By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
To say Bill Sampen had an unlikely big league career would be a massive understatement.
The former Montreal Expos right-hander grew up in Emden, Ill., a tiny farming community (population 500) and attended an equally tiny high school (approximately 120 students) whose baseball team was managed by the basketball coach.
Outside of high school, Sampen competed in a small league against kids from neighboring communities. And though he was a standout player, his skills were so raw that he failed to make the local American Legion team after his junior year in high school.
“I literally had no one recruit me out of high school – and I mean literally no one,” said Sampen in a recent phone interview. “There were a couple of small schools that talked to me for basketball, which I ended up playing, but I didn’t have anyone recruit me for baseball.”
A high scoring two guard on the hardcourt, Sampen ended up attending MacMurray College, a Division III school in Jacksonville, Ill., starting in 1982.
“The baseball program at MacMurray was not good,” explained Sampen. “The coach was probably a volunteer. He was a nice guy, but there just wasn’t much of a program. I mean, we had no outfield fence. We had no dugouts. So there just wasn’t a lot there.”
Sampen, a pitcher and a shortstop at the time, knew he had to compete against stronger competition if he wanted to advance in baseball, so at the end of each college year, he attempted to latch on with a summer collegiate club.
“I called the franchises in different summer collegiate leagues to try to get a tryout to play baseball and I couldn’t even get a tryout,” said Sampen. “They had no idea who I was. They had never heard of MacMurray College. So I played slo-pitch every summer during college.”
It wasn’t until his senior season in 1985, when he was 22, that scouts began regularly appearing at his games.
“I honestly didn’t pay a lot of attention to them at first,” he recalled. “I didn’t know why they were there. I wondered who they were watching. I never talked to any of them.”
But by the end of his senior season, he knew he had a shot at being drafted.
“I figured I would probably get drafted, but I figured it would be in the 50th round,” said Sampen.
So when draft day arrived, he wasn’t waiting anxiously by the phone, but instead was shooting hoops in a friend’s laneway when his mother called his friend’s house.
“She told me that the Pirates had drafted me in the 12th round. I went, ‘Oh, OK. Cool. Thanks.’ Then I went back out and played basketball because I had no clue what that meant,” said Sampen.
But that call marked the beginning of Sampen’s professional baseball odyssey that would span 10 seasons, including three with the Montreal Expos.
Born in 1963, Sampen was raised on a farm operated by his father, Gerald, and his mom, Jeanne, in Emden, Ill., which is located in the middle of the state.
“The population sign in town was always 500,” said Sampen. “I literally remember one time when they changed it to 550 and that was a big deal. It was a really, really small farming community.”
Sampen grew up a St. Louis Cardinals fan, cheering on Bob Gibson and Lou Brock. As a child, he would sit in a chair and listen to Jack Buck call games on the radio.
“I had two older sisters, so I was alone a lot,” recalled Sampen. “I’d be out shooting baskets or throwing a rubber ball against the front steps. I just always had a ball in my hand.”
It was his dad, Gerald, who introduced him to baseball and signed him up for the local youth team that played against neighboring communities.
“We weren’t part of the Little League sanction,” said Sampen. “We just played other little local towns in our own league that we formed. We had enough players, but we never had too many. But we made it work and I got a lot of playing time that way.”
Almost from the first time he stepped on a diamond, Sampen preferred to be on the mound.
“I literally always pitched from the time I started playing,” he said. “I think I’ve pitched since third grade.”
Sampen built up his arm strength, but it wasn’t until he was 18 when he cracked the local American Legion (Post 263) squad that he truly played competitive baseball. So in hindsight, he can understand why he failed to garner interest from colleges or professional teams out of high school.
“I didn’t play anywhere where I would be noticed,” he said. “I was cut from the Legion team in my junior year and Legion baseball, that was the travel ball of the day, where you were probably going to get a lot more exposure. And my high school had like 120 kids in it. So there wasn’t anybody watching us.”
Sampen also hadn’t had any elite coaching.
“I was good in high school, but I had no idea what I was doing as a pitcher,” he said. “I just stood on the mound and tried to throw the ball as hard as I could. That was my idea of pitching. So I was raw. I was probably 6-1 or 6-2 and weighed 160 pounds. Yeah, I had some arm strength, but there just wasn’t a lot there that would attract a college coach.”
He feels he started to mature as a pitcher in his junior and senior college seasons and that’s when scouts started showing up at his games. During that period, his talents caught the eye of Pittsburgh Pirates’ scout Gene Baker, who convinced his club to select Sampen in the 12th round of the 1985 MLB draft.
Following the draft, Baker reached out to Sampen.
“He called and we met at a Holiday Inn in Lincoln, Illinois,” recalled Sampen. “He bought us dinner and they gave us [a signing bonus of] $3,000. That’s all I got. But at the time, I was like, ‘Alright, that’s $3,000 more than I thought I would get. Where do I sign?’”
Sampen entered the Bucs’ minor league system as a raw right-hander with a high-80s fastball and a strong sinker. He’d also work to perfect a changeup and slider.
He reported to the Pirates’ class-A Short-Season affiliate in Watertown where he posted a 1.80 ERA in five relief appearances while pitching through excruciating pain in his throwing arm. He would undergo ligament release surgery after the season.
He returned to Waterdown in 1986, but his arm still hurt and he was limited to nine appearances. The Pirates promoted him to class-A Salem the ensuing campaign, where he posted a 9-8 record and a 3.84 ERA in 152 2/3 innings in 26 starts. However, he was still experiencing pain in his arm and following the season, doctors discovered a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder and he underwent another procedure.
“I pitched that whole season in Salem with a torn labrum and it hurt like heck. There were times that I didn’t even throw between starts it hurt so bad,” said Sampen.
Once he recovered from his second surgery, Sampen split the 1988 season between class-A Salem and double-A Harrisburg and went 9-6 with a 3.56 ERA in 21 appearances, including 20 starts. That set the stage for his outstanding 1989 season when he returned to double-A and posted an 11-9 record and a 3.21 ERA in 26 starts, spanning 165 2/3 innings.
The Montreal Expos took notice and selected him in the Rule 5 draft that December.
“It was a huge, huge key for me to get that chance with Montreal,” said Sampen.
The then 27-year-old right-hander reported to Expos’ big league camp in 1990. As a Rule 5 pick, he had to remain on the Expos’ roster for the entire season or be offered back to the Pirates for half of the $50,000 price the Expos paid to select him.
Sampen says Expos veterans like Tim Wallach, Andres Galarraga, Tim Raines, Tom Foley, Tim Burke and Mike Fitzgerald welcomed him to camp with open arms. He arrived with the attitude that he had been given a great opportunity to pitch in the majors.
“I kind of went in with a can’t lose attitude because I couldn’t,” he said. “The worst thing that could happen was that I was back where I was, which was probably in triple-A with Pittsburgh. So that was pretty liberating for me to just go out and do my thing and see what happened.”
Fortunately for him, Sampen was effective that spring and impressed Expos manager Buck Rodgers and pitching coach Larry Bearnarth enough to make the club. And as fate would have it, he made his major league debut on April 10, 1990 against the St. Louis Cardinals, the team he grew up cheering for, at Busch Stadium with his mom and dad in the crowd. He entered the game in relief in the seventh inning.
“That was frightening. I was pitching against the team I had followed my entire life. I mean I knew all of those players – Willie McGee, Ozzie Smith, Jose Oquendo and Vince Coleman – those were guys that I had just been routing for literally up until that year. And now I’m on the field competing against them, so it was frightening at first and surreal,” said Sampen.
But after Tom Brunansky, the first batter he faced, lined a single to right field, he settled down to complete two scoreless innings in the Expos’ 4-2 loss.
That outing would be a sign of good things to come for Sampen. The 6-foot-1 righty evolved into one of the Expos’ most versatile and valuable pitchers that season. He was primarily used as the club’s long man out of the bullpen, but he also made four starts.
His most memorable appearance was his five-inning relief outing against the San Diego Padres at Jack Murphy Stadium on August 15. With the Expos and Padres tied 3-3, Sampen was summoned into the game in the 13th inning. He proceeded to toss five scoreless innings, allowing just one hit, and secured the win when the Expos scored two runs in the top of the 17th.
“I remember I had warmed up at least three times that game,” said Sampen. “And honestly, I still didn’t know how to warm up as a reliever. Sometimes, I went too hot too fast because I didn’t know what I was doing. When I finally got the call to go in, I was already gassed. I felt like I had nothing left.”
Fortunately he still had the stamina of a starting pitcher from his minor league days and he gutted out five near flawless innings.
Sampen completed his rookie big league season with the Expos with a team-high 12 wins and a 2.99 ERA. He also topped the team with 59 appearances.
He returned to the Expos the following spring and began the 1991 season in the starting rotation. On April 17, he tossed a career-high seven scoreless innings against the Cardinals at Olympic Stadium to earn the win. He returned to the bullpen in May and finished his sophomore campaign with a 9-5 record and a 4.00 ERA in 43 appearances.
While in Montreal, Sampen lived in a condo on Nuns’ Island.
“One of the things I regret about my career is that I didn’t experience much. I kind of just went to the field and then went home, so I know Montreal is a beautiful city, but I didn’t get out and experience it as much as I wish that I would have,” reflected Sampen. “Maybe someday I will get to go back and check it out from a different perspective.”
Sampen returned to the Expos’ bullpen in 1992. His ERA was a solid 3.13 in 43 appearances when he was dealt, along with left-hander Chris Haney, to the Kansas City Royals for third baseman Sean Berry and right-hander Archie Corbin on August 29, 1992.
Sampen recorded a 3.66 ERA in eight games down the stretch for the Royals, but struggled the next season before signing with the Angels for his final major league campaign in 1994.
Though Sampen was healthy, he opted to hang up his playing spikes when he was just 31.
“We had just starting having kids,” said Sampen. “It was hard at that point with all of the travel and trying to have a family life. I think my passion had maybe dwindled a bit as well. So there were just a few factors that went into that, that made me think it was the time to step away.”
After he retired, Sampen worked at various jobs, but he maintained a foothold in baseball as either a coach or instructor. In 2009, he and his wife Amy opened Samp’s Hack Shack, an Indiana-based business that offers instruction in baseball and softball to athletes of all ages and skill levels.
“We have two facilities (in Brownsburg and Plainfield) and we’re looking to expand,” said Sampen. “We have 15 travel teams just of our own, in addition to countless other teams and kids that we work with. So I didn’t necessarily start with the vision of where it’s at, but it kind of happened organically and it’s a lot of fun. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun. It’s been great to work with kids of all ages and all skill levels and watch them not just succeed in baseball, but just grow in confidence in themselves and their abilities.”
Each of his three sons, Isaac, Sam and Caleb, played at the collegiate level and have worked at the family business. Caleb is currently a right-handed pitcher in the Tampa Bay Rays’ organization.
Fittingly, Sampen’s elite travel teams are called the Indiana Expos. It was his family’s decision to use the name Expos, but he’s proud that his teams carry the name of the organization he enjoyed his greatest big league success with.
“The Expos will always be very near and dear to me,” he said. “I’ve always said that the Pirates are the organization that gave me a chance to play professionally and Montreal was the first team to give me an opportunity at the major league level, so I owe them a great debt of gratitude for giving me that chance and having some faith in me to throw me out there.”
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Excellent read. Well worth it!
Thanks for your kind words and for your support.
Great story Kevin. Thanks for the research and sharing.
Thanks for reading this and your support, Scott.