Happy Birthday, Rocky Colavito

ROcky Colavito batHappy Birthday to Rocky Colavito, whom I believe never put any curse on the Cleveland Indians.  Rocky was the first major leaguer I ever saw up close.  It was in April of 1963.  Dave Duncan and I were both prospects at the time and we were among a group of players invited to try out for the Kansas City Athletics.  We went out to eat, and a group of Detroit Tigers who were in town came to the same place for dinner.  Rocky was a Home Run hitting superstar in 1963 and was very recognizable, and I was in awe of him.    I never stopped, largely because he earned it; Rocky had a .391 career batting average when I was the pitcher.

The first time I pitched to Rocky was on June 7, 1966 at Cleveland Stadium.  Rocky hit a leadoff single to start the second inning.  And I remember the fourth inning well, because I struck out the side, including Rocky and Leon Wagner.  The Yankees won that game 7-2, the fourth win of my fledgling career, and I struck out nine batters.

Rocky became a Yankee at the end of his career.  The Dodgers had released him around the 1968 All-Star break and the Yankees signed him a few days later.  It was very cool when Rocky arrived in the clubhouse and put on the Pinstripes with #29 across his back.  And he was a Bronx-born guy and felt very comfortable playing in New York.  We were playing the Washington Senators at Yankee Stadium and Rocky was in the lineup, playing Right Field and batting sixth.  In his first At-Bat, he hit a deep fly ball that I thought might be a homer, but Del Unser caught it at the warning track.  The next time he came to the plate was in the bottom of the fifth. The pitcher was Joe Coleman.  It was still a scoreless game, but the Yankees had something going: Joe Pepitone hit a leadoff single, and moved to second on Andy Kosco’s hit.  Rocky hit a Home Run, the 370th of his career and his first in Pinstripes.   I was pitching the day Rocky hit the last Home Run of his great career, on September 24, 1968 against the Cleveland Indians.

The other story to tell when talking about Rocky as a Yankee was the time he pitched.  He was 35-years-old and near the end of his career on August 25, 1968, the first game of a Sunday doubleheader against his old team, the Detroit Tigers.  Future Yankee Pat Dobson was on the mound for the Tigers. s Ralph Houk was short on pitchers and was trying not to go to his closers until the end of the game.  Detroit had taken a 5-0 lead when The Major pulled Steve Barber and turned to Rocky, who entered the game with one out and runners on first and second.  Rocky got Al Kaline and Willie Horton out to end the inning.  Rocky came back to pitch the fifth and sixth innings.  He walked two in the fifth, but gave up no hits and no runs.  In the sixth, he gave up a double to Al Kaline, who was left stranded; he even struck out Dick Tracewski.

But wait, there’s more.  In the bottom of the sixth, the Yankees took the lead, 6-5, off Home Runs by Bill Robinson and Bobby Cox.  Rocky walked and scored the go-ahead run on Jake Gibbs’ single.  The Major brought in Dooley Womack and Lindy McDaniel to finish the game, and Rocky got the win.  One hit, no runs, and a strikeout.  And in the second game, Rocky played Right Field and hit a Home Run off Mickey Lolich; the Yankees won 5-4 and swept the doubleheader.

Remembering Tommie Agee

Tommie AgeeLet’s remember the life of Tommie Agee, who played enjoyed a wonderful twelve-year major league baseball career, most notably as a star of the 1969 World Champion Mets.   I hated the Mets, but not Tommie.  He was a great guy and an amazing ballplayer.  I liked and respected him a lot.  He won the American League Rookie of the Year Award with the White Sox in 1966 with 80% of the vote; if anyone cares, I was a rookie that year and received zero votes.  Chicago got him from the Indians in what now looks like a lopsided trade involving three teams: Cleveland sent him, Tommy John and John Romano to Chicago for Cam Carreon; the White Sox sent Fred Talbot, Mike Hershberger and Jim Landis to Kansas City, who in turn sent Rocky Colavito on a return trip to the Indians (who seemed unafraid of the Curse of Rocky Colavito.)

Tommie was a career .300 hitter against me.  The first time I saw him was at Yankee Stadium on May 28, 1966.  He was the leadoff batter in that game and he hit a first pitch single to Roger Repoz in right field.  He was taking huge leads off first and with Don Buford at At-Bat, Ralph Houk ordered a pitch out and Elston Howard picked him off.  All of my games are memorable to me, especially the ones from 1966, but this particular game always bothered me.  It had been raining since the third inning, and with the game tied, 2-2, after five full innings, the umpires called it for weather after a delay of nearly an hour.  Yankee fans were irate because a game called after that point technically invalidated their rain checks.  The club, sensing a possible public relations problem – Bob Fishel was good at that, as was Marty Appel after him – decided to honor the rain checks anyway.  But the game was if it never happened, at least statistically.  I still had to wait a few days to rest.

Anyway, back to Tommie.  He was a great ballplayer and a wonderful man.  I still think it‘s sort of cool that he and Cleon Jones were friends since they were kids and won a World Series as outfielders together.  He died in 2001 at age 58 of a heart attack; he would have been 74 today.  Baseball misses him.

Remembering Paul Lindblad

Paul LindbladI want to remember the life of Paul Lindblad, who ended his eleven year baseball career with the New York Yankees in 1978, where he won his second World Series ring. Paul passed away nine years ago; today would have been his 74th birthday. The first time Paul and I were in the same game together was on July 16, 1966 against the Kansas City Athletics at Municipal Stadium. Paul and I were both rookies and both starting pitchers in that game. I left the game in the bottom of the fifth after Kansas City tied it up, 3-3, and Paul left the game in the top of the sixth when, after walking Ellie Howard, he gave up a Home Run to Tommy Tresh. That game was memorable because Whitey Ford pitched in relief, wound up blowing the save and getting the win. Paul got the win Game 3 of the 1973 World Series against the Mets, something that I recall making me very happy at the time. He spent two-third of his career in an A’s uniform. He was a good guy, and it was sad when he died of Alzheimer’s at such a young age.

Happy Birthday, Bill Campbell

Bill CampbellHappy Birthday to Bill Campbell, who for some of his fifteen years in the major leagues was one of the game’s dominant relief pitchers.   I remember he was the first closer to test the free agent market after the 1976 season and Bill had a huge role in determining how owners would value relief pitchers moving forward.  His stats the previous season in Minnesota were mind-boggling: he went 17-5 as a relief pitcher, plus 20 saves.  He pitched 167 innings, had an ERA of 3.08 with 115 strikeouts.  And by the way, in 1975 he was 4-5 with five 5 saves in 121 innings, so it is fair to say that Bill peaked at exactly the right moment in his career.  Free agency was in its infancy at that point, and Bill was with a small market team.  He signed a four-year deal with the Red Sox worth $1 million.  Now I understand that in today’s baseball economy, that’s less than the major league minimum salary, but back then, it was huge money.  Huge money.  And the Red Sox gave him the same amount of money they had offered Charlie Finley to buy Rollie Fingers’ contract just a few months earlier – the one Bowie Kuhn cancelled.  I once heard someone say that a year earlier, Bill was making $20,000 and asked Calvin Griffin for $30,000 and got turned down.  So I remember Bill not just for what he accomplished on the field, but for the precedent he set in contact negotiations.

Happy Birthday, Gary Timberlake

GAry TimberlakeHappy Birthday to Gary Timberlake, who was originally drafted by the Yankees in 1966.  The Yankees picked tenth in that draft.  Jim Lyttle was their first round pick; Gary was their second round pick – 30th overall.  He was a southpaw so when he was drafted during my rookie season, naturally I paid attention.   I remember him having an especially good season with the Fort Lauderdale Yankees Class A team in 1968.  The Yankees left him unprotected in the 1969 expansion draft and he was taken by the Seattle Pilots.  He got called up to the majors in early summer, pitched two games, got sent back down, and never got called back.  But he made it and he is remembered for doing that.

Happy Birthday, Claude Osteen

Claude OsteenHappy Birthday to Claude Osteen, who spent eighteen years as a major league pitcher and won 196 career games.  He is best known as a Dodgers pitcher who helped his team a World Series (1965) and two National League pennants.  He was a 20-game winner twice, a three-time National League All-Star, and he struck out more than 100 batters ten times in his career.  It is my loss that I never got to play in the same game as he did.  He was predominately a NL pitcher. His time with the Senators came before my rookie year, and the times that we were in the same park during the 1975 season – his last – I never pitched in the same game he did.  During the seven years that Claude was the Phillies pitching coach, three Philadelphia pitchers won the NL Cy Young Award.

Happy Birthday, Eli Grba

EliGrbaHappy Birthday to former Yankee pitcher Eli Grba.  I remember watching Eli pitch at Comiskey Park during the summer of 1959.  For a teenager in Chicago, I will always remember that season because it was the first time in my life that the White Sox made it to the World Series.  Chicago had a lot of second and third place teams in the 1950’s, but it was the Yankees who dominated.  It was exciting because Casey Stengel’s Yankees were in town – Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Enos Slaughter, Bobby Richardson, Tony Kubek – and Eli, who was the Yankees starting pitcher.  Eli was also from Chicago and this was his rookie season; I think it may have been his first appearance at Comiskey.  I remember my first time pitching in Chicago, so I understand how nervous Eli must have been.  And he was pitching against Early Wynn, who would later be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.  One of the things I remember is how good Eli was.  I think his first three innings were 1-2-3 innings.  He got stars like Luis Aparicio and Nellie Fox out.  And he got a hit of his own off of Early.  I remember the White Sox won that day – Early was enjoying a resurgence and was pitching like he did when he was the star for the Cleveland Indians.  But I also remember some cheers for Chicago’s favorite son, who pitched very well that day in front of his family, friends and fans.

Eli was originally signed by the Red Sox, but the Yankees got him in a trade for Bill Renna.  He sacrificed a couple of years from his career to serve in the military and I thank him for his service.  And he got to the World Series in 1960 after a fairly successful season for the Yankees.  I remember watching one of his first games of that season when the Yankees were in town playing the White Sox.  Early was again pitching for Chicago.  This time, Eli was the winning pitcher.  Later on that summer, Eli hit a Home Run off Early at Yankee Stadium.

The Yankees left Eli unprotected in the 1962 expansion draft and the new California Angeles grabbed him.  He struck out over 100 batters that year, for a club that finished eighth.  Eli was the first Angel pitcher ever; he pitched opening day against the Orioles at Memorial Stadium and won the first game in team history.  A complete game. He played in that historic first franchise game with Ken Aspromonte, who would later be my manager when I was traded to Cleveland.  Years later, I heard that in his first appearance back at Yankee Stadium wearing an Angels uniform, Yogi hit a first inning single, followed by The Mick hitter a Home Run.  That’s the way the Yankees are – competitive, no matter what.

Eli is my Facebook friend and he comments frequently on my posts remembering other ballplayers from our day.  I appreciate that he reads my reminiscences, and hope that he will enjoy his 81st birthday and many, many more with good health and happiness.