Eight years ago, Jon Rauch was in Australia, listening to “The Star-Spangled Banner” and watching the US flag raised. Around his neck hung a gold medal.
Today Rauch is using his golden arm to post impressive stats as a Washington Nationals reliever: His ERA (as of press time) is 2.49, with 17 saves and 40 strikeouts over 43 innings.
He made his major-league debut with the Chicago White Sox in 2002. Two years later, he was traded to the Montreal Expos. He became a Nationals player when the Expos moved here in 2005.
At six-foot-eleven, he’s the tallest player in the history of the major leagues and the tallest ever to hit a home run—he did that off Roger Clemens in 2004.
Rauch talked with Brett Haber, sports director and primary sports anchor at WUSA Channel 9, about the Olympics, his height, the new ballpark, and why it’s not a good idea to hit a batter.
What are your recollections of representing your country in Olympic baseball and winning a gold medal?
It started out almost surreal. They started out with, I think, 1,500 names of guys they wanted to pick from. They narrowed them down to 28. If you got picked as one of 28, you went to San Diego for a workout. They had this big warehouse where you got to pick all your clothing and equipment—it kind of hit you then.
Where do you keep your gold medal? Do you ever take it out and put it on?
No. It’s nice to have, but it’s locked up in a safe-deposit box. The experience—no one can take that away from you.
Did you cry on the medal stand?
Oh, yeah. I think every one of us did.
You say that, rightfully so, with pride.
You go out before every game hearing the anthem. It was completely different to be there and watch your flag raised and hear the anthem playing.
Other than being closer to the plate when you release the ball and being that much more imposing to a hitter, what are the advantages of being six-foot-eleven?
There aren’t a lot of guys this tall. You’ve got Chris Young at the Padres; he’s six-foot-ten. There’s a kid coming up in Minnesota’s organization who’s seven-foot-one or -two There aren’t many pitchers over six-foot-five. So it’s a different look for the hitters, and you try to use that to your advantage.
Kind of a weird role being a closer on a team that’s not winning a ton of games. Do you ever feel like the Maytag repairman—”I’m here if you need me”?
I’ve done almost every role. I’ve done the starter, the mop-up, everything in between. For me, it’s just do whatever I can to help the team win games. I enjoy the challenge of just going out there to pitch.
People say closers and field-goal kickers can be the flakiest athletes because they have to internalize the pressure of waiting and waiting and then having the outcome of a game depend on them. How do you deal with that pressure?
You try not to look at it that way. You try to look at it as just go out there, get three outs, don’t let any runs score. Just keep it that simple.
Are you flaky?
I have been. I’ve blown my share.
In college you were a dual major, physics and business. Does your physics knowledge come into play?
Does your business knowledge come into play?
Now it does. When I was growing up, the game was just about having fun and being out with your buddies playing a game. You get to the professional level and you see the business side of things.
With people who don’t know you, is the assumption often that you’re a basketball player?
Basketball or football. Never baseball.
How do you like the new stadium? Is it a pitcher’s park or hitter’s park?
We’ve seen some balls carry out of here that wouldn’t carry out of RFK. But I think it’s a fair park, a good park to pitch in. I know the hitters like that the ball carries a little more. It’s easier to see the ball versus at RFK, in terms of picking it up out of the pitcher’s hand.
What was the worst part of being in the minor leagues?
Not exactly Ritz-Carltons.
It was the 4-o’clock wake-up calls to get on the bus. Or the 5-o’clock wake-up calls to go through security at the airport and sit and wait for a flight. The game’s the same; you still have fun playing. But the travel can wear on you.
Where do you live here?
I rented a place on King Street in Alexandria.
You’re from Kentucky. How do you like living here?
It’s nice. I’m in Arizona in the off-season, so all I see is sand and brown. It’s nice coming back and seeing green. But I miss Kentucky. At the same time, it’s enjoyable being here. It’s a beautiful place to live.
What have you seen of Washington?
The basics—all the monuments. We’ve been through the White House, the Pentagon, the Capitol—all the fun stuff. But most of my spare time is spent with my family.
Who are your buddies on this team?
All the relievers.
Could you beat Elijah Dukes in an arm-wrestling contest?
Chin music is part of the game. If a guy goes after one of your batters, you’re prepared to return that?
I’m prepared for it. You just never get the opportunity the way the game is done.
What do you mean?
As something bad happens early in a game, the umpires are quick to throw out warnings. Say I came in in a later inning and had a great opportunity to do something like that. The umpire is probably going to give another warning. And if I do that, I’m going to get suspended, I’m going to miss time. The game is not the same in that aspect as it used to be.
How much studying of hitters do you do? Are you a video guy? A stats guy?
I’m not a stat guy. I am a video guy. I like to look at swings; I like to see what their approach is at the plate. I do a lot of stuff during the game, watching how they approach our pitching early on.
Earlier this season, your wife had a baby—your second. Does being a dad change anything? Does it motivate you to do the best you can for your family?
That’s the biggest thing, being able to provide for my family. The biggest change from playing when I wasn’t a father and now is I have to leave everything at the park. When I go home, you can’t take it out on your kids, you can’t take it out on your wife. When the game is over, it’s over. I enjoy going home and having my little girl yell, “Dad!” when I walk in the door.
Would you trade in your gold medal for a Nationals World Series win?
I can’t say that I would. But I’d like to have both.
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This article appears in the August 2008 issue of Washingtonian. To see more articles in this issue, click here.