January 14, 2011
To many fans, J.T. Snow is remembered as the slick-fielding San Francisco Giants first baseman who had to scoop up three-year-old batboy Darren Baker from harm’s way in the 2002 World Series. Eight years later, the now-retired six-time Gold Glove winner is committed to a far more important cause: helping children suffering from a rare disease called Wolfram Syndrome. Snow, who hit .268/.357/.427, with 189 home runs over 15 big-league seasons, shared his thoughts on a variety of subjects, including the importance of defense, steroids and the Hall of Fame, and athletes as role models. His foundation, The Snowman Fund, is named for himself and his late father, former Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Jack Snow.
David Laurila: How would you describe your career?
J.T. Snow: I feel that I exceeded… I did better than I ever thought I would. Looking back, I had one scholarship offer out of high school to play baseball in college, and that was from the University of Arizona, which is where I went. I played in the Pac-10, and from there got into the minor leagues. My college coach actually tried to talk me out of signing after my junior year, because he didn’t think I was ready for pro ball.
I kind of just flew under the radar most of the time. I had a couple of years in the big leagues, then I had five, then I had 10, and I finished with 15. I can honestly say that I played a lot longer than I ever thought I would, and I did some things that I’m proud of and didn’t know that I’d ever do.
DL: The sports are obviously different, but how did your career compare to your father‘s?
JTS: You know what, I think that my dad and I were very similar players in what we did, in our different eras. My dad was an 11-year NFL guy. He made one Pro Bowl in his career, and while I never made an All-Star team, I did win six Gold Gloves at first base. I think that we were similar-type players, guys who didn’t hav>e a lot of God-given ability as far as size and strength and speed, so we just had to work harder than the next guy to get to where we were.
There are guys who can look back at their careers and be proud, knowing that they got the most out of what they had, and I remember talking to my dad and him saying that he had no regrets. He always instilled that in me that when I was done, I should be able to look back and know that I gave it everything that I had. That’s the way I feel; I don’t think there is much more that I could have done.
I played in a very tough era, especially for my position. I pretty much played in the whole steroid era. I never took them, at all, in my whole career. I never thought about taking them, and I competed very well against a lot of guys who probably did take them. I can look back and know that I did the best that I could.
DL: How different was it to be a professional athlete in your era than it was in your father’s?
JTS: I remember talking to my dad and him always saying that the athletes are getting better and better, year by year. Guys are getting bigger and guys are getting stronger and faster. I remember him saying that overall, the players—he worked with the Rams for a long time after he was done playing—nowadays are more gifted than the players in his era. He didn’t think, however, that they were as tough mentally and physically as they were when he played.
I think that’s the same for my career. The guys I played with were so good, and guys are getting better and better—bigger, stronger, faster—but I had a guy in my corner, my father, who really taught and preached mental toughness and being tough. He preached being able to answer the bell every day and play tough and play hard.
My dad always talked about the mental side of the game, and we butted heads a lot when I was in high school, and even in college and my first years in pro ball, in the minor leagues, about baseball and football. But the more I played, the more I realized that he was right. Regardless of the sport you’re playing, a lot of the game is between the ears. A lot of guys have the same physical tools, so it’s the mental side that separates, and it’s why you stick around—why you have a 10-year career as opposed to a one- or two-year career. I tried to always remember that and play the game the right way.
DL: Are athletes role models?
JTS: I think they are. I don’t think they have any choice. I have a son of my own—he’s 13 now—and I was the same way when I was growing up. You look up to these guys. You want to be a professional athlete. My son plays ice hockey and he looks up to Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, the two best guys in the league. You want to be like them; you want to wear their number, you want the same stick, the same skates. I was the same way as a kid growing up.
Your dad isn’t necessarily your role model when you’re growing up, because he’s just your dad. Athletes, whether they like it or not, are role models, but it is up to the parents to steer their kids in the right direction, including that role models can let you down at times. I think that parents should be a kid’s biggest role models—not necessarily athletes—but the athletes are, and I think it is always going to be like that.
DL: Who among your former teammates do you regard as a great role model?
JTS: I was drafted by the Yankees out of college and I looked up to Don Mattingly an awful lot. He was with the big-league team when I was in the system, and I watched the way that he played. I got a chance to go to spring training in 1992—my first big-league spring training—and hang out with him, and take ground balls. I got to pick his brain a little bit. I also got a September call up that year and got to play with him for about a month.
There are other guys I played with along the way who ended up having good careers that I looked up to as well. But Mattingly is a guy that I enjoyed following, and having a chance to be around him was a treat.
DL: Which of your former teammates most deserves to be in the Hall of Fame?
JTS: I have a different view of the Hall of Fame than most people do. A guy like Don Mattingly, to me, is a Hall of Fame guy. On the field, off the field, what he did with the glove as well as the bat. So much of the Hall of Fame is about offense; if you hit a certain number of home runs, you’re in the Hall of Fame.
A guy like Andre Dawson was a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame, in my eyes. It took way too long. The guy did it with the bat and the glove. He was always a good defensive player and a good offensive player, and I like to see those guys. There are some guys who aren’t in there, but should be, because they could play the game the right way and were great players.
After I was with the Yankees, I got traded to the Angels, and a big influence on me was Chili Davis. He was a DH with the Angels while I was there. There were guys like Mark Langston and Chuck Finley, who were pitchers, who were great to me as a young kid.
Then I got traded over to the Giants and was around guys like [Barry] Bonds and Jeff Kent. Jeff Kent is a Hall of Famer in my mind. He had the best production at his position in history as far as home runs. But I also look at other things when it comes to the Hall of Fame, and while his offensive numbers were great—I think his offensive numbers will get him in—he was a guy who played the game every day, and he played it hard. He played it the right way. He was an above-average defensive player. He had the ability to carry our team for a week, or even a month. To see him hit fourth, behind Barry, and have teams walk Barry Bonds consistently, day in and day out, and come through with big hits and drive guys in, makes Jeff a Hall of Fame player to me.
DL: Should Barry Bonds be in the Hall of Fame?
JTS: Well, that’s a… he should be, but it’s just such a cloudy area with all of these guys. My feeling on it is that if you were caught doing steroids, then no, I think he cheated the game. I didn’t do it, and I was playing against guys who did, and I was fighting to keep a career going against…and I’m playing first base where guys are hitting 40-50 home runs and driving in 150 runs, and I’m hitting 20 with 80-90 RBI.
I think that we—the guys who played—know who did it and who didn’t do it, by looking at their size and their numbers. If you’ve been caught doing it, I don’t think you deserve being in the Hall of Fame. I don’t think that’s what the Hall of Fame should stand for. I think he cheated the game; that’s just the way that I feel.
You hear a lot of talk about, “They were Hall of Famers before they did it, or after they did it,” and that’s one topic, but I don’t feel that they should be in there.
To me, a guy like Alan Trammell is a Hall of Fame guy. He just represents baseball. He did it the right way. He was an everyday player putting up great numbers and he was one of the best shortstops of his time. But the jury is still out on the McGwires, the Palmeiros, and the Bagwells. I think that players—the guys who played with and against them—know if they did steroids or not. It’s just a matter of if the writers vote them in.
DL: Should the writers know who did and who didn’t?
JTS: They should know. I don’t know how you could test them now, but if they were tested and it was proven that they did… you can go back and look at guys’ numbers and the period in which they played, and if the numbers increased greatly, all you have to do is look at the guys’ body shapes and body types. I used to work out hard every offseason and I’d maybe put on 10 pounds of muscle, but I never came back 30 or 40 pounds heavier, with popping muscles. You can see the guys and have a good idea.
If the writers got 100 ballplayers, and they were all unnamed, and they could go around and say, “I believe this guy did it,” or “I don’t think he did it”… I don’t think that guys who did it should be in the Hall of Fame.
DL: Would the 2010 Giants have won the World Series had they played in the steroid era?
JTS: That’s a good question, and a lot of people ask me that. I don’t know. I do know that they had awesome pitching and great clubhouse chemistry, which I’m a big believer in. They had a lot of old-school guys who play the game the right way. Aubrey Huff, Pat Burrell, Juan Uribe, Edgar Renteria. And they had the pitching to go on top of it.
I think that we’ve seen the game shift back a little bit to what it was before the steroid era, with more low-scoring games. The numbers are significantly down in baseball—the home runs and RBI. I talked to a guy on the Giants this year who hit 20-something home runs and drove in 80 runs, and everyone was saying that he had a great year, and I was saying that when I played, that wasn’t a great year. Guys were putting that up by the All-Star break. So the game has definitely shifted.
DL: Were the 2010 Giants better than, or even as good as, some of the teams you played on?
JTS: Comparing it to the 2002 team—the year we went to the World Series—I think that this year’s team had better pitching. I think that [the 2002 team] probably had a better offense and played a little better defense. The 2010 team probably had better chemistry; they had a little better clubhouse with looser guys. I was around it, because I still do some work for the team and I’m in the clubhouse a lot. So it might be a toss-up. I think it’s a good debate, and it would be a good seven-game series.
DL: Going back to former teammates, is Omar Vizquel a Hall of Famer?
JTS: Yes, no question. He’s another guy that I think did it right. If you look at him, he was one of the best at his position, so he’s definitely a Hall of Famer.
I think that defense is the most underrated thing in baseball. Everybody likes the offensive numbers, but I wish there was a stat that showed how many hits a guy takes away that would have led to potential runs. If a guy drives in 100 runs and he’s taking away 50 runs, that’s the equivalent of 150 runs for your team. I think that defense is totally underrated.
That’s why a guy like Don Mattingly should be—and part of why Andre Dawson is—in the Hall of Fame. Those guys played great defense. They were great offensive players, too. They didn’t hit 500 home runs, or get 3,000 hits, but they were great baseball players. That’s how I look at it. Some guys who are in the Hall of Fame weren’t great baseball players. They were great hitters, but they weren’t great baseball players.
DL: Who is most responsible for making you a great defensive first baseman?
JTS: Probably my dad. There were so many hours of him hitting me ground balls and throwing balls in the dirt. We’d go work out at the Little League field and he’d throw batting practice to me. We’d hit, hit, hit, but we’d always take ground balls. He’d also throw balls in the dirt. That’s something we’d work on.
It’s funny, because through high school and college, and even in pro baseball, nobody ever pulled me aside and tried to teach me how to play first, or tried to offer me a lot of advice. They just let me play it. I think they saw that I was pretty good at it, so they just let me play.
DL: Your first manager in pro ball was Brian Butterfield, who has a reputation as an outstanding infield instructor. Did he impact you at all as a defensive player?
JTS: He didn’t really work a ton with me, but he always told me—and I think this is one of the most underrated things in coaching—how good I was. That’s kind of ironic, because a lot of coaching nowadays is telling guys, “You’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that,” and always pointing out the negative stuff. There isn’t enough of coaches telling guys how good they are, and that goes a long way toward building confidence. Butter always used to tell me how good I was. I played half a season in Oneonta and he told me that I could play in the big leagues right now, at first base.
That says a lot to a kid coming into pro ball, or at any level. I coach my son’s Little League team and I tell the kids how good they are. I’ll say, “You’re really good.” A lot of coaches are harping on the negative all the time, but it’s OK to tell people how good they are.
DL: On the subject of “good,” you have a foundation that bears mention.
JTS: We started it a couple of months ago. Basically, my niece, who is my goddaughter—my younger sister’s third child—was diagnosed with type-one diabetes. Then they did some more tests on her and it came back that she has what is called Wolfram Syndrome, which is a rare type of diabetes that is also associated with other disorders. It impairs your vision, your hearing, and your neurological [function] as you get older. Sometimes they just deteriorate. It affects something like one in one million people, so it’s pretty rare, but she’s got it.
My sister and I decided to start a fund, called the Snowman Fund, to try to raise money. There’s a doctor at Washington University, which is in St. Louis, and he’s studied this for past 20 years. They’re real close to finding the gene that makes diabetes go into Wolfram’s. They do clinics, where they bring in kids who have Wolfram Syndrome and study them over the weekend. We’re trying to raise money so that they can continue to have them. It takes anywhere from $75,000 to $100,000 to run a clinic for a weekend, to do all the machines, get all the doctors in there, and fly the people in.
We started this clinic in my dad’s name—he passed away in 2006—and in my name. My sister is trying to do some work with the Rams and I’m trying to get the Giants on board a little bit. We want to raise some money so these kids can have a chance to live a better life. A lot of these kids don’t make it past 30 years of age, because they start deteriorating by the time they’re teenagers. My niece is five right now, so it’s a good time to try to find a way to block that gene, to get her the help that she needs to live a productive life. A lot of these kids end up committing suicide, because they’re losing their vision and hearing and end up in a wheelchair. It’s hard for them to live, so they take their own lives. It’s sad, so we’re trying to raise awareness, raise money, and find a cure.
DL: Does starting this foundation make you a role model for professional athletes?
JTS: Because I know a lot of people through my career, I’m in a position to try to get the word out there and make a difference. So yeah, I would hope that people would look up to me and think that I’m trying to do the right thing by helping out a lot of people in the world who are suffering. To me, this is more important than any baseball game I ever played in; it’s more important than my career in sports. People talk about pressure in sports, but pressure in sports is nothing compared to this. This is life. This is reality. I hope that I can make a difference for these kids.