9 Innings with Former MLB Pitcher and Billings Mustangs Hall of Famer Mike LaCoss
Mike LaCoss spent 14 years in the majors with the Reds, Royals, Astros and Giants. But before he made it the show, he started out with the Billings Mustangs. We recently had the chance to catch up with Mike, who now lives in California and runs a great website called iBaseballChannel.com
When did you first come to Billings and what was that experience like for you?
I was drafted in 1974 by the Cincinnati Reds, straight out of high school. The day after I signed my contract, I was on a plane to Billings. My salary was $500 a month and they gave us $5 a day for meals.
Jimmy Hoff was our manager. These days he works in the Tampa Bay Rays organization. Back then, there were no coaches. We only had a manager. And they used to have tryouts for undrafted players.
I spent the '74 season playing with the Mustangs. There were four teams in the Pioneer League: Great Falls, Idaho Falls, Ogden, Utah, and Billings. We started slow, but came on strong to finish in 2nd place.
We played at the old Cobb Field. I remember one night, Harry Spilman hit a line drive that went right through the wall in right field.
Is it true that you stayed at the Northern Hotel for $5 a day?
Yes. That's was their special rate for players. And they used to open up a room in the basement so we could stash all of our belongings when we were out of town on road trips. I've heard the rooms are a little pricier these days.
Did any of your teammates from that Billings team make it the big leagues?
That 1974 Reds draft class is one of the best ever. I think 9 of us eventually made it to the majors. Charlie Neal was my roommate at the Northern Hotel. We had Harry Spilman, Danny Driessen, Ron Oaster, Mike Grace, Steve Henderson, Dan Norman, Paul Moskau. That was a great team.
Have you been back to Billings since you played here?
I was the Reds minor league pitching coordinator back in 2006. I made a few trips back to Billings that summer. They had finally got a new fence for the old ballpark. I'm hoping to come back again and bring our iBaseballChannel camp to Billings one of these days.
What was it like to get inducted into the Billings Mustangs Hall of Fame?
I didn't even know I had been inducted. Somebody told me about it after it had been announced. When I heard the news, I was honored. Although, I wish they'd put my picture in their showcase.
Billings Legion Baseball is one of the best youth baseball programs in the country, they have produced several big leaguers and sent hundreds to college. How important are youth development programs to the future of the game?
iBaseballChannel is a big supporter of American Legion. We do a lot of camps here in California. I’m hoping to bring some big leaguers to Billings and do a camp. We come in for a couple of days and teach kids the fundamentals of the game. It's also about teaching the parents and the coaches too. We think leagues should adopt bylaws for players, coaches and parents.
The biggest reason why kids don’t move onto the next level is because they have a poor experience. Maybe they had an unfair coach, or they didn’t get to play, or their parents were embarrassing them in the stands. I see coaches yelling at kids. I see coaches are calling pitches in little league games. I've seen little leaguers throw over 100 pitches. That’s too much. We need to make these experiences better for kids from t-ball all the way up to college.
Another problem is that there are fewer former players working in the community to develop young players. There isn’t an app for that. You have to be on the field engaging with kids.
You played on some great teams in your career. What was it like coming up with the Big Red Machine in the late 70’s?
My first start in majors was in 1978. We had players like Bench, Rose, Morgan, Foster, Griffey. We had just traded for Tom Seaver. I was lucky because I had been around those guys in spring training for a couple of seasons, so I wasn't in awe of them.
I was also very lucky to have mentors like Johnny Bench, who took young players under his wing. He showed us how to act, on and off the field. And, of course, we had one of the greatest managers in the history of the game, Sparky Anderson.
Who is the best player you ever played with and was there ever a batter who always had your number?
It's hard to pick the best because there have been so many. I played with Nolan Ryan in Houston and he had the greatest stuff I have ever seen. I'd put him up there with Johnny Bench. There's only six catchers in the Hall of Fame and I was lucky to throw to one of them.
I'll never forget the night Johnny hit three home runs in one game. They were all sinkers and he pulled them over the left field wall at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego. And back then, you had to really hit it hard to get it out at that ballpark.
As for batters who had my number. For a while, Andre Dawson was hitting .450 off of me. But a lot of players could get hits. I was a sinker-baller and I was known for keeping the ball in the park. In 14 years, I gave up 99 home runs. But I never really kept track of which batters had good averages against me. By the time you face someone 50 times, there’s no mystery. You just have to make good pitches.
Tell us about your latest venture, iBaseballChannel.com.
It's a baseball site for baseball fans. We're about more than statistics and standings. We tell timeless stories. You'll see a lot of in depth analysis about the game. We have great interviews with the legends of the game. We also talk to fans from all walks of life. We have interviewed several musicians about their love for baseball. We talked to Kenny Loggins and the Gin Blossoms.
Lately, we've expanded into videos, podcasts and fan forums. We’re going to do monthly live chats with pro ballplayers. We’re going to be associate producers on a feature film about the first deaf mute baseball player. And we love to get involved with local baseball fan pages. If you have one, reach out to me. I'd love to be part of a Billings baseball fan page.
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