He can run, but he can't slide. That was the rap on Herb Washington, the sprinter turned pinch runner who Hashed into baseball in 1974 and flashed out in '75. So where does a fellow run when he's chased out of the game? The man who was billed as the fastest player in baseball owns a chain of fast-food joints in Rochester, N.Y. "I had read about an entrepreneur who owned some McDonald's franchises," says Washington, who now owns five himself. "When I visited Rochester in 1980, I thought, It looks like there are a lot of burger eaters here."
Washington, who's 41, knows all about the entrepreneurial spirit. Former Oakland A's owner Charlie Finley made him the first—and last—designated runner in baseball. "I didn't have a lot of tools," Washington concedes. In fact, he had just one.
Raw speed is what piqued Finley's interest in Washington, who had set world records in the 50- and 60-yard dashes at Michigan State in the early '70s. Washington was working in Lansing as a TV sports reporter in late January 1974 when Finley called.
Though he hadn't played organized baseball since junior high, Washington finagled a hefty no-cut contract from the A's. Maury Wills, the ex-base-stealing champ, was hired to tutor him. As green as Washington was, though, he was no fool. Once, Milwaukee Brewer first baseman George Scott asked him to move off the bag. "I've got to clean it," Scott explained. Washington nodded and, eyeing the ball in Scott's glove, yelled, "Timeout!"
When Oakland got off to a slow start in '74, Washington got the blame. In May, after he was unsuccessful in four of his first five steal attempts, a team meeting was called. Some players groused about Washington. Finally pitcher Catfish Hunter cleared the air: "There's been a lot of talk about Herbie, but he don't hit and he don't pitch. So it ain't him."
By the All-Star break Oakland was in first and Washington was in gear. He ran the opposition crazy, stealing 17 bases in 21 attempts during one stretch. Finley was delighted with Washington. "He's going to rise and shine in the '74 World Series," the owner predicted. But in the ninth inning of Game 2, Washington, representing the tying run, was picked off first by Los Angeles Dodger reliever Mike Marshall. The A's won the Series, but Washington would not steal another base that fall. He stole only two more bases, in 13 games, before he was released in 1975.
But Washington's baseball immortality had already been secured. In late September '74, soon after the A's clinched the pennant, Oakland manager Alvin Dark asked him if he wanted to pinch-hit against Nolan Ryan. "Something suddenly dawned on me," Washington recalls. "I'd never been up to the plate, yet I'd stolen 29 bases, scored 29 runs and appeared in 92 games. If I were to get an at bat, I'd be just like every other major leaguer. So I turned Alvin down. If I hadn't, I'd have lost my significance."