A Colorful Conversation with Former Tiger Dave Rozema

Dave Rozema had a colorful career. A free-spirited changeup artist, the Grand Rapids, Michigan native debuted with the Detroit Tigers in 1977 — one year after Mark “The Bird” Fidrych took baseball by storm — and while injuries soon took their toll, he started off with a bang. In a whirlwind rookie season, Rozema worked 218.1 innings, and went 15-7 with a 3.09 ERA.

He wasn’t averse to having fun, nor was he immune from trouble. Rozema was involved in multiple fracases, both on and off the field. On one occasion he emerged, in the words of Royals outfielder Willie Wilson, looking a lot like Rocky Raccoon.

This interview — originally intended for a book project that has remained on the back burner — was conducted in 2010, at Tigers fantasy camp in Lakeland, Florida.


David Laurila: How did you come to sign with the Tigers [in 1975]?

Dave Rozema: “I was drafted in the fourth round, but it was in the January [secondary phase]. In the summer draft, I hadn’t been drafted until the 27th round [by San Francisco], so I wasn’t really that good. I had been offered a full ride to Eastern Michigan, along with Bob Owchinko and Bob Welch, but I decided to go to Grand Rapids Community College. I wasn’t a big scholar; my grades weren’t that good.

“[Tigers scout] Bob Sullivan asked me, ‘Hey, do you want to play baseball?’ I went, ‘Yeah.’ He went, ‘I’ll get you a few bucks. Detroit. Fourth round.’ My heart said I wanted to play pro ball, so I signed.”

Laurila: Your first professional season was in Clinton, Iowa, with Jim Leyland as your manager.

Rozema: “I was 18 years old. Spring training was tough. It was very competitive. You go down there with 200 people, 100 of them are pitchers, and everybody is looking for a job. There are only so many to be had, so if you weren’t a high draft choice you had to really work your tail off to make a team.

“I pitched pretty well. I was invited to go over to big-league camp to throw batting practice and they’re yelling ‘Throw strikes!’ Hey, my ball moves!

“We had a pitching coach down there named John Grodzicki. He said, ‘You need to throw a changeup.’ He spit on you when he talked, because he had no teeth. He was an elderly guy, but he knew what pitchers had to do to better themselves. He taught me a changeup.

“Leyland said, ‘Come on over to Clinton.’ He gave me a chance to start and I did halfway decent. He said, ‘Do it again,’ and pretty soon I gelled and got my rhythm. I ended up 14-5.”

Laurila: The changeup became your signature pitch. How did you grip it?

Rozema: “It was kind of a palm ball, deep in my hand. I tried throwing a circle change, but shoot, the first couple of times it went 15 feet over the catcher’s head. Grodzicki was yelling, he was spitting, ‘You gotta bring it down, you gotta bring it down! You gotta get it in front of you, dipping, dipping!’

“You know, there was nothing to do in spring training. You got up in the morning, ate breakfast, worked out all day, and then you sat there and said to yourself, ‘What did I do?’ You were homesick. You played a lot of dominoes with the dudes, with the brothers from L.A. You played a little pool with Lance Parrish and those guys. Occasionally, we’d go out to a bar to have a good time.

“But yeah, it was a changeup. You practice it. You do it over and over, repetitiously. Every day you throw and throw until you master it. That’s what I did, to the point where I believed I could throw it in any count.”

Laurila: When Gene Mauch was managing the Twins, he said of you, “I wish all my players were still in high school, because when they were 18 years old they’d have hit the devil out of that pitching.”

Rozema: “Did he say 18, or did he say 15 or 16? But do you know what? It all depends on how you want to pitch. In high school, I threw hard and had a good curveball; I could get 18-year-olds out. But in the big leagues, I didn’t throw hard enough to get guys out. So I started throwing sinkers, curveballs, and changeups. I threw them in good areas, and they moved. I also threw changeups when I was behind in the count. The big leaguers weren’t used to that, so they’d hit pop ups and weak ground balls.

“I had a great catcher. Milt May was my catcher and he said, ‘You don’t have a major-league fastball, but what you do have is control, and it moves.’ It worked for me. Pitchers make mistakes, but when I made mistakes they were usually low in the strike zone, and outside the strike zone. I really gave them nothing to hit. But as for Gene Mauch… well, I did beat Minnesota a few times. Thank you.”

Laurila: You elicited Mark Fidrych comparisons during your time in Detroit.

Rozema: “It wasn’t really a comparison. Fidrych threw 95 [mph] and had a great slider. I threw 84 with a sinker, and a changeup that was about 69-70. But we were both young and full of energy, so we were a great match. Mark was one of the best pitchers in the league at that time. Detroit maybe burned him out a little bit; out of 29 games, he completed 24. That was a lot of pitching for a young guy. He was 22 years old and didn’t have the innings in the minor leagues to work up to the 250s. They kind of burned his arm out, and it could have happened to me, too.”

Laurila: According to an old Sports Illustrated article, you reported to your first spring training with shoulder-length hair.

Rozema: “Oh, yeah. I was a hippie! Fidrych had the hair, too. A lot of guys did. I came in with long hair, white shoes, and a yellow glove. My high school team was like the Oakland Athletics, who had long hair, mustaches, white shoes… they were kind of flashy. We grew up in that era.

“I was short-haired until my junior year of high school, but then I was like, ‘You know what? I like the group of people that are hanging around.’ They were all just…they were always happy, if you get what I‘m saying. I believed in their theory, the way they lived.

“You have to believe in yourself. You have to feel it. Everybody goes through different phases of their life, and that was a phase I’d never give up. It probably made me more of a decent person to get along with. I was like… nothing bothered me. It was, ‘Hey man, peace, love.’ I had a lot of friends and did a lot of things I probably wouldn’t do in baseball. Especially if they check up on you every day.”

Laurila: Looking back, is there anything you’d do differently?

Rozema: “I’d have probably taken steroids. Had somebody introduced me to steroids and told me that I could add longevity to my career, I could be stronger and throw harder, I probably would have taken them. Of course, they weren’t around yet.

“Other than that, I wouldn’t have done anything differently. I was good to people. I grew up in a good town. I’m from Grand Rapids, so I played baseball for the team I loved. My family got to see me play — my parents and my grandparents — and that was more important than anything. Had I played in California, no one could have afforded to come out to see me play.”

Laurila: What was the best game you pitched in the big leagues?

Rozema: “Probably my first win. Shoot, I was a rookie and they told me, ‘You’re in there; Mark [Fidrych] did well and we’re going to go with a younger pitching staff.’ The next thing I knew, I had three no-decisions in my first three games and was going into Boston to pitch against Yastrzemski, Rice, Fisk, Scott… all those guys. You’ve got to be kidding me! I remember that it was April 21 because I met some girl on her birthday and it was my first win. I had a complete-game shutout and we won 8-0. They had a lot of big boys on that ‘77 team, too.”

Laurila: You were teammates with Kirk Gibson. He was a big guy.

Rozema: “When I came up, Ron LeFlore was kind of like my… in the hotel, we were room, room, room, and our rooms joined. Back in the day, we used to have a few beers, and a few of these and a few of those. Me and this one dude always used to slap box. We were doing it one day when Ron goes, ‘Hey Rosie, why don’t you slap box Gibby?’ Gibby said, ‘Nah, I don’t want to do that,’ but I was like, ‘Come on big guy, get up, get up!’ So we’re slap boxing and the next thing you know he gets up there like Knute Rockne. His hands are old style, like a 1909 fighter.

“I gave him a couple of dekes and he dropped his arms. Then… Bam! He slapped me in the face, and slapped me in the face again. He grabbed my jersey and with a big open fist Whack! Right in my nose. Gibby took my head against a cement wall and Whack! Whack! Whack! Down I go. Ron looks over and goes, ‘Wow Rosie, he plays a little bit meaner, don’t he?’

“Gibby is my brother-in-law. I guess it’s brotherly love, because the more you like somebody, the more you want to beat them up.”

Laurila: In 1982, you tore knee ligaments attempting to karate kick a Minnesota Twins player during a brawl. What happened?

Rozema: “It was what happens when you get into a massive fight and everybody is pissed off at each other. You’re just sick and tired of it, so you go in there and do crazy shit. I’m not a brawl street fighter. Plus, my right hand is my pride and joy — it’s what I made my living with — so I wasn’t going to go in there and friggin’ start throwing punches with some big old catchers, and guys who work out every day. I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to go in there and kick this guy in the friggin’ head.’

“It was John Castino, and I missed him. And thank god I did, because, for one thing, I’ve heard that he’s a really nice guy. He just happened to be the closest to me. I ran out of the dugout and he was at third base, heading toward the pitcher’s mound. I tried to cut him off.

“I could have hurt him severely had I connected, so I kind of learned a lesson. Don’t do it. Just tackle him, maybe punch him, head butt him. Whatever. Do something, but kicking people in the head isn’t the right way to go.”

Laurila: Were you involved in any other altercations?

Rozema: “Something happened in Kansas City once. About seven or eight of us ballplayers went to this bar, and it was kind of a prejudiced bar. Most of the guys leave, but Lynn Jones and I stay. He’s black and I’m white. There are a couple of chicks there — this is before we were married — and we’re going to talk with them. The next thing we know, a bouncer comes up and hits Lynn Jones right in the face. Knocks him down. Another one jumps on him, and hits him.

“I’m like, ‘That’s Jonesy!’ I’m there alone, watching this, but they don’t care about me, because I’m white. Then another bouncer comes over. I think to myself, ‘It’s about team play’ Whack! I hit this bouncer.

“These bouncers just beat the living crap out of us. I looked at Jonesy in the cab and said, ‘Man, you should see you.’ He said, ‘Me? You should see you!’ This was on Opening Day.

“The next day, I go to the ballpark and Sparky says, ‘What the hell happened to you?’ I said, ‘I was just trying to protect one of your ballplayers.’ He said, ‘What? I told you guys to stay out of those damn bars. They’re no good.’

“Two days later I’m pitching and [Royals outfielder] Willie Wilson, who was a friend of mine, goes, ‘What happened to you, brother kid? Man, you look just like Rocky Raccoon!’ I had two black eyes and a big lip. It was just one of those things you run into, where you get into a little trouble.

“Another time we were just sitting there drinking and having some fun. Sometimes we’d do things like grab a guy by the back of his head, or give a couple of fingertips to the groin area. Anyway, this is another Opening Day in Kansas City — I guess I had bad luck in Kansas City — and [Alan] Trammell, who was a friend of mine, said something. He popped off, so I went to grab him. He turns around and hits his head on someone’s glass. For the record, it wasn‘t mine. Bam! I’m looking at his head, and it’s like, ‘Man, you just got cut.’

“The next thing you know, the blood starts geysering out. The police come in, because they heard somebody had a knife and there was a bunch of fighting. There was a riot. I had grabbed Tram’s head, so I had blood all the way down. It was coming out of my shoe. It was coming through my top. They thought I’d gotten shot, or stabbed.

“Sparky was pissed off. This was his star shortstop. And he still has that scar, all these years later. Sorry Tram. I didn’t mean to do that to you. We’re bonded forever now.

“So yeah, Tram and I still have our bonds. You can’t take away memories. We had a lot of years together. We were in a World Series together. We also won a championship in the minor leagues, in Montgomery, Alabama. That kind of bonded the team. We knew that if we kept this package together, some day, some year, we could win a World Series. A lot of us were on that Montgomery team. Lance, Morris, Tram, Brookie, myself… and we went from there to the ’84 team. It was kind of cool.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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