Charlottesville favorite son Mike Cubbage elected to Virginia Sports Hall of Fame

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Mike Cubbage (right) with UVA baseball coach Brian O’Connor during Cubbage’s induction into the UVA Hall of Fame.

It’s been quite a year for Mike Cubbage, a Charlottesville and University of Virginia favorite son.

The capper came this week when Cubbage was elected to the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame (state of Virginia, that is). He was already a member of the UVA Baseball Hall of Fame, having been included in the program’s first class of inductees. Add a Valley Baseball League Hall of Fame honor and the Washington Nationals capturing their first World Series crown, and what more could “Cubby” ask for? Well, maybe a UVA basketball national championship.

Wish granted.

Having been selected for the state Hall was quite special, the latest of several former Cavaliers tabbed for that honor.

“It’s a select group, a little over 300 people,” Cubbage said Monday. “It’s my state, so it’s very special. I’ve played against some people that are in the Hall of Fame, and I admired a lot of the older people that I didn’t know, but knew about their careers.

“It’s humbling because you look at the names in there, and there are quite a few superstars. I don’t hold myself in that category, but it’s nice to be included with those people.”

Cubbage certainly earned his way into the Hall. He was a standout at each level of athletics, from his role as a three-sport star at Charlottesville’s Lane High School to UVA, where he received the first baseball scholarship in Cavalier history, to the Major Leagues where he was a player, later a coach, manager, then scout, as well as the minor leagues where he played and managed.

Not only was his election to the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame exciting for Cubby, but for his family and those outside the family that pushed for him to be selected for the state’s highest athletics honor.

“It’s nice to be able to share this with people,” Cubby said. “I’m happy that a dozen people wrote letters on my behalf. There were others that have been pulling for me, people from Richmond and Norfolk.

“The late Dave Rosenfield (named King of Baseball in 2004) used to talk about it all the time. He was always on my side. He’s in there (state Hall of Fame). My buddy, Hank Foiles (the first player in MLB history to use contact lenses), is a 90-year-old former catcher, who I’ve known since I was 17 years old. He’s in the hall and has been campaigning for me for a number of years.”

Cubbage is presently special assistant to Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, and is still on Cloud Nine from winning the World Series in dramatic fashion over the Houston Astros, one of Cubbage’s former employers.

While many know him from that current role, many more remember him for his playing days in Charlottesville.

“I’ve got memories at every level,” Cubbage said. “My memories of high school are as strong as any because of how good we were. The Lane winning streak, the crowds we played in front of. Back in those days, we were drawing like half the crowd that Virginia was playing in front of. We were getting 6,000 to 7,000 standing room only every game. Virginia was probably drawing 12,000 to 14,000.”

Lane owned a 53-game unbeaten streak from the early 1960s until 1970, and had three consecutive all-state quarterbacks in Gene Arnette (UVA), David Trice (Duke) and Cubbage (UVA).

Lane wasn’t shabby in basketball either, and Cubbage teamed up with another Hall of Famer in Frankie Allen for two great seasons leading to the state semifinals under Chip Conner, Cubbage’s favorite UVA player, who came to coach Lane during Cubby’s sophomore year. Cubbage excelled in baseball as well, and earned UVA’s first full scholarship for that sport, although he played football, too.

After a dislocated elbow his sophomore year, just after he had been named UVA’s starting quarterback, Cubbage decided to walk away and focus on baseball, where he knew he had a future.

“To tell the truth, my heart wasn’t really in football, and playing two sports and not being quite as dedicated to football at that level, it was an easy decision,” Cubbage said. “I was never going to become a pro football player. I didn’t even go to spring practice because I was playing baseball in the spring.”

Baseball was his sport, where he flourished. He had toyed with the idea of signing a pro baseball contract right out of high school but is glad he didn’t.

“Playing for Jim West at Virginia, I got to mature under him. I got better as a player and grew up as a man under the tough love that Jim West was known for. That got me ready to go out and play pro ball. Before then, I just wasn’t ready.”

Cubbage played three years of summer ball, too, while at UVA, two years in the Valley League and a year in South Dakota under Jack Stallings, another quality college coach.

Then came the minors and onto Major League Baseball where he played from 1974 — with the Texas Rangers, then the Minnesota Twins (where he hit for the cycle) and the New York Mets — through 1981.

“Billy Martin was my first manager. Gene Mauch was my favorite manager, the most brilliant man I’ve ever met in a baseball uniform,” Cubbage said. “I got to work and play for a lot of other great managers including Hall of Famers Tommy Lasorda and Joe Torre.”

He played with stars Rod Carew and Harmon Killebrew. He coached Hall of Famers in Houston, including Randy Johnson, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, then Pedro Martinez, Billy Wagner and David Ortiz at Boston, climaxing a 14-year run as a major league coach and manager.

“It ended a year too soon because Boston won [the World Series] the year after I left. I’m glad I went to Boston — if only two years, but two good years — where I got to experience the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. Every game was a sellout at Boston and New York, and it was loud and crazy.”

Cubbage said his last game in a MLB uniform came during Game 7 in 2003 in the American League Championship Series when New York’s Aaron Boone blasted a series-settling home run, a heartbreaker for the Red Sox.

“I love Aaron Boone, but every time I see him, it’s like, ‘Hey, can you come over here and take that knife out of my heart,’” Cubbage chuckled.

In his Major League playing career, Cubby appeared in 703 games, batting .258, including 34 home runs and 251 RBI.

He was the Mets’ third-base coach in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and was the club’s interim manager in September of 1991, managing the Mets for seven games. A decade later, he was Boston’s interim manager during spring training after the franchise fired manager Joe Kerrigan. He was replaced by Grady Little, but stayed on with the club as the third-base coach.

Cubbage also worked with several of the Mets’ minor-league teams as manager in Jackson, Miss., Lynchburg and Norfolk, Va., and won everywhere he went.

“I got to manage five years in the state of Virginia, which I loved,” he said. “When I was done as a player, I had some offers, but when I saw that the Mets had teams in Virginia, I decided to stay with that organization. We had really good teams in Lynchburg and Norfolk.”

When his coaching career in the minors and majors ended, he didn’t look back but was ready for the next challenge as a scout, originally with Houston, then Tampa Bay and on to D.C.

“When I left Tampa, I only talked to one team and kind of had my eye on coming back to the area,” said Cubbage, who still maintained his permanent home in Charlottesville during his career with his wife, Jan.

“I knew the Nationals were good and that Mike Rizzo was a guy with a scouting background,” Cubby said. “I called an old teammate of mine, Bill Singer, who was one of their scouts and told him I was a free agent. Within two days, he put me in contact with Rizz, and I signed with the Nationals. No regrets there, especially after what happened this fall.

“It’s everybody’s dream to be the last team standing. It’s hard to be that team. It really is. We had a special group that got it done.”

Cubbage will be inducted into the Hall this spring along with former MLB player David Wright, track & field Olympian Lawrence Johnson, women’s basketball player Tracy Saunders, former New York Jets receiver Al Toon, WAVY-TV sports director Bruce Rader and Lynchburg’s sports anchor (WSET) Dennis Carter. Ceremonies are set for April 25 in Virginia Beach.