For a ballplayer, there are certain times in your career that you are part of history and don’t even know it. That’s what happened to me on April 12, 1975. I was the starting pitcher for the Cleveland Indians and we were playing the Brewers in Milwaukee – the first game of the season for me. I gave up four runs in the first inning, and after Robin Yount led off the second with a homer, followed by a walk to Bob Coluccio, Frank Robinson took me out. Jim Kern and Dave LaRoche pitched well in relief. In the bottom of the seventh, with one out and runners on first and third, Frank brought in a rookie pitcher named Dennis Eckersley to make his MLB debut. Eck walked Don Money to load the bases, then proceeded to get Sixto Lezcano and Charlie Moore out. Eck pitched the eighth, gave up a leadoff hit to Pedro Garcia. Then he struck out Yount, followed by outs for Mike Hegan and John Briggs. The Tribe lost the game 6-5, but Eck’s major league debut was outstanding.
Happy Birthday to Willie Randolph, whose emergence as the Yankees regular second baseman marked the end of the Horace Clarke Era and the genesis of the George Steinbrenner Era that restored the Yankee Tradition of winning. I missed Willie by a year and a half. The Yankees traded me to Cleveland in April 1974, and Pittsburgh traded him to New York after the 1975 season. His rookie season was the first Yankee pennant since 1964, when I was a sophomore minor leaguer. His place in Yankee history is solid, and I’m pleased that the team chose to honor him last month. (Note: Don’t rush through this post, it has a tear-jerker ending.)
The first time I saw Willie up close was on May 18, 1976, a 4 ½ hour, 16-inning game at Cleveland stadium. I was pitching against Catfish Hunter, who gave up three hits and three runs in the top of the first. I faced Willie for the first time in the second inning, and he hit a two-out single to center. I got him out the next two At-Bats. We had a 6-1 lead in the top of the ninth. I gave up singles to the first two batters, Lou Piniella and Graig Nettles, and that’s when Frank Robinson gave me the hook. Dave LaRoche entered in relief and struck out Otto Velez. Then Willie was up. He hit a single to left, loading the bases. Dave walked Rick Dempsey and gave up a two-run single to Sandy Alomar. After walking Roy White, Tom Buskey came in to pitch and promptly gave up a two-run single to Thurman Munson. That tied the score 6-6.
Sparky Lyle pitched six innings in relief, which explains why the Indians couldn’t get a seventh run. He was awesome, as he always was. In the 16th, Jim Kern gave up five runs – the fifth run was on a one-out RBI double to Willie.
I only pitched once more to Willie, on May 27, 1976 at Yankee Stadium, and he went 0-2 against me. In the fifth inning, I gave up a two-run Home Run to Mickey Rivers, and after giving up a single and wild pitch – and with the game tied 3-3, I was done.
What I didn’t know at the time was just how done I was. The next day the Indians traded me to the Texas Rangers for Ron Perzanowski. And within the next three weeks, a shoulder injury ended my baseball career.
So for me, 5/27/76 would be the last time on the mound for Yankee Stadium (not including an Old Timer’s Day). The last batter I would face there was Thurman Munson, my friend and my old catcher. That was fine by me.