A Conversation with 1990s Slugger Reggie Jefferson

Reggie Jefferson played alongside some elite hitters in a career that spanned the 1991-1999 seasons. His teammates included the likes of Albert Belle, Nomar Garciaparra, Ken Griffey Jr, Edgar Martinez, and Mo Vaughn. Jefferson was no slouch himself. A left-handed hitter who most often platooned at DH, Jefferson slashed .300/.349/.474 with a 110 wRC+.

Jefferson broke into the big-leagues with the Cincinnati Reds as a switch-hitter. A cup of coffee later, he joined the Cleveland Indians and continued swinging from both sides. He then scrapped the practice after being dealt to the Seattle Mariners in exchange for Omar Vizquel. His best, and most-turbulent, seasons came in his five-year stint with the Red Sox. In 1996, Jefferson batted .347 with a 140 wRC+. In 1999, a fractious relationship with Boston manager Jimy Williams led to an aggrieved exit, which was followed by a year abroad with NPB’s Seibu Lions.

Upon returning from Japan, Jefferson went on to earn a business degree from the University of South Florida. He’s now a player agent for Reynolds Sports.

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David Laurila: Where did you first learn to hit?

Reggie Jefferson: “My father played in semi-pro leagues. I’m from Tallahassee, Florida, and baseball was really big in the black community when I was a young kid. I remember him playing when I was four or five, and then he went straight into managing the team. Every Saturday I would go watch those guys play; he would have me all over these small towns, watching baseball. That’s really how I learned. Like most hitters, it just came to me naturally. There aren’t too many guys that you can teach to hit.”

Laurila: Did you grow up batting right-handed or left-handed?

Jefferson: “Left-handed, but it’s a funny story. No one in my family had ever been left-handed, and the first glove my dad bought me was actually for a right-handed thrower. I remember being in the yard, playing catch right-handed. I was kind of ambidextrous, so my dad never picked up on it. In time, I realized that I did things better with my left hand, so I played left-handed and became a left-handed hitter.

“That said, kids emulate the guys they grow up watching. When I was trying to emulate ‘The Big Red Machine’ lineup, I would hit right-handed. It felt natural, so going through youth ball, I would do it messing around. When I went to high school, I got serious about it. My high school coach encouraged me to do it, but unfortunately I never saw a lot of left-handed pitching until I got to pro ball.

“Cam Bonifay, who spent a lot of years as a general manager, was the area scout who signed me. He wrote in the report that I should just hit left-handed. So when I showed up to rookie ball, the Reds said ‘Hey, the scout said you should just be a left-handed hitter.’ So that first summer, I hit left-handed only.”

Laurila: How did you end up going back to being a switch-hitter?

Jefferson: “At home that offseason, I kept thinking, ‘Man, I want to give right-handed a shot.’ When I showed up at spring training, big Ted Kluszewski was the roving hitting guy, and I asked him if he would take a look at my right-handed swing. He watched me and said, ‘Hey, I’d give it a shot; if you can’t do it, you can always stop.’ That was his advice. So my first full season I was switch-hitting, and all through the minors I was able to keep that going.

“Once I got to the big leagues I was primarily a DH, and there was always a right-handed hitter who was better than me. I was a young guy trying to establish myself, and there’d be a veteran guy with a stronger right-handed bat getting the reps. That got a little frustrating. A few years in, I was in Seattle and working with Lou Piniella. I told Lou one day, ‘Hey, I’m going to hit left-handed only.’ From that point on, I hit only lefty.”

Laurila: That’s how most fans remember you. I’m not sure that many even know that you were a switch-hitter early in your career.

Jefferson: “No, and here’s something funny. I sent a picture to Troy O’Leary the other day, because he’d never seen me hit right-handed. We met in Boston and became the best of friends, but he had no idea I’d been a switch-hitter. He was running in the outfield one spring training, and Kirby Puckett was out there. I came up to bat, left-on-left, and Kirby yelled to Troy, ‘Isn’t Jeff a switch-hitter?’ Troy goes, ‘No, he just hits left-handed.’ A little later he came up to me and said, ‘Man, Puckett said you switch-hit.’ So I told Troy the story.”

Laurila: Looking back, was giving up switch-hitting a good idea?

Jefferson: “I think so. At the same time, if I were an up-the-middle player I never would have stopped switch-hitting. Those guys are going to bring value defensively, but my value was my bat. In the grand scheme of things, if I didn’t establish my value left-handed, I may not have stayed in the big leagues.

“It wasn’t easy to give up switch-hitting. I remember Kenny Lofton having Eddie Murray come talk to me about it, and saying that I shouldn’t do it. But at the time, I just felt that I needed to do it.”

Laurila: That said, once you did establish yourself, you more or less became a platoon player.

Jefferson: “I feel I could have been an everyday player. I just got into a situation where I let Jimy Williams get in my head. I was so bitter about what I had to go through that it messed with me mentally. I felt that with the year I’d had in 1996, I should have sewn up being an everyday player in ’97. Instead, I was platooning with Mike Stanley. He couldn’t catch anymore — he had an injury, and that was tough luck for him — but regardless, I was platooning with him. I could be 3-for-4, and we’d be winning by eight runs, and they’d still pinch-hit for me.

“Things just got so negative. Jimy and I had a misunderstanding that steamrolled. At that point I was just done with it. After ’96, I felt like, ‘What do you have to do to play every day.’ I actually hit [.320] against left-handers that year, so I definitely think I could have hit lefty-lefty if I was given the opportunity. But don’t get me wrong. I still enjoyed playing in Boston. I don’t have any regrets.”

Laurila: You did miss time with injuries.

Jefferson: “I had chronic back problems. I had a stress fracture in my back that cost me ’95. I also missed time in ’98 because of a back injury.”

Laurila: Fenway Park was obviously to your liking. You hit .345 there over the course of your career.

Jefferson; “It’s a great hitters’ park, no doubt. If you’re a lefty who uses the whole field, you can’t dream of a better ballpark. The key is that you have to be able to use the whole field. That’s what guys like me, and Mo Vaughn, did. We kind of preached that to Troy every day. I also remember running into Jason Varitek at the winter meetings one year. He said to me, ‘Man, just watching you and Mo really helped me as a left-handed hitter when I got to the big leagues.’ We took the right approach for that ballpark.”

Laurila: Did you learn from Vaughn?

Jefferson: “Oh, yeah. I think I naturally used the whole field, but you couldn’t help but learn from Mo. How he stuck to his game plan is what I most remember. Mo would get jammed so bad that the ball would barely make it past the pitcher, and we’d be like, ‘Whoa, you really need to make an adjustment.’ And he wouldn’t. He would know what they’re going to do to him, and invariably he’d get that pitch next time up and hit it 500 feet. He stuck to his plan probably better than any hitter I ever played with.”

Laurila: Who was the best pure hitter you played with?

Jefferson; “Wow. Man, I think… Edgar Martinez was probably the most pure. But Griffey was the most talented. Without a doubt. Nomar was also unbelievable; he had such a short, powerful swing. But Edgar … I played with him before he got on that tremendous streak. He became the DH, which is what made me expendable. He moved from third base when I went to Boston.”

Laurila: Jose Canseco was one of your teammates in Boston.

Jefferson: “Someone actually called me earlier this week, because they’re doing a story on the ball that went off his head. I was on deck at the time. I was playing for the Indians when Carlos Martinez hit the ball. But Jose was a tremendous hitter. He studied hitting. Something I liked about him is that he wasn’t one of those guys who felt he was above being ragged on. He never got upset when teammates kidded him. That wasn’t his persona, but he was a really good teammate.”

Laurila: Which pitcher did you most hate facing?

Jefferson: “I struggled with Kevin Appier. I don’t know what I did off of him, but he threw a slider that was just like a split. That sounds crazy, but it just fell off the table. I couldn’t pick it up. So I never liked facing Appier. Of course, Mariano Rivera coming out of the ‘pen. That wasn’t fun.

“There are other guys who are tough, but you have success against. I think I had success against David Cone. He was filthy, but I hit him pretty well. That’s just how baseball is. But I know I struggled against Appier — he gave me fits — and of course there was Randy Johnson, too. He was nasty.”

Laurila: Being primarily a left-handed hitter, you wouldn’t have faced Johnson very often.

Jefferson: “Not a ton, but I faced him from both sides of the plate. I may be the only guy who can say that. I faced him when I came up with Cleveland, and then in Boston I faced him from the left side. So I’m not sure if anyone else can say they faced Randy from both sides of the plate — and it’s a lot better from the right side, let me tell you.”

Laurila: You spent your last professional season in Japan. How did that come about?

Jefferson: “I was a free agent after the 1999 season. I could have signed here, but it would have been as a non-roster invite, and [the Seibu Lions] offered me a guaranteed deal for over a million dollars. I was over 30 years old at that point, and with my family in mind, I figured I should take the guaranteed money. That’s what it really came to. That said, it did take me a long time to adjust once I got there. There’s the old adage, ‘Don’t ever do anything just for money,’ and you shouldn’t. But I am glad that I did it. It was a good experience.”

Laurila: One of your teammates was a then-19-year-old Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Jefferson; “That was unbelievable, man. It was his second year, and I’ve never played with a guy who fans adored as much as Matsuzaka. It was almost comical. We’d be leaving the hotel, and there would be a thousand screaming girls, these teenage girls, yelling his name. He couldn’t go anywhere. I’d played with Griffey, with Roger Clemens, with Nomar as a rookie in Boston. I’d never seen anything like it.

“He had a great arm. I faced him in spring training, when we were getting ready for the season. I remember saying, when he came to Boston, ‘You should have seen this guy when he was 19.’ He just had tremendous stuff.”

Laurila: Tony Fernandez was one of your teammates with Seibu.

Jefferson: “He was, and he had a great year. You kind of get close to someone when you’re the only two guys speaking English, so I got a chance to know Tony. We had a lot of talks. I was really sad when he passed.”

Laurila: To close, let’s circle back to your last year with the Red Sox. Was there any chance you would re-sign there?

Jefferson: “No. My time there was over. I’d actually talked to Jimy, saying, ‘It seems like you’ve moved on. [Brian] Daubach is getting most of the reps, and that’s fine, but how about trading me?’ He would say, ‘You have to talk to [general manager] Dan Duquette.’ I had my agent call Dan, and he was told, ‘No, we’re not going to trade him.’ So in my mind, I thought, ‘They’re keeping me around because of the playoffs. They’re going to want the experienced bat off the bench.’

“Late in the season, we have a workout and Jimy called me in and said, ‘Reggie, you’re not going to be on the playoff roster.’ I said, ‘Jimy, why didn’t you just release me and let me go to another team? I’ve been a good soldier. Why did you keep me here all year to not put me on the roster? I don’t understand it.’ He was really flippant about it. That conversation didn’t go very well. I told him I wasn’t coming back next year, and he said ‘Do whatever you want,’ so I got on a plane and went home. I shouldn’t have done that — I should have stayed through the playoffs — but it had all built up for me. But again, I loved playing in Boston. When people ask me, that’s what I always tell them. The fans were great. My teammates were great. I had my best years there.”

We hoped you liked reading A Conversation with 1990s Slugger Reggie Jefferson by David Laurila!

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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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Barney Coolio
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Barney Coolio

With Seibu he was also a teammate with switch hitter Kazuo Matsui, who played as recently as 2018, also with Seibu at age 42. Kosuke Fukudome also played last year at age 42. I wonder if he planned on playing this year.