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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Interview: Dave Machemer heeded advice, hit HR in 1st ML AB

Dave Machemer talks to The Greatest 21 Days about his playing and managerial career in the Richmond Flying Squirrels dugout July 10, 2011.

The advice continued right up until Dave Machemer walked to the plate that day at Minnesota's Metropolitan Stadium.

Machemer was heading up to his first major league at bat on June 21, 1978. He was also leading off the game.

The advice, Machemer recalled to The Greatest 21 Days, came from teammates Dave Frost and Tony Solaita.

Frost, a Machemer teammate at AAA Salt Lake City, met Machemer just after Machemer learned he was leading off.

Machemer described the experience of seeing his name in the lineup as a rush, that time stood still. Frost was there behind Machemer.

"'Mac', he goes," Machemer recalled, "just relax. Baseball is baseball. ... Just relax, it's no different than AAA." Solaita's advice: Not to look for too much from the pitcher.

With that advice in mind, and a borrowed bat in hand, Machemer stepped into the batter's box, worked the count, and swung.

And he connected.

Getting to that moment for Machemer had been a seven-year journey through the minor leagues, each manager he played for imparting a new facet of his game.

Richmond manager Dave Machemer makes his way to the third base coaching box between innings.

He also got there after some final wisdom imparted by Machemer's AAA manager at Salt Lake City that year, Deron Johnson, and, partially to a decision Machemer made to go against a doctor's advice and not have a recommended surgery.

Machemer spoke to The Greatest 21 Days recently at The Diamond in Richmond, where he serves as manager of the AA Richmond Flying Squirrels. Machemer covered both his playing days and his long managerial career.

It was that year in 1978 that Machemer came under the tutelage of Salt Lake manager Deron Johnson. It was Johnson whom Machemer credited with getting him finally ready for the majors.

Machemer believed by then he knew the mechanics of hitting. But it was Johnson, he said, who taught him the mental approach needed to play in the major leagues.

Part 1: Credit to Others | Part 2: He Connected | Part 3: Just In His Blood | Part 4: Player Stories

Johnson was a veteran of 16 major league seasons, his most recent major league appearance coming just two years earlier with the Red Sox.

Managing Machemer at Salt Lake City, Machemer recalled, Johnson skipped Machemer's swing or his stride. Johnson talked about being mentally ready, hitters making the pitcher get them out, not hitters getting themselves out.

The big question Johnson posed to Machemer: How many at bats did Machemer feel he gave away in the course of a season?

"That really clicked," Machemer said. "That really, rally clicked in my mind when he told me that. Just like a light bulb went off."

He'd never thought of it that way.

Richmond hurler Eric Surkamp stares down the batter at The Diamond.

That was at the beginning of the year. Machemer then went on a tear. In 97 games at Salt Lake City that year, Machemer hit .324, the best average of his career. He also hit five home runs.

In between, he made the majors.

That trip to the bigs came in June. But an injury weeks earlier, on a run-down play at third, nearly kept that trip from happening, Machemer recalled.

The runner got caught in the run-down. Machemer covered third, but got caught himself in an awkward position. The runner slid in, Machemer's knee got the worst of it.

Machemer's knee swelled up to twice its size, Machemer recalled. The solution, the doctor told him, was surgery. It was scheduled for that afternoon.

But Machemer would have none of it.

When told the surgery was already scheduled, Machemer recalled responding they'd better find somebody else, because they weren't cutting on him and Machemer left.

He didn't have the surgery, in two weeks, it started to feel better. Machemer'd iced it and loaded himself with anti-inflammatories. Soon after it started to feel better, Johnson called Machemer into his office.

Johnson had been angry before, when Machemer refused the surgery. But this meeting was different. How did Machemer feel? the manager asked.

Machemer responded that he would be lying if he said he was 100 percent. He was more like 70, 75 to 80 percent.

"He goes, 'that's alright, kid. You're going to the big leagues' and he shook my hand," Machemer recalled. Machemer was stunned. Johnson confirmed what Machemer thought he'd heard. "I'm thinking, 'My word, I'm going to the big leagues. I was waiting waiting for this call my whole career, and I'm going up and I'm 65-70 percent on my knee.'"

Machemer soon found himself on the phone with his mother and his wife with the news.

Called up, though, Machemer got to rest for another eight days, before he saw his name in the lineup leading off against lefty Geoff Zahn and the Twins.

That first at-bat, Machemer recalled as 9 or 10 pitches, Machemer fouling off several pitches. On a 2-2 count, it almost ended on a strikeout, but Twins catcher Butch Wynegar couldn't hold on to the ball.

After taking the count full, and fouling off pitches, Machemer guessed fastball in.

"When I hit the ball, I just knew it was gone," Machemer said.

Flying Squirrel Charlie Culberson waits for a Harrisburg pitch at The Diamond in Richmond.

As he rounded first, though, he looked for confirmation from an umpire. He soon saw one circling a finger: home run.

Bob Clear, Angels first base coach, referring to Machemer as "choo-choo" for the sound Machemer made when he ran, yelled for Machemer to make sure he touched first base.

Touching each of the bases is no small task when you're feet hardly touch the ground.

"It was like I floated around those bases," Machemer recalled.

Getting back to the dugout, Machemer recalled Angel teammate Nolan Ryan picking him up in a big hug. Other teammates mobbed him.

"It was the biggest thrill in my life besides hitting my first Little League home run," Machemer said.

It was the only home run Machemer hit in the major leagues. He thought he hit another one, a week later against the Royals, but it bounced off the top of the wall. That was the only game his mother ever saw him play in the big leagues.

In all, Machemer's major league resume consists of appearances in just 29 games, 10 that year for the Angels and 19 more in 1979 for the Tigers. In all, he amassed major league 11 hits in 48 at bats.

If he'd been given more at bats, Machemer believes he would have done better in the majors. At the same time, he realizes there were better players ahead of him.

Machemer played his final major league game July 2, 1979. He held on in the minors through 1982, ending with the Twins at AAA Toledo. His last years though, were spent learning lessons that he didn't so much use as a player, but he used later as a manager.

His managerial career, though, wouldn't begin immediately upon the end of his playing career. It began after a time selling cars and starting a family and has gone on for a quarter century.

He's also watched over countless players, many of them making the majors. At least one player, though, wasn't a fan of Machemer's managerial style. Another is.

Part 3: Just In His Blood

Part 1: Credit to Others | Part 2: He Connected | Part 3: Just In His Blood | Part 4: Player Stories

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