What ‘s your most memorable scene from a gangster film?
A good friend of mine sent me this a couple days ago:
“It doesn't look like Rays lefthander Matt Moore will pull off a third straight minor league strikeout title….The last pitcher to lead the minors in strikeouts in consecutive seasons was John D'Acquisto in 1971-72 . . . and D'Acquisto also finished third overall the following year. Since World War II, D'Acquisto and Moore are the only two pitchers to accomplish the feat, and I believe the only two to win more than one strikeout crown. “ -Jim Callis, “Baseball America”
Here we are at the end of August, when the minor league season wraps up, specific players at AAA start to wonder when and if they will get called into the manager’s office and get “the call.” I’ve known guys that waited and waited for this conversation that never materialized. I was just enjoying Phoenix, Municipal Stadium; the park always drew a good crowd for minor-league ball, always around 6800 or so. Completely different town back then, not nearly thequasi-metropolis it is today. Still possessed that one road in, one road out feel to it. I rented a house in Scottsdale with Steve Ontiveros, a solid teammate, a helpful roommate and the best drinking buddy in the league. We didn’t have a ton of dough, but hey, it was Phoenix, really didn’t need it. A great group – Steve, Gary Thomasson, “Twiggy” Hartenstein, Eddie Figueroa, to name a few. We were young, single and ballplayers, we had a blast, especially after the final out. Chasin’ it like crazy, and doing a rather good job of it. Our favorite watering hole was Mabel Murphy’s – super pub grub, music, dancing. Another cool spot was the Red Barn within walking distance from our house, so no need to get behind the wheel when we were plastered. Everything was calculated for our well-being, as little risk to us as possible, since we were assets of the Giants organization.
It was wonderful, it was fun, it was the time of my life, but it was more enjoyable in May than in August of 1973. At the time, I dug a lot of Folk rock, you know, Buffalo Springfield, CSN and all their assorted acronyms, the storytellers, but toward the end of the month, I began to identify with Simon & Garfunkel when they wrote: “September, I remember, a love once new has grown old.”
Very old. I needed to make some changes.
I gave them an outstanding season @ Phoenix – won 16 games for a 70-73 ballclub, 185 Ks, four shutouts, threw a no-hitter, made the All-Star team– it was a very good year. I was making $950/month. At that time of the season, you had guys going into the general manager’s office seeking raises and performance bonuses. A few of the veterans started egging me on to demand a raise and I did just that. I went into President Rosy Ryan’s office – he ran the club – and kindly asked for a bump up to $1250. We negotiated our own contracts then - there were no agents handling such matters at the time – just 21-year old me. “I’m not givin’ you any raise, Johnny,” he responded. Rosy was a crusty, elderly man with a kind heart, in his late 70’s, great guy, but I was just trying to get a little more gin in my jeans, business was business. We went back and forth for a good 30 minutes. “Fine,” I nodded and got out of my chair. “Where ya goin’, we’re not done yet,” Rosy beckoned to the seat in front of his desk. “Home,” I said, “I’m done. For the year. Almost end of the season anyway. I’m gonna go take a rest.” Started packing soon after I walked in the door of my house.
Business was business.
Ethan Blackaby, the team’s general manager for the Phoenix Giants, was knocking on my door shortly after I arrived home. Ethan helped me pack my things, trying to dissuade me the entire time. “You can’t just go home like this.” I wouldn’t budge. “I want my God darn raise.” Ethan sighed and shook his head. “Lemme see what I can do,” and looked around the living room for a phone. No need, as it rang out as soon as he reached it on the coffee table.
“I got good news and bad news,” Rosy barked on the other line, “You got your raise. We’re raising your salary to $2500/month plus that incentive bonus you keep harping on.” “Great, so what’s the bad news?” “You gotta go to San Francisco to get it. You’ve just been called up to the big leagues. Go hop on a plane. Immediately.”
September, and the beginning of my big-league career, was the very next day.
My brother flew down from San Diego to grab my car and the rest of my stuff. I went to the Holiday Inn South San Francisco near the airport and was met in the lobby by my manager, Charlie Fox. “Grab a shower and change,” Charlie said, in what seemed like a whirlwind of a moment, “We’re going out to dinner at Bertolucci’s Restaurant.” The place had been around since the late ‘20s – still there, today – and had some of the best Antipasti this Italian kid has ever enjoyed. Coming from a household where I knew my way around anything Parmigianino, that’s saying something. During the meal Charlie, proceeded to go over the schedule and told me I would be starting against the Atlanta Braves in the second game of tomorrow’s double header. “Tomorrow,” I asked. I about crapped my pants right there on the spot. I was so excited I could hardly breathe as I proceeded to polish off a half a bottle of red thanks to Charlie’s bottomless glass rule that settled my nerves from over- heating.
Not all managers spend their off-days waiting in hotel lobbies for their rookie to arrive, but this was special. The relationship I had with Charlie was special. Charlie Fox was Irish, but he grew up in a heavily Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn. He understood me. I was his guy – he pushed for me to get to the majors, fighting with management who didn’t want to rush me. Charlie Fox, Jim Davenport, my AAA manager, Carl Hubbell – yes, that Carl Hubbell, the director of scouting, the man who recommended the Giants draft me - they all pushed for my promotion. Charlie was like my second father. Every manager – I would say every person in the business world who has the authority to hire and fire – has that one young guy or gal they bring on whom they look at with such pride, joy and hope to see them develop properly, sometimes to the extent where they perceive them as family. You need those people behind you, but you also need a gimmick. Mine just happened to me a 100-MPH heater with movement. Charlie was family to me. He was there when the Giants drafted me, personally promised my mother he would look after me as I signed my first contract. We must’ve finished at least two bottles of wine at that meal. What better way to prepare for my first big league start.
Candlestick Park is a monstrosity of a stadium. Built next to Hunters Point on the bay in San Francisco, alongside Section 8 housing, the place was consistently cold, dark, dingy and windy, not to mention, much like many teams at the time, was going through its “Hey, Astroturf is a great idea” phase. Sure, it was much more impressive than Municipal back in Phoenix, but it’s nothing like the classy, multi-amusement facility that is AT&T Park. The ‘Stick was a dungeon, but on September 2nd, 1973, it was the 8th Wonder of the World to me. I had played there once before, an exhibition for Class “A” Fresno versus the Giants. Walking through the grass, across those baselines, those numerous auburn seats in the stands, one after the other, just as you would see in the photo background on baseball cards, your adrenaline kicks in. I couldn’t control it. For the exhibition, we weren’t even allowed to suit up in the visitors’ clubhouse – we were given the 49ers’ locker room, so this was my first time actually stepping into the Giants’ private domain. It was like a box score roll-call in my brain: All-Star Shortstop Chris Speier? There. All-Star MVP Bobby Bonds? There. San Francisco icon Willie “Stretch” McCovey? There. Garry Maddox & rookie phenom Gary Matthews, before the media decided to name them “The Secretary of Defense” & “Sarge?” Accounted for. Clubhouse manager Mike Murphy took me to my locker on the left-hand side of the room; he sat me next to 20-game winner Ron Bryant and that legendary, life-size teddy bear he kept for good luck. One by one – Speier, Stretch, Kingman, Barr, Goodson, they all walked over, extended their hand and introduced themselves to me. “Do you need anything?” “Do you need a place to stay?” “Can I get you anything?” Never before had I felt so welcomed anywhere outside of the home I grew up in. In retrospect, with all that was happening off-the-field with these guys, I’m blown away by everyone’s congeniality. So many stars, so many rookies, even with all these giddy feelings antagonizing my butterflies, I walked in knowing this was an organization in transition. We were 73-58 at the time, good for 3rd, but this was a dogfight between the 1st place Dodgers & the Cincinnati Reds, who would eventually overtake L.A. and win the division. Make no mistake though, changes were on the horizon. I sensed this back at spring training in ’72. The ballclub was losing money – at one point in the decade, the National League had to take over the club to make payroll. I sat down with Willie Mays before being reassigned to Fresno; he was unhappy and would soon be traded for money matters more than anything.
When that happened, when Mays was sent to New York – I knew then that exactly what I was feeling was true. Funny way to explain it. Guys had looks on their faces like they didn’t know where they were gonna end up. Stretch was hurt almost half the season in ’71 – still productive but nowhere near was the force he was in the ‘60s. I was informed that so long as everything went as expected, I would be a mainstay in the rotation in 1974. Question was, who had to go? There was the bulldog Tom Bradley, who would make 35 starts in ’73, Jim Barr, a young stud from the USC Baseball factory the organization was extremely high on. Of course, Ron Bryant was considered an emerging star with his 20-9 season to that point, plus he was only 25, only making $25,000. The process of elimination and Baseball economics made it clear that I would be replacing the one of the starters in this four-man rotation, the one who happened to be making $135,000 a year, one of the highest-paid players in the game. On a money-losing ballclub. Who was 35 years old. A fan-favorite, an immortal in the midst of a 1-5 skid that would extend to 2-9 over the remainder of the season.
Someone named Marichal.
Business was business.
Juan had pitched for the Giants since 1960, was beloved in the community, the ballpark and the clubhouse, especially the clubhouse, a nine-time All-Star on a team full of them. This was the September of his career, had lost 4-5 MPH off his fastball, plus with the financial issues of the organization, everyone knew this would most likely be his final month in San Francisco. Longtime Giants owner Horace Stoneham was having financial issues. Major League Baseball had to take over the club just to keep the spotlights in the scoreboard on, but they kept it quiet, because they didn’t want to embarrass such a storied owner. In the end, the league went to a select group of financiers and let them know the ballclub was for sale.
I walked down the dark tunnel leading to the field. Don McMahon, the pitching coach, who by the way, was also our short man outta the pen (talk about getting two employees for one salary), was tossing BP. Don, a 17-year vet, went 4-0 in ’73 with an ERA under a buck and a half, a sub-1 WHIP, ERA+ of 263. For all my Sabermetrics buddies, that’s a 1.3 WAR for three months work, at age 43. He was ready to go at any time, could still throw that cutter right in your kitchen. How do you like that? Oh yeah, and he threw BP every day, every stinkin’ day. Never tightened up, either.
At this point, Marichal calls me over. He started the opener of the twinbill, went seven, didn’t get the decision in a 10-inning game we ended up winning. He wasn’t the same Hall of Fame–caliber superstar at this point- with the lost velocity, the hitters could see him clearer and they started going the opposite way on him. He tried mixing things up with his screwball and that didn’t work, either. He was losing ground fast.
All this going on, yet Juan still took me under his wing. “How do you pitch to these guys,” I asked him. I never heard someone laugh so loud. The Braves’ lineup in ‘73 was daunting, to say the least. Hank Aaron chasing Ruth; Darrell Evans having what may have been his greatest season, in a career full of them. Dusty Baker also had a breakout year. Even Mike Lum ended up hitting 16 home runs. There really wasn’t much to discuss.
“How do you pitch them,” Juan laughed, “What you gonna do? Half of them are hitting 25-30 Home runs. The 2nd Baseman has 30 home runs!! There’s no way to pitch them. You throw strikes. Remember, you can pitch around people. You don’t have to pitch these guys – make ‘em hit your breaking stuff.” Then he said something I never heard a pitcher or coach say to me before.
“Pitch backwards, what does that mean?”
“Use your secondary stuff first, use your fastball to get ‘em out. The off-speed breaking ball, the off-speed slider – make ‘em come off the front foot.” He got up from the bench, a slap on the back, gave me a hug. He was so supportive.
“Just get the ball over the plate,” Marichal said, as he stepped down the stairs into the hallway leading to the clubhouse, “Don’t try to place it anywhere.”
Charlie entered the dugout as I was stepping onto the field. He pulled me aside, with a shit-eating grin on his face. “First warm up pitch,” he said, looking over at the Braves dugout, “Make sure you hit the backstop. They know how hard you throw.” So I get to the mound, toe the rubber and I let that mother rip, 98 MPH straight to the backstop. I heard a random “Oh shit,” here, an “Oh My God” there, coming from the Braves’ side of the diamond. Exactly the result that Charlie wanted. Our catcher Mike Sadek came running out to the mound. “You ok?” “Don’t worry, Charlie told me to do that.” “Yeah, I kinda figured so. But you all right?” “Fine, little nervous, but I’m ok.” How could I be ok? My legs were shaking. Sadek knew, too. The good catchers always knew. “Just settle in. You’ll be fine.” Then Mike went over the signs. “One is the fastball, two’s the curve, three is the slider,” Mike said, very matter of fact. “Do you have a change?”
“No sir, I do not,” I replied, nervous as hell. “Don’t call me Sir, call me Mikey.” “Ok, Mikey, I don’t have a change-up.” “Then let’s go with one, two and three, ok? And don’t try to throw it where I’m asking you to throw it, just set your sights in the middle of my crotch and let it go.”
I knew that this was going to be a long day and I always hated to pitch the second game of a double header because you had to wait for the opener to end and it was just a long day sitting in the cold at Candlestick. Today was different, though. I was so excited it didn’t really matter to me if I was throwing an exhibition at the North Pole against Santa Claus and a lineup full of elves. I managed to get through the first inning with a walk and two strikeouts. The 2nd inning was a different story. Found myself in a bases-loaded, one-out jam, but thankfully, it was at the bottom of the order. I struck out Carl Morton, the opposing pitcher. Ralph Garr, the Braves leadoff hitter and one of the fastest men I ever faced, came to bat. Speier jogged over from shortstop to let me know he was a free-swinger and I managed to get him to fly out to end the inning.
I wasn’t overly concerned about being taken out of the game. Charlie didn’t necessarily have a quick hook, but he did possess a good sense of whether you were fried or not. Charlie could tell by your eyes and body language. When you would come back into the dugout, he would look over at ya. The first couple of innings, I would walk off the mound, come into the dugout, Charlie looked over; I smiled with a cocky nod and wink. By the third inning, the wink was gone.
The late summer nights in Phoenix were 95 degrees if you were lucky. San Fran was an icy 36-degree wind chill factor on this night. I wore my football parka, warm-up jacket and thermals – couldn’t grip the ball until I started breaking a sweat – we had a sauna in the clubhouse. I sat in there fully-clothed between innings with a transistor radio to hear how many outs there were before walking all the way back to the dugout. It wasn’t a 60 feet, 6 inches walk, either, I’ll tell you that much. Marichal taught me the sauna move, too. He was one of the most generous guys I ever met in the game. We were really close. He showed me a lot of the little tricks of the trade, how to act, how to conduct yourself as a ballplayer and as a local celebrity. I really have the utmost respect, admiration and affection for Juan and the time he spent with me in 1973.
At the end of the third, Charlie walked over, “How ya doin’?” I had my head down. “I’m OK,” I shrugged. Charlie didn’t want to hear my shrug. He wanted “I’m great, I just made a couple of bad mistakes, and I’ll be fine.” He didn’t hear that. By the top of the fourth, the cocky smile was gone, too. Got back out there, enjoying a 4-0 lead, but my nerves got the best of me. Gave up three singles, walked two runners in, Charlie had seen enough. “You’re done, aren’t you,” Charlie asked as he reached for the ball in my hand. My legs were still shaking. This wasn’t the 6800 fans in Phoenix anymore – 20,000 plus. Whole different ballgame. “You pitched well, but I think it’s enough for you today.”
We ended up winning that game in a laugher, 11-3, sweeping the doubleheader, but the Bravos would have their revenge a week later down at the Launching Pad, Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta. The Braves lit up Marichal pretty good in the first inning, Charlie walked over to me on the bench. “Juan’s not doin’ too good, I need you to head over to the bullpen and start throwing. Now. It’s your work day, anyway.” I entered the game in the 3rd, struck out three and didn’t walk anyone, but the vision that stays with me from day was seeing Juan walk off the mound in the first inning, realizing that September means different things to different people.
Marichal was sold to the Red Sox two months after the season ended. Storeham packaged Stretch McCovey with another player and sent him down to San Diego about three weeks after the final out of 1973. Bobby Bonds would be gone in a year. Kingman was purchased by the Mets (who were interested primarily on the recommendation of Willie Mays, a New York coach at the time, by the way.) Maddox went to Philadelphia, where he became a popular local star for over a decade. Gary Matthews drank the free agency Kool-aid and was pursued by nearly every ballclub. All the veterans from the late ‘60s, early ‘70’s were gone, replaced by guys like me, Count Montefusco, Halicki, and Gary Lavelle. The San Francisco winds had indeed begun to change as I suspected, but for that month, that September, it felt like the greatest April spring a ballplayer could ever experience.
Turn, turn, turn.
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