An Interview with Former Major League Baseball Pitcher and Reading native Rich DeLucia
Recently, I had a chance to talk with former major leaguer Rich DeLucia, a Reading native who pitched for six teams during the 1990's. DeLucia played for, with, and against many greats of the game, including Joe Torre, Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey, Jr., Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, and Dusty Baker.
DeLucia, who is now a scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers, was straightforward in his answers, shared credit for his success with many people, and didn't have a bad word to say about anyone.
Playing catch in the backyard with Dad
"You can't do it by yourself," DeLucia says. "My Dad started early with me and kept on me. He always said that if I did the best that I could, everything else would take care of itself. He and my mom gave me opportunities and were supportive."
DeLucia's standout performances at Wyomissing High School, in Berks County, Pennsylvania, caught the eye several of major league scouts.
"Scouts were coming to see me during my junior year in high school. I was throwing in the upper 80's (mph) then, but I was 6 feet, 150 pounds," DeLucia said. "They said that they liked me, but that I wasn't physically ready for professional ball. So, I went to college and got bigger and stronger."
DeLucia accepted a full scholarship to play Division I baseball at the University of Tennessee. As a junior, he didn't have his best year, but was still drafted in the 15th round by the Toronto Blue Jays. However, medical tests later revealed a bone spur in his right throwing arm as the reason for his struggles. A cortisone shot caused the pain to vanish, resulting in a great senior year on the mound, and a 6th round draft selection by the Seattle Mariners in 1986.
People Who Matter Most
Early in his life, the most important support DeLucia received was from family and friends. As he moved into adulthood, the positive influence of his wife became key.
"I met and married Lisa before I became a major league baseball player. She supported me when I was playing in the minor leagues." She had an important accounting position with DuPont in Wilmington, DE, and later in South Carolina, where we lived for two years. She was advancing with the company, but quit her job, which was a huge sacrifice that she made for me. It was nice coming home to someone who didn't care if I got someone out. I wasn't always the most pleasant person after a loss, but she understood," DeLucia emphasized.
"School had just ended and I went straight to Bellingham, Washington, which was short-season A-ball. It was easier the first year in pro ball then in college, where the batters used aluminum bats. I threw a no-hitter and had a 1.70 ERA. That gave me confidence and got me noticed," DeLucia said.
During his first year in the minor leagues DeLucia was invited to play in an annual game for future prospects at the Kingdome in Seattle. Players there told him that he already had the stuff to be a major league pitcher.
"I thought I was good, but never thought I was going to be in the big leagues until I got to Double A in 1989 and had a great year," DeLucia said. "All of my minor league coaches, including Dan Warthan (recent New York Mets pitching coach) and Bobby Cuellar treated me awesomely and kept me on the right path."
DeLucia began the 1990 regular season in a warm weather climate (due to a back injury) with the Single-A San Bernadino Spirit. He pitched well and advanced to the Double-A Williamsport Bills within a month. By August, he earned a promotion to the Calgary Cannons in Triple-A. In September, an unexpected bullpen conversation let DeLucia know that he was about to earn the ultimate promotion.
Making it to the show
"After starting my last game of the season in Calgary on a Wednesday, our pitching coach, Dan Warthan asked me to throw a bullpen session that Saturday. I didn't expect to pitch again that year, so I wasn't focused, but he told me to take it seriously and that I was not done pitching that year," DeLucia fondly recalled. "So, I asked if I was going to pitch in relief on Sunday, which was the last game of the Triple-A season. When he said that I was getting called up after the game the next day my jaw dropped."
Ken Griffey, Jr. and Randy Johnson
DeLucia made his major league debut as a Seattle Mariner against the Boston Red Sox on September 8, 1990. Jody Reed was the first batter he faced, getting him to pop out on a hanging slider.
"Randy Johnson was just throwing the ball back then. He had not yet developed into a pitcher. But after he talked to Nolan Ryan, he turned into a different guy. He no longer threw everything at 100%, but started to vary his speeds. That change in approach really allowed him to develop into the pitcher he became," DeLucia said.
"Ken Griffrey, Jr. was the best baseball player that I had ever seen. He could do anything that he wanted to. During one game that I pitched in, his Dad, Ken Griffrey, Sr., was my left fielder and Ken Griffey, Jr. was my center fielder. During another game, they batted second and third in the order and hit back-to-back home runs."
Rookie of the Year Voting
After getting a taste of big league life, DeLucia began to work even harder. A trade with the Giants emptied the Mariners bullpen, landed outfielder Kevin Mitchell, and led to him splitting time between starting and relieving. He won twelve games as a starter for Seattle in 1991, which was his first full season in the majors. That impressive performance earned DeLucia a spot among the top five in the American League Rookie of the Year Award voting.
"The mentality of relieving was better for me than starting. I liked potentially being involved in a game everyday. Plus, going at the batters with everything I had for an inning or two allowed me to use my best stuff, rather than trying to pitch to their weaknesses over the course of a game," DeLucia said.
Pitching In A Hitter's Era
"The 1990's were the hardest time to pitch ever," DeLucia recalls. "Live balls, small parks, and players on steroids. Because I was aggressive, most of my runs were given up on homeruns. Most of my strikeouts were called pitches on the outside corner."
"A good catcher will put down signs that you anticipate coming. I was always focused on the catcher. He knows your strengths and what will work. Dave Valle, Lance Parrish, and Tom Pagnozzi were good catchers that I played with. Matt Walbeck and I always clicked. I never had to shake him off."
While he was an effective reliever, allowing less hits than innings pitched in his career, DeLucia also became an accomplished fielder. He sported a 1.000% fielding percentage in five different seasons.
He also faced some pretty notable hitters during his time as a major leaguer. Rickey Henderson, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Joe Carer just to name a few.
"Henderson would get a walking lead and then time you. It was best to hold the ball when he was on base. I would let him get out to his max lead and then go from there. The more the ball was held, the better the chance to prevent a steal. But if he was moving during the delivery, there was no shot to get him," DeLucia noted.
"Mark McGwire didn't see me well. He went 1-19 against me, which was a single. Sammy Sosa went 0-12 and Joe Carter went 0-16."
A New Start
Released by Seattle in 1994, DeLucia hooked on with Baltimore in the offseason before being taken by St. Louis in the Rule 5 Draft.
"I made their team out of spring training in 1995, but started the season badly. So, Joe (Torre) took me into his office after two weeks of struggling," DeLucia said.
"He said, 'Look Rich, I see you're thinking too much out there. You're not going anywhere. You're on this club and your going to be here the whole year. Relax, loosen up, and have some fun out there.'"
"I don't know how he knew what I was thinking about, but he did. What he said loosened me up and I had the best year of my career. He was even keel and nothing bothered him. Torre, Dusty Baker (current Reds manager), and Terry Collins (newly hired Mets manager) knew how to set the tone, offer game strategy, and put guys in the right position to be effective.
Working from the Cardinals bullpen, DeLucia went 8-7 with a 3.39 ERA. In 82 1/3 innings pitched, he only gave up 63 hits, walked 36, and struck out 76 batters.
"I didn't know much about steroids and wasn't confident that they would even help me," says DeLucia in regards to the steroid era. "They were prevalent, but weren't tested for. I felt if I made my pitches, it didn't matter how big or how strong other players were. Steroids made pitchers throw harder, but not pitch better. They still had to have the mechanics to move the ball around the strike zone."
"Hitters had the advantage because they were stronger, so they could wait longer to swing. They didn't have to go out of the zone to chase the fastball. That helped them to lay off the breaking ball. The stronger you are, the longer you can wait on the ball. The longer you can wait on the ball, the better chance you have of hitting the pitch."
Part of the challenge of the baseball season for DeLucia was being away from family. Before his children started school, he and his family would live in an apartment. When he would go on a road trip he wouldn't see them for awhile, but it was still better than not seeing them for the entire season.
"When I left baseball and started coaching, our son Tanner began school. Our daughter Brenna was younger, so she didn't start school until after he did. I would leave for spring training in February and wouldn't see my family at all until the kids were out of school in June," DeLucia said.
Becoming a Scout
DeLucia pitched for Cleveland during his final season in the major leagues in 1999. In 2000, he pitched for Oakland's Sacramento affiliate and in 2001 for Detroit's Toledo affiliate. When his arm gave out, DeLucia had Tommy John surgery in August of that year. After trying a comeback in the spring of 2002, he realized there wasn't enough time for his arm to have regained its strength and he retired, accepting a position with Detroitas their minor league pitching coach in Erie.
In 2003, DeLucia got the pitching bug again and pitched for the West Palm Beach Cardinals in the Florida State League. He then took five years off before he and his family decided that they were ready to adapt to a different type of baseball life. So in 2009, DeLucia accepted a position as a scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
"I cover the entire Northeast. I have to rank every high school and college player that is draft eligible," DeLucia says. "I focus on what makes a player tick and see if they have the mental toughness to play baseball. I present the information I gather to my supervisor. If he likes it, he will make recommendations to the scouting director."
"When I started in baseball, I was raw and threw hard. By the end of my career I didn't throw as hard, but was a better pitcher. I'm learning as much about scouting as I can. So, hopefully I will become a better scout each year."
Three players that DeLucia recommended were drafted last June. A 13th-round selection and a free agent both made it to short season Single A- Ball, which doesn't often happen for players taken in those rounds.
Making Your Best Pitch
Achieving longevity in a very competitive industry, like professional sports, doesn't happen by accident. It is the result of a dedicated process. A hybrid of physical and mental toughness.
"Always have a goal in life. Have some type of passion, so you can get up in the morning and feel good about yourself," DeLucia concluded.
"The importance is the process and you get your satisfaction from the investment that you put into it. You have to adjust constantly and be true to yourself."
After college, Sean O'Brien worked in the front office for the Phillies former Triple-A team in Scranton. He went on to write professionally during the next few decades and is currently a teacher in the great state of Pennsylvania. He can often be seen, with a variety of family and friends, in one of Philadelphia's great sports stadiums.
Contact Sean a firstname.lastname@example.org