to quench my fist and grin my teeth like ‘Yeah baby! You did it, you did it!’ I was overcome with emotion, this was my dream and I finally get to do it. It was kind of indescribable feeling; but it was great to call my parents and my brother.
ELI: Did you get too much sleep that night?
ROCKY: No, by the time I got done calling everybody and finally got into bed where I actually started thinking about it, I just sort of sat back and thought about it and waited until that morning.
ELI: You pitched 2/3 of an inning to get your first win in Pittsburgh. Did you realize you were up for the win after Floyd’s big homerun?
ROCKY: Yeah, but after that happened with the rain, I didn’t know what was going to happen. From the previous year, the rule was that you would revert back to the inning before and that that inning would not have counted. So I wasn’t sure what was going to happen until I arrived at the ballpark the next day to finish up the first game and found out I was up for the win. It was one of the easiest wins I’d ever gotten because I threw two pitches, and got two ground ball outs. I’ll take it though. [Laughs].
ELI: The Iowa Cubs have a lot of solid players, what is the clubhouse chemistry like?
ROCKY: We’ve got a lot of talented players, a lot of 40-man guys and everyone has got a great attitude. No one is bitter about being called up or being sent down and everyone is happy if someone else gets the call, you know? It is better than I expected because I had always heard that Triple-A players can be pretty bitter because they feel like someone is in there way or that they deserve it. But I feel that we have a lot of young players and people appreciate them for being where they are now and I think that is why we have had a pretty good year, despite all the transactions.
ELI: When in the Cubs bullpen, what would you was usually the topic of discussion? Was it mostly baseball?
ROCKY: No, I’d say it is talking about the night before or past players on the other team that they played with. He would do something and someone would be like ‘Oh, I remember this guy in ’99, he’s a good dude.’ Just talking about other players, really normal conversation that you would carry on everyday.
ELI: Who’s the biggest jokester?
ROCKY: Oh Dempster is by far. He is entertaining, always got to toughen up his sleeves, and loves doing Borat impressions. He’s always out there quoting movies; he’s got it going on.
ELI: Of the stadiums you’ve played at, who would you say has the best mound?
ROCKY: Hmm, best mound [pause]. You know, they all seem pretty much the same. I don’t know if they have certain measurements or anything, but they are all really good, the clay is great, the footing is good. They are all great and I’d like to pitch on all of them.
ELI: How about the best bullpen setup?
ROCKY: I kind of like Pittsburgh because you are in center field to watch the game, get to see the pitcher throwing in and out, how the hitters are swinging at different pitches, etc. But the bad part was that I had to walk across the field with my pink backpack, which is for the youngest or least experienced bullpen guy to carry out the gum, seeds, and all that stuff.
ELI: Who is the toughest hitter you’ve faced in your time with the Cubs?
ROCKY: I faced Albert Pujols and likely he lined out to second.
ELI: What was that like seeing him walk up though?
ROCKY: Oh, well it was my second outing and the three batters I had to face were Edmonds, Pujols, and Rolen.
ELI: Oh god.
ROCKY: I know. I was like ‘Whoa.’ But you know how you see him on TV and everything but when I faced him I felt like there was no weakness to exploit. So I just hoped to throw a good pitch that he would hit at somebody.
ELI: If you could pitch to one hitter, in the past or present, who would it be?
ROCKY: I’d like to pitch to Barry Bonds, just to say I faced him. I mean, he is the homerun leader of everybody, [which] would be something to tell your kids. He is the next Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, you know what I mean? That would probably be the one guy I faced.