The Last Laugh : Spradlin Makes Good on Promise to Be a Pro


A short passage in Katella High School’s senior yearbook probably gave the school’s graduating athletes reason to chuckle back in 1985. And those who thumbed through the yearbook and saw it a few years later might have giggled again.

In a list of what students said they wanted to do after high school, Jerry Spradlin wrote, “Professional baseball player.”

Yeah, right. Spradlin hardly played on Katella’s freshman team, and in the next three years he was cut from the sophomore team, cut from junior varsity and cut from the varsity. A triple knockout.


What Spradlin really did after high school was deliver furniture, pump gas and haul lumber. He spent two years working odd jobs to save money so he could buy a car.

He enrolled at Fullerton College in the fall of 1987 and, at the urging of a retired doctor he met in wood shop, tried out for baseball as a pitcher. He made it, but two months into the 1988 season, Hornet Coach Nick Fuscardo kicked him off the team.

The Katella guys must have been cracking up. Jerry Spradlin, professional baseball player? Ha! Give us a call when you make the major leagues, buddy.

But look who’s laughing now.

Jerry Spradlin--yes, the same tall, awkward right-hander who sometimes looked as if he might fall off the mound during his windup--is one of the top relief pitchers in the Reds’ organization.

Spradlin, 6 feet 7, 220 pounds, has a 2-3 record with a 1.18 earned-run average and 28 saves for the double-A Chattanooga Lookouts. He has allowed only seven earned runs in 53 1/3 innings, with 33 strikeouts and 11 walks. He has allowed only one home run.

Spradlin, 25, has a fastball, clocked between 88 and 93 m.p.h., and a nasty slider that he complements with a split-fingered fastball, curve and changeup. Baseball America magazine recently named Spradlin the best relief pitcher in the Southern League.


“It’s kind of funny, but of all those guys who played in high school when I was there, none are playing pro ball now,” Spradlin said. “After high school, I never thought this would happen, but the next thing you know, here I am.”

Well, it wasn’t that simple. Spradlin had to overcome several obstacles--some real, some perceived--to reach the double-A level, and he did it despite carrying the extra weight of a large chip on his shoulder.

Spradlin began playing youth baseball when he was 7 and made a few all-star teams, but in the eyes of several high school coaches, he wasn’t good enough to jump to that level.

Tim McMenamin, who replaced Noel Sweeney as Katella’s coach in 1985--Spradlin’s senior year--saw some potential, but he wasn’t sure how long it would take for Spradlin to realize it.

“He had a pretty fair arm, but he seemed like he would be a project,” McMenamin said. “He was still raw, and we weren’t sure how long it would take for him to help us.”

By this time, the chip on Spradlin’s shoulder had solidified.

“It was frustrating because I knew I was good enough to play,” Spradlin said. “They just played the most popular guys, guys who played football and basketball.”


It should be noted, though, that Spradlin didn’t attend many of the required sixth-period baseball workout classes before the season. He said he was finishing a project for another teacher.

Spradlin began taking pitching lessons from Clyde Wright in 1986, and the former Angel pitcher knew immediately that Spradlin had a long way to go.

“He had some ability, but he just didn’t have the mechanics to put it all together,” Wright said. “He was almost on the clumsy side. But he kept working and working.”

By the fall of 1987, Spradlin was good enough to make the Fullerton College team as a walk-on. But with a staff that included Mark Kiefer (now in triple A), Alan Newman (double A), Mark Tranberg (Class A) and Jeff Petredes, there weren’t many pitching opportunities for Spradlin.

Spradlin had thrown only 11 1/3 innings in nine games and had a 1-2 record and 13.50 ERA when he was dismissed from the team, which still irks him.

In addition to his school load, Spradlin was working full time at The Home Depot when the Hornets went on an April weekend trip to Arizona. Spradlin said he was broke at the time and couldn’t afford to miss work.


Fuscardo told Spradlin the day before the trip that he had made a commitment to the team and had a responsibility to play. But when the Hornets got to the airport the next morning, Spradlin wasn’t there.

A few weeks earlier, Spradlin missed a game at Pasadena because he had car trouble. That was the first straw. Missing the trip to Arizona was the second--and last--straw.

“I was pretty upset,” Fuscardo said. “We came back to school, and I told the equipment man to clean out Spradlin’s locker. Jerry came in and said, ‘What’s the deal?’

“I told him this wasn’t some Sunday team where you decide not to play because you have a family picnic. This is a team you have to commit to. He was young and immature and didn’t understand the team concept. We didn’t have rules for Jerry and rules for everyone else.”

Though Spradlin accepts some blame for the falling out, he doesn’t feel the punishment fit the crime.

“He said I let the team down, and I said he wasn’t letting me pitch much anyway,” Spradlin said. “He was mad that I didn’t call the night before and say I wasn’t going. There’s more to it--there was fault both ways--but he shouldn’t have dropped me from the team.”


Spradlin hasn’t spoken with Fuscardo since and still harbors some ill will toward the coach. He was incredulous when Fuscardo sent him a letter last year asking him to play in an alumni game.

“You’ve got to be kidding me--he had a lot of nerve,” Spradlin said. “I didn’t even reply. They cut me and I’m still playing. That tells me they didn’t know much.”

Fuscardo said he had no hard feelings toward Spradlin and was thrilled to see how well he was doing. But he didn’t think Spradlin’s reaction to his alumni-game letter or his bitter feelings about the 1988 incident were justified.

“He can be as sour as he wants, but we gave him an opportunity, and without us he’d be pitching in the beer leagues,” Fuscardo said. “When he left, I talked to some scouts for him, but he doesn’t know that. I really believe being dismissed from the team helped him down the road, no matter what he thinks.

“How many kids go from the sandlot to the pros? Not many. He got innings here, and if he’s bitter, he should step back and look at the whole situation. I think we did him a great service.”

So did Clyde Wright. It was Wright who for two years waived the $30-an-hour lesson fee for Spradlin and helped transform him from tough project to top prospect.


It was also Wright who called Red scout Ed Roebuck and told him to keep an eye on Spradlin in the Orange County Amateur Baseball Assn., where Spradlin played after he was dropped from the Fullerton College team.

Roebuck watched Spradlin pitch almost every weekend that spring and by June was convinced he could play professionally. The Reds drafted him on the 19th round in 1988 and sent him to their rookie league team in Billings, Mont., where he went 4-1 with a 3.21 ERA.

He went 7-2 with a 2.76 ERA and two saves at Class-A Greensboro, N.C., in 1989 and in 1990 moved into a closer role at Class-A Charleston, W.Va., where he went 3-4 with a 2.54 ERA and 17 saves.

Spradlin was 7-3 with a 3.09 ERA and four saves last season at Chattanooga and has developed into one of the top relievers in double A this season.

“I never gave up,” said Spradlin, who gave Wright $1,000 after he signed, as repayment for the lessons. “Clyde knew I had the ability to make it, and that meant a lot more to me than what some college or high school coach thought.

“I listened to people who told me I could rather than people who never gave me a chance.”

Wright can’t help feeling a bit smug about Spradlin’s success.

“There were some coaches who treated him like crap, and they know who they are,” he said. “I’m so happy for him because he just stuck it right back in their faces. They kept telling him he couldn’t play, he couldn’t play. I kept saying he’s got a lot of talent, why don’t you ever work with him?”


Though Spradlin may have been immature and selfish at times, he never stopped working, and that ethic has put him at the threshold of the major leagues.

The Reds have two quality closers in Rob Dibble and Norm Charlton, but this is Spradlin’s protection year, which means the Reds must place him on their 40-man roster or risk the chance of losing him in the Rule V draft.

If Spradlin makes it to the big leagues, he should be eligible for rookie of the year and comeback player of the year honors in the same season.

“They’re going to have to make a decision on what to do with me,” Spradlin said. “If I keep putting up these numbers, shoot, someone is going to want me.”

For a change.