For half a century, Mike Cubbage’s life has revolved around baseball, as a player, coach, scout and front office person.
That time ended last month, when the Charlottesville native retired from his post as the special assistant to Washington Nationals general manager and president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo after his contract expired on Oct. 31.
“It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a couple of years, so it wasn’t a spur of the moment thing,” Cubbage said. “I’m at a peace with it. I thought it was just time to turn away from the game.”
The national pastime wasn’t just a sport for Cubbage, but a rite of passage. He grew up in a baseball family. His mother, Marge, was part of the well-known Haney family in Barboursville. Larry Haney, Cubbage’s cousin, played 10 seasons at catcher in the big leagues. Haney’s son, Chris, followed in his footsteps and pitched 13 years in the majors.
“I started young,” Cubbage said. “My mother’s family was a baseball family. They had a glove on me at age 3 and she had me catching pop-ups. She bragged on me about how she taught me how to catch.”
Lindy, his father, served as his hitting coach growing up and helped develop him as a player.
Cubbage’s journey to pro ball started in 1955, when his father took him to Briggs Stadium to watch the Detroit Tigers play.
“That is when the passion started and the dream began,” Cubbage said. “Al Kaline became my idol. I got to meet him and got to know him over the years and I was really crushed by his death this year.”
Cubbage was a three-sport standout at Lane High School in the early 1960s, excelling at football, basketball and baseball. He played quarterback for Tommy Theodose and was part of the Lane football team that won a record-setting 53 consecutive games. In basketball, he played with Virginia Sports Hall of Famer Frankie Allen and was a part of two teams that advanced to the state semifinals.
“I had a lot of opportunities,” he said. “I played all the time. I was a baseball rat during the season. I had batting cages, good coaching and lots of opportunities, I played five years of Little League baseball with the Kiwanis Club, American Legion baseball, Valley League Baseball and at UVa. I got plenty of at-bats and lots of games played under my belt.”
The 70-year-old, who will be inducted in to the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame next spring, said those experiences prepared him for life as a pro baseball player.
“There’s no doubt my experiences at Lane High School, playing football with the state-record winning streak, playing big games in pressure-packed situations were crucial,” he said. “I learned a lot from those experiences. You can’t get better unless you play against good competition.”
Cubbage was originally selected in the fifth round of the 1968 MLB Draft by the Washington Senators but did not sign and went to play football and baseball at University of Virginia on a baseball scholarship.
Freshmen were not eligible to play, but the next year Cubbage won the starting quarterback job for Coach George Blackman midway through his sophomore season. His starting job lasted just one game. Cubbage dislocated his left elbow in the third quarter against North Carolina, all but ending his football career.
“We weren’t very good that year, but we were driving in the third quarter at around the 19-yard line,” he recalled. “It was a shoestring tackle and I reached out with my left hand to brace myself and that’s when the injury happened. That was it, I retired from football. I was willing to play, but I knew my future and dreams were in baseball.”
Two years later, pro baseball came calling again. Cubbage was selected in the second round in the secondary round of the 1971 free-agent draft by the Senators. He spent three years in the minor leagues before making his MLB debut April 7 against the Oakland Athletics.
Cubbage’s first major league hit was a grand slam off Bill Singer on June 20, 1975 after going hitless in three call-ups the year before.
“It took a long time coming,” he said.
He finished his career with four grand slams, one in each of his first four seasons, and also hit for the cycle. In addition, he became one of only 53 players in major league history to homer in his final big league at-bat when he took Jeff Reardon deep Oct. 3, 1981, joining the likes of Ted Williams, Todd Zeile and Jim Edmonds.
“It’s probably the only category [Williams] and I would be in together,” Cubbage said.
He combined to play eight years in the big leagues with the Rangers, Twins and Mets. The left-handed hitter posted a career .258 average with 34 home runs and 251 RBI as a utility infielder before moving on to a career in coaching.
“I was just an average player,” he said. “I got eight years of playing in the major leagues. I had some physical limitations, but there were no limitations with regards to coaching. I thought I had a better coaching career. I enjoyed it.”
Cubbage managed seven seasons in the minor leagues, including winning a Triple-A championship with the Tidewater (Norfolk) Tides, as well as a stint with the Lynchburg Hillcats. He also served 14 seasons as a bench coach in the big leagues with the Mets, Astros and Red Sox, coaching the likes of Craig Biggio, Billy Wagner, Jeff Bagwell and Moises Alou, among others.
He managed seven games for the Mets at the end of the 1991 season following the dismissal of Bud Harrelson and finished with a 3-4 record.
Cubbage’s final game in uniform came in the 2003 American League Championship Series as a bench coach for the Boston Red Sox. He watched in disbelief as Aaron Boone hit a walk-off home run to send the Yankees to the World Series.
“Booney is a great guy,” he said. “Every time I see him, I tell him to take the knife out of my back. I worked a lot of different places, I spent a long time with the Mets, Houston and Boston. They were great experiences everywhere.”
From there, Cubbage went into pro scouting. He worked with the Tampa Bay Rays before spending the past six years with the Washington Nationals. He was a pro scout for the Rays in 2008 when Tampa Bay won the AL pennant. In 2014, after general manager Andrew Friedman left the organization for the Los Angeles Dodgers and manager Joe Maddon departed for a job with the Chicago Cubs, Cubbage started looking for a new opportunity. He reached out to Bill Singer, a former teammate, who put in a good word with Rizzo.
“I asked permission to shop around and I reached out to the Nationals and got hired in a few days,” he said. “I wanted to get back in the area and I also thought they were competitive and had a chance to win. Late in your career, you want to win and have a chance to compete and I thought Washington had a chance to do that.”
Indeed they did.
The Nationals captured the 2019 World Series following a memorable postseason run.
Cubbage said the World Series ring was a perfect ending to his baseball career.
“I think I got better with age,” he said. “It was an older group of guys [in the front office] and I really liked the way they did things there. I worked with seven or eight organizations, only the superstars get to chose one team forever. I gave them a good day’s pay and whatever they wanted. I like to compete and I like to play for championships and that we did. I didn’t play for that many as a major league player. You’re trying to get a ring on your finger and I ended up with three.”
Cubbage’s final year in pro baseball was an interesting one because of COVID-19. Instead of attending games, he spent the summer in Charlottesville scouting games by television. Cubbage said the past six months helped fortify his decision to retire.
“I’ve been doing a lot of work around the house and the yard,” he said. “I also live on a golf course and used to play a lot and had given it up. I plan to start playing again. I’ve even been shopping around for a golf cart.”
Cubbage also plans to devote his free time to watching his grandchildren’s games in Northern Virginia. He’s also working with a writer in Gloucester on an upcoming book project about his life. He expects the book to be published in the next year or two.
Baseball will remain a big part of his life in retirement.
“I’ve got a gold lifetime pass, so that gets me into any ballpark in the country,” Cubbage said. “I already told the Nationals that they’ll see more of me in the coming years than the last six years that I worked for them.”