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February 22, 2009
There are baseball fans, and then there is George Thorogood. An icon in the music world, Thorogood is not only a passionate Mets fan, he is also a walking-and-shouting baseball historian. A former second baseman with the semi-pro Delaware Destroyers, Thorogood has multiple gold records to go with his baseball pedigree, not to mention a reputation as one of the best live performers on the blues-and-rock circuit. About to hit the road for yet another tour, Thorogood shared his thoughts on performance-enhancing drugs, the brilliance of Sandy Koufax, and what it was like to talk baseball with the legendary John Lee Hooker.
David Laurila: What is your background in baseball?
George Thorogood: I'm a fan, like anybody else. My background? Well, Bob Costas is from St. Louis and got work in New York, right? I'm from Delaware. I don't know what that means. I was a bat boy for a semi-pro team in Delaware-the first interracial team in the Wilmington, Delaware semi-pro league. I was a Philadelphia Phillies fan until 1964, when they blew the pennant. They were six and a half games up with 12 games to go, and lost 10 in a row. My grandfather had a stroke, and I said "to hell with the Phillies." Then they moved out of Connie Mack Stadium, and I really got pissed off. So I became a Mets fan.
David Laurila: Do you like old stadiums?
GT: I liked that stadium. I'm not saying I like old ones, all of them, but I liked that stadium. But if I had to say-no, I don't care for the newer stadiums all that much, especially the ones that came in the '70s. One of the worst places I ever saw was the Olympic thing in Montreal. It was one of the worst places I've ever been, not just one of the worst ballparks. It was terrible. But I don't want to talk negative things about the game, you know. I want to talk about the good stuff.
David Laurila: What is on your mind these days when it comes to baseball?
GT: Well, I'm looking forward to the season like everybody else. I like to go to the game. I like to watch batting practice and converse with strangers, people you don't know who might be from another walk of life. You strike up conversations about the game in the past, or the guy who just a hit a double, or something. It's a very nice rapport to have; it's a good way for strangers to come together. And I bring my daughter to the game, too. She gets all caught up in it, though she probably likes the food more than anything, but they have good food at the park. You buy a hot dog and stand up for the seventh-inning stretch. There's always something at a ball game you've never seen before, something that turns you on; there's always something you'll remember. Do you know what I mean? It's got that element to it. I'm one of those people who, when I go to the movies, I don't really care what I see as long as I get a good ticket. When I go to the ball park, I don't care who wins or loses as long as I get a good seat. I go to the game because I'm a fan of the game more than anything else. The pennant race gets lost on me; the amount of money they make is lost on me. I'm just into the ambience of the whole thing. I like the crack of the bat. I even like the umpires.
David Laurila: Should fans care about steroids in the game?
GT: That's up to them, if the fans care about that. It's a double-edged sword. I mean, you can't have it both ways. You pay these professional athletes incredible amounts of money, and some of them have incredible egos, and they're going to do what they have to do to get any kind of edge that they can. First of all, the new ballparks-Baltimore, Philly, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati-they're all built for the long ball. The Philly ballpark is like a Little League park. Not that Ryan Howard couldn't hit them out of any park, but those ballparks, I won't say they're a joke, but that's what they're there for, and that's what Americans want to see. The old days of the pitching duels, and the bunts, and hitting behind the runner, those things have kind of been lost. People get excited when somebody hits a home run, even if it's the visiting team. So, with that in mind, you're going to have people doing things, sampling things, experimenting with things that are going to give them any kind of edge that they can possibly get. In the movie Major League, one of the players asks, "What are you doing?" to an aging pitcher; he points and says, "That's Vagisil on my hip; it's Vaseline. Sometimes I'll get a little jalapeņo going, to get my nose running." He goes, "You put snot on the ball?" And the veteran says, "I have to go for any edge that I can; I don't have an arm like you do. I have to go for any edge, and someday you will, too." You hear what I'm saying? That's just human nature. Until something really drastic happens, these people are going to keep doing it; they're going to keep finding a way. They corked bats, didn't they? They're going to do anything they can get away with. And I don't think it's because they're evil people. When you pay somebody that kind of bread, they're going to have to produce, and they're going to have to produce big-time. So, with that in mind, anything is possible. I don't condone it, but on the other hand, I truly understand it. As an adult, I understand why someone would do that. If someone could win the Indianapolis 500 by putting a little extra baking soda in the gas tank, don't you think they would do it?
David Laurila: Your first record came out in 1977. What has changed more since that time: the music industry or the baseball industry?
GT: Both have changed. It's a whole different system now, a much bigger star-making process in the world of music. If you don't believe that, just watch the Grammys every year. That's what it is. And the world of baseball has become huge, huge business-huge business, so big that the people running it have to get outside help. People who aren't even aware of the game have to come in and help, like accountants-people with really great economic heads. That has happened in music too, because there is so much capital involved. Then you get a whole different element. You might get people involved in baseball who never would have dreamed of doing it, because there wasn't that big money in it. Do you know what I'm saying? So everything changes. As Cyndi Lauper once said, "Money changes everything." I think she was right.
David Laurila: What are your opinions of the Baseball and Rock and Roll Hall of Fames, respectively?
GT: I think that if you have three thousand hits you have a shot of getting in there. Five hundred home runs, 300 wins. You know what I mean? The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I couldn't tell you; I have no idea how that system works.
David Laurila: A lot of people say the same thing about the Baseball Hall of Fame.
GT: Well, I don't know that, because I'm not involved in Major League Baseball. The system itself, especially in entertainment, in music-you know, how do people get to the All-Star Game? They vote, right? Why can't it be the same way with... OK, here is what I would change, I would have the people vote for who goes into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: the fans. After all, they're the ones who buy the tickets; they buy the records; they go to the shows. That, I think should be involved in some way. But maybe it is; I don't know. In Hall of Fame baseball-check this out; what do you think of this idea? Only have the people who are in the Hall of Fame vote for who gets in. What do you think of that?
David Laurila: They do that now with the Veterans' Committee.
GT: No, what I'm saying is, just that. Nobody else. They're the ones who would know, right? They're the Hall of Famers themselves, so it would maybe be harsh, but I think it would be about the fairest system. Can you imagine, I mean, can you imagine what somebody like, say, Bert Blyleven, who doesn't have 300 wins, right? Can you imagine what Bert Blyleven would think if he knew that Sandy Koufax, Warren Spahn, and Tom Seaver voted for him to be in the Hall of Fame? See, you can't question that. But that's just one fan's slant on it. I'd like to see that, but it's not my field of endeavor, so I'm kind of an outsider saying that. I mean, I know if I ended up in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and I knew that Jeff Beck voted for me, I'd be delirious! You know what I mean?
David Laurila: Who do you consider to be the best pitcher of our generation?
GT: That's tough; that is very tough. But "our generation," what do you mean by "our generation?" I started watching baseball in 1962. Well, I'll tell you. I think you know who is the best by who [people] compare you to. Do you hear what I'm saying? Usually, when one name keeps surfacing, surfacing, surfacing, and surfacing, it must mean that person was the best. So I would say that the best would have to be Koufax, and I'm going to tell you why. Do you want to know why? First of all, he won three Cy Young Awards back when it was only given to one guy; it wasn't one in both leagues. Take his season in 1964, OK? He won 19 games that year, and in those days you had to win 20 in order to get the Cy Young. Am I wrong? The first one who didn't do it was Tom Seaver when he won 19 in 1973; he didn't win 20. All of the other guys had, so that was usually the criterion of winning the Cy Young, because the writers voted, okay? He won 19 and Dean Chance won 20. Had Koufax won one more, he would have easily won the Cy Young, because he's Koufax. Right? That would have meant that he won the Cy Young Award four years in a row at a time when they only chose one guy. Now, that is unbelievable. Un-[expletive]-believable. Also, he pitched a no-hitter that year against the Philadelphia Phillies. He had a 3-2 count on Richie Allen and missed a strike by half an inch. Half an inch! Had that been in the ninth inning, it would have been called a strike. Am I right? But it was in the sixth inning; Allen got a walk on a 3-2 pitch, and he was the only guy to get on base. The next year, Koufax pitched a perfect game. Had he gotten Allen out, he would have been the only guy to pitch two perfect games, and how much closer to greatness can you get than that? The things he did, in that short period of time, were absolutely mind-boggling. Mind-boggling! Here's a guy who pitched on two days' rest and threw a 2-0 shutout against the Minnesota Twins in the seventh game of the World Series. A shutout! Come on; even the pitchers of today look at that and shake their heads. Not that Greg Maddux, and Clemens, and my favorite pitcher, Tommy Glavine-those guys are all truly remarkable. But what Koufax did was almost magical. And Bob Gibson is pretty close to him. Who was the only guy to pitch, and win, the seventh game of the World Series twice? Who was the only person in history to do that? Bob Gibson. And he almost did it three times. He did it in 1964 and 1967, and lost in 1968. Had he won that one, he would have won a third MVP in the World Series. That's remarkable. He's the only guy to do it twice, and to get to that spot, and to pull it off, the odds are about a million to one. Ten million to one! Even today, owners say, 'If you had to give the ball to one guy to win a game, who would it be?' It would either be Gibson or Koufax. I've seen all these people pitch, you understand. That's why I still marvel at some of the things those fellows did. As Casey Stengel, who had seen it all, once said about Koufax: "He's only news when he gets beaten."
GT: Should they have fired him? I don't know, but I didn't really care for Willie's approach to what happened to them the season before. He didn't say anything about it, and you have to get that out, like Jerry Manuel did. I mean, that was like a death in the family and living in denial that it happened. Do you know what I mean? If I'm a manager, I'm going to go to my people and say, 'Look, here's where we [expletive]ed up last year. Our pitching fell apart; we collapsed.' And it was a collapse. Let's all face it, and let's all talk about it. What's your slant on why it happened? Maybe David Wright would say, 'Well, did you know that the Mets were leading the league in the fewest amount of errors, but in like the last 15 games-in one series alone, they had something like 10 errors in three games?' And they hadn't made 10 errors in a whole month! And do you know why they did that? Because guys were hitting the ball all over the place, that's why. It didn't have anything to do with the Mets' fielding; it's that the pitching was so bad that everybody was hitting the ball all over the place. They got more chances to make errors is what I'm trying to tell you. So you can't point and say that you all stunk. Well, you didn't all stink. Your pitching stunk; that's what happened. And it was worse this past year. So, for that reason, I don't know if he should have been fired, but I think he should have confronted that issue head-on in the first day of spring training. Maybe he should have even called guys over the winter and said, 'You know, there's no denying that this happened.' And Willie was kind of old school. Manuel has got a little different approach; he's a little bit more Zen. He's very much conscientious and he's very aware of the little things you have to do to win a ballgame, like laying down a bunt. Or even a guy who fouls off 15 pitches in a row, but then he strikes out. The next guy hits a home run, and he contributed because he wore the pitcher out. So he's very aware of those things that he looks for in a player. His awareness of the game could be maybe just a hair broader than Willie's.
GT: I think he's great for the game, because you have to remember something: it's only a game. It's only a game! This isn't Joe Biden talking, or Hillary Clinton. It's the manager of a baseball team, so it doesn't mean anything. He's a very colorful guy who loves the game and speaks his mind. We do have a thing in this country called freedom of speech, right? One hundred years from now, Ozzie Guillen isn't going to be here, and neither are you or me. So what is it going to matter anyway? What is it going to matter in the long run?
GT: That's what got Bill Lee out of baseball. But I think that when you have something to say, yes. You should speak up if you have something to say. If you have nothing to say, then say nothing. Hank Aaron didn't say anything for 15 years; he just let his bat do the talking. Neither did Joe DiMaggio. Dizzy Dean? Very outspoken. Diz told it like it was. He said, "I'm the best," and he was, right? No getting around it. So, yeah, you should speak up. One time there was a meeting in Philadelphia, and they said they wanted people to speak up about what was bothering them, and Pete Rose said, "Well, for one thing, I think our pitchers are throwing too many strikes when they have a guy 0-2." Then one of the pitchers said, "I think the hitters and the outfielders ought to keep their mouths shut and let the pitchers do their business." Pete Rose walked out and said that it was the last time he'd be opening up his mouth at a meeting. But Pete was a talker, right? He spoke his mind about what was going on. So if you have something to say that you think is valid, that will help your club or help straighten something out, yeah, you should speak up. You only get one chance, and then it's over.
GT: Well, you know, like myself, Ron Hunt thought of everything he could possibly do to get in the lineup and stay in the lineup. And that's pretty much me. In my career, if you want to call it a career-in my job, whatever-I once told a producer, who said to me, "Would you like to do this?" I said, "Why don't we try it." He said, "You'd actually do that?" I said, "My friend, there is no level too low that I won't stoop to in order to keep my thing going-to keep my job." Ron Hunt was very much like that. And he was the first Met to make the All-Star team. How about that? Hey, do you know who the first Met was to defeat Koufax?
GT: Good guess, but no. This guy was actually a teammate of Don Cardwell, and he was very proud of it: it was Tug McGraw. This was in the days before McGraw was a reliever, before they made him into a reliever. In those days, nobody started out as a reliever; you became one because you couldn't go nine innings. Nowadays it's not like that, it's a specialty. He was the first Met to defeat Koufax, and that ought to tell you how great Koufax was, if that's his big... I mean, the guy [McGraw] played on two championship teams, he won with the Phillies and with the Mets. But his big calling card is that he was the first Met to beat Koufax. Now, how do you like that? All that Bob Uecker ever talks about is that he was the only guy to hit two home runs in the same game against Koufax.
David Laurila: It sounds like you're a pretty big Sandy Koufax fan?
GT: Not really. I just like to pay dues to where justice belongs. I like Tom Seaver. What player got the most votes ever to be in the Hall of Fame? Nolan Ryan is behind this guy by only one vote. It is Tom Seaver! He got more than anybody; he got more than Aaron or Mays. Now that's saying something.
GT: Well, I never saw him pitch, you know. And I'm sorry about that. But I do know one great story about that guy. In the '30s, Dizzy Dean kept mouthing off about how great the black players were in the Negro League. They organized an all-star team of all the best in the big leagues, both the American and National Leagues, and they played against the best in the Negro League. The game went into extra innings, and they used two pitchers; Dean pitched for one side and Satchel Paige pitched for the other. Guess what the final score was? 1-0. Guess who knocked in the only run? Satchel Paige! So, you wanted to know my thoughts on Satchel Paige? That's it.
David Laurila: You used to play with some of the great blues musicians, like John Lee Hooker. Were any of them baseball fans?
GT: They were all baseball fans, and they all liked the National League. Do you know why?
GT: Hey, you're good, man! You're quick! I knew I was going to like you! But John Lee Hooker-you would go to his house, and he would have the Atlanta game on, downstairs on TV. You go upstairs to his bedroom and he'd have the Giants game on TV. On the radio he'd have the Oakland A's game. And he'd make you call on the phone, that toll-free number in Chicago that gives you all the latest scores. That's all he talked, was baseball. That's it; nothing else. Not about music, just that. The first thing John Lee Hooker ever said to me, I met him and said, "Hi, I'm George Thorogood, pleased to meet you." The first thing he said was, "Do you think Joe Morgan is going to help the Giants?" That was the first thing he said. That was in January of 1982. I pulled into a hotel in September of 1982, and guess what happens? Joe Morgan hits a three-run home run off of Terry... the left-hander who was pitching for the Dodgers... real heavy guy?
GT: Yes! And I'm thinking about John Lee Hooker. He was a prophet! Do you remember when that happened? Joe Morgan stepped up with two men on, the Giants down by a couple of runs, and the Dodgers were still in the pennant race. I pulled into the parking lot, the radio cuts out, and when I go up to the room and turn on the TV, I see Joe Morgan crossing the bases. The phone rings, and it's John Lee Hooker! Do you know what he says? He said, "I told you Joe Morgan was going to help the Giants!" So yeah, they're all baseball fans.
David Laurila: Do you ever go down to spring training?
GT: Are you going down? ["Yes."] Man, I envy you. I used to do that every year, without fail. One year I was in California and I just-dig this, man. I get to the airport and jump on the plane; it takes me to St. Petersburg, I get off the plane, rent a car, drive to St. Pete, get a room at the Bayfront, and don't even go to my room. I walked right across the street, bought a ticket, and sat down to watch a night game. It was the Mets against the Cardinals. I just flew straight there, and I was right in the heart of it right away. I used to do that every year, and I really used to get a kick out of that. So hey, see you Opening Day, man!