Obituary: Roger Samuels (1961-2022)

RIP to Roger Samuels, who transformed from a wild starting pitcher to an effective reliever relatively late in his career, earning a couple of callups to the major leagues. He died on January 17 at his home in San Jose, Calif., at the age of 61. He had been battling kidney cancer for several years. Samuels pitched for the San Francisco Giants (1988) and Pittsburgh Pirates (1999).

Sportswriter Dan Good, who knew Samuels, wrote a really lovely tribute to his friend. You can read it here.

Roger Howard Samuels was born in San Jose on January 5, 1961. Baseball talent ran in his family, as younger brother Goeff pitched for a couple of seasons in the minor leagues as well. Roger went to Branham High School in San Jose, and he excelled in basketball right off the bat as a freshman — unsurprising, as he eventually reached a height of 6-foot-5. He also pitched on the baseball team and was the losing pitcher in the 1979 Central Coast Section’s title game against Carmel. He was pitching even though he was still recovering from a bout of mononucleosis, and he still managed to strike out 7 batters in a losing effort.

Samuels then attended San Jose City College, and he was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the Second Round of the 1980 January Draft – Regular Phase. (The draft was broken into two phases at the time — this one was for junior college players, college dropouts and high school seniors graduating in January.) The left-handed pitcher declined to sign with the Jays and continued on to Santa Clara University. He almost threw a no-hitter against St. Mary’s in 1982 before settling on a 3-1 win when he gave up a single in the eighth inning. In 1983, he was drafted by the Houston Astros in the Tenth Round of the June Amateur Draft, and this time he signed his contract.

The Astros sent Samuels to Auburn of the New York-Penn League and then the Asheville Tourists of the Sally League. He finished the year with a combined 6-6 record and 3.84 ERA. Wildness was a problem for him, as it would be for pretty his entire run in the Astros’ organization. In 1983, he walked 49 batters and had a WHIP of 1.516. Over the next three seasons, as he moved through the low minors and up to Double-A Columbus in 1985 and 1986, his WHIP remained around 1.5, and his walk totals remained around 5 per 9 innings.

Source: The Orlando Sentinel, March 3, 1985.

Samuels won 10 games in 19 decisions in 1985, pitching mainly as a starter for the Columbus Astros. He walked 82 batters in 147-2/3 innings, while striking out 85. The next season, he was converted into a reliever and finished the year with an ERA over 5.00. He asked for and was given his release by Houston in January of 1987, signed with the San Francisco Giants and underwent a rather amazing career transformation. He went from being a struggling pitcher to nearly unhittable. He was 26 years old and pitching for Class-A Fresno, but he had a 0.84 ERA in 27 games. He had 64 strikeouts in 42-2/3 innings and gave up just 29 hits. He moved up to Double-A Shreveport in the second half of the season and had a 1.62 ERA in 21 games. All total, Samuels was 4-3 in 1987 with a 1.18 ERA, 13 saves and 99 strikeouts. The late bloomer had bloomed.

Samuels chalked up his early struggles to mechanical issues. “I had one main problem — when I would vary my tempo and rush it. I would change my motion and open up in front and on the side. Once the front and side open up, you get wild,” he told The Fresno Bee in 1987. Rather than work on his delivery, the Astros questioned his competitiveness and buried him as a mop-up reliever, which is why he asked for his release. He did have some fans in Houston, and they just so happened to move to the Giants organization, too. Bob Montgomery was vice president of baseball operations for the Astros before going to the Giants, and San Francisco’s minor-league director, Carlos Alfonso, was Samuels’ manager at Columbus. They both saw potential in the lefty and let him find his mechanics in the low minors. Pitching coaches like Marty DeMerritt refined his delivery, and the amount of save opportunities he was given boosted Samuels’ confidence as well.

Samuels moved all the way up to Triple-A Phoenix in 1988, and he continued to pitch well. Over 30 games, he won 3 of 5 decisions with a 2.63 ERA and picked up 8 saves. The Giants brought the 27-year-old Samuels to the major leagues on July 19 when Mike LaCoss was placed on the disabled list with an inflamed elbow. He debuted on July 20 with 2 innings of mop-up relief in a 12-2 laugher against the Cubs. The Giants knocked around Greg Maddux, who was in the midst of his first great season. Samuels entered into the game after Kelly Downs had worked a strong 7 innings, and the lefty mowed down the Cubs for the final 2 innings, picking up a pair of strikeouts. The only batter to reach base was Ryne Sandberg, who walked.

Samuels struggled over his next few outings and was briefly demoted back to Phoenix before coming back to finish the season with the Giants. He took his first loss on August 24 when he gave up back-to-back hits to Montreal’s Dave Martinez and Tracy Jones after throwing 2 scoreless innings. Both runners scored when Lary Sorensen relieved Samuels and allowed four runs, and the Expos won 7-5. Samuels picked up another loss on September 3 to raise his ERA up to 5.91. From there, however, he allowed just 2 runs the rest of the season. His best game came on September 20 against Atlanta. He came into the game in the bottom of the sixth inning after the Braves scored 2 runs off reliever Jeff Brantley and had a runner on second base. Samuels got Terry Blocker to ground out to first base to get out of the inning, and then he pitched 3 scoreless innings, allowing just a base hit to Ron Gant. The Giants committed a couple of errors behind him, but Samuels closed out the 7-4 win with 3-1/3 scoreless innings. By the season’s end, his ERA had dropped down to 3.47, and he struck out 22 batters in 23-1/3 innings.

Samuels began the 1989 season back in Phoenix. In May, he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for infielder Ken Oberkfell. Oberkfell had been struggling in his role of a part-time player, and Samuels was buried in the organizational depth chart behind young lefties like Trevor Wilson, Terry Mulholland and Mike Remlinger. Within weeks, Samuels was brought to the majors and threw a scoreless inning on May 31 against Cincinnati. He gave up runs in his next four appearances, not recording an out in two of them. His last major-league appearance is an infamous one among Pirates fans. The Bucs scored 10 runs in the first inning against the Philadelphia Phillies on June 8, 1999, and then went on to lose 15-11. Starter Bob Walk left in the fourth inning after injuring his hamstring, and a parade of relievers (except for Bill Landrum, who didn’t allow a run) let the Phillies chip away at the lead, a few runs an inning. Jeff Robinson allowed the tying run to score in the top of the eighth inning with a bases-loaded wild pitch. Samuels was then brought into the game with the bases loaded again, to face lefties Darren Daulton and Curt Ford. Daulton hit a ground ball off the glove of second baseman Jose Lind to score two runs. Ford hit a liner to left field that bounded away from Barry Bonds for a 2-run triple, and it took a good throw from Bones to nail Ford at the plate. The Pirates went down in order in the bottom of the ninth for the stunning loss.

Source: The Fresno Bee, July 25, 1987.

In the first inning of the game, when there was only good news, Pirates broadcaster Jim Rooker proclaimed, “If we lose this game I’ll walk home.” Rooker did, eventually, and he turned it into a 315-mile charity event that raised $81,000 for a children’s hospital. That act put a better spin on the disaster. Samuels, for his part, was just a few inches away from averting disaster. If Daulton’s hit landed in Lind’s glove instead of bouncing off it, there’s a chance for an inning-ending double play. The game left him with a 9.82 ERA in 3-3/2 innings, and he was sent back to the minors a day later. Samuels pitched briefly for the Pirates’s Triple-A affiliate in 1990 before being released. He finished out the year with the Tidewater Tides of the Mets’ organization and pitched well, but he decided to retire at the age of 30.

In his two stints in the majors, Samuels had a 1-2 record and a 4.33 ERA over 27 innings. He struck out 24, walked 11 and gave up 26 hits for a 1.370 WHIP. He had 29 saves over 8 seasons in the minors, along with a 38-39 record and 3.47 ERA.

Samuels remained involved in baseball after his retirement, particularly in youth coaching. According to his family-placed obituary, he ran baseball camps, advocated for youth in underserved communities and coached the baseball teams of his two sons. He was a big San Francisco 49ers fan and watched them defeat the Dallas Cowboys in the playoffs before he died. Samuels is survived by his wife, Janice, two sons and two grandsons.

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