Local MLB players speak to fans, Vipers

Combined players won five World Series titles


It was Sept. 1, 2007. Clay Buchholz was making his second career start. Kevin Millar was entering the final few years of his big league career.

He finished with nine strikeouts, including sending Millar back to the dugout twice in the 10-0 win.

“It was a sick joke,” Millar said. “Our scoring report said he had a fastball, curveball and changeup. It didn’t say anything about him throwing to right-handers. Some organizations are good at scoring reports and some aren’t. The Orioles, at that time, stunk.”

Buchholz and Millar joined four other current and former professional baseball players at a question and answer session ahead of the Vandegrift Home Run Derby on Saturday morning. The baseball stars are also local residents.

Pitchers John Lackey and Chad Qualls and Buchholz who all played on a big league team last season while retired players Kelly Wunsch, Matt Hagen and Millar answered questions from the community during the Q&A.

“I get to play baseball for a living and that was my dream growing up,” Buchholz said. “You’re in a  different city every three days. It’s a grind that nobody really understands outside the game. Your body has to get used to all that.”

He also mentioned that he has three kids now and that changes things.

The players shared about keeping the joy in the game and that sometimes with all of the statistics, research and showcase opportunities that are out there today, the love of the game is lost.  

Qualls said he would play baseball nearly everyday growing up. He’d get home from school, do homework and then go outside to play baseball until the street lights came on. This Christmas he bought wiffle balls and bats and had fun with his kids.

He advised those looking into baseball as a career to: “Have more than two pitches.”

Qualls is a relief pitcher and throws two main pitches: a heavy sinker and a hard slider. He typically uses the sinker to get ahead in the count and the slider to get strikeouts.

Wunsch acted as the emcee, but Millar, a former World Series champion with the Boston Red Sox and current analyst on the MLB Network, took over the microphone at times.

He is the prime example of grinding to make it to the big leagues. After playing college baseball at Lamar University in Beaumont, Millar wasn’t picked in the MLB draft but played in an independent league. From there, he joined the Orioles minor league system and parlayed that into an 11-year career.

“The position players really grind it,” Millar, a former first baseman, said. “Starting pitchers play 30 times a year. They’ve got their golf clubs, they’re usually the best looking guys and they get paid more than anybody else. I guess my advice would be learn to pitch.”

Qualls had a 14-year big league career and spent time with the  Astros, Diamondbacks, Rays, Padres, Phillies, Yankees, Pirates, Marlins and Rockies. He has a career ERA of 3.89 and made 19 appearances for Colorado last season.

The MLB stars each spent time on the disabled list. But Qualls’ injury was more unique. When he twisted to get out the way of a line drive, his left leg didn’t move and he dislocated his kneecap.  

“It went right to my shortstop and I got my 24th save of the season and the team went on,” he said. “Coming back from that was easy. I was fortunate. I pitched for 14 seasons and didn’t have any surgeries on my arm or shoulder.”

The baseball stars also shared tips on what coaches and scouts look for.

Coaches look for powerful hitting, good game intelligence, and being a respectful teammate on and off of the field, Hagen said. This season will be Hagen’s third as a coach in the Rangers organization and his first season as Crawdads manager.

Millar echoed those thoughts.

“It’s how you carry yourself on the baseball field, hurry on and off the field, and your attitude,” Millar said. He encouraged players to hit, throw and field and make adjustments. There is no one right way to hit, everyone is unique is height, frame and size.  

The players also reminded the audience that baseball is a game of failures.

“Learn how to deal with failure with class and respect. Play hard, play right and convey yourself like a pro,” Millar said.

Lackey said you’ll have games that don’t go well.

“Get used to it. It’s a hard game of failure. Learn to deal with it. Don’t ride the highs too high or the lows to low,” Lackey said.

“Learn from mistakes,” Qualls added.

The group had combined to win combined five World Series rings.

Millar was on the 2004 Red Sox team that ended the 86-year championship drought. While there were superstars on that team like Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, the many of players were journeymen like Millar.

“In the backyard, you’ve been doing that,” Millar said. “It all comes back to it being a full team. There are certain teams that just have that special feeling. We weren’t the best players, but we were the best team.”

Lackey won the World Series in 2002 with the Angles and against in 2013 with Boston. He helped the Cubs win their first World Series in 108 years in 2016, going 11-8 with a 3.35 ERA and winning the championship-clinching game.

“We got home (to Chicago) and there were fire trucks on the tarmac shootings in the air,” Lackey said. “It was pretty cool. I had a couple cops look at me and say, ‘You can do whatever the heck you want.’”