Thanks again to Jimmy Stanton, who went out of his way for me, and to Chris Sampson, who was as professional as they come.
The Crawfish Boxes: Most readers know that you were originally drafted by Houston in 1999 as a shortstop, then retired after a poor year hitting the baseball at Auburn that summer. Certainly you didn't set the New York-Penn League on fire, but at the same time you were a fairly high (#8) draft pick whom the Astros included in their 2000 media guide. So it looks like they wanted you back, and it's not that uncommon for even tremendously gifted hitters to struggle in their first professional season. Can you walk us through the things that were going through your mind when you decided to retire?
Chris Sampson: The thing is when I when I decided to retire, it wasn't baseball related issues, it was more personal, off the field issues. So I took some time away from the game on my own terms, for personal reasons. And three years later, I wanted to return to baseball, was missing it, and gave the Astros a call back to see what the chances of me coming back and playing were, and it was this time as a pitcher.
TCB: After leaving the Astros, you found a job coaching baseball at Collin County Community College, and did that I guess for three years, between 2000 and 2002. I find that real interesting. Most people might look at you as a guy who found success when he switched from being a shortstop to being a pitcher, but I might ask what role coaching at Collin County played. Sometimes we as humans learn best by teaching, if you know what I mean. Was there anything that you found yourself using now as a successful professional player that you first learned or first realized while trying to help the kids at Collin CC?
CS: I think you hit the nail on the head there. When you get into coaching, you're looking at the game from a different point of view, a different aspect of the game. And it really helped me learn more about the game, different situations how to approach it, and things of that nature. I think it really helped me when I got on the mound 'cause now I'm fully aware of the majority of the situations that are going on, what hitters are trying to do. I really paid attention and became a real student of the game when I was trying to learn how to coach.
TCB: I would imagine you're familiar with the movie The Rookie, about Jim Morris, who was coaching baseball when his players convinced him to attend a major league tryout that ended up getting him a major league job. Two questions: 1) Did the movie have any influence on your decision to give pitching professionally a try and 2) Did you in fact have a Jim Morris moment, where your players were telling you, hey you gotta go out and do this?
CS: The movie The Rookie had no influence on me coming back. It was just all heart, me missing the game, wanting to get back into it, and wanting to play. I did see the movie, but it had no influence on me coming back. I get teased a lot saying they could make the sequel--The Rookie II--about me, so . . . . It's all in good fun. If that happens, it happens, but I'm not looking for that to happen, I'm just trying to go out and play the game the best I can and have the most success I can.
TCB: Of course, it's one thing for you to decide that you'd like to try pitching, and another for the Astros to bring you back. You just told me that you did not contact any teams before you contacted the Astros. . . And just how DID you contact them? Is there a hotline that Tim Purpura keeps on his desk for old Houston draft picks who might wanna give him a buzz?
CS: No I just called the main line for Minute Maid Park and asked for the Scouting department, and talked to a few of the scouts who actually had drafted me and signed me. I think Ralph Bratton was the one I first talked to, and then I had to talk to Tim Purpura and set up a tryout and actually work out on the mound in front of those two guys. Then it was actually Purpura's decision to bring me back and give me a second chance.
TCB: I think that's a real credit to the Astros organization.
TCB: You hit the ground running at Lexington in 2003, posting what was for a couple years the best starter's ERA in Legends history at 1.39. That got you a promotion to Salem in 2004, where you were both a Carolina League Pitcher of the Week and an Avalanche Pitcher of the Month. Which got you a promotion to Corpus Christi, etc. etc. Not to suggest any of it was easy for you, but the triumphs certainly outnumbered the setbacks. But how would you have proceeded had your first year back at Lexington not gone so well? As you entered your comeback, did you give yourself any kind of a timetable for success or any other kind expectaions?
CS: I have the highest expectations for myself. I expect myself to go out there and compete and work hard every single day to try and help the team to win, no matter what team I'm on. So nobody can have any higher expectations than I already do for myself. I had no timeline on myself. I just went into the situation like I said, hey! work hard, give everything you have into it. If God's willing, everything's gonna work out. And that's what I did, I went, competed, worked hard, and threw strikes, and it's worked out very well for me.
TCB: A pretty famous story from last year was when your teammate at Round Rock, Jason Hirsh, got the call from the major leagues, Express manager Jackie Moore pulled him from the game he was pitching at Salt Lake City after two innings. You were back in Round Rock at this point, and watched that go down, but I wondered if you had any story about how you found out about your own callup on June first?
CS: I was coming off a sore back. I had skipped a start to give my back some rest. I was about to start the very next night on June 2nd. And on the night of June first, I was in the stands charting, and manager Jackie Moore called me in the office and sat me down. He asked me if I was OK to pitch. I told him "yes, sir, I'm ready to go. I already missed one start, and I'm not missing another one."
And he goes, "alright, well I just wanna let you iknow the next time you pitch a ball, it's gonna be in the major leagues." First I thought he was kidding with me, because he's always joking around with me. I kept asking him if he was serious, and he said he was dead serious, I'm going to the big leagues, and at that moment I knew my dreams had come true.
TCB: My personal opinion before an inning of Spring Training has been pitched is that lefty Wandy Rodriguez should be the number four starter, and that Chris Sampson should be number five. And I bet you agree. While understanding that you'll take whatever role the club has to offer, you have pitched a good deal of relief in the minors, as well. Do you think that you are particularly suited for one role or the other?
CS: I've told Gar this, and the only thing I can say about that, is if Phil Garner gives me my choice, I would prefer to be a starter. But as he knows, whatever he thinks is best for that team to help us win and get into the playoffs, that's what I'm gonna do. And I've told Garner that exact statement. That's all I can say about that.