Tagged: Mike Kekich

Happy Birthday, Sparky Lyle

Sparky LyleHappy 71st Birthday to Sparky, my friend and teammate and the best relief pitcher I ever played with.   When the Yankees traded Danny Cater to the Red Sox for Sparky in March of 1972, it changed my life for the better.  We hit it off immediately and had lots of fun together.  Jim Turner, the Yankees pitching coach, once called our group “The Nursery” because of all the childish pranks we pulled, and we wore that as a badge of honor.  I enjoyed every minute I played with The Count, and one of the reasons is that our team got significantly better because of his arrival.

I remember Sparky’s Pinstripe debut on April 19, 1972.   We were ahead of the Brewers 3-0 in the top of the ninth. Mike Kekich had given up just two hits when Ron Theobold hit a two-out single, followed by John Briggs’ Home Run.  Ralph Houk brought in The Count to pitch to George Scott, who grounded out on the second pitch.  The first time he came to my rescue was on May 21, against the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium.   I was off to a miserable start and was 0-6 so far that season.   I went in to the top of the ninth with a 6-1 lead, and quickly have up successive singles to Duane Josephson, Rico Petrocelli and Phil Gagliano.  With the bases loaded and two out, The Major brought The Count in to pitch, and I got my first win of the year.

Another memorable game from early in The Count’s Yankee career came in his second appearance for us, against the Oakland A’s on April 25, 1972.  It was a pitcher’s duel between Sparky and Rollie Fingers.  Steve Kline and Catfish Hunter were the starters and the game was tied 3-3 going into the ninth inning.  Sparky had a 1-2-3 inning, followed by Rollie walking Rich McKinney and facing four batters.  Sparky had a 1-2-3 tenth; Rollie had a little more trouble.  He gave up a two-out walk to Bobby Murcer, who moved to second on Roy White’ single and got stranded there when Rollie got Felipe Alou out.  In the eleventh, gave up a one-out hit to Joe Rudi and walked Reggie Jackson – then he struck out Sal Bando and Mike Epstein.   With two outs in the bottom of the eleventh, The Major sent Ron Blomberg to the plate to pinch hit for Sparky.  Bloomie walked, but then Rollie got Jerry Kenney out to end the inning. Mike Hegan hit an RBI double off Lindy McDaniel in the top of the twelfth, and Rollie had a 1-2-3 inning to get the win.  It didn’t take long for our team to understand that the Era of Lindy McDaniel was over and there was a new fireman in town.   One of my greatest regrets was that I wasn’t around for Sparky’s Cy Young season.

The four times Frank Robinson almost became a Yankee

Frank RobinsonOne Hall of Famer that eluded the New York Yankees was Frank Robinson, despite repeated attempts to get him in pinstripes. As early as 1965, the Cincinnati Reds were shopping this superstar at winter meetings. My understanding was that the Reds owner thought Robby was an “old 30” and that his body would not withstand much more of a baseball career. He was anxious to trade him while the value remained high. There was talk that the Reds had offered him to the Astros for Jimmy Wynn and a relief pitcher named Claude Raymond, but that Houston turned them down. The Yankee deal I heard about – I had just finished by third year in the minor leagues at the time – was that the Yankees would send and Joe Pepitone to the Reds for Robby and pitcher Jim O’Toole. A couple of weeks later, the Yankees traded catcher Doc Edwards to the Cleveland Indians for Lou Clinton and that seemed to end their search for a power-hitting outfielder. Maybe it was a metaphor for the Horace Clarke Era. The Reds did trade Robby, to Baltimore for Milt Pappas, Jack Baldschun and Dick Simpson. Robby won the Triple Crown in his first season with the Orioles.

After winning three AL pennants with Robby and the 1970 World Series, the Orioles put him on the trading block again. The Yankees tried to put a deal together. The problem, I was told, was that Harry Dalton wanted Mel Stottlemyre or me. Mel was the ace of the staff and I was the #2 pitcher coming off a 20-win season. Lee McPhail countered with Stan Bahnsen, and the Dalton wanted Steve Kline and Mike Kekich too. The Yankees were unwilling to decimate their pitching staff for one superstar outfielder.

Apparently the Mets were in a similar situation. The Orioles wanted Tom Seaver for Frank Robinson, straight up, and the Mets said no. The counter from Baltimore was at least two other pitchers from a list that included Jerry Koosman, Nolan Ryan, Jon Matlack, Tug McGraw, and Gary Gentry – and they Danny Frisella. The Mets said no to that too.

Most players followed the winter meetings carefully, because you never knew what would happen and how it might affect your life. But the Yankees, still owned by CBS – the George Steinbrenner Era was still a few years away – didn’t do much after they traded Bill Robinson for Barry Moore. The Washington Senators offered Frank Howard for cash the Yankees didn’t have, and the Cleveland Indians were shopping star pitcher Sudden Sam McDowell, but they apparently wanted a lot of cash too. The Boss would have had them both in pinstripes.

In 1971, after losing the AL pennant to the Oakland A’s, the Orioles traded Robby to the Los Angeles Dodgers for a group of prospects that included future Yankee Doyle Alexander. The Orioles had Don Baylor and Terry Crowley coming up and wanted to give them more playing time. And Robby was making what was then a huge salary – about $125,000 – and they wanted to unload the expense. The Yankees had shown interest in him then, but they got busy making the “blockbuster deal” that sent Bahnsen to the White Sox for Rich McKinney and missed out. After the 1972 season, the Dodgers traded Robby to the California Angeles, in what really was a blockbuster trade: the Dodgers sent Robby and Bill Singer, an excellent pitcher, to the California Angeles for pitcher Andy Messersmith, Bobby Valentine and Ken McMullen.

After the Boss bought the Yankees and brought Gabe Paul over as the GM – and after Charlie Finley refused to allow the Yankees to hire Dick Williams as their manager — there was some serious talk about hiring Robby to become baseball’s first black manager. Mr. Paul had been GM in Cincinnati when Robby was the NL Rookie of the Year and MVP, and was a huge Frank Robinson fan.

The fourth chance for the Yankees to see Frank Robinson in pinstripes came in June of 1974, when he was again on the trading block. Mr. Paul had been negotiating a deal with the Angels that I recall would have brought Robby and Rudy May to the Yankees for Roy White, Bill Sudakis and Dick Woodson. What I heard was that Robby’s contract gave him the right to veto a deal, and when the Yankees refused to pay about $35,000 in relocation expenses, Robby vetoed the trade. That was just a couple of days before I was traded to the Cleveland Indians, where Robby would soon become my teammate and my manager.

You can’t live life on a bunch of what ifs, like how my career would have been different if I has been pitching for a contending team like the Orioles. But I’ll tell you this: I met my soulmate while playing in New York, I got to play with Boog Powell anyway in Cleveland, and I wouldn’t trade my years with the Yankees for anything.

Monument Monday: Loyd Colson

Loyd ColsonLoyd Colson was drafted by the Yankees in 1967, their first pick in the 28th round.  Of the 77 players the Yankees drafted that day, only five ever wore the pinstripes, and Loyd was one of them.  Just making it to the major leagues is an extraordinarily tough task, and while Loyd’s career was short, he still made it. I’m sure he will never forget the thrill of standing on the mound at Yankee Stadium, and while he never made it back, our team was honored to have him there and grateful for his strong showing that day.  So today’s installment of Monument Monday is dedicated to all the young players who made it to the major leagues, even if for only a short time, and I want to recognize their monumental achievements.

I met Loyd for the first time in February of 1970, when pitchers and catchers reported to spring training in Fort Lauderdale.  He was one of nine new guys on the 40-man roster that the Yankees viewed as integral to regaining their past glory.  The others were (if I remember this correctly) pitchers Larry Gowell (who had 217 strikeouts in 195 innings in the minors the year before), Terry Bongiovanni, Doug Hansen and Bill Olsen, outfielder Rusty Torres, and a trio of infielders – George Zeber, Mario Guerrero and Tim O’Connell.  [One brief footnote to baseball history: one of the players cut to make room for these new prospects was Bobby Cox, who was our Third Baseman for two years.] Loyd had impressed the Yankees during his stint with the Kinston Eagles, the Yankees Carolina League AA team.  He had 125 strikeouts in 120 innings, and a 1.73 ERA.

Going into spring training, there were fifteen guys competing for four open spots on the Yankee pitching staff.  Mel Stottlemyre, Stan Bahnsen and I were expected to be three of the five starters, and Lindy McDaniel, Jack Aker and Steve Hamilton were going to be in the bullpen.  There were six pitchers in contention to be the other starters: Bill Burbach, John Cumberland, Ron Klimkowski, Steve Kline, Joe Verbanic, and this guy named Mike Kekich, who had been traded from the Dodgers.  Also in camp were Rob Grander, Dick Farrell (a veteran National League pitcher who was at the end of his career), Jerry Tirtle, Gary Jones, Terry Ley, Bongiovanni, Gowell, Hansen, Olsen and Colson.  Yankee executives boasted that they had “pitching depth” heading into the 1970 season.  I remember that I was excited.  Entering my third major league season, I pitched the most pre-season innings of the Yankee pitchers and had a 1.55 ERA during spring training.

The four pitchers who made it on the 25-man roster were Burbach, Klimkowski, Verbanic, and Kekich.  Verbanic had missed the entire 1969 season because of a shoulder injury.  He started the season with the Yankees, but was gone in about a month, never to pitch in the major leagues again.  He would eventually be replaced by Cumberland.  Eventually Bile would lose his starting slot to Kline, who got called up in July.

Loyd ColsonSo back to Loyd Colson. Loyd was impressive in spring training and sent to the Manchester Yankees, the AA team, to get some more experience.  He gets called up to the Yankees in September of 1970.  He’s wearing #49 on his back.  I remember his one appearance.  It was September 25, and we were playing the Detroit Tigers in a Friday twi-night doubleheader at Yankee Stadium.  There were six games left in the season, and we were in second place in the American League East, thirteen games behind the Baltimore Orioles.  Steve Kline was pitching against Mickey Lolich.  After seven innings, we were losing 2-1.  Dick McAuliffe had hit a solo homer and Elliot Maddox had an RBI double for Detroit; Ron Hansen hit a solo Home Run for us.  Loyd entered the game in the top of the eighth, taking over for Gary Jones, who had left the game for a pinch hitter.

The first major league hitter Loyd faced was Tigers Second Baseman Dalton Jones, who it a fly ball to center that Bobby Mitchell caught for the first out.  [For Yankee memorabilia collectors there is some significance to this, since Loyd and Bobby would share a Rookie Card in the 1971 TOPPS set.  The next batter was Don Wert, who singled to Bobby in center.  Gene Lamont, the Tigers catcher, then hit an RBI double.  This was a tough debut for a pitcher and I recall being impressed by how Loyd settled down and struck out the next two batters, Maddox and Lolich.

In the top of the ninth, Colson led off the inning by striking out McAuliffe.  He gave up an infield single to Mickey Stanley, and then retired Jim Northrup and the always threatening Norm Cash on flyballs.  The Yankee offense threatened Lolich in the bottom of the ninth. Jim Lyttle hit a one-out single to center, and advanced to second when Gene Michael got on base due to Jones’ error.  So with the tying run at first, The Major sends Roy White in to pinch hit for Loyd.  Lolich struck Heeba out, and then won the game when Horace Clarke flied out to right.

So there it is, the history of Loyd Colson.  Not a bad showing: 3 hits, one run, and three strikeouts (and zero At-Bats) in two innings as a pitcher for the greatest baseball team in history.  He came to Fort Lauderdale in 1971, didn’t make the team, and got sent to Syracuse.  He never had another opportunity to play in the majors, but he did have two good innings in pinstripes and all of us are grateful to him for that.

Monument Monday is a weekly tribute to the Pitchers  I knew during my baseball career.  Click here to read my previous entries.