Witt Sr. has bragging rights over Jr. ... for now

Before Bobby Witt Jr. makes his big league debut, let's look back at Sr.'s career

March 18th, 2022
Art by Tom Forget

An earlier version of this story appeared in August 2021.

When Bobby Witt Jr., the newly named No. 1 prospect in the sport, was picked second overall in the 2019 Draft, it earned him and his father some pretty hefty bragging rights: They became the first father-son duo in big league history to be selected in the first five picks.

"I really wasn't aware of that [fact] until the Draft, actually, when it happened," Witt Sr. said in a recent phone call. "Because he went number two, and I went three, he wears the big belt around the house, as far as that goes. He set his goals, he just wanted to be able to go as high as he could and things worked out with Kansas City. It was a really, really good situation for him."

Witt knows that well. After all, he's not just Jr.'s father, he's also his agent. While Witt manages the day to day for most of his clients, he leaves much of the contract talk to fellow Octagon Baseball agent Scott Pucino.

"I didn't want to take it personally, when they're talking about him and doing things that I felt maybe wasn't a smart business move on my end," Witt said about the Draft negotiations. "So, [Pucino] took the lead on that. And then to this day, he'll talk directly to the teams, whereas with all my guys, I'm doing that. And then the things that Jr. needs, we work on that as a group."

While we look forward to the future, when the Royals give Witt Jr. his promotion to the big leagues, we would be remiss not to look back at Witt Sr.'s own impressive career. Jr. may have the Draft pick bragging rights and he may be baseball's most prized prospect, but he's got a long way to go to catch his father's record. Witt the Elder won 142 games, has a World Series ring, and is even leading his son in MLB home runs, 1-0.

"I have the belt for that," Witt jokes. "I'm sure that when he gets [to the big leagues], he's gonna surpass me, and hopefully it's only gonna take him a couple of weeks or a few days to do that."

The callup

After being picked third overall by the Rangers in the 1985 Draft, Witt Sr. pitched only 11 games -- totaling 35 innings -- in Double-A before making the Major League team out of Spring Training the next year.

"I went to Double-A right out of the Draft. I took my lumps there. I was 0-6 with a 6.4 ERA," Witt said. "That following year I went to big league camp and made the team, so it was all about timing for me. Bobby Valentine was the manager, and he was going to go with a bunch of young guys. It was more of a youth movement situation. Out of the starting pitchers, we had three rookie starting guys [Witt, Ed Correa, José Guzmán] and Mitch Williams was in the 'pen. I think Bobby took five rookies that year, four pitchers and Pete Incaviglia, which is unheard of these days."

It would take until his third start to earn his first big league victory, but it was a moment to celebrate. After all, it wasn't just his first big league win, it was his first professional win.

"[After the game], Bobby said, 'Forget about the curfew. If you want to go out and hang out a little bit longer than everybody else, you're more than welcome to.' But it was a day game the next day, and I was like, 'Ah, not really, I've got a lot of work to do.' So I think I had a few beers, celebrated and that was it."

The strikeouts

Though he barely pitched in the Minors, Witt was always dominant on the mound, putting up strikeout totals that would fit in well in today's whiff-happy game. He had the second-highest K/9 rate among pitchers with at least 140 innings in both his rookie and sophomore seasons, behind Mike Scott and Nolan Ryan, respectively.

"I was big on the strikeout. That's what I love doing. The first couple years, I know that I was having a lot of success in striking out guys," Witt said. "But as I got older, it was more about pitching, keeping myself in the game and getting deeper into the game. If it was going to take two pitches to get a guy out or three, then I was more excited about being able to prolong the start. When I was younger, I didn't care. I was out there just trying to strike guys out.

"And back then, when I was pitching, there wasn't a pitch count, more or less. I recall at least five games when I threw over 135 pitches in a game. You didn't think about those things. I used to jokingly say, 'At 100 pitches, I was just getting loose.'"

The nickname

Though Witt was striking people out by the dozen, his command was far from sharp. Witt led the Majors in walks in three of his first four seasons, leading in wild pitches twice, too. That earned the pitcher the nickname, "Witt 'n Wild."

"The name never bothered me because right across the street from the old stadium was [the waterpark] Wet 'n Wild. And that's where that came from. I did lead the league in walks my first two years, and to be honest with you, having that reputation really was favorable for me. I think at times hitters really weren't that comfortable as far as really digging in there, knowing that this pitch could be up and in or you just didn't know. Whatever they wanted to call me, if it was gonna help me as far as my performance, I really didn't care."

The almost-perfect game

While with the A's in 1994, Witt put together one of those magical moments every pitcher dreams of. Facing the Royals on June 23, 1994, Witt pitched a one-hitter in Oakland's 4-0 win. The only problem? That one hit came off a Greg Gagne bunt single ... that wasn't. The game wasn't televised, but replay would have shown that, just like in Armando Galarraga's near-perfect game, Witt also beat Gagne to the bag.

"This is how I look at it," Witt said. "If it's in today's game, it's a perfect game. Because they're going to review it and they're going to look and watch my foot hit the bag before Greg Gagne's foot hit the bag. And I knew he was out. I mean, I knew that."

"What actually happened after, I was just totally motivated. Besides being a little upset that he missed the call, I said, 'OK, I will show you that this is going to be the only deciding thing right there that's going to happen. I'm going to take control of this and shut it down the rest of the way.' And, that's what happened."

That missed call not only provided fuel for the rest of the game, but the next two starts, as well. Witt rattled off three consecutive complete game shutouts.

But did Gagne break some unwritten rules when he laid down his bunt single in the top of the sixth while the A's were up 3-0?

"It was close enough for me to where it wasn't one of those deals," Witt said. "If it was the ninth inning, I would have been a little bit more upset knowing that's what he was trying to do. It was one of my best performances as a big league pitcher. And it was an exciting time."

Greg Gagne with the Royals in '94

The Home Run

Flash forward a couple years and Witt pulled off something that -- at the time -- was even more rare than a perfect game: He became the first American League pitcher to hit a home run since Roric Harrison hit one on Oct. 3 1972.

Getting ready to face Ismael Valdez in Dodger Stadium on June 30, 1997 in the first year of Interleague Play, Witt and Mark McLemore started joking in the on-deck circle.

"Mac, I think I might drop a bunt down here, get on base, maybe we can get a run or two," Witt said.

"Well," McLemore said, "Who's going to run for you?"

After laughing, Witt thought it over and changed his mind. "Nah," Witt joked, "I'll just go up there and hit a home run."

Sure enough, he did. Witt explained his thought process.

"I know as a pitcher in the National League, you're trying to get ahead of the pitcher and just take him out on as few as pitches as you can," Witt said. "So, I'm sitting dead red. He threw me a fastball and I literally started to swing just when he started to bring his hands up so I could get on time. I swung, got the head out. I thought at first it might be a double, I knew it was going to be in the gap. And then when I turned and went to second, I saw the umpire giving the home run sign and I was like, 'Oh, you gotta be kidding me!' -- to myself, obviously.

"Jerry Narron was the third-base coach, and to this day he says that he has never been hit harder from a high five than when I rounded third base. When I got to the dugout, I was trying to keep composed because the biggest thing you have to remember is you still gotta go out and pitch. When I was with the Marlins in '95, Chris Hammond hit a grand slam in a game and he never got out of the fifth inning. I don't know if he wasn't focused because of the home run, so I remembered that. I just said, 'Hey, keep it together, man. You've still got some work to do.'"

Witt did that, finishing the day with eight innings of one-run ball in the victory. After the game, the Hall of Fame requested his bat and Witt was happy to comply.

"I said, 'Yeah, you can have the bat,' and it was Billy Ripken's bat," Witt remembered. "I signed the bat and they transferred it over there. I know Cal's in the Hall of Fame, but Billy has a piece in the Hall of Fame now, too."

The World Series

After pitching only 15 1/3 innings with Cleveland in 2000 and battling a series of injuries, Witt debated hanging it up. He was even offered a starting job with the Expos in the middle of that season, but turned it down to stay home, have surgery on his balky knee and see the birth of Jr. that June. Come the next season, though, he felt the itch to return and received a Spring Training invite from the D-backs. The 37-year-old ended up making the Opening Day roster with a spot in the rotation.

But then, in Witt's first start with the team on April 7, he tore a ligament. Other pitchers may have decided to call it a career, but Witt needed to get back.

"I was crushed because I knew the team was going to be pretty special," Witt said. "So, I did everything I could to get back. I had a tear in my ligament, I knew I was falling apart. That was my 16th year -- if I was younger, I would have had Tommy John surgery, but I knew I was at the end of the rope. So I rehabbed it, I got back in the first week in August."

After making a few starts in September, Witt was put in the bullpen in the playoffs and made his World Series debut in Game 6 against the Yankees. Coming in for the eighth inning with the D-backs holding a 15-2 lead to force a Game 7, Witt knew this wasn't just a regular blowout victory.

"I was looking at it like, this is something I've been waiting all my lifetime," Witt said. "I knew it was going to be my last year, so just get out there. You want to perform well, so at least that when it's all said and done, and you're looking back, you want to say, 'Yeah, in the World Series, I had a clean inning.'

After giving up a leadoff walk to Bernie Williams, Witt got Todd Greene to ground into a double play and then he got Shane Spencer to strike out to end the inning.

"I was just so happy to be able to get back, contribute a little bit, and have an opportunity to do that," Witt said. "My body was just a wreck at that point. Once the season was over, I knew that was it. To go out like that -- my last time pitching ever was in a World Series game and I struck the last guy I faced out."

One final strikeout?

Witt may have ended his career on a K, but does he have one more in him? Could he strike out his son?

"We've had this conversation so many times and I actually still throw him BP," Witt said. "But I've had about 13 surgeries. My body's pretty banged up, and I don't think I could get a speeding ticket in a school zone right now with my velocity, to be honest. But I'll try to pump it up and get by him. But I tell him all the time, 'I know when I had my stuff, and you where you are right now, I know I'd get you.' I tried to get him to look inside with the fastball a little bit, my slider was probably one of my better pitches, so that's what I probably try to take him out on."

"It's been a lot of fun, but I can just tell you this: I think I'm his biggest fan. I just love watching him play. He's got some old school, too, where he's a grinder. He goes out there and he loves the game. He really does. He has a passion for it. So hopefully he continues to do what he's doing and get his chance here sooner than later."

Portions of this interview have been edited for length and clarity.