Former Houston Astros pitcher, Chris Sampson has quite the story. Sampson was drafted in 1999 by the Astros as a shortstop out of Texas Tech University. After struggling to hit in is first year of professional baseball, he decided to retire and take a coaching position at Collin College in Plano, Texas.
In a story that seems straight out of Disney, Sampson would frequently throw batting practice to his hitters and realized that after a couple of years away from playing, he may be able to pitch professionally. He ended up coming back and pitching five years in his career with the Astros, going 20-15 with a 4.42 ERA in 174 games. I recently had the opportunity to ask Sampson a few questions, and here is the transcript from my interview (edited for brevity and clarity).
Q: After your ’99 season as a light-hitting shortstop, you decided to retire from professional baseball. At what point did you know that you had the “bug” to get back in it, and how did you convince the Astros to give you the opportunity to pitch?
A: “I didn’t think I would have the bug to play [again]. It was around November or December of 2002 when I started thinking about calling the Astros for a second chance. I told them that I just wanted to play [and] didn’t care if it was shortstop or pitcher. We both agreed to give the mound a try over the phone. On January 6th, 2003 the Astros invited me to throw a bullpen [session] at Minute Maid Park in front of the head scouts and brass. [Afterwards] they invited me to Spring Training to see if we could make it work. I think we did!”
Q: Do you think your experience as a professional shortstop helped to make you a better pitcher in some way?
A: “Yes, [by] realizing how hard it really is to hit. As a pitcher I just wanted to attack the strike zone and make the hitter hit it. As a former shortstop, I know how boring it gets out there if the pitcher is walking everyone. I always liked playing shortstop behind pitchers that threw a lot of strikes and pitched to contact.”
Q: In 2006, you were called up to pitch for the Astros. Brad Ausmus was your catcher at that time. How much did he help you adjust to the majors?
A: “I think Brad was a huge help! [He was] a veteran catcher [and it] seemed like he knew every hitter’s weakness, and [had the] ability to call the game accordingly. Brad once told me, ‘You can shake my sign off if you want, but you had better be right because I know I am!’ Needless to say, I never shook Ausmus off my entire rookie year.”
Q: You worked as both a starter and reliever in your Major League career (and you were exceptionally good in runner at 1st and less than two out situations). Did you feel more comfortable as a starter or coming out of the bullpen?
A: “To be honest, I was comfortable in either role. I liked starting because I knew when I was going to pitch and could get in a routine. In the bullpen I hardly ever turned the line-up over, so I didn’t have to save any pitches [for] later in the game; I could use all of my pitches as soon as I got out there. Also, being a ground ball pitcher helped me [when I came into those] situations with a man on 1st with less than two outs.”
Q: Who would you say is your best friend from your Astro years?
A: “J.R. Towles.”
Q: You retired from the Marlins’ organization in 2011. Since your retirement, what have you been up to?
A: “I’ve been working with kids at my baseball academy, Lonestar Baseball Academy (www.lonestarbat.com). [I've also been] helping athletes and people of all ages achieve their health and fitness goals, as well as their financial goals through a nutritional company called Advocare (lonestarspark.com).”
Q: Have you been in contact with any of your former teammates since retirement?
A: “Yes I [have], through charity events, hunting, and Bible studies.”
Chris also said that he has considered getting back into professional baseball as a coach or instructor, and that he could see that happening one day if the opportunity were to arise. I finished up by asking him what he thought about the current Astros’ roster and their chances in the American League, and he answered with a simple “They are young! Best of luck!” I couldn’t have said it better myself!