AIMING TO PLEASE, HE THREW THE LAST STRIKE OF HIS MINOR LEAGUE CAREER

May 24, 1981

Bottom of the fifth, nobody out. From the corner of my eye, I checked the runner on third, Steve Garvey, then stared in to get the catcher's sign. Fastball.

I took a deep breath, and slowly started my windup. I knew right then, before I even let go of the ball, that if I could make the pitch I wanted, it would be my last one as a pro ballplayer.

It was September 1970. Nixon was sending B-52s into Cambodia, the Yankees were just a twinkle in George Steinbrenner's eye, and I was pitching for the Tacoma Cubs, the Chicago Cubs' farm team in the Pacific Coast League. We were playing the Spokane Indians, the Dodgers' talented farm club. They were 46½ games ahead of us, and this was the last game of the season—not exactly high drama.

I had been traded to the Cubs' organization from the Phillies during the off-season. It was my impression that I was the player-to-be-named-later in the Johnny Callison for Dick Selma and Oscar Gamble deal, because I learned of the trade when I called the Phillie office in January to inquire about my contract. Dallas Green, who was a second lieutenant on phone duty at the time, matter-of-factly informed me that I had been traded a month earlier. I was the player-to-be-told-later, too.

I reported to camp in Scottsdale, Ariz. with Chicago that spring, determined to pitch my way back to the big leagues (if you can call two innings of pitching for the '68 Phillies, in which I allowed one run and three hits to nine batters, giving me a 4.50 ERA, working in the bigs), but Cub Manager Leo Durocher never did learn my name, and I was given a ticket to Tacoma.

Undaunted, I resolved to get off to a flying start and make the Cubs take notice. And that's exactly what I did. By early June I was 6 and 1 and near the league lead in ERA and strikeouts. It hadn't even been that difficult, and my breakthrough looked inevitable. According to the clubhouse grapevine and a story in The Sporting News, I was going to be called up on June 15.

But on June 14 I pitched an unfortunate game against veteran lefthander Juan Pizarro of the Hawaii Islanders. In that game he hit two towering home runs, got four RBIs and beat me 6-4. Three weeks later the Cubs bought his contract, and I began to wave goodby to my big dream.

By the last week of the season my record had slipped to 12 and 14—not too bad for a team that won only 45 games out of 143—but my enthusiasm and my competitive spirit were gone. I was still throwing hard, but not hard enough to knock the handwriting off the wall. I knew it was time to quit playing baseball and find a real job; there was more to life than sliders on the corner and minor league groupies waiting outside the clubhouse. Besides, another year in the Coast League would just be prolonging the inevitable.

But now I had one last game to pitch, against division-leading Spokane. The game meant nothing in the standings; we'd been eliminated in early July. We were probably one of the worst teams in recent Coast League history, although Salt Lake City in the Southern Division finished with only 44 wins that same season. Our best hitter was Roger Metzger, who was batting .270.

On the other hand, Spokane had a powerhouse. With a lineup of Garvey, Bill Russell, Davey Lopes, Bill Buckner, Bobby Valentine, Tom Hutton and Tom Paciorek, the Indians outclassed the league. Their pitching staff included Geoff Zahn, Doyle Alexander and Charlie Hough. An old Dodger blue blood, Tom Lasorda, was the manager. I didn't think we had a chance to win.

The only thing riding on the game was the individual stats of the players. Buckner and Valentine were in contention for the batting title; Paciorek needed one RBI to reach 100; and I needed to strike out 27 in a row to have a chance at extending my career.

It hardly figured to be the grand climax that I fantasized about when Paul Owens signed me to a bonus contract in 1965. At my departure there would be no tearful farewell speeches, no station wagon loaded with gifts for me and the family, no deferred payments through 1990, no World Series ring, just an aching shoulder, my picture on a Phillies baseball card and a couple of scrapbooks full of nice memories of my brush with glory.

I wanted to go out in style, though, do something dramatic for my swan song. I considered clutching my heart and staggering to the ground when I took the mound to illustrate the symbolic death of a "can't-miss" prospect. I discarded that idea, however, figuring neither baseball nor the Spokane fans would be interested in such theatrics.

I felt rebellious enough just coming to the ballpark with a four-day beard. Those were the days of no long hair and no agents (free, legal or otherwise). Bowie Kuhn wanted to keep his button-down empire in line. (Earlier in that '70 season, Hank McGraw, Tug's older brother, a catcher-first baseman for the Emeralds, the Phillies' Eugene, Ore. farm team, was suspended for refusing to get his hair trimmed. He was batting .305 with 14 homers and 49 RBIs at the time.)

Abandoning my normal pregame ritual, which included abstaining from beer, wine or hard liquor, I warmed up for my farewell appearance by downing a couple of Coors in the clubhouse. I figured it would help to ease the trauma of facing the end.

Choked with emotion, I trotted to the mound for the start of my final fling. All but a handful of the Spokane fans had chosen to skip this important event in my life, but after five years in the minor leagues I knew the pleasure of working in privacy.

The first few innings went smoothly enough. Valentine, the players' pick as the best prospect in the league, drilled a couple of singles to sew up the batting crown. I was happy for him, mainly because I shared the opinion of my teammates that Buckner was a hot dog, second in the league only to Willie Montanez. He was, however, a heck of a hitter, and judging from his 1980 batting title, he still is.

By the bottom of the fifth inning it was obvious that I was struggling. My curve was hanging, my fastball had lost about a yard and a half, and I'd given up a couple of runs. With Garvey leading off and Paciorek to follow, our manager, Whitey Lockman, had a reliever warming up. The end was near.

Standing on the rubber watching Garvey dig in, his Popeye forearms squeezing wood chips out of his Louisville, I decided to dazzle him with my knuckler. It didn't matter to me that I'd never thrown one in a game before. It was my last chance.

I threw him four consecutive floaters, each one dancing through the air like a hummingbird in a summer storm. Unfortunately, none of them came within three feet of the plate. Garvey was on with a walk.

With a sidelong glance, I checked Whitey in the dugout. He was up and pacing, a scowl on his normally relaxed face. I got the impression he didn't care for my knuckleball experiment, but I didn't regret having tried it.

I turned to watch Paciorek stride to the plate, his 100th RBI, in the form of Garvey, perched on first. The fans and the Indians' bench were yelling encouragement. Paciorek's youthful all-American face was set; I could see how much he wanted it: the magic 100. It suddenly occurred to me that I could make a nice final contribution to the game; I could give 'em all what they wanted.

I straddled the rubber as the catcher wigwagged the signal for a curveball. I nodded my approval, then immediately snapped off a 56-footer that ended up against the backstop, sending Garvey into scoring position on second. Whitey moved forward slightly, to the bottom dugout step.

My next pitch was another curve, also rolling to the backstop, sending Garvey to third, from where a fly ball would now score him. Whitey moved to the top step and I hustled in to cover the plate just in case Garvey got cute and tried to score all the way from second.

As I stood by the plate waiting for the catcher to return the ball, I edged next to Paciorek.

"Fastball, letter high," I whispered, then turned and quickly headed back for the mound.

I wasn't sure if he heard me, and even if he had, whether he'd believe me or not. It didn't make any difference; he was going to get a fastball letter high, come hell or come Whitey.

I checked Garvey on third, got the signal from the catcher, then started my windup. With a classic kick and a smooth follow-through I let fly with an 84-mph special delivery, letter high. It was a real beauty.

It's been more than 10 years since that pitch, yet I can still see the look in Paciorek's eyes. They lit up like sparklers in the dark. The ball exploded off his bat and took off" into orbit into the eastern Washington night, headed toward Idaho. Farmers in the area probably thought it was a UFO.

The ball hadn't even started its descent before Whitey bounded out of the dugout and started toward the mound, hook in hand. Paciorek was barely into his Cadillac trot. Garvey was still on third, checking to make sure he looked good in his uniform.

When Whitey arrived at the mound there was no ball for him to snatch from me. It was lying crushed in a field, 100 feet beyond the left-centerfield wall. Whitey just motioned me off. No good-by, no best wishes for a long and happy life. He'd seen enough.

I didn't hang my head, though. I put my glove under my arm, pushed my hat back on my head and walked off the mound with a smile, relieved that it was over and happy just to have been a part of it all for a few seasons. And I was sure I'd made at least one person happy during my career.

ILLUSTRATIONFRANK RICCIO

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)