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Remembering Roger Samuels
Roger, who passed away after battling cancer, always gave it his best, as a pitcher and a friend.
Roger Samuels was born to be a pitcher.
A lefty, long and lanky. Sturdy as they come. He didn't back down, no matter what he was up against, whether that was Darryl Strawberry and Ryne Sandberg in the batter's box, or the unrelenting cancer that he battled over the past few years.
Roger -- who passed away Monday at age 61 -- always gave it his best, as a pitcher and a friend. His memory is going to stick with me.
I first spoke with Roger in 2014 as I dove into the interviews for my book about Ken Caminiti. I was running through rosters on Ken's minor league teams and noticed how Roger -- a member of the 1986 Columbus Astros who later pitched for his hometown Giants and the Pirates -- hailed from San Jose, just like Ken. Roger was two years older than Ken and went to Branham High School, a rival of Ken's school, Leigh. Roger played basketball and baseball, and he was the league MVP in baseball in 1979 during Ken's sophomore season.
Roger was such a great source of historical information about San Jose and Bay Area athletes. Need a Little League program from the 1970s? Roger was the guy. He sent me three of them in the mail, along with handwritten notes and his card from 1988 Fleer Update that shows him pitching on the Giants.
Roger knew a lot of people. He was a connector, someone who would send me this person's info or suggest names of people I should call. Pretty soon, I had lots and lots of new sources and contacts and insight.
He was a connector on the baseball field, too, a pitcher who would take the ball whenever called on. After playing for John Oldham at San Jose City College and transferring to Santa Clara University, he was drafted by the Astros in the tenth round of the 1983 draft, pick 244.
“I never heard a thing on draft day,” Roger told me during one of our many conversations. “I desperately wanted to sign. Maybe the day after it finished, I got the news.” But he didn’t hear about it first from Paul Weaver, who’d scouted him for Houston -- he heard from a Rangers scout, Rick Schroeder, who’d drafted one of Roger’s college teammates. Weaver ended up calling three days later.
Soon enough he was bouncing around the minors, a baseball nomad who’d spend half a season here or a year there before moving on to a new destination. But he kept climbing, going from Asheville to Class A Daytona Beach, to Columbus of the Double-A Southern League.
Roger had a solid 10-win season with Columbus in 1985 for manager Carlos Alfonso, who tried out the lefty in the bullpen but quickly abandoned the experiment and put him back in the rotation. As a reliever, he struggled with the pace and walked too many batters.
Coming out of the pen isn’t easy. It requires a different energy level, a need to be ready no matter what instead of preparing to pitch every fifth day. And Roger’s mild-mannered demeanor could easily be viewed as indifference or a lack of drive.
But make no mistake, Roger wanted the ball, and he was going to give batters hell when he took the mound.
You talk to players in the Astros system during the mid-1980s, and they’ll tell you their own stories of missed promotions and wasted opportunities. The matriculation process had some of the players pruned too quickly and others dying on the vine.
In Roger’s case, it didn’t help that the execs under which he was drafted -- GM Al Rosen, the former Cleveland third baseman; and VP of Baseball Operations Bob Kennedy -- were shown the door in 1985. They were scooped up by San Francisco.
So it was that Roger was shifted to the bullpen in 1986, and without his people in place, he struggled, finishing the season with a 5.10 ERA, the worst of his minor league career. His mechanics, he’d later realize, were out of sync. And he was frustrated.
"I had one main problem -- when I would vary my tempo and rush it," he told the Fresno Bee in 1987. "I would change my motion and open up in front and on the side. Once the front and side open up, you get wild.
“I never had the chance for a save. I always came in when we were behind. I was way deep in the 'pen. I let things get to me, and I shouldn't have. They questioned my concentration, and they questioned my competitiveness and that was never the case. It was my mechanics. Because I never consciously thought about the mechanics, it was never really on my mind."
But 1986 wasn’t all bad. Columbus that year made a worst-to-first turnaround and wound up winning the league championship. He also got to spend the summer connecting more deeply with Caminiti, the fellow Bay Area product who’d go on to win the National League MVP award.
“Mid-season we moved in with Ken because I think his roommate left, just to make it cheaper. Nancy (Ken’s then-girlfriend and later, his wife) was coming out. So we spent the summer together,” Samuels said. “He watched Perry Mason and cartoons; I watched All My Children, the soap opera.”
Following the season, Roger asked for his release, and he signed a free agent deal with the Giants. Rosen and Kennedy still believed in him, and Alfonso, his manager in 1985, was San Francisco’s minor league director.
And in 1987, Roger rediscovered his form, with a 0.84 ERA in 27 games (including 9 saves) for Fresno before being promoted to Double-A Shreveport, where he had 1.62 ERA in 21 more games. He walked 28 batters in 76 innings pitched, and his ERA from one season to the next dipped by 3.98, and with some mechanical adjustments and a little support, the Giants had discovered a 26-year-old prospect.
Roger was invited to big league camp in 1988, where he impressed manager Roger Craig. "He has a live arm and he looks good," Craig told a reporter in 1988 spring training. "He's a kid that's really coming fast."
The “kid” was assigned to Triple-A Phoenix. And that July, with Mike LaCoss on the shelf due to an elbow injury, Roger Samuels got the call. He was a major leaguer.
He was waiting for the team bus in Vancouver when he found out he was headed to the big leagues, and he caught up with the team in Chicago. He summed up his pitching style to the San Francisco Examiner: "Fastball, curveball, breaking ball, keep the hitters guessing."
Roger was assigned number 58.
He made his Major League debut on July 20, 1988, pitching the final two innings of a 12-2 Giants win. He struck out the first hitter he faced, Mitch Webster, then after walking Sandberg, he got Mark Grace to fly out to center field and Andre Dawson to ground out. In the ninth, it was 1-2-3, and handshakes on the Wrigley Field mound.
And then he didn’t pitch for a while -- not until his teammate Terry Mulholland took a liner off his wrist and fractured a bone, opening up some more opportunities. Roger would be called on here or there to throw an inning or two, and he held his own.
By September, with two losses on his record, he started finding his groove.
On September 18, he was pitching with something to prove -- facing the Astros, his original club, in the Astrodome. He came on in the eighth inning of a 10-1 game.
Roger worked quickly and cleanly, starting each hitter with strikes. He’d toe the rubber, twirl the ball behind his back as he waited for the signal, set, start his motion, lift his leg and angle it back toward center field, then unloaded toward the plate.
The first batter he faced, Rafael Ramirez, flew out to center. The second, John Fishel, was frozen on a 3-2 pitch inside, muttering to himself as he walked back to the dugout. Gerald Young, his former teammate at Columbus, was left flailing at an off-speed pitch to end the inning.
He was called on again two days later against Atlanta, coming on with two outs in the sixth inning and a runner on base to spell Jeff Brantley. After getting Terry Blocker to ground out, Roger was almost untouchable the rest of the way, surrendering only one hit in 3.1 innings of work to get the win. In 15 games for San Francisco, he had a 1-2 record and a respectable 3.47 ERA.
He finished the season with a seven-inning scoreless streak.
"The season ended too quickly for me. I wish it could have gone on and on," he said.
That off-season, he spent some time in Puerto Rico pitching in winter ball, but he developed tendinitis.
He hoped to make the parent club out of spring training in 1989, but despite pitching well, he was optioned back to the minors, and by May he was traded to the Pirates for hitter Ken Oberkfell. The Giants were stocked with pitching and gearing up for something special -- they’d win the pennant that season -- and a veteran like Oberkfell could help them more than a lefty reliever like Samuels.
The Pirates, meanwhile, were on their way to a fifth place finish and needed lefties out of the pen. Roger was optioned to Triple-A Buffalo but was quickly called back up to the big leagues. He wasn’t disappointed about being traded away from the Giants.
"The big leagues is the big leagues," he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I'll pitch anywhere they let me. I don't care where.
"I know I'm not the youngest prospect in the world, but it's never too late,” he added. “I thought I proved I could pitch in the big leagues last year, but it didn't work out that way. I have to look at this as my second chance. I'm just glad to be here."
He pitched one inning against the Reds on May 31, but manager Jim Leyland didn’t quite know what to do with his new lefty reliever, and Samuels hit a rough patch, giving up a two-run homer to Howard Johnson in his next outing.
On June 8, Roger was called on to pitch in the most bizarre of games. Pittsburgh started the game against Philadelphia with a 10-0 lead, and Barry Bonds hit his 75th career home run.
“If we don't win, I'll walk back to Pittsburgh,” broadcaster Jim Rooker said at the time, words he would come to regret.
The Phillies scraped back on the strength of a career game from Steve Jeltz -- two home runs, five RBIs.
The game was tied 11-11, in the bottom of the eighth inning, with the bases loaded, and Roger was called on to pitch against Darren Daulton.
He jogged to the mound and warmed up. Lefty-lefty. The game on the line.
Roger tried to work the edges of the strike zone -- he didn’t want to give the batter something to drive -- but Dalton didn’t bite, and the count moved to 2-1.
The pitch was down, and Dalton chopped the ball five feet in front of the plate. A possible double play ball. But the ball took a bounce on the turf and kept bouncing up the middle, and second baseman Jose Lind couldn't handle it -- it glanced off of his glove and went into the outfield and was ruled a single. Veterans Stadium was rocking.
Roger tried to get out of the jam with his team now losing. Minimize the damage, finish the inning, hope for a comeback …
He tried nibbling against Curt Ford, but missed the zone again, and the count went to 3-1.
He pitched it inside, and Ford sliced the ball the opposite way to left field. Bonds dove, but it was just out of reach, and the ball skipped past him and went to the wall for a triple.
Two bad bounces, and now the game was 15-11.
Roger, with a sheen of sweat on his neck, walked around the mound, trying to regroup.
Off-speed, and Randy Ready hit a lazy pop-up into no-man’s land, and it plopped in between Lind and right fielder John Cangelosi. Everybody hits … woo! And that inning, everyone did -- the Phillies batted around.
Roger got Jeltz to ground out to third base to end the inning, and he walked off the mound. It wound up being his final appearance in the major leagues. His MLB stat line: 27 innings pitched, 1-2 record, 4.33 ERA, 24 strikeouts.
Roger was shipped back to Buffalo. He hung on for another season in Triple-A, and that was it for his career.
He settled in San Jose with his family -- he and his wife Janice had two sons, Zach and Greg, and the kids grew up and started their own lives, and Roger became a grandfather in recent years. Roger was a longtime youth coach, for his own kids’ teams and for other kids’ teams, and he stayed connected to Bay Area athletics.
As his son Zach wrote on Facebook, “His family was always the most important part of his life and he left no room to doubt that priority. He coached every one of our baseball teams growing up and used his love for baseball to impact many others through his camps and coaching.”
When I was reporting on my book and traveling to California in 2015, Roger invited me to stay with him, and we hit it off. It was so neat to check out Baseball Reference with him and recall his performances, to find out how he approached different hitters and hear about his big league experiences.
We ended up going to a Giants game together, and outside of the park, they have plaques listing the rosters for each Giants team, and there on the 1988 team alongside Will Clark and Kevin Mitchell and Charlie Hayes and Mike Krukow was Roger Samuels.
He sent me jerseys given away at a Padres game in 2016 when his minor league teammate Ken Caminiti was honored, and a baseball glove for my son when he was born.
I subsequently helped Roger with getting a Topps card of his own -- he has a card in the 1990 “Topps TV” set, which was available through a special TV offer and had a different design, but no actual Topps base set cards. On Topps’ website, you could create your own cards using iconic designs, and one of the designs was the wood-grained 1987 set. So Roger sent me an image of himself pitching for the Giants, and I created a custom card for him.
The card was initially rejected -- it looked too close to a Topps card because it featured an actual major league player -- but with my wife working there, we were able to get it pushed through, and Roger finally had his own Topps cards to commemorate his time with the Giants.
In late 2019, I hadn't heard from Roger for a while and sent him an email. He wrote me back the next day.
"I was diagnosed with kidney cancer on 9/26 and had my kidney and adrenal gland removed 10/30,and was still able to watch game 7. I left the hospital at 10 the next morning. My recovery has gone great. I am back at work and today went for an appointment for radiation treatment. Unfortunately this is an aggressive cancer with high likelihood of returning. I am confident I am receiving excellent care."
We talked soon after, and we cried, and he kept fighting as the cancer returned, again and again.
He told me recently that the prognosis wasn’t a good one, but he was upbeat. He wasn’t in pain. He got to spend the holidays with his family. He was content.
Earlier this month, I sent him an early version of the Ken Caminiti book. I didn’t know if he was going to make it to see the release date in May, but I wanted him to read the book after all he had done to help me along the way. I called him, and it happened to be his birthday.
“Sixty-one,” he said. “Making it to my birthday was a milestone for me.”
A few weeks after last speaking to him, and I wasn’t ready for the news. Roger Samuels reached a lot of milestones in his life. He made it to the major leagues and lived a fulfilling life and got to see the birth of his grandchildren. And even when faced with the toughest challenge, even as his innings ran short, he kept going, kept giving his best, kept fighting, kept throwing, a pitcher through and through.