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SHORTSTOP WITH A SHORT FUSE

June 09, 1975
June 09, 1975

Table of Contents
June 9, 1975

The Reds
Final Drive
  • Hours after winning yet another race with a surging kick, distance runner Steve Prefontaine was killed in a car crash. The author, a fellow Olympian, looks back at track's angry man

Volleyball
Short Fuse
Baseball
Lacrosse
Golf
Hockey
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

SHORTSTOP WITH A SHORT FUSE

There's no debating the dolce of his vita around the pad; the question about Tim Foli, slick fielder and hothead, is whether his temperament has helped or hurt his career

They are debating the question of whether she should pose nude for Playboy. "Oh, Baby! But it's art!" says the Bunny sitting on Tim Foli's lap. "I don't care," says Foli. "I don't want the whole world to see what I got." "Oh, Baby, you're so jealous! Like a little boy." She frowns, sticks out her lower lip in imitation of a petulant child about to cry. She tosses her long blonde hair, folds her arms across her chest and arches her back. She is wearing a long skirt and a gauzy white peasant blouse. Foli, wearing a plaid shirt and jeans, absent-mindedly begins to scratch her back.

This is an article from the June 9, 1975 issue Original Layout

Foli's attention wanders to the music emanating from his elaborate stereo system, whose speakers dominate the living room of his Montreal apartment. The apartment is decorated in a style—Playboy Gothic—that seems to be typical of unmarried professional athletes. The dining room contains a massive table and brightly cushioned chairs, and the walls are beige, while the living room is all macho brown and black naugahyde that has been tufted, rolled, pleated and buttoned like the interior of a highly customized automobile. The living-room rug, shaggy as an unshorn sheep, is sprinkled with satin pillows, one of which is adorned with the silhouette of a rabbit wearing a Henry James collar. Spread across one entire wall is a rug depicting Tibetan tigers gamboling up and down snowcapped mountains, which must surely be the Himalayas.

"Aren't they lifelike?" says the Bunny, who seems to have forgotten her petulance. "Like they're gonna jump right out at you. I discovered it on one of my modeling assignments."

"She's very photogenic," says Foli. "Last year she was voted Montreal's Bunny of the Year and then on national television she was picked Miss Photogenic out of all the Bunnies in the world."

"Oh, Baby," she says. She twists around to face him and they kiss, oblivious, as if sitting in the rear seat of a 1950 Mercury. All that's missing is a toy dog propped in the rear window, his mechanical head nodding eternally. When they finish kissing, she turns and says, "Once I visited the Playboy Club in Chicago. It was breathtaking! All those gigantic nudes on the walls! I mean, it was in such good taste. Very artistic. While I was there I got to pose for this really super photographer. It was an honor to work with him, and so thrilling! I just lost myself, started striking all these seductive poses. I was wearing clothes, of course. This one is jealous. He was afraid that maybe I showed too much. I had to show him how far I unbuttoned my shirt. Only to here. Right, Baby? Like I told you?"

"They're dying for her to pose for a centerfold," says Foli. "They're pleading with her. But she won't do it. Besides, I don't want her to."

"I don't know why, Baby. It makes me so mad. People have this terrible image of Bunnies. Just because they pose for the centerfold doesn't mean they, you know, sleep around. Why, when Baby and I started dating in Montreal the publicity was terrible. The Expos tried to get him to stop. They said it gave the club a bad image. But now that they see that we have a lasting relationship going, other players are dating Bunnies."

"But I was the first," says Foli. "It was rough for a while. The newspapers really laid it on her. They made such a big thing out of her being older than me. I mean, I'm 23 and she's only—."

"Oh, Baby! How could you? It's only three years and it's like my death—well, four then. I just turned 27."

"When I first started dating her I had to make her see that age didn't mean a thing. Just because I'm 23 doesn't mean I act like a kid."

"Baby, if I was going out with any other 23-year-old, I just couldn't accept it. But you're so...mature. We couldn't live the way we do if I thought you were just a kid. I mean, I'm 26, well, 27, and I've never put my faith in any man. I was married for five years and I learned I'm stronger than any man I could ever meet. I always know what I'm doing. But Baby, well, he's so different. He's so—you know. I like it this way. Of course, I could get along on my own, but I don't think it's right for a woman to be by herself. She likes someone to do things for her. Baby makes all the decisions in our home. Isn't that right, Baby? If he doesn't want me to do something, he just lets me know. And he's so mild. Why, he never loses his temper. Do you, Baby? I was scared of him, at first. I mean I heard all these horrible stories about him, about what a wild man he is, a maniac, and some of the things the papers said he did. I just didn't believe it was the same man. With me he's just as mild as can be."

Tim Foli, shortstop for the Montreal Expos, 24 years old now and, since December, husband of the Bunny in his life, Ginette Pélissier, has an unmanageable cowlick that gives him the look of a small boy with unlimited funds browsing in a candy store. His voice is soft and hesitant and, like most youths, he is at first painfully shy around strangers; but after only a short while he is disarmingly open. "You can see everything about me," he says. "I'm easy to read. I'm right there." But it is a passive openness. It responds rather than initiates. It dwells on the self and assumes that all others dwell on that same self. It is the openness of a youth who still views himself as the center of the universe, and whose every success or failure is therefore magnified accordingly. There is also about that passivity, despite its openness, a sense of control, of consciously holding back words and thoughts and feelings and exuberances that are dying to burst forth. "Sometimes," says Foli, "I just feel like exploding. No reason, I just, sometimes I feel...I compensate by trying to be extra soft whenever I can."

Tim Foli's conscious softness has often been only a gauzy film. Clearly visible beneath it there is a nature prone to violent outbursts in a game whose leisurely pace makes such displays all the more conspicuous. In his first four seasons as a major-leaguer, first with the New York Mets and since 1972 with the Expos, Foli managed to get into more fights with opposing players, umpires, and even his own teammates, and to hit more innocent bystanders with thrown helmets, bats and balls than the average high-spirited player might in a 20-year career. The Mets nicknamed him "Crazy Horse." His detractors, mostly sports-writers and opposing players he fought with, claimed that his outbursts were the childish tantrums of an as-yet unformed man and a serious deterrent to his ever becoming the kind of quality shortstop his talent suggested he would be. On the other hand, Foli's boosters, most notably himself and his manager, Gene Mauch, claimed that his outbursts resulted from his intense desire to win and excel and that this was precisely the reason why Foli was already one of the best shortstops in the game.

Today the Mauch viewpoint is gaining adherents, for not only is the 1975 Foli a crackerjack player, he is a notably steadier human being. So far he has been thrown out of only one game—for a regrettable but by no means nasty bit of umpire-bumping.

As a youth growing up in Canoga Park, Calif., the son of an Italian-American father and an Irish-French mother, Tim Foli was such a talented athlete that by the time he graduated from high school he was offered both football and baseball scholarships to the University of Southern California and Notre Dame and a $75,000 baseball bonus by the Mets, who had made him their first choice in the 1968 free-agent draft. Even then, he says, he was an intense competitor. He played the most casual pickup basketball games with such ferociousness that, he admits, "even my friends resented me. I was always beating them. I played my butt off to win. I don't know any other way. How many times do you hear people say, 'It's not important, let up.' Well, I can't."

In the summer of 1968, at the age of 17, Foli chose to sign the bonus contract with the Mets rather than accept the combined scholarship at USC or Notre Dame. "I was an infielder and I decided I'd concentrate only on playing shortstop," he says. "It's where the action is. A shortstop is in every play, either fielding balls or signaling outfielders where to throw. I'm always running somewhere, doing something. And I can control things around me."

The Mets assigned Foli to their Appalachian Rookie League team in Marion, W. Va. for the final two months of the season. There he batted .281 and began to build the reputation, says Ed Kranepool of the Mets, "of a guy who's so hyper that he brings his bat back to his hotel room." Foli added to that reputation the following summer when he played for Visalia of the Class A California League. One night after a particularly frustrating game in which he went 0 for 5 and made a couple of errors, Foli returned to the ball park and slept the night on second base.

"Well, not exactly on second base," he says. "It was a little to the right of the bag, toward shortstop, where you might play a left-handed pull hitter. It was unbearably hot, so I found a cool spot and lay down. I'd brought my record player with me. I listened to records for a while and thought about how I'd never go 0 for 5 again and then I fell asleep."

Today, Foli does not like to be reminded of that incident. He claims it has been blown out of proportion by teammates and sportswriters. "There was really nothing to it," he says. "So I slept at shortstop! What's wrong with that?" Mauch agrees with Foli. "He had a bad night and he went home to sleep," says Mauch, with a faint grin. "His home is shortstop, that's all."

Foli batted .303 with 15 home runs at Visalia in 1969, and the following spring he was with the Mets in St. Petersburg. He was the talk of the camp with his spirited play at short. A story in The Sporting News asserted, "There was not a flaw in Foli's daily performances as he cavorted with the ease and poise of a veteran.... He draws raves everywhere he goes from players, managers, scouts and fans." Still, the Mets were fresh from their miraculous World Series triumph and they had two established shortstops in Bud Harrelson and Al Weis, so Foli played the 1970 season at Tidewater of the Triple-A International League.

"I made the Mets that spring," says Foli. "I made the club. But they wouldn't let me play."

In 1971, after another minor-league season in which he batted .261 and hit six home runs, Foli finally did make the Mets in spring training, and it was then that The Sporting News described him as "King of the Rednecks." At that time the Mets were managed by Gil Hodges, a stoical man whose younger players (Harrelson, Grote, Seaver, Kranepool) were almost equally cool and self-disciplined. Foli's emotionalism ran against the grain of the team. While most Mets sat complacently on the bench in the dugout and watched the action, Foli paced back and forth across their field of vision, screaming epithets at opposing players, umpires and even his own teammates. Whenever he did get to play that first year, which was not often, he viewed his every error and out as a tragedy. He challenged umpires nose-to-nose whenever he was called out on strikes and kicked dirt every time he made an error. Some of his teammates—Seaver, for example—wondered out loud "How much will the umpire take?" But in the next breath Seaver seemed to excuse Foli's outbursts by saying they were indicative of his great competitive spirit and desire to win at all costs. There were others that year, however, who were not so charitable. In Foli's tantrums they saw the blustering of a child trying to conceal his deficiencies behind a smoke screen of rage. The more he screamed at a called third strike, the more people around him tended to forget that it was he, Foli, who was to blame for that strikeout and not the umpire. In this way, he was able to lessen his burden of guilt for, say, striking out with the winning run on base.

One day in the summer of 1971 Foli managed to so anger Ed Kranepool, a player whose name is almost synonymous with placidity, that Kranepool flattened him with one punch. It seems that Foli was having a frustrating time in the field that day. At one point, while Kranepool was tossing ground balls to his in-fielders between innings, Foli fumed and fired a ball back to Kranepool in the dirt. Kranepool responded by not tossing any more ground balls to Foli for the rest of the warmup. Foli seethed and later in the Met dugout he shoved Easy Ed, and Easy Ed punched him.

"He was showing me up in front of my teammates," says Kranepool. "I couldn't let him do that. What happens with Timmy is everything builds up inside him and he explodes on whoever happens to be closest to him. When he's ready to explode, he'll even take his frustrations out on his teammates. They're just there, that's all. I think it's partly because he wants to impress people, and when he fails to it kind of hurts his ego. It's because of his desire to win, too. Once we played bridge after a game and he wouldn't let anyone leave because he was losing. If it was up to him he would have made us all stay in the clubhouse through the night until he finally won."

Foli played only sporadically in 1971, primarily as a utility man. He did everything but pitch and catch at one time or another and grew increasingly frustrated at his inability to crack the starting lineup at short, where Harrelson seemed to have found a home for the next 10 years. Foli came to bat only 288 times that year and hit .226. His frustrations erupted the following spring training in the usual way—a fight with a fellow Met, this time the bullpen coach, Joe Pignatano. The fight began as an argument over tickets to an Eastern Hockey League game of the St. Petersburg Suns, then in last place. "Can you imagine," said a sportswriter, "fighting over tickets to a last-place minor-league hockey team in the state of Florida!"

It was that fight that precipitated Foli's exit from the Mets. Before the season started, he was traded to the Expos, along with Ken Singleton and Mike Jorgensen, for Rusty Staub.

"I never did get into the Mets," says Foli. "They weren't really my kind of team. They're very unemotional. Hodges may have been a great manager, like everyone says, but I never really could understand him. He never said a word to me. In the middle of a game he'd point to me and then point to the playing field. I'd grab my glove, run out onto the field, and then realize I didn't know where he wanted me to play. I'd just stand there in the middle of the infield until everyone had taken their position and then I'd run to the position that was still empty. I like to communicate with people. I have to. I have to know what's going on inside them, what they expect of me. I want to know everything, to learn everything, and I want everyone to know me, to know what makes me tick. But I never got this feeling from the Mets or Hodges. With Gene it's different. He got right into me, let me know what he was thinking, and he wanted to know what I was thinking. It's the same with our pitchers. I'm always asking them what pitches they'd throw in what situation. I want to know everything. Some hitters say to me, 'Don't talk to the pitchers too much, 'cause if they're traded they'll know how to pitch to you.' I don't care about that! Jeez, I even talk to Yogi when we play the Mets. He'll ask me what a particular player did against us and I tell him. I'll communicate with anyone who wants to communicate with me."

When Foli was traded to the Expos, many assumed he was just a throw-in; it was Ken Singleton Montreal wanted. But in private conversations Mauch will let it slip that he wanted Foli as much as Singleton, because he considered him the perfect tonic for a veteran-logged expansion team that had grown too complacent. Foli would light a fire under that team, Mauch assumed. Mauch said he had taken to the young shortstop because "there's no mystery to him" and because he bore a strong resemblance to a fiery shortstop of another generation—Mauch himself.

With the Expos, Foli has been the No. 1 shortstop. He is a superior fielder, with excellent range and a strong throwing arm. He is a .260 hitter and is learning to settle for frequent and accurate slap hits (curving line drives, like hooked golf shots), rather than the occasional long ball he hit in Visalia. One afternoon, while recuperating from a fractured thumb, he spent almost an hour taking batting practice at Jarry Park. Each time he slapped at the ball and made contact he howled in pain and then stopped, hands on hips, and smiled as the ball curved over first, hit the foul line midway down the right-field line, kicked up white dust and then skidded into the opposing team's bullpen. "I'll take a dozen of those," said Foli, resuming his stance. Watching him take his private batting practice in the afternoon was Ginette. She clapped her hands with glee and said, "Oh, isn't he cute."

But as Foli learned to discipline his physical talent, his efforts to get a rein on his emotionalism did not keep pace. In May 1972 Foli was fined for arguing a bit too strenuously over a called third strike. Five days later he was banished from a game, fined and suspended for three games for pushing the plate umpire after a third-strike call. In September he argued vehemently after being called out at first on a play so unarguable that his own first-base coach did not even give it a second look. Later, Foli was thrown out of the game.

Foli's tirades diminished somewhat in 1973, although he still managed to get himself ejected from a June game, and to suffer a badly fractured jaw in July, when, making the pivot on a double play at second, he collided with Houston's Bob Watson. Said Watson after the game, "I saw him lower his shoulder and launch himself at me, so I brought my arms up in front of me to defend myself. I caught him in the mouth with my left forearm. I could feel the whole side of his face cave in. His glasses flew off [Foli wears contact lenses now] and when I looked down at him I could see blood running out of his mouth. 'Good God,' I said to myself, 'I hope I haven't killed him.' "

Foli spent three days in Royal Victoria Hospital with his jaw held together by surgical wire. Writing in his column for the Montreal Star, John Robertson said, "What the 20,129 stunned spectators saw manifesting itself was the private war of Tim Foli with his own limitations—a self-imposed act of retribution for the error he had made on the previous play, which allowed Watson to get on base in the first place."

On another occasion, Robertson wrote, "By some warped logic, he [Mauch] translates these fits of rage as desire to win. They are nothing of the kind."

Whatever those rages were indicative of—a desire to excel or merely the tantrums of an embarrassed child—Mauch refused to try to stifle them, and meanwhile the eruptions were becoming still more widely spaced. In 1974 Foli barely tickled the Richter scale while earning a spot on the All-Star ballot. He is on it again this year. Mauch concludes: "I never tried to knock that intensity out of him. It's hard enough to find it, let alone to take it away from a player. Without that intensity, which sometimes comes out in adverse ways, Foli might not have the desire to excel in a positive way. You have to accept one with the other. In the past those outbursts may have been a deterrent, but I think maybe now there's a maturity coming into his life. After all, a man doesn't know what kind of man he's going to become when he's still a boy."

TWO PHOTOSFoli at work on the field and at ease with his comely Bunny in his Montreal apartment.