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If These Walls Could Talk : New York Yankees
Stories from the New York Yankees Dugout, Locker Room, and Press Box
By Jim Kaat, Greg Jennings
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2015 Jim Kaat and Greg Jennings
All rights reserved.
I've always considered myself fortunate to have had a major league career that spanned four different decades. I got to play for six different teams across both leagues and won 283 games during my 25 seasons. But even with all that mileage, I'll never forget my first victory. It came at Yankee Stadium. And I watched it happen ... from the stands.
It was April 27, 1960. I had been called up by the Washington Senators at the end of the previous season and made the team out of spring training. It was my second start of the year. (I had left my first start with a one-run lead over Boston in the eighth inning, but the Red Sox came back to win.) So here I was, all of 21 years old, still wet behind the ears, taking the mound at perhaps the most famous sporting venue in the world. And I was going up against legendary Yankees lefty Whitey Ford.
By this point in his career, Whitey had made five of his eventual 10 All-Star Game appearances and collected four of his six World Series rings. His Cy Young Award and World Series MVP performance were still a year away. And though he stood only 5'10", to my 6'4" frame, I couldn't help but feel I was taking on a giant.
Back then, pitchers warmed up at Yankee Stadium in the area adjacent to home plate. As a lefty, when I went into my "stretch" position, I would be looking straight into the Yankees dugout, where I could see Mantle, Berra, Howard, Skowron, all these famous players, and I couldn't help thinking, It's like looking at the greats from my bubble gum trading card collection — only this time they are staring back at me! It was rather intimidating, to say the least.
In seven innings I gave up four runs — three of them unearned. Moose Skowron got me for a solo homer in the bottom of the seventh. But in the top of the eighth, the Senators' Jim Lemon hit one out to give us a 5–4 lead. By then I was out of the game but still the pitcher of record. Back in those days, they didn't have us sit in the dugout and ice our arms after pitching. We were just sent off to the showers so we wouldn't stiffen up. I showered and got dressed, but I couldn't sit back there in the clubhouse not knowing what was going on out on the field. So I snuck out into the stands and watched the rest of the game with the fans (all 3,745 of them). Pedro Ramos pitched two innings of relief to get the save. But it was the skinny kid from Zeeland, Michigan, who got the W, his first in the big leagues. And my victory came in the House That Ruth Built.
While that spring day was more than 50 years ago now, I can still remember it like it was yesterday. Of course, baseball history goes back another 100 years past my entry into the box scores. One of the old, nostalgic terms you hear around the game is that of "the Battery." This refers to the pitcher and catcher, but no one knows for sure how it came into use. Some say it was a military reference adopted in the early days of the game. Others have suggested it had something to do with the telegraph and its sender and receiver. But no matter where it came from, one thing is for sure: the pitcher and catcher make a distinct team within a team on the diamond.
Pitchers are a different lot. That's not a bad thing, but if there is a different drummer out there, you can bet the guy marching behind him probably throws a mean curve. Pitchers have to be clever and fearless. Being a little bit crazy doesn't hurt either. The only reason I got to spend parts of two seasons in pinstripes was because of the actions of a pair of great Yankees hurlers. One applied his wits; the other used his fists.
Rich "Goose" Gossage was one of the best relievers in Yankees history. A Hall of Famer, he trails only current Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti and the great Mariano Rivera in saves. Goose even has a better ERA than both of them. At 6'3", 220 and with that biker's moustache, he was an intimidating sight on the mound. And he was as tough as they come. Almost two-thirds of his 310 career saves required Goose to pitch two or more innings. That's unheard of in today's game.
Of course, that tough, ornery edge could also get him in trouble when he wasn't on the mound. Before a game in April of 1979, Goose and backup catcher/designated hitter Cliff Johnson were joking around in the clubhouse. At some point the teasing got to be too much, and the two friends stopped throwing barbs and started throwing punches. Gossage got the worst of it, damaging the thumb on his pitching hand and landing him on the disabled list for months. (A case, though, could be made for Johnson getting the worst part. He would be traded to the Cleveland Indians around the time Goose was coming off the DL.) So now the two-time defending champion Yankees had a problem. They had traded Sparky Lyle away in the offseason, and now Gossage was down for a few months. They needed a closer, and good ones are rarely available early in the season. That's when Ron Guidry stepped up.
"Gator," as Guidry was called, was a phenomenal athlete. Just like Rivera, he probably could've played center field if you needed him to. Guidry was an example of a little guy who could throw hard, and everybody used to wonder how he could do it. It all came down to his upbringing. He did a lot of manual labor as a kid growing up in Louisiana, and that gave him big, strong upper back muscles. It allowed him to throw probably the best slider from a left-handed pitcher that I had seen since Steve Carlton. Guidry said he'd go to the bullpen while Goose healed. He was a much better starter, but this was what his team needed, so he did it. George Steinbrenner lauded Guidry's team-first attitude, saying he wished every Yankees player had the same approach, "First he's for the Yankees, second he's for Guidry." Now the Yankees were scouring around trying to find a lefty to eat up some innings while Gator was the closer. And while I was no Guidry or Gossage, I was a solid stopgap solution — a veteran left-handed pitcher in the bullpen. So if not for a bad punch and a good teammate, I might never have seen how I looked in pinstripes.
I played alongside some great Yankees pitchers during my short stint in the Bronx. But I saw some great ones from the booth as well — guys like Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, David Cone, Doc Gooden, Andy Pettitte, David Wells, Kenny Rogers, Kevin Brown, Mike Mussina, and Rivera. I got to witness no-hitters, perfect games, record-breaking performances and I know that a few of these guys are well on their way to being Hall of Famers. But pitchers are a funny lot. Anyone who's been hit by a baseball knows: to stand a mere 60 feet, six inches from someone trying to smash that leather sphere in your direction at a high rate of speed, you have to be cut from different cloth. Fans got to see and become familiar with the various pitching styles of the Yankees hurlers. But seeing them day in and day out over the course of a season or a career as I did, you get a good look at their personalities. And the Yankees definitely had some personalities.
I remember Randy Johnson's first game with the Yankees. The Big Unit was a huge offseason acquisition for the Yankees in 2005, coming over from the Arizona Diamondbacks for Javier Vazquez, Brad Halsey, Dioner Navarro, and some cash. Johnson was the Opening Day starter for the Yankees on April 3. He squared off against the former Yankees pitcher, Wells. The game didn't turn out to be the pitchers' duel most expected. Johnson went six innings, giving up one run on five hits with a half dozen strikeouts and a pair of walks. Wells only lasted four and third, surrendering four runs on 10 hits, and the Yankees cruised to a 9–2 victory.
After the game I was complimentary of Johnson's performance, saying he did well, even though he didn't throw as hard as we kind of expected he would. It was an observation that didn't raise a single eyebrow when I made it. Well, word of this compliment got back to Johnson, but he didn't take it the way it was intended. The next day Johnson cornered my announcing partner, Michael Kay, and said, "Who's your partner, and what is he talking about —'I didn't throw hard enough.' I don't get my good fastball until June!"
When I heard this, my first thought was, For $16 million a year, you better have your good fastball in April. But then I realized; Randy had no idea who I was. He didn't realize I had pitched for 25 years. So he thought this was someone talking about a subject they knew nothing about. I guess I would be upset by that, too. But that wasn't the case here.
It is something I have experienced several times as a former player turned broadcaster. You are a member of the media, but your expertise comes from experience, not from books or watching video. A lot of young players quite frankly don't even know you played or what kind of player you were. It's just the way it is today. I can't fathom that happening back in the day. When I saw pitchers like Ford or Warren Spahn or Robin Roberts — and not just the Hall of Famers but all the players — I knew immediately who they were and what they did. I followed the history of the game. Some players still do, but they are in the minority.
Johnson was in New York for two seasons, but I found him hard to connect with. He could often be aloof and rude. At times you didn't even want to approach and talk to him. Then there would be these other moments where he'd speak to you in a genial way and you'd find yourself thinking, Is this the same guy? Does he know he's talking to me or does he think I'm someone else? But those moments were few and far between. At the end of the 2006 season, he asked to be traded back to Arizona. His brother had recently passed away, and he wished to be closer to his family. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman complied, and thus ended my experience with the Big Unit.
Mussina was another interesting one. He played for the Yankees from 2001 through 2008. He was a five-time All-Star and won seven Gold Gloves on his way to 270 wins. He had all the tools of a great player and is probably as aloof and distant a pitcher on any team that I ever covered. "Moose" — as he was known — went to Stanford and was a very bright guy. But he kind of gave the impression that since he had gone to a prestigious school — that the rest of us were total dummies. Our careers overlapped six seasons in the Bronx, but Mussina never gave me the time of day. A polite "hello" once in a while, maybe. One time, I made him an offer. I recognized from my experience some of the issues he was going through as a pitcher. He had a stretch where he wasn't doing well, and I could relate to that. So I told him I'd be happy to sit down and talk with him about it, pitcher to pitcher. He looked at me like I had three heads. He could also be quite sarcastic. One day I was walking through the clubhouse when I heard Mike say, "Oh, the door must be open to the media." I turned and saw him staring right at me, inferring I was not a former player — just a member of the media.
But Johnson and Mussina were the exception with the Yankees, not the rule. Jack McDowell, I think, has changed a great deal now but was cantankerous and distant. But guys like Pettitte and Cone were just the opposite. They always showed me and other former players the respect you show someone who has been through the same trials. I used to take Pettitte, Rogers, and Jimmy Key — an all-lefty foursome — out golfing when we were out on the road. Mike Stanton was great, very professional. So was John Wetteland. So many pitchers during my time with the Yankees were very approachable and easy to talk to, even on the day they were pitching.
That wasn't the case with Clemens.
After 13 years with the hated Red Sox and a pair of buffer years in Toronto, the Rocket came to New York in 1999. He was a major talent in a major market, and when he was pitching, it was a story. But if you tried to talk to him on those days, well, he'd want to bite your head off. In case you slept through the mid-to-late-2000s, Roger was one of several players accused of using anabolic steroids in the 400-plus pages of the Mitchell Report back in December of '07. Clemens denied those allegations under oath before Congress. That denial led to felony perjury charges. And, after almost two years and an intervening mistrial, Roger was cleared of the perjury charges. That's what the lawyers will tell you about the Rocket. Those of us who followed the Yankees and Roger say something else. It was pretty obvious that there was some sort of "rage" going on with Roger that fueled his combative personality. Once Major League Baseball began testing for steroids in 2003, Roger became a leaner, more fit individual. And he became more pleasant to be around and talk to. Coincidence? Perhaps. All I know is that at the time of this writing, Roger and his 354 wins are on the outside of Cooperstown looking in.
Someone who won't have to wait long to get into the Hall of Fame is Rivera. Mariano arrived in the Bronx in 1995, the same year I started calling games for MSG Network. He came up as a starting pitcher, but he would go on to become the most dominating closer of all time, a 13-time All-Star, and a five-time World Series champion. His 652 career saves are the best in baseball. His remarkable postseason ERA of 0.70 is also the lowest ever. No wonder they called him "Sandman." When he came in, it was like saying good night to the other team.
With such an accomplished resume you might think Rivera would be hard to approach. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was always easy to talk to and a pleasure to be around. I never asked players for autographs for personal gain, but there were a lot of charities that had asked me if I could help them out with some signed items to raise money. I knew I could approach Mariano and say, "Could you sign a baseball to put up for auction for this charity?" And he'd never have a problem with it. Neither would Derek Jeter, Cone, Pettitte, Paul O'Neill, or Bernie Williams. But I never thought of going to Johnson or Mussina.
Cone was another great one. Coney is still one of the only pitchers in that era I can think of who wasn't a robot. He didn't have a cookie cutter delivery, wasn't just a mechanical thinker or pitcher. He was creative and unconventional, a great example of pitching as art instead of a science.
I will never forget Cone's valiant effort in Game 5 of the American League Division Series in Seattle back in 1995. The Yankees led 4–2 in the bottom of the eighth inning when Ken Griffey Jr. homered off of Coney to make it 4–3. You could see right then Cone was really out of gas, but he pitched on. Two walks and a single would load the bases with two out. If they knew how good Mariano would become, then he would have been brought in to start the inning. But this was Mariano's rookie year when he was used mostly as a starter. They wouldn't start converting him to a closer until two seasons later. Buck Showalter and the Yankees brass had lost confidence in Wetteland, so the bullpen was in a state of confusion at this point. Cone fell victim to that. He had done his job, had thrown well over 100 pitches by this point. He didn't deserve to be left out there in that situation. But as a young manager, Showalter's hands were tied because of George's influence on how he was supposed to manage the bullpen. If the same situation happened today, Coney would probably have won that game.
Instead, after a long season and seven and two-thirds stressful innings, Coney is out there trying to get Doug Strange out, pitch after pitch. Finally, on pitch No. 147, a split-fingered fastball misses, and Strange gets the bases-loaded walk to tie the game. That's when Buck brings Rivera in, and he gets a strikeout to end the inning. The game would go to extra innings and was eventually won by Edgar Martinez with his double down the left-field line in the bottom of the 11. The real hero of the game was the winning pitcher for Seattle — Randy Johnson. As Cone says in his 2001 book, A Pitcher's Story, Johnson came in on one day's rest, risking damage to his career in a contract year, and pitched his heart out for his team. Cone writes, "I can't say enough good things about the man who can perform like that when the price is so high."
Excerpted from If These Walls Could Talk : New York Yankees by Jim Kaat, Greg Jennings. Copyright © 2015 Jim Kaat and Greg Jennings. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword by David Cone,
1. The Battery,
2. The Corners,
3. Up the Middle,
4. The Outfield,
5. The House(s) That Ruth Built,
6. Getting There,
7. In the Booth,
8. Company Men,
9. A Season for the City,