Tony Sipp wants to be more than just a role model. The Indians’ southpaw is already a rag-to-riches story, having established himself in the big leagues after being taken in the 45th round of the 2004 draft as an undersized college pitcher with questionable mechanics. In two seasons with the Tribe, the 27-year-old Sipp has appeared in 116 games, all out of the bullpen, with a 4-2 record, 3.67 ERA, and a .209 BAA.
David Laurila: How did you get your start in baseball?
Tony Sipp: I started out pretty much just playing neighborhood pick-up games where two captains would choose sides and you‘d play for fun. We were usually struggling for equipment, so we’d try to rally up whoever had a bat and they’d always get picked because we needed one to play. It was competitive, but it was just games in our neighborhood, between the neighborhood kids.
DL: That was down in Mississippi.
TS: Yes, in Moss Point, Mississippi and it kind of went from there. And not only baseball, but also basketball and football. Football was our major sport in my hometown. But that’s where my competitive nature came from, just having fun with the neighborhood kids and trying to be the best one out on the field. It kind of escalated in high school, where we’d go to different cities and try to be the best team.
In high school I made a little name for myself, along with another guy, Damarius Bilbo. I don’t know if he was ahead of me in scouting, but he had more potential as far as things like body type. I was a late bloomer; I didn’t really throw hard when I was younger, but I stuck with it and did a lot of long-toss. Eventually my arm came around and I had a little life on my fastball by the end of my 11th-grade year. That’s basically how it started for me.
DL: Did you play any travel ball?
SP: I did some travel ball when I graduated from high school. I played for Bill Hood [Baseball] in Louisiana. That was the only travel ball, although we traveled a lot. We covered Texas and Florida, and also [played] in Louisiana. That was a big learning experience, because it was the first time I was away from home for an extended period of time. It taught me how to be my own man and kind of mesh with a group of guys. It gave me a chance to show a lot of personality, because living at home you don’t get to show a lot of personality. Your mom and dad do their best to make sure that you don’t fall, and if you fall, they make that cushion at the bottom for you.
DL: How would you describe your hometown?
TS: It’s a blue-collar neighborhood. Most everyone works for the same company, which is Ingalls Ship Building. We also have a power plant, but there are only about three things that help the whole city out. They say that my hometown is hard to get out of, because most people fall into that same category of going to work for those three different companies, and they end up getting stuck in Mississippi.
I was fortunate enough to be able to use my athletic abilities to go to college, and from that came other opportunities. I ended up at two junior colleges, Okaloosa-Walton and Mississippi Gulf Coast, and then my last year was at Clemson University, where I finally got some attention.
I was drafted twice, but the second was the only time I was offered an amount that I would consider signing for. I was taken in the 45th round, but they offered me decent money; it wasn’t 45th-round money.
DL: Why did you last all the way to the 45th round?
TS: I think that it somehow got out that I wanted more money than I was worth, but I never made a statement about what I thought I was worth. I don’t know how that word got out there, but the Indians picked me up anyway.
[After the draft] I went to the Cape Cod League and played with Cotuit, and finally made a name for myself. I went something like—and I don’t want to fabricate anything here—20 or 25 innings scoreless. The Indians finally came and tried to negotiate a deal. Even though I had been drafted, I still had to prove myself in order for them to come and offer me a price. It’s been an uphill battle all the way for me, including having to prove myself on the Cape just to get an offer on the table.
TS: A coach in the Indians system told me that while some in the organization questioned whether you would become a big-league pitcher, he knew that you would. The reason he gave was, “I saw that he had big balls.”
TS: I think that what he meant was that I don’t back down from a situation. It is what it is. It’s always been me and the opposing batter—“It’s either me or you.”—and that one-on-one battle is what I like. I thrive off of pressure situations, because that’s kind of my life story. I’ve always had somebody telling me what I can’t do, and what I’m not capable of, so it’s a matter of going out and showing it to them. That’s the thing that has always driven me: people telling me what I can’t do.
DL: Where has most of that doubt come from?
TS: From not being the prototypical body type and not having the prototypical mechanics—my mechanics aren’t smooth. Some people thought that my shoulder, or something on my body, would blow out because of my violent mechanics. I’ve been comfortable throwing like I do, but people thought I wouldn’t be able to repeat [my mechanics] and throw consistent strikes with my mechanics. I heard it all when it came time to get drafted, and that’s what I think it came down to. I wasn’t the prototypical baseball player.
DL: Baseball isn’t as popular among young African-American athletes as it once was. Did that impact you at all growing up?
TS: The teams that I played with were primarily African-American right up until high school, and even through high school. We had a mix of whites and blacks, and it just so happens that we do have a lot of blacks who come out and play baseball. A lot of the more athletic guys don’t give it a try, though. That’s a big difference, and it’s a reason why I come back and talk to the athletes—the really good football and basketball athletes—because they have the frame and athletic ability for baseball. It just isn’t the cool sport for a lot of them. The cools sports are basketball or football.
I actually got caught up in that a little bit. I thought that I was going to play football, but my size wouldn’t let me continue to do that. Also, I was left-handed, so I had that little edge, that little something of being a left-handed pitcher, so I went the baseball route.
DL: Coming up through the minor leagues, was there ever a feeling of, “I’m an African-American in a mostly white and Hispanic sport”?
TS: No, because with the Indians ballclub, the guys I came up with were really good guys. I had a lot of fun in the minor leagues and that kind of compensated for the income that we made. I made a lot of memories and a lot of good friends. I could have felt like an African-American, but that’s only an injustice when you’re part of a bunch of good guys trying to have a good time.
If you’re out there feeling African-American, that’s something you’ve got going within yourself. There’s always going to be an instance where you experience racism, but I applaud the guys I played with, because they would always outcast that guy instead of outcasting me.
DL: Are you referring to inside the clubhouse?
TS: Yes, if there was ever any racism, everyone else would kind of exclude that guy from everything they were doing, while I’d still be included. I never felt left out, because when someone’s true color would show, that’s when everyone would alienate themselves from that person.
I don’t think there’s much racism in the game, but I do feel like I’m representing my race when I’m out there, and that’s why I try to carry myself a certain way on the field. I don’t try to show off any flashiness or anything, because I feel that if it wasn’t for the people who came before me, who carried themselves with class, I probably wouldn’t have the chance that I do. I feel a responsibility to do the same for the people—especially the African-Americans—that are coming behind me. They deserve to come into the game with a good name.
DL: I’ve had older African-Americans tell me that while all young black players know who Jackie Robinson was, not enough of them are familiar with Larry Doby and the others who immediately followed Robinson. Do you think that’s accurate?
TS: I do think that’s true. I don’t think we do a good enough job of knowing our history and who actually paved our way, and I think that if we did, we’d carry ourselves with a little higher standard. It’s good to know your history—how you came here—because nothing we’ve ever gone through has been by chance. It has always been through persistence. Everyone paid a price for it to be like it is right now, so it’s definitely something that should be given more attention.
DL: How do you want fans to look at you?
TS: I want to be that bright spot. I want to stay out of trouble and encourage other people, whether they’re African-American or any other minority. Whether you’re black, white, or any color, know that you’re representing more than yourself. A lot of people think that it’s all about them, but it’s about everyone. It’s about your race, your mom and dad, the fans, everyone that pulls for you.
DL: What you’re saying, essentially, is that you want to be a role model.
TS: I don’t want to be a role model, I want to actually be someone that they can come to. Role models are guys that you follow from afar. I want to be that hands-on guy that you can come up to and talk to. I don’t think I’m any different than the next man, I just happen to have been blessed with a talent that puts me on the national stage. I’m still the same guy who came up through neighborhood pickup games in Moss Point, Mississippi, it’s just that now you can see me on television giving up a home run or something. I want to be approachable and have some positive words to say. I want to be more than just a role model.