THE LIP WHO IS SPLIT

Is he just plain John Montefusco, a Rookie-of-the-Year righthander and a homebody? Or is he The Count, the mouth without peer?
June 06, 1976

The Count, normally the merriest of men, was in a melancholy humor. He had endeavored to pitch for the Giants against the Cubs a few hours earlier, but he was so enfeebled by an overnight attack of influenza that he was able to survive only five lamentable innings, during which a succession of Chicago line drives sailed to the outfield fences unimpeded by the cyclonic currents of Candlestick Park. With typical bravado, The Count had promised to vanquish the Cubs without a run. At the time of his departure they had scored five.

The Count is not one to brood over defeat, but he was displeased with his recklessness. Why had he not pleaded illness and skipped this unfortunate turn on the mound? Now he sat in the kitchen of his sparsely furnished new house, hard by the Pacific Ocean, reflecting on his folly and fending off recurrent seizures of nausea. Happily, his pal Henry, a large and rumpled quasi-sheepdog, was there to distract him. The Count reached for a baseball on the table and tossed a slider into the living room for Henry to field. The Count could flip a coin and, as they say in baseball, it would "do something." When the dog returned with the ball clamped between his teeth, a visitor observed that it was autographed. Indeed, The Count explained, it was signed by none other than Johnny Bench, the Cincinnati slugger. Bench had been The Count's 200th strikeout victim last season, The Count said, and the famous catcher had obliged by autographing the offending ball. The guest was taken aback. Should such a valuable memento be entrusted to the keeping of a large and playfully destructive dog?

"The way I look at it," The Count replied, "I'll probably strike Bench out a million more times, so I can always get myself another ball." He laughed, his spirits rising, the tumult in his tummy subsiding. The Count had struck again.

John Montefusco, a pleasant, relatively uncomplicated, frizzy-haired, not entirely immodest 26-year-old from the New Jersey coastal hamlet of Keansburg, was playing his role again. The Count is his braggadocio public self, a sort of alter-egomaniac. Remove the title—the Count of Montefusco, as in the Count of Monte Cristo—and what remains is an extravagantly talented right-handed pitcher in only his second full season of major league baseball. But it is as The Count that he is the darling of the Bay Area, a veritable franchise-saver who, in the view of friend and foe alike, is the most refreshing personality to play baseball in a long time.

"He's brought new life to the game," says Charlie Hough, the Dodger pitcher. "The characters in baseball aren't like they used to be."

"I think he's got a good thing going for him with his talk," says Hough's teammate Don Sutton. "I commend him for it. It adds a little excitement to the game, à la Dizzy Dean. He's good for baseball. He's good for that city. San Francisco needed someone like him."

That is a sentiment with which The Count heartily concurs. "This city was made for me," he says. "It's a class place, and I've got class." San Francisco has long enshrined its eccentrics, and The Count is rapidly ascending to the pantheon, joining such sainted characters as Joshua Norton, the self-proclaimed "Emperor of the U.S. and Protector of Mexico," who roamed the city streets from 1860 to 1880 wearing a naval coat complete with epaulets; Mammy Pleasant, the ex-slave boardinghouse proprietor, practitioner of swampland voodoo and all-around mysterious figure from 1850 to 1880; Jimmy Rolph, San Francisco's mayor in the 1920s, who was known as Sunny Jim because of his I-love-everybody disposition; and Lefty O'Doul, the loquacious, natty man-about-town who was Joe DiMaggio's minor league manager on the San Francisco Seals. The Count's drawing power with a recuperating franchise is unquestioned. On the chilly Friday night of April 23, only 3,500 tickets had been sold in advance for a game against the Pirates. Then it was announced that Manager Bill Rigney had altered his pitching rotation so that The Count would start that evening. The game drew 15,621, a laudable turnout in a municipality whose public transportation system had been halted by a strike of city workers.

That The Count is also good for baseball seems equally beyond dispute. "All he has to do is win and he'll create as much excitement as Dizzy Dean did," says Carl Hubbell, the Hall of Famer who is now director of player development for the Giants. "He has the same kind of flair. He makes things happen—like Dean. I never saw Dizzy pitch a dull game. Baseball needs people like that."

To warrant comparison with OP Diz, The Count needs more than mere garrulity. And he has it. He won 15 games last year, struck out 215 in 244 innings and was named the league's Rookie of the Year. After his first 11 starts this season, he had a 6-3 record and a 2.22 ERA—with shutouts in his last two games—on a team 11 games below .500.

The Count won the first major league game he ever pitched, going the distance on Sept. 3, 1974 against the Dodgers after relieving starter Ron Bryant in the first inning with nobody out and the bases loaded. For good measure, he hit a home run in his first official big-league at bat. This noteworthy debut was a proper climax to a rise from the lower minors so swift that it astonished everyone—except The Count himself.

Despite his vehement protestations, he began the 1974 season with Amarillo in the Double A Texas League. He had spent 1973, his first year in professional baseball, with Decatur of the Class A Midwest League, winning nine games and losing only two while striking out 126 batters in 120 innings. That winter in the Arizona Instructional League, he had won six, lost one and compiled an earned-run average of 1.29. The Count went to spring training in 1974 on the roster of the Triple A Phoenix farm club and fully expected to stay with it only for the short time he reckoned the Giants would need to recognize his prowess and summon him to San Francisco. To his profound disappointment, he was dispatched instead to Amarillo for further experience. The Count was stunned by what he interpreted as a rebuke, and his pitching at first reflected his discontent.

"I hate any kind of detours," he says. With his record a disconcerting 2-6 and his spirits sagging, he prepared to abandon his career and return to the Jersey shore. "I had my airline ticket and my bags were packed," he says. Fortunately for him and, as The Count is the first to suggest, the future of baseball, he was dissuaded from pursuing this rash course by Frank Funk, now a Giant pitching coach but then the team's minor league pitching instructor. Funk was in Amarillo on the day of The Count's plotted defection and he intercepted the young pitcher on his way to the airport.

"I took him aside and asked him if he realized how close he was to being a major league pitcher," Funk recalls. "He only lacked a little more experience. He had a short fuse in those days. He just had a little growing up to do."

The Count decided to stick it out. In the next month, he pitched three shutouts, took over the league lead in strikeouts and acquired his nickname—"they called me Count Monty of Amarillo." He began his now celebrated practice of predicting his own triumphs. One of the earliest of these forecasts was that he would be out of Amarillo and with Phoenix in time for the team's trip to Hawaii on July 6. The Count made it with a day to spare. In less than half a season at Phoenix he was 7-3 and struck out 90 in 77 innings. Against Salt Lake City he set a Pacific Coast League record by striking out eight batters in succession. Finally, during a game in Tucson, he was advised by Phoenix Manager Rocky Bridges to stop worrying about getting to the big leagues and start packing. The Giants had asked for him. "The rest," says The Count, "is history."

What is most remarkable about The Count's meteoric rise is that he was passed over by major league scouts until he reached the athletically advanced age of 23. He had played shortstop at Middletown (N.J.) Township High School, pitching only in his senior year. He had nearly reached his present height of 6'1½", but at 135 pounds he weighed 45 less than he does now. His was not the sort of physique that brought bird dogs flocking to his door. After graduation, The Count took a job as a clerk with the telephone company and joined the Red Bank Tire Company's team in the semi-pro Jersey Shore League. He was a reliever at first, becoming a starter in his second season. He pitched well enough in his third season to win the league's MVP award. But the scouts were unimpressed, even though The Count had begun to clamor for their attention.

"I had tryouts everywhere," he says. "And I'd do good, but they'd just say, 'We'll keep an eye on you." One of his tryouts was at Yankee Stadium under the supposedly expert eye of then Yankee Manager Ralph Houk. "He watched me throw in the bullpen and said, 'We'll keep an eye on you,'" The Count recalls. "Well, he never kept an eye on me, and neither did the others. Now all those people are kicking their butts for not giving me a chance."

The Count's frustrating encounters with scouts account in no small measure for his boasting. Because they would not recognize his ability, he felt compelled to tell them—over and over. He passed age 20 undiscovered, a Babe, so to speak, in the woods, and now the scouts were saying he was too old to be a prospect. So The Count elected to try higher education as an alternative to big-league stardom. He enrolled in New Jersey's Brookdale Community College in 1971 and pitched there for two seasons, winning 18 and losing two. That won him a baseball scholarship to Clemson. The Count was preparing, as he puts it, "to sign with them" for the spring semester of 1973, when Giant scouts Frank Burke and Buddy Kerr agreed to accommodate their old friend Frank Porter, the boss of Red Bank Tire, and take a look at The Count. The perspicacity of Burke and Kerr is now legendary. They signed The Count to a contract in the low minors. Elated, he advised a still-skeptical Kerr he would be in the majors in two years. "Buddy looked at me and laughed," he says. Of course, it was The Count who had the last laugh. Almost two years to the day, he made good his boast.

Like his fellow braggart, Muhammad Ali, The Count is adept at fulfilling his boastful forecasts. Before his first start last year, he publicly predicted he would shut out the Braves. He did. He told First Baseman Willie Montanez that he would require only one run to win a game against Philadelphia. He won 1-0. He announced on a radio talk show that he would shut out the Dodgers on the Fourth of July. He did, beating Andy Messersmith 1-0. He correctly forecast that Bench would be his 200th strikeout victim, and Henry has the autographed ball between his teeth to prove it. However, Bench has not otherwise enhanced The Count's record as a soothsayer. Last year The Count informed the Cincinnati press that not only would he shut out the Reds on July 31 but also, as a fillip, he would strike out Bench four times. In his first at bat, Bench smote a three-run homer that was one of the longest ever hit in Riverfront Stadium. The Reds went on to score 11 runs. When he was relieved in the second inning, The Count was booed by the Cincinnati fans. As he reached the dugout he doffed his cap. The jeers promptly turned to cheers.

It is a tribute to the efficacy of his act that The Count is nearly as popular with opposing fans and players as he is with Giant loyalists and his teammates. Dodger Pitcher Tommy John puts his opponent in neat perspective: "I think the guy is great...all the talking he does. He likes to beat the Dodgers. Beautiful. It draws people. The fans are going to come out here to boo him and hope to see us knock him out. That's going to attract a few thousand more fans, and that's what we are really here for."

"Everybody likes The Count," says Giant Pitcher John D'Acquisto. "He gives everybody a competitive attitude. His opponents like him because he makes them try harder. And we try harder to live up to his predictions. I can only say good things about him because he's such a good person."

To be sure, no one is liked all the time. In the Easter Sunday game this year at Cincinnati, The Count and his catcher, the ordinarily passive Dave Rader, had an altercation on the infield grass that was plainly seen by the 23,701 people at the stadium and the TV viewers back in the Bay Area. The Count was angry with Rader for calling a fastball that Cesar Geronimo hit for a triple. Rader was displeased with The Count for allowing his concentration to waver and for failing to "drive off the mound." They snapped at each other for several minutes before stomping back to their positions. Between innings Rigney brought the antagonists together. There were mutual apologies, and Rader remains among The Count's most vocal boosters. "He says he can do it all, and he can," says Rader. Rigney is convinced the dispute brought the battery closer together.

The Count's act serves him in several ways. Most obviously, it attracts attention to a young man who spent most of his life being unnoticed. More subtly, it helps prepare him for the tense business of pitching. By bragging, he puts additional pressure on himself and, he says, he is at his best under pressure. "The difference between me and other players is that I say what I'm thinking," he says. "No one goes out there thinking he's going to lose. I just say I'm going to win. I don't mind saying those things, because I know I can back them up when I feel good. And it doesn't bother me if I happen to miss. So I predict a shutout and I'm shelled. What am I supposed to do? Go hide? No way."

Montefusco marshals some impressive weapons to support his boasts, mainly a live fastball that moves in quirky ways, a wicked slider or "cut fastball," a good curve and a burgeoning forkball. When his pitches are working well, he is almost unhittable. In a game against the Cardinals on April 28 he struck out eight of the first nine batters to face him and equaled the then major league season strikeout high of 12 by the seventh inning. In a characteristic gesture, he paused in his labors to read of this achievement on the Candlestick message board. The crowd cheered his self-indulgence. Unfortunately, he was removed for a pinch hitter after the eighth, and the Giants contrived to lose the game 4-2 in 16 innings. In addition to his stuff, Montefusco brings to the game a competitive spirit that, in Coach Funk's opinion, "is beyond the normal. He is what I would call fiercely competitive. With all he has, I don't see anything in the world that can hold him back."

It may astound—and even dismay—The Count's fans to hear that he leads a relatively subdued life away from the ball park. In a time when most professional athletes array themselves like Florentine dukes, The Count of Montefusco wears blue jeans and polo shirts. He bought his first suit only a few months ago while working at his off-season job as an assistant to Public Relations Director Bob Wuerth at Bay Meadows Race Track. The occasion for the purchase was a dinner honoring Telly Savalas, whose horse, Telly's Pop, was running at Bay Meadows. Savalas had spent several hours that day autographing photos, a chore which Montefusco interrupted by presenting him with an autographed photo of The Count. The gruff Savalas was considerably amused.

Montefusco's second suit, a severe three-piece garment of a cut favored by San Francisco's Montgomery Street stockbrokers, was bought for the formal signing of his new $60,000 contract, an event held, for reasons that are not entirely clear, at the city's Playboy Club. The Count arrived for the ceremony in a limousine. If his agent had had his way, The Count would have been wearing white tie and tails. Montefusco rejected this suggestion and subsequently dismissed the agent, possibly for bad taste. He now handles his own business affairs, a declaration of independence that also sets him apart from his contemporaries, most of whom employ legal and business staffs large enough to fit the needs of the Hughes Tool Company.

Montefusco has a lovely airline stewardess girl friend, Dory Samples, with whom he resides in a modest rented house at Half Moon Bay, a beach community 20 miles south of San Francisco. He walks Henry and rides his horse—named, sure enough, Count—on the beach. At night he and Dory "put a few logs on the fire, eat some pizza and watch television," a routine that would scarcely intimidate Walt Frazier or Broadway Joe. Separated from the ball park and an adoring press, he is almost never The Count.

"It's very confusing," says Dory. "He's really two people. Here, he's just John. Then I see him on television, and all of a sudden there's someone out there being The Count."

"People who speak to me away from the park are usually surprised at how little I talk," Montefusco says. When he is not into his act, his open, handsome face suggests innocence that is very nearly endearing. "People will say, 'You're not the guy I read about in the papers.' It's true, I guess. Away from the ball park, I don't say much. I just kind of sit around and listen. The way I talk in front of reporters is something else. Look, it's all so new to me, I don't know exactly what's going on."

Have we a dual personality here, a mild-mannered dog walker combined with You Know Me Al? Dory holds firm to the two-people view and clearly prefers the dog walker. Others, notably newsmen in search of copy, would rather think of The Count and Montefusco as one and the same. Both parties may be right. Perhaps The Count was always inside Montefusco, imprisoned in some psychic Ch√¢teau d'If, constantly struggling to dig his way out.

Montefusco sees no conflict in identification. The Count serves him well, and he insists that the persona can be turned off at will. "The Count?" he says to himself. "Why he's just the guy out there pitching. I'm John Montefusco."

TWO PHOTOSFRED KAPLANFiery on the field, The Count is quiet at home with Dory and quasi-sheepdog Henry.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)