Oct. 13, 2011
Despite three separate injures that cut three years off his professional baseball career, Stan Spencer persevered. His best friend growing up, Tom Mattice, saw this quality at a young age, writing in his own high school senior tribute, "Stan, Stan the Stanford Man! Proved to me that with enough heart and soul you can have anything in life you want."
Kevin Towers, the general manager of the San Diego Padres, saw this as well, signing him four times. So did personal pitching instructor Tom Hulse, who helped Spencer reach the majors after a ski slope injury nearly derailed Spencer's major league dream for good.
"He did all the hard work and got to the big leagues," said Hulse. "It was one of those things (where if he wasn't injured), his career would have been different."
Spencer rose from Washington state player of the year, to 6-foot-3 freshman right hander pitching in the national championship in 1988. Spencer spent three years at Stanford, winning 26 games while teaming with Mike Mussina to lead the Cardinal to the College World Series title in 1988 and another Omaha appearance in 1990. The first round pick then spent eight years in the minors before finally getting his chance. After countless flights, Spencer came full circle, returning to his hometown, all with his best man right beside him, Mattice, every step of the way.
On the basketball courts of Vancouver, Wash., a stone's throw from Portland, Stan and Tom were two kids playing ball and dodging rain drops. Tom's first impression of Stan was how fiercely competitive he was. Two weeks later Stan was the new kid at school. It just so happened, Tom was working in the attendance office that day. Tom showed his fellow eighth grader around and an instant bond developed.
When Stanford coaches Dean Stotz and Mark Marquess first discovered Spencer, they did not know he would complement another freshman, a kid by the name of Mussina, who hailed from the pine-filled countryside of Montoursville, Pennsylvania.
"My mom instilled in me the value of getting a college education," said Spencer, one of 47 of Marquess' major leaguers (of 55) to earn their degrees. "I was not convinced I'd get in... knowing you're never a shoe-in."
But when "32"' (Dean Stotz) called, following a recruiting trip to Oklahoma State, Stan and his parents were thrilled, calling it "quite an honor" to be accepted.
Mussina (above) and Spencer would each win 14 games as juniors and be first round picks
DUO FROM THE START
Once on campus, Mussina and Spencer's careers were intertwined. Both were economics majors, both pitched in two College World Series and both were first round picks.
"As a freshman, (Stan) didn't have the notoriety, but he matched up with Mike quite well," said then Stanford pitching coach Tom Dutton. "They were extremely close. Competitive. Each complemented the other well."
That first year, Arizona State had won five out of six during the regular season with the only Stanford win coming off the arm of Mussina in a 5-3 victory at Sunken Diamond. To set up the championship matchup, Mussina did his job, eliminating Cal State Fullerton the day before. ASU, meanwhile, thumped Wichita State, 19-1.
For Spencer, he was never more nervous in his life. To Dutton, "that (ASU team) didn't phase him a bit." It did not take long for the butterflies to leave. Ed Sprague homered as a part of a five-run first and Stanford was on its way to back-to-back national titles. Spencer threw the first seven innings in the 9-4 win.
Spencer finished the 1988 season 7-2 with a 3.19 ERA over 131.1 of the eventual 373.1 innings he'd throw on The Farm.
As sophomores, the pitching version of Batman and Robin "mapped out how we would get through school." They pulled out syllabuses and planned out their class schedules. They arrived at a plan which would get them through school, full knowing that they would be drafted following their junior seasons.
Spencer (above) and Mussina were both first round picks and eventual major leaguers for Marquess.
That year Spencer went 5-7 as the No. 1 starter after Mussina got injured, with Spencer leading the conference in fewest walks allowed.
In 1990 season the two returned to Omaha. Each went 14-1 to tie the school-record for wins. Spencer also set the school-record for strikeouts with 145. They led the Cardinal to its fifth straight Pac-10 title, before their collegiate careers ended on June 8 in a 5-1 loss to Georgia.
The Orioles took Mussina with the 20th overall selection, the Expos, with the likes of Tim Raines, Tim Wallach, Delino Deshields, and Larry Walker already in the majors, and needing starting pitching, selected Spencer, 15 picks later.
LONG ROAD BEGINS
In a sign of troubles to come, Spencer missed his first pro season with a cracked rib and later had reconstructive elbow surgery, missing his third season. After being a Rule 5 pick up of the Florida Marlins, he made 13 starts in 1993 and finally healthy in 1994, went 10-4 with a 3.44 ERA in Double-A and Triple-A. Then in 1995, his sixth minor league season, he went 2-8 with a 7.62 ERA, forcing the Marlins to not resign him.
Spencer noted to the San Diego Union-Tribune years later, "For years, I think I pitched out of worry. When will I make it? Will I make it? When I signed I expected to be in the big leagues quick (Mussina only pitched in 28 minor league games). Then things happened. And once they started happening I think I was guilty of putting too much pressure on myself."
He signed with the Boston Red Sox as a minor league free agent and, days later, went skiing with his childhood friend.
Spencer would fall and hurt his shoulder on the trip and be forced to call Red Sox executives. Unbeknownst to anyone involved, Spencer was the second Stanford product to get hurt on the slopes. In 1967, following Jim Lonborg's Cy Young campaign, the righthander hurt his knee. Lonborg would never recover. The question became, would Spencer?
"(It was) a sobering day for both of us," said Mattice. "But once again he set his priorities and moved forward." That day would put Spencer onto a path to the big leagues.
After declining to ski again until after his pro career ended, Spencer found Southern California pitching coach Hulse in the San Diego suburb of Coronado.
As Spencer told the Union-Tribune, "Tom taught me how to protect my arm with proper mechanics. He taught me how to build on what I had." Hulse used a three step process, first build up Spencer's strength, then work on his mechanics and finally, "get him between the lines and get him to the big leagues."
Hulse recommended Spencer to Towers and in January, 1997, the Padres signed the 27-year old journeyman to the first of four contracts with the club.
"I was begging for a job in 1996," said Spencer to the Union-Tribune. "No one wanted to talk to me. The Padres finally did and stuck with me even though I had a terrible spring."
FINALLY TO THE SHOW
Spencer's hard work paid off. He went 12-6 with a 3.93 ERA with Triple-A Las Vegas and on August 27, 1998, before 23,371 fans at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium, Spencer gave up one run over six innings in his debut, earning the World Series-bound Padres its 87th win of the season following an 8-1 win over Phillies.
It almost didn't happen. Japan's Chiba Lotte Marines had a working relationship with the Padres and were close to purchasing Spencer prior to the 1998 season. They declined because of his injuries.
Though he did not pitch in the playoffs, Spencer was the team's fifth starter during the run and had a better than average chance of returning to the club in 1999.
In previous years, Spencer always had an "outside chance" of making the club. In 1999, he joined Woody Williams, Andy Ashby and Sterling Hitchcock in the Padres rotation.
As Spencer joked to the Union Tribune, "an outside chance (of making the club) would mean that about three or four guys had to die during the course of spring training and you'll be in here." But for Spencer he was finally there.
Spencer opened the 1999 season at Candlestick Park, telling the Union-Tribune, about the times he and Mussina would "bundle up our coats and long johns in the middle of August and I'd be freezing to death."
After giving up eight runs in the 12-4 loss to the Giants, Spencer struggled, going 0-5 before being sent down. Overall he was 0-7 overall with a 9.16 ERA. He also posted a 5-4 record and 5.47 ERA for Triple-A Las Vegas.
'HE JUST WON'T GIVE UP'
Despite a nagging shoulder injury, Towers told Spencer he'd have a clean slate if he returned, and Spencer again signed with the Padres. As Towers noted to the local newspaper, "You've got to respect a guy who just won't give up."
Spencer, now 30, had one more gasp. He went 4-0 with a 1.72 ERA for Las Vegas, to earn a promotion in 2000 after being a non-roster invitee during spring training.
Thanks to interleague play, he got a chance to pitch in his home state. With 60 friends, family and former teammates watching 20 rows up behind home plate at Seattle's Safeco Field, he left with a 7-2 lead, one out short of his only complete game.
His childhood friend Tom, one of those 60 friends, noted that "(it was) the greatest joy in my life watching my best friend pitch... in front of our home state for the first time... He had truly earned and reached a lifetime experience."
That pushed the righthander's record to 2-1 on June 3, 2000. His last major league win.
BACK TO VANCOUVER
In 2002 after 151 minor league games and 21 starts in the majors, the last coming in 2000, he "felt it was time to move on." Five years in Las Vegas and shuttle runs up to San Diego and minor league road trips to places like New Orleans, Nashville and Edmonton finally took their toll.
He returned home, to what he says "on a clear day, it's one of the prettiest places in the world" with the Hood River, Mount Hood and other natural marvels overlooking the greater Northwest.
He met his wife, Amanda, at a bank in Lake Oswego, Ore., just outside Portland. Five years after he threw his last pitch, they married in Maui in 2007 with Tom as his best man.
That ski trip changed his fortunes in more ways than one. Instead of hitting the slopes, Stan hit the water, as Tom had a rafting business, which Stan took a part in. He took up kayaking on what he calls the "mecca of kayaking" on the rivers of the Northwest.
Now, he lives 15 minutes from where he grew up. His mother, stepfather and brother are just around the corner, and his father is in Roseburg, Ore.
Stan eventually returned to the slopes as well. His real estate job now allows him to take in 40-60 days a year on the mountains.
In the summer of 2011, Stan got another call. He was going into the Stanford Athletics Hall of Fame. "I had goose bumps when I heard and I haven't stopped thinking about it since." He will be inducted November 11.
During Memorial Day weekend, 2012, Stan and his championship teammates will be honored as part of a 25th Anniversary weekend. Though the accolades came later, the journey led him there.
"I attribute so many things in my life to my friend Stan," said Tom, now an emergency response manager for the City of Juneau, Alaska. "He's the person who showed me you can have anything you want in this world as long as you give it your all."