What ‘s your most memorable scene from a gangster film?
“Yeah,” I reply, half asleep, just 45 minutes into a slumber coming off a 17-day road trip, flying in only two hours earlier. It’s Monday, August 11th, 1980. “Who’s this?”
“It’s Jack McKeon.” Jack was the General Manager of the San Diego Padres at the time. Owner Ray Kroc had brought Jack in after the hiring of Jerry Coleman as manager. Coleman was the ballclub’s beloved play-by-play announcer who had zero managerial experience. Although Kroc was a brilliant businessman willing to take a risk, he always had a plan B in place in the event the risk went south. Jack McKeon was Plan B. “You awake,” he asked.
“No,” I grumbled. Jack laughed, “C’mon down to the ballpark. As soon as you can.”
This is what you hear before you find out you’ve been traded. “I have some good news and bad news,” is what you hear when you get the phone call during the offseason. “Can I see you in my office,” if you’re already at the stadium and it’s a few hours before game time. “I need to see you in my room right away,” if you’re on the road and you’re in the hotel. On an off-day like this morning, it was “C’mon down to the ballpark.”
“I just did you the biggest favor in the world,” Jack bragged in his office a half hour later, “I sent you to a first place team.” I asked where. “You’re goin’ to Montreal. You have a chance to play in the World Series.” The Expos were tied with the Pittsburgh Pirates at the time for first place. The ballclub was loaded with young talent – Andre Dawson coming into his own, Warren Cromartie holding down the fort at first, Gary Carter finally emerging from the shadow of future Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench. An exciting staff anchored by Steve Rogers, a core of outstanding young arms in Scott Sanderson and David Palmer as well as rookies like Bill Gullickson & Charlie Lea. The Expos’ main man in the bullpen, 40-year old Woodie Fryman, was ailing with a sore arm and I was brought in to help out. The Expos’ pen was filled with cagey vets like Woodie, Stan Bahnsen, Fred Norman (who knew my Dad back when he pitched for the Dodgers and Padres in the early 1970’s). There were a good number of players on Montreal that would make me feel comfortable. I played with Gordy Carter, Gary’s brother, in A Ball at Fresno in 1972 where “Kid” used to come up and visit. The Carters were Californians just like me. Elias Sosa was my teammate in San Fran back in ’73-’74, as was shortstop Chris Speier. Speier is one of the good ones in the game – throughout the pennant race in 1980, you could find him at the ballpark early working with the other infielders, teaching them the right way to glove grounders and short-hops off the turf. Now while it was a true hop, you needed to be concerned about the seams in the turf – Chris learned this while playing on the tricky Candlestick Park turf all those years. Speier was no slouch – started the 1973 All-star Game at age 23. Makes sense that he’s been an in-demand coach virtually since his retirement in the late 80’s.
All these memories and thoughts came rushing back to me when I saw the news break last night that Ichiro Suzuki had been traded to the New York Yankees.
You hear this said quite a bit around this time of the baseball season: “Going from worst to first” as the headline.
''I am going from a team with the most losses to a team with the most wins,'' Suzuki said in an interview right after the deal was announced. ''It's hard to contain my excitement for that reason.'' I know exactly how he feels right now.
So back to August, 1980. I was trying to negotiate a new contract or test the waters of the free agent draft. My agent Jerry Kapstein was pretty much getting nowhere with the Padres for a decent contract – they basically offered me a three-year extension with a nominal raise. We thought I was worth more, so we broke off negotiations. Soon as that happened, Jack McKeon quickly began the search to find me a new home and it wasn’t in San Diego as a Padre.
On the bus the night before, I was sitting with Randy Jones and we were talking about the potential of trades coming and coming soon.
“You know they’re gonna trade you,” Randy said to me with a friendly chuckle, “You’re probably gone.” I nodded somewhat in agreement, and being the character that I am, I started singing the Canadian National Anthem a little too loud, with no idea that I would actually end up in Montreal. Trader Jack was traveling with the club on this trip and when I turned to the back of the bus, he was staring right at me, not so much angry, but rather an eye-rolling, “Stop-busting-balls” demeanor. “Cool it,” Jack said. The following morning, sure enough the call came and I was crawling out of bed, heading down to Jack Murphy Stadium to collect two plane tickets and a handshake. Jack did me a favor by swapping me to a contender, an opportunity to play in September games that meant something. Montreal, to this point, was the most successful ballclub I’d ever played for. So, in that sense, Jack McKeon was happy, trading an impending free agent for another player and cash; my agent was happy, as going to a contender could possibly increase my value PLUS I’d be getting more money because of the currency difference playing in Canada; I was happy to get a chance to possibly compete in the playoffs. Then there’s the side of this story you rarely find in the back of the newspaper.
“What do you mean you got traded,” my new wife said to me as I entered the house with a plane ticket in my hand, “Where are you going? What does this mean for us?”
“I’m going to Canada, and I have to leave now.” It was a very, very tough conversation, especially when you’re packing two suitcases through it all. She’s in shock because forty minutes ago we were all set to spend the day at the beach together as a couple and now she’s going to her mother’s house wondering what the next two months of her marriage will be like and I’m heading out on a flight to Montreal. Remember, I was born in San Diego, my wife and I had our friends and family all around us. It’s the part of this game, most sports really, that few fans ever consider. When you call up a sports radio station and discuss a trade, you rarely consider or say “I think Hanley Ramirez should go to L.A. because he just spent the last four months interviewing pre-schools with his wife and there’s a number of quality Goddard locations,” or “A certain outfielder can’t be traded to the Rockies because his son has asthma and can’t really handle the Colorado atmosphere.” These are the stories you never read about in the “Transactions” section of the sports page. Sure, you get compensated beyond your wildest dreams, even back then, but sometimes when you play the salary negotiation game, this is the risk, that the personal side of this business results in a pretty lousy outcome at times. Most of the time, actually.
This is why the clubhouse can be so important, why clubs go out of their way to make sure the players are comfortable. Not simply because they want to pamper you, in a way it’s to distract you from the loneliness of missing your family. This is why the Expos put me up in a five-star hotel, everything top-shelf across the board – who’s getting an apartment or a house with 50 days left in the season? I arrived in Canada, dropped my stuff off at the suite, still in a bit of a daze from the whirlwind, hopped on the train that takes you straight to Olympic Stadium. Who do I see as I step off the platform? Fred Biletnikoff, the former Oakland Raiders great and an old friend from my Bay Area days with the Giants. Fred was finishing up his football career with the Montreal Alouettes in the CFL. “Johnny D, they got you, too,” Fred laughed, “Everyone’s up here now. Speier’s up here, your old buddy [Elias] Sosa’s up here. Saw Charlie Fox with [Expos’ General Manager at the time John] McHale out at dinner the other night.
And then I knew why I was in Montreal.
Charlie Fox was my first manager in the big leagues with the Giants in ‘73, the manager who pushed for me to join the club after winning 16 games at AAA Phoenix. It’s so funny how you can be a journeyman player, but that scout that discovers you, that first coach, that first manager who witnessed you achieve amazing things, even years and sometimes decades later, fondly recalls when you hit triple digits on the gun, who you were and sometimes in their mind, who you still could be. With Woodie Fryman hurting, Charlie recommended me, that I could fortify the pen. Charlie was a great baseball man and a wonderful person in general. When the Giants brought me to the big leagues, Charlie met my parents, shook my Mom’s hand and assured her, “Don’t worry, I will take care of your son.” He definitely felt like a father to me and sometimes that’s the silver lining of life with trades; if you have that special relationship, that bond with a coach, manager or owner somewhere around the league, they’ll always have an eye on you as long as the bottom doesn’t fall out of your ability, and even then, they’ll still give you one last shot if the emotional connection remains in place. I do miss him.
Olympic Stadium, the Expos’ home ballpark, was this concrete slab of a building, with a tiny hole in the top. I really didn’t mind pitching there. Upon walking out onto the field for the first time as a member of the ballclub, I was introduced to the owner of the Expos, Charles Brofman, who was shagging flyballs with the outfielders. I always thought that was pretty cool. Mr. Brofman welcomed me with open arms. Kid Carter came over and eagerly said hello. We chatted for a few minutes; I asked how Gordy was doing. Many players approached me warmly. Speier, Sosa, Charlie, of course (even my starting first baseman from San Diego in 1980, the “Hot Dog,” Willie Montanez, would follow me to Montreal at the end of August in another pennant race swap between the two teams). This didn’t at all replace the sense of loss of not seeing my wife much over for the next 50 days, but the breakfasts with Speier, the dinners with Charlie. They made me feel like I belonged to the group and I’m sure this helped me turn my personal season around – pitched well in the 11 games I played in with the Expos; 20 innings, 1.11 WHIP, 2.18 ERA. A lot had to do with landing on a contending team – going from worst to first. Well, almost first. The Expos ended up finishing 2nd to Philadelphia in a three-team race for the 1980 N.L. East crown. I thank Trader Jack for placing me in a position to enjoy this experience, and perform under the lights of a pennant chase on the verge of my impending free agency. I also thank my dear friend Charlie Fox (whom we lost in 2004) for speaking up for me and urging the ballclub to bring me to Canada.
There’s a slew of moving parts to a baseball trade as a player. The emotional toll it takes on your family and personal life is tough to overcome, but like in most industries, it’s a move that could very well change your career tremendously but you have to respond to the calling. I know I did because I was there.
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