What ‘s your most memorable scene from a gangster film?
I love Boston.
Not the ballclub, hell, I never even pitched against the Sox. Never had the chance to toe the rubber at Fenway Park, never had a chance to eat sunflower seeds while sitting in the bullpen getting heckled by their passionate, gloriously profane fans. Sure, I pitched against the Red Sox in the Hall of Fame game, but Main Street in Cooperstown is not Lansdowne Street in Boston. Always wanted to face those guys, thought it might happen when I was with the Angels – heard great things about the town from Rick Burleson, Freddie Lynn who were my teammates in 1981. It just never worked out. Had to settle for the next best thing – the band.
It was the spring of 1983, on my way to A’s camp in Phoenix from my home in San Diego. I was driving in my Porsche Carrera through the dry heat across the state line into Arizona on an empty, desolate Interstate 8, just me, the cracked moon roof, that tangerine glow of the sun setting behind me and some of the best driving music from the ‘70s. Could’ve used a couple more albums from Boston. Sure “More Than a Feeling” can still bring chills in the right moment, “’Long Time” is an incredible number when you’re buzzing down the highway hitting 100+ on Johnny Law’s radar gun, but there’s so many other songs on those two albums that are just outstanding – the songs you don’t hear all the time - “It’s Easy,” “Feelin’ Satisfied,” “Something About You,” – man, did I wear out those cassette tapes. The A’s had told me I would be the closer coming into spring training. It had been a long eight months to get back to this point where I felt settled in, concerned more about who I was facing in the Major Leagues that night rather than whether I would be wearing another uniform tomorrow. Or any at all.
* * * * * * * *
It all started with me pitching for the Atlanta Braves AAA team in Richmond the previous summer, waiting for my opportunity to return to the big leagues and jump in the Braves’ rotation. One evening in July, Eddie Mathews, who was a scout for the Oakland A’s at the time, got to talking with my brother Fred, who was the ticket manager for Pacific Southwest Airlines in San Diego. Fred knew almost everyone in the National League because he handled the flight arrangements for ballclubs arriving to face the Padres. I wasn’t terribly happy as Atlanta had chosen to bring Pascual Perez to the majors instead of me. Right move, wrong move, I didn’t care, I was a little upset. My brother had mentioned this to Eddie, who told him, “Billy should hear about this. Can I use your phone?” Two hours later, I get a call in my motel room. It’s Eddie. “We sure could use your arm here in Oakland.” Billy Martin had been the manager of the A’s for close to three years at this point. He was also the general manager and had the power to make player personnel decisions like this.
“Eddie, I would love to play for the A’s,” I replied, so happy with this, “I have to speak with Hank and get my release.” The common practice is if a veteran of my standing is sitting in AAA and gets an offer to play in the majors from another club, the team generally won’t stand in their way. Hank Aaron, the VP of operations for the Braves at the time, pretty much said this to me on the phone.
“Johnny,” Hank said minutes later, “If there’s a spot for you on Oakland’s staff, then we’ll give you your release. Just remember, we’re not letting you go to play in Tacoma. We’re gonna use ya next year.”
“Thanks, Hank," I said, "I appreciate you understanding.”
“Very well, you’re done here then. I’ll take care of the paperwork. Just pack your stuff and get on your way. Good luck, John.”
I flew to San Diego, saw my family and then hopped on another plane to Oakland. Spent the short flight kind of concerned about how I would get along with Billy. I appreciated that Billy wanted me, but I just remembered that the last time our paths crossed wasn’t the most congenial.
I’m facing Oakland in 1981, Rickey steps to the plate. Ed Ott’s catching and gives me the thumb sign, which means “Flip him.” I nod, windup and take Rickey off his legs with a 96 MPH fastball right under his chin. Billy screams at me from the dugout, “That’s a horseshit pitch, Dago! You do that again, I’ll come out there and kick your ass.” I look over at Billy in the A’s dugout, extend my arms as if to say, “I’m right here, Skip.” Ott tosses me the ball back and calls for an inside heater. We hit the black this time. Strike one. Ott calls for the same pitch. Hit the black again. Strike two. This time, Ott calls for the slider. I look over at Billy and smile, just to let him think I might get cute with some more chin music. “You do that again, Dago and it’s your ass.” I windup.
Slider on the outside corner.
Called strike three.
Ott takes the ball and shakes it in his hand right in front of Rickey’s nose.
“Is this what you’re lookin’ for, asshole,” Ott laughs at Rickey. Hendu and Ott start mouthing face-to-face, then Rickey pushes Ott. Wrong move as the world-class college wrestler Ott body slams Rickey to the ground. Benches pour out. Billy had his chance to take me on, but instead he ran straight into the Angels dugout. He wasn’t avoiding the altercation, no, you see, Billy ran after Tom Morgan, the Angels pitching coach. Morgan tried to get away through the tunnel leading to the clubhouse, but Billy caught him half-way and proceeded to beat the crap out of poor Morgan. The Oakland cops pour off the field and down the Angels’ dugout to stop the fight. Billy just loved to fight. Loved it.
So I wasn’t completely certain what I walking into as I stepped through the jetway of Oakland International Airport. The A’s GM sent someone to get me. There was no sign from a limo driver or anything. Turns out the A’s GM sent himself. Standing at the gate, leisure suit, slick cowboy boots, pencil-thin moustache, dyed black hair, classic late ‘70’s/early 80’s fogged out sunglasses. Puffing a smoke leaning against the wall. Nodding hello to random strangers that recognized him. That world-famous grin when his eyes met mine.
Yes, Billy Martin picked me up at the airport.
“How’s it goin’, Dags,” Billy greeted me with a friendly handshake. “Dags” is short for “Dago,” an Italian reference, slightly friendlier than the last time. I felt an instant comfort with Billy.
As we walked through the parking lot toward his car, Billy handed me a thick envelope.
“That’s a little something for you. I know you’re coming from Triple-A. Buy yourself some clothes, get what you need, then come back to the ballpark. Art wants to see you throw.” Art Fowler was the A’s pitching coach. Billy and Art’s close friendship is well-treaded ground in Baseball history. Few friends were known to be tighter than these two. Billy me drove to the Coliseum, handed me the keys to his car, shook my hand and said “See you in a little bit.” After playing in San Fran all those years, I knew my way around the area pretty well. I went shopping at the mall, dropped my stuff off at the Hilton in Oakland and went to the ballpark. All dressed in my new uniform, I walked out of the dugout. A photographer approached me.
“Hi, I’m with Fleer, the baseball card company,” he said, “Can I grab a shot?” I shrugged, “Sure.” Keep in mind, now, I haven’t even signed yet. I walked over to see Art in the middle of the field – my adrenaline’s pumping. I get on the pitching mound, there’s two batters in each box. Art stands behind me, speaking softly with that South Carolina drawl. “Now, Johnny, this is what I call my focus drill. If you can throw pitches in between these two bastards, you’re gonna throw strikes in the game. Lemme show ya.” Art gets up there, sets and hurls five straight pitches right down the pike. Art had great control when he was a pitcher, especially toward the end of his career. I get on the mound, digging back in. I’m lighting it up, popping the ball, on the black, in the zone. Throwing strikes. Art was impressed. “Good, now throw me a slider, a curveball, throw me a change-up.” I said, “Don’t have a change-up.”
“What’cha got then?”
“I got a little type of sinker that I use for a change-up.”
“Lemme see it.” I threw for about 10 minutes more, as other pitchers started walking toward the mound. Steve McCatty, Mike Norris, Dave Beard, few of the other guys. When we were done, Art put his arm around my shoulder. “Go in and see Billy, he got your contract. He’s gonna go sign you up, son.”
Art nodded. “Yep, you’re an Oakland A. Now go on, get outta here.” I jogged back to the dugout and quickly walked toward Billy’s office, who was waiting for me with his feet up on the desk.
“Welcome aboard, Johnny! I always wanted to have my own Italian hitman.”
“So you’re gonna use me to start fights?” Billy smiled and shrugged as he puffed his cigarette.
“Well, I’m getting’ pretty good at that, Skip,” I replied.
“Man, I like you already,” Billy laughed. “Yeah, I have a special sign when I want you to drill somebody.”
“I can deal with that.” Don’t get me wrong, the last thing I ever wanted to do was knock guys down for the hell of it. Just when the manager tells you to dust someone, he gets dusted. Simple as that.
“Now, we’re not gonna play you right away,” Billy continued, “The plan is for you to get back in shape, hang out on the bench for about a week. A lot of guys here have spoken highly of you, so just hang out and get back into the swing of things. We have an exhibition against Tacoma in two weeks, you’ll start that game. We’re gonna leave you up there to get some work in, then we’ll be ready to throw you out in the pen for September. Is that ok?”
“Yeah, Billy, that’s fine.” You see, what Billy was doing here was helping me get out of AAA limbo and back in the big league mentality. You talk about a Baseball man that cared for his players. If you gave him what he expected of you, you were one of his guys. Fowler, Cliff Johnson, he adored Chicken Stanley. Adored him. His guys. Truth be told, Billy wanted me to be one of his guys, for whatever reason. Whether it was because I was Italian, maybe, maybe not, but I was HIS guy. Leaving me in Tacoma wasn’t a violation of the deal I had with Hank Aaron and Atlanta, either. It was more like an unofficial DL rehab assignment. Those three weeks in Tacoma were fine. Dave Heaverlo, my old teammate from the Giants was up there, transitioning from ballplayer to broadcaster. He’s one of the nicest guys in the game. Was so happy to spend those few days hanging out with him. He made my time in Tacoma extremely warm and comfortable.
* * * * * * *
I got back to Oakland in early September. So many familiar faces in the bullpen. Dennis Kinney I played with in San Diego. Bobby Owchinko, too. Spent a lot of time with Brian Kingman, especially. We had such great talks sitting out there, chatting about everything in the world except Baseball. The economy, politics. Brian Kingman is one of the brightest guys I ever met in the game. I had a blast in Oakland that September. I actually stayed at Billy’s house in Danville, while he lived with his new wife in Berkeley. Gave me a chance to re-connect with old friends in the Bay Area from my years with the Giants. Spent most of the off-days playing golf in Half Moon Bay and late night drinks at the Lion’s Den in San Fran. As for the team during the game, you couldn’t ask a better defensive outfield behind you than Rickey, Dwayne Murphy & Tony Armas. Davey Lopes was there giving Rickey the final tutoring he would need to become the greatest basestealer of all time. It was just the pitching staff was toast from two years of Billy overworking them. Even as the team settled in 5th place, Billy remained in tune with every game.
We were in Detroit one night, I sawed off John Wockenfuss with a high hard one, but he got around on it and the ball sailed over the left field fence. Billy’s right in there, screaming at the umpire, “Check the bat! Check the bat! There has to be cork in that bat.” Billy was constantly trying to find any edge, any advantage possible to win. He knew every trick in the book.
Flights were a great time, too. I’d be sitting in the back of the plane with Steve McCatty, chatting and drinking. Here comes Billy stumbling down the aisle, a brown paper bag in his right hand. “Dags, get up, move over, gimme the end seat.” Billy pulls out a block of provolone cheese and a top-shelf bottle of red, asking the flight attendant to remove the cork and slice our food. Then the stories of “the old days” would pour out of him. Billy loved to reminisce about his time with the Yankees, with Mickey and Whitey. Nights of all hell breaking loose in Manhattan. Days of hungover, pinch hit Home Runs and dugout vomit in the Bronx. History tells us Billy loved being a Yankee, but Billy really loved the Yankees of his youth. It’s almost like time had moved on but to Billy, the world was a long-playing broken record, constantly skipping back to 1956.
* * * * * * * * *
In the real world, nothing was clicking for our pitchers. The season was clearly a bust at this point. The pressure to get the staff to be at least something useable for 1983 started to eat away at Billy.
One night against the Rangers, we’re getting crushed 10-3. It’s the ninth inning. As I’m walking out to the mound, Billy grabs my left arm. Dave Hostetler is the first batter up.
“I want you to hit that son of bitch right in the ribs,“ Billy said softly with anger in his voice.
“What,” I replied. Billy looked at me like I asked the stupidest question. I nodded calmly and stepped onto the field.
As I am rubbing the baseball on the mound, I see Billy standing against the dugout steps. He sends the sign to me and Jeff Newman the catcher. Billy takes his thumb and gently pokes himself in the ribs. Newman approaches the mound.
“Did you see the sign,” Newman said, lifting his mask.
“Yeah, I saw it,” I replied.
“Well what are we gonna do about it?”
“You go get back behind home plate. You know what I’m gonna do about it.”
Newman gets in his crouch stance, Billy starts yelling the most unmentionable words at Hostetler, who then turns to me, I’m in my windup, the ball whizzes right over his head, hits the centerpiece of the backstop and ricochets off Hostetler’s ankle, knocking him down. Billy’s screaming at Hostetler now, “See that, you S.O.B.! He can even hit you on the rebound! Here it comes again.” I swear, I went to confession a few times over this one, but I dusted him again, barely missing his ribs this time. Benches clear, Hostetler comes right after me, it was like a ten-car pileup on the mound. Newman takes care of Hostetler. Billy’s out there just hitting anyone he can. Remarkably, no one got run from the game, the umps let us play. Tempers calmed down, we all finished the inning. After the game, I’m sitting at my locker enjoying a frosty tall boy, Billy walks over, “Hey Dags, come in my office.” He locks the door, breaks out some more of his provolone cheese and a big bottle of Dago Red, hands me a glass, “This one’s for you.” We sat there; Billy slapped me on the shoulder. “Man, I was laughing so hard, you fired that thing, hit the pole, came back and smashed into that kid’s ankle and knocked him on his ass. There was a bleepin’ dent in the backstop pole. I know, I checked after the game. “ Billy was hysterical re-telling this. Other than his Mantle stories, I never saw the man happier. Sadly, for him, there wouldn’t be too many laughs left in the season.
Three days later, we’re in the clubhouse and we hear “bang-bang, boom-boom“ coming from the hallway leading to the players’ lounge. “What the hell’s gonna on over there,” one of the guys asked. We knew only one person would make noise like this.
“I’ll go check it out,” I said, getting up from my stool. McCatty was all, “I wouldn’t mess with Billy right now.”
“I can handle him,” I said, walking toward the office. When I finally got to his doorway, the noise ended, but it was like nothing I ever saw in the game.
The office was an absolute disaster.
Papers and objects all over the floor, pictures of Mickey busted, the desk flipped over, blood on his chair, on the walls, everywhere. Billy’s fingers were all cut up. He put his hand through the TV screen. Billy was curled in his seat, glasses off his face, calm but slightly shaking. His eyes seemed to be on the verge of a second round of furious weeping.
“You ok, Skip,” I asked quietly. Billy calmly replied and nodded, “Yeah…yeah I’m ok.” I couldn’t believe the mess I witnessed. Billy didn’t look at me once.
“Those assholes won’t extend my contract. I think this is it for me here.” It wasn’t as if Billy relied or assumed he was going back to the Yankees for the 1983 season. In his mind, Billy had no back-up plan. He truly thought in that moment this was it. He’d be out of baseball if he had to leave Oakland.
“Everything’s going to be fine,” I said, a total lie, “Just keep your cool.” I bent down to turn the desk upright. Billy wouldn’t have that.
“Leave it,” Billy said, still staring at nothing, “Just leave it.” Least he was calm now. The following morning, I walked toward the clubhouse wondering what the area would look like. Entering the players’ lounge, the first room you passed was Billy’s office. Sparkling clean. Like nothing ever happened. All the pictures were re-framed and put back in their place. There was a new TV. The walls were repainted. Billy’s desk was in order.
That night, after the game, I found Art alone in the trainers’ room.
“Johnny D,” Art said, “It looks like our run here is over.” He knew Billy told me, so I didn’t have to act like I didn’t know. Still, I just nodded the nod you might give a friend at a funeral trying to say something nice without words. “And remember this, son,” Art continued, “Anyone who’s considered a Billy guy will probably be gone, too. So don’t hold your breath too long here.”
“Okay, Art, I gotcha.”
“You best get your agent to get lookin’ for another place for you for next year or else you gonna get screwed.”
Billy respected the fact that I kept it quiet about his not coming back for 1983 and I was honored that he brought me into his confidence as well. Art knew, but again, Art was Billy’s best friend.
My last game that year in Kansas ended with a Hal McRae bases-clearing triple. Billy was let go at the end of the World Series. Steve Boros was brought in a few weeks later with Ron Schueler as the new pitching coach. Regardless of my status as Billy’s guy, the organization not only kept me on the roster, they asked me to join the offseason community outreach caravan, billing me as the club’s closer. I felt peace of mind from this and perhaps Art was wrong. Maybe this wasn’t a suicide mission after all.
* * * * * * * * *
Boros was definitely no Billy Martin. After he was hired, Boros' press conference and subsequent interviews around town let the writers know as much, saying things like, “I have my own standards and I have to be guided by them. Baiting umpires and yelling at opposing players is not among them. I believe there is a different way to handle both situations.” His way was early sabermetrics. Boros wanted to be a professor, graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in literature. However, no knowledge of F. Scott Fitzgerald or deep analysis of “Moby Dick” can give you the insight to handle guys like Mike Norris or try to communicate with Rickey. Obviously, when you fire a manger, you look for the exact opposite qualities in the new skipper you bring on board. I started to see the club make changes that winter, cleaning out some of the more Billy-friendly players. They released ex-Yankee Mickey Klutts. They traded Cliff Johnson to Toronto for Al Woods, who would never see Oakland Coliseum from the A’s dugout. They let Chicken Stanley go. They sold Brian Kingman, my buddy, to Boston. They signed the veteran lefty Tom Burgmeier, a great southpaw reliever that doesn’t get the historical credit he deserves. It also probably meant Bobby Owchinko’s time in Oakland was over, though. In the end, while I felt confident and was given every indication I was an important part of the ballclub, I knew the days of drinking on the plane and eating cheese with my manager were lonnng gone.
* * * * * * * *
When I finally arrived at A’s camp in the spring of 1983, I didn’t have much interaction with Boros. He spent most of his time analyzing the numbers and allowing the computer to dictate his managerial decisions. Guys like Davey Johnson would have amazing success with this strategy, although having guys like Keith and Darryl and Doc Gooden didn’t hurt, either. The thing with Davey was that he was an intellectual AND a players’ manager. All the guys on the Mets knew they could walk into Davey’s office at any time and talk with him about anything. Steve Boros was NOT that guy.
Oakland pitched me like crazy that March. I appeared in 17 games, sporting a 2.76 spring ERA. Sure, you can say pre-season numbers are meaningless and in many ways, you would be right. What matters for batters is bat speed, not striking out and possibly home runs. For pitchers, it’s just like real estate – location, location, location, and for one of the only springs in my career, I had it in spades this time. Something was wrong, though. No “AttaBoys” from the coaches. No ass-slaps from Boros after solid outings. No confirmations about places on the roster. But I was getting guys out, the impressive way in spring, with dazzling off-speed stuff and 95 MPH fastballs. Maybe affirmations just weren’t Boros’ way and I was just being paranoid. The camaraderie was different than other places, too. Sure I was older now, but there was no palling around with guys like Keith Hernandez, Eric Rassmussen or Petey Falcone. It was all business. Just watching the days go by and making sure I never got tapped on the shoulder by the wrong person on the coaching staff.
When I heard Bobby Owchinko was finally released toward the end of March, I felt safe, I felt comfortable, I felt my place was secure. We were in Yuma, Arizona after a game against the Padres. Ron Schueler comes over, and says, “How do you feel about starting in Palm Springs against the Angels tomorrow?”
“Sure thing,“ I replied. I get to face my old club, get to show them they made a mistake cutting me, most of all I get to see my family. San Diego’s barely a 2 1/2-hour drive to Palm Springs. I spoke with my wife that night and she made arrangements for everyone to see me pitch.
The next morning, I had breakfast with the family before the game. Got to see my wife, my parents and even my wife’s parents. Everyone had come out to see me. It was to be a very special day.
About ninety minutes before game time, I’m in the clubhouse getting a rubdown, getting ready to start. There’s a knock on the door. Schueler comes up and taps me on the shoulder.
“Boros wants to see you.”
After being in the major leagues for close to ten years, you realize certain phrases mean something else. When the manager approaches you on the mound and asks “How you feelin,” he’s really looking for a reason to take you out of the game. When the manager asks you to grab a drink with him, he’s really saying he wants to tell you something private or something to convey to the rest of the ballclub. When you hear that the manager wants to see you, in Spring Training, it’s not sweet music. It’s the Executioner’s song.
If you’ve ever seen Palm Springs Stadium, the dugouts are recessed. You really can’t see inside from the stands. I walk through the tunnel and find Boros on the bench.
“What’s up, Skip,” I asked, but I knew what was up.
“You’re not coming with us,” he said, stone-faced, staring out to the field. We’re letting you go.”
The worst thing about this is not that the club was outright releasing me; it’s the timing of the thing. If I get released on March 10th or March 15th or even March 20th, I still have time to hookup with another club. When you’re the last guy cut, that’s it. All the other teams pretty much have their rosters set. Even if you get signed by another organization, you most likely won’t see a major league pitching mound before June, if at all.
“You’re letting me go now, when every other team’s packing up their equipment trucks?”
Before Boros could answer, guess who comes walking out from the clubhouse?
It was Bill Rigney, my old manager in San Francisco. Rigney and I weren’t the best of friends. Actually, I’m not sure I liked anyone less in Baseball than this man. It started making sense now.
“Bill, did you have anything to do this,” I asked him, face-to-face.
“Well, I am the special consultant to Mr. Eisenhardt, the A’s owner,” Rigney replied. There was a vague hint of a smile on his face.
“Is that my answer?”
“That’s your answer.” And that was it. I said thank you to Boros for the opportunity. I said something else I won’t repeat here to Rigney and walked back in the clubhouse. I removed my A’s uniform for the last time, threw my stuff in a bag and headed out. Kept my jersey, though. I wanted something to remind me of the great month I enjoyed with Billy, Art, Kingman, McCatty and the rest of the guys from that club.
I stepped back out of the dugout, saw my wife in the stands and got her attention.
“Meet me outside,” I said calmly. She didn’t understand, but then realized I wasn’t wearing my uniform.
“What’s going on,” she said, her voice cracking a bit.
“Meet me outside the stadium and bring everyone. We’re going home.”
As I left the clubhouse to meet up with my family in the parking lot, I just wanted to get in my car and drive away. From everything. From everyone. I stood there, prepared for the tears, the questions, the whys, the what ifs. All I wanted was my car, an open road to nowhere and my Boston cassette tapes.
There would be no Peace of Mind. Outside the stadium in Palm Springs, I took a look ahead and in the distance, I didn’t see a ballpark on my horizon. Didn’t see teammates. Didn’t see three beat reporters surrounding my locker after nailing down a crucial save in a September division matchup.
I saw nothing but desert.
***A previous version of this story referred to Hal McRae's bench-clearing double. It was actually a triple. Article has been edited to reflect this correction.
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