Jim Rooker, Pirates Pitcher 1973-1980, Broadcaster 1981-1993
First, can you let readers know about your books you’ve published – what got you into writing children’s stories and how you got started?
When I was a part-owner of Rooks restaurant in Pittsburgh, my partner and I rotated working at the restaurant so I would fly back and forth from Jacksonville, where I had a second home. I had a three-to-four month year old grandson then and had a soft spot in my heart for him, and kids in general.
I started thinking on what I could do for my kids and grandkids. I was bored on the flight back and thought, maybe I could write a book. I knew I couldn’t write a long and detailed story if it was for a kid, so I thought I come up with a short story, and used my baseball background as something I knew.
I knew kids had an affinity for little things – like Thomas the Train Engine. So I thought of objects to use, and came down to my first object – a baseball.
I told my wife I had an idea and before I even told her what it was she just rolled her eyes at me (laughing). Then I told her my idea and she just said “Okay Rook”. It took a while to get the process going. I was sitting down outside one day and finally got the name down. I wanted to keep it simple and got “Paul the Baseball”. I wanted to get into the mind of the object and tell the story from it’s point of view and get a relationship going.
Now, all three of my books are about objects – a ball, a bat and a mitt. They are easy reading for kids, parents and grandparents. My granddaughter was two and saw the book and immediately wanted me to read it to her. My four year-old grandson says the words before I do. They all rhyme so it makes it easy for them.
How can readers order the books?
They can order them here at: www.mascotbooks.com.
You spent seven years in Detroit’s farm system before being selected in the expansion draft by Kansas City and finding your way in the majors. How difficult was that time in the farm system and how did you remain confident during that time?
Back then, you didn’t have the fast road to the big leagues like you do today. It was a different culture then. We had D-ball all the way through A-ball first. You had to climb the ladder. Maybe you had some special athletes that would start a little higher, college guys, but that was it and we accepted that was the case. You could have a great year but not jump one classification – you had to prove yourself again first – that it wasn’t a fluke. Keep in mind there were less teams then too so there may have been no place for you to go.
I never had the idea to quit though.
What was the roughest part of you and did you incorporate any of that lesson of perseverance into your books?
I was lucky to have been converted to pitcher, really. I was an outfielder in C-ball. I was still learning as an outfielder converted-to-pitcher when I was in Kansas City. It was on the job training.
I wasn’t confident then in my ability – I hadn’t pitched that long. I wasn’t catching on to throwing the ball over the plate consistently.
As for including those lessons in the books…these are for three to five-year olds, so how serious can you really be? You need to catch their attention – these weren’t meant to be teaching books. If I can get to the next set – I envisioned nine books – then I could start into that – teaching things like friendship and teamwork…
You were traded to Pittsburgh in ’73 and had some of your best seasons there. What clicked for you then in Pittsburgh, and why?
In Pittsburgh I got confident as people were telling me I had the ability.. I helped but I doubted myself still. In Winter ball I developed a sinker on my own and that helped me tremendously. When I was behind in the count I could use the sinker instead of relying on my fastball. Now I could strike people out without having to throw the ball over the plate all the time and get hit.
I do often wonder…How did I hang on for so long? How close was I to being released. You never now that….
Especially as a pitcher, there’s clearly a good deal of down time during each week. How did you deal with that downtime?
Normally, pitchers are like kickers. You work once in a while….I always thought it was the best job in baseball – you work once every five days!
But you do have downtime and have to invent things to do to hold your interest. I always sat near Stargell and asked him questions and talked to the trainers and pitching coaches to learn new things. I never bothered the managers though – they were always too busy.
I got more information from hitters than from pitchers. Once I saw Willie hit a three-two slider for a home run in Montreal. The pitch was unhittable – it boggled my mind. It was a low outside slider that he hit down the left field line. I just looked at him – there was no way he could have looked for that pitch.
After things settled down in the dugout I asked him how he did it and that there was no way he knew the pitcher would throw that. He told me he wasn’t thinking about the pitcher. He was thinking about the catcher and knew the catcher would call a slider. Those are the lessons you learn that you can apply to other hitters.
Lenny Green was another good hitter that taught me that the fastball was still the best pitch in baseball. Hitters have a harder time adjusting to a fastball than any other pitch, even if it’s not that fast if you can locate it right. Dave Giusti always use to ask me how I could get a good hitter like Billy Williams out all the time like I did. I told him I pitched him backwards like I was behind in the count….these are the kinds of lessons you learn.
How important was humor to you and the team?
I remember once I cleared out all the cans of Coke out of the big cooler we had in the clubhouse. I found this ugly mask with this crazy hair and crawled into the cooler and sealed myself inside. I don’t know how long I expected to stay inside, but shortly after John Milner opened it up and I reached out and grabbed him. He screamed – I couldn’t ever duplicate the sound he made – and he jumped back in the air and hit the wall behind him so hard he fell on the ground. I was laughing but he threatened me after that with a knife – told me he’d cut my heart out – and chased me around the clubhouse a bit.
It’s a long season – you need to break things up sometimes. Bert Blyleven use to give people hot-foots all the time with matches. He got me once too, which hurt me – I was his compadre and helped him give the hot foots – I was hurt he got me too (laughing).
Despite being a spot starter during the ’79 season, you got the starting nod in game five of the World Series. What was behind that decision and how surprised were you to get the call? And why do you think your performance was so strong that day (only one run in five innings)?
’79 was an uncomfortable year for me. I had nagging injuries but nothing too serious. Towards the end of the year I felt a tweak in my back and they put me on the disable list . I think they just used that as a reason – they wanted to see if they could replace me with anyone else before the playoffs.
Well, when I got healthy I was so happy to start a World Series game! As a kid and a player you always dream about starting in the World Series. People asked me how I could take the pressure. It was no pressure for me – I thought it was the greatest thing! If we lost the series was over – I was the guy responsible for keeping us in it!
Well, I jammed every player I faced. They thought I had a sore arm and would throw the sinker all day. We caught them completely off-guard and I loved every minute of it!
What are your thoughts on today’s Pirates team and front office?
They will probably be better than they were last year in regard to their overall record. So far the pitching is doing a very nice job overall, but to me I think their lack of offense in the long run is going to be of concern. Alvarez seems to be turning things around and they sorely do need the long ball.
Garrett Jones may help in that regard. McCutchen , Walker, Tabata are a good nucleus and with the help from McGehee and others might add a little punch. Time will tell and my fingers are crossed.
Beat ’em Bucs!!!
Last thoughts for readers?
These books – I was proud of my baseball career, but when you come up with an idea and see it in your hands….When I got the books in my hands, I got emotional. I wish my mother were alive – she really would have gotten a charge out of these books.