When Russ Springer meets a person, he can instantly tell where they are from.
If the person calls him “Russ,” well, they could be from anywhere.
If the person calls him “Russell,” they can be only from one place – Grant Parish.
As Russell Springer prepares to enter the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Saturday, June 30 in Natchitoches, he credits a former Cy Young Winner and Louisiana Sports Hall of Famer for helping him see what was possible far beyond the town of Pollock.
“Being from the rural part of Grant Parish to where even other kids in Grant Parish joked about where I lived … it’s hard to say I can make it being where I’m from, because I never knew anyone who did,” said Springer.
Springer’s outlook changed thanks to a visit from the Grant Parish Library’s bookmobile.
“I remember getting a book when I was kid,” Springer said. “It was ‘Ron Guidry – Louisiana Lightning.’ I read part of it … and it clicked. I never forgot it. This guy is from Lafayette, Louisiana. At the time, I didn’t even know where that was. But, in my mind, I knew it wasn’t too far from here. It doesn’t sound like a whole lot, but at the time it meant a whole lot to me.
“I knew that if he could make it, so could I.”
That Springer did. He pitched 18 seasons in the major leagues, matching Lee Smith for the most by any pitcher from Louisiana. Primarily a reliever, Springer appeared in 740 games, compiling a 36-45 record with a 4.52 ERA. Incredibly, his best years came in the latter stages of his career despite a devastating shoulder injury.
Over Springer’s final seven seasons after turning 35, he was 17-16 with a 3.46 ERA. He was a member of three World Series teams, including Arizona’s championship team in 2001, and the first Houston team to appear in a World Series (2005).
“To last 18 years in the big leagues takes talent for one thing,” said Ben McDonald, a 2010 Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame inductee. “And you have to be fortunate with injuries. A lot of guys get out because of injuries, and I was one. You’ve got to be mentally tough … It takes a lot of dedication. I know he had an incredible career.”
Springer and McDonald arrived at LSU in the fall of 1986, but in differing fashion. McDonald came to LSU on a basketball scholarship, and was drafted by the Braves out of high school.
Springer also played basketball and baseball in high school at Grant High School, but it took some good fortune to be discovered.
One summer morning as his mother Diane was driving Springer and his siblings – brother James and sisters Jamie and Jana – to an aunt’s apartment in Alexandria to go swimming, they passed by a major league tryout camp being held at Bringhurst Field. Springer got his mother to drop him off.
“Here I come in, 6-3, 160 pounds with cutoff blue jeans and hair down to my neck and looking like Tom Sawyer,” joked Springer.
Springer made his way to the third base bullpen where the pitchers were working. He found the scout in charge and asked to pitch.
“He looked at me and smirked and said why don’t you stand by the fence. When everybody else is done, I’ll let you throw a couple,” Springer recalled.
After the registered pitchers finished, the scout dismissed the catcher and guy holding the radar gun. Springer reminded the scout of his promise.
“He rolled his eyes and said OK,” said Springer.
It took less than six pitches for the scout to recall the radar gun.
“The radar guy came back and I was throwing 94 miles an hour on a side mound with cutoff blue jeans at 16 years old,” said Springer. “Next thing you know, I’m getting scouts at my games.”
Springer played three seasons for LSU. As a freshman, he set a then-SEC record for strikeouts per nine innings at 14.5. As a junior, he and McDonald helped lead LSU to the College World Series, where Springer earned a win as the starting pitcher and McDonald the save against Miami.
Springer credits teammates Mark Guthrie, Stan Loewer and Barry Manuel, among others, for helping him adjust to college life. He credits McDonald for pushing him to be the best he could be.
“We had a healthy competition and pushed each other,” said Springer. “It didn’t matter if we were running or pitching or whatever.”
“It was a match made in heaven,” said McDonald. “We were two very competitive people. If he struck out eight one night, I wanted to strike out nine the next.”
Springer was drafted by the Yankees in the seventh round in 1989. Despite making just three starts above A ball, the Yankees called him up to the major leagues in 1992.
A starting pitcher his entire career, the Yankees used Springer out of the bullpen. During the offseason, he was traded to the Angels as part of the Jim Abbott deal.
For the next four seasons he bounced between being a starting pitcher and a reliever. After being traded to Philadelphia, Springer had had enough.
“I told them I can’t do both and be good at either one of them,” said Springer.
The Phillies told Springer to decide on which he’d rather do.
“I think they 100 percent thought I was going to be a starter,” he said. “I said the hardest thing for me was to sit those four days between my starts. From the time I told them I wanted to be a reliever, I never started a game the rest of my career.”
Springer’s career bounced him all over the country. He tried to pick franchises near his home. When he first became a free agent, he jumped at the chance to pitch in Houston, a 4½-hour drive from Pollock.
In 2000, Arizona offered a multi-year contract in a warm climate and with a contending team. However, shortly into his second year (2001) with the Diamondbacks, Springer knew something was wrong.
“All of a sudden, my shoulder is killing me,” he said. “I have what I consider a high pain tolerance because of the different injuries you go through as a professional athlete. It was hurting to the point where I couldn’t keep my shoulder in socket. I’d throw a baseball and my shoulder would come out of socket.”
Springer had an MRI and a visit with one of the premier orthopedic surgeons in the country. After looking at the test results, he told Springer, “If I open you up and see what I see on this MRI, I’m not even gonna fix it. I’m just gonna close you up and tell you to have a nice life, you’re done.”
It wasn’t what Springer wanted to hear so he left and consulted with an Arizona doctor who told him he would fix whatever he found wrong. However, the surgeon could not guarantee he would ever pitch again.
“I said, ‘That’s all I ask. Just fix what you find,’” Springer said.
When Springer woke up from surgery, the surgeon listed everything he had fixed: torn rotator cuff, torn labrum, tightened up the shoulder capsule, removed the bursa sac and shaved the acromion bone.
Springer spent the following year in Central Louisiana rehabbing. Six months after surgery, he began playing catch. A few months later, Springer called his agent to find work, but not in the majors. Springer wanted to go to Puerto Rico.
“Everybody knows what kind of injury I just came off of,” he said. “I’ve seen those guys come into camp and they really don’t take them that seriously.”
Springer wound up as the closer for a team. One of the opposing managers was St. Louis coach Jose Oquendo.
“The next thing you know, I have the Cardinals call and offer me a legit spot on their team,” he said.
But the next season, Springer would not attend spring training, instead focusing on his family following his son Jake’s Autism diagnosis. After things settled at home, Springer’s wife Kelly told him to go back to work. Russ Springer told his agent he would only pitch for Houston.
The Astros signed Springer and called him up in time to help the Astros win 36 of their final 46 games to earn the NL Wild Card. Springer had a 2.63 ERA in 16 games, and the Houston franchise won its first postseason series. A year later, Springer and Houston found themselves in the World Series.
Springer retired after appearing in two games for the Reds in 2010 due to injury.
“I’d come back and pitched nine years after the doctor told me I’d never pitch again,” he said.
Springer said a key to his longevity came from emulating his father James’ work ethic.
The other reason he was able to last nearly two decades in the major leagues? Kelly Springer.
“She was my high school cheerleader and was always there for me and wanted me to pursue my dreams,” said Russ. “She never got caught up in the major league lifestyle. Once we started having kids, she was an awesome mom to Karlee and Jake. The way she dealt with my son at an early age when we knew he had issues … she would never cut into my time of going to the gym or playing ball. She handled it.”
As his induction to the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame nears, Springer has found himself looking back over his career and taking joy in things not found in box scores.
“I was able to hold games, pitching in relief, behind some guys who are in the Hall of Fame right now – Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Randy Johnson, Tom Glavine,” he said. “The highlight of my career basically was grinding out a career and playing in some big games, but unless you are there, you don’t realize how hard it is to get there, and how hard it is to stay there.
“To play as long as I did is something I’m proud of.”
By John Marcase
Written for the La. Sports Writers Association