What ‘s your most memorable scene from a gangster film?
“You’re about to be traded to the St. Louis Cardinals,” she said with a smile that wasn’t sure of itself. As I drove her to dinner outside San Francisco, I kept stealing glances of the perfectly winged flip of her jet black hair that would make Jacklyn Smith fire her stylist in a jealous rage. She’s telling me my Giants career is over, the only team I’d ever known and loved. “Rihannon” plays faintly through the crackle of an AM radio station. “I’m guessing something will be announced soon,“ Susan said softly, caressing my back, almost consoling, “I just thought you should know.”
She should know. She was Chub Feeney’s secretary, the president of National League.
* * * * *
By the autumn of 1976, the San Francisco Giants had given up on me and were in the midst of dismantling the ballclub. There was a lot of disarray in the organization for one reason or another, most especially with longtime owner Horace Stoneham selling the team. Bill Rigney was our manager, one of a good handful of old-school skippers in 1976 working through their final season having trouble relating to what was then the modern player. I was coming off surgery and had a tough year. In June, I reeled off three straight wins. Then Rigney began messing with my spot in the rotation. One night in September, Rigney had drinks with famed San Fran sportswriter Bucky Walter. Walter asked Rigney about certain players. Rigney proceeded to rip them in detail, one by one. Then it was my turn. “John D’Acquisto ,” Rigney said, “Ball one, Ball Two, Ball three, Ball Four. Ball Five. Ball Six – that’s John D’Acquisto.” I went straight to his office after reading this in The Examiner the next morning. “Why would you say that,” I asked, furious. “If you’re saying this stuff about me in the papers-“
“You,” Rigney fired back, eyes wide and angry, pointing his finger at me, “You need to be shaken up-“
“You need to be forced into doing better-“
“Bill, if you’re still here next year, I better not be, ‘cause this is bullshit. I want to be traded.” I didn’t have any consistent type of bullpen work. Spot starting, randomly throwing me in relief. I was going through a divorce, it was a horrendous season. Didn’t help that I didn’t get along with Rigney. I tried to make it work, but the relationship simply wasn’t there. Maybe my affection for Charlie Fox, my first manager, the man who guided me through the system with a paternal touch, raised my expectations that every interaction with a manager would be the same. Not so. It was pretty clear Rigney wasn’t coming back for ’77, but I didn’t want to take that chance.
There was a bright spot to my final months in San Francisco. I went to this fan appreciation party, a get together between both teams, held in the private dining club of Candlestick Park, hors d’oeuvres, open bar, socializing between sponsors, certain season-ticket holders and league VIPs. Suit and tie kind of gig. One of our car advertisers was pitching me something and I nodded along because that’s what you do at these things when she caught my eye. A lovely young woman, petite, movie-star blue eyes. Always well-dressed, well-spoken. Ready for a business meeting or an upscale function at The Fairmont. Simply a classic San Francisco brunette. I walked over and we hit it off instantly. Easy talking between us, where I do hang out, where does she hang out, that sort of thing. Soon enough we’re heading down the elevator to take this to another bar and continue our conversation. As we’re leaving the stadium, the doors open to Bob Lurie, the new owner of the Giants; Bill Rigney, my favorite manager and Chub Feeney.
The National League offices were located in San Francisco at the time. Fraternizing between the players and League employees even in the most innocent of situations was frowned upon with extreme prejudice. Chub was a great boss, Susan said, a wonderful man who looked after her like his own daughter. Off the field, players were dogs in Chub‘s eyes, and rightly so, I suppose. This was a problem, a problem all parties decided not to deal with in this moment and we left the party. If anything, with the issues between Rigney and me, this certainly wasn’t helping matters.
Susan and I enjoyed a nice relationship over those next two months, nice dinners at places like The Velvet Turtle in Redwood City, romantic weekend drives on the 101 to Big Sur and Carmel. We were out one night in October where she tells me, “St. Louis really wants you. This trade is going to happen.” The topic monopolized our time together. Later at a bar nearby, we talked deeply about what the chatter she heard meant for us as a couple. The gossip coming from the league office is not like a Peter Gammons baseball notes article; the chatter was always true. My days were numbered. At the same time, ownership was telling my agent I would receive a multi-year deal. So, my head was spinning a bit. That night, Susan would be talking, I would be listening, but really looking beyond her, beginning my mourning process, taking mental snapshots, realizing I wouldn’t be having too many nights like this left in the Bay Area. Baseball was above us on the TV that night, in the corner of the bar, the Reds finishing off Philadelphia on their way to the ’76 World Series. Baseball was always in the air with us, always hovering over our relationship. Ironic that it was Baseball that brought us together and would inevitably break us up. I really liked her, but with the chatter about the trade, this wasn’t a good idea. Working in Major League Baseball, though, she knew the drill.
About a week later, I came home from horseback riding in the Half Moon Bay area with my roommate Jim Colton, who worked for KABC San Francisco in Public Relations. My apartment in San Mateo was pretty sparse; smallish TV, barely a kitchen. We were just chilling out when the doorbell rang. I found Jerry Donavan, one of the front office guys from the Giants, standing there with a package. There was no phone in our apartment – the only way the club could deliver news to me in the offseason was either by mail or knocking on my door and hoping I was home.
“You’ve been traded.” One hellvua hello, you might say. I had to act surprised because I didn’t want to get Susan in trouble, as if I was tipped off to the whispers.
“We traded you, Mike Caldwell and Dave Rader,” Jerry said, walking only a few steps inside my place, “You’re all going to St. Louis.” I was very friendly with Caldwell, Rader, too, but again, we didn’t have a phone in the apartment, so there were no comparing notes on what we were told by the team. Donavan said, “St. Louis is honoring your contract, so the deal you and Jerry (Kapstein, my agent at the time) agreed upon remains in place. Be honest, I wanted them to keep you, but management told me you wanted out.” I said, “I only wanted to go if Rigney was still around.” “Too late now,” he shrugged, patting me on the back as he left the apartment. That was my goodbye from the Giants organization.
Before heading home to San Diego for Thanksgiving, I saw Susan one more time. We talked about how to possibly to make this happen, but in the end, the National League offices were moving to New York City. With me in St. Louis, it simply wouldn’t work. “I’ll see you when I see you,” meant something else, something I didn’t want to say. I left her place and drove up the coast to collect my thoughts. I wanted to see Rocky Point one more time. I was really going to miss Northern California, but San Francisco, that's really special to me, a city which remains to this day the great love of my life as far as places go. It was time for me to leave home and leave loved ones behind. Most of all, I was happy to leave the gossip and the chatter behind.
A couple hours later, I entered my apartment and Jim’s there with one of his friends who lived down the block.
“What’s up, Johnny,” Keith Hernandez said, sitting on the couch with a smoke hanging from his fingers, “What are we doing tonight?”
* * * * *
So we’re at The Playboy Club in San Francisco two hours later. It was the hotspot of the time; all the players from out of town would check it out when visiting the Giants. It’s me, Keith, Count Montefusco and Jim. This was just what the doctor ordered. I had hung out before with Keith; he grew up with my roommate in the Bay Area. Different circumstances now, though. This was my teammate now.
“We should work out together,” Keith said through thick cigarette smoke, gorgeous bunnies passing our table on the left and right. I had no objections – I thought this would be a perfect way to prepare for the spring. I did have a ton of questions about St. Louis.
“Where should I get a place,” I asked him, “Where do we hang out to meet girls?”
“Pheasant Run is the place to be,” Keith assured me in between beer sips, “Near U of M. A lot of stewardesses there. College girls, too.“ We might have been veterans, per se, but man, we started in the league at 21. We were still kids. Kind of. This information was important. It’s not like anyone from the organization reached out to me. It was three weeks already and no one from the ballclub sent me anything outside of salary and insurance-related matters. The traveling secretary called my parents asking where to send the plane tickets for St. Petersburg. That was it. Not my manager. Not Bing Devine, the general manager. Not my pitching coach, Claude Osteen. No one. This isn’t to say I wasn’t grateful for the raise they gave me. Yet, with my injury resume, you would think someone would check in and see how I was preparing during the offseason. Didn’t happen.
Over the next two months, Keith and I would meet up a few times a week. We would soft toss, I would throw him live BP for 30 minutes. We had a catcher join us and simulate games. Keith would point out when I was tipping my pitches. We’d work on the pickoff move. Keith would go into the tells of every speedster in the league, from the established stars to the emerging players. “Omar Moreno, the kid from Pittsburgh, when he leans to the right, that means he’s going. He’s planting. When he does that, we’re gonna nail him.” Keith always had the answer. One of the smartest minds in the game, even at 25, great baseball instincts. Knew how to have a good time, too. We were all young, single, typical ballplayers doing well, going out, busting each other’s balls.
* * * * *
I spent the holidays mainly in San Diego with my parents, sister and brother. It was good to have that time with them before entering the unknown of the Cardinals organization. I told Keith I would pick him up at the airport in San Fran and then we would go to St. Petersburg together. As I flew out of San Diego, the whole playing time situation dawned on me. Where do I fit in here? How am I going to make this work – I only know four guys on the team (Rader, Caldwell, Falcone, Keith.) Will I start or sit in the bullpen? They brought in Larry Dierker from the Astros, he was practically an ace. There’s John Denny, Bob Forsch, Caldwell – am I going to be the fifth starter? Falcone had a decent year, that’s six starters. Haven’t even mentioned Eric Rasmussen, another one. Seven established starting pitchers in camp. I know I’m gonna make the team, they’re paying me too much guaranteed money not to, I thought, but where will they fit me?
I grabbed a few more things at the apartment in San Mateo then picked up Keith out front of the Eastern Airlines section of San Francisco International on our way for the flight to Tampa-St. Pete.
The two of us waited at the airport bar with our carry-on bags. The flight wasn’t for a couple hours. We filled the time with roster chatter and my questions about the ballclub.
“Just have fun,” Keith said, his voice muffled from lighting a smoke, “Great spring training facility. One of the best organizations, they really take care of their players. If you pitch well, you’re gonna be fine.” Sounded good enough to me.
“What about Vern Rapp,” I asked, “I don’t even know who this guy is.” Vern Rapp was the new manager of the Cardinals, replacing Red Schoendienst , another legendary skipper in the game who at this point had the misfortune of being featured on more black and white footage than color.
Keith paused a moment, considered the question.
“Well, neither do I, “Keith finally said, downing what was left of his drink, then chuckled to himself, “But we sure as hell gonna find out, aren’t we?”
Keith was as uncertain of Rapp as I was, and Keith was certain about everything, always knew the score. He knew the organization backward and forward. For him to not be 100% on Rapp made me more than a little nervous.
Our flight to Tampa-St. Pete was announced overhead. Time to board.
This was it. Goodbye, Rocky Point. Goodbye, Velvet Turtle. Goodbye, San Mateo.
Keith put out what was left of his cigarette in the ashtray, tapped me on the shoulder and beckoned to the gate with a confident grin. “You ready,” he asked, checking in one last time. I grabbed my bag, the chorus to “Go Your Own Way” swelling in my head as Keith and I left the airport bar, toward the plane and onto the next adventure.
* * * * *
We touched down in Tampa; saw the palm trees, the ocean. Driving across the Gandy Bridge heading into St. Petersburg, it would be a whole new Spring Training experience for me. Up to this point, I always spent March in Arizona. All the West Coast teams except the Dodgers were based out there, as well as many American League clubs. The weather was more humid in Florida versus the dry Western climate. Different cuisine, too. Arizona was all steak and potatoes; Florida was seafood. The Florida facilities blew the Arizona fields away. There was simply no comparison.
Keith was right again. Everything related to the St. Louis Cardinals organization was top-shelf all the way. Everything. The team put us up at the St. Petersburg Hilton, back when The Hilton was The Hilton. We wanted for absolutely nothing. Al Lang Field was a fantastic complex. Gussie Busch treated all of us as if we were his own children. Every player had their own hotel room on the road. Every other place I had been and would end up made the players bunk together. Double meal money for the stars and established veterans. Then we entered the clubhouse for the first workouts. Three uniforms in your locker – home whites and away grays. On other clubs, if something was ripped and you ran through your allotment, you got a bill. Not in St. Louie – everything was provided at no cost. The organization only asked the players to tip the clubhouse guys, which was my pleasure.
I put on the St. Louis whites. You know there are some teams where people say it’s special to wear their colors. St. Louis was kind of like that. One of the classiest uniforms in the game. Everything was perfect. Then Vern Rapp entered the clubhouse. He treated us like his children as well. Only he was the teacher. Kindergarten teacher.
“Everyone, get in here,” Rapp said, waving the few early reporters out of the room. Closed, clubhouse meeting – day one. “This ballclub lost 90 games last year. There are gonna be some changes. Lots of changes. I want to be clear that certain things will not be tolerated.” I looked at Keith, who shrugged with his eyes – we both knew we were in store for something like this. I remember how funny I thought this was. Keith rubbed his moustache almost the moment Rapp went into the next of his demands. “The beards, the facial hair, that’s gotta go.” Rapp looked right over Al Hrabosky’s way. The Mad Hungarian was instantly pissed. The beard was one of the props in his act on the mound, as much as a part of his repertoire on the field as his blazing fastball and one of the best forkballs in the game. The Mad Hungo simply shook his head. “Nope.” Rapp stopped and turned to Al. “Excuse me?”
“I’m not doin’ it. That’s me. It’s part of-“Rapp was taking none of this.
“You are doing it. There’s nothing else to say. I want it gone.” Al started walking toward Rapp. They got into a face-to-face, had to be broken up. We knew right then and there, this guy had no real future running the ballclub. Rapp, a little unnerved by Hrabosky, continued his laundry list. “Now that we’re down here, we’re down here to work, not bounce around town chasing tail. The Hotel bar at The Hilton is off-limits." This was too much.
“Hold on a second, that’s just crazy,” I chimed in. Vern Rapp, meet John D’Acquisto. “We need an outlet after a day’s work.”
“Well, not in my house,” Rapp snapped.
“I didn’t know your name was Hilton,” I said, “Is your last name Hilton?”
Rapp cocked his head, basically saying “Don’t be an asshole,” but I was rolling.
“It’s our house, too. Besides, Skip, c’mon, the guys are gonna go do what they’re gonna do. Wouldn’t it make more sense for us to be in a spot where you could watch us?” Rapp to his credit, thought for a moment, then barked at me. “I didn’t see it that way. Fine, you guys can be in the hotel bar, but I got my eye on everyone. No messing around. 1977 is not gonna be 1976. Not on my watch. Now let’s get on the field.” Rapp gave me an extra glance, just to let me know I’m on his radar. Not in a good way. I turned to Keith as we walked out with a chuckle. He made a face that said “You just made Rapp’s shitlist.” Of course, Keith was right again. The following afternoon, we finished a long day of bunting drills, long-tossing and other exercises. Around 1 PM, I see Rapp walking with Clay Carroll, another veteran reliever the ballclub picked up in the off-season. Rapp’s carrying a bat and a bucket as he stops at the dugout.
“John,” Rapp called over. I’m thinking this is some kind of fungo exercise. As I got closer, I see Carroll’s expression. He’s pissed. I also see the bucket. Not filled with baseballs. Bud Iced Tall boys.
“I think you guys need a little endurance work,” Rapp said, helping himself to the dugout bench. “Foul line to foul line. Let’s go.” There was a hint of a smile in Rapp’s expression. Carroll and I looked at each other, “I guess we’re doing sprints.” We start running as Rapp pulled the lid off his first Bud. The implication was when the bucket was empty, we were done running. Rapp made sure to take really long sips. “This is horseshit,” Carroll said as we sprinted back and forth on the field. Carroll was an excellent reliever (had the major league single-season saves record for exactly one year) and now at 36, was definitely in the twilight of his career. I had no idea what he did to Rapp that got him this gracious gift. It was a horseshit move. Two hours. We sprinted for two hours while Rapp finished his bucket of the King of Beers. This is why Skip had no need to frequent the hotel bar. He was out there downing tall cool ones while players were killing themselves. I didn’t make it out that night, either. Not even sure I ate supper after that. Walked back to The Hilton and went to bed. Maybe that was Vern’s idea all along.
This happened at least ten times that spring to Carroll and me. Just to put us in our place. A costly price to pay for nighttime cocktails.
* * * * *
Truth be told, there wasn’t a whole lot of carousing and chasin’ happening in St. Petersburg. It was a relatively quiet retirement community. We shared the facility with the New York Mets during Spring training. There were a few places to go out and get in some trouble, but the truth was, we really stayed at the hotel bar. The Hilton was fine. Not too many fans bothered us there, we had our own space to hang out. The writers knew when they could and couldn’t approach us. Still couldn’t get away from the gossip. Even at night late in Spring Training, when I was at some open-air bar/restaurant with Keith, Rassmussen and Falcone, the talk was always about who was getting cut on the other ballclubs, who looked great in our exhibition games, which veterans seemed like they were on their last legs. I always found it funny, all this late spring gossipy conversation about our opponents’ final cuts, set to the soundtrack of “Dreams,” which was playing all over the radio and in the bars at the time.
The roster was taking shape. I had a good spring, but the math was not working in my favor. The starting rotation at this point was Bob Forsch, John Denny, Petey Falcone my buddy, Eric Rasmussen my other buddy. Larry Dierker from Houston had gotten hurt and wouldn’t be on the opening day roster. Mike Caldwell was also in the mix. The bullpen was looking like The Hungarian, this rookie John Urrea, a great kid, Clay Carroll the veteran and maybe another rookie, Johnny Sutton. Where was my spot on this team? I still didn’t know. Forget about the writers in the bars, in the clubhouse or the guys at dinner, the self-generated, self-consumed gossip in my head had me going to one of many different organizations, via trade, waivers or purchase. I started reading the paper every morning, checking out the transactions to see who else was getting cut, pasting together rosters of other ballclubs that needed my fastball. I never felt I would be cut; being traded was a different story. I got to the ballpark that morning and the picture became slightly clearer. Caldwell was shipped off to Cincinnati for Pat Darcy, the kid that gave up Fisk’s Game Six dinger in the ’75 series, and he was sent down. As this news makes its way around the clubhouse, in walks Joel Youngblood, who we got from the Reds in a separate trade the day before. “‘Blood” (as we called him) was my age, we became fast friends. He and his wife owned the coolest van in the league - – of all the vans you’ve seen in ‘70’s films or recall that sweet van buzzing by you down the street when you were younger – ‘Blood had that van. Captain’s chairs, tremendous sound system, all the fixins. Me and ‘Blood would end up living close to each other, commuting to the ballpark together on days his wife wouldn’t take us. Some late nights after a rough game, she would drive us home in the van while me and ‘Blood got wrecked downing tall boys. It became one of the better friendships I made in the game.
‘Blood was frustrated, too. Buried in the Reds’ organization for six years, waiting behind Ed Armbrister on the depth chart, who himself was behind Griffey, Pete Rose for a spell, & Cesar Geronimo. He spent three years starting at AAA Indianapolis. Finally got his chance but was literally the 25th man on the roster for a World Series team. Sort of a bittersweet situation. ‘Blood was excited to leave the logjam at Riverfront Stadium behind, but when he got to the Cards on March 29th, the team was basically set. Kinda like walking into a party when all the guys and girls have already matched up. ‘Blood and I were in the same boat; talented enough to make the roster, but there was really no primary role for either of us. ‘Blood was the utility player; I, the spot starter who would come into some games in a mop-up role.
We flew into St. Louis. Jack Buck was on our plane, walking up and down the aisles, checking in with everyone. Not just Lou Brock, the elder statesman of the ballclub, but also the rookies, a Red-labeled Bud Longneck in his hand, offering encouragement or telling great stories. Jack Buck was an extremely nice man. I remember talking with ‘Blood on the plane about St. Louis. I couldn’t wait to see the Arch up close and couldn’t wait for my first game at Busch Stadium in front of the best fans in Baseball.
It would be a longer wait than I expected.
* * * * *
Opening Day in Pittsburgh. Freezing. 29 degrees out, snow on the ground. The game was called, but I still wanted to get some air with the guys. Rassmussen and I go run a few sprints. As were racing through the outfield, a spiky sensation shot through from my left calf. I crashed to the ground. Rassmussen ran to my side.
“Johnny, you ok, man,” he asked, kneeling down beside me. Excruciating pain. Few minutes later, I limped into the trainer’s room and onto the table. The trainer, Gene Geiselman massaged the leg, searching for any possible source of the pain, looking for an injury.
“How’s it feeling,” he asked. “Not great,” I replied, “But I think it might only be a cramp.” The trainer placed my leg down slowly back onto the table. “Get some ice on it,” he said, “I’ll be right back.”
Thirty minutes later, I found out the Cardinals placed me on the 15-day Disabled List. Buddy Schultz would be taking my spot on the roster. I was pretty upset about this. The protocol at the time was that the player rep had to be posted on any listing of players on the injured list before the actual listing. That didn’t happen. Lou Brock, the team’s player rep, came into the clubhouse pretty quickly. I was sitting in an armchair.
“Did that S.O.B. put you on the DL,” Brock asked me. I nodded, still very surprised.
“It’s only a cramp,” I replied. Brock shook his head, helping me up.
“This is unacceptable.” We walked into Rapp’s office.
“What’s going on here,” Brock demanded.
“Just a precaution,” Rapp said. That was it. That was the explanation. I was fine the next day, but the following game, they had me walk in the dugout on crutches just so everyone could see I had a “real” injury,” so no one would look foolish. I was in uniform for the next 30 days, suited for every game, riding the pine, idle.
“We have an excess of pitching at the moment,” someone high up told me, “Just in case the organization wants to make a move. It’s for the best.”
* * * * *
Hrabosky’s beard was gone. Same with Keith’s moustache. They were annoyed and I was frustrated. The ballclub was taking their time with me on the Disabled List. ‘Blood was upset, too – he started only three games in the first month. These nights driving home together, the gossip would get to us. The uncertainty that we would wake up one morning and be in the paper, on our way to another ballclub, ate away at our insecurities. I remember ‘Blood going on about this guy that might get traded, the chatter that this other guy’s leaving, too, the team isn’t happy with another player’s activities, what does this mean for us? It was May and I still hadn’t pitched for St. Louis; ‘Blood only played 10 games. ‘Blood’s wife’s 8-track was stuck in the sound system. “Gold Dust Woman,” played quite often while we talked gossip in the van. There’s a line in the song, “Is it over now? Pick up the pieces and go home.” Made an impression on me and my situation. Tomorrow morning would make things clearer in my mind. I was starting my first game in a Cardinals uniform against the Houston Astros.
I experienced some butterflies the day of my debut in front of the home fans, but they were great. Everything they say about Cardinals fans is accurate; joyous, dedicated loyal folks. Before the game, as I am warming up in the bullpen, I heard the supportive yelling, the encouragement and good wishes. As I finished throwing, I turned to the stands, all the touching elements of this great game, about the big league baseball experience hit me. These people spending their dollars just to see me play. The glee that would race across their faces when they realized I was smiling directly back at them. With these people behind me, I was ready to conquer the earth.
Top of the first, Enos Cabell smacks a double to RF. I pitched around Cedeno to get to Willie Crawford, the guy the Cardinals traded for me. Willie wanted to show these fans they made a mistake and did so immediately, smacking a double to left - Cabell scored, Cedeno, one of the fastest guys in the game, actually stopped at third. That was kind of a break. I got Bob Watson to groundout and caught Jose Cruz looking. Minimal damage, only one run.
I got through the second inning with only a walk, but then came the third. Cabell had my number that day, smacking a single deep in the hole at short. I walked Cedeno again and here comes Willie Crawford. It was important for me to get Willie out this time. I owed it to these fans to give them a thrill. Willie hit .304 for them last year. I’m sure there were a few sad to see him go. Since the Cards basically sent Caldwell packing, the only thing in their minds they got for Willie was Dave Rader, Ted Simmons’ backup and me. I HAD to get him out. Willie waits me out, has a great at-bat, gets me to a 3-2 count. Cabell and Cedeno have healthy leads. I’m thinking double steal is a possibility. Not getting any tells from Keith or Rader. Rader’s just concerned about keeping me focused. Willie is the only thing that matters. Let’s get Wille. The pitch….THE RUNNERS GOING!!!!!
Willie smacks the hardest line drive I’ve ever seen right at Mike Tyson (ONE) who chucked a bean to Kessinger at Short, doubling up Cabell who was halfway to third (TWO) and fired a rocket to Keith at first to catch Cedeno off the bag (THREE).
Triple play. Inning over.
I ran over and slapped Tyson five, patted Kessinger on the fanny and nodded Keith my appreciation. Keith nodded back and jogged to the dugout. All business on the field.
We scored two in the bottom of the inning, still psyched from the triple play. The Fourth was easy for me. So it’s the bottom of the fourth and I reach for my helmet. I hear Vern Rapp, “Youngblood, grab a bat, you’re hitting for John.” I looked over, Keith looked over. We looked at each other. There was no doubt now.
I was being showcased for other ballclubs.
‘Blood, one of my best friends on the team, knew what this meant, too. Frown on his face as he stepped into the on-deck circle. Four innings, one run, four hits, walked three, struck out four. Not a great line, but not worthy of this treatment.
This is how the gossip starts. A teammate in the dugout witnesses this, they talk amongst themselves, with a guy on another ballclub having drinks after the game, or trying to impress some groupie in a bar offering a flavor of the life in exchange for going home together. A beat reporter trying to fill his “Around The League” column and a player offers gossip to the reporter with the old, “but you didn’t get it from me,” caveat. A simple managerial move becomes chatter that I am being shopped and showcased. And the chatter is almost always true.
I started again at home on three days rest at Busch Stadium, a Thursday afternoon matinee against the Reds. I tried to keep the chatter out of my head. I’m walking across the field during batting practice when I see a familiar face in the stands close to the dugout.
“Hey Bob,” I say, with a tone that sends a message, “Imagine seeing you here.”
Bob Fontaine was the General Manager of the San Diego Padres. Bob was a gentleman, but also a smart guy. He got it. “Johnny, nice to see you. You’re starting today, right?” I grinned and nodded. “The main attraction, apparently.” We had some small talk, it was all good between us, but we both knew the deal. I walked back toward the bullpen thinking to myself, “Bob wants a show? Okay…..”
Cincy rested Johnny Bench for this game, but the lineup still contained Rose, Morgan, Griffey, Foster. Had a rocky first inning, 1-2-3 in the second, three walks in the third, but this was also me pitching this lineup carefully. The fourth inning Cesar Geronimo & Dave Concepcion went down 1-2. I was getting stronger as the game wore on. By the way, I had a no-hitter going. Four Ks in three and 2/3s. Out comes Vern Rapp. Simmons is behind the plate today and jogs quickly to the mound. Keith does the same coming from first. Kessinger in from short.
“You’re done for the day, John,” Rapp said, “Gimme the ball.” He hadn’t yet called for a reliever. Had he done that, there would’ve been no discussion. Something else was at play here. I was….I’m still flabbergasted. “Excuse me, sir. Do you see the scoreboard,” I said to Rapp.
“I know we’re down 1-0, gimme the ball.” Even the umpire walked over from behind the plate, “We all right here,” the ump asked.
“He wants to take me out of the game,” I said.
“Really? You have a no-hitter going?”
“Stay outta this,” Rapp snapped at the ump. “Gimme the ball, John.”
“F--- you, get off my mound.” Rapp nodded his head, a smart baseball man wasn’t about to make a scene in front of 20,000 fans. Rapp walked back to the dugout and I faced Bill Plummer. I was so mad and made easy work of Plummer, striking him out. Of course, when I got to the dugout, Bake McBride pinch hit for me. That was my last start in a regular game for the St. Louis Cardinals. Buddy Schultz again came in for me, got the win but gave up a lone Ken Griffey double in the eighth. The Hungarian got the save. A one-hitter, Oh and by the way we won 10-1. All the reporters afterward asked about the mound meeting. I did the right thing.
“Vern’s the manager. It’s his call how he wants things handled.”
The 1977 Cardinals were better than the previous season, no question, but Vern was beginning to lose the clubhouse, let alone burning through the bullpen. This was before the Tony LaRussa days – not every manager was Sparky Anderson, who knew how to work his relievers. A few managers tried to emulate this. Rapp was one of those guys. Down in Atlanta, three days later on Sunday, I joined Lou Brock in the outfield to shag fly balls before the game.
“It’s blowing in the breeze, Johnny D,” Lou said, sorta sing-songy. As our player rep, Brock at this point was privy to all the chatter before it hit the rest of us.
“What kind of things,” I asked, knowing where this was going.
“I dunno,” Lou replied, catching a fly through the early afternoon sun, “But I think you might be happy. I like you, I just hope it doesn’t happen.” I took a few more flies then jogged toward the dugout. My friend from the Padres was there in the stands, following me around the league like my biggest fan. I nodded to Bob with a knowing smile. Had a rough outing that night, we got knocked around in the eighth inning for six runs in a game where we put up a football score with the Braves, the wrong side of a 15-12 slugfest. Part of this game, at this level, is working through the chatter and the gossip, not allowing it to mess with your rhythm on the mound. Most of the time you can ignore it. Sometimes not. Today was one of those days. For many players, the mental element of the game is what separates a starting player from a AAAA superstar.
The following day, we played our Triple-A affiliate, the New Orleans Pelicans on the way to a two-game series in Houston. I started on the back of my relief appearance the previous afternoon. I pitched four innings, threw fairly well. It wasn’t until the fourth inning when I realized Bob Fontaine was at this game, too. A General Manager from another ballclub watching our minor league exhibition, my God. Bob’s appearance at this game was a walking Sporting News headline; “Padres and Cardinals talking trade.” Was only a matter of time now.
* * * * *
There’s a knock on my hotel room door. Woke up with a bit of a headache. Had a few beers hours earlier; just wanted the chatter to stop for a little while. I got out of bed and looked through the peephole. It’s a team official holding a bottle of fine red wine and two glasses, making an unsuccessful effort to stand up straight.
“Two in the morning,” I said, opening the door. A buddy like Eric or Keith could convince me at this time to throw on my clothes and go get in trouble.
This was not a buddy.
“Can I come in,” he asked through slurred speech. Piss drunk. I throw up my hand with a shrug. We sit down at the table in the room, I turn on the light. He pours a glass of Red. One of us was celebrating.
“So who did you get for me?” I asked.
“Bucc…Butch Metzger. They saw Pat Scanlon yesterday at the game and asked for him, too. You’re goin’ home, Johnny.”
I was happy. And sad. And shocked. And really annoyed.
“Why didn’t you protect me?” The official sipped his glass sloppily.
“What does it matter? You’re going home.”
“That’s fine, but you never spoke up-“
“Johnny, the team’s in transition. There’s gonna be more trades. You’re not the only one. There’s too many starters. Too many outfielders.” We finished our drinks and then he raised himself slowly and awkwardly from the chair.
“Throw your clothes on. They’re waiting up stairs.” Half-asleep, in shock, I throw on my suit because that’s what you did back then and went up to another floor. We enter the room at 2 AM and there’s Bing Devine, the Cardinals GM, sitting on the couch, Vern Rapp, standing and the traveling secretary. Everyone still in suits.
“You need to meet the Padres tomorrow in Montreal. Flight’s at 7:30,” the traveling Secretary said to me. The whole scene had a Godfather feel to it, handing me my plane ticket like I was Carlo going to Vegas. Was waiting for Clemenza to walk me to the elevator. Trades never feel good. Anyway you want to look at it, I just got whacked.
My Cardinal career was over. Youngblood would be traded to the Mets a month later for my old Giants teammate Mike Phillips, where he would finally get a chance to prove to the league how talented he was. The same day, the ballclub traded Bake to the Phillies, a move I thought was hasty and wrongheaded on so many levels. The team won 11 games more the previous season, but only four games above .500. They were 10 games above .500 at the end of May. Rapp just lost the team over the course of the year. He would be fired 17 games into the 1978 season.
To be fair, there’s a good amount of luck in this game. That’s what makes Baseball Baseball. Take the arbitrary nature of pitcher wins for example. I’m no Sabermetric guy, but look at this:
Pitcher A has an ERA of 3.48, 120 Ks 63 walks an ERA+ of 112 and a 1.227 WHIP
Pitcher B has an ERA of 3.48, 95 Ks 69 walks an ERA+ of 112 and a 1.284 WHIP.
Who would you choose? It’s really close, but in the end you might choose pitcher A. Guess what? Pitcher A is Eric Rasmussen who went 11-17 for the Cards in ‘77. Pitcher B is 20-Game winner Bob Forsch. It’s just the way it falls.
In the end, I never had a chance to say goodbye to my friends. Just me catching a ride to the Houston airport alone. Goodbye, Eric. So long, ‘Blood. Be good, Petey.
Take it easy, Keith. We had a great, short run.
* * * * *
That afternoon, I entered the Padres clubhouse in Montreal. A lot of new faces. A few old ones, though. No greetings from anyone. Definitely wasn’t the St. Louis clubhouse, not by a long shot. The clubhouse guy gave me my gear except they had no spikes for me. I ended up having to borrow shoes from Doug Rader. My locker was placed in between Rollie Fingers and Randy Jones, who were getting dressed for the game. I knew Rollie from the Bay Area and Randy was a California guy like me. It was solemnly quiet. Neither of them said a single word. I was slightly taken aback. Wasn’t expecting a marching band or anything, but these guys were supposed to be my good friends. Randy gets off his stool to leave, without uttering a sound, then swiftly spins and grabs me with a buddy embrace and hearty laugh.
“YOU’RE HERE, MAN,” Randy cackles, “You’re with us now.” Rollie joins in. “Welcome home, Johnny D.” Randy looks me right in the eye with his crazy, curly blond hair.
“You know how hard we’ve been riding these guys to get you in here? I’ve been up Fontaine’s ass to figure out a way to get you on the team. Heard you were dying over there.”
“This is gonna be good,” Rollie added, “This is gonna work out.”
“Thanks, guys,” I said, genuinely touched at their enthusiasm. Finally, in a spot where I felt good, where I felt wanted, where I felt….home. The friendly harassment is interrupted as a new teammate comes over to introduce himself. Extended his hand, asked if I needed anything, was glad I was on the ballclub.
“Yeah, actually, where’s Skip,” I asked, standing up. John McNamara was in San Francisco with the Giants as a coach in the early ‘70’s when I was there as a rookie, a well-respected baseball guy. The player laughed a little and pointed me in the direction. “Sure, he’s down the hall over there,” the player said, “But I wouldn’t get too attached. The word we’re hearing is that Johnny Mac’s out and Al Dark’s coming in to manage. Any day now.”
“What,” I asked, turning to Randy and Rollie, who both said nothing but half-ass nodded in agreement. I thought I left this all behind.
More of the chatter. It never ends. Gossip is as much a part of the Baseball experience as groupies, balks and strikeouts. It’s so stitched into the fabric of the game. I tapped the player on the shoulder, muttered a “thanks,” nodded to Randy and Rollie, then walked out of the clubhouse. More music of the day swelling in my head as I stepped into the shadows of the tunnel leading me to the Olympic Stadium dugout, knowing that the chatter, the scuttlebutt, whatever you want to call it, would follow me as long as I took up a spot on some team’s 25-man roster.
Never break the chain.
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