Bill Spiers (TRADING CARD DB)

Bill Spiers

This article was written by Jeremy Darnell

Bill Spiers (TRADING CARD DB)As confetti filled the sky within Raymond James Stadium on January 9, 2017, Clemson assistant football coach Bill Spiers soaked it all in. The Tigers — representing his alma mater, and the team of which his son Will was a member — had just beaten the Alabama Crimson Tide 35-31 in a dramatic national championship game.

After a 13-year major-league baseball career that included three heartbreaking postseason appearances, Spiers felt a sense of satisfaction that eluded him in his baseball career.

“You know that World Series I never won?” said a beaming Spiers. “Well, now I have a National Championship.”1

Spiers’ 1,252 game big-league career included stops with the Milwaukee Brewers, the New York Mets, and the Houston Astros. Though he came up as a top shortstop prospect in 1989, he would eventually play every position except pitcher and catcher.

“I took pride that I played every position and played it like I belonged there. I didn’t just fill in,” he said.2

Spiers finished his career with 922 hits, 158 doubles, and a .271 batting average. Though he battled injuries and inconsistency in his early years, over time he developed a reputation with managers and teammates as a clutch performer. He finished his career with a .303 average with runners in scoring position.

William James Spiers III was born on June 5, 1966 in Orangeburg, South Carolina, to Mary Jo and William “Bud” Spiers, Jr. The family lived in nearby Cameron, SC (population 607 according to the 1960 census), a quiet town just south of the Congaree River and east of Lake Marion, surrounded by massive fields of cotton, peanuts, corn, and pecan trees.

Bud worked for the Royster Fertilizer Company and ran the family farm, producing cotton, corn, and soybeans. Mary Jo was a school teacher. In his younger days Bud had been a fine baseball player in his own right. After a decorated prep career, he starred at shortstop at Clemson University. In 1958, Bud batted .323 and played sure-handed defense on legendary coach Bill Wilhelm’s Atlantic Coast Conference Champion Tigers, the first team in school history to make the College World Series. His .947 fielding percentage that season stood as a school record for a shortstop until Bill himself broke his father’s record in 1987.3

Bud signed a professional contract with the Kansas City Athletics after his college career ended and he played three seasons in the minors. He finished with a .289 batting average and .372 on-base percentage in 262 professional games.

“I remember him saying he decided to retire from baseball because he could make more money farming,” Spiers said.4

Bud taught his love and passion for baseball to Bill, and to Bill’s younger brother Michael, born in 1968. The Spiers brothers grew up in the typical fashion of South Carolina boys; hunting, fishing, and playing baseball throughout their youth.

Spiers excelled in sports from a young age. During his high school career, he starred for Wade Hampton Academy in football, baseball, basketball, and track, earning 11 letters in his prep career. He was an all-state selection in all four sports. Spiers was blessed with a strong right arm and a graceful left-handed swing. After his 1984 graduation, Spiers followed in his father’s footsteps and signed with Clemson to play college baseball for Coach Wilhelm. His brother Michael would also follow the family path and joined the Tigers baseball program in 1987.5

From 1985-1987, Spiers hit .325 in 173 games across three seasons at Clemson, stole 60 bases, and earned Sporting News All-American honors as a junior in 1987. He also matured physically during this time, growing to be 6-foot-2, 190 pounds during college.

In addition to starring on the diamond, Spiers renewed his football action after answering an ad in the student newspaper. Early in his junior year, football coach Danny Ford asked for potential punters to attend a tryout. Spiers won the job and became the punter on the 1986 ACC and Gator Bowl Champion Tigers team, averaging 39.2 yards per kick. Coach Ford referred to the easy-going Spiers only as “Shortstop.”6

Spiers declared for the draft as an eligible junior and was taken with the 13th pick in the first round by the Milwaukee Brewers in 1987. This continued a pattern of Milwaukee drafting highly-rated shortstop prospects with their first picks. General Manager Harry Dalton and Scouting Director Dan Duquette had taken B.J. Surhoff (1985) and Gary Sheffield (1986) in the first round of the prior two amateur drafts.

Duquette claimed that Spiers had first caught the organization’s eye in 1986. While playing in the Alaska Amateur League, he paced the circuit with a .418 batting average. Duquette referred to Spiers as “one of the top athletes in the draft and perhaps the best college position player in the country.”7

Spiers signed with scout Red Whitsett, received a $150,000 bonus, and began his pro career with the Helena Brewers of the rookie-level Pioneer League. His stay in Montana was short, however, as he was moved up to Single-A Beloit after hitting .409 in six games. He continued to impress in the Midwest League and batted .298 while stealing 11 bases in 64 games.

Spiers’ ascent continued in 1988. He began the season with the Single-A Stockton Ports of the California League before a midseason promotion to the Double-A El Paso Diablos of the Texas League. Spiers batted .273 across both levels, scoring 90 runs, driving in 73, and stealing 31 bases. His defense was deemed ready for the major-league level, but the Brewers’ brass felt his bat still needed some work. He entered 1989 as the Brewers’ No. 3 prospect according to Baseball America.8

The Brewers intended for Spiers to get a bit more seasoning in Triple A, but a raft of injuries late in spring training for Milwaukee proved fortunate for the young shortstop.9 He broke camp in 1989 with the Brewers as a utility infielder and made his big-league debut on the season’s third day, April 7, against Detroit in Tiger Stadium. Spiers was the starter at third base and was penciled into the leadoff spot of manager Tom Trebelhorn’s lineup.

“Tiger Stadium has got a short porch,” Spiers said. “I remember Bob Uecker, who was hilarious and was our radio guy. Before the game he was like, ‘Hey, kid: Go deep — first at bat.’ The radio booth is literally right up there above us with a tin roof, and as I’m walking up to the plate he keeps saying, ‘Go deep’ while swinging an imaginary bat.” Though Spiers did pull the ball hard in his first career plate appearance, Detroit’s Lou Whitaker made a diving stab and threw him out at first.10

Spiers went hitless in his debut but picked up his first hit just three days later, lining a single to right against reliever Brad Arnsberg of the Texas Rangers.

Spiers entered the April 17 contest against those same Rangers in a 1-for-16 slump to start his career, but after he singled in the second and drew a walk in the sixth off Nolan Ryan, Spiers belted his first career home run in the ninth, a grand slam off of Arnsberg. Spiers became the first American League player since Baltimore’s Fritzie Connally in 1985 to hit a grand slam for his first major league homer.11

Spiers played intermittently across the season’s first three months at shortstop, third base, second base, and first base before being sent down to Triple-A Denver in mid-June. After a scorching month in the minors hitting .362, Spiers rejoined the big-league club in mid-July and started at shortstop in 63 of the Brewers’ final 70 games.

Breaking into the majors with a veteran Brewers squad had a major influence on Spiers’ career.

Paul Molitor, Robin Yount, and Jim Gantner were longtime guys that you want to model your career after or model the way you play after. They all played the game the right way. They, to me, exemplified what Milwaukee was all about,” Spiers said.12

Spiers had played most of his rookie campaign with a sore throwing shoulder. He had arthroscopic surgery on his labrum in the offseason and even with that question mark, entered the spring of 1990 as the presumptive starting shortstop for Milwaukee. But in what would become a trend in his career, injuries derailed that plan.

Spiers sprained his ankle in his first spring training at bat, and his shoulder discomfort continued throughout the exhibition season.13 He started the season on a rehab assignment in Denver, but rejoined the Brewers on May 15 and quickly wrested the starting shortstop role back from Edgar Diaz.

Though his offensive production slipped a bit, Spiers’ defense improved in 1990 as he committed 12 errors, down from 21 in his rookie season. His fielding percentage at short improved from .962 to .976 in his sophomore campaign.

Spiers’ life was changing in both professional and personal ways. He married former Wade Hampton schoolmate Laura Anne Gasque of Elloree, SC, after the 1990 season.

Spiers became the Brewers’ everyday shortstop and batted .283 in 1991. In addition to setting career best marks with 133 games played and 464 plate appearances, he set career highs in most offensive categories, including hits (117), runs (71), runs batted in (54), home runs (8), triples (6), total bases (166), and stolen bases (14).

He was a key part of Milwaukee’s torrid stretch run, as the Brewers won 40 of their last 59 games. Spiers had the first multi-homer game of his career against Detroit on September 20, driving in five runs in an 8-5 Brewers win.14 Over the season’s final two months, Spiers’ batting line read .354/.409/.497 while battling pain in his right elbow from a bone spur.

Spiers had surgery on the troublesome elbow at the conclusion of the season and went back under the knife on November 19 for a herniated disk in his lower back. Complications from the back surgery sent Spiers back to the operating room several weeks later with a spinal fluid leak.15

The spate of bad luck coincided with a period of upheaval in the Milwaukee front office, as team owner and future Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig relieved Dalton of his duties as general manager, installing Sal Bando as head of baseball operations.16 Bando, in turn, fired Trebelhorn as manager and replaced him with Phil Garner.17

“I do remember Phil Garner coming in as manager, and I was thinking, ‘Dadgum, I have to show them I can play,’” Spiers said. “It was just a year that didn’t work out.”18

Spiers’ back pain and stiffness continued into the spring of 1992 and forced him to the disabled list in April. He would be unable to return to the club until September and was penciled in only three starting lineups.

In his absence, Pat Listach grabbed the shortstop job for the Brewers in 1992. Listach hit .290 and stole 54 bases for the 92-70 Brewers and was named the American League Rookie of the Year. Spiers’ time as Milwaukee’s everyday shortstop had come to an end.

Listach’s emergence pushed Spiers to second base, where he would make 104 appearances in 1993. Injuries hampered his offensive production. Spiers hit only .238 with just 14 extra base hits on a disappointing Brewers squad that finished in last place in the American League East.

Things did not improve much in 1994. Spiers played 35 games at third base and 35 games at second base before the strike ended the season prematurely. His time with the Milwaukee organization ended when he was placed on waivers following the season.

Spiers was claimed by the New York Mets before the 1995 season. Again, injuries got in the way. Shoulder problems kept him out of the lineup for much of the year and he hit only .208 in 72 at bats.

Though his career looked to be fizzling out, Spiers received a lifeline from the Astros with a non-roster invitation to spring training in 1996. “Gerry Hunsicker was our assistant general manager in New York, and he got the job as GM in Houston,” Spiers said. “He was the kind that liked to take players that were maybe struggling and give them a second chance. He just liked doing that. He thought I could still play and knew I was in a down time and wanted to give me a second chance.”19

Spiers took the chance with both hands and impressed manager Terry Collins to begin a remarkable second act of his career. Spiers emerged as a capable and effective utilityman in his first year in Houston. He batted .252 while making 38 starts at third base and racked up appearances at first base, second base, shortstop, center field, and right field.

Most importantly, a mid-season discovery led him to a late-career offensive surge. Spiers started incorporating a one-handed batting drill into his pregame regimen, a practice learned from hitting coach Steve Henderson. He initially struggled to hit exclusively with his bottom hand and could only muster soft dribblers before getting the hang of the workout.

“When I finally got the feel of hitting down on the ball and keeping my hands inside, line drives started coming off that one-hand bat,” Spiers said. “I started doing the same thing with my top hand and just completely retrained my swing.”20

Spiers entered May 19 with a .146/.186/.220 batting line. He hit .277/.348/.429 thereafter. The improvements would prove lasting, providing a resurgence in Spiers’ offensive production.

Spiers re-signed with the Astros before the 1997 season and hit the ground running with new manager Larry Dierker. Unlike in 1992, Spiers would impress his new skipper. He put together a career year at the plate, hitting .320/.438/.481, all career-high rates, in 355 plate appearances. He set a career high in walks with 61 and also set two Astros franchise records; Spiers produced a .455 pinch-hitting average and he reached base in 13 consecutive plate appearances in early June.

Teaming up with Hall of Famers Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, Spiers became a key member of Houston’s run to the 1997 National League Central title, providing numerous clutch and game-winning hits. He hit .449/.551/.705 with runners in scoring position that season, helping Houston earn a postseason berth, the first of Spiers’ major league career. Unfortunately, it came against the perennial powerhouse Atlanta Braves, headlined by a Hall of Fame pitching rotation of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz.

“They were way more mentally prepared than we were. That’s the bottom line,” Spiers said. “The Braves were there all in the ’90s and it was our first year and we got swept. It’s just a different pressure, bottom line.”21

Houston inked Spiers to a two-year contract before the 1998 season began. He played more regularly for the 102-win Astros, batted .273, stole 11 bases, and matched his career high with 27 doubles for the second straight year. In a devastating lineup loaded with talented bats — Biggio, Bagwell, Derek Bell, Moises Alou, and Carl Everett — Spiers himself delivered many hits in key situations, finishing the year with a .330/.432/.537 line with runners in scoring position. He saved his biggest hit, however, for the postseason.

“It was backyard stuff, what you dream about as a kid.”22

After losing Game One of the NL Divisional Series to the San Diego Padres, Houston won the second game 5-4. Spiers’ single in the bottom of the ninth inning against future Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman scored Ricky Gutierrez and led to a wild celebration within the Astrodome. It would cap a three-hit day for the ecstatic hero.

“That wasn’t just the biggest hit of my career — that was the biggest hit of my life,” Spiers said afterward.23 Even so, San Diego would take the next two games, eliminating Houston and advancing to the NL Championship Series. It was a blow to the favored Astros, who failed to muster the same clutch hitting that carried them to 102 wins that season.

“On paper, though no game is played on paper, we were the team that year,” Spiers said.24

Spiers carved out a role as a platoon starter at third base in 1998 and his appearances at other positions had become much less frequent. But entering the 1999 season, Houston signed free agent third baseman Ken Caminiti, the 1996 NL Most Valuable Player. The move portended a decrease in Spiers’ opportunities.

In a personal preseason phone call with Caminiti, Spiers assured the potential acquisition that he would gladly welcome him as a teammate and that he would improve the club. “I have the utmost respect for Billy Spiers,” Caminiti said at the time.25

Gerry Hunsicker praised Spiers’ professionalism and thought he would continue to have a big impact for the Astros. “Bill Spiers is the consummate team player,” he said. “He has no problem putting the team before himself. In my mind, he’s going to be just as important to our team as he has been the past two seasons.”26

Spiers remained relevant thanks to his versatility. He started games at six different positions and played in seven positions overall in 1999. He batted .288 and walked 47 times against only 45 strikeouts, continuing a trend of improved plate discipline late in his career.

From 1989 through 1996, Spiers walked in only 6.9% of his plate appearances, while that rate rose markedly to 12.3% from 1997 until the end of his career in 2001. He paired this improvement with a reduction in strikeouts; 14.1% from 1989-96, 11.3% thereafter.

“I do think the older you get, the more experience you get, the more you have good plate discipline,” Spiers said. “I started studying pitchers better and started realizing how they pitched. I became more of a student of the game as a hitter than I used to be. I got more mature with experience.”27

Spiers also played a part in one of the strangest moments in Milwaukee County Stadium history in 1999, when he was attacked by a fan on September 24 in a game against his former team, the Brewers. Spiers jogged out to take up his position in right field before the start of the bottom of the sixth inning, when an intoxicated fan ran onto the field, jumped on him from behind, and took Spiers to the ground.

“The whole thing caught me by surprise. I had no idea,” said Spiers. “I looked down and saw his blue jeans wrapped around my neck and realized it was a fan.”28

Though the Astros glided to another NL Central Division title in 1999, they were again matched against the Braves and their cadre of Hall of Fame pitchers in the first round. The Astros were dispatched from the League Championship Series three games to one.

Spiers signed another two-year deal with the Astros and entered the 2000 season as an established player in the clubhouse and a veteran leader of a winning team. His ability to play multiple positions and his clutch-hitting ability had earned the respect of his fellow teammates and fans.

“When you have the opportunity to bring a guy like Billy Spiers off the bench to pinch-hit or to put him really in any position on the field and not hurt you, it’s an unbelievable bonus for a team to have,” Hall of Fame teammate Biggio said that spring.29

Spiers had another stellar year at the plate in 2000 and received the first curtain call in Enron Field/Minute Maid Park history after he slugged two home runs and drove in a career high six runs during the 15-7 win over the St Louis Cardinals on July 23.30

“I remember Andy Benes starting and he threw me a curveball and I hit a two-run homer. Hit a grand slam for the next one off of Heathcliff Slocumb. He tried to sneak a fastball in and I just dropped my hands and hit a grand slam. I just remember looking at [Mark] McGwire and Darryl [Kile] right before I hit it. Of course, I didn’t look at them when I came around,” Spiers chuckled. “I didn’t show anybody up. That was a fun game, obviously.”31

It would be the last highlight of his baseball career. Spiers entered camp in 2001 with renewed back pain. After a pair of cortisone shots proved ineffective, another surgery was performed in May to remove a cyst and a ruptured disk. The stress on his back led to numbness and additional pain in his legs.32 Spiers would only play in four games in 2001, making just four plate appearances. He decided to hang up his cleats at the end of the season at the age of 35.

Though his days of playing professional baseball were at an end, Spiers’ life in sports entered a new phase. Upon moving back to South Carolina with his family — now numbering five with the birth of daughter Ashley in 1994, son Will in 1997, and daughter Mary Crosby in 2000 — Spiers began his job as head basketball coach at Calhoun Academy within days of unpacking his bags.

“We got home on like a Wednesday, and Thursday morning someone was knocking on my door saying, ‘We need your help. Our basketball coach quit,’” Spiers said. “It was literally two weeks before their first game. They were like, ‘You ready to get into coaching?’”33

Spiers also began helping the football team shortly thereafter and served as an assistant before becoming head coach in 2015. He helped with the baseball team, too, after a few years of being away from the game.

Overall in his time at Calhoun Academy, Spiers was a part of four state championship teams; football in 2004 and 2015, and baseball in 2015 and 2016. “To me, if you only influence or affect one kid, then it’s worth it,” he said.34

Bill Spiers (CLEMSON UNIVERSITY)In retirement, Spiers’ baseball accomplishments were recognized when he was inducted into the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame in 2007. He had entered the Clemson Athletic Hall of Fame in 1998.

His coaching career took a new turn in 2016, as he became a student coach for the Clemson Tigers football team, joining head coach Dabo Swinney’s staff and becoming a college student again at the age of 50. Spiers was drawn back to his alma mater to finish his degree as part of the Tiger Trust program. According to local sports writer Zach Lentz, the Tiger Trust “allows former student-athletes who left college early for pro careers to return to school and earn a degree at the school’s expense.”35

“I was happy with my life back home and wasn’t planning on getting my degree. But Coach Swinney can sell ice to an Eskimo,” Spiers said of his decision.36

Swinney recruited Spiers to join his staff at the same time he was recruiting his son, Will, to join the Tigers as a punter. Will was redshirted during Clemson’s run to the national championship in 2016 but was the starting punter for the Tigers as they won the ACC Championship in 2017 and a national championship in 2018, followed by finishing as national runner-up in 2019.

Coach Swinney’s impact on Spiers’ life has been substantial. “He’s younger than me by a couple of years, but I have learned more from him than any coach I ever played for,” Spiers said.37

Looking back over his time in professional baseball, Spiers said he feels proud of a career that he believes resonated with fans.

“I might not have been the most talented. You know I had some injuries. After back surgery, I felt like I lost a step and some quickness and stuff, but I just always wanted to play hard. And I think people relate to that.”38

Last revised: December 18, 2020

 

Acknowledgments

Special thanks to Bill Spiers for his input. This biography was reviewed by Rory Costello and Bruce Harris and fact-checked by Bill Johnson.

 

Sources

Resources especially helpful in the writing of this biography were Baseball-Reference.com, Retrosheet.org and Fangraphs.com.

 

Notes

1 Bill Spiers, tape-recorded personal interview with author, Clemson, SC, July 29, 2020 (hereafter Spiers-Darnell interview).

2 Spiers-Darnell interview.

3 Clemson Baseball, May 7, 2016. “Bud Spiers Passes,” Press release.

4 Spiers-Darnell interview.

5 Clemson Baseball, 2016.

6 Tom Haudricourt, “Whole New Game: Ex-Brewer Spiers back at Clemson…as Football Coach,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, January 6, 2017: B4.

7 Dennis Punzel, “No. 1 Pick Spiers Signs with Brewers,” The Capital Times, June 16, 1987: 15.

8 J.J. Cooper, “1983-2000 Top 10 Prospects Rankings Archive,” January 22, 2019. https://www.baseballamerica.com/stories/1983-2000-top-10-prospects-rankings-archive/

9 Cliff Christl, “Spiers Makes Jump,” Sporting News, April 17, 1989: 18.

10 Spiers-Darnell interview.

11 AL East Roundup, Brewers. Sporting News, May 1, 1989: 23.

12 Spiers-Darnell interview.

13 Cliff Christl, “Injury Sidelines Spiers,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, April 6, 1990: 1.

14 Tom Haudricourt, “Spiers Slams Tigers with Pair of Home Runs,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, September 21, 1991: 1.

15 Bob Berghaus, “Brewers Notes: Spiers’ Rehabilitation Continues on a Slow Path,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, May 3, 1992: 4.

16 Rick Braun, “Brewers: Dalton Out, Bando In,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, October 9, 1991: 1.

17 Bob Berghaus, “Brewers Name Astros’ Garner as Next Manager,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, October 30, 1991: 1.

18 Spiers-Darnell interview.

19 Spiers-Darnell interview.

20 Spiers-Darnell interview.

21 Spiers-Darnell interview.

22 Dale Robertson, “The Other Billy Deserves a Save,” Houston Chronicle, October 2, 1998: 1.

23 Carlton Thompson, “Hitting Back — Spiers’ Single in Ninth Pushes Astros Past Padres 5-4, Evens Series,” Houston Chronicle, October 2, 1998: 1.

24 Spiers-Darnell interview.

25 Carlton Thompson, “Spring Training – Example to All — Spiers Willing to do Whatever Astros Request,” Houston Chronicle, February 25, 1999: 1.

26 Thompson, 1999: 1.

27 Spiers-Darnell interview.

28 Joseph Duarte, “Astros Swing Away for 2 KOs — Teammates Aid Spiers After Fan Attacks Right Fielder,” Houston Chronicle, September 25, 1999: 1.

29 Joseph Duarte, “Spiers Gives Astros Seven Players in One – Entire Infield, Outfield Fair Game for Utility Man,” Houston Chronicle, March 1, 2000: 1.

30 Carlton Thompson, “Six-Homer Binge In-Spiers Astros,” Houston Chronicle, July 24, 2000: 1.

31 Spiers-Darnell interview.

32 Joseph Duarte, “It’s Way Too Early for Spiers to Think of Returning,” Houston Chronicle, May 25, 2001: 8.

33 Spiers-Darnell interview.

34 Spiers-Darnell interview.

35 Zach Lentz, “Clemson Football: Bill Spiers Relishes Two Titles and Family Experience,” Times and Democrat, The (Orangeburg, SC), January 10, 2019: unpaginated.

36 Tom Haudricourt, “Whole New Game — Ex-Brewer Spiers Back at Clemson … as Football Coach,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, January 6, 2017: B4.

37 Spiers-Darnell interview.

38 Spiers-Darnell interview.

Full Name

William James Spiers

Born

June 5, 1966 at Orangeburg, SC (USA)

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