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.
Nobody I played with is celebrating a birthday today, but I wanted to remember my Yankee teammate Bill Robinson, who passed away too young in 2007 after battling diabetes. Weaser would have been 72 today. I saw him for the first time in 1965 in a Florida Instructional League game when he was a Braves prospect and we played each other in West Palm Beach. I wrote in my book that I had never seen a player who looked as good as Bill did on the field. We became friends after the Yankees traded a legend, Clete Boyer, to Atlanta for Bill and a pitcher named Chi-Chi Olivo, who had played a couple of years in the majors, but was assigned to Syracuse. I never played against Weaser, because the Yankees were the only American League team he had ever played for. He won the James P. Dawson Memorial Award for the outstanding Yankee rookie in spring training. The reporters who covered the Yankee beat would vote every year. In 1967, Weaser got the votes of all but one reporter, who preferred Thad Tillotson. He got a gold watch. He was a good hitter and an exceptional man, and I miss him.
After writing about the Clete Boyer-for-Bill Robinson trade I started thinking about Chi-Chi Olivo, the other player in that deal. I knew Chi-Chi pitched for the Braves in the early 1960’s and his brother, Diomedes, was a pitcher for the Pirates because I followed pitchers closely in those days. Soon after the 1966 season ended, Chi-Chi was in an automobile accident and received a serious head injury. The trade happened about a month later. I met Chi-Chi at spring training, but never got to know him well. I remember the day he got cut, along with Joe Verbanic and Mike Ferraro. He was assigned to Syracuse and never made it back to the majors. Sadly, Chi-Chi passed away of liver disease in 1977 at age 48; Diomedes died of a heart attack a few months later.