There are two words you never expect to smack you across the face once you enter the clubhouse.
* * * * *
We had all come a long, long way for this.
Detroit Catholic Central High School’s prep star Frankie Tanana flew into Phoenix via Republic Airlines with Midland, Michigan’s Jimmy Kern right behind him.
The Padres’ AAA sensation Dave Freisleben approached the runway aboard Hughes Airwest and was approaching the beginning of his career. His teammate, Danny Spillner, awaited a Frontier Airlines connector at Natrona County Airport near his hometown of Casper, Wyoming.
Bruce Heinbechner buzzed down Interstate 10, through the Coachella Valley toward Palm Springs in his Cherry Red 1966 Porsche convertible, where he would join my old Phoenix Giants teammate Eddie Figueroa, who was resting his eyes on a Pan Am 747 wide body departure from San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The Oakland A’s star prospect Glenn Abbott awaited a flight out of Adams Field in Little Rock, Arkansas while the Cubs’ recently acquired young southpaw Kenny Frailing dropped his Samsonite with the curbside porter at Dane County Regional in Madison, Wisconsin.
The Brewers’ prized lefty Kevin Kobel was lounging aboard an American Airlines DC-10, departing from Greater Buffalo International with a layover in Chicago.
And from over the hills and far away, there I was in my Bumble Bee Yellow Camaro, breezing across the California border into Arizona, destination Casa Grande, all of us headed toward the Western Spur of Major League Spring Training.
We were the Cactus League Class of 1974, though most of us played in the bigs for what amounted to a campus visit the previous season, returning to Arizona that February felt like homecoming.
* * * * *
Casa Grande was a community of less than 12,000 or so, as cowpoke as it got. The city was founded in the late 1870’s as a mining town, named after the ancient ruins that surrounded the area. John Wayne’s ranch was just down the road from our complex. Giants owner Horace Stoneham built the Francisco Grande Hotel & Resort in 1959, where the team began its first four weeks of spring training every year – mostly time for pitchers and catchers to work back into shape ahead of the preseason exhibition schedule. Stoneham operated the resort alongside Paul Bianco, the largest landowner in Casa Grande. One of the largest cattle ranchers in the United States, too. Mr. Bianco was close friends with Stoneham and could be frequently found around our practice fields and holding court in the dugouts of the complex. He was real chummy with the players and coaches, hosted many barbecues on his spacious ranch, which were always well-attended by the ballclub. One late February evening, Mr. Bianco introduced me and two of my teammates, Eddie Goodson and Mike Phillips, to his three college-age daughters. He tried his best to play matchmaker with all of us. After a delicious alfresco feast of pot roast, fresh corn and biscuits, Mr. Bianco and I walked the grounds of his ranch by ourselves, stopping against the wooden fence surrounding his many head of cattle.
“You know, son,” he smiled, slapping me on the shoulder as he nodded to his daughter back on the porch behind us, “My darlin' over there likes ya a whole lot. “
“She’s a nice girl, Mr. Bianco,” I replied, not sure where this was going, “I like her, too. All your daughters are ladies. “
“I know that. But I know ballplayers. Been around ‘em for many years. She's gonna make a real good wife, one day, if ya know what I’m sayin’.”
I didn’t laugh, but I respectfully chuckled to let him know I got his point.
“Mr. Bianco,” I confessed, “I’m just a rookie.” The man was no dummy and he seriously wanted me in his family – the right way. He chuckled himself, leading me back to everyone enjoying dessert refreshments on the porch.
“Rookie,” he laughed quietly, “Ya know what I’m sayin’, right?”
I knew. Also knew it was time for me to gather Goody and Mike and get back before curfew.
But not before a stop at Mister T’s Steakhouse for a few more after-dinner cocktails.
* * * * *
While Casa Grande was certainly small town Western America, there were a few places to get into some trouble, and Mister T’s Steakhouse topped the short list. Unfinished wooden floors, red and white checkerboard table cloths, saloon-style curtains, the kind you might find on the set of TV’s “Gunsmoke.” We met up with a few of the other players, but after awhile it was just me and my best friend on the ballclub, Steve Ontiveros, or “Onti” as we called him. Onti and I bunked together every spring and during our trips to the Arizona Instructional League in the offseason.
We ate dinner at Mister T’s most nights during that first portion of spring training. The owner was this laid-back, pure-bred Arizonan who appreciated our business. The local cowboys, not so much. There was this one dude, a regular at the bar who always gave us attitude and dirty leers when we showed up. He seemed very familiar but couldn’t place the face. Had a hunch he knew who we were but I wasn’t sure. I know he and his friends didn’t like us making eyes at the women who frequented the narrow dance area.
“You know, Roomie,” Onti said matter-of-factly to me as we stood at the bar, “I don’t like the way those shitkickers are lookin’ at us.” Onti was feeling it, too. I had a couple drinks in me and even though I wanted to approach them and see what’s what, I wasn’t in the mood for a barroom brawl.
“I got a better idea,” I replied, sipping my Coors as I nodded casually toward the women standing beside them. That’s all it took.
Couple hours later, Onti and I were crooning “My Maria” cruising down Main Street in Casa Grande after leaving Mister T’s….with two of those girls from the bar providing the chorus in the back of the Camaro.
* * * * *
For most of the Cactus League Class of 1974, spring training was more about working out and getting game-ready than any real concern about making the big club. Tanana had been the Angels’ number one draft pick in 1972. Back then, organizations didn’t draft guys out of college as much as they grabbed high school players. Oh, Frankie was special; had a devastating curveball but a better changeup – a straight change. Made his 94-95 MPH fastball that much more unhittable. Frankie threw his awesome curveball from three different angles, especially that sidearm job at lefty batters just to make ‘em look foolish. Plus, he had insane control.
“Figgy” was one of the most ardent students of pitching I ever met, but you would never know it because he was still learning the language. When we played together on the Phoenix Giants the previous season, I noticed that Figgy wanted to engage all of us in the clubhouse and the dugout, but was shy because of the language barrier. Once he realized that I spoke fluent Spanish, we spent more and more time analyzing the art of the pitching sitting in the bullpen on my off-days.
Figgy spotted his pitches well, kept them down as his fastball topped out at 91. He had a full repertoire, though - curveball, sinker, forkball, slider and he used every one of them. He pitched guys differently all the time. With his selection of pitches, he still wasn’t satisfied.
“I, I wanna learn your pitch,” he said to me once in Phoenix, “How you hold your sinker? The Hard Sink,” is what he called it.
I had this hard sinking fastball. I showed Figgy when I held the ball deep in the palm of my hand and gripped it, the ball would be heavier. Soon it became another pitch for Figgy.
The other young hurlers of our class had storylines in their own little coming-of-age film. With his heater and developing breaking ball, lefty Kevin Kobel was itching for a slot at the end of the Milwaukee Brewers’ rotation behind 20-game winner Jim Colborn, after less than three years in professional ball. Brewers manager Del Crandall had make remarks about entering the season with a set three-man rotation and a small collection of spot starters. Not a whole lot of margin for error there.
The Cleveland Indians were so pitching-starved, they were giving a long look to Jimmy Kern, a lanky kid with a blazing fastball that struck out more than a batter an inning for AA San Antonio in ’73.
The World Champion Oakland A’s possessed arguably the best starting staff in the American League at the time, anchored by 20-game winners Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue & Kenny Holtzman. They had some issues at the back of their rotation, as they were no longer certain Blue Moon Odom had much left in the tank. It was the perfect set-up for Glenn Abbott, 1973’s best pitcher in the minor leagues, according to The Sporting News, to make his mark. Glenn had such a sharp curveball – one of those 12/6 jobs. Threw hard, too - 90--92 MPH fastball, but his curve was the star attraction. Thrown straight out like a fastball then dropped down like a righty Koufax. That’s what made him effective- you never knew if he was throwing the “1” or the “2.” Glenn and I had many duels through all the dusty towns of the minor leagues, and he dusted me a couple of times out there.
The Padres thought so much of Dave Freisleben and Danny Spillner right behind him that they sent the darling of the organization, Clay Kirby, to Cincinnati for outfielder Bobby Tolan. “Freisy” had unbelievable stuff, won 18 games at AAA Hawaii the year before. Much like Abbott, Freisy and I opposed one another a few times that year while I was in Phoenix. The Padres thought Freisy and my off-season San Diego workout buddy Randy Jones would be the anchors of that staff for years to come.
Kenny Frailing had dazzled hitters in the September sample size of 1973 and had been a part of the ground-breaking, Cubs-White Sox cross-town Ron Santo trade, a transaction made famous not just for the move of the Windy City’s legendary third baseman, but also because it was preceded by the first instance where a ballplayer exercised his 10-and-5 veteran veto trade rights. The Cubs had been set to send Santo to the California Angels. One of the pitchers Chicago had asked to be included in that swap…my buddy Bruce Heinbechner.
“Heinie” was this fun-loving, good-natured, West Coast kid, like many of us, also a football star at Polytechnic High in Sun Valley, California during the late ‘60s. Born and bred in the Golden State just like me, we had a lot in common and became fast friends. The major Baseball difference between the two of us was that while I was a power pitcher, Heinie was this crafty southpaw with a dazzling screwball. We hung out whenever our teams played one another in AAA. We grabbed an early dinner after a 1973 spring training game against the Angels in Palm Springs. As we left the restaurant, Heinie caught me quietly admiring his car.
“Go for a spin,” he asked.
“The bar’s right up the block, right,” I replied.
“Yeah, we’ll take the long way. C’mon.”
Didn’t have to ask me twice. It was still light out, anyway. His Porsche was the most magnificent machine my eyes ever saw. Convertible coupe, red with black interior. 5-speed manual transmission. Classic wood steering wheel. Heinie had no problem revving that engine up to 100 down a desolate Interstate 10, an 8-track of Zeppelin’s “The Battle of Evermore” shooting at us through the small speakers like ear-piercing bullets as we cut through the smoggy, desert sunset. Watching him shift gears with this expression of Christmas morning-like glee that the pounding wind couldn't wipe away made me want a car that would bring that much joy. Was simply love at first sight and sound.
We met up with our respective teammates about 45 minutes later. A few hours after some cocktails and mingling with the ladies, I got Heinie’s attention at the bar.
“I’m gonna split, man,” I said.
“What are ya talkin’ about,” he replied, “The night’s just startin’.”
“Onti’s leavin’, he’s my ride-“
“Nah, hang out a little longer. I’ll drop ya off.” I was heading out with Onti and a couple of our teammates, but I didn’t see Heinie all that often. I shrugged and stuck around until closing.
We slid into Heinie’s Porsche and he gave me an encore performance of automotive power, gunning it down the main strip of Palm Springs. We were driving way too fast for the road, but we didn’t care; I was enjoying the moment. I knew somewhere down the line, I would own one of these. We reached the Ramada a few minutes later. Bruce wasn’t flat-out drunk, but there was a little buzz in the air.
“You all right,” I asked him, “You can crash with us if ya want.”
“I’m fine. We’re only right down the road.”
“Thanks for the lift, man,” I said as I shut the door.
“See ya later, alligator,” Heinie nodded, peeling out, screeching away, dancing into the darkness of the California night.
Drinking and driving was fairly common among ballplayers back then, especially the younger guys. Fairly common. We were all talented, agile, young men with elite reaction time.
We never thought anything tragic would happen.
* * * * *
The Giants’ manager Charlie Fox had called my house a few weeks before we arrived in Casa Grande. He was very excited for my success in the rotation. We enjoyed a very close relationship, but there was business involved as well. Charlie was my number one advocate in the organization and had been pushing for me to make the team since 1972. Now it was time for me to pay off on expectations. The rotation in Charlie’s mind was to be Ron Bryant (who tied for the major league lead in victories with 24 in '73), Tom Bradley, me, Mike Caldwell and Jim Barr as the number five starter and long man. Of course, these things don’t always go as planned. Pitchers and catchers’ workouts had begun relatively easy until a couple days’ into full camp, I laid down a bunt and severely pulled my quad running to first base during an intra-squad game. Charlie ran on the field quickly to check me out.
“I’m fine, Skip,” I replied, showing as little pain as possible. In reality, it was excruciating. I pitched another two innings, but Charlie took all the precautions with me. I wouldn’t see the mound for a few days. When I got up the next morning, the pain was like a warm sword twisting through my thigh. Onti glanced over from his bed and saw the look of slight anguish on my face.
“What the hell, man,” was Onti’s measure of groggy concern. Of course, I waved him off.
“I’m fine, Roomie,” I replied with a grunt, because that’s what you said. I remember thinking in my head, “Thank God this didn’t happen at the end of Spring Training,” because they would’ve left my ass in Phoenix.
Once we arrived at the complex, Onti walked with me to Charlie’s office. The Skipper took one look – “I’m fine, Charlie,” and led me right into the trainers’ room. That man cared for me like his own son, making sure my leg was treated immediately. Was his job depending on my well-being? Maybe, but still. So as I was lying on the massage table, I noticed the clubhouse kid staring at me through the door. I didn’t know his name but he was around my age, maybe a year or two older. Wasn’t a concerned stare, either. There was contempt in his eyes. Didn’t quite understand why and my primary attention was on the injury, but I knew a dirty look when I saw one. As for the Giants’ beat reporters, Charlie changed the subject quickly when they asked why Johnny D wasn’t on the field. The papers ultimately had me listed as “ill with the flu.” It was the quad, but to the reporters, the fans, the readers….I was fine. Wasn’t gonna let an extended quad keep me from my spot in the Giants’ starting rotation.
And I certainly wasn’t going to let it stop me from going back to Mister T’s Steakhouse with Onti and the boys for more post-practice hijinx.
* * * * *
Boy, did they love country music in Casa Grande. Charlie Rich, Charley Pride, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, Conway Twitty – oh, Conway Twitty – Twitty was in his prime back then. “You’re Never Been This Far Before” was the song of the day, and it applied to most of us entering the bar that early evening.
It was me, Onti, Goody, Mikey Phillips, Gary Thomasson, a second-year outfielder and , out for a night on the small town. We sat down to dig into juicy ribeyes, mashed potatoes and some tequila on the side. Okay, a lot on the side. After the meal, we hung out at the bar doing the usual thing, drinking, busting each others’ chops, watching the women dressed in half-shirts and collared plaids tied at the waist, leering back at us as they swished in their hip-huggers and mouthed the words to “Jolene.”
Once the band finished their break and returned to the smallish stage area, they played some Willie Nelson covers, some Stonewall Jackson, Johnny Cash and of course, Conway Twitty. The women always grabbed us to dance. You can imagine this didn't sit too well with the local dudes. One of them stepped past us in front of the band. He was blond, wore a cowboy hat, about my height, around my age, weighed maybe 20 pounds less and bumped me.
“Oh, sorry,” I said casually.
“Asshole,” he mumbled and continued walking.
“Excuse me,” I replied, as I stopped dancing. Blond Cowboy turned back and gave me the finger. Obviously, I didn’t like that much more.
“Just keep walkin’,” I said. A moment later, he was accompanied by four other dudes, a couple in cowboy hats, the others in demin shirts.
“Ya got a problem,” Blond Cowboy snarled as he approached me. In an instant, from behind, my best friend was right there at my side.
“Ain’t no problem here,” Onti jumped in, hopping in front of me, “Just go back to your crummy little corner.”
“I ain’t goin’ nowhere,” Blond Cowboy said, stepping into Onti’s face. Right then it hit me.
The Giants’ clubhouse kid, who was giving me the dirty looks in the trainers’ room a couple days earlier. It was him and his posse of locals. None of my teammates were wilting flowers – each of us standing 6’ plus, especially Goody and me, leading our pack at 6’3’’. We definitely held the height advantage.
“Do somethin’ about your friend here,” I pointed to the Clubhouse Kid, “Before I do somethin’ for ya-“
“Go fuck yourself,” the Clubhouse Kid said, escalating matters. Mikey always the voice of reason, jumped in front of me.
“Forget it, Johnny,” he said in that cracklin’ Beaumont, Texas drawl of his, taking measure of the Casa Grande Cowboys, “Let’s go. Ain’t worth it.” I was furious, but the intelligent part of me thankfully dragged the rest of my ass away from what could’ve been an ugly situation.
“You’re lucky,” I nodded to the biggest guy as I stepped past him.
“C’mon, boy,” the Blond Cowboy implored, “Let’s see how lucky I am!”
Mikey turned to the bartender, “We’ll settle up tomorrow. We’re getting’ outta here.”
“Yeah, go back to Frisco,” one of them called out. I pushed against Mikey, but he was no wallflower, 6’0’’ 175, himself, holding me, pointing to the door.
“No, let’s go.”
“Now you keep walkin’,” The Clubhouse Kid laughed, obviously drunk.
I wanted to end it right there on the dance floor, but we left Mister T’s. The Arizona sky had this Miller Time-like afterglow which sort of betrayed the ugliness of the evening. It was barely 8:30.
“We shoulda kicked their asses,” Onti said, still steaming.
“So what,” Mikey said, "That'd just make it worse." The five of us crawled into my cramped Camaro and drove back to the complex. Behind the wheel with a few drinks in me, I was still pissed. Through all the bars of minor league towns like Decatur, Fresno and even Phoenix just down the road, no one had ever talked to me like that.
“We can’t go there anymore,” Gary huffed.
“Nah, fuck that,” Onti interjected, “Why should we have to find another place?”
“We did the right thing, JD,” Mikey said, tapping me on the shoulder, “We’re only gonna be here ‘nother few days-“
“They started it,” Onti spoke up. Moments later, I heard the whirling churn of an angry motor beside my car. I didn’t even need to glance at the rear view to realize an absolute shitshow in a black Plymouth Duster was riding right beside us in the opposite lane.
“Stay the fuck outta Casa Grande,” someone yelled. I turned to see it was Blond Cowboy, The Clubhouse Kid and all their dudes from the bar.
“You wanna start again, chump,” Onti yelled across me out the driver’s side window. I just gave them the finger, revved the engine and hauled ass. They stayed right on our tail. We accelerated, they accelerated, I changed lanes, they changed lanes and Lord, Mr. Ford, we had ourselves a good old-fashioned county car chase.
This went on for five minutes or so, the wheel-to-wheel taunts, the cursing, the epithets at 80 miles-an-hour.
“Pull over and do somethin’ ‘bout it,” Blond Cowboy yelled, “Do somethin’ ‘bout it!”
“Roomie, these guys are chickenshit, let’s shut ‘em up,” Onti goaded me. I wanted to fight, but I didn’t want to get my friends hurt over something stupid. I really wanted to be the better man, to abide by the law of the minor leagues, which was to just stay out of it with the locals, just like when you get taunted by passionate fans while you’re in the bullpen on the road, and then-”
“What are ya, a bunch of Frisco f----”
Immediately, I hit the brakes and pulled over. Knew where he was going and enough was enough. I want to say I was there to defend the honor, the people, and the wonderful fans of my adopted city that I had been growing to love so much.
Nah, I was just buzzed, young and pissed off.
We all jumped out of the car beside an old filling station about 25 yards up the road. The Duster stopped behind us and all the drunken Casa Grande Cowboys poured out. Mikey tried one more time to diffuse the situation. He was the only level-headed dude in the 10 of us.
“Tell your boys to cool it," Mikey warned the Clubhouse Kid. but we were all way past logic.
“Fuck you,” The Clubhouse Kid said to Mikey, “You cocksuckers think you own the fuckin’ town-“
“So do somethin' about it,” I said to Blond Cowboy, as he raised his hand and tried to push my face away. He grazed my nose as I swung and punched him square in the jaw and that was that. All of us were brawling, pairing off. Mikey was on the ground in an amateur wrestling maneuver with one of them, Gary was stuck in a hold with his dude, Onti had one guy in a headlock, Goody was pushing the Clubhouse Kid back right before he clocked him.
“Look what ya started," Goody yelled at the Clubhouse Kid.
I ducked a sloppy swing from Blond Cowboy and delivered a powerful blow to his midsection. That just took the wind out him and I had him pinned to the ground. I heard someone cry out “Owww!!” It wasn’t something you say when you’ve been hit in the face, but rather when you throw a punch that awkwardly catches its target. Next thing I heard was “Johnny, stop.” I thought it was Goody’s voice as I was pounding on Blond Cowboy when I looked up and saw the Clubhouse Kid pointing a .30-.06 rifle right at my head.
“Get off my friend,” the Clubhouse Kid said calmly.
“What the hell ya doin',” Onti yelled at him.
“I said get off him,” the clubhouse kid repeated, almost peacefully, as his right eye began slowly swelling from Goody’s punch. I let Blond Cowboy go and backed away. “It’s over,” Goody said, as all my teammates walked briskly to the Camaro. Mikey stepped into the driver’s seat, Onti riding shotgun with Gary and Goody in the back. I tried to rush behind them but my injured quad kept me at a slow pace.
“Johnny, get in the fuckin’ car,” Onti yelled to me. I slid through the back window with them and we drove off with my legs dangling.
“Holy shit, that was crazy,” Onti cried out with a relieved laugh as we booked up the highway.
“I just wanted to go out for a drink and a steak,” Goody huffed, “You guys all right?”
I was in pain from my quad, but didn’t say anything. Thomasson was shaking his right hand. I realized it was his voice I heard.
“You ok,” I asked him, trying to sit up and make room in the confined back seat.
Gary winced once or twice, before assuring me with the magic spring training words you’d generally offer a coach or a GM walking through the clubhouse. Or a beat reporter.
“I’m fine,” Gary muttered, shaking his head.
It was solemnly quiet in the car until Onti turned to Mikey with this re-charged smile, clasping his hands.
“Where we goin’ now?”
After a beat of silence, we all laughed, even Mikey, through the glare he threw Onti, through my painful quad, through Gary’s obviously injured right hand.
* * * * *
The next morning, Onti and I arrived at camp. We entered the building only to find The Clubhouse Kid standing near the trainer's room beside our manager Charlie Fox…and the sheriff of Casa Grande.
“You boys wanna tell me what happened last night,” The Sheriff greeted us. I tried to explain the story and then The Clubhouse Kid interjected with his version of the steakhouse standoff and roadside rumble.
“You wanna tell him you pulled a rifle on me and my teammates,” I replied. The Sheriff turned slowly to the Clubhouse Kid, as if it wasn’t the first time something like this happened with him.
“Is this true,” the Sheriff asked him in his slow Arizona accent. The Clubhouse Kid didn’t answer right away.
“He was beating up my friend-“
“Is this true?” The Clubhouse Kid didn’t answer.
“What’s your name son,” The Sheriff asked me.
“Mr. D’Acquisto, would you like to press charges against this gentleman?” I thought for a moment. We were all young kids. We all lost our heads. We were all ok. Except maybe the Big Blond Cowboy.
“You know what,” I shrugged, “Forget it.” Onti was livid.
“No, it’s over. Let’s just forget the whole thing happened. It was just a bad night.” April Court dates? Lawyers? Reporters? Newspapers!?!! During the first two months of my rookie season?
Yeah, I didn’t want any part of that.
“Well, OK,” the Sheriff nodded - almost relieved in his own way - and walked back to the administrative offices of the complex with The Clubhouse Kid.
“Bet we won’t be seeing him again,” Onti laughed, but there was no smile on Charlie’s face as he puffed on a Paul Mall cigarette.
“You guys better watch yourselves,” he said.
“Skip, they started it-“
“You coulda kept driving. That coulda been a whole lot worse. Now I gotta explain all this to Mr. Stoneham.” Onti defended me.
“C’mon, Skip, you know how these shitkickers are-“
“I don’t wanna hear it. It’s their town. We’re just guests here. Mr. Stoneham’s gotta be with these people a lot longer than we do. We’re leavin’ in three days. You wanna chase girls, go chase em’ in Phoenix. Leave these people alone.”
That’s what I loved about Charlie. He treated his players like men, but again, he watched over all of us as if we were his offspring. The other side of this, of course, is that sometimes Dad had to keep his children in line to protect them.
Obviously, Charlie was right. You can find a whole lot of trouble in these small towns if you’re in the wrong place with the wrong alcohol. Obviously the Clubhouse Kid was fired about 20 minutes later.
And obviously, Onti and I were on our way to Phoenix later that night.
* * * * *
The team moved our spring training to Phoenix after the first month of camp. It was an annual process – the big club gave way for San Francisco’s minor leaguers to begin their workout in Casa Grande. The preseason game schedule had just begun. Charlie continued keeping me out of the beat reporters’ questions regarding my Cactus League debut. After our first day of pitching, bunting and running drills in Phoenix, Onti grabbed me in the clubhouse. No question about where we would be eating, where we would be heading out afterward, just a direct, “You ready, Roomie?” Onti and I knew Phoenix inside and out after playing there in ‘73. I won 16 games and he led the Pacific Coast League in batting with a .357 average. As we were leaving the clubhouse, one of our teammates, Skip James, yelled over to us.
“Where you guys goin’?” Onti acted as if that was the silliest question in the world.
“Out. You comin’?” I can’t remember how many times I heard that exact phrase from a dozen other teammates and opposing players through the years. The destination didn’t matter, as long as we were hanging out and busting chops. Nine times out of ten if you weren’t a total jerk, it was always an open invitation.
Phoenix is a whole lot different today. The local law enforcement scene is well-regarded in its patrolling for drunken drivers, but in 1974, that was the least of our concerns. We met up with a few of the other Giants at a popular spot, Pinnacle Peak. Remember, the Cubs were also right near us in Scottsdale, so it wasn’t a surprise to see players from the other teams when you were out at night. Onti and I would bump into a Steve Stone or a Billy Travers or a Kevin Kobel and we’d hang out and buy rounds for each other. I knew Heinie was coming to town in a few days. I would probably run into him and his buddy on the Angels’ Andy Hassler after the game, or meet up somewhere around Phoenix. I was looking forward to seeing Heinie, actually. Still had that sweet ’73 Porsche on my mind, too.
Mabel Murphys, The Red Barn, Cattlemen’s or Pinnacle Peak for a round of steaks – yeah, it was steaks just about every dinner in Arizona – that was our nighttime rotation. The Pink Pony, a hotspot back then that remains in business to this day, was the only place off-limits. That was where the managers and coaches would go to drink whiskey and smoke cigars. The waiters at Pinnacle Peak took real good care of us. After dinner, it was always Onti chiming in, “Roomie, we goin’ to The Barn or what?” Onti left his car in Sacramento so I was always driving. Looking back, it’s amazing how different the women in Phoenix were from Casa Grande and yet it was merely 35 minutes away. Later in the evening, entering The Red Barn, our main hangout as AAA Phoenix players, felt like a family reunion. The bouncers greeted us, the bartenders acted like we were local soldiers of fortune returning to the homeland. With the large college population in town, the women were slightly less Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn and slightly more Carly Simon and Carole King.
As Onti and I stood beside our stools, this petite, dirty blond, hazel-eyed ASU senior and her girlfriends started chatting us up. Onti merely nodded and listened for what seemed like 40 minutes. Soon her friends took off, leaving her there, leaning on the bar at Onti's elbow, tossing an assortment of questions at him like so many Nolan Ryan fastballs. “I’m from Albuquerque, where you from? You ever play ‘The Dukes? Where else do you guys hang out? Where’d you live in Phoenix? Did you hear what’s happening in Washington D.C.? Do you think the president’s in trouble?” Everything and anything to get Onti to respond. She was cute, and really into him, but after a long afternoon in the dry, beating sun, we were just chilling out, and then…
I turned to see Vicki, a tall, 23-year old brunette. Vicki worked as an assistant to a local record promoter, always had the scoop on the next big thing in music. Long, straight hair, sporting the brown, tinted aviator eyeglasses that were fashionable at the time. Born and raised in the Phoenix suburbs and yet she carried herself with this confidence of knowing the next stage of her life was moments away in Los Angeles and would present itself shortly. I had seen Vicki a bit the previous year and met up with her many times at the Red Barn. Being roommates with Onti, she knew him, too.
“Hey, Steve,” she said, as he nodded and politely introduced the College Girl. Right off the bat, Onti knew how this night would end. The College Girl was relentless, kept peppering Onti with more quirky, random questions. “How come I’ve never seen you here? Have you ever been to a Sun Devils game? My roommate’s from Denver – you ever been to Red Rocks?” Finally, Onti, with just a touch of resignation in his body language, downed the last of his Bud Longneck, placed the bottle on the bar and turned to the College Girl.
“Ya got wheels?”
You’ve never seen a woman smile so wide. Onti tapped the bar twice to get my attention, I nodded goodbye, they split and I returned my eyes to Vicki. I had a good time hanging out with her because we could talk about life, about people, about non-sports stuff, especially music. She was good, casual company.
“So, ya got any new tunes for me? Who are ya diggin’ these days?”
“Joni Mitchell is gonna be everywhere soon.”
“I've heard Joni Mitchell-“ Vicki just shook her head, as if I didn't know the half of it.
“Her new album’s outta sight. Gonna be bigger than anything. I have extra LPs and 8-tracks back at my place, I’ll give ya one if ya want.”
I spent much of that night listening to Joni, listening to Court and Spark, her new album on the verge of exploding, and listening to Vicki, too. It was a lot of laughs, the two of us sitting there talking and flirtin' around. We enjoyed being together, but not at all like we loved our freedom.
* * * * *
Driving to our spring training complex the following morning, one of the songs on the 8-track I got from Vicki stayed with me. While the soulful, piano-fueled tune spoke of fleeting affection and emotional indifference in the aftermath of a one-time encounter, the title meant much, much more to me. Many of us in the Cactus League Pitchers Class of 1974 enjoyed a September one-night stand with glory five months earlier. I’m sure they would’ve felt the same if they had heard this song. For Frankie Tanana, the questions were if the Angels could score enough runs to get him on the winning side of ballgames and eventually, stardom. For Figgy, it was whether or not California had a need for his right arm. Heinie had thrown two scoreless innings against the Cubs in the first spring training game of the season, but he was dueling with his pal Andy Hassler to be the last lefthander on the Angels’ pitching staff. Would one of them have to return to Salt Lake City in AAA? Kevin Kobel knew he was making the Brewers, but would his new breaking pitch be enough to keep him at the major league level, especially with this young 18-year shortstop named Robin Yount impressing coaches and passing aging prospect Tim Johnson on the infield depth chart? Would Yount’s learning on the job tarnish Kobel’s effectiveness? Would the Indians give Jimmy Kern a chance to show his stuff or would they look outside the organization for another starter to complement Gaylord Perry? Would Charlie Finley finally give up on Blue Moon Odom and give his star prospect Glenn Abbott a chance to break camp with the club? Would Kenny Frailing work through Cubs fans’ displeasure with the Ron Santo trade? Dave Freisleben knew he was talented, but would the 90-loss Padres be able to support him through the rough early months without crushing his confidence? Would he have to throw a shutout every fifth day just to keep the team in the game? Danny Spillner heard the footsteps of other rookies behind him like Joe McIntosh and Larry Hardy – would he be able to capture that elusive spot on the roster come April 3rd? As for me, it was a foregone conclusion I would be in the Giants’ starting rotation. Sure I was a major leaguer, but was that enough? I could read a box score. I knew I was walking too many guys. The pesky quad injury was nothing, right? “I can throw through it ,” I told myself, “ Just a little extra pressure on my arm with the delivery. I’m 22 years old. I can handle anything, right?”
We all had these questions, and for most of us when we were truly honest with ourselves, when we looked in the mirror in our motel bathrooms, in the barrooms, in the locker rooms, anywhere we found a reflection, we knew in our hearts, the answer was right there in Joni’s song.
It all comes down to You.
* * * * *
I stuffed those questions in a lockbox inside my mind once I arrived at the complex. Walking gently to alleviate the pressure on my quad, I passed Gary standing at his locker getting dressed discreetly gripping his injured fingers, just like all my teammates quietly dealing with the nicks and pains to get themselves on the field for stretching and public evidence of 100% health. As I approached my stool, Don McMahon, the pitching coach, came over like he did every morning to chat about throwing, golf, Italian food, whatever.
“Ya hear what happened last night,” he asked me quietly in his crusty Brooklyn accent. I shook my head. Could have been a million things. I was listening but not listening.
“Kid pitcher in the Angels’ system was in a car accident. Bruce something. He’s dead.”
I did a double take.
“Wha, what’d you just say?”
Bruce Heinbechner smashed his Porsche around 11 PM after being out with a few of his teammates. Alone in the car, Heinie crossed a divider on Highway 111 about 500 yards from the Gene Autry Motel in Palm Springs where the Angels bunked during spring training. Put a woman driving on the other side of the road in the hospital, too.
Baseball is really so close-knit in the way that, when something like this happens, we all feel as if there was a death in the family. Donny hardly knew Heine, hell, could barely pronounce his last name, but from the look on his face, from the hushed, cracking cadence of his voice, you would’ve thought it was his godson.
“We keep tellin’ you fuckin’ kids, gotta be careful out there.”
The details of Heinie’s death – they were as gruesome as you could possibly imagine. Pretty much ended drinking and driving for most of the young guys. Any type of fun we had during the remainder of that month happened on the resort grounds.
Bruce was a fun dude, man. His passing had my attention for those next few days. One of the cooler guys I played against in the minors. He had just turned 23 two weeks earlier; almost an Angel, almost a major leaguer, almost famous. His shadow will never be taller than his soul.
I got dressed in something of a daze – the quad was the furthest thing from my mind – and left the clubhouse for the dugout. Stepping onto the healthy, green grass, through the shining white light of Baseball morning, I found my teammates trying to ignore the elephant in the ballpark, acting as if it were an ordinary day in paradise, Arizona. I snapped a mental picture of the young men before me, my San Francisco relatives; Tito laughing, Bobby stretching, Spei fielding, Sweet Matt joshing, Arlo catching, The Bear sprinting, Goody scooping, Kingman swinging, Onti smirking.
My 22-year old heart listened very hard to the moment and right then and there I realized that every morning I awoke not knowing for sure if I would ever see my baseball brothers again because of a trade to the American League, or a demotion, or a release.
Or something else.
*** Portions of this article were excerpted from "Stolen Seasons," the upcoming memoir written by John D'Acquisto & Dave Jordan.
*** Card art provided by Jeff Polman
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