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Sunday, November 30, 2014

Interview Part 1: Aaron Small, Stadium Sounds

The former SkyDome in Toronto in 2006. Aaron Small made his major league debut at the SkyDome in 1994. (Greatest 21 Days)
Part 1: Stadium Sounds | Part 2: Good Things
Part 3: Every Day | Part 4: Couldn't Script

The John Mellencamp song "Small Town" came over the loud speakers announcing Aaron Small's entry into the game, but Small didn't hear it.

Small only learned of the song later. That's because this June 1994 game was Small's major league debut and that song marked the reliever's walk in to the Toronto mound.

"I'll tell you this, when they called me in from that bullpen," Small told The Greatest 21 Days recently, "I couldn't feel the ground under my feet."

"I never even heard the song," Small said. "I was so focused on what I had to do."

Years later, under much different circumstances, Small allowed himself to listen.

On a nationally televised September Friday night game at Yankee Stadium, the home team starter walked off the field with a four-run lead on his way to his seventh win of the stretch run without a loss.
Yankee Stadium in June 2005. Aaron Small started his magical run for the Yankees in July 2005. (Greatest 21 Days)
This time, the noise was coming from the crowd. It was a standing ovation. They were cheering a magical run for the that saw him ultimately go 10-0, all after a frustrated Small nearly quit the game in the minors - just before the Yankees gave him his call back to the bigs.

It was only a prayer that kept him going.

"Walking off to a standing ovation at Yankee Stadium," Small recalled, "that was really special."

Small spoke to The Greatest 21 Days recently by phone from Tennessee, where he lives with his family and where he teaches the game to youth at his own academy.

Small traced his career from its beginnings as a youth in suburban Los Angeles to the pros and eventually to the majors. Small's major league career was one that spanned nine seasons and 172 total appearances.

In the middle of that career was a five-year stretch where he only recorded a single major league out. On the other side of that stretch, though, was that run with the Yankees and his own place in Yankee lore.

Small grew up in the Southern California city of West Covina, where he played baseball from a young age. He recalled loving it from the age of 4 or 5. He'd wait at the door for his father Art to get home from work so the two could head out to the yard to play catch.

As soon as he was old enough, Small was playing organized ball. He was also throwing hard. He threw hard enough to earn from his young teammates the nickname "Smoke," after early 1980s Los Angeles Dodger Dave Stewart.
Dodger Stadium in 2012. Aaron Small grew up in a Los Angeles suburb. (Greatest 21 Days)
By the time he was a junior in high school, Small recalled pitching well enough to start seriously thinking about pitching in college, or even in the pros. As attention began to come his way, Small not getting caught up in it.

He attributed that to his upbringing, to his parents, to being raised in a Christian home.

I feel like I was grounded as a kid and raised the right way to be able to handle that kind of thing," Small recalled.

By the time he was a senior, Small's pro prospects had risen considerably. Every time he pitched, he recalled one scout in particular in the stands, Blue Jays scout Tom Hinkle.

So he recalled being excited, but not shocked, that the Blue Jays drafted him. They ended up taking him in the 22nd round.

With that, he had a decision to make: Did he want to turn pro or explore his college options further.

Small recalled praying about his decision. He also recalled talking to his father. He recalled the conversation with his dad was a quick one.

"My dad asked me a simple question," Small recalled. "He said, 'Well, what do you want to do with your life? You've been dreaming to play baseball, right? Well, here's an offer in front of you.'

"'If you feel good about it,'" Art Small concluded, "'Why not take it?'"

Small signed shortly after, starting his professional career.
Toronto's SkyDome from the CN Tower in 2003. Aaron Small signed with the Blue Jays out of high school. (Greatest 21 Days)
First up for the Southern California kid? Medicine Hat, Alberta. Small had never heard of Medicine Hat. He had never even been on a plane before.

"It was definitely an eye-opener when I got there," Small said.

He also had a poor start. Still just 17 years old, Small went 1-7, with a 5.86 ERA over 14 starts. He came back from that season to pitch better at single-A Myrtle Beach in 1990. He went 9-9 there, with a 2.80 ERA.

"It was a good thing I was young," Small said. "I had youth on my side. I think they knew that I would develop and get stronger."

He recalled that 1990 season at Myrtle Beach did more, helping him with his confidence and mental sharpness.

He moved to high-A Dunedin in 1991, he then made AA Knoxville in 1992. He was 20 years old and at AA. He then stayed there for two seasons and part of a third.

Small met his wife during that time in Knoxville. With the help of his pitching coaches, he also recalled learning how to pitch, how to elevate pitches in the zone, how to throw breaking pitches.

"I went from being a thrower to learning how to be a pitcher but be aggressive at the same time," Small said.

He also soon learned to be a major leaguer. (Part 2)

Part 1: Stadium Sounds | Part 2: Good Things
Part 3: Every Day | Part 4: Couldn't Script

Go to Part 2: Aaron Small, Good Things

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