His Style Is Perfect For Hairy Situations

On the mound or in the salon, Joe Sambito of the Houston Astros leaves 'em high and dry almost every time
April 12, 1982

He has a classic style with a solid set, an economy of motion and a picture-perfect follow-through that ends in a dramatic tuck. Yes, Joe Sambito's hair is something to behold.

As for his pitching delivery, well, it's every bit as smooth as his do. And, according to the envelope opened in the previous pages, it made him the best relief pitcher in the National League last year. Joe Sambito of the Houston Astros would like to thank his mother and father, his coaches and managers, the gang back in Hicksville, N.Y., Bob Cluck, Roger Freed, his wife, Denise, his two children and all the other little people who made it possible.

Sambito was surprised when he was told that, according to SI's rating system, he's the reigning reliever in the league, but then he's surprised he's even in the major leagues. Whereas most big leaguers shed their humility along the way, Sambito is still pinching himself. "I exceeded my expectations long ago," he says. "Who would have thought I'd be starting my seventh year. My gosh, I'm an established veteran."

He was a very good pitcher at Bethpage High School on Long Island, but he was ignored by the New York Mets after a tryout at Shea Stadium in 1970. He was a very good pitcher at that perennial baseball power, Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y., but he wasn't drafted until the 17th round in 1973 by the Astros. "There were 19 players drafted by the Astros that year," he points out, "and Nos. 18 and 19 didn't sign." He was a very good pitcher in the minors, but he lacked a major league fastball. He was made a relief pitcher in 1977 simply because the Astros had nobody else from the left side.

Five years later, Sambito is in an exhibit on active players in the Hall of Fame, albeit the Italian-American hall outside of Chicago. This "established veteran" has 68 saves, a lifetime ERA of 2.50 and an average of more than seven strikeouts and fewer than three walks per nine innings. He would have even more saves, but Houston has excellent starters and two other fine relievers, Dave Smith and Frank LaCorte, who finished sixth and 25th, respectively, in the SI rankings. Sambito also has a head of hair that causes him no end of ribbing from his teammates.

His secrets of success include not one, but two major league fastballs, a nasty slider and not one, but "two or three" hair dryers. He holds one fastball so that the ball sails in on righthanded hitters. The other fastball sinks. He employs a conventional grip on both the slider and the hair blower.

Good pitches do not a good pitcher make, however. Houston Coach Mel Wright maintains that what distinguishes Sambito is his conditioning. "I can't ever recall his having a pulled muscle or sore arm," says Wright, rapping a bench with his knuckles. "He's got a loose, athletic body." Smith marvels at Sambito's control. "If he's six inches off, he's wild." Manager Bill Virdon likes Sambito's concentration, and so does Sambito. "They tell me my eyes glaze over," says the normally dewy-eyed reliever.

Twenty years ago, Jennie Sambito always knew where to find Joey. "He'd be throwing a tennis ball against the wall of the elementary school behind our house," she says. "I'd just go out the back door and call him to dinner."

His father, Anthony, who worked in the garment trade, was an overriding influence on Joey. "He never pushed me, only encouraged me," Joey says. His father also used to be a barber in the Navy and kept his children in crew cuts. Sambito's been making up for it ever since.

Pat Calabria, a sportswriter for Newsday, played with Joey on the Bethpage High baseball team. "He was just a kid from the neighborhood," Calabria says. "He was a very good pitcher, but not a real eye-opener. He didn't blow anybody away. His father looked very big and tough, but he was very low-key. He'd sit in the stands and not say a word."

Joey's high school coach, Harry Settino, recalls the 1969 season. "That was the year of the Miracle Mets. We had a righthanded pitcher named Bob Mailer. He was Tom Seaver and Joey was Jerry Koosman. People would go around school asking if Seaver or Koosman were pitching today. We even got a write-up in Newsday about that."

Settino took Joey to Shea Stadium for a tryout during the 1970 season, but the Mets were unimpressed, so Joey enrolled at Adelphi and studied physical therapy. In his junior year he was 7-1 with an ERA of 1.27 and struck out 65 batters in 64 innings. "The scouts were coming around, so I figured I'd go in the first four rounds," Sambito says. "On draft day I stayed home from the Long Island Lighting Company, where I was working, waiting for the phone call. It didn't come until 5:30, and it was Earl Rapp, then an Astro scout. I said, 'When did you ever see me?' He said, 'Once.' Guys who had been watching me for six years didn't call. Later I found out they all thought I had a sore arm. The funny thing was they were right."

Rapp wanted to see Sambito throw before he signed him, but Sambito tried to put him off. "My arm was killing me," he says, "but there was no way around it. I must have impressed him some, though, because he offered me a contract." Sambito and his father agreed the opportunity shouldn't be passed up. Sambito signed for all of $2,500 with bonuses for staying 90 days in Double A, Triple A and the majors.

There was a shortage of arms on the Astros' Double A farm team in Columbus, Ga., and Sambito was flown to Knoxville to join the Columbus club. In his first start, he gave up four runs in two innings and left the game with what, he says, felt like a knife in his arm. "It came around within a week. Turns out I was throwing the slider all wrong."

Shortly thereafter Sambito was sent to Covington, Va. in the rookie league, and in his first start he threw a one hitter. "I cleared $192 every two weeks and couldn't believe anybody was actually paying me to play baseball," he says.

Sambito had a moderately successful year at Class A Cedar Rapids in 1974 thanks to Player-Coach Bob Cluck. "He really helped me," says Sambito. "To say he was dedicated is an understatement. He had his own video camera so we could see ourselves pitching, and he was always trying to improve us. We were more than a number to him."

In 1975 Sambito was invited to spring training as a non-roster player. His father was at home, dying of cancer, and Joe remembers walking into the bedroom and whispering in his father's ear, "Dad, I'm leaving now. I'm on my way to the big leagues." After driving for two days, he arrived at the Astros' camp in Cocoa Beach, Fla., and that night his father died. That may sound too Hollywood to be true, but there's a lot about Sambito that's too good to be true.

Sambito was sent to Columbus and finished 12-9, leading the league in innings pitched and strikeouts.

In 1976 he was called up to the Astros in midseason. "To this day, one of my biggest thrills was dressing in the same locker room with Ken Boswell," he says. "Ken Boswell. Anybody who played on the '69 Mets was like a god to me, and here he was, a teammate."

This was the era of the Astros' so-called Arm Farm: Dan Larson, Bo McLaughlin, Mark Lemongello, Floyd Bannister and Sambito. Sambito was the least ballyhooed of the group. Houston Chronicle columnist George White recalls that Catcher Skip Jutze came up to him after Sambito had been shelled in his major league debut. Says White, "Jutze pointed out Sambito in the corner and asked me to go over and talk to him just to make him feel wanted. He said he didn't think the kid would be around very long." Sambito did pitch a four-hit shutout against the Cardinals that season, and he says, "As long as I have that, I don't care if I never start again."

He was made a relief pitcher the next spring. "It was sort of an accident," says Virdon. "We didn't have a lefty reliever, and he could get the ball over the plate, so we put him in the bullpen." In the meantime, Sambito had acquired an impressive fastball. Says Virdon, "He must have picked up a yard on it. Sometimes just being in the majors can do that to a guy." Sambito credits Virdon with encouraging him to rely more on his fastball, which is up around 90 mph.

Sambito had good seasons out of the bullpen in 1977 and 1978, striking out 96 in 88 innings the second year, but he didn't grow into his role as reliever supreme until 1979. He probably has Freed to thank for that. On May 1—well, let Sambito tell it. "If you wanted to write a baseball story with Roger Freed of the Cardinals as the hero, you'd have him come up in the 11th inning, three runs behind, two outs and a full count. Me, I was the pitcher. I wound up and I pitched and then I watched the ball sail two rows deep into the stands. I just doubled over on the mound. I couldn't believe it. That stuff doesn't happen."

Right after that, on May 3, Sambito embarked on an amazing scoreless streak of 40‚Öî innings that got him into the All-Star Game and lasted until July 21, when Sambito gave up a home run to Bill Robinson of the Pirates on the Game of the Week telecast. "After the homer, I was talking to myself, but it looked as if I was talking right into the camera. I said, 'Son of a bitch.' I still get letters about that."

Sambito finished the season with 22 saves, eight of which helped Joe Niekro, who won 21 games. The two Joes are best friends for that reason alone. In 1980, Sambito, Smith and LaCorte formed Bullpen Acres, a special section of the clubhouse, and LaCorte and Sambito have Italian flags hanging over their lockers.

Smith and LaCorte, like Sambito, were starters earlier in their careers. They make an excellent relief unit—Smith with his forkball, LaCorte with an overpowering fastball, Sambito with his left arm—and Virdon tends to go with the hot hand. Smith, Sambito and LaCorte finished fourth, sixth and seventh in retiring the first batter.

Sambito had 10 saves in the shortened season, and he was virtually unhittable in his 21 appearances at the Astrodome, allowing opposing batters an average of .170. Even after the season, he got a save, testifying for fellow Relief Pitcher Tom Hume of the Reds (No. 8 on the SI list) in his successful arbitration hearing; Hume's salary this season is $595,000, some $50,000 less than Sambito will earn in the second year of his five-year $3 million deal.

Sambito is forever doing favors for people, going to clinics, donating time to various charities. He is one of the more popular players in Houston, both for his good works and good play, not to mention his rugged good looks.

"He spends hours in front of the mirror," says Niekro, his constant foil.

"I spend five minutes," says Sambito. "You just wish you had hair."

"I've seen him come out of the shower, then go back in because he didn't like the way his hair looked," says Smith.

Shortly after the '81 season, Niekro hosted a roast for Sambito to benefit the Spina Bifida Association. "That's because we couldn't get Dave Smith," says Niekro. During the evening, the usual jokes were made about Sambito's ability and virility. At one point, Houston radio personality Barry Warner said, "I've always wanted to do this." He then poured a glass of water on Sambito's head. Sambito pulled out a hair dryer and started doing his hair. "It came out pretty good, too," he says. Joey Sambito is also adept at comic relief.

PHOTOThat hair! That smile! Sambito has star quality. PHOTOSambito was strong across the board, finishing in the top 10 in seven categories.