The 2005 Yankee season did not start well.
After 30 games, the team was 11-19, and many were calling for Joe Torre to be fired. Remember, this was fresh on the heels of an embarrassing ALCS loss to the Red Sox. For most of the season, the Yankees were five or more games back and they mostly wallowed in mediocrity. The pitching staff struggled and were hit hard with injuries. Carl Pavano, the big offseason signing, was ineffective and missed half the season. Kevin Brown and Jaret Wright had ERA’s above 6. The bullpen, minus Mariano Rivera and Tom Gordon, could not hold leads. It was tough to watch.
And then a guy named Aaron Small came along. Small had bounced around from team to team and found himself in the Yankee organization after an effective spring training. After a slew of injuries, he was called up on July 20th to face the Texas Rangers. He pitched well enough to get the win – 5 innings, 3 runs – and then alternated between long relief and spot starts. No one expected much from him. But in late August and early September, he went on one of the more improbable runs that I’ve ever seen. He finished the season 10-0 with a 3.20 ERA, carrying the team into the playoffs.
I watched almost every one of those starts. It was fascinating – no one knew who he was, he didn’t throw particularly hard, but he was crafty and resourceful and he found a way to get a win in, like, every start. He also just seemed like a really cool guy.
Small returned in 2006 but it wasn’t the same. He battled injuries. He was ineffective. He went 0-3 with an 8.46 ERA. The Yankees released him half way through the year, and just like that he was gone.
Since then, I’ve wondered: what happened to Aaron Small? Where is he now? What does he remember about that season? Well, the internet continues to amaze me. I tracked him down. Aaron, welcome to the blog.
Aaron, you came onto the scene like a flash of lightning in 2005. For a few months, the city of New York was yours. And then you retired. We haven’t heard much from you since. What have you been up to over the last 9 years?
Well, I’ve been down here in East Tennessee. I live on a farm where my wife grew up. I’ve got a baseball facility that I built here about seven years ago, and I run my own baseball school. I’m also involved in our church, and I travel and speak a little bit at baseball camps. My wife and I are also heavily involved in foster care work. People always ask me how’s retirement, and I say, are you kidding me? I’m busier now than when I played ball.
Were you always interested in becoming a baseball player?
Yeah, as long as I could remember. I was four or five years old, and I remember watching baseball on TV and thinking that’s what I want to do when I get older. And I just continued working at it, and it worked out. I was blessed to be able to do it for such a long time and have some pretty cool experiences along the way. And now I get to coach it, so I’m still around baseball every day.
It’s all I ever wanted to do. A lot of people have a dream to do something and sometimes it doesn’t work out and you have to do something else, but man, I was blessed to be able to do what I wanted to do. God opened that door in my life.
You were drafted by the Blue Jays in the 22nd round of the 1989 draft. It was obviously a long road before you made your major league debut in 1994. Take me back to your first few years in professional baseball.
When I got drafted in 1989, I was young, I was only seventeen when I graduated high school in California. Jason Giambi was on that team, by the way, along with Cory Lidle and Shawn Wooten. We had a heavily stacked team with guys that actually played professional ball. But coming out of high school, I was young, I was tall and skinny, I threw mid to upper 80s, and I was a late rounder. The Blue Jays told me up front, they called me a “projection pick.” They projected that I would get bigger and stronger and would throw harder.
My first year was in rookie ball in Canada. I had like a 1-7 record with a 5-something earned run average. It’s a good thing I was young because there were guys coming out of college putting up numbers similar to that and they were getting released after the first year. So that first year, it was rough. And then my next year I went to the South Atlantic League in Myrtle Beach and put up pretty good numbers. I believe I finished in the top ten in earned run average as a starter. So after that year I became somewhat of a prospect in the Toronto organization. My velocity was creeping up into the low to mid 90s.
It was a long road. I got called up in 1994. Ironically, I made my debut against the Yankees. Paul O’Neill took me deep for a two-run shot in the first inning. Later on I got to meet him, and he actually remembered that home run. And what’s wild about that is that he hardly remembered any of his home runs, but he said that one stood out to him.
You bounced around quite a bit in the 90s. You were traded, sent back to the minors, given new opportunities with half a dozen different clubs. Was this all exciting? Nerve-wracking? Terribly frightening?
Everything to me was always exciting. It was a chance to get a new start. But the one that really hit hard was when I got released in 1999 from the Diamondbacks at the end of spring training. I ended up having a nice second half with them in ’98 as a set-up man, so it came as a shock. That was the one where I thought: Man, what do I have to do to keep a job at this level? So that was a scary one. That’s one that will test your faith.
After ’99, I bounced around. I think I spent time at two or three organizations just that year, and I was just thinking, what am I gonna do? I always tried to look at the positives and so it was exciting to think that someone wants me still. But it was a wakeup call, I guess you could say. You never get used to getting fired. But I felt like God still had plans for me in the game, and my wife was always supportive and in my corner. She told me to play as long as I felt like I was supposed to be playing, and she was behind me all the way.
Do you miss being a major league baseball player?
I do not. That’s a good question because people always ask me, “Do you miss the game?” and I say, well, I still love to watch it, I still love to study it, I still love to teach it. But to play it? I have never looked back after I walked away. I knew my body was done. I still see guys in their early 40s still playing, and it makes me hurt to watch them. Like, how are they doing that? When Mariano was still hanging on at 42, 43, I’m like, how is he doing it? I know Mo is an incredible athlete, but I couldn’t imagine at almost 43 to still be playing the game. It just feels like another life, that’s how long I’ve been out of the game.
I remember your first start with the Yankees – it was a hot July night in Texas. I’m 14 years old and I’m sitting at home watching you trot out there, and I’m thinking to myself, who is this guy? How did you become a Yankee, and what are your strongest memories of that start and that season?
In 2004 I ended up in Florida after spending a lot of time in Triple A in Albuquerque. I think I was called up at least three times that season, and I was out of options, so it was kinda risky because I had to get cleared through the waiver wire each time. But each time I got up there, I wasn’t given much of an opportunity, and I didn’t take advantage of the opportunity when I did get it.
So after 2004 I’m sitting at home and I don’t have a job. Early January rolls around and I’m still sitting there without a team. And it’s scary at 33 years old. But I remember this like it was yesterday – it was Friday, January 7th, 2005, and my agent calls me and says he has a team that wants to bring me to camp. And I’m like, who is it? And this blew my mind the way he said it: he said, well, don’t let it scare you, but the Yankees want to sign you. And, I promise you this came out of my mouth: I said, Why?
I didn’t doubt my abilities, but looking at the storied history of the Yankees, here I am at 33, and to the average baseball fan I’m just a career journey man. But they brought me to camp and I made an impression. I had the best camp of anybody there. I don’t say that with my own words – Joe Torre told me that when they sent me to Triple A. He said, you deserve to be on this pitching staff. You’ve outpitched every guy on this team. But he said, you knew coming in there were no spots, and no one got hurt, so we’re taking our 12 guys with guaranteed contracts. And I told him, I totally understand.
So I went down to Triple A and I did OK, but then I had an injury to my leg in my fourth or fifth start and got set back about seven weeks. I got back in mid-June, but I wasn’t throwing well. There were a few starts I was yanked out in like the second inning, and they’d tell me that we have to keep your pitch count down because you may be going up to take Randy Johnson’s spot or Kevin Brown’s spot. There were a lot of injuries that year.
The Yankees were out making trades, calling guys up, spot starting guys that just didn’t pan out. Finally, I think they just ran out of options, so they said, well, let’s see what Aaron can do. They knew I was a guy that had some experience, they knew I was an older guy, and they felt like I could handle the pressure. I made that start in Texas, and I guess the rest is history.
Every day, I was just thinking about how blessed I was to experience this. And not only that – looking back, I almost quit. I hate that word, quit, but I was ready to walk away and quit the game of baseball. But that first start at Texas, I promise you this: I put on that grey road uniform, and I walked into the bathroom to look at myself in the mirror before I took the field, and I felt like a little kid on Halloween night. It was like I had this costume on and I was just thinking, what in the world am I getting ready to do? And that was surreal.
That first start was an ESPN game, and I had people call me after the game that I hadn’t seen in a long time. One of my friends out here said he was on a business trip, and he was at like a sports bar or something, and he happened to look up at the screen and go, what? That’s Aaron!
But I wasn’t officially the fifth starter for awhile. There were a few of those starts where I wouldn’t find out until a day or two before. Mel Stottlemyre would come over and tell me, hey, you got the ball tomorrow. And I was just like, alright, sounds good! But once I got to that fourth win, I was officially in the rotation for the rest of the season.
One of my favorite moments from that year was your complete game shutout at Oakland. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a baseball player as happy as you were after the called third strike to end the game. What do you recall about that moment?
You know, I still get to see that clip because there was a highlight video that was put together for me from our video guy that year, and I still use that when I’m introduced at an event. It was special because my wife and kids were on that trip. I got to have my son in the locker room after the game. He remembers a little bit of it because he was probably four or five at the time, so we try to keep that memory alive.
Do you remember what (Jorge) Posada told you after he gave you the ball?
It was something along the lines of: you did it, this is your day. He was just so happy for me. He hugged me, and the whole team was hugging me and shaking hands.
But I will say that my next start five days later was probably the more meaningful game. We were playing the hated Red Sox in Yankee Stadium on a Friday night on ESPN, and I’ll never forget that. Going into that game, we were four games behind in the division. And at that time of the year, we only had about three weeks left. I remember looking at the back of the Daily News before the game, and there was a picture of me that said: Win, Or Else. No pressure, right?
Mr. Torre took me out in the seventh inning, and walking off the mound to that ovation was pretty special.
We didn’t finish the deal, man, I wish we would have won it all that year. It was a rare year in Yankee history because of all the young guys they called up that were making an impact on a star-studded team. It would have been neat to finish that off, but unfortunately we got beat in the fifth game in the first round by the Angels, but nonetheless it was a great ride.
The 2006 season did not go well for you. When did you know it was time to retire?
Well, it was exciting to come back for that spring training because I had a guaranteed one year contract. I was a guy that was going to be a swing-man, either a reliever or possibly a spot starter, and I was good with that. And then I got a hamstring injury while running sprints. From that point on, I never caught back up.
When I got sent back down to Triple A about half way through that season, I realized that this was the end. I just thought, that ride happened when it was supposed to happen, and now it’s over. I did sign with Mariners as a minor league free agent after the season, and I ended up going to camp with them, and then I retired in spring training 2007. But I knew before I left home that I was done. It was just one of those things where I was like, I want to make sure.
**Five rapid fire questions**
Four of your favorite teammates: Derek Jeter is at the top, I love that guy. Johnny Damon, he was a great guy, loved him the short time I was around him. Scott Proctor was a good friend of mine. And Bubba Crosby.
How often are you recognized in public: In my hometown, only by friends and family. In New York City, every time I go out.
Last book you read: The Bible. Not the whole thing at one time, of course.
Three toughest hitters you faced: At the very top would be Bernie Williams. He was a nightmare to face. Ken Griffey Jr. was a guy who saw the ball well off me. And Edgar Martinez was a tough out.
You get one MLB start in 2014. What’s your line?: I’d like to think I’d go six innings, two runs! But I probably wouldn’t make it out of the first because my back would hurt or something would go. I’d give it my best shot, no doubt, but it all depends on how much time you give me to train and get ready for the start.
And, finally, I know you are very religious. Your belief in God plays an important role in your life. But, what are some elements of religion that challenge you?
Just trying to remain faithful to God. Be the man I’m supposed to be and be the spiritual leader of my home. It’s a struggle for any man, but it’s something I want to make sure I stay on top of and do well.
Thanks, Aaron. It was great to speak with you. The 2005 season was right in the middle of my childhood and I remember it fondly. Oh, I forgot to mention that I used to imitate your windup in little league.
Did you really? I’ll tell you what, that gives me goosebumps. That’s very humbling because I remember being a kid and trying to imitate my favorite pitchers.
Sometimes I walk around my apartment and still do it.
That’s awesome, man.