The Relief Is Not So Sweet

April 15, 1990

As a youngster, David Righetti spent many an evening at the kitchen table at home in San Jose, listening to his father, Leo, tell stories about the glorious days of the New York Yankees. Rare was the night when the boy would be the only member of the audience. "It was like our house had a revolving door," he says. "Lots of times my friends were there. Or Dad's softball buddies stopped in. When Dad would start talking about the old-timers, my mother and I would just roll our eyes: Here we go again."

In truth, young David could never get enough of the Yankees. Hungry for more, he would dig through the closet for his father's scrapbooks and pore over the tattered, yellowed newspaper clippings. There was much to be found in these archives: Yankee tradition runs deep in the Righetti family. David's paternal grandmother, Stella, now 92, grew up in San Francisco as a schoolmate and next-door neighbor of Tony Lazzeri, the great Yankee second baseman of the late 1920s and '30s. Leo, now 63, was one of the first of the Yankees' bonus babies. A righthanded pitcher and shortstop, he signed a $10,000 contract in 1944 at the age of 17. and dreamed of becoming the next Bay Area Italian to play in Yankee Stadium.

"Crosetti, DiMaggio and Silvera were my heroes," says Leo. "They were all from the Bay Area. Because my mother's friend Lazzeri played for the Yankees, I was going to, too. The Yankees were everything."

The dream was inherited by his son, and it has been fulfilled. Now 31, and entering his 10th season with the Yankees, Dave Righetti ranks among the most productive relief pitchers in the game. Since 1984, he has had six consecutive seasons with 25 or more saves. Over that time span only Jeff Reardon, now with Boston, has recorded more saves (203 to Righetti's 187), and only Craig Lefferts, now with San Diego, has pitched more innings in relief (594.2 to Righetti's 561).

In his first full season with the Yankees, 1981, the 22-year-old Righetti was a starter, hailed as a hard-throwing phenom with a rising fastball. He backed up the billing and was named the American League Rookie of the Year. Two summers later, in 1983, on a humid, 95° Fourth of July afternoon, Righetti threw the first no-hitter in Yankee Stadium since Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series and thereby endeared himself to owner George Steinbrenner,who was celebrating his 53rd birthday that day.

Before the next season the Yankees lost ace reliever Rich (Goose) Gossage to free agency, and Righetti was assigned to fill the void in the bullpen. For Righetti, the switch was a troubling prospect. Says his attorney and confidant Bill Goodstein, "David didn't want to become a reliever. He was worried he would fail and be out of baseball. He could probably have been a 20-game winner for five or six years and made twice as much money."

Instead, Righetti took the new job without complaint, and in 1986 he recorded 46 saves—still the major league record. But since he moved to the bullpen, and despite his success, not a season has passed without rampant speculation over Righetti's proper role—i.e., whether he should go back to being a starter. The Righetti dilemma, though, was only one element of the larger chaos in the Yankee clubhouse during the '80s. Through it, Righetti has endured like some pinstriped Rock of Gibraltar. He has quietly witnessed a parade of nine general managers, eight managers, nine pitching coaches, 83 pitchers and 17 catchers. In all, he has seen more than 210 different teammates, more turnover than any team in baseball over the past decade.

"People always ask me how I can keep so quiet," Righetti says. "Well, sooner or later, you cause yourself more problems by talking." On a team noted for boorish behavior, Righetti is the polite Yankee. He personally answers each and every piece of fan mail he gets, refuses to be paid for signing autographs at memorabilia shows and has rejected national endorsements for fear of appearing money-hungry to fans. Says Goodstein, "We've been offered everything from soft drinks to electronics. He won't do it." Whenever Steinbrenner has rewarded him with gifts to commemorate milestone seasons, Righetti has responded with thank-you notes (undoubtedly a rare item in the Boss's mailbox). Righetti was one of the few Yankees, past or present, who sent flowers to Billy Martin's funeral last December. The card read WE WILL MISS YOU.

"Righetti is an alltime, alltime Yankee great," says an appreciative Steinbrenner. "Not too many carry that tag. Few players have ever been more loyal to the Yankees. Give me a man with a great sense of loyalty, because he'll do anything to win."

It is probably true that Righetti's unyielding will to win has as much to do with his success as a reliever as does his rising fastball. Unfortunately, Righetti truly feels that the Yankees' fate rides on his success or failure; it's a weighty burden that has sent him into tantrums behind clubhouse doors, belying his stoic image. After tough losses, he has been known to flush his cleats down the toilet or destroy plastic garbage cans. After giving up a game-tying grand slam to Toronto's George Bell in 1986, a frustrated Righetti took a new ball from the umpire and hurled it more than 300 feet over the rightfield fence at Exhibition Stadium.

"People tell me I care too much," Righetti says. "How can you care too much? They say I shouldn't show my feelings after a tough loss. How can you look in somebody's eyes and pretend that it didn't matter? You keep it in and keep it in. The more it builds up, the harder it gets. I always make sure to get it out of my system before I speak to the press, so I never make an ass of myself."

How can you care too much? Righetti's father might know the answer to that. As a young minor leaguer in the Yankee system in the early '40s, Leo Righetti, known as Pinky, was brash, talented and crazy about baseball. He was hellbent to succeed and berated himself loudly and angrily when he made a mistake on the field. "I was mad all the time because I wanted to do well," he says. "I broke water coolers, and I absolutely hated umpires."

In 1946. his third pro season, Leo slipped and fell on a soda bottle outside a ballpark in Binghamton, N.Y., and slashed off the tip of his right index finger, ending his career as a pitcher. A superb fielder, but a .250 hitter, he languished in the Yankee system for four years. In 1950, riding the bench in Double A ball in Beaumont, Texas, he suddenly quit. The organization suspended him; his Yankee career was over.

In 1952, Leo signed with the Boston Braves; an hour before the game on Opening Day, he was informed by general manager Charles Quinn that he was being shipped down to Triple A. He angrily kicked a chair at Quinn, quit again and went home. For six more years he bounced around the Pacific Coast League, but by 1958, he had had enough. He went to work hauling barrels of meat scraps at the San Jose Tallow Company, which was owned by his father, Marco, an Italian immigrant.

Leo took his passion for baseball and aimed it at his two sons—Steve is 13 months older than Dave—putting them through drills in the backyard of the family's small stucco home in San Jose. Leo demanded concentration and had little patience with anything less than a serious attitude toward the game. At five, Dave had a hard time catching the ball; he was often reduced to tears by his father's sharp tongue.

"He couldn't catch worth a damn, not even if I lobbed it to him." Leo recalls. "He'd storm in the house, crying. Then he'd practice and practice. One day he got mad and hit a line drive right into my eye. Pow! Both the boys were dying laughing. They'd finally nailed me."

The two boys starred in Little League, but Leo—because of his tendency to rail at umpires—watched the games from the family station wagon, parked across the street from the field. When the boys were in their early teens, Steve developed into a highly touted shortstop; Dave, an outfielder, barely made their Senior League team. But in his junior year at Pioneer High, Dave was spotted in leftfield one day by Paddy Cottrell, a scout for the Texas Rangers. Cottrell was struck by Righetti's throwing motion and suggested he become a pitcher.

Dave developed slowly at San Jose City College, but Cottrell was convinced he had talent and badgered the Rangers into picking him in the first round of the January 1977 draft. Unfortunately, Cottrell didn't have many encouraging words for Steve—still an infielder—who the Rangers nevertheless drafted in the sixth round. The club offered Dave a contract, and Cottrell told him, "If you don't sign this contract, I'm not going to sign your brother. The only way he's going to get a shot is with a package deal."

Dave was crushed and confused. "He was my older brother," he says. "For all those years, he was the one who was supposed to make it." He took the Rangers' offer, and while Steve endured three miserable, injury-plagued seasons in the minors, Dave developed into an overpowering pitcher. In a game at AA Tulsa in July 1978, he struck out a league-record 21 batters on the Midland team. In the stands that day was Jerry Walker, a Yankee scout.

Four months later, in a Manhattan restaurant. Steinbrenner sat across a table from Rangers owner Brad Corbett; they were working up an elaborate multiplayer trade. "I had Righetti's name in my pocket on a little slip of paper," Steinbrenner recalls, with no small delight. "We were talking there at the end, when all of a sudden, I said, 'Brad, I've gotta have somebody else. I'm short on my side of the deal.'

"Brad said, 'Who do you want?' I said, 'Some kid who's a long way off.' Brad said, 'Gimme some names.' So, I said halfheartedly, 'I don't about this kid Dave Righetti?' "

Last November, after a season in which Righetti finished with career lows in games (55) and innings (69), Steinbrenner suggested that his reliever might become, yes, a starter again. The Boss went so far as to order Righetti to refine his curve and changeup in the Florida Instructional League for two weeks. But when Steinbrenner failed to land a big-name free-agent reliever, Righetti landed back in the pen.

"He is going to be the closer," Steinbrenner proclaims. "He will be brought in in the ninth inning. Period. I'm the only one who knows how to use him. I've told my manager and coaches, 'If you reach for him too early, you'll be reaching for the next train home.' "

The seesawing over his status, says Righetti, has created the impression that he has been inadequate as a reliever, and made him one of the most scrutinized athletes in New York City. And perhaps the most mistreated. At times he has been pelted with everything from bottles to grapefruits as he trots to the mound from the bullpen. He is cursed to his face in the Yankee Stadium parking lot.

"I've been booed so bad," he says, "I walk from the mound with my head down, then fight to get through the parking lot. I watch the fans cheer guys who don't hustle. They cheer guys who rip the organization. I guess you have to be rotten to have the fans like you. Keith Hernandez is involved in the Pittsburgh drug trial, and he gets a standing ovation at Shea Stadium. I give up a run, and I get booed like crazy. You figure it out.

"I wish Yankee fans appreciated me as a reliever. They've never accepted me because the team has never stuck behind me as a reliever. And because I've never complained, they think I don't stand up for myself. They think I'm a patsy."

As if to prove he's not, he lets loose with what for him is a virtual torrent of opinion. "I'm not sure anymore what it means to be a Yankee. Loyalty has been a problem on this team. All over the stadium things have changed, from the ushers to the grounds crew to the clubhouse men. The whole atmosphere has changed. These days, when people talk about the Yankees, it's always negative. We're laughed at. When you look weak, other teams treat you that way. As a Yankee fan, it hurt a lot last year to see the shape the team was in."

Because he is a Yankee fan, Righetti's distress is composed more of disappointment than of anger. And despite his achievements in pinstripes, his career as a Yankee has always been underscored by a kind of personal guilt: He made it to the big leagues, and his father and his brother didn't. While he has played baseball in the summer sun, they have put in grueling, 12-hour days at the tallow plant. In 1983, the same year that Dave threw his no-hitter, Steve was almost killed at the plant. A truck slipped out of gear, rolled down a ramp and pinned him against a concrete wall.

A few years ago, in San Jose, where Dave now lives with his wife, Kandice, his guilt-ridden emotions finally erupted. After the brothers had consumed several beers, they began screaming at each other in a restaurant parking lot, arguing so vehemently that police had to calm them down.

"He started to get into it about my working at the company," Steve recalls, "that I shouldn't be so negative about it. And I remember asking him where he got off telling me about work. Baseball isn't work. How'd he like to be punched in the stomach every day? I reminded him that I had been a baseball player—not a pitcher—and that that had made all the difference."

After 15 minutes of bitter confrontation in the parking lot, Dave broke down in tears. Says Steve, "He told me he was sorry he made it and I didn't. I'd never known how he felt. He hugged me and kissed me, and he told me he loved me. But I was still mad at him. I walked home."

"Steve was so unhappy about not playing baseball," says Dave, "that it made it tough on me. He had trouble finding his niche when his career was over. But I needed his approval because he was my brother."

Dave has never broached with his father the subject of Leo's disappointment, but he can sense the emptiness. "My father lives it through me," he says. "He has never said that, but I. can tell by looking in his eyes. I never want to disappoint him. When I saw the movie Field of Dreams, I cried. The guy talks about playing catch with his father and his father not making it. There has always been that emptiness for me. Why was I blessed with this arm? Why did I develop? If only I could give him one game in Yankee Stadium."

PHOTOCRAIG MOLENHOUSESmiles come freely when the game is golf, but baseball has been a rough ride for Leo and Dave. PHOTOFOCUS ON SPORTSDespite a no-hitter in '83, Righetti was switched to the bullpen the next year. PHOTOCRAIG MOLENHOUSEAs a Little Leaguer, Steve (right) was the better of the brothers; Dave's ascent has been hard on both.

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