Thirty years ago this week, when Vancouver Canadians pitcher Tom Drees threw his third no-hitter of the 1989 season, it was a momentous occasion.
After all, there are few things in baseball as glorious as the no-hitter. Story-wise, it has it all—skill, luck, teamwork, drama, and a steadily ratcheting tension which verges on the unbearable.
They’re also pretty rare: in a regular season schedule of 2,430 games, the major leagues usually see only one or two a year.
Now, after three decades, Drees laughs when asked about the moment he realized he had his first no-hitter on his hands, during a May 23, 1989 game against the Calgary Cannons.
“I think I knew from first batter that I had one going,” the affable southpaw chuckles, on the line from his Bloomington, MN office. “I don't buy into that 'I didn't know I had a no-hitter going until the sixth inning’ attitude—every pitcher knows when they give up their first hit. But once you get past the fifth or sixth, that's when it starts getting serious, and you can feel some real pressure building.”
As with most no-hitters, there were a couple of close calls.
“Lance Johnson really ran a couple of balls down,” recalls Drees, “he was a great centerfielder. There was also a ground ball up the middle to our shortstop, Keith Smith— he was a great defender and it's a play he made nine times out of ten but it's not easy—and they ruled it an error. I guess if I were batting I might have complained that it should have been a hit, but I don't think it was enough to break up a no-hitter.”
Drees next took to the mound on May 28, 1989, against the Edmonton Trappers, in a 7-inning double-header game.
“While I was warming up, our pitching coach Moe Drabowsky came up and said, 'Hey, don't even think about throwing another no-hitter, nobody throws two in a row.’"
Amazingly, Drees went on to do just that, making history as the first pitcher in the Pacific Coast League to throw back-to-back no-hitters (it’s only been done once in the majors, by Cincinnati’s Johnny Vander Meer, in 1938).
Making his double feat all the more surprising, Drees had just come off shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum.
“I probably came back too early, I had the surgery in November of ‘88 and then I was pitching in spring training which they would never allow nowadays. That April was typical raw Northwest weather, it would be 48 degrees [9 Celcius] and rainy and misty, and my shoulder did not feel good at all—it bothered me all the time—but it started getting better in mid-May when the weather improved.”
Drees notes that he never quite got his velocity back after the surgery, but it did help him improve his game, and refine control of the three main weapons in his arsenal: the fastball, the changeup, and the slider.
“I was a pitcher rather than a thrower,” he says. “I didn't have the raw natural stuff to just blow batters away, I tried to out-think and out-guess guys and pitch backwards sometimes.”
Drees’ tactics obviously worked: on August 16, 1989, he threw his third no-hitter of the season, this time against the Las Vegas Stars.
“That one really stands out to me, they had a lot of really good players on that team, like Sandy Alomar Jr., Jerald Clark, Joey Cora, Thomas Howard, Shane Mack, and Carlos Baerga. Guys who wound up playing in the big leagues for a long time.”
When asked how he felt after the game, Drees laughs again.
“I was hoping it would get me to the big leagues! Our team was having a really good year, and the White Sox’s general manager, Larry Himes, was there and he saw me throw it, and I thought, ‘Well, this gives me a pretty good chance of getting called up in September’. Unfortunately nobody on our team got called up that year.”
Despite his 3 no-hitters, a 3.37 ERA, and a league championship for the Canadians that year, Drees would remain in Vancouver for some time. As he explains, there may have been some extenuating circumstances.
“We were in Albuquerque in July and something had happened with our paycheques for the two pay periods before that,” he recalls. “They'd been delivered late. I was a single guy, I didn't really care, but for a lot of guys it was a big deal. They said 'Hey, if our paycheques don't arrive on time we're not playing tonight.' Albuquerque was having a Bob Feller night and there were 12,000 people there, and we went out for batting practice and then just came in, changed clothes, and went back to the hotel.”
Naturally, the one-day strike did not sit well with the White Sox management.
“They didn't call up a single player from the Canadians for the rest of the year. They called some Double-A guys, but no one from the Triple-A team.”
Still, the no-hitters definitely got Drees noticed. He made the cover of Baseball America, he got a write-up in Sports Illustrated, and saw his jersey and cap enshrined at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The Sox even flew Drees out to the original Comiskey Park for a special ceremony, although it turned out to be a somewhat awkward event.
“It was weird because there were a couple of guys I'd played with in Double-A, who'd been called up for September. It was uncomfortable for all of us, it was really bittersweet, standing in the clubhouse, and going up to get some plaque thinking you should have been there, getting major-league service time.”
Even though he would continue playing at the Triple-A level, it’s clear Drees has a lot of affection for his years here.
“Obviously the goal was to get out of the minors, but Vancouver’s a great city. I had a lot of fun there.”
When asked where he lived while he was here, Drees laughs.
“I don’t remember exactly where it was but it was right near Kits Pub,”—a venue which will bring back memories to many Vancouverites of a certain vintage—“I went there a lot after games!”
Drees did eventually get his cup of coffee with the Sox, but the call didn’t come until September of 1991.
“I flew home to Minneapolis to get my car and stuff and drove down to Chicago that day, and got thrown in the game that night.”
In his first outing, he suited up as a relief pitcher for his former Canadians teammate and roommate Jack McDowell. In all, Drees would pitch in four major league games, and stay with the Sox until the end of the season.
“It didn't go exactly like I wanted,” he says, alluding to the fact that he returned to Triple-A the next spring and wound up retiring at age 30 after the 1993 season, “but it was a great month, that’s for sure. It was the first year for the new Comiskey Park, and everything was brand-new. It was a really big change, a whole different level.”
Even if he harbors a little disappointment over the brevity of his major league career, the now 56-year-old Drees is by no means what Dylan Thomas—or Roger Kahn—might classify as one of “the boys of summer in their ruin”. His post-baseball life is clearly fully contented and productive, he’s married with a daughter and two sons, and his boys are now playing college ball.
Part of the reason for Drees’ post-baseball success is that he always had a back-up plan: even while playing, he worked in the off-seasons at financial firms like KPMG and Merrill Lynch, utilizing his accounting degree from Creighton College. Now at Morgan Stanley, he’s found a great deal of success .
“I've been managing wealth for 27 years now, and the vast majority of my clients are athletes,” he says. “I started out with mostly baseball players. Some of the guys I played with wound up in the big leagues for a long time, and now a lot of them are now managers and coaches. I also have a couple of front office guys—GMs and that kind of stuff—so you really see the evolution. It’s been a lot of fun.”
And now, it seems, enough time has passed that Drees can really put his baseball career into perspective.
“A couple of guys my age I know got put into the Twins' hall of fame, they're getting these lifetime achievement awards and you go to the ceremonies and you realize damn, we're all old, we used to be the young guys.”
He laughs once again, then turns contemplative.
“Days go by slow and years go by fast. That's pretty much it. But I loved Vancouver and everybody that played there loved Vancouver. The people were great and they’d always turn out and support the team. It was a lot of fun playing at the Nat.”