Kevin Millar was the toast of the town when he played for the Red Sox from 2003 to 2005, so it seemed only natural that, along with Pedro Martinez, he would lead Red Sox fans in a toast to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park. In his own inimitable style, he told the crowd of 36,770, “FenwayPark, we want to thank you for the last 100 years…and one last time…it’s time to.…Cowboy Up..…Drink!”
Reflecting on that historic April 20th day, Millar said in a recent interview, “That was such a special moment on a special day. None of the former players will ever forget it. My time with Pedro on the dugout leading the toast was totally unscripted, totally spontaneous.”
Twenty years ago it seemed highly unlikely that Kevin Millar would be in the spotlight setting the tone for one of MLB’s iconic franchises. In the 1993 MLB amateur draft, 30 major league teams each selected 50 prospects each to join their organization. ARod was the number one pick, and the Red Sox selected Trot Nixon seventh overall. When the teams finished their 1,500 selections, Kevin Millar’s name was not among them.
But Kevin Millar’s story is one of determination and perseverance. It is a story that offers hope to every un-drafted prospect and player in the low minors. And it is a story about a genuine love for the game.
When Kevin Millar was four years-old he played tee-ball in a league for five year- olds. After his mother and father divorced he played for the Little League in Santa Monica where his mother lived and in Valencia where his father made his home. “I was playing a 40-game schedule when everyone else was playing 20 games,” he laughs.
“We were a baseball family,” he emphasizes. “My Uncle, Wayne Nordhagen, played in the big leagues [eight seasons for four clubs] and I played every chance I got. But I wasn’t that good,” he insists. “I was a late bloomer. In fact I transferred from UniversityHigh School to HartHigh School after my freshman year because I knew I wasn’t going to get enough playing time at University High.”
After finishing high school Millar enrolled at Los AngelesCityJunior College where he excelled on the diamond and then he enrolled at LamarUniversity in Beaumont, Texas. And how did a young man from southern California end up in east Texas?
“To tell you the truth, it was the only recruiting trip I was offered. I got off the plane and looked around at all the oil refineries and it was culture shock. But I loved the school and the people, and I ended up living in Beaumont for about 20 years.”
After showing promise at Lamar, Kevin was looking forward to the 1993 draft. “I had heard that I might be selected near the middle [of the draft] and that a couple of teams were interested,” he remembers. “To be honest, when I found out I hadn’t been picked, I bought a twelve-pack and went to my hotel room and cried. It was a heartbreaking moment.”
On the advice of his Lamar baseball coach, Jim Gilligan, Kevin flew to St. Paul, MN, to try out for the Saints in a newly-formed independent league. Millar made the team and after a strong showing against tough competition, scout Gary Hughes signed him to play in the Florida Marlins minor league system for 1994. “I think I ended up with about $900 as a signing bonus,” Kevin chuckles. “I used it to take all my friends to an Outback Steakhouse to celebrate.”
PAYING HIS DUES
Kevin Millar spent five years in the Marlin’s minor league system before he finally made it to the major leagues to stay. Did he ever get discouraged or give up on his dream?
“No, I always believed I would make it to the big leagues. Since I was a little kid I had told people I would play in the majors and I always believed it. I got frustrated, even angry, about my playing time,” he admits. “But I never gave up on my dream.
“The problem for an un-drafted kid is that the highly-regarded prospects get the playing time in the minors. I had to go into the manager’s office and fight for playing time,” he recalls. “Eventually I would wear the manager down.”
Millar played in 105 games with the Marlins in 1999, and over four seasons he established himself as a solid major leaguer. In 2001 he hit .314 for Florida and he slugged 20 home runs. The South Florida Chapter of the Baseball Writers of America voted him their “Most Improved Player” in 2001 and in 2002 they gave him their “Good Guy” award.
Kevin Millar has a strong memory of the first time he saw FenwayPark in person. “It was right after the 1999 All-Star game and we were facing Pedro Martinez after his great performance in that game. I was aware of the park as a youngster because I was a big fan and Fenway was one of the historic ballparks. But to see that left field wall in person was awesome. It felt like you could reach out and touch it.”
It’s hard for Red Sox fans to imagine Kevin Millar playing for a team and not being able to communicate with its fans in their native language, but he almost played the 2003 season for the Chunichi Dragons in Japan. Fortunately the Red Sox claimed Millar from the waiver wire so he didn’t have to learn how to say “cowboy up” in Japanese. And he became a key part of the robust Red Sox offense in 2003.
Asked if it was an adjustment to play in front of sellout crowds at Fenway after the sparse crowds in Miami, Millar responds, “Not really. I was brought up on the west coast but I had an east coast mind-set for baseball. I enjoyed the intensity at Fenway. Red Sox fans really know the game. I think I fed off of their enthusiasm.”
And where did the phrase “cowboy up” come from? “Trot Nixon and I had played winter ball together in Mexico and we used to say that when a cowboy falls off his horse he gets right back on. I went on a rant to the media in 2003, because that Red Sox team was battling and I wanted the fans and the media to recognize that. I thought it was time for all of us to cowboy up but I never expected it to catch on the way it did.”
The heartbreaking seventh game loss to the Yankees in the 2003 ALCS was tough for players and fans alike. It had special meaning for Millar. “We came within five outs of playing my old team [the Marlins] in the World Series. That was rough.”
Catcher Doug Mirabelli threatened to fine any teammate who used the phrase “cowboy up” in the 2004 spring training camp because the upcoming season represented a fresh start. Led by new manager Terry Francona and fortified by the addition of starting pitcher Curt Schilling and closer Keith Foulke, the club was on a mission to erase the heartbreaking finish of 2003.
Kevin got an up-close and personal look at just how competitive Curt Schilling was. “I remember Schilling was telling us he had tape of all the hitters. So I asked him if he had tape of my big blast against him that went 330 feet and barely cleared the fence,” Kevin chuckles.
Curt provided his response the next day when Millar stepped into the batting cage against Schilling. His first pitch fastball whistled behind Millar’s neck. “My heart dropped,” catcher Jason Veritek told the media. “I didn’t know he was going to do that and it scared the crap out of me.”
Schilling told reporters it wasn’t any big deal. “Hey, this is what I do for a living,” he said, and added, “Did I hit him?”
Millar remembers the success of the 2004 Red Sox as a team-wide effort. Pressed to name a personal highlight, he selects the July 23 game at Fenway against the Yankees. “I had been scuffling and the team had gone through a rough stretch, and I hit three home runs in that game. My third home run tied the game and after that game we put together a nice streak.”
Kevin Millar hit 52 home runs during his three seasons with the Red Sox and he drove in 220 runs. But Red Sox fans remember him best for a walk: a walk in the ninth inning of Game Four of the 2004 ALCS with the Red Sox on the brink of elimination. After Millar’s walk, Dave Roberts replaced him as a pinch-runner, stole second base and scored the tying run on a Bill Mueller single. The Red Sox won Game Four in the 12th inning on a Big Papi home run and went on to accomplish the greatest comeback in sports history.
“I went up there looking to hit a home run,” Millar insists, remembering his ninth inning at-bat against Mariano Rivera. “It was a fastball pitcher against a fastball hitter and we needed one run to tie. But I never flinched on those pitches outside of the strike zone. We needed a base runner.”
The joyful parade to celebrate the Red Sox’ first championship in 86 years is Kevin’s lasting memory of the 2004 season. “I said it then and I’ll say it again: Red Sox Nation is a family of Red Sox players and their fans. I will always remember that parade and the outpouring from our fans.”
Kevin Millar played in 134 games for the Boston Red Sox in 2005 and then signed with the Baltimore Orioles for the 2006 season. He played in Baltimore from 2006 to 2008 and moved on to the Toronto Blue Jays in 2009. But in some sense he never really left the Red Sox.
In 2007 the Red Sox faced the Cleveland Indians in Game Seven of the ALCS at FenwayPark. When the season is on the line every decision from the starting lineup through who will sing the Star Spangled Banner, down to who will throw out the first pitch is critical. And the Red Sox selected Kevin Millar of the Baltimore Orioles to throw out the first pitch. Apparently it was the right decision because the Red Sox defeated the Indians and went on to win their second World Championship in four years.
Kevin Millar spent spring training in 2010 with the Chicago Cubs, but the Cubs released him at the end of training camp. “I had never been released before,” Kevin recalls. “I didn’t know what I was supposed to do so I got in my car in full uniform in mid-morning to go home to tell my family. My four year-old son started to cry and said, ‘Does this mean we’ll never get to see daddy play baseball again?’ I decided right then and there I wasn’t going to let my career end just yet.”
Millar signed on to play with the St. Paul Saints, the team that had given him his start in professional baseball 17 years earlier. “It was great,” he says, “I had a ball. And I made sure to spend time with the younger players and to tell them not to give up on their dream. I remember Leon Durham [10-year major league veteran] went out of his way to help me in 1993 and I wanted to do the same thing. Playing with the Saints gave me closure for my active career.”
You can look for a Kevin Millar baseball card or his likeness on an MLB video game, but you will be disappointed. When the Marlins offered Millar a chance to play in their minor league system in 1994, it was conditioned on his reporting to spring training even though MLB players were on strike. His decision to play made him a “replacement player” and he was excluded from all MLB merchandising by the Players Association.
Today Kevin Millar is the co-host, along with media veteran Chris Rose, of “Intentional Talk” which airs on the MLB Network for one hour at 5 pm ET every weekday. The high-energy show features interviews with active players and news from around MLB. Millar’s credibility with active players encourages them to open up and go beyond the typical interview. “Cowboy Up” has been replaced by “GotHEEEEM!” the catch-phrase Kevin uses whenever a player or fan is caught in a humorous video clip.
Asked why Red Sox fans should watch Intentional Talk, Kevin answers, “Because we have a lot of fun and pass on good information at the same time. We give viewers a sense of who the players are and what they are really like. We have a lot of laughs and still respect the game.”
Kevin and his wife Jeana live with their four children in Austin, TX. Fans can stay in touch with Kevin on Twitter at @KMillar15.
And what message does Kevin Millar have for Red Sox fans? “Please tell them how much I loved playing for the Boston Red Sox. Red Sox fans make all of us feel like rock stars. When I walk down the street I feel like Aerosmith or somebody.
“And tell them that Red Sox Nation is in my blood. I mean it when I say that Red Sox Nation is like a family. And I will always consider myself part of the Red Sox family.”