Obituary: Jeff Innis (1962-2022)

RIP to Jeff Innis, a reliever with a distinctive sidearm delivery who pitched for the New York Mets from 1987-93. He died on January 30 in Dawsonville, Ga., at the age of 59 from cancer. Days before he died, his family launched a GoFundMe campaign to help him leave his hospital in Houston and travel back home to Atlanta so that he could spend his final days in hospice surrounded by his family. It raised tens of thousands of dollars in just a couple of days — enough to get Innis back to his family and help pay for the family’s medical and funeral expenses. Many teammates, friends and Mets fantasy camp attendees, of which Innis was a regular participant, left remembrances of him as well.

“We are so incredibly thankful for the support from friends, family, and fans who extended donations and kind words. Our family is overwhelmed with love and we are exceptionally happy to have him home!” wrote Keenan Innis after his father arrived home.

Jeffrey David Innis was born in Decatur, Ill., on July 5, 1962. He was not the first pitcher in his family; older brother Brian was a high school and college pitcher and spent four seasons in the minor leagues, from 1982 through 1985. The two were just a year apart in school, so while Brian Innis was the quarterback at Eisenhower High School in Decatur, Jeff was a receiver. He set a school record for receptions in a season in 1979. Their father, Pete, was a football coach at rival MacArthur High School, which must have made for some awkward moments during football season. Not only did the Innis brothers letter in baseball as well, but both also were a part of the same American Legion team starting rotation.

When Brian went off to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Jeff Innis became Eisenhower’s staff ace. He was named team MVP in 1980 and had an ERA of 1.05. He carried over his success to his American Legion Post 105 team, where he had a 1l-3 record and 1.66 ERA and also boasted a batting average of .444. The success didn’t go to his head. “I’ve got a long way to go as a pitcher. I’m pretty naive about pitching. Especially compared to my brother,” he said in a 1980 interview with the Herald and Review of Decatur. “”My brother tells be about all the stuff he has learned about pitching. My mouth hangs open… How to pitch in certain situations, knowing what the shortstop and second baseman will be doing with runners are on base, that kind of stuff.”

Innis followed his brother to the University of Illinois, and the Illini reached the Big 10 playoffs in his freshman year. There, he was coached by Tom Dedin, who did two notable things to Innis with long-reaching effects — he made him a reliever, and he taught him a sidearm delivery. It worked out so well that in the summer of 1981, Dedin sent Innis to a collegiate league in Kansas to work on his pitching. After one game and 11 strikeouts, Innis called his coach and complained that the competition wasn’t tough enough. Dedin made some phone calls and got his pitcher to the highly regarded Cape Cod League, where he earned 8 saves.

Innis had the perfect temperament for a reliever right from the start. Even-tempered and cool under pressure, he could bounce back from a bad outing, though bad outings didn’t happen much. He had a sinker that, combined with his sidearm delivery, baffled hitters. He continued his dominance into professional baseball when he was drafted by the New York Mets in the 13th Round of the 1983 Amateur Draft. In his first season with Little Falls in the New York-Penn League in ’83, Innis had a perfect 8-0 record, 8 saves and a 1.37 ERA in 28 games. He was a co-recipient of the Nelson Doubleday Award for the best performance by a Mets’ minor-leaguer and traveled to New York to accept the award in between games of a doubleheader at Shea Stadium. “I started the season with a lot of confidence, got off to a good start and just kept it up,” he said.

Innis’ worst year in the minors came in 1984 with the Double-A Jackson Mets of the Texas League. He had 8 saves but a 6-5 record and 4.25 ERA. He gave up 65 hits and lost his control, walking 40 batters in 59-1/3 innings. He moved back down to Class-A ball and dominated in Lynchburg in 1985, with 14 saves. When he returned to Jackson in 1986, he saved a league-leading 25 games, and his WHIP was a sublime 1..011.

Innis began a four-year shuffle between the minors and majors in 1987. He began the season in Triple-A Tidewater, was recalled to the Mets in May and was sent back to Tidewater at least three times before finishing the year on the big-league roster. As he racked up frequent-flyer miles, he appeared in a total of 17 games with the Mets, with an 0-1 record and 3.16 ERA. The loss came in his major-league debut on May 16 against San Francisco. He entered the game in a 4-4 tie after Rick Aguilera had worked 8 innings. He retired the Giants in the top of the ninth without incident, striking out Robby Thompson and Mark Wasinger in the process. He gave up a tie-breaking home run to Jeffrey Leonard in the tenth inning, and the Mets did not score in their half of the frame.

“I thought it was a pretty good pitch,” Innis said after the game. “I don’t dwell on my failures or my successes. I just try to learn from both.”

Aside from allowing 5 home runs in 25-2/3 innings, Innis fanned 28 hitters and walked just 4. So the constant demotions and promotions were not really his fault. The problem was he was a relief specialist, the the injury-plagued Mets were in desperate need of starting pitching. Manager Davey Johnson gave Innis his one and only professional start — his first starting assignment since he was a freshman at the University of Illinois — on May 26 against San Francisco. He worked 4 innings and gave up 2 runs, including a solo homer by Will Clark, in a game the Mets won 3-2. One of Innis’ demotions came on July 14, as he was sent to the minors in favor of Don Schulze. “I couldn’t have asked for more from Jeff Innis,” said Johnson, “but one problem with my pitching staff is that I don’t have a bona fide sixth starter to step in. Don Schulze fills that role.” (emphasis mine)

The pattern repeated regularly. Innis started the season in the minor leagues and would be the first one up when the Mets were in need of a fresh arm. And then he would be sent down just that quickly. In 1988, He was the star of spring training with 9 scoreless innings. When asked about his changes of starting the season with the Mets, he answered, “Aw, I’m going to Tidewater. I mean, I’d be surprised if I don’t.” He was right. But sure enough, he was back in the majors before the end of April to rejoin the Mets bullpen. He picked up his first major-league win on June 4 by throwing 2 scoreless innings against the Cubs in a 6-5, 13-inning win. And then he was sent back to the minors with a 1-1 record and a sparkling 1.89 ERA. He didn’t even get a September call-up that season, and he wasn’t added to the Mets’ 40-man roster after the season, making him vulnerable to the Rule-V Draft. Nobody claimed him.

Innis had handled his uncertain role with the Mets with an uncommon grace, but even he was a little frustrated by that point. The one bright spot is that his Mets teammates voted him a half-share of their postseason bonus pool, which amounted to an extra $20,000. “A lot of them were upset when I got sent down. I think they showed that by voting me a half. I was surprised, because I wasn’t there long.”

Maybe the problem was Innis’ delivery? That sidearm sinker fooled a lot of hitters — especially right-handed hitters — but it was unconventional. He never looked like the typical over-the-top reliever with the 95-mph fastball, so he may have been written off too early as a “gimmick” pitcher. “I could’ve come in here and struck everybody out and not made it,” Innis said in 1989, when he was again the odd man out in spring training. “I’d be in a better position if I threw 90 and stunk.”

Tidewater decided to make Innis the team’s closer in 1989, and he saved 10 games before the Mets called him up in June. He stayed in the majors for the rest of the season, with a 3.18 ERA. The Mets actually let Innis start the 1990 season in the majors — for 3 appearances. He got off to a slow start, giving up 2 home runs in his season debut against Pittsburgh (including a 500-foot blast by Bobby Bonilla that hit a bus in a parking lot) and then took a loss in Chicago when third baseman Howard Johnson threw away a Ryne Sandberg ground ball, allowing 2 unearned runs to score. Innis was optioned to Triple-A and didn’t return until late June. He won 1 game and lost 3 in 18 appearances, with a 2.39 ERA.

Johnson was long gone by 1991 — Bud Harrelson and Mike Cubbage managed the team — and Innis stayed in the majors and pitched in 69 games. Maybe the change in management was just a coincidence, but Harrelson showed plenty of confidence in the right-hander, and Innis had a 2.66 ERA over 84-2/3 innings. He neither won nor saved a game, and no other pitcher ever appeared in that many games without win or a save.

Harrelson said after a stretch when he worked Innis 10 times in 12 days that the pitcher had “really elevated his game.” Looking at his statistics, it seemed he was doing everything he did in his partial seasons — just more frequently. He did cut way down on his home runs, giving up just 2 in 84-2/3 innings. When asked how he was able to bounce back from the heavy workload, Innis suggested, “No muscle tissue to get in the way?” He had modified his delivery somewhat to throw a three-quarters sinker against left-handed batters, and they hit only .250 against him.

The Mets stumbled to 90 losses and a fifth-place finish in 1992 under first-year manager Jeff Torborg, but Innis reached career-highs with 76 appearances and 88 innings pitched. Used as a set-up man for closer John Franco, he had a 6-9 record and earned a save himself. His ERA was a modest 2.86, but his strikeout total dipped noticeably to 39. In 1993, it fell to 36 K’s in 76-2/3 innings. He pitched in 67 games with a 2-3 record, 3 saves and a 4.11 ERA that year. He walked more batters and gave up more hits, raising his WHIP to 1.552.

Jeff Innis, briefly a member of the Phillies organization, works with pitching coach Johnny Podres. Source: The Morning Call, February 21, 1995.

Innis became a free agent over the offseason and signed a one-year contract with the Minnesota Twins in February of 1994. After pitching in just 8 innings in spring training, he was sent to the minors and released after a handful of appearances. He signed a minor-league deal with the Padres for the remainder of 1994 and then the Phillies in 1995, but he wasn’t effective enough to make it back to the major leagues. He probably didn’t endear himself to Phillies management when, during the 1994-95 player’s strike, he expressed solidarity with the striking ballplayers and was steadfastly against replacement players.

Innis was released by the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons in May of 1995, the same day they let go another big-league veteran, Kim Batiste. Innis left a note in his empty locker expressing his appreciation for the time he spent with the team. It was the last stop of his 13-year professional career.

In 7 seasons with the Mets, he appeared in 288 games. In a lovely tribute to Innis posted on Sports Illustrated, Tom Verducci pointed out that the only two Mets pitchers who appeared in more than 200 games without pitching for any other team were Innis and Pedro Feliciano — two pitchers who died way too young. Innis had a 10-20 record with 5 saves and a 3.05 ERA. He struck out 192 batters and had a WHIP of 1.272.

After retiring as a player, Innis lived in Cumming, Ga., with his wife, Kelly, and two children, and he sold business insurance. He also had his own pitching instruction business and regularly participated in Mets fantasy camps, as recently as 2021. He was inducted into the Cape Cod League Hall of Fame in 2008.

I’ve written about Innis’ levelheadedness here, but a special mention should be made about his sense of humor. He was one of those players who could be counted on for a good line. When he was once shown an unflattering picture of himself, he claimed, “That photo was taken out of context.” He also had an answer for why the Mets never threw a no-hitter before Johan Santana did it in 2012. Innis studied the curse and determined that it was announcer Ralph Kiner’s fault.

“Any time we’ve got one going late in the game, Ralph starts talking about every no-hitter thrown since 1900,” Innis told The Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Jayson Stark. “See, I think it takes a collective effort on everyone’s part to have a no-hitter thrown. And as this thing builds, all the people watching on TV are sitting there, trying to will it to happen. But then Ralph starts talking about old Fireball Jackson back in 1918, and everybody falls asleep. If we ever do throw one, a lot of people probably won’t even know it’s a no-hitter, because Ralph will still be talking about 1922.”

Innis knew a little about losing no-hitters, because he once threw 8 hitless innings in an American Legion game before the PA announcer said, “Decatur’s Jeff Innis has a no-hitter going into the ninth inning.” He lost the no-hitter seconds later. “And it was at this point,” Innis said, “that I knew I was going to be drafted by the Mets.”

Jeff Innis at Baseball Almanac

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