The primary reason for our interview was to announce his partnership with Allstate Insurance for their “Good Hands in the Stands” promotion at the upcoming College World Series, being held from today to June 29 in Omaha, Nebraska. The promotion allows fans with ball-catching prowess both to raise some money for a worthy cause and to gain a little recognition—and a trophy—for their efforts. For every fan-caught fly ball, Allstate will donate $500 to Boys’ Town, the famed organization founded by Father Edward J. Flanagan in 1917 that inspired the 1939 film of the same name. Fans catching home run balls will add $1,000 each to Boys’ Town’s haul, up to a total of $25,000. This is Allstate’s third year sponsoring this challenge, but Kevin Millar’s first year working with Allstate. And no, despite what you’re thinking, this has nothing to do with the poor fan who lost Dustin Pedroia’s home run at Fenway a few weeks ago. Millar added “it’s a great cause,” and that he’s looking forward to catching a fly ball or two himself.
This will be Millar’s first time attending the College World Series, either as a player or a fan. He looks forward to seeing “the best that college baseball has to offer,” and notes that for baseball fans, this is one of their few chances to catch college baseball on television. “College football and basketball are on TV everywhere,” but, outside of a few conference championships, this will be pretty much their only chance to see collegiate baseball.
“When I was in college, we’d been knocked out [in earlier rounds], and I’d always been working after that” he noted, so this will be his inaugural trip to Omaha. His pick to win it all this year? Texas Christian University, although he admitted to having a bit of a “hometown bias,” as TCU is a short drive (by Texas standards) from his home in Austin, and he has several friends with kids on the team. “They’re a sleeper team, but they can win it all.”
We talked briefly about how the college game has evolved from Millar’s time in the late 90’s. Players are definitely “bigger, stronger, and faster” now compared to then, but offensive production has fallen off somewhat in recent years, following rule changes in 2011 that forced college hitters to switch to lighter and shorter bats that more closely mirror those in the professional leagues. “They’re eight ounces lighter and ten inches shorter, so you’re not seeing guys hit 30, 40 home runs a year like they used to.” The resulting changes put much more emphasis on baserunning, fielding, and pitching to make up for the drop-off in offensive output.
We also had the chance to talk about Millar’s career, and a few other “burning questions.” We examined how Millar started his career with the Sox, when he was claimed off of waivers after having agreed in principle to join the Kunichi Dragons in Japan. “For an MLB player to go to Japan, he first has to clear waivers from all 30 teams; that’s never happened in the history of MLB,” he noted. “[Theo] Epstein, who was 28 at the time, claimed me, and I was excited to stay in the States.” After Valentine’s Day, 2003, he drove his truck from Beaumont, TX to Fort Myers for spring training, starting “the best three years of my professional career.” (So it’s a pretty safe bet that, in the unlikely event that Cooperstown comes calling—”I wasn’t that good of a first baseman,” quipped Millar—he won’t be wearing a Marlins or Orioles cap into the Hall. “The ring makes all the difference.”)
Unfortunately, the 2003 season ended, as every Sox fan knows, in the ultimate heartbreak: the devastating 12th-inning loss to the Yankees in Game 7 of the American League Championship series. “Grady [Little] was in a no-win situation: if he had turned to the bullpen, people would have asked why he left Pedro [Martinez] in; if he had stuck with Pedro, people would have asked why he didn’t turn to the bullpen,” even though the bullpen was “by committee,” with Alan Embree, Mike Timlin, and a shifting supporting cast of characters. In the dugout, though, everyone wanted “to live and die with Pedro”; it was a gamble that didn’t work.
The 2004 team, however, managed to finish what the 2003 team started, however unlikely it may have seemed early in the season. When asked what he thought turned around the season, he cited the most famous game of the season, the one that brought us this iconic image:
Millar noted that after the game, he told his teammates: “we went 2-0 in that game: we won the fight, and the game!” The game, won by a Bil Mueller home run off of Mariano Rivera, turned “what was a .500 team into real contenders.”
Regarding the 2004 ALCS, when Millar had the biggest walk of his career, he had no doubts why he was pulled from the game for pinch runner Dave Roberts: “I was way too slow. I had seven steals in a 12-year career. But that was Dave’s gift. . . . He got a great jump, so he made it, even with a great throw from [Jorge] Posada to [Derek] Jeter.” The rest was history, but it was a great way to exorcise the demons “and break that 86-year curse.”
Finally, when asked who was the “real 1-5”—him or Dustin Pedroia—Millar was quick to answer. “I was the one who first wore 1-5 on a championship team,” he said, but was quick to credit Dustin Pedroia. “He’s the real deal: Rookie of the Year, MVP, has two rings. He’s a much better player than I am. But I’m happy to hold up my end of the skit.”
We’d like to thank Kevin Millar for his time, and for the folks at Taylor Strategy for arranging the interview.