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"Then Roy Said to Mickey ..."
The Best Yankees Stories Ever Told
By Roy White, Darrell Berger
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2009 Roy White Darrell Berger
All rights reserved.
1. Three of the Best
Catfish for Always
Roy Campanella once said that in order to play baseball you have to be a man, but you have to have a lot of little boy in you, too. Most major leaguers fall somewhere in between, at least when they start. I signed my first professional contract several years before I could vote.
That midpoint between boyhood and manhood tends to be extended in baseball players, which has its good and bad points. A major leaguer has to retain the enthusiasm and joy for the game he had as a kid, or else he will never tolerate or cope with the frustrations and pressures of playing the game at its highest levels.
But the game can also give a player a case of terminal adolescence. That's why so many of us have a hard time adjusting to life after baseball. It's not just a matter of no longer getting a big paycheck. It's time to grow up, and some of us aren't ready.
I think Jim "Catfish" Hunter was born an adult. I don't know of any other player, or any man I've ever met, who lived life on such an even keel. He was very composed and easy to talk to. When he got the biggest contract in baseball to come to the Yankees in 1975, you would have never known it to talk to him. To see him walk into Yankee Stadium, you couldn't tell if he was there to pitch or paint the concession stands. He was the same guy all the time. In the clubhouse after a game, you wouldn't know if he pitched a shutout or gave up nine runs in the first. There were no highs and lows. Remember when teachers took attendance in school, sometimes you answered, "present"? That was Hunter. He was present.
Regardless of what straw stirred whose drink, the player that got us to championship level was Jim Hunter. Charlie Finley, the A's owner when Hunter was a rookie, gave him the nickname Catfish to add a little color to a guy who was so regular he was extraordinary. Finley knew his geography pretty well. Hunter came from Hertford, North Carolina, a bustling metropolis of about 2,000 people, in the northeast section of the state known as "the Inner Banks." Fishing is huge there, and I'm guessing Jim might have reeled in a few cats as a kid.
Jim was born, raised, died, and is buried in Hertford, having sadly succumbed to Lou Gehrig's Disease in 1999 at age 53. That's why he's not better-known today, even though he is a Hall of Famer. To give you an idea of how much Hunter was part of Hertford, even when he was pitching before thousands in the Bronx, there was a street named after him back in Hertford. It is Jimmy Hunter Drive. Not Catfish Hunter, not Jim "Catfish" Hunter Drive. Jimmy. You get the idea that they would have named a street after him if he'd been a plumber. He would have been the most stand-up, regular, dependable plumber anyone had ever seen.
He won at least 20 games five years in a row, four times for the A's and once with us, and would have won more if the A's had gotten good a little sooner. He pitched 30 complete games in 1975, the last pitcher to have that many. Really the last one. Roy Halladay led the majors in 2008 with nine. Another 30-complete-game season is far less likely than another 30-win season. The last pitcher to have more than 30 was Robin Roberts, who had 33 back in 1953.
Jim was one baseball cliché come true. He threw like he was sitting in a rocking chair. His nice, easy motion would smoothly lead to a comfortable 0–4. I ought to know. I hit a big, fat .206 against him, so I was glad to see him put on the pinstripes for several reasons.
His complete games didn't necessarily rack up high pitch counts. He pitched with economy. He didn't go 2–2, 3–2 on every batter, like so many pitchers today. He wasn't watching a radar-gun posting on the scoreboard to see how often he hit 90 or 95. He wasn't trying to miss bats; he was succeeding in hitting them just a little bit, yielding dinky grounders and pop-flies.
When he pitched those 30 complete games, he pitched only 10 more innings than the year before, but, as baseball experts know today, the stress on the arm isn't just because of a lot of innings, it's what kind of innings. He pitched 23 complete games the previous year, so those 30 meant even more eighth innings, more ninth innings, and once, a tenth. In his 39 starts, he failed to pitch seven full innings only twice.
His arm was never the same. The following year he pitched almost as much, but his earned-run average was nearly a full run higher, and he failed to win 20, settling for 17–15, even though we were a better team. The year after that he pitched about half as much and had become a sore-armed pitcher, winning nine and losing nine.
There is a familiar theme in the stories about pitchers. At some point they all say, "Then I hurt my arm." Or worse, "Then my arm just went dead." Maybe it is Whitey Ford after a Hall of Fame career. Maybe it is Jim Bouton after one great year. Maybe it is Al Downing, who lost his blazing fastball but learned how to pitch and had enough left to be a winner, even if his gigantic potential was never realized.
Catfish Hunter's arm was like the monster in the slasher movies. After you thought it was dead, it came back for one more big scene. He started 1978 just as he had finished 1977: bad. A big part of the reason the Red Sox got off to a huge lead was Hunter's injury. After a few poor starts, he couldn't wave good-bye. We thought we had waved goodbye to our meal ticket. It seemed like he had tried everything. Then an elderly doctor came into the clubhouse. From the procedure that followed, he was most likely an osteopath or a chiropractor.
Gene Monahan was there. Gene was the young trainer for the Yankees who rose to the position a couple years earlier from the Yankees' minor league system. He's still the Yankees trainer and so accomplished on the job that he was elected to the New York State Athletic Trainers' Association Hall of Fame in 2007. "This was not the first procedure of this type," Gene remembers, though it was rare and still is. "They put Catfish to sleep or heavily sedated him. Then they put his right arm into 90 degrees of abduction and 90 degrees of elbow flexion."
That, in layman's terms, translates to this: Imagine yourself flat on your back with your arm at your side. Raise your right hand so that it is sticking straight up, but keep your elbow on the table.
"The doctor forced external rotation," Gene continues, meaning that he moved the lower arm away from the body. "There was a loud pop." This description is similar to the standard procedure for adjusting a separated shoulder, though Hunter never received such a diagnosis. Whatever the problem, this treatment worked.
"He woke up with more external rotation, and this enabled him to cock his shoulder and arm more efficiently in the position where he could elicit more force rather naturally in his motion. It certainly did help," Monahan says. "Catfish actually threw that evening at the stadium afterward and was impressed, happy, and excited." For Hunter to appear excited, it must have been a major improvement, indeed.
In 11 starts in August and September, Hunter went 9–1 with five complete games. Without Hunter, Bucky Dent's fly never would have gone over the Green Monster, because we would have been home watching the postseason on television. Catfish won the sixth and final game of the World Series.
The effectiveness of the arm-pop did not last. The following year, it was like he never got loose. He became a once-a-week pitcher and started only 19 games scattered randomly throughout the year. It wasn't good, nothing helped, and Hunter went back to Hertford at age 33, having won 224 games. The monster that was Jimmy Hunter's arm was dead. By the same age, Roger Clemens had won only 182.
"Of all the players I have trained over more than 40 years, without mentioning or even hinting of a favorite, Catfish was one of a kind, who only comes around every 45 years or so. I mean that," Gene declares. "I've been asked a thousand times who was my favorite or what two or three were up there. I'll never name or decide on any one of my athletes. But I tell you ... this one ... would be right up there ... for always."
Good for the Goose
Goose Gossage finally got into the Hall of Fame, and everybody who played with him agrees it was way overdue. It was great to get him on our side for the 1978 season, when he signed as a free agent. It was kind of strange, the way he was used as a kid on the White Sox.
He struggled during his first three years and started only eight games. We faced him in the stadium a few times and roughed him up pretty well. By the sixth inning, he'd be running out of gas, and we could start to catch up to his fastball. It was different when he was a reliever and had to go only one or two innings. It was a great feeling knowing the game was over when Goose came in. Nobody could touch him. I'm glad I never had to face him once he got settled as a reliever.
He had a great year of relief for Chicago in 1975, but the next year he was a starter almost exclusively. He didn't pitch that badly and completed 15 of 29 starts. But he pitched 224 innings, 82 more than the previous year, and recorded only five more strikeouts. He went back to the pen and didn't start another game in his entire career, which lasted 18 more years.
He is best remembered for his dominating years as a Yankees closer. People forget that he didn't exactly set the world on fire when he first came to New York. Or rather, he set some games on fire, which isn't what you want from your closer.
He was the big free agent, but he didn't automatically have the trust of his teammates. Some wondered why he was even with us, since we'd won the World Series the previous year, and Sparky Lyle, our closer, had won the Cy Young Award. Goose's first game was a big goose egg. Richie Zisk of the Rangers hit a walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth in Arlington to win 2–1.
He next relieved Ken Holtzman with a 3–1 lead in the sixth inning in Milwaukee, with a runner on first and no outs. The first batter he faced was Larry Hisle. Hisle hit a home run to tie the game. The Brewers scored two in the following inning to win.
In his third game, he relieved Catfish Hunter in the fifth inning with two on and Baltimore ahead 3–1. The first batter was Doug DeCinces, who hit a two-run homer to make the score 5–1. Gossage didn't lose the game, but he didn't help.
His fourth game was more creative but yielded the same results. Goose pitched scoreless ball for three innings of a tie game, then let the winning run score when he made an error on an attempted sacrifice bunt.
It would have been funny if it wasn't so weird, because we knew Goose had the goods and wasn't one of those guys who "had trouble pitching in New York." Or so we still wanted to believe. It wasn't too long after these first few games that, with the other team starting to rally, the call came for Goose. At the time, we used a little car painted with pinstripes to bring relief pitchers into games. The car stopped in front the bullpen and waited for Gossage. Mickey Rivers was in center. He ran over to the car and tried to stop it. He laid down on the hood and rode on the car about halfway to the mound. We didn't know what to think, but the crowd thought it was pretty funny.
Goose finally came to the mound, and Thurman Munson walked out to meet him. Now, Munson was a guy who never thought anything was funny during a game. But as he was walking, he started to laugh. Why?
Munson pointed out to center field, where Rivers was hunkered down in a sprinter's stance, pointed out toward the fence. We more or less tried not to laugh. One player who certainly didn't think it was funny was Gossage. He got mad, got the hitters out, and he was great after that. Rivers knew what we needed to keep us loose. Goose knew what he needed to do to win over his teammates. Everybody did what was needed, and, against all odds, we came back and won the World Series again.
Goose had the reputation of being mean on the mound. He certainly looked mean, with his droopy gunfighter mustache. "He would turn his back on the batter at the plate," Oscar Gamble says. "That was a little upsetting if you were at bat. But Goose didn't try to hit batters. He didn't care if he hit batters, but he didn't try to. He had a lot of good streaks, but I remember in 1980 he had a stretch where he was almost unhittable."
That streak was from August 8 through September 21. He relieved in 18 games, pitching 27 innings. He allowed nine hits and six walks and struck out 36. No runs. None. Zero. More precisely, a goose egg.
Henry Hecht, who covered us for the New YorkPost during the entire length of Gossage's Yankees career, remembers, "Goose was a good ole boy from Colorado. He was liked by everybody." Henry also has a reason why Goose might have been so dominant during the stretch of 1980, without which the Yankees probably would not have passed the Orioles by three games to win the American League East.
As famous as his fastball was, Henry says, "He got a lot of outs on sliders. He could throw it for strikes, and hitters protecting themselves against the fastball couldn't adjust. When Rick Cerone came over in 1980, he pressed Gossage to use the slider even more." Not only did it help him in 1980, it extended his career, allowing him to be effective far longer than a reliever who depended exclusively on heat. It probably enabled him to amass Hall of Fame career numbers to go along with his peak years of dominance with us.
Even intimidators have their moments of doubt, however. When Goose turned his back on the batter, it wasn't always just to intimidate. Henry says, "Gossage admitted he was a little nervous with Yaz at bat in the ninth inning with two outs in the 1978 playoff game." He wasn't turning his back to make the batter sweat so much as to deal with his own emotions. "He said to himself, 'What's the worst thing that can happen? Tomorrow I'll be back home in Colorado.' He relaxed, threw a moving fastball, Yaz popped up." Yaz went home. Goose didn't see Colorado until after the parade.
Thurman as We Knew Him
Most players are basically the same on the field and off. Mickey Rivers was "Mick the Quick" — hard to pin down, hard to locate outside the ballpark, just as he was hard to throw out on the bases, a guy who would beat out a 12-hopper to second. Lou Piniella was intense, Willie Randolph composed, Sparky Lyle as devilish as his grin behind that huge mustache. I have a reputation of being pretty quiet, efficient, and professional, if not exactly charismatic, and I'll own up to all that with an amount of pride that I hope falls somewhere between self-effacing and boastful.
The guy who was the most different from the guy the fans saw was Thurman Munson. The game face he presented was a scowl. He was terse and seldom helpful to sportswriters, so they wrote that he was at least uncooperative and maybe even a bad guy. In public, he looked like he was always mad, always grumpy.
"The writers never saw the true Munson," says Henry Hecht, the baseball beat writer for the New York Post. "He would only say, 'I'm just happy to be here.' After a while, you realized that was his more-or-less polite way of telling you to go to hell."
His locker was right next to mine. He was always the first guy I saw when I came to the park. We talked every day. He was one of my best friends on the team. I remember he always looked for me when we were on the road and he wanted a good place to eat. "When I want a gourmet dinner, I'm going out with Roy," Thurman would say. "I know he's not going to be eating the ham and cheese in the clubhouse." Like today's salaries, today's postgame meals in the clubhouse have been considerably upgraded. In my day, I just wanted to get away from the pizza and bologna as fast as I could.
The real Thurman Munson wasn't anything like the public grinch he pretended to be. That was all protective armor. He was a fun guy to be around. His teammates got to see his soft side, which contained a huge measure of love and attachment to his family back in Ohio. That's why he started flying, of course, so he could be with them more often during the season.
His family was the main reason for his returning to Ohio during the season. He talked about his wife and kids all the time, how much he missed them, and what he wanted to do when he retired. For a young guy, he talked a lot about retiring. He wanted to build shopping centers and malls in Ohio. Back in the 1970s, a lot of malls got built, but the area around Canton, roughly between Cleveland and Columbus, where Thurman was from, still didn't have much except brutally good high school football teams.
When Thurman arrived as starting catcher in 1970, the Yankees rose to a higher level than at any previous time in my career. We won 93 games and finished second. Except for Thurman, the team wasn't all that different from the few years before. He was the quickest catcher I'd ever seen. The first game I saw him catch, he threw out an attempted base-stealer. I never saw the ball leave his hand! He got rid of the ball like a second baseman turning the double play. It barely touched his glove. I'd never seen that before.
Excerpted from "Then Roy Said to Mickey ..." by Roy White, Darrell Berger. Copyright © 2009 Roy White Darrell Berger. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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