John (The Count) Montefusco's second rookie season hasn't been quite like his first. It's one thing to win 15 games, fan 215 batters, pitch four shutouts and earn the National League Rookie of the Year award. It's quite another to sit behind a willful half-ton animal clipping along at 30 miles per hour and coax it across the finish line. Indeed, the Count will be the first to tell you that harness racing isn't much like baseball at all. "Actually, it is kind of like having a line drive hit back at your face," he says. "You have no time to think, you just have to react."
At 41, 17 years removed from his fabulous first season with the San Francisco Giants—and six years beyond his last, pain-addled tour with the New York Yankees—the colorful Count is talking up a new sport. "Harness racing is a thrill," he says. "I absolutely love it. The horse does all the physical work, and all I have to do is steer and make the right moves."
After only five months as a professional driver, Montefusco believes he has made considerable improvement. But the man who early in his baseball career was known for his Ali-style predictions—among other things, he correctly predicted that Johnny Bench would be his 200th career strikeout victim (Bench obliged by signing the ball that blew by him)—is practically demure on the subject of future harness triumphs.
"I have a lot to learn," he says. "These guys like Herve Filion and Jackie Moiseyev have been driving since they were kids. I can't really predict what I'm going to do because I need the horse. But you can never tell. I may start popping off yet."
His first win came on Oct. 20 at Monticello (N.Y.) Raceway, with a pacer named Angel Beside Me. "There was one on each shoulder, too," he says. "I've got to tell you, that victory was sweet. I had been way down, thinking I shouldn't be in this game, and suddenly, I had won a race."
Not to mention a check for $27.
"It's definitely not the money," he says. "It's the competition. I absolutely thrive on competition. I want to beat you at anything, I don't care what it is. Harness racing has really brought my life back to me."
His life changed dramatically in 1986 when avascular necrosis, a degenerative bone disease that was crippling his left hip, forced him to quit his relief job with the Yankees. Retirement sent him back home to Colts Neck, N.J., where he drove his wife, Dory, and daughters Gina, 11, and Ali, 8, crazy. "I was sitting around doing nothing, waiting for my life to end," he says. "I mean, there was nothing I could compete in anymore."
Almost nothing. After two years of terrorizing his family with his unbridled competitive spirit—"he has to win at cards, at checkers, even at Jeopardy! on TV"—says Dory—the Count once again fell under the sway of an old passion, horses.
As a teenager in Keansburg, N.J., he spent summer mornings hot-walking thoroughbreds at nearby Monmouth Park, earning a dollar for each horse he walked. He would take his earnings and bet them on the track's afternoon races. Later, during his off-seasons in San Francisco, he worked as a publicity assistant at Bay Meadows racetrack in San Mateo. During the 1975 harness meet there, he discovered a new competitive thrill by beating fellow Giants Ed Halicki and Randy Moffitt in a celebrity harness race.
After two years of forced retirement, Montefusco felt that a few minutes in the sulky now and then wouldn't bother his ailing hip much and might be great therapy for the rest of him. In late 1987 he took a written test to get his qualifying harness license. Two months later, he was two races away from getting his provisional license (which would allow him to compete at certain tracks) when he tore his rotator cuff in a friendly basketball game of one-on-one. He finally earned his "P" license in October, and he is already competing at big tracks like Freehold, in central New Jersey, where he scored his second win on Jan. 3.
What's the expert's prediction on the Count's new career? The world's best driver thinks Montefusco could be a success in the sulky. "Why not?" asks Filion, the man with more harness-race wins—13,300-plus—than anybody else. "He's a good athlete, he's good with horses, he's very competitive and he loves what he does. That's why he'll succeed. All he really needs is a good horse between the shafts."
"Once I start winning some races and people see that this kid—well, I'm not a kid, I'm 41 years old—this guy can drive a little bit, I'll start getting some decent horses," he says. "And then we'll really have some fun out there."