First and foremost, I want to thank Nathan Baliva for providing me with the privilege of interviewing Jason Simontacchi, former Cardinals pitcher and current pitching coach of the Peoria Chiefs. Twenty-five or so minutes later, I am 100% convinced that Jason is one of the coolest guys in the entire organization.
Viva El Birdos: What was the main reason you started wearing the socks the way you did?
Jason Simontacchi: I started wearing the socks because Pete Rose wore them that way. I liked the way Pete Rose played the game and went about his business. Obviously, he’s before my time a little bit. Then, when I got called up to the Cardinals, they had those stripes, and it started out in the minor leagues that we had to wear them that way (back in 2002). When I got to the big leagues, and I was like, "Well, I wanted to wear them that way anyway, so it didn’t really bother me." I remember before my first start, Tino Martinez was like, "Hey Jason, you know you don’t have to wear your pants up like that anymore," and Jim Edmonds was like, "Well, how have you been pitching down there?" I said I’ve been fine, and Edmonds told me to leave them up then.
VEB: Do family and friends refer to you as Simo or is that just a Cardinals/Mike Shannon thing?
JS: Yeah, Shannon brought up the ole Simo Man. I guess that’s what some people call me. I mostly get Simo. People that know me call me Simo. Obviously, my wife and kids don’t call me Simo. Just friends mainly. With baseball and stuff like that, people call me Simo.
VEB: What are some examples of Matheny's leadership in handling the pitching staff back in your rookie season, with everything that went on such as Darryl Kile’s death and things like that?
JS: I think what happens is, you know, we are trained to play the game. Just like you, I’m going to school. This is my last semester. I’ve got a kid that’s due here May 2nd. We’ve got a new house. We’ve got two kids and three dogs. We’ve got a lot of stuff going on. I tell my manager this, "You know, these six hours or seven hours that we get at the ballpark are almost like a relief from life. We get to come here and enjoy this game." So, we’re kind of trained as we go through our career. When we get to the ballpark, we just take care of business and really try to focus on what we have to do.
With Matheny, there’s no doubt about it. We could sit here and talk for hours, and I can give you tons of examples. He’s just exemplified the Cardinal Way in a sense. He’s a hard worker. He’s smart. But the way it was is he knew every pitcher—from the bullpen to the starters. What pitches they throw, what they can trust. What’s not working for them in certain innings. Their personalities. How to get through to them. If he needs to pump them up, if he needs to be serious. He has the same demeanor as the manager right now. Just really business-like.
When we lost DK, you can’t describe that. It was hectic. It was turmoil. I don’t know how to say it. When DK left us, it was I don’t know. I remember Tony just telling us you know that DK lost his dad when he was forty something years old. His dad told DK, "You need to separate business and personal stuff." DK never missed a start, so that was one of the reasons why we played. He was supposed to start that day. So we did.
I don’t want to put [Matheny] so much on a pedestal; everybody already does that enough. He works hard at it. That’s the type of guy he is—very detail oriented. And that’s how he was with us. He was another coach on the field. There’s no question about that.
You know what. I am not going to take anything away from Matheny, but I think, if there is any credit whatsoever, the majority of the credit would go to Tony, with how he handled that [situation]. For me, I knew DK for about a month. So, I didn’t have that attachment that those two men had. I knew who he was, but I didn’t have that relationship with him like Morris, Matheny, or anyone on that team. The type of people, now not the athletes, we had on that team got us through. Obviously, the leadership of Tony helped us and guided us. We became a family, there’s no question about that. Looking back on it, it was my rookie year, and that whole season was a blur. I forgot half the stuff that happened, and then I hear people talk about it, and I’m like, "Oh yeah, I remember that."
VEB: Where's your favorite place to eat in Peoria?
JS: I would probably have to say this Chinese buffet right across the river that’s about eight bucks. They actually have a guy that makes sushi right in front of you. If you get a water, it’s about $8.50; if you get a drink, it’s just under ten bucks. But it’s all you can eat, so it’s pretty good stuff.
VEB: Do you call the pitches or do you leave it up to the catchers and pitchers?
JS: Nah. No. I let them. Actually, I haven’t called a pitch all year. They need to learn from failing, you know? So when they fail, they throw a pitch they shouldn’t throw, I’ll ask them. I will be inquisitive about it. I would rather have a guy be 100% convinced on the "wrong pitch" than 80% on the "right pitch."
VEB: How much of your job is about pitchers’ mechanics or are you there more for the mental approach to the game?
JS: Yeah, I think there is, but a lot of these guys I’m seeing for the first time. I need to also observe them and find out who they are. At the lower levels, I think it is important to develop them mechanically. We’re not trying to "cookie-cut" them by any means. Everybody is individual, everyone is unique. We usually just go with what they have. We try to make their mechanics more repeatable. But mechanically, not much. Some more than others, of course. When guys have been throwing anywhere from 19 like Alex Reyes to 23 or 24, they’ve been throwing for a long time with the same mechanics. Sometimes, you have to be careful about changing a guy’s mechanics because their body may not adjust to that too well.
On the mental part, too, that’s the big part. It’s easy to go out there and pitch and have a great game, but do you know how you got there? Do you know what you did? I want these guys to feel themselves and feel their mechanics when they do something wrong, when they hang a curveball, or yank a fastball. In their delivery, they knew exactly what they did, so they can be their own coach and make their own adjustments.
VEB: How often are young pitchers encouraged to learn new pitches or stop throwing certain pitches?
JS: It depends on what their pitch is doing. Obviously, if it’s not getting guys out and it’s not being effective for them. Sometimes, a guy goes from a split to a changeup, depending on his arm action or his arm slot. One could be better than the other. Sometimes, I don’t necessarily suggest it to the pitcher, but I suggest it to the pitching coordinator and let him know what my observations are. He’ll then come in or he’ll see video. He has a history with these guys as well, so we’ll converse about that. A lot of these guys, this is their first year in the long season, a full season of baseball. You have to let them get out there and get their feet wet. We want them to learn who they are as a pitcher.
VEB: What are your first impressions of Alex Reyes and Carson Kelly and his conversion to catcher?
JS: Let’s see. Alex Reyes. I mean, obviously, I like his fastball. He’s a young, nice kid. He’s learning. When you talk to him, it’s not like he’s looking right through you. He’s trying to absorb as much as he can. He has a power curveball. Obviously a power fastball at 95, sitting at 94-95. His stuff could pitch in the big leagues, let’s put it that way, even his changeup. There’s obviously a gap between A-ball and the big leagues, but I’m excited, and I’m think everyone in the organization is excited as well. He’s another power arm, like a [Trevor] Rosenthal. He’s one of those guys where we know he’s got the ability. It’s already here. It’s just now we need to fine-tune it.
With Kelly, I think he’s hit the ground running. When they asked him about [the switch to catcher] during instruction ball, he thought it over which was a good decision. I think he talked to his agent and his dad and decided that it was probably the best [option for him]. I think he spent some time with Matheny during the offseason, up in St. Louis. Obviously, he was in big league camp with him. I think it was great for him to go there and see how guys handle themselves, especially when he’s got one of the best catchers in the game [to learn from]. He’s one of those guys that you can tell has the passion, there’s no question about it. His work ethic is good. There’s been a couple times where he’s been coming in early, even after a night game and coming in early before a day game blocking balls in the dirt. He’s still learning his pitchers and how to pitch hitters. He’s got a good release. He’s right at about two [seconds], from home to second. He’s obviously got a strong arm. Assuming he learns this stuff, he’ll be moving [up through the system] I would imagine.
VEB: What was it like starting against the Yankees in Yankee Stadium on the night Roger Clemens got his 300th career win? (This question came from Bernie Miklasz)
JS: Well, I knew I was going to start against him five days after my last start. I had looked at the schedule and was like "oh my gosh." As a kid, I had his pictures and posters all over my room. So, it was almost like my first day in the big leagues. I knew what I needed to do. I needed to stay focused and not get caught up in the moment.
What I remember about that game is this. Warming up in the bullpen, it was kind of misty, kind of rainy. They had that little net over the top of us so fans don’t throw stuff on you and stuff like that. Then I remember walking out to the mound in the first inning and toeing the rubber, remembering that Roger Clemens just pitched off this mound—just now pitched off this mound. It was nothing about the 300th win. I would’ve loved to have made him wait five more days, but that’s it. I don’t remember much else. I never looked up into the stands. I don’t even remember walking on and off the field. I don’t remember pitches or how the guys hit. I just know we got the loss.
The next thing I remember is sitting in Tony’s office after the game. He was like, "You know, I just want to commend you on a great game. You gave us an opportunity to get the win. You made some tough pitches." I think he understood the moment too. It was one of those things that Tony does well. Tony had never really talked to me before that, sitting down or anything like that.
Other than that, it was cool because I had my dad up in the stands—it was father’s day weekend. A couple of my friends had made the trip up to New York, so we had a good weekend. The best thing was on Sunday. Even though I got the loss, I mean what the heck, I mean, it was his 300th win.
The best thing was on Sunday when he went out to go pitch his bullpen. I was out in right field, and he came running by. I was like, "Hey Rocket!" He looked over, and I ran over to him and said, "Hey, listen, I’ve got a jersey, and I was just wondering if you would sign it along with some baseballs," and he looked at me and said, "Bring anything over, and I’ll knock it out. I’ll sign whatever you want." So, I have his jersey hanging up in my house right now, so that’s pretty cool.
As I stated earlier, I am extremely grateful for the time Jason devoted to completing this interview. Despite the fact that it was a game day for the Chiefs, he gave me 25 minutes of his time. The Cardinals are lucky to have a guy like him in the organization.