By Sweeny Murti
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Randy Choate’s idol is Jesse Orosco. Very early in his career, when he came up with the Yankees in the early 2000s, Choate told me his goal was to be just like Orosco, who retired after appearing in a record 1,252 games and pitched until he was 47.
Choate came up just a little short.
Without any solid offers to keep going in 2017, Choate — your classic lefty reliever and a member of the 2000 world champion Yankees — is calling it quits.
“Just figured it was kind of about time to move on,” Choate, 41, told me over the phone Wednesday night.
From his debut in 2000 to his final major league appearance in 2015, Choate appeared in 672 games — only 580 away from tying Orosco.
I kid because Choate is a friend. He was one of the first people I got to know my first spring training covering the Yankees in 2001. I was a bit intimidated by the stars on that team. So I talked to the chatty left-hander out of Florida State.
Over the course of 20 professional seasons starting in 1997, Choate played for 21 different major and minor league teams. I asked him if he could name them all in order. And he did.
From the Yankees’ New York-Penn League team in Oneonta in 1997 (where he went 5-1 with a 1.73 ERA as a starter) to the Dodgers’ Triple-A affiliate in Oklahoma City last September. That’s where he made the last of 1,114 professional appearances. Even counting his minor league games, he didn’t quite match Orosco.
If Choate was right-handed — or stayed a starter — he might have never even been drafted considering he barely threw 90 miles per hour. But he is a lefty, and in 1999 the Yankees wanted him to be another Graeme Lloyd. They turned Choate into a reliever with a low three-quarters delivery. Called up in 2000, Choate earned a World Series ring only 12 months removed from Class A ball.
“Getting to play with Jeter and Mo and all those guys — when you get down to the end, you just realize how great the beginning was,” Choate said.
Just being left-handed didn’t keep Choate from bouncing through the minors. It wasn’t until he was 33 years old with the Rays in 2009 that he stuck on a big league roster for the whole season. Manager Joe Maddon loved using Choate so much he called for him 146 times in two years.
“I was just fortunate enough to have a role where it could lead to some longevity,” Choate said. “I was in the era of the “loogy”(“left-handed, one-out guy”) and able to take advantage of that.”
Most pitchers want to start. If they don’t start, they want to close. That’s where the glory is and so is the money. But there was value in being a loogy, and Choate liked his role just fine.
“In the seventh inning with two outs and men on first and second or bases loaded, and you’ve got to get out David Ortiz? Those are crucial moments, and there’s very little room for a mistake,” he said.
When Choate would retire his one batter on two or three pitches — if that — and head back to the dugout, his teammates would give him grief over his light workload. Choate didn’t even get after it in the gym the same way his teammates did, which led to him once breaking out a T-shirt that said, “When I get paid like a starter, I’ll work out like a starter.”
“I thought it was hilarious,” Choate said. “But it wasn’t quite the hit I thought it was.”
It actually did make some sense to Choate.
“People would get on me all the time because I wasn’t crushing weights or running miles,” he said. “For me, that was always the endurance you needed as a starter. I needed my endurance to be able to throw every day. I was fortunate enough to have kind of a rubber arm where I could do that. I never had to be big or super strong because I was coming in to get one guy.”
The peak of Choate’s loogyness was probably the 2013 postseason with the Cardinals. He made nine appearances and faced just 11 batters total, helping the Cards reach the World Series, where they lost to the Red Sox.
Choate finishes his big league career with a 3.90 ERA, but lefties batted only .195 against him in 1,036 plate appearances.
So what’s next? Well, it looks like Choate will get one of those summer vacations everyone outside of baseball always talks about. He has two daughters — Tatem, 15, and Tegan, 12 — from his first marriage, plus stepdaughter Makena, 20, and stepson Jake, 17 with his second wife, Leigh.
After that? Well, in all that yakking we did in the clubhouse, Choate and I devised a plan long ago to one day host our own sports talk show.
I’ve heard there is an opening at WFAN in December.