SABR

Jeff Innis

This article was written by Rory Costello.

With his low sidearm/semi-submarine delivery, Jeff Innis provided an effective contrast in the New York Mets bullpen from 1987 through 1993. The righty was typical of his breed of pitcher. He had a good sinker and so kept the ball in the park, giving up just 22 home runs in 360 career innings pitched. He was also more effective against righty hitters (.227 opponents’ batting average, .314 slugging percentage) than lefties (.290 and .407). Innis could work frequently, too, averaging 71 appearances a year from 1991 through 1993.

“I-Man” wasn’t a zany reliever in the mold of Tug McGraw – he was more subtle. Journalists called him “pensive” and “self-effacing,” but also observed that he was bright, with a dry, quirky wit.1 As Mets beat writers Bob Klapisch and John Harper observed, “Armed with a degree in psychology from the University of Illinois, Innis can disarm players and writers alike with his impersonations of anyone in the clubhouse.”2 Perhaps his best and funniest imitation was of Mets general manager Frank Cashen, who provided a rich target with his bow tie and distinctive, lawyerly manner of speech.

Jeffrey David Innis was born on July 5, 1962 in Decatur, Illinois. This small Midwestern city is in the central part of the “Land of Lincoln,” about 45 miles east of Springfield, the state capital. His father, Peter Innis – “one of the best athletes to ever come through Decatur” – was a star receiver in football and a baseball player at Millikin University there.3 The New Jersey native then became a teacher and coach at Eisenhower and MacArthur High Schools.4

Mrs. June Innis (née Enos) was also a teacher in the Decatur school system; her specialty was speech and language therapy. She and Pete had two children. Jeff’s older brother Brian (born 1960) was a sixth-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1982. Also a pitcher, Brian threw a no-hitter for Lodi in the California League on July 21, 1982. He was in the minors until arm problems prompted his release in May 1985. He climbed as high as Double A and posted an overall record of 20-17 with a 3.76 ERA.

Brian Innis (6’5”, 200 pounds) was a good deal taller and heavier than Jeff (6’1”, 170). He had a conventional delivery, as did Jeff originally. Both the Innis boys went to Eisenhower High, which has produced three other big-leaguers: Roe Skidmore (1970; singled in his only plate appearance in the majors); four-time NL batting champ Bill Madlock (1973-87); and Kevin Roberson (1993-96). The Innis brothers both also went to the University of Illinois at Champaign, about 50 miles northeast of Decatur.

In 2012, Jeff recalled that he first dropped his arm angle as a freshman. When asked about the reason for the change, he replied simply, “I wasn’t getting guys out!” Even then, he was primarily a reliever. With his new delivery, he set a school record with nine saves in 1982.5 That year he also made the Big Ten tournament team.

While in college, Jeff also met his wife to be. Kelly McNee was an All-America cross-country and indoor-track runner at Illinois. They got married on November 21, 1992 (and divorced amicably around 2005).

During the summers, Innis played in the Cape Cod Baseball League (CCBL). He was co-MVP for the Cotuit Kettleers in 1981 – following two future Mets teammates: Tim Teufel (1979) and Ron Darling (1980). When Jeff became a member of the CCBL Hall of Fame in 2008, the press release said, “Innis was one of the first true closers in the Cape League. He led the league in saves and games in 1981 and ’82, the only pitcher to accomplish that feat. Cotuit won the championship in ’81 as Innis went 1-1 with a save in four appearances in the playoffs.” In addition, “Innis finished first in ERA in 1981 (2.34) and was second in 1982 (1.96), finishing with a career ERA of 2.15 during the aluminum bat era.” 6

In June 1983, after Innis’ junior year, the Mets made him their 13th-round draft pick. The scout was Terry Ryan, who later became general manager of the Minnesota Twins. Jeff’s first stop in the minors was Little Falls of the short-season Class A NY-Penn League. He made an excellent first impression – 8-0 with a 1.37 ERA in 28 games, including eight saves – and jumped to Double A for the 1984 season. With Jackson in the Texas League, he showed some wildness, walking 40 batters in 59 1/3 innings pitched. This contributed to his record of 6-5, 4.25 in 42 games; again he picked up eight saves.

Innis was sent down to Single A in 1985; as fellow Mets farmhand Joe Graves put it in his book, “He was a good pitcher and he would actually end up in the major leagues in a couple of years. I guess he had to take one step back to take two steps forward.”7 Indeed, following a nice year at Lynchburg in the Carolina League (6-3, 2.34 in 53 games, with 14 saves), he returned to Jackson in 1986. As the closer, he saved a club-record 25 games in 56 appearances (4-5, 2.45), and was named to the Texas League all-star team.

On the way up, Innis adjusted his approach, with the help of two former big-league pitchers. In 2012, he said, “I used to be more like Dan Quisenberry, really submarine, but Jim Bibby, my pitching coach at Lynchburg, got me to come up more to sidearm. He thought I’d be more effective. I wound up a little below. Then Glenn Abbott, the pitching coach at Jackson, taught me how to throw a sinker.”

The 24-year-old started the 1987 season with the Mets’ top farm club, Tidewater. He appeared in 29 games with five saves for the Tides (6-1, 2.03) – sandwiched around four stints with the big club. In fact, Innis bounced up and down between New York and Tidewater no fewer than 11 times during his first four seasons.8

With the Mets, the rookie was 0-1, 3.16 in 17 games. His debut came at Shea Stadium on May 16, as he entered in the ninth inning of a game that was tied 4-4. He set down the San Francisco Giants 1-2-3, but in the 10th, as Joseph Durso of the New York Times wrote, Jeffrey Leonard “whacked [a sinkerball] off the top of the fence in right-center just above the glove of a leaping Darryl Strawberry for a [solo] home run.” The Mets could not tie it up again. Yet Innis was realistic, telling Durso, “I didn’t have any wild fantasies about striking out 10 guys in a row.”9

Perhaps the other most notable appearance for Innis that season took place later that month at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. On May 26, in his third outing with the Mets, he was pressed into service as the starter when Rick Aguilera was a last-minute scratch. (Aguilera’s bad elbow then sidelined him for most of 1987 and 1988.) It was Jeff’s only start in 288 major-league and 362 minor-league games. He went four innings and gave up seven hits, including a homer to Will Clark, but got a no-decision as the Mets came back to win, 3-2. When asked about this outing in 2012, and whether manager Davey Johnson might have let him go longer, Innis replied, “He knew I was a reliever. He just wanted to get a few innings out of me, and we were in the game. I didn’t really have any say in it.”

In those years, the Mets had a pitcher with a rather similar delivery on their staff: Terry Leach. Leach dropped down more than Innis – looking from behind the mound, likened to the big hand on a clock, Leach’s arm angle was approximately 4:00 or 4:30 whereas Innis was at something more like 3:30-4:00. “That’s about right,” Innis said in 2012. “He wasn’t really a submariner either, but he was a little below me.” The value of contrast was lessened by having both men on the staff, although their repertoires were different. Among other things, Innis used a curveball and even the odd knuckleball as well as sinkers and sliders.

It’s also notable that in 1987, owing to injuries to frontline starters, Leach started 12 games while relieving in 32 others. The Alabaman returned to long relief in 1988, co-existing with Innis from April through June. Jeff got into just 12 games with the 1988 Mets (1-1, 1.89) before returning to Tidewater (0-5, 3.54 with four saves in 34 games). His first of 10 major-league wins came on June 4 at Shea Stadium. Coming on in relief of Leach in the 12th inning, he pitched two scoreless innings against the Chicago Cubs – then Kevin McReynolds ended the game with a leadoff homer in the bottom of the 13th.

The situation was finally resolved when New York traded Leach to the Kansas City Royals in June 1989. Later that month, they recalled Innis from Tidewater, where he had gone 3-1, 2.12 with 10 saves in 25 games. For the remainder of the year with the Mets, he was 0-1, 3.18 in 29 games. Yet Leach still cast a long shadow, as author Richard Grossinger later related.

“Years later he [Leach] heard from an ex-teammate still on the Mets how, after he left, the club tried to get another submarine hurler, Jeff Innis, who had a different game entirely, to replace Terry: ‘The guys would be all over him, telling him how Leachie used to do things. It was Leachie this, Leachie that. Leachie’s way was the right way. Things haven’t been the same since Leachie left. . .Finally Innis said to them, "Well, why did you get rid of Leach anyway? Why don’t you just get him back if you can’t get along without him?"'"10

While at Tidewater in May 1989, Innis had said, “Until I actually fail in the big leagues, I’ll always believe I can pitch up there.” In the same story, Glenn Abbott, who had become the Tides pitching coach, said, “His makeup is ideal for a relief pitcher. Pressure never bothers him. It doesn’t matter if the bases are loaded and the game is on the line or if the bases are empty – he treats every situation the same.”11

Innis made the big club to start the 1990 season, but after getting into just three games during April, he was sent down. He returned in June and recorded his first big-league save on June 29. He got the last two outs against Cincinnati at Shea – but it wasn’t easy. Trailing 4-1, with Mariano Duncan on first, Reds manager Lou Piniella brought in lefty Ken Griffey Sr. as a pinch hitter. Innis got the 40-year-old veteran to fly out, but then another lefty, Paul O’Neill, doubled. After a wild pitch scored Duncan, Innis finally ended it by retiring Billy Hatcher on a 1-3 groundout.

In late July, Innis returned to Tidewater; he was called up again when rosters expanded in September. Overall, he was 5-2, 1.71 in 40 games with 19 saves for the Tides, while going 1-3, 2.39 in 18 games for the Mets.

The shuttle finally stopped in 1991, as Innis spent the entire season in New York. A New York Times feature during spring training showed him with extra determination to stick, especially by addressing his main weakness. “A clever and conscientious right-hander whose sweeping sidearm curve defused right-handed bats with regularity, Innis was still vulnerable to left-handers. . . ‘The way I get left-handers out is to come inside, that is clear to me,’ Innis said. ‘Before, guys have leaned over the plate, thinking they can do whatever they want.’”12

That June, the Long Island newspaper Newsday wrote, “Suddenly. . .Jeff Innis’ role is changing, along with his results and his visibility. During closer John Franco’s recent back injury, manager Bud Harrelson began using Innis more as a setup man than a mop-up man. The move has done wonders for Innis and has paid dividends for the Mets. The key, he said, has been his ability to retire lefthanded batters consistently. The righthander’s sidearm motion has always been trouble for righthanded batters, but now he is nearly as confident against lefties.”13

He finished 0-2, 2.66 in 69 games, gaining the odd distinction of becoming the first big-league pitcher to appear in 60 or more games with no wins and no saves.14 This was a factor when he went to salary arbitration that offseason; “the Mets won their case against Innis when arbitrator Richard Kasher decided the Mets’ proposed salary of $355,000 was closer to Innis’ value than the $650,000 proposal the pitcher had submitted.”15

Innis made 76 appearances for the Mets in 1992, setting a club record that lasted until 1999, when Turk Wendell broke it by getting into 80 games. He posted a 6-9 record with a 2.86 ERA. New York finished in fifth place that year, becoming known as “The Worst Team Money Could Buy.” Author John Feinstein wrote, “Things had gotten so bad in the clubhouse that by the end of [August], Jeff Innis, the thoughtful relief pitcher, summed up the atmosphere best: ‘I don’t care about anyone giving me credit anymore. I just don’t want the blame.’”16

Feinstein also described Innis as “the very intelligent, funny middle-relief pitcher. . .who has managed to keep being a baseball player in perspective in an era when it is very easy to think a major league uniform makes you something special. ‘I used to think that being a big league player was a really big deal,’ Innis said one morning with a smile on his face. ‘But when I look around at some of the guys who are big leaguers, I realize it really isn’t that big a deal.’”17

Innis spent his final year in the majors with the Mets in 1993. As STATS Inc.’s Scouting Report annual for 1994 put it, “In a bullpen filled with sore arms and disappointments in 1993, Jeff Innis provided a steadying presence. Innis didn’t have an outstanding year, but he did work very often (more games than any other Mets reliever, for the third consecutive year) and usually effectively. Innis was a stabilizing force during the Mets’ disastrous second half, when the club seemed to be falling apart.”18 He was 2-3 with a 4.11 ERA in 67 games, picking up three saves. That brought his lifetime totals to 10 wins, 20 losses, a 3.05 ERA and five saves.

After the 1993 season, the Mets did not offer a contract to Innis, making him a free agent. He signed in February 1994 with the Twins, where the man who scouted him, Terry Ryan, was vice president (Ryan became GM that September). The St. Paul Pioneer Press described it as a welcome change from the chaos of the Mets clubhouse the previous season. “Hmmm. Nobody in the room had thrown a firecracker at fans in the past year. Nobody had sprayed bleach at reporters recently. Nobody injured a pitcher while swinging a golf club in the clubhouse last summer.”19

Although manager Tom Kelly liked Innis’ different delivery, the Twins did not keep Jeff on their staff after spring training 1994. The most notable thing that happened to him during camp was giving up the first base hit to basketball superstar and Birmingham Barons outfielder Michael Jordan, who had left the NBA to try to make the Chicago White Sox. After the infield single, Innis said, “Let me put it this way: I hope he gets another hit.”20

After the Twins cut him, Innis nearly retired, but his wife Kelly convinced him to give it another shot with Minnesota’s top farm team, the Salt Lake Buzz. He said, “Sometimes it’s hard to have fun in the big leagues with all the money at stake and all the pressure that goes along with it. Don’t get me wrong. I want another chance up there, but I’m going to have a good attitude and have fun while I’m in Triple-A.” He also wanted to pass on his experience to younger pitchers and be a positive example of how to cope with going up and down. He talked about how at Tidewater, Clint Hurdle and Terry Leach had encouraged him not to give up.21

Innis also experimented again with the knuckleball.22 “I could always throw it,” he said in 2012. “In Instructional League, they had me working on it with Joe Niekro. I probably threw a total of 30 to 40 in my major-league career. In fact, one of my baseball cards [it appears to be the 1994 Topps] shows me with a knuckleball grip. But the conditions in Salt Lake City, with the altitude, weren’t conducive to it.”

Innis got into seven games with the Buzz (0-0, 2.70) but was released near the end of April at his own request. “I felt weird with the Twins,” he remembered in 2012. “I had a good camp, but I don’t know what it was, I felt like I wasn’t going to get a chance with them. Plus, they were going to send another guy down to Double A, but he was married and had a kid.” At that point, Jeff and Kelly had not started their own family.

About a couple of weeks later, Innis signed with Las Vegas, the top farm club of the San Diego Padres. Over the remainder of the 1994 season, he was 1-2, 3.96 with one save in 33 games. As the major-league strike dragged on, he again pondered retirement.23 Instead, he reached a verbal agreement with the Philadelphia Phillies in November 1994, signing officially the following February. The circumstances were curious, as the Press of Atlantic City described. “Jeff Innis heard that Norm Charlton had successfully talked his way out of attending the Phillies replacement camp and into having solo workouts at Jack Russell Stadium. The 32-year-old reliever wishes he could do the same without jeopardizing his chance to return to the major leagues for the first time since 1993.”24

“It’s hard for me to describe the feeling,” Innis told the Philadelphia Inquirer a couple of days later. “It’s strange to be lockering next to a replacement player when so many people you’ve played with are out on strike.”25 About a month after that, he told the Atlantic City columnist, Ed Hilt, “I guess you could say I’m a little depressed.”26

The strike ended, and Innis was assigned to the Phillies’ top affiliate, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He appeared in 15 games and posted six saves for the Barons, but was let go in May 1995. He thereupon retired for good.

Jeff’s 1992 Topps baseball card noted that he hoped one day to join the FBI. Since his playing days, however, his main occupation has been selling commercial insurance to businesses. He also offers private pitching lessons through his clinic, Jeff Innis Pitching. He doesn’t impose his style on any of his students, but he says, “I have some sidearm kids, they come to me. And if I see a kid who isn’t getting anywhere with a conventional delivery, and he’s athletic enough, I won’t hesitate to suggest it.” He thinks sidearm/submarine pitchers have become a little more common at the big-league level than they were in his day.

Cumming, Georgia (north of Atlanta) has been home for Innis since he left pro ball. His two children take after their parents. “My son, Keenan, is 17. He’s committed to Georgia Tech. He’s an outfielder and pitcher, and he throws sidearm. My daughter, Shannon, is 16. She runs track and dances.”

Looking back on his career in 2012, Innis underscored a main theme: the mental dimension of baseball. “The challenges, the perseverance, all that it took to get to the majors – and stay there – all that has given me a lot of confidence in how I handle my life and the challenges that come up. The competition is huge, especially when you throw only 83 miles per hour. Going up and down so many times, there was never a guarantee that I would be back. Lasting even for a few years, it was about the commitment – setting goals and accomplishing them – and the thought processes.”

 

Grateful acknowledgment to Jeff Innis for his memories (telephone interview, May 18, 2012).

 

Sources

www.baseball-reference.com

www.retrosheet.org

www.fightingillini.com

www.capecodbaseball.org

www.kettleers.org

 

Notes

1 Bob Klapisch and John Harper, The Worst Team Money Could Buy (New York, New York: Random House, 1993), xvi. Marty Noble, “Innis in the Morning,” Newsday (Long Island, New York), February 22, 1992.

2 Klapisch and Harper, The Worst Team Money Could Buy, xvi.

3 Mark Tupper, “Innis’ legacy goes beyond ugly incident,” Herald & Review (Decatur, Illinois), June 3, 2005, B1.

4 Obituaries, Herald & Review, June 1, 2005, D3.

5 “Arms Lift Illini to 5-2 Win Over OSU,” Fighting Illini website, May 8, 2010 (http://www.fightingillini.com/sports/m-basebl/recaps/050810aab.html)

6 “2008 Cape Cod Baseball League Hall of Fame Class Announced,” Cape Cod Baseball League press release, June 8, 2008 (http://capecodbaseball.org/news/league/?article_id=210)

7 Joe Graves, I See Me in Your Eyes (Union City, Tennessee: self-published, 2006), 99.

8 Loren Jorgensen, “Innis hopes to have more fun in Salt Lake,” Deseret News, April 5-6, 1994, D3.

9 Joseph Durso, “Skidding Mets Fall to Giants, 5-4,” New York Times, May 17, 1987.

10 Richard Grossinger, The New York Mets: Ethnography, Myth, and Subtext (Berkeley, California: Frog Ltd., 2007), 114.

11 Charlie Denn, “Tides’ Pitcher Keeps Cool, Becomes Team’s Stopper,” Newport News Daily Press, May 28, 1989.

12 Joe Sexton, “Innis Finally Feels at Home in Clubhouse,” New York Times, March 18, 1991.

13 Neil Best, “Innis Exchanges Mop for Better Results,” Newsday, June 30, 1991.

14 Through the 2011 season, eight pitchers after Innis had posted the same peculiar marks.

15 Marty Noble, “Innis: Still No Win,” Newsday, February 7, 1992.

16 John Feinstein, Play Ball: The Life and Troubled Times of Major League Baseball (New York, New York: Villard Books, 1993). Page number not visible online.

17 Ibid.

18 John Dewan (editor), The Scouting Report, 1994 (New York, New York: HarperPerennial, 1994), 547.

19 “Innis Excited to Be Among Normal Ballplayers,” St. Paul Pioneer Press, February 20, 1994, 1B. The culprits were Vince Coleman (firecracker), Bret Saberhagen (bleach), and Coleman again (9-iron striking Dwight Gooden’s shoulder blade).

20 “Jordan’s first hit,” Associated Press, March 15, 1994.

21 Jorgensen, “Innis hopes to have more fun in Salt Lake”

22 Ibid.

23 Mike Albright, “Innis’ retirement probable,” Herald & Review, September 22, 1994, D1.

24 Ed Hilt, “Reliever Innis Walks Tightrope,” Press of Atlantic City, February 22, 1995.

25 “Somehow the ‘Ins’ Feel rather Out of It,” Philadelphia Inquirer, February 24, 1995, D3.

26 Ed Hilt, “No Bounce in His Step in This Gloomy Spring,” Press of Atlantic City, March 25, 1995.

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